Music and Ceramics – a collaboration

PhD composer John Cooney on an exciting collaboration with National Museum Wales…

Amgueddfa_Genedlaethol_Caerdydd“When the chance came to be involved in a collaboration with National Museum Wales, and to write a new piece for an event in the Museum’s Fragile? exhibition, I was delighted.  I have always enjoyed collaborating with artists from other disciplines and have learned a great deal over the years from working with poets, playwrights, painters and choreographers.

“However this was something new, because ceramics are the focus of this particular exhibition.  Fragile? showcases the diversity of contemporary ceramics practice, exploring the artistic and expressive possibilities of ceramic as a material.

“Several postgraduate composers were to be involved in the project and we were each paired with a ceramicist whose work was to be featured in the exhibition.  I was paired with Ashraf Hanna, a ceramicist based in West Wales.

“I began researching Ashraf’s work and quickly discovered that he is at the forefront of innovation in ceramics practice, recently winning a Creative Wales Award to fund his project An Exploration in the Language of Form and Material.  It was clear that many of the concerns in his work were comparable with those of a composer, and I contacted Ashraf to find out more.

“I was sent an image of the specific work that I was to respond to, called Rhythm Vessel.  Made of raku-fired earthenware, it has a surface carved with an intricate pattern of curved and straight lines.  I discussed the ideas behind the piece with Ashraf and later sent him some thoughts about how I could use the ideas within the piece to inform my response.

“Two main aspects of Rhythm Vessel stood out for musical development – one was the title, together with the rhythmic sweep and energy of the surface design, while the other was the whole firing process involved in the creation of Rhythm Vessel.

“Raku is a very rapid and intense firing method that involves placing the pot in the kiln only after it has reached a very high temperature, before removing it while still extremely hot, leaving it to cool in the open air or plunging into water to cool suddenly.

“As I was writing the piece, which I called Ellipse, I became aware that these aspects of Rhythm Vessel were having a direct effect on the music, leading me to explore writing in ways that were different from my other pieces.  The rhythmic energy of Ashraf’s work encouraged me to explore pulse and rhythm in a more defined and discrete way than usual, while the shape of the vessel and the patterns on the surface led me towards a greater use of circularity in the way the musical material is revisited and reimagined.

“The firing technique directly inspired the form of my piece, tracing a journey from stasis, through the process of heating, reaching a moment of intense heat before the gradual cooling process begins.”

The pieces by our composition students involved in this project – Blair Boyd, John Cooney, Jordan Hirst, Julia E Howell, Martin Humphries, Carol J Jones, Richard McReynolds, and Daniel Ross – will be performed in concert at National Museum Wales, Thursday 28 May, 7pm. The performances by Lisa Nelsen (flute) and Gwenllian Llyr (harp) will be part of a programme of late night music at the Museum. Visit the Museum’s website for ticket information.


Sharing Postgraduate Research

PGR Study Day (2 May 2015)
PhD student Martin Čurda writes about a recent PGR Study Day at the School of Music...

“On Saturday 2nd May 2015, the students and staff of the School of Music gathered for a Postgraduate Research Study Day – the sixth instalment of a series of biannual events designed to bring together the postgraduate research community in our department and to give the students the opportunity to practice their presentation skills in a friendly, semi-formal environment.

“Last but not least, PGR Study Days are a showcase of the diversity and quality of postgraduate research conducted in our department.

“Ethnomusicological papers constituted the majority of presentations in this term’s event. Jeff Charest analysed lute-naming traditions from a linguistic perspective. Nicky Maher focused on gender roles underpinning the pagenyria festivals in the region of Pogoni on the Greek-Albanian border.

Kate Neale presenting

Kate Neale presenting

“Rod Lawford analysed the continuing problems of social integration of Roma people in Romania from the middle ages to the present day. Sebastián Wanumen explored a diverse range of cultural, social, and political agenda of the Colombian folklore genre of carranga.

“Finally, Kate Neale problematised constructions of identity and community in the carolling tradition of Cornish diaspora in Australia.

“Musicological research was represented by Alessandra Palidda, who analysed the ideological function of music during republican public feasts in 1790s Jacobin Milan. My own paper brought a hermeneutic analysis of the 1940/41 Symphony by Pavel Haas, explaining the musical articulation of religious patriotism and grotesque ridicule.

