Performing in the Dark – an ongoing friendship with Nielsen’s variations



Those who attended the concert will easily remember the time I performed in the dark, even though it has been more than 10 years now.  I’m proud to say I haven’t felt the need to embellish the story over the years, the reality being quite enough to hold its own in the retelling.

It was a concert which included a variety of solo and ensemble works – all new or recent – and which took place in a small recital hall at Pacific Lutheran University.  The hall was packed, leaving a few members of the audience standing, and unfortunately some poor unknowing soul leaned on the light switch mid-way through my performance of Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne, Op. 32.  It felt like an eternity, but was likely just about a minute or so, before someone figured out the problem and got the lights back on.  It was also one of the few times in my life that I was happy to be performing from memory, rather than with music!  Luckily for me, the lights were back on just before I reached a section filled with wide leaps, so the performance was saved.

ImageI share this story only partly because I was impressed with my own composure and ability to perform well in spite of the circumstances.  I share it also because it is a part of my long-term relationship with Nielsen’s often extremely challenging repertoire.  My first exposure to the composer was as the child of a clarinetist, who used portions of the Nielsen’s ridiculously difficult clarinet concerto as a part of his warm-up routine.  A few years down the road, as a high-school clarinetist, I feebly attempted those same sections, and also familiarized myself with Nielsen’s symphonies.  Two things were abundantly clear: I loved this composer’s unique language, and he was a composer who didn’t concern himself with how difficult his writing was for the performer – he simply wrote what he wanted to write to achieve his musical aims.

And this brings me to his piano repertoire.  Repertoire that is most definitely not part of the traditional piano canon, and yet, in my opinion, most definitely should be more often played.  It is obviously difficult, but in my experience with it, well worth the effort.  And since two of his relatively small number of major works for the piano are in the variation form which is the theme of this blog, I thought it was time to share them!

The Chaconne, Op. 32, dates from 1916, and the Theme and Variations, Op. 40, was composed the following year, placing these two works between the 4th and 5th symphonies in the composer’s output.  While technically not the same form, the two works are nonetheless quite similar in style and scope: constantly developing and evolving, each variation growing organically from the previous one, stretching tonality but never leaving it, and utilizing the full technical and dynamic capabilities of the instrument.

The Chaconne is in D, primarily in minor but ending with a flourishing Coda in major.  The simple eight-bar bass-line which is the basis of the work is stated on its own, starkly, and then the proceeding iterations grow out of it, proceeding one after another without break, growing in technical complexity and dynamic range.  At the eleventh iteration, there is a marking of Meno, halting the growing intensity for a moment of retrospection, before the activity begins expanding once again.  The fifteenth and sixteenth iterations of the chaconne line bring us to the sections filled with leaps – that place, years ago, where I’m so glad the lights came back on!

The piece concludes with a lengthy Coda, marked “Tempo I, ma tranquillo,” in the major key, in which one hand sails through a fascinating line of quiet thirty-seconds while the other maintains the bass-line with which we are, by this point, so familiar.  Finally, rapid scale fragments at the top of the piano trail off into a simple chord progression to end the work.  Here is a nice performance selected from the several available on YouTube:



The Theme and Variations, Op. 40, is a few steps beyond the Chaconne – in terms of length, difficulty, and developmental scope.  I have worked on this piece over the past several years, but have yet to bring it to the point of polish that it would be performance-ready.  Someday!

The work is solidly in B-minor, and yet that said, the theme which begins clearly in that key ends sixteen bars later in… g minor?  It is this open exploration of tonality, established in the theme, which makes the work so fascinating.  There are a total of 15 variations, and I’ll single out just a few before sharing a link to a recording – assuming the work can speak for itself more effectively than I can expound on it!

After a few fairly traditional variations, variation 3 is a highly-chromatic canon, the left hand following the right at a distance of one beat and one octave, pianissimo throughout, and with one giant slur over the entire variation.  This variation establishes early on in the work that the composer is going to surprise us with the range of moods and styles which he was able to draw out of a relatively simple theme.  Variations seven and eight give the listener a similar moment of quiet solitude between passages of virtuosity.

By far my favorite moment of the work is variation 13, in which Nielsen sets up three voices – a bass-line which is the primary melody, an arpeggiated tenor voice, and then an ostinato (marked so in the score) in the right hand – all three voices slowly building to a climax at the end of the variation.  The final variation, number 15, is tremendously difficult, requiring stamina from the performer in the form of ff and fff  markings lasting over three pages, rhythmic complexity, multiple voices, etc.

