Songs You Never Knew You Knew, Mitchell Cox, Pianist
One of the most well known pieces of music in the world that has been known to inspire people to take up the piano was originally entitled Bagatelle in A minor. Boring. The wider story, however, is far more engaging (if you’ll pardon the anticipatory pun). Beethoven wrote this work in 1810, by which time he was practically deaf, but it wasn’t until 1865 that it was published – almost 30 years after he had died!
“Young” Ludwig was in love with one Therese Malfatti at the time of composition. She was a pupil of his, and only 18 years of age to his 40 – in the arts even today, it is certainly not unheard of that a professor has or attempts to have dalliances with his attractive students; but while it may have had more acceptance 200 years ago, it remains distasteful.
Legend has it that Beethoven wrote this piece to play at a Malfatti family party that he was invited to, and intended to play the music as well as propose marriage to the young lady. However, he proceeded to imbibe in an excess of alcohol, and was unable to complete either task. Perhaps, deep down, he preferred the bachelor status.
Beethoven never married, and his romantic forays were rebuffed more than once in his life (remember that the ladies were dealing with a 5’3”, unwashed 18th century man who – while considered great in his own time and mind – wore his clothes until his closest friends couldn’t stand them any longer and would sneak new clothes into his chambers and burn the old, smelly ones). You can imagine some of his habits as a confirmed bachelor with sudden angry bursts, failing hearing, bashing on the legless piano so he could “feel” the notes at all hours, and pouring jugs of water on his head in order to keep awake at night when composing – not to mention the use of the walls to write notes and musical thoughts – kept landlords as well as damp neighbours downstairs from wanting him to stay in their building for too long.
We’ll never know for sure how this music got its name, but the two strongest contenders seem to be:
1) A musicologist who “misplaced” an original copy of the score swears he saw a dedication reading “für Elise” which, in German, simply means “for Elise”.
This leads to that inevitable question as to who was Elise, anyway? Besides it being a little like “Who modelled for the Mona Lisa?” (as in it doesn’t really matter that) it does make for energetic discussions among some, i.e.:
1) Could be that as Beethoven had notoriously messy handwriting, it could have actually been dedicated to “Therese” and the musicologist misread it – congratulations, Ms Malfatti.
2) It may be that the dedication was for a previous interest of his-a singer named Elisabeth Rochel. While her name wasn’t Elise, she did sign a birth certificate for one of her children “Maria Eva Elise”- this could indicate her nickname was “Elise” after all. Thank you for inspiring great music, Maria! As you can plainly see, however, you can’t trust a name given nearly 200 years ago in Germany, or certainly not one from a has-been opera singer who went and married a sometimes friend, sometimes rival of Beethoven’s named Johann Nepomuk Hummel. (Apparently they were ‘on again” as Hummel did improvise at Ludwig’s funeral after he and Elizabeth visited his bedside during his last days).
Whoever Elise was, there seems to be a struggle between warm, yet unsettled feelings in this music. Beethoven’s love was unrequited, and each section of this rondo form has it’s own sense of tumult or resignation to this fate. The final repeat is played slightly slower in order to emphasize this resignation.
Enjoy, whatever the music may mean to you.
Prelude and Fugue No. 1, Book 1,in C Major
Johann Sebastian Bach finished this set of Preludes and Fugues in 1722, and inscribed on the cover that the pieces were “composed for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”.
Bach was always writing music in order to help his students prepare for contrapuntal playing on the harpsichord and organ (Please note that Bach never owned a piano. The instrument wasn’t invented until 1709, and the one he tried out made by Silbermann he didn’t find satisfactory; although he tried a new Silbermann version near the end of his life that he thought was much improved). The goal was mastering the ability to both perform and improvise fugues at the drop of a hat – not many who can manage that today, save perhaps a few French organists steeped in traditional training. A fugue is, simply put, a multi-voiced piece that opens with a melody that is echoed and manipulated throughout. The melody, or “subject”, overlaps, inverts, augments and repeats in different ranges on the keyboard. In a way, it’s like a round-Row Your Boat with intensity.
