A huge influence on my compositional approach is dance and movement. I spent fifteen years in the dance studio from age 3 learning various styles from ballet, jazz, and contemporary to tap and hip hop. I even tried tumbling and twirled the baton to the tunes of a marching band in a few parades. These early experiences have naturally fed into the way I approach and think about music. My work often deals with connecting with physical movement in some way, currently exploring the use of gestures inspired by Laban’s Eight Efforts: float, flick, glide, dab, wring, slash, press, punch, as well as groove perception through the use of long-range polyrhythms. A more specific introduction to my current compositional obsessions can best be found in a larger scale project, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Based on the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman of the same name, The Yellow Wallpaper focuses on the theme of social isolation and its effects on mental health. For this project I am collaborating with Cardiff University postgraduate researcher in creative writing, Christina Thatcher, to adapt the original text. Written at the end of the 19th century, the story reflects on women’s mental and physical health through the eyes of the main character who is taken by her husband on a ‘rest cure’ in the country. The story is now considered by many to be an early, significant work in feminist literature and is taught widely in schools and colleges across America.
Gestures throughout the piece are characterized by Laban’s Eight Efforts in which four continuums: weight, space, time, and flow, are used to conceptualize movement. Such gestures in The Yellow Wallpaper are used to embody the character’s emotions as her mental state gradually deteriorates. Press, which is defined as being strong, direct, sustained, and bound, is the first effort chosen for scene one. This opening effort represents the woman’s initial state as she begins her prescribed rest cure. The directional quality of the semiquaver triplet embellishments leading into slow sustained pitches represents the self-reflection of the character as she struggles with her new surroundings. The resulting texture created by these overlapping gestures was explored intensely as part of Dartington International Summer School‘s Advanced Composition Course in the summer of 2016. Sketches generated during the course were also worked into a stand-alone piece retrospectively entitled Embers.
Another aspect I am exploring through the composition of The Yellow Wallpaper is the use of long-range polyrhythms for narrative purposes. Polyrhythms are conflicting rhythms heard simultaneously that cannot be readily perceived as deriving from one another. They are used in The Yellow Wallpaper to delineate the formal structure corresponding to important moments in the narrative. As the piece progresses conflicting pulse streams interlock into groves to symbolize the character’s transition in and out of lucidness. These changes coordinate with the physical movement of opening and closing a window to symbolize her connection, or lack thereof, to the world outside her room. Throughout the entire work moments of convergence between polyrhythms are expanded into sections of material rooted in dance rhythms to contrast her sense of belonging and purpose against delusion brought on by isolation.
As part of my PhD studies at Cardiff University, I have used my workshop opportunities with visiting ensembles to explore these ideas in a chamber music setting. My piece Up and Down and Sideways is a reduction of material from the second scene of the opera, which was workshopped by The Riot Ensemble. This piece incorporates a tango rhythm into a long-range polyrhythm as the unnamed protagonist unsuccessfully pleads with her husband, John, to repaper her room. The libretto excerpt included is from the moment after John leaves, and it is revealed that she sees a figure trapped behind the paper for the first time. The augmented tango rhythm can be heard most clearly in the viola and bass clarinet parts, obsessively repeating at different rates, which only align in the middle and very end of the piece. This creates an off-kilter background to the vocal part, symbolizing the moving wallpaper.
Text adapted by Christina Thatcher after the short story, “The Yellow
Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There is a recurring spot where the pattern lolls
like a broken neck, revealing two bulbous eyes
which stare – up and down and sideways –
Those eyes which crawl,
those absurd, unblinking eyes.
I must not think about the paper.
those bulbous eyes
which stare – up and down and sideways –
In places where it isn’t faded
and when the sun is just so –
I can see a formless sort of figure,
that sulks behind the design,
moving back and forth,
back and forth, – up and down and sideways –
Copyright © Christina Thatcher, 2016
Used with permission.
Another piece of mine that works with long-range polyrhythms, albeit in a less straightforward way, is Slowly Tilting, Sinking which was written specifically for the Illuminate Concert Series 2018. A skyscraper that is sinking into the ground, tilting toward its neighboring building due to its deficient foundation system served as the inspiration for this piano solo. However, the piece is not meant to be a musical depiction of a leaning building. Instead, the idea of a fractured foundation influenced the construction of the piece. Beginning with a faultless long-range polyrhythmic structure, select bars are expanded, contracted, or clipped to set things slightly askew. Slowly Tilting, Sinking will be performed on Friday April 20th 2018 by Késia Decoté during our Illuminate Brighton concert. This concert is also part of the Music and Wine series at St. Luke’s Church, Queens Park Road, Brighton. I hope to see you there!
