Spraffer’s Music History Lesson #1

Hello everyone! Sorry about the lack of DP post today, however it was pretty uninspiring to be perfectly honest as I have danced before – even had lessons – but I don’t do it regularly.

Tomorrow I have two things on: a recital and a recital assessment. The recital assessment is something that happens once a year. You have to perform a programme of up to 15 minutes (I will play two pieces – 5 minutes and 12 minutes – and I know the maths doesn’t work) and talk a bit about your pieces. The marking scheme works as so:

  • You are marked out of 10 on your performance capabilities. This includes how you interact with the accompanist, how you present yourself and how you finish off the performance. The idea is that the assessment should be carried out as if it was a normal recital, even thought it is adjudicated by only two people – a senior tutor (who happens to be a legendary cellist – argh!) and a guest senior tutor (this year it is the Head of Strings in some university in England – a violist, so bring on the viola jokes!)(No seriously – what do you do if you run over a viola player? You make sure you got him.)
  • You are marked out of 25 on your technique. Important factors include making sure that you are not tense during playing, you are perfectly in tune, and you make a really good and appropriate sound.
  • You are marked out of 25 on your musicality. For the purposes of the assessment, this includes whether you approach the piece musically, your choice-making during a performance, your choices regarding what you do musically when preparing the pieces for the assessment, etc. It can also include your performance attitude, and how you appear during a performance (e.g. if you make a tuning error and screw up your face, then they may deduct marks). Because the tutors are naturally very musical, and obviously very musical, it can be terrifying to play to them. I know a few friends who are really worried about their assessments.
  • You are also marked out of 10 on your knowledge about the pieces and composers, as well as your general know-how on what possible things you could have done with the piece to prepare it. Questions may include things like “What did you find hard about learning these pieces and how did you approach these?”, or perhaps “How did the composers experiences influence your piece?”. This is new to the assessments this year, and to be honest has been terrifying everyone as no one really knew that this was going to be marked!

So, tomorrow I will be playing two pieces, one of which is not too hard and the other is quite tricky. These are Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata, 2nd Movement, and Bruch’s Kol Nidrei for Cello and Orchestra (although it is going to be played by my legendary piano teacher whom everyone loves because he is literally ridiculous at playing piano).

Here is the Kol Nidrei, played by legendary cellist, Jacqueline Du Pré:

And here is the Prokofiev Sonata, 2nd Movement, played by legendary cellist, Yo-Yo Ma:

As practice for my exam, I’m now going to write about my two pieces and their composers – briefly.

Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is for Cello and Orchestra, as I said, and was finished in Liverpool, England and published in 1881 for the first time in Berlin. It was premiered by Robert Hausmann, the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, for whom the piece was written. The piece is, ultimately, in binary form (there are two sections), with two different subjects. The first subject is based on the Kol Nidre prayer, a Jewish prayer recited in the evening service on Yom Kippur. The beginning of the piece, as you can hear, is supposed to imitate the hazzan who chants the liturgy at the synagogue. The prayer, I believe, is about asking God for mercy – when the cello solo comes in after the introduction, you can imagine a Jewish man praying, even begging, to God for forgiveness with “Lord, have mercy” which, not surprisingly, also fits in with the notes of the solo Cello part. The second subject of the piece is much like the sun rising in the morning, and is in the tonic major key (the same key, only major, as opposed to minor at the beginning). It is based on the middle section of Anglo-Australian composer, Isaac Nathan’s arrangement of “O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel‘s Stream” (written by Lord Byron). This again is a Hebrew inspired subject, and keeps to Bruch’s original idea.

Bruch himself was a German Romantic composer. He lived from 1836 to 1920, and is probably most famous for his first Violin Concerto. He began composing from an early age, when he wrote his mother a piece of music at age 9, and received an early musical education from Ferdinand Hiller, the pianist to whom Schumann dedicated his wonderful Piano Concerto in A minor. Bruch enjoyed a long career as a teacher and composer, taking up jobs all around Germany. He composed very much in the traditional German Romantic style, much like Brahms, as opposed to Liszt and Wagner who composed “New Music”. He worked with musical legends of the time, such as Joseph Joachim who premiered Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Robert Hausmann.

Contrasting to the Romantic German style of Bruch and his Kol Nidrei, Sergei Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata is a truly vibrant and modern piece of music. My favourite movement, despite playing the second tomorrow, is the first, however I haven’t put it up yet. So here it is:

The piece was premiered in 1950 by yet another legendary cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, and extraordinary (pianists of this standard are also legendary, however cello must take priority…) pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. It was composed for Rostropovich himself in 1949, after Prokofiev had been inspired to write the piece following hearing one of Rostropovich’s recitals the same year. Much of Prokofiev’s music as banned because of the composer being accused of formalism by the Russian Government. Many artists in Russia who lived at the same time (and a lot of whome knew each other), such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninoff, also suffered from the terrible conditions in Russia at the time, resulting in many of them (including Prokofiev) emigrating to places like America. I think this also had an effect on the Cello Sonata. The second movement has march-like qualities about it, however there is a really, as my cello teacher would say, “wishy-washy” (great adjective, don’t you think?), romantic tune in the middle which I think reflects upon Prokofiev’s relief from the fact that he could openly premier and publish, as he did in 1951, his music in Russia again. The piece usually takes about 25 minutes to perform from start to finish, and has three movements: (i)Andante grave, (ii)Moderato, and (iii)Allegro, ma non troppo.

Sergei Prokofiev was a Russia composer who is famous for his Peter and the Wolf (a personal favourite of mine!) and his five piano concertos. He was born in 1891 Sontsovka, now Krasne in Eastern Ukraine, which was under rule by the Russian Government. Inspired by his musically devoted mother playing Chopin and Beethoven on the piano, he composed pieces from an extraordinarily young age of 5. He studied in Moscow most of his life, and moved between Russia and America during his life time depending on how turbulent the situations were in Russia at the time (although he was tempted back by Stalin’s government, he was subjected to more accusations when he returned – his wife was sent to a gulag in Siberia).

I hope that this will give you some interesting stuff to learn and talk about, as well as letting me pass my assessment! Do listen to the pieces – they are all fantastic! Anyways, I hope everyone’s having a good evening!

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2 thoughts on “Spraffer’s Music History Lesson #1

    1. Thank you! It went, as I heard from a senior tutor, really well, so I am quite relieved! The Prokofiev is quite fiddley technically so I was really warmed up for the Bruch! However the recital in the afternoon didn’t go so smoothly….

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