Adventures with Bach
by Jacqueline Pollauf, Concert Artists of Baltimore harpist
One of my favorite pieces of music is the Andante from Violin Sonata no. 2 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750). You can listen to Hilary Hahn play it exquisitely here:
I first encountered this piece when I was fourteen. I had recently transitioned from a lever harp to a pedal harp, essentially moving from a student instrument to a professional classical instrument suited to more complex music. This led to all kinds of new and exciting repertoire, and I was thrilled.
Then, my teacher announced that it was time to work on some Bach, and produced a book of Etudes, all taken from J. S. Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas, and transcribed for harp by the French harpist, Marcel Grandjany (1891-1975). Grandjany is well known for his beautiful harp transcriptions. These feature a variety of time periods, many different original instrumentations, and highlight both famous and obscure composers. In general, Grandjany’s transcriptions are not particularly historically accurate, but his unerring eye toward showcasing the harp in its best light and using an array of articulations and colors result in lovely pieces of music.
So there I was, with this bulky book of Bach transcriptions on my stand. Bach and I had had a few run-ins before, and I hadn’t always come off well. If you’d asked me my opinion then, it would have been that Bach was hard. Why couldn’t he stick to more obvious patterns? He always seemed to be going somewhere, and things kept changing faster than my fingers wanted them to. At the same time, I was entranced (and still am) by unexpected harmonies. I loved moments when I thought that a piece of music was going to head somewhere obvious, and instead there’d be a subtle twist and a chord I hadn’t thought of would emerge. Part of my delight in my new harp was that it was capable of just such complex harmonies.
For my first foray into my new etude book, my teacher picked what is known among harpists as the Bach-Grandjany Etude no. 6, or the Andante from Violin Sonata no. 2, written by Bach and transcribed by Grandjany. She played it, and I thought it was beautiful, graceful and elegant, always moving forward, but never in a hurry.
Then I went home to practice. And guess what? It was definitely Bach – hard. Harder than I wanted it to be. And I was going to have to work harder than I wanted to work.
Rather than dwelling on this next bit in detail, maybe we can just do a montage. There were a few weeks of sameness – me showing up at my lesson, playing the Bach in roughly the same sorry state as the week before, feeling a vague sense of shame, going home and muddling through it some more, only to repeat it all the next week. I was treading water.
What could the deus ex machina of this story be, you’re wondering? It was, simply enough, a gig.
My youth orchestra conductor called me. His church had asked if he could recommend some excellent young musicians to come and play there, and he had thought of me. I needed to prepare a few solo pieces to play throughout the service.
I was really excited! My conductor thought I was an excellent young musician! This wasn’t just a performance for my grandparents, or signing up for a student recital along with the rest of my studio. Instead, the phone had rung out of the blue, and I’d be playing for an entire congregation of unknown people. If this could happen, who knew what the next phone call might bring?
Of course, this also meant that I wanted to put my best foot forward. I went to my next lesson and discussed music with my teacher. I’m sure she phrased it tactfully, as she was always very kind to me, but her answer roughly translated to, “If you would ever getting around to learning that damn Bach, it would be perfect.” Turns out that looming deadlines are inspiring. I went home and actually practiced the Bach, working diligently on each small section. Lo and behold, it got better.
Once I stopped mumbling to myself about how hard it was and listened to what I was playing, I realized something else too. All of Bach’s constant changes are not just the whim of a composer bent on making my life more difficult. Instead they produce complex and sometimes surprising harmonies. There, buried beneath the surface, was music right up my alley. Yes, it was hard, but more than worth the effort.
I’ve been playing and listening to this piece, along with a lot more Bach, ever since. You can listen to me play it here:
Jacqueline Pollauf, harpist, has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Eleventh World Harp Congress in
Vancouver, Canada and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Whether performing standard repertoire
or her own arrangements, Jacqueline is always exploring the versatility of the harp. Recording credits include
Music from Three Continents with the Scottish Voices ensemble, among others. Additionally, Jacqueline is
an active composer for the harp, with works available through Vanderbilt Music and Harp Column Music.
