A Few Thoughts on Selecting Piano Diploma Repertoire

Shutterstock Background Piano Music for WebsiteToday’s post is the second exploring piano diploma repertoire. You can read my first post, here. As the previous article describes, there are many ways of ensuring an interesting well-balanced programme, but when it comes to choosing the music itself, how and what do you select? Which pieces make ‘safe’ choices and what constitutes an appealing, yet diverse assortment?

Personal taste plays a gargantuan role, and what suits one will not be necessarily attractive to another. Here are a few tips and suggestions (which are based on my taste and experience with pupils).

You could aim to include a larger work; a sonata is ideal because it contains several movements, allowing you to display a whole gamut of emotions resplendent in one piece, and you can convey musical understanding, through the structure and various layers of textures. Slow movements often provide an opportunity to rest technically (although musically they are demanding). Classical sonatas, typically those by Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart, make prime choices. The more dramatic works provide excitement, passion and theatrics; they are fun to play and practise, lie comfortably, and there’s plenty of scope for development and improvement whilst learning them. They also take anything from 15 to 25 minutes to perform, and therefore form a large chunk of the proposed recital (a significant consideration).

Inclusion of works from the Classical style demonstrates an ability to play cleanly, concisely, rhythmically, with clear articulation, and brilliant finger work; if you don’t possess this final attribute at the start of learning, then you should by the end!. A Baroque Suite, such as those by J S Bach, may also make an exemplary choice; whilst they are very different stylistically to a Classical sonata, they too proffer the opportunity to display many emotions and technical elements, all wrapped up in several movements.

Delving into less popular repertoire can bring a fresh and contrasting juxtaposition to a Classical  or Baroque piece. Why not think about adding a couple of Twentieth Century works? There is colossal variety within this era; two works can represent totally opposing styles (especially if one is from the Twentieth, and another the Twenty-First Century).

Whether you decide to select early Twentieth Century works by major French composers (Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc), Russian masters (Scriabin, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev), or later Twentieth Century pieces, you’ll find a collection of fascinating and lesser played gems which can make compelling choices.

I recommend considering works from the latter half of the Twentieth Century through to the present day; students invariably love their diversity, their challenges and they seem to enjoy discovering composers who are either living or who died relatively recently. Superlative choices might encompass works by Lennox Berkeley, Peter Sculthorpe, Oliver Messiaen, Diana Burrell, John McCabe, Edwin Roxburgh, and – a new discovery for me – Douglas Lilburn (from New Zealand). These inclusions  hide on diploma repertoire lists, and are frequently sidestepped.

Devising an imaginative programme with at least ten minutes of music selected from those composers mentioned above might be a prudent choice. Combining a Messiaen prelude with a work by Diana Burrell for example, will not necessarily be conflicting stylistically. Peter Sculthorpe’s beautiful Night Pieces work well with a composition such as Douglas Lilburn’s From the Port Hills too. These options may entice and inspire pupils, encouraging them to branch out, seeking the less trodden path.

If either you or your students are in the process of deciding on a programme, or are thinking about taking a diploma, spend time surveying the repertoire on offer. Work out timings carefully, and make certain you’ve listened to all possibilities. You’ll learn more this way and may uncover exciting discoveries, which should bode well for your recital, and for the viva voce which is a necessity in some exams.

The following repertoire suggestions are from the major UK examination board’s various current performance diploma selections (please obtain the appropriate syllabus and check these listings for yourself before making any decisions). After each composer and listed piece, I’ve added the diploma to which they belong (in brackets). To download a syllabus, click on the exam board name at the top of each list.


ABRSM Diplomas:                                                                                                     Diana Burrell – Constellations I and II (DipABRSM)                                                 Howard Blake – Chaconne and Toccatina: from ‘8 Character Pieces’ (DipABRSM)       Joseph Makholm – 2 of the ‘3 Impressions’ (DipABRSM)                                           Edwin Roxburgh – Moonscape (DipABRSM)                                                              Peter Sculthorpe – Night Pieces (DipABRSM)                                                         Michael Finnissy – Yvaropera 5 (LRSM)                                                                      Peter Rancine Fricker – Studies nos.2 and 4 from ‘12 Studies’, Op.38 (LRSM)         Oliver Knussen – Sonya’s Lullaby, Op.16 (LRSM)                                                      Roger Redgate – trace (LRSM)                                                                                  James MacMillan – Sonata (FRSM)