Remembered for her progressive style, fearless musicianship, and commendable performance techniques, Grażyna Bacewicz is still one of the most successful female composers that Poland has produced. Her body of work is so exciting, and this blog focuses on her life, legacy, and work for solo violin: Polish Caprice.
Born in Łódź, Poland in 1909, Grażyna Bacewicz was introduced to music by her father and brother, who were both musicians and composers. Wanting to continue her musical education, Bacewicz enrolled at the Helena Kijenska-Dobikiewiczowa’s Musical Conservatory in 1919. Whilst there, she received training on the piano, violin, and music theory. When the Bacewicz family moved to Warsaw in 1923, a year later Bacewicz secured a place at the prestigious Warsaw Conservatory, where she studied composition with Kazimierz Sikorski, piano with Józef Turczyński, and violin with Józef Jarzębski. Although starting with three disciplines, Bacewicz graduated with diplomas in violin and composition, and had dropped piano halfway through her course. After graduating in 1932, Bacewicz secured a grant in the same year to study composition at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris (1932-1933). Whilst there, Bacewicz studied under the great Nadia Boulanger, as well as receiving private violin lessons with Henri Touret. Bacewicz then returned to Paris a year later in 1934, to study under Hungarian violinist, Carl Flesch.
As well as being a well-acclaimed composer, Bacewicz was also a virtuoso on the violin. 1935 saw her first solo success on the violin, where she won the Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Warsaw. Between 1936 and 1938, Bacewicz also played first violin with the Warsaw Polish Radio Orchestra. Throughout her life, Bacewicz remained very involved with violin performance, whether that be ensemble playing, solo recitals, or giving private violin lessons at European Conservatories. Throughout her performance career, Bacewicz travelled across Europe, and played recitals in Belgium, France, Hungary, and the USSR.
Bacewicz gave a large proportion of her life to teaching new generations music, more specifically violin, music theory, and composition. 1945 saw her appointed as a lecturer of music theory, and as a violin teacher at the National Conservatory (now known as the Academy of Music), in Poland. From 1966 to her death in 1969, she worked at the National Higher School of Music in Warsaw, where she led the composition course, and was soon made a professor in 1967. Bacewicz was also a definitive figure on jury panels for violin and composition competitions, as well as serving as vice-chair of the Polish Composers’ Union from 1955-1957, and then again between 1960-1969.
Bacewicz is chiefly remembered, however, for her body of compositions, which are still popular today. Her composition archives was recognized and honoured many times, which included her winning many composition competitions. Her Quintet for Wind Instruments (1932) won 1st Prize at the 1933 Aide aux femmes de professions libres competition in Paris. Her Piano Concerto (1949) won 2nd prize (with no first prize being awarded) at the the Polish Composers’ Union Fryderyk Chopin Composition Competition in 1951. These are mere examples, as Bacewicz won a large amount of awards for works, which also includes the Belgian Government Award and Gold Medal for her Violin Concerto No. 7 (1965).
Hailing from a country where women musicians are heavily underrepresented, it seems that Bacewicz made her mark successfully, as her legacy lives on today. Her compositions range through many genres, although as a violinist herself, Bacewicz composed more music for strings and solo violin, including her Polish Caprice, which was composed in 1949.
Caprice, or Capriccio (Polish: Kaprysy), is usually defined as a single movement piece, that has a free structure, which may contain one, or many different sections within. This made this kind of composition liberal in its style, and Bacewicz utilised this form on many different occasions. Bacewicz composed three solo violin Caprices in 1949, 1952, and 1968. Folk melodies were incredibly popular with European composers during Bacewicz’s lifetime, so it is to no surprise that Polish Caprice is laden with Polish folk melodies.
Polish Caprice is only a short work, lasting around two minutes, but it is full of dynamic twists and turns, which is perhaps why is is still a popular recital piece in the modern day. Bacewicz experiments with tonality, using major-minor tonality throughout, which resonates with Polish folk music, which often uses major-minor modes throughout.
Beginning with a slow E minor recitative-like introduction, this melodic line leads into a brighter E major dance section, marked ‘Allegro’. You could say this work is in ternary form, as you have clearly defined sections that line up with ABA’ format. Five different keys are heard throughout this work, which adds to the dramaturgy of the piece. The acceleration at the end of Polish Caprice is dramatic, exciting and sounds very virtuosic. The structure of this work has been likened to that of the Kujawiak folk dance, which originates from Poland. The Kujawiak folk dance starts slow, has a faster middle section, and then accelerates at the end, thus one could certainly suggest that Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice has taken some sort of inspiration from this type of folk dance.
