Bill Evans (1929-1980) was an American composer and jazz pianist. He started piano lessons when he was six years old and also studied the flute and violin. He was drafted into the Army Band to play the flute. When his term of service was over he moved to New York City and became a student at Mannes School of Music. He played with Miles Davis’ ensemble for a while. People made fun of him because he was not African American like the rest of the musicians in the band. Miles Davis stuck up for him saying, “I don’t care if he’s purple, blue, green or polka dotted, Bill has the piano sound I want in my group”.
Eventually Bill Evans formed his own jazz trio (piano, bass, drum set). He was a very private person and preferred to play music for himself, rather than for an audience. Fortunately he recorded many music albums. His music was influenced by French impressionist composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Listen for the complex melodies and textures he creates with his compositions and his recreations of jazz standards like Duke Ellington’s “Reflections in D.” Does it remind you of “Claire de lune” our Listening Log piece from last month?
Famous pianist, Arthur Schnabel said, “No pianist plays “deeper” in the keys, extracting a richer, more complex piano sound than Bill Evans. Most jazz pianists tend to think “vertically” in terms of chords and are concerned with the rhythmical placement of these chords than with melody and voice leading. His sparse left-hand voicings support his lyrical right-hand lines, with a subtle use of the sustaining pedal. The long melodic line, which, says Bill Evans, is ‘the basic thing I want in my playing because music must be always singing’.”
Bill Evans wrote “Waltz for Debby” when his niece was born. He performs it with his jazz trio. After the first minute, you’ll notice that he changes to a new time signature. What time signature did he change to?
Tragically, Bill Evans made some bad choices and used heroine and cocaine. He died from many health problems in New York City.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French pianist and composer. When he was a preteen he started studying piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory. His family didn’t have a lot of money, but a very wealthy woman, Nedezhda Filaretovna von Meck, paid him to play duets with her and her children. When he was 20 years old he entered a composition contest. His cantata (vocal music composition) “The Prodigal Child” was so good he won a scholarship! Later in life he had a daughter he nicknamed “Chou-Chou”. He loved her very much and dedicated his Children’s Corner suite to her. Claude Debussy died of cancer when he was 55 years old.
Claude Debussy enjoyed experimenting with new harmonies and sounds. He listened to the music of Richard Wagner, Aleksandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. These composers influenced his style. His music was called impressionistic. He did not appreciate that label but it stuck. Impressionism in music is about expressing the way something makes you feel. This composition, “Clair de lune,” is not a piece about moonlight, but about creating the atmosphere and expressing the feeling you get from that light. Some tools impressionistic composers used are: whole tone scales, large unresolved chords, parallel 5ths, lots of half steps and pedalling, and composing in a way that there is no real sense of where tonic (home note) is. Some of his most important compositions are Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (symphonic poem), La Mer (symphonic sketch), Pelleas et Melisande (opera), and “Clair de lune” from Suite Bergamasque.
Daniel Barenboim performs “Clair de lune” in this recording. Not only is he a fantastic pianist but he is also a conductor. He led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 15 years and has won many awards and honors. I hope you enjoy his interpretation as much as I do.
As you listen to this recording you’ll notice that only one person has the melody throughout the piece. Who do you think that is? The other person is in a collaborative role and listens carefully to the soloist to follow their tempo and timing on fermata and ritardandos.
This melody was composed by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. The Brooklyn Duo perform this Christmas favorite in their living room and even recorded a Christmas album together. I hope you will continue to make music your whole lives no matter what career path you choose, making music with your family and friends!
This month we are practicing our feedback skills before our performance workshop in a couple weeks. If you are Level One or higher please challenge yourselves to write specific comments on your feedback sheet. Find things you like about Breanna’s performance and things she can work on. We do this ALL THE TIME in lessons. You’re getting quite good at it! Some examples of comments you might write are:
- Sometimes your beat was steady
- Look at the audience and smile before and after bowing
- Great contrasts in dynamics
- Remember to do a cat back at the end
Smiley faces are fine for students in MFPA or Primer levels. 🙂
Contemporary American pianist, Jennifer Eklund, wrote this melancholy (sad) composition. You probably noticed her excellent musical balance, singing out the melody over the other notes and chords. This piece is for Level 2B students and up.
Let’s think about the musical form of her composition. She starts out the A section with an introspective melody with fluttering broken chords (0:05-0:44). Then, in the B section she introduces a new melody with more emotional energy which builds and builds until it comes falling down again (0:45-1:15). Did you notice her crossover gestures? What happens after that (1:16-2:25)?
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg, Germany and lived during the Romantic period. His family was poor but as a teenager he played the piano at local inns to help earn extra money. He studied the music of J. S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and played music with his friend Eduard Reményi, a violinist from Hungary. Eduard exposed him to folk music from his country which inspired many of Brahms’ later compositions. He became friends with important musicians and composers Robert and Clara Schumann and lived with them for awhile. Robert Schumann wrote an article praising Brahms’ compositions and he became well known. There were two groups at that time, those that wanted the rich and robust traditions of the Classical period to continue and those that wanted to experiment more. Brahms loved the music of the masters he had studied so he was in the Classical Period group. Others like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner were in the experimentation group.
Some of Brahms most important compositions for piano include his Piano Concerto No. 1, Klavierstücke and Hungarian Dances. He also composed a famous violin concerto and four symphonies.
Piano superstar Lang Lang and his wife, Gina Alice, play this duet with so much artistry and demonstrate their incredible ensemble skills (making music with other people). Musicians with good ensemble skills listen to themselves and others at the same time. They know to play louder when they have the melody and softer when their partner does. They communicate through their breath, movements and eye contact. At the same time they are aware of the physical cues their partners give. Musicians with ensemble skills play with a steady beat and accurate rhythm.
You will notice that Lang Lang and Gina change the speed of the music, the tempo, several times. Gina is really paying attention to all the tempo changes Lang Lang makes as he plays the primo part. Gina is watching him and following his lead so they stay together. She doesn’t have the flashiest part but her job is challenging and shows what a superstar she is too.