This exciting drama finally stumbles to a stop in a passage marked come ubbriaco.  First time I’ve seen that marking, how about anyone else?  Essentially, according to the rough translation by my trusty pocket-sized Italian-English dictionary, it means to play the passage as if drunk.  And given how difficult the previous passage is, it’s not too difficult to summon that type of feeling!  Anyway, as promised, I will stop there, and share this recording for your listening pleasure.  I hope I’ve inspired at least one person to even a portion of the fascination I have for Nielsen’s works.


Tchaikovsky – variations on an original theme


Years ago, I had the pleasure of becoming intimately familiar with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo Variations‘, Op. 33, as I accompanied my cellist mother while she studied that great work.  I had no idea then, or in fact until just this month, that there was also a fine set of variations for solo piano among the great composer’s output!

I feel like a broken record here, but once again this discovery comes from my recent project to expand my sheet music library.  My latest find is another fine Dover volume, containing Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Seasons’ along with many other short works for solo piano.


I had come across a few of these works in compilations I’ve used with students, but never before had I seen or heard the variation set, Op. 19, No. 6, composed in 1873.  A quick scan of Tchaikovsky’s works list in Grove reveals that other than an early work without opus number, this variation set is his only for solo piano.

Speaking of Grove, a paragraph from their analysis of Tchaikovsky’s piano output goes a great distance towards explaining why it is not better known or more incorporated into the concert repertoire:

The secondary status accorded his works for solo piano is curious in light of their advocacy by Nikolay Rubinstein and Hans von Bülow. Many factors locate the short works which constitute most of the repertory: a distinction between salon and concert, expedients of commerce, the shadow of larger compositions in other media, a tendency to excerpt and Tchaikovsky’s open condescension about many of them. At the heart of the problem is that piano music did not fully engage Tchaikovsky’s creative imagination, and that he did not develop a distinctive idiom for the instrument, as Chopin and Liszt had.”

Roland John Wiley“Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il′yich.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University PressWeb13 May. 2014.<>.

All that said, I would argue that this variation set in particular is certainly worthy of more attention by today’s pianists.  While certainly not as impressive an example of the possibilities of the theme-and-variation form as, say, the variations of Brahms, it nonetheless presents much attractive, and pianistically effective, development of a truly lovely original theme.

The theme, a moderate dance in three in F-major, is brief: sixteen bars made up of four four-bar phrases.  The first few variations remain true to this basic structure, but over the course of the twelve variations (the last with a sizable coda), Tchaikovsky plays around with all of it – meter, key, variation length.  The theme is always there, on some level, but the variety of textures and characters keeps the work lively and interesting throughout.

When initially playing the theme, the primary descriptor I placed on it was simply that it was lovely – a well-constructed melody pleasantly harmonized.  But as I worked my way through the piece, I felt a pattern developing, a dance-like quality in many of the variations – especially variations 3, 6, and 9, which Tchaikovsky marks ‘Alla mazurka’.  Going back to the beginning after I had finished, and playing the theme for a second time, its gentle, slow waltz revealed itself.

As always in these posts, I like to share a recording of the piece.  A quick search on YouTube reveals exactly what the Grove article hinted at – that Tchaikovsky’s solo piano repertoire does not have a comfortable place in the canon.  When searching for this particular work, we find almost exclusively Russian pianists, and then a few fine recordings from previous generations.  I’m choosing to share this live performance by Emil Gilels from 1950 – enjoy!

Dvořák’s Variations



I’ve been on a mission lately to expand my library of sheet music, filling gaps as I discover material that – for whatever reason – hasn’t been on my pianistic radar.  My latest trip to the music store yielded two good finds, both Dover editions: keyboard music of Henry Purcell, and solo piano works by Dvořák:

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My focus here will be on the Dvořák – but what a discovery with Purcell!  His keyboard suites (the bulk of the volume) are not grand, but they are lovely, well-crafted, and technically less challenging than other baroque suites (ie, Bach or Handel) and therefore fill a need in my teaching that I’m excited to explore.  I’ve dog-eared several pages in this new volume with some of my young students in mind – those kids who are a year or two away from being able to handle a Bach French Suite, but who could enjoy performing a lovely three-movement suite by Purcell.  Exciting!

