It’s great to highlight female composers and Trinity College Exam Board’s Grade 8 syllabus has revealed a gem of a piece, by the American pianist and composer Amy Beach.
Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Most of her compositions and performances appeared under the name of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. A member of the Boston Group of composers or the Second New England School, She used her status as the top American woman composer to further the careers of young musicians and was also head of several organizations, including the Society of American Women Composers, of whom she was the first president.
Beach’s writing is generally Romantic stylistically, but in later works she experimented, moving away from tonality, employing whole tone scales and more exotic harmonies. She wrote choral works, symphonies, a violin concerto, piano concerto, many solo piano works and chamber music, but is most synonymous with songs. Two delightful, but less known piano works are the Scottish Legend and Gavotte Fantastique Op.54.
The Scottish Legend is a beautiful character piece similar in style to that of the European Romantic tradition present in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. Beach loved this genre and has written an attractive, albeit small-scale, work which is characterised by full chords, an enchanting melodic line and opulent, lush harmonies. Particularly interesting is the definite Scottish rhythm, no doubt highlighting the composer’s partially Celtic background. The melody is very similar to a Scottish Folk tune and effectively accentuates the ‘Scottish snap’ (or short accented down beat), giving the appropriate patriotic flavour. The piano texture is thick and mostly in the mid-range of the keyboard, with plenty of widespread chords and parallel sixths.
The predominant technical feature here is chordal playing. From the outset, Beach has written in a rich homophonic style. A chord is a cluster of two or more notes played at the same time. Chords can sometimes feel rather awkward to play, particularly in both hands simultaneously, but therein lays the technical challenge; chordal playing is all about voicing or deciding just which notes or lines of music are the most important at any given time and consequently need highlighting. With this in mind, one of the most crucial elements here is fingering. Each chord must be allocated appropriate fingering allowing for smooth transition from one chord to the next. Not every chord has a thick texture, but it’s a good idea to be quite sure of your fingering before starting to learn the piece (writing it in the score if necessary). Correcting fingering is painful and takes time, so bypass this by studying it accurately from the start! How you move from one chord to the next will determine the success of your performance.
Whilst polyphonic music such as that written by J.S. Bach may seem far removed from the Romantic style discussed here, playing plenty of contrapuntal works serves as an excellent ‘warm-up’ to dense chordal texture. Both styles require well-developed finger control in order to cope with various melodic lines of varying importance, because in nearly all chordal based works, there will be some musical lines that are far more interesting than others. So, strong fingers are vital for good voicing. The outer voices are normally the most crucial musically, and yet they routinely involve employing the weakest fingers; the fourths and fifths. In order to prepare to play this piece, it might be prudent to study a few Hanon or Czerny exercises (with the help of a good teacher) building up these fingers, as well as examining some polyphonic works. Fingers must be able to move independently, as I have mentioned on many occasions here on this blog.
To play chords effectively it’s a good idea to keep your hands close to the keys, preferably resting on the keys as opposed to hovering above. Then you will be able to move efficiently from one chord to the next, allowing your fingers to control the change between chords and the depth of sound required for each one. This is why firm, strong fingers are necessary. Also take care to make sure the hand is arched properly and not ‘collapsing’ – the knuckles must protrude, otherwise strong, equal playing amongst each finger will be almost impossible. Power to change the sound comes from arm-weight as opposed to just using your hands and fingers.
In the Scottish Legend, the melodic interest is usually in the top line, so the top three fingers of your right hand will be working continuously (third, fourth and fifth fingers). The first phrase of this work illustrates the chordal style;
Here’s the right hand (or melodic material) with some suggested fingering;
You can break this down further by isolating the melody (in this case, the top part or line of music) and focusing on it completely, always employing the fingering you intend to use whilst playing all the parts of the chord together. Once you have practised this using a full, beautiful sound and total legato, try playing the remaining parts of each chord altogether, pianissimo and then fortissimo, changing the sound will help with fluency. You may find it helpful to play the left hand or bass line alone too.
Here’s the bass line with some suggested fingering – it may be useful to play the two parts separately, in a similar way to the right hand;
Crucially, play them very smoothly and without pedal. Then play the phrase as written, making sure the melody is always voiced above the other notes in the chord; with careful practice you will find this becomes easier over time. A flexible, pliable wrist really helps when negotiating homophonic music because it will ultimately help with balancing the tone correctly.
Using your ears properly is another deciding factor in the success of legato phrasing and well-spaced chords. It’s imperative to really listen to the sound you are producing and the effectiveness of any gradation (i.e. going from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again), when moving from one chord to the next. Resist the temptation to use pedal. Pedal should be added after you have learnt the notes sufficiently and then used to enhance the overall sound, as opposed to masking a lack of legato touch, incorrect fingering or hesitant, uneven playing.
The chordal progressions require careful work and many of them have ornaments; it might be worth practising these passages without the ornaments to begin with, making sure the rhythm is accurate and pulse, secure; then add them in (carefully adjusting the fingering where necessary) when your chordal grasp is firm (this is because ornamental playing tends to knock the pulse, as incorporating them in tempo can be challenging). Similarly, articulation of the spread or arpeggiated chords must not disturb the pulse. A quick rotational hand movement can be effective here, allowing a swift hand ‘roll’, aiding rhythmical playing.
There are copious tempo changes and rubato passages in this piece. It’s probably best to start by working rhythmically at each phrase, making sure the pulse remains stable. Once you have mastered the whole work, then it’s time to incorporate the tempo changes. You will find it much easier to do this once you have acquired an ‘overview’ of the piece.
Here are some quick tips or reminders when practising chords;
- Break the piece down into phrases, and then work at each one separately.
- Sort out the fingering before you begin, writing it in the score if necessary.
- Work at the outer parts of the chord or the top line (usually the melody) and the bottom, or bass line (the right hand first, then the left – separately to start with, then together), playing as legato or smoothly as possible – no ‘breaks’ in the sound.
- Then incorporate all the notes in the chords (again, right hand first, then the left, and finally together), slowly playing from one chord to the next, very smoothly, always making sure your wrist is free from tension (otherwise moving will be difficult).
- Practice voicing each chord in several ways (playing the middle parts from pianissimo to fortissimo), but always making sure the melody line is predominant.
- Use a metronome to check whether your chordal progression is rhythmical and then slowly increase the speed.
- Add the pedal only when you are able to play the passage fluently.
Master this chordal style, and you will be able to convey the meaning of this beautiful stately Scottish Ballad effectually.