After her death in 1969, Grażyna Bacewicz is still celebrated as a composer, performer and educator in the modern day, with many of her works being performed in concert halls, examinations, and in recital programmes. Her progressive style of writing is one of the most exciting traits of her music, and Polish Caprice is no exception to this. A ground-breaking Polish composer, who has made herself an unbreakable legacy.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns has recently graduated from The University of Sheffield, after studying for a Bmus in Music, and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 Classical Music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Come along to one of the Illuminate concerts to hear Polish Caprice performed by our fantastic violinist Sabina Virtosu!
Hélène de Montgeroult (b. Lyon, 1764; d. Florence, 1836) was a composer, pianist and teacher, a contemporary of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven whose life spanned the French Revolution. She experienced life under arrest and her first husband was killed as a consequence of their aristocratic status but it is the denial of this status that allowed her to publish her compositions and pursue a teaching career. Alongside political and social upheavals, Montgeroult experienced the transition of keyboard manufacture from harpsichord to fortepiano. She commissioned an early fortepiano from Erard that, through the application of multiple pedals, allowed for the exploration and expression of a range of timbres. She was the first Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire when it opened in 1795. The faint biographical trace she has left through history tells us that she was a student of Jan Ladislav Dussek, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Clementi and Reicha; that she had pieces dedicated to her by Julie Candeille, Johann Baptist Cramer, Dussek, Louis Emmanuel Jadi and Phillip Libon. She was an admired duo partner of the virtuoso violinist Viotti with whom she collaborated as an accompanist, improviser and arranger (Gautier). By these few accounts we can establish that she was a remarkable person.
Her published compositions suggest a keen musical intelligence that could assimilate a wide range of styles but which was also uniquely creative and capable of ‘avant garde’ explorations. Jérôme Dorival, who has done much to bring her music back into circulation, describes her as ‘the pre-cursor of Romanticism’. Her output includes canons and fugues in the Baroque style; she reportedly introduced Bach to the Conservatoire syllabus and is known to have visited Leipzig. And she professed a strong admiration for the work of Handel completing an extensive set of variations on themes by Handel. She wrote at least nine Sonatas, a set of 6 Nocturnes for voice and piano, and devised a rich and varied, three volume teaching method: Cours complet pour l’enseignement du Forté Paino conduisant progressivement des premiere éléments aus plus grandes difficultés. This magnum opus contains 972 exercises and 114 Studies. Many of the Studies are beautifully balanced, intensely expressive works which bear the characteristics of what we now recognize as the hallmarks of Romanticism. Montgeroult’s oeuvre is a portfolio of musical negotiations between Classical and Romantic aesthetic preferences. Three of the Studies from the third volume of the Cours complet are analysed briefly below to illustrate the historical fluidity and personal characteristics of Montgeroult’s compositional approach.
Etude no. 106 ‘Aria’
Performance by Marcia Hadjimarkos below:
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 165-9
This Study or Aria in B major triple time shows Montgeroult’s command of the bel canto style but with the melody and outline harmonic bass perpetually accompanied by a semi-quaver ‘walking’ line. The Study is in tertiary or a written out Da Capo form with the central section in E minor. The less than obvious modulation to the sub-dominant minor can be explained in Neo-Reimannian terms as a nebenverwandt relationship (successive RLP transformations), a modulatory gambit that is commonly found in Schubert, Chopin, Brahms and Liszt. So despite the archaic texture the tonality is distinctly adventurous, even Romantic.
The melody is reminiscent of Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Xerxes with two extended, descending phrases cadencing with dotted rhythms. As with Handel, Montgeroult creates an opening three bar phrase but her extension is through prolongation of the tonic in bars 2-3 rather than Handel’s anticipatory bar. Montgeroult’s consequent phrase is five bars long. This passes briefly through a cycle of 5ths in bar 5-6 with a hint of a hemiola that again foreshadows Brahms and his penchant for similar, syncopated harmonic sequences.
Another notable feature of this Study is the means by which Montgeroult brings it to a close. If we invest imagination in the printed sub-title ‘Aria’ then the ‘vocal’ part ends on a low A#3-B3 authentic cadence but the semi-quaver ‘walking’ part proceeds to make a connective ascent into a six bar codetta. This wistful codetta elaborates a tonic pedal, not unlike Schubert’s near contemporaneous setting of Wiegenlied D.498, and Montgeroult introduces a fourth line to the texture, a ‘tenor’ part which dramatically ascends a diatonic octave B major scale in quavers only to descend chromatically, echoed by the melodic ‘soprano’ line. The two ‘vocal’ lines then settle, in the final three bars, to a series of neighbour note decorations of the tonic triad in parallel sixths. This short postlude reinforces the Study’s titular designation of ‘Aria’, suggesting the sort of multiple, poetic personae that were to be developed in the new genre of lieder of the period.