The prelude is the part of the work that is intended to warm up the audience (easy listening, generally). It is a short piece, usually improvisatory in nature that allows the performer to warm up, and get used to the instrument and the room in which he or she is playing before the more complex fugue to follow.
In this work, the prelude is the part that gets air time. It actually gets space time as well, as Glenn Gould’s version was placed in a time capsule launched about 35 years ago. Hopefully the aliens who listen to the recording don’t assume Gould was a typical humanoid, or we could be in trouble.
Most people don’t hear this prelude exactly, but recognize it as a setting of Ave Maria by Charles Gounod. Except for adding a single measure a raising the pitch one tone, Gounod simply added lyrics over Bach’s work and called it his own. He did this in 1859, after the deaths of his composer friends the Mendelssohn twins Felix and Fanny (strokes ran in their family, and they died within six months of one another). I suppose it’s fitting that Gounod wrote this using music of Bach’s, as it was Felix Mendelssohn who was a driving force in bringing Bach’s music to popularity after years of neglect.
I have played the pieces on the piano, used some pedalling and graduated dynamics in this recording, so if you must hear your Bach on original instruments, you will be disappointed. However, the piano has come a long way since 1709, so if you’re simply interested in good music, this one’s for you.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was Hungarian, but – as many did – travelled extensively to follow his art. He studied piano for a time with Carl Czerny, who in turn was a pupil of Beethoven and the aforementioned Hummel, and he took some composition lessons with Antonio Salieri (whom you may have noticed in the movie Amadeus), so he’s got some pretty impressive lineage.
Liszt had incredible technique and was a great showman. In fact, he was one of the first to play a concert of only his own music, and really invented what we now call the piano recital. He decided to turn the piano onstage to the side in order for the audience to see his large-nosed profile as it was much more effectively dramatic. Besides being ridiculously gifted, one thing Franz was was dramatic. He would play with such gusto that a piano string would regularly break during a recital. However, he was prepared, and had another piano ready in the wings that would be rolled onstage with much ado, and Liszt would sit down at the new instrument and continue where he had left off.
Franz Liszt was the Elvis of the piano. Ladies would swoon upon seeing him play with such passion, and would offer him their handkerchiefs (Liszt – even though he did study theology for a time later on – took full “musicianly” advantage of these opportunities as much as many modern rock stars do to this day).
Oh yes – this piece…The translation of the title is Dreams of Love, and it is the first of three, with the other two not nearly as successful, so we won’t bother with them here. The music uses a technique where the melody is played in the middle section of the piano even while accompanying figures continue above AND below the tune. Listeners were baffled upon first listening to this style, and would crane their necks to actually be able to see how the effect was made. As with most great ideas, the originator is forgotten, and the perfecter remains in our thoughts.
This was originally conceived as a song for high voice and piano. It was based on a poem by Ferinand Freillgrath about the unconditional, mature love. One of the lines is: Love as long as you can. The hour will come when you will stand at the grave and mourn.
Flight of the Bumblebee
This music was originally an orchestral interlude to a Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakoff opera called The Tale of Tsar Sultan. This piece enters at the end of Act III, when the magic “Swan Bird” changes the Prince into an insect. This way, the Prince is able to fly, and thus visit his father. (If you’re unfamiliar with opera, the sooner you learn quickly to suspend disbelief, the more you’ll be able to enjoy it. Don’t ask questions.)
While very few have seen the opera, most of us recognize this melody instantly, and many even are able to recite the name of it. It is one of those rare pieces that really resonates with an extremely large range of people and generations.
This music was used pre-television as the theme music for The Green Hornet, and continued as the shows’ theme on the later TV series (I’ll have to check to see if they used it on the latest big screen dud). The piece keeps popping up in movies, including Shine in 1996, Kill Bill in 2003, and The Karate Kid in 2010.
Pianists have always had fun with it as an encore or show off piece. Recently, the fantastically speedy Lang Lang used some sort of App and performed it in a Seattle concert using his ipad! Wish I had been there to witness the fun.
I really enjoy performing this piece, as it is effective in describing the “bug”, and is a whole lot of fun being able to utilize some of those rapid chromatic scales I practiced for hours as a young student.