But now, on to the focus of this post.  What was my first move when opening the Dvořák album?  Scanning the table of contents to look for Variations, of course!  Lo and behold, Dvořák did compose one set, on an original theme in A-flat major.  It is his Opus 36, published in 1879.  As I’m sure is true for many pianists, my primary experience with Dvořák has been his wonderful four-hand works, whether the Slavonic Dances, or a more recent discovery of mine, the Legends, Op.59.  As is becoming a theme in these posts, it is humbling to keep discovering repertoire of which I’ve been completely unaware!

As I read through this set, I could find no reason why it is not a more familiar part of the repertoire.  There are some technical challenges, but nothing overwhelming when compared to other repertoire of the late-Romantic era.  The theme is fascinating; marked ‘Tempo di Menuetto’, it has a lilting, dancing quality, and yet isn’t free of a bit of darkness as well, with a not insubstantial amount of chromatic movement and interesting harmonic shifts here and there.

The eight variations explore changes of key, meter, and all manner of technical development, and yet the theme is never far from the ear’s memory.  Especially powerful, I thought, were Variations 3 and 6, both of which slowed the pace and explored more of the interesting harmonic relationships which the theme had made possible.

A wonderful performance of this piece by Rudolf Firkušný can do it more justice than any more comments from me, I think, so I hope you’ll enjoy!

Some Thoughts on Clementi



Taking a break from variation reading for a few weeks, I recently finished the multi-day project of playing through Dover’s edition of Clementi’s Sonatas.  While not complete, the volume is an admirable representation of these intriguing works.

I approached this task with a bit of embarrassed humility, realizing that in spite of my life-long exposure to piano music, and my eagerness to read through material, my fingers had never touched any of these works.  Why is it, I kept wondering as I played, that I had never before been intrigued to explore Clementi’s output beyond the lovely Sonatinas which are so ubiquitous in youthful piano lessons and recitals?

As I read, and especially reached some of the later works – the early sonatas consist of three short movements, where the later works are much lengthier and more developed  – I was struck with the obvious fact that Clementi was not merely the technician and pedagogue whose works have become a staple of the teaching repertoire.  He was a composer worth attention in his own right.

As the story goes, when the paths of Clementi and Mozart crossed, and a pianistic duel ensued, Clementi generously praised Mozart, but the favor was not returned – Mozart dismissed Clementi in a letter to his father as a mere technician, devoid of taste or feeling in his playing.  I fear that this simplistic view of the Italian pianist/composer has stuck with us through history a bit more than it should have, judging by the way in which Clementi was introduced to me as a young student, and by the rare appearance of his works on current recital programs or recordings.

Others certainly have judged him more favorably as a composer – Beethoven, Liszt, and Horowitz, to name just a few gods of music and the piano, all held Clementi, and specifically his piano sonatas, in high esteem.  A few minutes on YouTube reveals a heyday in the earlier 20th century, with recordings by Horowitz and Michelangeli, rather than any of our current virtuosi, appearing at the top of the search results.

Without diminishing Mozart, or Beethoven, or Haydn, or Schubert, is it not possible to squeeze a few of these Clementi sonatas in to a program on occasion?  I, for one, am now a believer.  And I have renewed dedication to my “lifelong learning” project of exploring the repertoire.  It seems that regardless of the number of years that pass by, and the number of pages of music read, there will always be these happy new discoveries which expand my understanding of history, of the piano, and of music in general.

Here’s one example of these works, in a Horowitz recording from 1954:

Clara’s Take



Following quickly on the heels of my last post – about Brahms’ poignant variations on a theme of Schumann – I stumbled upon the score for Clara Schumann’s own variations on the same theme while browsing at my local music store (Dover Publications: Clara Schumann – Piano Music).

Clara’s set of variations, her Op. 20, was, like Brahms’ set, composed in 1854 and dedicated to Robert.  And just as Brahms had done, Clara creates a touching tribute to her beloved, and at the time, much-suffering, husband.

That, however, is really where the similarities end – the two works, based on the same theme and composed at the same time, are dramatically different in scope, concept, and style.

Clara gives us seven variations, none of which let the theme escape our ears – its haunting melody is a constant companion.  And where Brahms composed several variations which were in clear homage to Robert’s compositional style, Clara’s language is entirely her own throughout this set.