Commercial recordings by Robilliard (Hortus) and Stern (Orchid) – see Resources
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 170-173
In a review of Edna Stern’s recording of Montgeroult’s Etude 107 the Orchid label, Emma Jeal writes, ‘Chopin’s C minor Etude sounds less Revolutionary after you’ve heard de Montgeroult’s swirling Etude No 107, which anticipates it by 20-odd years.’ Indeed, the resemblance is audible in that both open with a similar, four note dotted rhythmic figure in the right hand accompanied by rapid semi-quaver figurations for the left hand.
Example 1: de Montgeroult Etude No. 107, bb. 1-5
Example 2: Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 12 in C minor b.1-4
They are both in minor – but not the same – keys (de Mongeroult in D minor, Chopin in C minor), they are both in common time, and both exhibit a tertiary structure. But de Montgeroult’s Study is formally much less expansive that Chopin’s, her modulation is to the relative major whereas Chopin moves to the parallel major, then the dominant of the relative major but mainly to sub-mediant. Interestingly de Montgeroult employs frequent ‘feminine cadences’, often underpinned by vii˚ - I harmonies which give her Study a distinctive, plaintive character. But perhaps it is the revolutionary ‘back stories’ to both pieces that connect these works in the mind more than comparable, revolutionary musical tendencies.
Performance by François-Frédéric Guy below:
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 189-193
Etude no. 111 is perhaps the best known of de Montgeroult’s works having been used in the soundtrack to the 2012 film A Royal Affair, a Danish historical drama directed by Nikolaj Arcel. De Montgeroult observes that the pedagogic intention of the Study is the combination of expression and speed. This combination seems to have inspired her to produce a work that has immense energy. The duple compound time Etude is built from a simple, four-bar melody that contains two urgently repeated motifs, the second of which has micro-decrescendos, accompanied by a pounding, off-beat accompaniment. Together these features create a sense of breathless intensity, even panic.
Example 3: de Montgeroult Etude no. 111, bb. 1-4
This intensity is ratcheted up through a series of daring modulations. At bar 25 the theme returns in Eb major which, in neo-Reimannian terms, is a Leading Note transformation but two tortuous chromatic sequences in bars 37-44 bring the theme back in the remote key of F minor. Another sequence in bars 63-66 bring the theme round to what appears to be a restatement in the relative major of Ab major but the ‘a’ motif is treated to a rising sequence that leads to the climax of the piece built around a long dominant pedal that expends itself with a surprisingly gentle resolution back into G minor. The energy is not fully spent however and it is only with continued emphasis on the secondary dominant that the piece finally concludes with a widely registered tonic triad rooted on G1. The way that de Montgeroult handles the sequential development of small motives together with suprising chromaticisms and emphasis on secondary dominants, teleological drivers that were common in Bach, is very similar in effect to Robert Schumann’s piano works.
It is unlikely that de Montgeroult ever performed outside of the salon culture of Paris but her prowess as a pianist, teacher and composer are beginning to receive recognition. Montgeroult’s portfolio demonstrates how she was able to draw on a broad knowledge of historical and contemporary musical practices but also experiment creatively with characteristics that are perhaps erroneously recognised as the compositional ‘fingerprints’ of later (male) composers. Performance and study resources more also becoming more widely available and some of these are listed below.
© Dr Helen Thomas
Conservatoire de Paris, 250E Anniversaire Hélène de Montgeroult
Dorival, Jérôme, La Marquise et la Marseillaise (préface par Geneviève Fraisse), Symétrie, Lyon 2006.
Johnson, Calvert, ‘Hélène de Montgeroult: Composer and Piano Pedagogue at the Paris Conservatoire’, Women of Note Quarterly, 1993, pp. 18-30.
Sadie, Julie Anne. "Montgeroult, Hélène-Antoinette-Marie de Nervo de." Grove Music Online.
Van Epenhuysen, Rose, Hélène de Montgeroult and the Art of Singing Well on the Piano, Women & Music, vol. 5, 2001, pp. 99-124.
Hélène de Montgeroult, pianiste, compositrice et pédagogue
Hélène de Montgeroult, artiste visonnaire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFQI40wKO0Y
Scores available on IMSLP Petrucci Music Library
Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte piano
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 1
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 2
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 3
Pièce Op. 3
3 Sonatas Op. 1
3 Sonatas Op. 2
Bruno Robilliard, Montgeroult: La Marquise et la Marseillaise, CD Hortus, piano modern, 2006
Nicola Stavy, Montgeroult: La jeunesse du piano romantique, CD Hortus, piano modern, 2009
Edna Stern, Hélène de Montgeroult Orchid Classics, 2017
Forthcoming performance at time of blog publication
11 April 2018, University of Liverpool
Selected Etudes by Hélène de Montgeroult performed by Ian Buckle
Dr Helen Thomas