Alicia’s Gift: the Concert of the Novel

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It’s such a treat to explore new places and new venues. I don’t live far from Perivale in West London, but somehow St. Mary’s Church has remained an enigma, until last Sunday afternoon. This fine little church, just off the A40, dates back as far as 1135. Seating just 70, it serves as the ideal backdrop for classical recitals and features an immensely popular programme of concerts and events. It provides the necessary tranquillity and serenity required for this type of concentrated music making. The Church hosts regular Sunday afternoon recitals which are followed by a spectacular array of homemade cakes and tea; surprisingly there is no entry fee, just a retiring collection if you so wish to contribute. There can’t be many places in or around London offering such a sumptuous occasion entirely free of charge.

This concert featured a narrator and a pianist; words and music. What a wonderful combination, and one which will no doubt appeal to both music and literary lovers everywhere. Alicia’s Gift; the Concert of the Novel was performed by acclaimed author and music critic Jessica Duchen (who narrated) and prize-winning pianist Viv McLean.

Alicia’s Gift is a novel written by Jessica, dealing succinctly with the perils of becoming a concert artist. It’s a heart rendering and extremely poignant tale of a young girl who discovers a passion for music at just three years old. Her musical journey begins with an innocent love for playing the piano and ends with bounteous soul-searching questions; some which will no doubt strike a chord with aspiring musicians all around the world. Finding the right piano teacher, tantrums, tears, family disputes, illicit love and performing at the International Leeds Piano Competition, are just a few of the events witnessed on Alicia’s crusade to becoming a concert pianist. It’s a beautifully conceived story which dramatically and persuasively highlights the plight of the child prodigy.

The concert consisted of elected extracts from the novel which were powerfully delivered by Jessica and elegantly interspersed with performances of various piano works mentioned in book. Each piece had been carefully selected to coincide with Alicia’s musical journey, and they were all played with passion and conviction by Viv.  The prose extracts were fairly short but just enough to keep the story alive and most importantly, the listener’s attention.

Alicia’s love of Chopin was apparent from the outset, and the concert began with an arresting performance of Etude Op. 25 No. 1 in A flat major. This was followed by the polish composer’s Third Ballade Op. 47 in A flat major, which inspired the young prodigy to imagine horse riding on the moors. The Minute Waltz in D flat major Op. 64 No. 1 and Etude in C minor Op. 25 No. 12, were both expressively characterised. Each work marked a significant event in the heroine’s life; from De Falla’s raucous Ritual Fire Dance, to Debussy’s fragrant Jardins sous la pluie (from Estampes) and the utterly beautiful sound world of Messiaen’s Prelude, La colombe. Alicia’s spell in New York was punctuated with a bravura performance of Gershwin’s ever popular Rhapsody in Blue.

Granados’ Quajas, o la Maja y el ruisenor from Goyescas was particularly effective;  the exquisite melodic lines where effortlessly phrased and coloured against a backdrop of shimmering, cascading filigree. The concert ended with Jessica and Viv playing a duet favourite, Ravel’s Le jardin feerique from Ma mere L’oye. The novel finishes on a positive note; Alicia has finally learnt to be true to herself.

This is a highly engaging presentation and marvellous concept, offering an entirely different experience to the more traditional concert format.

For more information: www.jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk


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.


Melodramas

The Melodrama or Recitation is a musical form that I love hearing and playing. They are not a popular or well-known genre in classical music yet many significant composers have written them over the years so perhaps they deserve a little more attention.

A melodrama is a narrated poem or story accompanied by music. Music and words are a great combination. There are many different forms of accompaniment but the preferred mediums are mainly orchestral or piano music. Famous examples include Peter and the Wolf (Prokofiev) and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Britten), but I love the settings with piano accompaniment.

Early examples of the Melodrama include short song – like pieces by Schubert but the genre came into its own in the 19th century or Romantic era. The Melodrama was especially popular amongst the Victorians, many of whom had parlour pianos and would enjoy including this genre at their own house soirees.

Liszt wrote five examples (there are five surviving recitations but it is thought that he wrote more as he especially liked this form) in three languages: three German, a Hungarian and a Russian.   My favourite, Der Traurige Mönch (1860) or The Mournful Monk, is a dour fateful ghost story (the poem was written by Nicolaus Lenau ). Liszt’s dramatic yet sparse accompaniment brings the story to life, the eerie harmonies are a fine example of the composer’s early interest in atonality, something he explored more fully in his late compositions. Other Liszt recitations include; Lenore, Helge’s Loyalty, The Dead Poet’s Love and The Blind Man. The tales cover a wide range of human emotion and are beautifully highlighted by Liszt’s expressive piano parts.

The pinnacle of melodrama writing came in 1897 when Richard Strauss set Lord Tennyson’s evocative poem, Enoch Arden to piano music. The work was written for the actor Ernst von Possart whilst Strauss was busy writing Don Quixote. Possart and Strauss performed the piece many times using a German translation. It was very well received by audiences at the time enhancing the composer’s reputation considerably and Strauss was inspired to write a further melodrama, The Castle by the Sea (Das Schloss am Meere) the following year.

Enoch Arden has been described as incidental music: Strauss employs leitmotifs or themes to identify each character; the two parts to the 60 minute piece (it can last much longer depending on the narrator!) are introduced by a prelude and concluded with a postlude. There are long passages where the piano is silent but although the music is somewhat sparse, what there is to play is sublime; rich in colour, sonority and texture. It is a joy to perform and is incredibly expressive.

Enoch Arden has been performed and recorded frequently over the years. Narrators of note include Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jon Vickers and Michael York and pianists of note include Glenn Gould, Emanuel Ax and Marc-Andre Hamelin. I performed it several times with the music critic John Amis both here in the UK and in Canada at the International Liszt Festival (in Hamilton, Ontario).

Other composers who have tackled the Melodrama include Poulenc (who wrote the wonderfully whimsical Barbar the Elephant), Satie, Walton and the British female composer Liza Lehmann. Lehmann (1862 – 1918) was an opera singer turned song composer who wrote  five recitations in all.  Out of the five, The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant are the most enduring. Lehmann’s unashamedly romantic, expressive piano accompaniments complement Oscar Wilde’s moving tales very effectively.

Whilst Melodramas will never generate the interest of piano music or songs, they are a beautiful and interesting form. Some may say they are outdated but they would benefit from a mini revival. So I will finish today by asking this question: are there any festival or concert hall artistic directors out there willing to programme a Melodrama?

A taster from Enoch Arden performed by Michael York and John Bell Young.


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.