Musical Snacks

FREE web series in collaboration with the Oxford Community Arts Center

Musical Snacks: Mozart to Joplin with Bruce Murray

Wherever you are, take a break, a deep breath and enjoy a few minutes of exquisite piano music selected and performed by Oxford's own Bruce Murray and recorded in the beautiful ballroom of Oxford Community Arts Center.

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Musical Snack #11: Impromptu in A flat, Op. 142, No. 2 by Franz Schubert 

Bruce Murray's Notes

Schubert's eight impromptus were the original musical snacks, the ur-snacks, so to speak, short but substantial piano pieces in varying forms. He published them in two sets of four. The first set, Op. 90, contains the best-known items, but the present Impromptu in A flat from the second set is popular as well. Interesting to note that "impromptu" was not Schubert's name but came from the publisher. In his chronological catalog of Schubert's works Otto Erich Deutsch assigned the number 935 to this set and gave its year of composition as 1827, the year before the composer died. Musicians and writers often have described presentiments of death in some of Schubert's later works (or maybe he was just having a bad day). There is none of that in this lovely, perfect lyric piece, with outer sections that sing and a middle section that flows as a cool, clear mountain stream.


Musical Snack #10: Nocturne in B flat by Maria Szymanowska 

Bruce Murray's Notes

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) was a Polish composer and pianist who probably studied with Chopin's teacher Elsner and who definitely worked with John Field, the Irish composer/pianist associated with the nocturne. Szymanowska was also mother-in-law of Adam Mickiewicz, the national poet of Poland, and likely the mistress of Goethe.

There is divided opinion about how much her music influenced Chopin, but you can't miss the connection (and Chopin was born twenty-one years later). The Nocturne in B flat is undated, but in some respects it recalls Field's most familiar piece, his own nocturne in the same key. Nonetheless, there is some unkempt energy here of a sort absent in Field and Chopin. The coda (the last bit, starting around 3:15 in this video) is to die for. Szymanowska was significant for various reasons and we are fortunate that her music is being reprinted and recorded.


Musical Snack #9: Lament (from Silhouettes) by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Bruce Murray's Notes

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a British composer of African descent. He studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford, that bastion of musical respectability, and later counted Sir Edward Elgar as a supporter.  Coleridge-Taylor wrote three cantatas after Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha," and these made the composer famous. The Hiawatha pieces became standard fare in Britain and remained popular until the middle of the twentieth century.  However, his music faded from view, probably because of the conservative "Royal College" manner that prevails in many pieces.  But "Royal College" also may suggest "expertly done," and his music reveals a high degree of finish.  Perhaps more interesting, given the dates, is that Coleridge-Taylor embraced his African heritage and sought out important Black artists of the day; for example, he gave recitals with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The brief "Lament" reveals the basic chromatic language of late nineteenth-century European music, but there is more: modal elements, melodic elaboration reminiscent of speech, and, perhaps even birdsong. Coleridge-Taylor created a large catalogue during his brief life, and it's time for a revival.

Musical Snack #8: Partita No. 1 in B flat by J.S. Bach

Bruce Murray's Notes

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) assembled many works into groups of six: six "Brandenburg Concertos", six cello suites, six "French Suites", six "English Suites", etc. especially suites, and no one knows why, although for music publishers of the time printing a group of six pieces was fairly common. There might have been theological reasons as well. The six partitas for keyboard are suites, too, and as per a certain fashion in Bach's day they comprises mostly stylized dances. Four dance types (allemande, courante/corrente, sarabande, gigue) appear in the nearly all of Bach's suites. Other dances are mixed in. The hook in the partitas is that each begins with a different free piece, a non-dancet In the B flat partita the free piece is a praeludium (which seems like a fancy word for "prelude"). The B flat is the most genial of the partitas, and it concludes with a very fast, very hard gigue that demonstrates why Bach was regarded as the greatest keyboard player of his time.


Musical Snack #7: Nocturne by Ottorino Respighi 

Bruce Murray's Notes

Respighi (1879-1936) is known best for orchestral works, especially his "Roman Trilogy" of tone poems: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals. Some other music, mostly chamber and shorter orchestral pieces, turn up on concert programs from time to time. Respighi is regarded for his expert, sometimes thrilling orchestrations (the end of Pines of Rome is colossal) and for a fine dramatic sense. His music seems resolutely conservative today, and it is hard to believe that a work as Romantic and easy-listening as Roman Festivals is still protected by U.S. copyright. He published a set of six piano pieces in 1904 from which the current Nocturne appears. To me it mixed early Debussy and Puccini, of all things. I'm surprised it's not played more frequently.


