Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilich: Marche Slave, Op.31

In my last post, I mentioned that during the second semester of my freshman year at college in 1974, I took a piano class. This, I thought, would be my big chance. Since I loved classical music so much, I reasoned, I’d have no trouble mastering this instrument and play the pieces I loved so dearly. Pieces like Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies or Rachmaninoff’sPrelude in C Sharp Minor.

This is one of the benefits of youth: you really think you can do anything. Unfortunately, for some reason, I turned out to be quite inept. I did learn all the major scales in both hand, but I couldn’t quite memorize the notes. It was as if I was back in 6th grade band class with my clarinet all over again trying to figure out something that didn’t make any sense to me. It would be easy to blame it on the teacher, trying to learn in a group, or the basic instruction book we used, which contained pretty uninspired pieces.

Deep down, I suspect it was just because I set such unrealistic expectations for myself and the class. I remember, shortly after starting the class, sitting down with my copy of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, and just staring at the music. I could not figure out how to translate what we had gone over in class to what was on the page. It was even more frustrating trying the Satie, since that piece is slow and sounds so simple. What I didn’t understand is that it might take years training one’s mind to keep track of every finger and two feet.

Think about what happens when a person plays the piano. In any one time slice, you could have every finger on a different key. A fraction of a second, those ten digits have to rearrange themselves to form the next chord. At the same time, your mind has vary the time each one hits, the downward pressure and the upward release. Try tapping out one rhythm with one hand. Then add a different rhythm in the second. Multiply that by 5 and you get an idea of how complex. It’s almost like you have to have ten separate consciousnesses. You must train yourself to do that (through hours and hours of practice) so that it becomes automatic, so that you don’t have to think about it for thinking about it would trip you up.  Since I wasn’t polydextrous, I gave it up after that semester.

As I said, I could blame the book, but it did contain one classical piece, which was fun to play. That was an excerpt from today’s piece, Tchaikowski’s Marche Slave. As the name suggests, it is a wonderfully Slavic sounding piece. You could imagine yourself on a boat going down the Neva River watching a troop of Cossacks ride by. It shares that wonderfully ponderous and lumbering feeling with other Russian music.

It wasn’t until some twenty years later, however, that I actually heard the full orchestral version. It is a kind of pastiche of various melodies. The first part is based on that single Russian theme, which in a not very creative way, Tchaikowsky repeats and varies about 14 times. A second section reminds you a bit of parts out of the 1812 Overture and fortunately he switches to a different tune–this time based on the Russian national anthem. The feeling of that section is at times more pensive and begins to hint at some of the beauty of his later works. Unfortunately, he slips back to the opening melody once or twice. In the final session, he does pick up the tempo a bit, repeating the national anthem and then launching into a brisk march, sounding, at times, a bit like a patriotic parade.

Nowadays, I tend to eschew such propagandistic pieces. Still, Tchaikowsky was fairly young when he wrote this and so was I when I learned to play it in Eijnar Krantz’ piano class nearly 40  years ago.

Buy CD or download MP3s from Amazon

Puccini, Giacomo: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot

During my second semester of college at Indiana University at South Bend, I enrolled in a piano class. We met in the basement of the main complex and the room contained about 10 electric pianos. These were wired into the teacher’s console and we wore headphones so we could hear ourselves practice. From time to time, the teacher would flip a switch, listen to how we were doing, and give a few suggestions.

Our teacher was a rather flamboyant old Swedish gentleman named Eijnar Krantz. He probably was the only professor I think who ever taught me who wore a suit every day, and definitely the only one who had a silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket. Professor Krantz had huge bushy salt and pepper eyebrows that matched the hair that he wore slicked back. Thin and moutstachioed, he looked a bit like someone out of a Fred Astaire film–kind of dapper, actually.

Next to me in class sat a guy about my age, who one day started a conversation with me. What struck me about him was his high, dramatic voice. In fact, he turned out to be a tenor who was studying voice. He had to take a piano proficiency class in fulfillment of his music degree. His name was Mike Snyder and we eventually became friends.

Of course, Mike loved opera and was very enthusiastic when I told him how much I liked classical music. “Well,” he said to me. “You must come to my house and hear Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma.” Before then the only tenors I knew by name were Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso. “Who’s Bjorling?” I asked. “Why,” Mike responded, “he was only the greatest tenor of all time.”

I was quite happy to go along to Mike’s house. After all, until then, I’d never met anyone who shared my passion for music.

Mike lived in a middle class section of South Bend in a small bungalow with his parents. The day I paid him a visit, I found him in front of his house pitching a baseball to his little brother. That struck me a bit odd. Because most of the athletes in my high school were pretty much anti-intellectual, I thought that having a love of music precluded an interest in spectator sports. Of course, my swimming hundreds of laps in practice was probably as boring to him as his playing baseball was to me, so maybe Mike, like me, had used listening to music as a way of passing the time.

Mike had a prodigious collection of opera recordings and highlights. He had several recordings of Jussi Bjorling singing Nessun Dorma and he discussed the merits of each one and even played me other recordings of it by other singers.

This was in 1974, mind you, and Placido Domingo was just getting a reputation, and Pavarotti was almost unknown. Jan Pierce and Robert Merrill were still alive and dominated the American opera scene. So I had never heard “Nessun Dorma” before, and it sent shivers down my spine. Nowadays, because of the three tenors, it’s become pretty hackneyed, but Bjorling’s recording is still unique enough that I almost consider it a different piece of music altogether.

Mike was particularly cruel to Placido Domingo. He had a recording of some work that a very young Domingo sang with a very old Callas in which Domingo’s voice breaks. “Listen to that!” Mike shouted when he played it for me. “It sounds like he’s singing inside of a can or something. Or like his head is in a bag filled with cotton.” I guess Domingo’s voice has matured enough by now. He’s sought-after and is even featured in his own Rolex Oyster magazine advertisement.

I enjoyed hanging around with Mike. He introduced me to a lot of good vocal music and a number number of artistic acquaintances whom he had met through his music studies. It was hard to believe there was such a cultural elite in South Bend. Of course, some of them weren’t so elite. My dates are starting to blur a bit. Mike eventually moved in with another musician, named Jerry, and later they had a falling out. Mike said Jerry had started hanging out with some pretty rough “low-lifes.” About a year later, Mike told me that Jerry had been found stabbed in his apartment.

What I liked most about Mike was his complete lack of self-doubt. He knew he one day he would become a successful and famous tenor. He got odd jobs singing as a cantor and was not afraid at all of performing. In a way, he taught me that you can have a lot of talent, but you also need attitude.

Do I need to say anything about “Nessun Dorma?” It comes from the opera, “Turandot,” which is about a contest to guess three riddles proposed by a Chinese princess. Should a suitor try and fail, he would be executed. A prince named Calaf appears and answers the questions. Turandot does not want to marry Calaf, so he says that if she can guess his name by dawn, he will release her. The emperor announces that no one must sleep (nessun dorma) until the prince’s name is discovered. Calaf sings this aria in which he says that he will only reveal his identity when he is ready and will make Turandot love him. The last line, which is the piercing high note of the tenor’s aria is “Vincero” (I will win!).

To me what is so beautiful about this aria is the oriental feel to it. Puccini uses that to create a series of climaxes that never quite seem to resolve. The aria climbs and climbs and only finally resolves on the final line.

Unfortunately, I have lost track of Mike over the years. Were I to meet him now, I’d start by thanking him for introducing me to this piece. It would also be nice to know whether he “won” his dream as well.

Puccini Biography

Buy or Download The Very Best of Jussi Björling on Amazon

%d bloggers like this: