Composer’s Notebook #4

On Composing for the Piano

This blog post appears at quite an appropriate time. As I write, the Sydney International Piano Competition is just about to wrap up, and I am also planning to write a piano trio, a classic but nonetheless difficult chamber combination. All this has led me to consider carefully why and how I write for the piano.

It is slightly ironic that I should be so fond of writing for the piano, since I have never learnt to play it! I don’t even own a piano at home, so I rely on a combination of my imagination and the playback on Sibelius 8 to help me write my piano music. Last year I completed my first major work for the instrument, the Three Concert Pieces, a serious work which is designed to challenge even the most advanced students, and perhaps professionals too. But this wasn’t a fluke, nor due to some flash of cosmic brilliance. I have never had formal compositional training, but I remember “teaching” myself via experimentation by writing short piano pieces, imitating characteristics of various composers, or emulating certain musical forms. Some influences which proved to be particularly impressive to me included the solo piano music of Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. It was only later that I began to appreciate Germanic works, notably the Klavierstücke (Intermezzi) Opp. 117 and 118 of Brahms, and the late sonatas of Beethoven. Now that I’m writing more serious music for piano, I’m perhaps naturally developing an appreciation for the works of Liszt. I also really enjoy the Lyric Pieces of Grieg — how’s that for a contrast — but I’m still not convinced by Rachmaninoff (so get your hate comments in now before I go on 😛 ). Nowadays I’m happy to explore a diverse range of solo piano music, but in terms of inspiration for compositions I still find myself gravitating towards “classic” works, for lack of a better word. In addition to the composers and works I mentioned above, other influences which have become important to me include the piano music of Schoenberg, Berg (his Piano Sonata might be one of the most extraordinary opus 1’s ever written), Webern, Poulenc, Janacek, Boulez, Ligeti, Dutilleux and Carter. Of course I have only mentioned solo repertoire at the moment. Piano concerti and chamber music with piano is another matter!

Seeing the composers I have mentioned above, perhaps you suspect that I have a certain bias in my preferred piano repertoire. This is unashamedly true: in particular I have a strong bias towards the piano writing of Debussy and Ravel, and I greatly prefer to focus on sonorities and harmonies as a starting point when I write for piano. Perhaps as a consequence of my training as a violinist, I find writing melodic figuration and passagework easier, and there is undoubtedly an abundance (maybe even an excess) of examples of such writing in violin and piano repertoire. Many years of practising scales, arpeggios, and tricky “runs” are not easily forgotten! Therefore I seek a language which does not rely so much on these classical clichés, yet still fits into what might be termed pianistic. How would one define this term? I prefer to go for something stupidly simple, may I suggest: stuff that makes the piano sound good and isn’t impossible to play? The second part (about not writing impossible passages) is easy to achieve if one has a good knowledge of piano repertoire, not necessarily restricted to the classics, and not even restricted to classical music in general. After all, there is plenty of beautiful piano music in jazz for instance! The first part is the more interesting aspect, because you would naturally ask what I mean by “making the piano sound good”. I claim that what a composer finds special about any one instrument is personal, which is why I believe it is so important to consider the timbral possibilities of the piano when composing music for the instrument, and not merely to settle for convenient figuration. So my preference for the piano music of Debussy and Ravel might be phrased differently: in the music of these French masters, I find many of the qualities of the piano I enjoy most.

At this point I should remind the reader that these are the opinions of a composer who does not play piano, so make of that what you will.

What qualities of the piano do I find most attractive? (Excellent question for a dating site…) This would of course vary depending on the circumstance and context — whether I’m writing for piano solo, or for chamber ensemble with piano, for example. But here are three general features which tend to occupy my pianistic thinking:

1. Pedalling. Unfortunately I know very little about how to do it, having never learnt to play piano, but I do know what I like to hear. In particular I do not like excessive and heavy pedalling, and prefer to prioritise clarity of articulation and line. However, I willingly exploit the pedal in certain situations, particularly when I’m interested in creating a certain ‘blend’ of chords. I also understand the important role of the pedal in legato playing. A very simple and elegant example is the opening of Debussy’s Sonata for violin and piano (oh what a surprise I chose this example), where subtle use of the pedal would achieve a pleasing legato between the paired chords. This is also an example where the piano writing naturally highlights the difference in ‘colour’ between the G minor and the C major chord. I would say that there is a preoccupation with chord colour throughout the entire sonata, certainly one of its outstanding features in my opinion. Don’t let this simple opening fool you, the sonata is anything but ordinary.