The first variation, still in the F-sharp minor of the theme, presents the melody with a rolling triplet accompaniment in the left hand.  The second variation busts out with moving sixteenths in both hands and the first expansion of range or dynamics in the piece.

The third variation ventures into F-sharp major and brings back the character of the theme with a thickly-harmonized chorale.  I must do some reading on just how large Clara’s hands were (clearly a bigger reach than mine), but suffice it to say, I had to do quite a bit of rolling of chords!

In variation four, we move back to the minor key, and the theme’s melody is in the left hand, as the right hand flourishes with scale and arpeggio passages throughout the treble.  Variation five reverses things, with the melody again back in the treble, and the left hand pounding out octaves.

Variation six provides both hands with a nice rest from the display of the previous few minutes, once again bringing back a very simple presentation of the theme, this time with a bit of imitation in inner voices.

The final variation, the only one which expands the form beyond the number of measures in the theme, presents the theme imbedded within a flowing passage of thirty-second notes, the two hands working together to build rich harmonies.  A brief climax which is Clara’s only divergence from the theme leads to a key change – moving once again to F-sharp major.  After a choral passage which reminds us of the third variation, the thirty-second passage returns for a brief coda, rippling through F-sharp major arpeggios.

It is unfair to compare this work to the Brahms set – although this is of course what I was doing as I read it.  Held to that standard, this work quickly fails to compete.  But taken on its own, as a lovely Romantic variation set and tribute to her husband, Clara’s work is most definitely worth a read or a listen.

It is clear from her piano writing that she was a pianist of the highest caliber.  The technical demands are there, and are well structured, reminiscent of reading Chopin or Liszt.  But as history tells us, Clara never had the opportunity to develop her composition, and this does show in this lovely but comparatively under-developed variation set.  As her husband Robert once wrote:

“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

I discovered on YouTube a recording by a Belgian pianist I was not familiar with, Jozef De Beenhouwer, but who I now understand is a renowned musicologist specializing in Schumann, as well as the first person to release a recording of all of Clara’s piano works:

A profound homage



I must begin this post with a confession that this was not my first, or second, or even third, time reading the work described here.  I first discovered it a year or two ago, and have found the need to keep returning to it, as it fascinates and captivates me.  Especially since doing a bit of research into its origins, I am all the more excited to share this work, both here and, at some point in the future, in performance.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 9 (1854), is a gorgeous work which most definitely stands on its own; there is no need to rely on its extra-musical story to make it worthy of study, performance, or enjoyment.  But when that story is known, it does enhance the experience that much more!

But first, the music:

The melancholy theme in F-sharp minor, from the first Albumblätter from Bunte Blätter Op. 99, provides much material for variations – Schumann’s wife Clara used it herself, in her Op.20 set which I’ll have to look for!

Brahms, in this, his first published set of variations for solo piano, makes the most of the theme’s potential.  The first three variations remain in the key of the theme, exploring its original harmonies with alterations to rhythm, voicing, and range.  Variations four through six break out of the slow tempo for a little early-Brahms gusto, with technical challenges reminiscent of (but thankfully shorter in duration!) than those in his first piano sonata.

Variation seven brings the tempo back down, reminds us of the original, somewhat dark harmonies, and begins a breakdown of the form as well, being only 11 measures in length.  This begins a passage – variations eight through eleven – which are stunning in their development.  Taking freedom with key, form, and style, Brahms – through skillful imitation rather than exact quotation – brings to life Schumann’s piano writing, and blending it in with his own.  I am reminded of quintessential Schumann piano works such as Papillon and Carnival – in the midst of a piece of Brahms.

Variations twelve and thirteen again increase the pace and technical challenge.  Variation fourteen is a rolling andante in the key of the theme, again more reminiscent in its style of Schumann than Brahms.  Variations fifteen and sixteen move to the major key (with variation fifteen spelled as G-flat major and sixteen as F-sharp major – keeps me on my toes every time!)

Variation sixteen – an Adagio in 6/4 (the theme being in 2/4) – is a dynamic challenge well worth the effort, beginning at pianissimo and slowly dying away to pianississimo.  In spite of the major key, the slow pace and sparse voicing of this final variation lend the work an increased seriousness.  There is no rousing finale, just a musical thought disappearing into silence.

As I mentioned earlier, this work really does stand on its own, both as a pianistic challenge and as a satisfying listening experience; that said, understanding the context in which it was written gives it much more depth.