Jacqueline is on faculty of the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore
County. She holds degrees from the Peabody Conservatory.
Welcome back to CAB’s new blog! If you missed our inaugural post on 11/15, please scroll down to check it out.
The blog will soon feature individual perspectives from the musicians who make up our outstanding orchestra and chorus. Be sure to check back often for new updates, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Today’s post takes our theme of “storytelling and music” in a slightly different direction, and borrows again from the blog of our box office manager, pianist and writer Kris Faatz. As a dual-discipline artist, Kris is interested in the ways in which verbal and musical storytelling can complement and dovetail with each other.
The music featured in today’s post is Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 49 No. 1, one of the two “Leichte” (light) sonatas. Beethoven was an early proponent of program music, music written to tell a specific story, as seen in our featured music from 11/15 (Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2) and as exemplified in Beethoven’s own Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”). Beethoven also employed the “program” technique in a few of his piano works, particularly the Sonata Op. 81a, “Das Lebewohl” (more commonly known by the French “Les Adieux”).
The Sonata Op. 49 No. 1 is not a program piece. Instead, in a different twist on the “storytelling and sound” theme, Kris has paired her rendering of the piece (in the video below) with a reading of a short story. This music-and-words combination provides a unique experience of both.
Please enjoy the video, and visit us again soon!
Featured music: Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1. (Andante; Rondo: Allegro)
Flying Slips of Paper: Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2
Text and video by Kris Faatz, Concert Artists of Baltimore’s Box Office Manager. Originally published on 4/13/2017 at krisfaatz.com.
Schumann belongs to the Romantic era in music history (about 1825 to 1900). He is a member of the generation of composers who followed Beethoven, the generation that had to decide what to do with all of the new musical ideas Beethoven explored. Schumann himself had a challenging life. He was a pianist, but lost the ability to perform after some of the exercises he used to strengthen his hands backfired and damaged his muscles. He struggled with depression for most of his life; his mental health deteriorated further as he got older.
Papillons is an early work for Schumann. It belongs to a time when it was easier for him to tap into energy and enthusiasm, and we can tell from the notes he left about this particular piece that he loved writing it. The title translates literally from the French as “butterflies,” but Schumann himself translated it as “flying slips of paper.” When he was working on the piece, he said later, the ideas came so fast he could barely keep up. Pieces of paper flew around his workroom as he scribbled ideas, tossed pages aside when they were full, snatched fresh paper, and scribbled some more.
The inspiration for Papillons came from a story Schumann had read that featured a costume ball. The work itself is a series of twelve very short pieces, mostly waltzes. Schumann wanted to put the pianist, and in turn, the listener, in the ballroom he imagined. We’re meant to admire the spectacle, the lights and costumes, the dancers whirling around the room, the excitement and laughter. Schumann is giving us a musical kaleidoscope.
Papillons is a perfect example of program music: music written to tell a specific story. Another, earlier, example is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven gives us a series of scenes including a brook in the countryside, a thunderstorm, and a country dance. A later, iconic example is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, a tour de force and rite of passage for many pianists. In Pictures, each movement is a musical “translation” of a specific painting or drawing. Program music was a relatively new idea in Beethoven’s time, but became very popular during the Romantic era.
As you listen to the recording, I’d invite you to close your eyes and imagine the ballroom scene. Schumann tells us a little about the characters he had in mind, particularly a pair of star-crossed lovers, but the music might suggest different characters to you. At the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a short theme: a scale of ascending notes. The same lilting, ascending scale comes back in the last movement. Also in the last movement, you’ll hear a single high repeated note, cutting through the rest of the musical texture. That’s the clock striking, telling us that the party is over. The final measures of the piece feature a chord where the pianist lets go of one note at a time, so that the sound fades away. After all the drama, we end with a charming, funny whisper.