Musical Snack #6: Sonata in A minor, K. 310 by W.A. Mozart

Bruce Murray's Notes

Mozart wrote many more pieces in major keys than in minor keys, and the A minor Sonata is one of only two of the 18 or so solo sonatas in minor. Amid the expected entrancement the work reveals surprisingly high levels of storm and stress. Mozart's mother died shortly before its composition, and it has long been asserted that Mozart reflected, or deflected, some of his anguish into the piece. Regardless, this is one of two great piano pieces Mozart wrote in the key of A minor. The other is the A minor Rondo, which may appear as a future Musical Snack.


Musical Snack #5: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4 by Frédéric Chopin

Bruce Murray's Notes

Frédéric Chopin (1819-1849) wrote nearly 60 pieces titled "mazurka," which was his very personal take on a Polish national dance. The mazurkas sit among the composer's most experimental music; there is all manner of play with modes, rhythm, harmony, and dissonance. Some pieces might have been improvised, essentially; others are as intricate as anything in Chopin's oeuvre. Ergo, it is impossible to describe a "typical" mazurka in Chopin. There are four mazurkas in Op. 17, but the A minor is played more frequently than the others. It reveals amazing harmonic ambiguity, so amazing that the eminent music theorist Allen Forte told me he considered it the first intimation of "modern" music. That aside, pianists consider it a special piece, perhaps because they have nothing to play that is more beautiful.


Musical Snack #4: Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major, WTC I by J.S. Bach

Bruce Murray's Notes

J.S. Bach's "Das Wohltemperierte Clavier" ("The Well-Tempered Clavier" or WTC) was a bit of a stunt, an in-your-face gesture to other musicians. He liked it so much that he did it twice. In each of two "books" of the WTC Bach wrote a prelude and a fugue in every major and minor key: 12 major keys plus 12 minor keys making 24 keys and 48 pieces in each book, or 96 pieces total. In Bach's time all keys were not created equal. (Don't ask; read up on "temperament" for details.) Bach set out to prove that one could write successfully in any key, even in distant, exotic keys like F sharp major that other composers avoided. The result was so successful that some hold up the WTC as Bach's greatest work. The Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major from Book I is one of the smallest but prettiest entries. (By the way, pianists, I execute the trill in the Fugue in the manner prescribed by Busoni, because it allows you to play the trill in more occurrences of the subject than is possible otherwise.)


Musical Snack #3: Nocture in G minor by Fanny Mendelssohn

Bruce Murray's Notes

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was long known as the gifted sister of Felix Mendelssohn, but her accomplishment as a composer was neglected until very recently. In a technical sense she was an "amateur" musician since she had no public career, but she received the same exquisite musical training as her brother, and she left behind ~460 compositions. Yes, she shared some stylistic traits with Felix, but her voice was utterly distinctive. The remarkable "Easter" Sonata, shamefully misattributed to her brother, is a bigger, braver work than anything Felix wrote for piano and needs to be absorbed into the canon. Doubtless there are other things sitting around, all but unknown (like the present Nocturne in G minor), that should slide into the canon as well. The canon requires some serious revision.


Musical Snack #2: "Solace" by Scott Joplin

Bruce Murray's Notes

"Solace" is one of my favorite piano works of the twentieth century. The composer added a subtitle, "A Mexican Serenade," likely because of the characteristic dotted rhythm that occurs in almost every bar. Joplin instructed that the piece should be played "very slowly," and I have taken him at his word, obviously. If a ragtime piece can be sublime, this is it; it is perfection.


Musical Snack #1: Sonata in E, K. 162 by Domenico Scarlatti

Bruce Murray's Notes

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1759) started writing sonatas at age 53 and produced nearly 600 of them over twenty years. This piece is relatively well known because Vladimir Horowitz made a remarkable recording. It is a bit unusual for Scarlatti in that it alternates slow and fast sections; most sonatas have the same tempo and same basic material throughout.