The work dates from 1854, just one year after Brahms had arrived in Düsseldorf to meet Schumann and be taken under the older composer’s wing.  And, more specifically, it was composed not long after Schumann’s 1875 suicide attempt, which led to his commitment to an asylum and Brahms being thrust into the role of supporter to Clara and her children.  The work itself is dedicated to Clara.

I am in awe of the young Brahms’ ability to encapsulate Schumann’s style, with individual variations serving as frames through which we can see and hear it, within the context of Brahms’ own, new, budding musical language.  And I am once again, as I have been each time I’ve read about the relationships between Brahms and both Schumanns, pulled in by the sincerity of it all.

I could go on and on (can you tell?) but perhaps I’ll stop there and share a recording – letting the music speak for itself!  There are many fine recordings on YouTube, but I’ll share a performance which allows you to watch the score as you listen.  And the notes and comments are pretty interesting too!

Back to Beethoven, of course.



The first thing I wanted to do, after a year of playing Beethoven piano sonatas, was read the “Diabelli variations.”  I managed to read a good chunk of it while in Seattle over vacation, but will the coughing fits I was having, I put it aside for another day.  Needless to say, I still had the itch to play more Beethoven, so I read through the first four sets in Volume 2 (Henle), WoO (without Opus) 76, 77, 78 and Op. 34.  Beethoven wrote twenty sets of piano variations over his lifetime, a great majority of which were never published.  Of the four published variations, Op. 34 is the first, and Op. 120, the aforementioned “Diabelli,” his very last piano work.

Seeing as how so many of these were never published, I began to ponder why, which led me to also wonder why sets of variations, as a whole, are not taught very often.  For the latter, a set of variations is not a standard work that is competition worthy (not a sonata, concerto, or stand-alone piece such as a toccata, prelude and fugue, or mazurka).  For Beethoven, it would seem that many of these sets of variations were a compositional exercise.  It would seem, then, that we should teach these as often, for the same reason!

But, I digress.  WoO. 77, the Six Leichte Variations in G Major, are certainly easy, and very much in the classical style.  Nothing stood out as quintessentially Beethoven.  The WoO 76 and 78, however, were more enjoyable, although fairly formulaic.  The first is comprised of a very short theme NOT in binary form.  Variation 8, somewhat fugal, and the two lines of Adagio coda, stood out among the rest.  Could this coda be an experiment for the Op. 34, which possibly was written soon after?  WoO 78 is based upon the theme “God Save the Queen” (a.k.a. “My Country ’tis of thee”), and again was a standard set of classical variations.  Variation 4, and again the coda, stood out as more characteristically Beethoven–especially the coda, which had just enough crazy 4 against 6 sixteenth notes to whet the appetite for more.

It is clear to me why Beethoven chose Op. 34 as his first published set of variations.  The 2/4 Adagio theme is original (Beethoven’s composition), and is quite beautiful.  Variation 1 was a little hard on the eyes, being filled with 64th notes (but not as much so as the coda, with 132nd notes!)  Variation 2 reminded me of Schumann, and Variation 5, a fast funeral march.  The extensive coda had a rich, full sound, with arpeggiated sextuplets in the bass and even a short cadenza.

Claudio Arrau plays the coda here (this is a two part video, the coda begins at about 1:35 in the second part):

Sorry, Schubert, it’s time for some Mendelssohn



This past week, I began my reading with Schubert’s only two sets of variations for solo piano: ten variations on an original theme in F major, D. 156, composed in 1815, and thirteen variations on a theme of Huttenbrenner, D. 576, from 1817.

Much as I typically admire Schubert’s music – whether the solo piano works I’ve studied or a chamber work I’ve had the pleasure of playing with fellow musicians – I didn’t find much to get excited about in these two works.  It felt as though Schubert was trapped by the form, rather than making it his own, falling into the variation structure common to the classical period: theme, followed by variation in fast-running sixteenths, then a variation with triplets, closely followed by a variation in the minor key, etc. etc.  Both sets’ themes were lovely, but the music quickly grew a bit stale as I progressed through it.

Leaving Schubert behind – well, his solo piano variations, at least! – I decided to move on to Mendelssohn.  I began with the Variations sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54 (1841), a work which certainly wasn’t unknown to me, as it’s well-established in the repertoire, but one which I’ve never studied myself.