Claude Debussy: Sonata for violin and piano, opening

In the second of my Three Concert Pieces for piano, I invite the performer to use the pedal in creative ways (a good solution is often to let the performer do all the hard work 😛 ) throughout the whole movement, with passages such as the following:

Jonathan Mui: from Three Concert Pieces, II (Adagio)
Jonathan Mui: from Three Concert Pieces, II (Adagio)

I enjoy hearing such interlocking harmonies from different registers of the piano. One could describe this metaphorically as ringing bells of different pitches, or alternatively (and my preference) imagine a set of giant pendulums swinging with different periods.

2. Interval Quality and Register. By interval quality, I mean specifically the qualitative differences between a major/minor third and a major/minor seventh, and so on. In classical harmonic practice, interval quality and register are closely related to chord voicing. We learn from harmony class that in four-part writing it is good practice to have wider spacing between bass and tenor, and closer spacing between the upper voices, but this does not preclude alternative chord voicings, particularly if you wish to exploit a certain timbre. I present some examples below (in root position for simplicity), all of which may be useful depending on context and composer’s intention:chord voicingOn the piano we cannot arbitrarily distribute notes of a chord, since everything must fit onto two hands (much to the disappointment of the composer). However, the piano offers a huge range of notes spanning 7 octaves, and more if you happen to be working with specially built pianos such as the Stuart and Sons. The same chord with the same voicing will sound very different depending on the register in which it is sounded, and this is a feature which may be very useful. In the following example, Ravel explores the murky depths of the piano:

Maurice Ravel: from Gaspard de la Nuit, III (Scarbo)
Maurice Ravel: from Gaspard de la Nuit, III (Scarbo)

Imagine how different would this passage sound if translated several octaves higher.

Composers may also choose to focus on a particular interval or chord. In the classical repertoire, passages consisting of runs of thirds and sixths are very common, but beyond classical harmony, we find, for example, the parallel chord writing of Debussy and Ravel, the preponderance of tritones and major sevenths in the work of Schoenberg and particularly Webern, and also this delightful example of a piece based entirely on perfect fifths: Ligeti’s etude Cordes à vide (“Open strings”).

3. The Piano is a Musical Chameleon. No other instrument is more ubiquitous and versatile than the piano in classical music. We hear it frequently in solo recitals, chamber music, and certain orchestral works (and practically every orchestral work by Martinu), and the piano plays crucial accompaniment roles in the repertoire of practically every orchestral instrument, in choral music, and in orchestral reductions for opera and ballet scores. The piano also features prominently in jazz ensembles as both a solo and accompanying instrument, and is also, um… a very efficient chord machine in pop and rock music. We are correct to an extent to believe that the piano can “play anything”, and it is helpful to remember the instrument’s versatility when writing solo piano music. One of my favourite uses of the piano is the simulation of an orchestral texture. Composers like Ravel and Liszt seemed to understand this innately, and it is no surprise that many of their piano works have been orchestrated. For example, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies brilliantly infuse virtuosic piano writing with orchestral colour. Here is No. 12, and despite the poor audio quality, Gyorgy Cziffra’s performance is absolutely compelling: do you hear the strings and harp, the winds, the brass, and even the Hungarian cimbalom?

Conversely, Liszt has produced outstanding piano transcriptions and paraphrases of orchestral works. Did you think it was possible to transcribe all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies for solo piano? Liszt says “no problem”, and here is the ninth symphony (BYO choir and soloists for the finale):

In short, writing for the piano is a pleasure, owing to the qualities I have given above and many more. It is an ideal laboratory for trying out ideas, whether for the piano itself or for orchestral textures, and its versatility and range of expression is virtually unmatched. Furthermore, to explore the world of piano music is to navigate a vast and continuously expanding universe of repertoire: while there are already an enormous number of well-documented “stars” and “galaxies” (established masterpieces), it will nevertheless always be full of new surprises.

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