Brian Chapple – Bagatelles diverse nos. 6 and 7 (ATCL)
Douglas Lilburn – From the Port Hills (no. 4 from Five Bagatelles) (ATCL)
Karl Jenkins – Boogie Woogie Llanoogie (ATCL)
Frederic Rzewski – Dreadful Memories (from Squares & North American Ballad) (ATCL)
Julian Anderson – Piano Etudes (LTCL)
Petr Eben – Sonata (LTCL)
Iain Hamilton –  September and October or November and December (from Months & Metamorphoses) (LTCL)
Fazil Say – Paganini Jazz [without final ‘extra’ variations] (LTCL)
Einojuhani Rautavaara – Passionale (LTCL)
Clement Slavicky – Variations on a Silent Chord (LTCL)
Robert Stevenson- Peter Grimes Fantasy (LTCL)
Carl Vine – Bagatelles (LTCL)
Toru Takemitsu – Rain-Tree Sketches no. 1 and/or no. 2 (LTCL)
John Corigliano – Etude Fantasy (FTCL)
Francois Morel – Étude de Sonorité no. 2 (from Deux Études de Sonorité) (FTCL)
Kazimierz Serocki – Nos. 5, 6 and 7 from Suite of Preludes (FTCL)

John Adams – China Gates (ALCM)
Miriam Hyde – Water Nymph (ALCM)
Pierre Sancan – Mouvment (ALCM)
Milton Babbitt – Three Compositions for Piano (LLCM)
Henryk Gorecki – Sonata No. 1 (LLCM)
Nikolai Kapustin – Concert Etudes (FLCM)


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Image: Shutterstock

Orchids for piano by Ed Hughes

A blog can provide the ideal opportunity to highlight less familiar Contemporary music, and this interesting set of pieces by British composer Ed Hughes (born in 1968), employs the piano in all its glory. Orchids consists of six movements written between 1990 and 2002 for a collection of fine pianists; Benjamin Morison, Stephen Gutman, Robert Saudek, Nicolas Hodges, Michael Finnissy and Richard Casey.

Hughes has written for a whole variety of genres including ensemble, orchestral, solo and choral/vocal compositions, many of which have been performed in the UK and abroad, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  Glancing at his biography, I noticed he has also worked on music for silent films; Battleship Potemkin and Strike. On listening to Orchids, it’s immediately obvious that Hughes’ style would lend itself perfectly to the silent movies medium. Full of drama, pathos and at times sheer terror, these works are not for the faint-hearted pianist, nor are they suitable for those who aren’t keen on notes, because the virtuosity required to do justice to these pieces is considerable (post-diploma level in my opinion).

Ed Hughes prefaces the score thus: A series of works for solo piano, the exotic floral image of the series title suggesting common patterns which underly gradual changes in the music. Each is a variegated single movement form in which the sections fold into each other, like waves or petals, disturbing and interrupting the surface polyphony.

There are several noticeable features present in Hughes’ compositions. The first is polyphony; each piece is laced with so many different layers of sound and colour, which at times becomes all-consuming. Secondly, the use of rhythm, which is complex, with many of the contrapuntal strands running in completely separate rhythmical patterns which somehow all glue together impressively. Use of timbre and tonal contrasts seems intrinsic to the style and sonority, and provides much-needed variation too.

Orchid 1, written in 1990, (dedicated to Nicholas Hodges) was first performed in January 1991 at Blackheath concert Hall by Michael Finnissy. This piece contains four parts (or lines of music) which all compete for attention, and require a cantabile sound. Menacing, melodic and rhythmically challenging, there is plenty to keep the performer and listener’s focus. The second work Orchid 2 (dedicated to Benjamin Morison), was written in 1991 and first performed at the British Information Centre in 1992 by the dedicatee, is considerably faster but just as contrapuntal. Displaced rhythmic patterns and a trance-like character pervade. The third Orchid, written in 1994 (dedicated to Stephen Gutman and first performed by him at the Brighton Festival in May 1994), is the longest of the group and begins calmly with a hymn-like serenity. Largely tonal, the work becomes increasingly florid, with many double note passages creating a highly evocative atmosphere.