Perhaps especially following my Schubert experience, Mendelssohn’s freedom with just about every ingredient of the music – tempo, articulation, dynamics, even harmony – as he flows from one variation to the next is quite impressive.  I found the work quite a joy to read through, in spite of its obvious difficulties.  I also am reminded of the story behind the creation of the work, which is worth sharing here for those who may not know it:

The work was written as part of a campaign to raise funds for the erection of a large bronze statue of Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn.  The publisher Pietro Mecchetti asked Mendelssohn to contribute to a ‘Beethoven Album’, published in January 1842, which also included pieces by Liszt, Chopin, and others, of which the proceeds would go to the Monument.

A few days after my read-through of Op. 54, I decided to play Mendelssohn’s two other variation sets, the E-flat major, Op. 82, and B-flat major, Op. 83.  Both were actually written in 1841, the same year as the Variations sérieuses, but were not published until after the composer’s death.

Neither set is close to the Op. 54 in scale, challenge, or level of development, but both are interesting and worthy of more exposure in the repertoire.  A quick YouTube search brought up this lovely recording of the Op. 83 set, performed by Benjamin Frith.

As a closing note, it’s always good when I have a positive experience with Mendelssohn.  I had a bad performance as a teenager (a memory slip for the ages) while playing the composer’s Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, and I’m afraid there’s still a little part of me which tries to avoid the composer’s entire output for that reason…

A little (but not at all Twinkly) Mozart, and a bit of Brahms



We’ve all heard Mozart’s Variations on the now famous “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” otherwise known as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (or the ABC song).  Some of us have tried to teach it to enthusiastic students, who grow weary of the theme by the tenth or eleventh variation.  So, when I opened up my brand new volume of Mozart’s Variations for Piano, I immediately jumped to the set of three following it, K. 352, 353 and 354.

The first, 8 Variations in F major on the choir “Dieu d’amour” from the opera “Les mariages samnites,” was somewhat familiar to me, at least the theme, as a student violin piece by Charles Dancla.  All three sets were bright and cheerful, and perfect for playing mid-week, as the Polar Vortex descended upon us, and the brisk New England windchill dropped to -20F.  The second two, the 12 Variations in E-flat major on the French song “La belle Françoise,” K. 353,  and the 12 Variations in E-flat major on the Romance “Je suis Lindor” from “Le Barbier de Seville,” K. 354, were full of cross-hand playing, giving me an extra little workout, although neither was particularly challenging.

Today, the foggy air and thunderstorms called for something different; Brahms usually does the trick!  Kim and I played his Variations on a Theme by Haydn , for two pianos, a decade and a half ago, so I opted for a work unknown to me, Op. 21, no. 1, Eleven Variations on an Original Theme in D major.  The slow, luscious theme gave way to eleven distinct variations, including a couple of fiery offerings amidst the richness of the others.  All in all, a great meal of a piece.  I will certainly come back to this for the pure enjoyment of playing.


Where have these Variations been Haydn?


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Yes, that’s right, I’m starting the year with a Haydn joke.  Can’t help it, they’ve been drilled into me from a young age.

Although I am highly organized in my daily life, when it comes to reading through repertoire at the piano, I somehow give myself the permission to jump all over the map.  Thus, this year’s reading challenge – Variations – begins, for no particular reason, with Haydn.  And a Haydn joke from those in my household as I finished my reading session…

HaydnCoverIn spite of my voracious reading habit, my many years of lessons, and multiple piano repertoire courses, I must confess that I was not familiar with Haydn’s handful of variation sets for solo piano.  Fortunately, this was remedied in one sitting with a lovely Dover publication – “Variations, Dances, and other Shorter Works for Solo Piano”.

What I found were three fine variation sets – in C Major, A Major, and E-flat Major, all worthy of more frequent use in concert and with students of all ages.

It was the E-flat set (Arietta con variazioni Hob.XVII-3, ca. 1770-74) – 12 variation a theme from the Minuet of Haydn’s own String Quartet No. 14 – which made the greatest impression on me.  Graceful, full of variety and moderate technical challenge, yet still quite accessible.  I was immediately inspired to recommend these to an adult student of mine as a challenging yet extremely musically fulfilling project for his next recital performance.

Here is a lovely mid-century performance of the work by French pianist Monique Haas:

So – which composer will be next?  Who knows – must keep up the air of randomness in these pursuits.  I only hope that every reading experience is so fruitful in continuing to expand my awareness of the vast piano repertoire.