The remaining Orchids depict various states of these delicate, beautiful flowers: No. 4 (composed in 1996 for Michael Finnissy and first performed by Ian Pace at the British Information Centre in July 1996), feels slightly improvisatory, with harmonic ambiguity and a nocturnal aura, whereas No. 5 (written in 2000 for Robert Saudek), is a frenzied and virtuosic Toccata. The final Orchid (written in 2002 for Richard Casey and first performed by Richard at the University of Sussex in February 2007)  is edgy and dissonant; a biting, brittle sound with impressionistic seasoning.

Orchids are imaginative and full of intensity; if you are searching for unusual Contemporary piano pieces which explore the entire range of the keyboard, both physically and tonally, look no further. The complete set has been recorded by Richard Casey (2011), on a disc entitled Dark Formations (Divine Art), which is a compilation of Hughes’ works. You can find out more about it here.

www.edhughes.org.uk

A flavour of Ed Hughes’ music:


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Sonya’s Lullaby Op. 16 by Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen: Sonya's Lullaby

I was introduced to Oliver Knussen’s music as a young student. Playing unusual, less familiar repertoire was always an interesting discovery. I’ve written about Contemporary piano music before and you can read my post here.

Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow in 1952. His father was the principal double bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made his debut in April 1968 conducting his First Symphony in London and then at  Carnegie Hall, New York. Early major works such as Coursing (1979) and the Third Symphony (1973-9) placed Knussen at the forefront of contemporary British music where he has firmly remained. A skilled conductor of new music as well as a composer, he is a highly influential figure who has been awarded many accolades including a CBE in 1994.

Knussen’s music has often has often been described as on a ‘small scale’ with a certain transparency of texture. This is definitely the case with the piano piece, Sonya’s Lullaby Op.16. Composed in 1977/78 for his daughter Sonya, who is now a mezzo soprano. Apparently as a four month old  baby she was an insomniac (aren’t they all?!) and he decided to record her sleeplessness by creating a lullaby which employs a vivid yet lucid sound world. Knussen’s programme notes enlighten this piece;

‘The word lullaby is used in the sense of an incantation to sleep. Formally the music is, I hope, self-explanatory, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that an initial stimulus toward the piano writing was the harmonic exploitation of overtones produced from the lowest register of the instrument by composers as diverse as Brahms, Scriabin, Copland, and Carter. Sonya’s Lullaby is the central panel of my chamber music Triptych (the other two being Autumnal for violin and piano, and Cantata for oboe and string trio) and was written for the composer-pianist Michael Finnissy, who gave the first performance of the final version in Amsterdam, January 1979’.

The reference to Scriabin is interesting, because this does feel the dominant influence. The work is full of unresolved dissonances and colourful chord progressions which somehow create complete calm amid chaos, perhaps due partly to the constant tri-tone reference, suggesting the child’s inner turmoil. Pedal is a really important sonority in this work too, acting as a vital part of the texture.

The following performance was recorded in 1998 at a house concert where I played a short recital on a 1924 Bechstein Boudoir grand. I have made several recordings of this work on various fairly new Steinway pianos, but somehow, even though I’m not keen on old instruments at all, this piano did allow for a different sound world.

Oliver Knussen

 


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Contemporary piano music?

I was recently asked to name some late 20th and 21st century piano pieces suitable to play for diploma exams (some boards such as Trinity allow candidates to submit own choice pieces). On examining the diploma syllabus  I was struck by how little contemporary music was included – and by contemporary I mean music of today. I am not talking about composers such as Charles Ives, John Cage, and Stockhausen, because whilst they are all great, they are not viewed as cutting edge anymore.

I then realised how little contemporary piano music I knew! I was horrified as I do really enjoy listening to new music and I frequently review it. Contemporary music is vital if classical music is to survive and grow.

So I decided to delve a little deeper and discover just what  living composers have to offer in terms of piano music. I should say right here and now that this list is certainly not exhaustive – it is a work in progress. Here are my musings so far…….

Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012) is American and over 100 but he is still a busy composer. His music from 1950 onwards is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. Here’s a selection of recent piano works: Retrouvailles (2000), Intermittences (2005), Tri -Tribute (2005-6)

Harrison Birtwistle (1934 -) is a British composer and his music is complex, written in a modernistic manner with a clear, distinctive voice. Piano works include: Harrison’s Clocks (1997-8), Ostinato with Melody (2000), and Saraband (2001).

Arvo Pärt (1935 -) is an Estonian composer. He works in a minimalist style that employs his own self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music also takes inspiration from Gregorian chant. I find his music moving and strangely beautiful. Here are a few piano pieces to look out for: Fur Alina (1976) and For Anna Maria (2006).

Steve Reich (1936 – ) is an American composer who was one of the pioneering composers of minimal music. Reich’s style of composition influenced many other composers and musical groups. He has been described, in The Guardian, as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”. Reich has written a lot of music for multiple pianos (notably recorded by the wonderful Piano Circus) but his work Piano Phase (for two pianos) has been performed and recorded on one piano.

John Tavener (1944 – 2013) is a British composer known for his religious, minimalist choral music. Taverner was influenced by Messiaen and Arvo Pärt (amongst others) and this is immediately obvious on hearing his works – there is a real spiritual quality present in his sound. Here are some piano pieces: Palin (1977), Ypakoe II (1997), Mandoodles (1982) and In Memory of Two Cats (1986).

John Zorn (1953 -) is an American composer who draws upon his long experience in classical, jazz, rock, punk, and klezmer music. A leader of the “downtown” music scene centered around the Lower East Side of New York City,  Zorn feels most connected to the tradition of the avant garde . Piano works include the highly innovative Carny (1989).

Judith Weir (1954 -) is a British composer and her musical language is fairly conservative in its mechanic, with a “knack of making simple musical ideas appear freshly mysterious.” She is known for operatic and choral works but has also written some solo piano pieces: The King of France (1993) Roll Off the Ragged Rocks of Sin (1992) and I’ve turned the Page (2007),

David Lang (1957-) is an American composer and his music is described as post-minimalist or totalist. He recently ran a piano competition featuring the performance of one of his works via YouTube offering the winner a chance to go to New York to perform it. Here are a few of his piano works: Boy (2001), Broken Door (1997), Memory Pieces (1992-1997) and Wed (1992-1997).

Oliver Knussen (1952 -) is British and is one of the most respected composers of his generation. I love his brittle, yet expressive style. His piano pieces are really worth exploring: Sonya’s Lullaby (1978), Variations for Piano (1989), Prayer’s Bell Sketch (1997) and Ophelia’s Last Dance (2010).

James MacMillan (1959 -) is a British composer whose music is infused with the spiritual and the political. He has written a whole myriad of piano works: Angel (1993), Birthday Present (1997), A cecilian Variation for JFK (1991), Piano Sonata (1985) and Walfrid, on his Arrival at the Gates of Paradise (2008).

Julian Anderson (1967 – ) is a highly respected British composer whose music is influenced by the folk music of  Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian traditions–and also by the modality of Indian ragas. Piano works include the Piano Etudes Nos. 1-3 (1998).

Roxanna Panufnik (1968 -) is a British composer and is the daughter of composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik. She has written a wide range of pieces including opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, chamber compositions and music for film and television which are regularly performed all over the world. Piano Piece: Second Home (2003).

 Thomas Adès (1971- ) is a British composer. His complex yet appealing music exhibits a flair for drama, humor, and personal expression, and is notable for the creative use of instrumental color. He has written many piano works including: Still Sorrowing (1991-2), Traced Overhead (1995-6), Under Hamelin Hill (1992), and Darknesse Visible (1992).

 Tansy Davies (1973 -) is a British composer. Her music is informed by the worlds of the classical avant-garde, funk and experimental rock. Piano work: Loopholes and Lynchpins (2001).

Emily Hall (1978 -) is a British composer known for writing classical music, electronica and songs. Heavily influenced by folk music, Emily’s piano piece, No Currency was written in 2006.

Charlotte Bray (1982 -) is another British composer. She judged the 2012 Young Musician of the Year Competition. and has been described as an ‘outstanding talent’. She has won numerous prizes for her work. Her piano piece off the rails was written in 2005.

I realise that I have only merely scratched the surface here – and it’s been most enlightening. I will be returning to this vast topic soon. Meanwhile if you have any other suggestions of either piano works or composers to add to this list then please let me know.

Here are a few YouTube clips of some of the mentioned works:



My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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