Martin Curda presenting

Martin Curda presenting

“The last session of the day included two papers from the field of popular music studies. Sam Murray addressed issues of marketing and policy-making in his analysis of the musical scene of Portland, Oregon and its lack of middle-sized music venues.

“Finally, Alicia Stark discussed the character of Noodle from the virtual band Gorillaz from the perspectives of gender stereotypes and Orientalism.

The mock interview - Martin Curda being interviewed by Dr Villepastour, Dr Rowden, and Dr Beard

The mock interview – Martin Curda being interviewed by Dr Villepastour, Dr Rowden, and Dr Beard

“As always, one session of the day was dedicated to professional development. This time, the students had the chance to witness a mock lecturing job interview. Drs Clair Rowden, Amanda Villepastour and David Beard kindly offered to take on the role of the panel, and I played the role of the applicant.

“In the interest of authenticity, the interview was based on a real lecturing job specification, using a CV and supporting statement written specifically for this vacancy. The actual role-playing exercise was preceded by a short introduction by the members of staff and followed by a discussion, which reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of the interview.

“Finally, most of us went on to conclude the day informally over dinner and drink and celebrate the community of friends and colleagues. Speaking as an organiser of this event and as a final year student, I am delighted to say that it takes little more to create a successful and stimulating event than to bring people together and that I feel privileged to have been a member of the postgraduate community in this department.”

Bartolomeo Campagnoli reloaded

PhD student Simone Laghi on Italian String Quartets and bringing Bartolomeo Campagnoli to new audiences…

CampagnoliI am writing this post on a train that is taking me to Turin. In three hours, I will be giving a speech in the library of the Circolo dei Lettore (Reader’s Club) to present the next concert of the Orchestra Polledro, a recent and vibrant ensemble led by Federico Bisio. Apart from playing in the orchestra as principal viola, I was been challenged by M° Bisio programme some music related to my musicological research and, as a result, we will soon perform the Violin Concerto Op. 15 in Eb major by Bartolomeo Campagnoli (1751-1827).

It is not the first time that this music has been performed in modern times. There is a recording by the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto (Dynamics, CDS 214, 1999, soloist Francesco Manara). Unfortunately, there is no commercial edition of this concerto, and my duty was to reconstruct the score from the orignal printed parts by Breitkopf und Hartel, printed in Leipzig in 1810. At the end of the editing process I couldn’t refrain from Manara’s recording with my score. I have to admit that I was really surprised to find that, despite the general good level of performance, several nuances and graces were left out from his performance.

While preparing the concert, I have been discussing these details with the conductor and the violinist Marco Norzi, who is the principal violin of Orchestra Polledro and the soloist for this performance. We agreed assign utmost importantce to all the details. When a performer works on lesser-known repertoire, the temptation to rely exclusively on the few available recordings can lead to major misinterpretations of the score, thus creating a detriment to the quality of the music as the composer intended it. Sometimes it can be much better to not actually listen to any recordings as it allows you the chance to give your own interpretation of a piece.

The style of the performance should as well be appropriate to the score. There are plenty of old treatises, new books and academic articles available nowadays to allow a musician to get in touch with particular issues of historical performance practice. It is my personal belief that music can express itself at its best only when the performance style is appropriate, in the same way that a novel is always more satisfying if read in the original language. This doesn’t mean in any way that there is just one right performance style, but musical relativism is not an options that fullfil my curiosity.















I won’t write a long digression on Campagnoli’s biography (this can be easily found on Wikipedia or in specialized books); it is just enough to point out that he is nowadays mostly famous for his violin methods and his caprices for viola. Last year I published, with Ensemble Symposium, his six string quartets that were considered lost but reappeared in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin in 1997 (for more information, please follow this link).

The recording, released by Brilliant Classics, was awarded five stars and nominated for Album of the Month by the website CdClassico, receiving an enthusiastic review. Despite the interest raised by the appearance of this and other sets of string quartets composed by relatively unknown Italian composers, it is still hard for critics and musicologists to give these authors an independent dignity, without falling into the trap of comparing  them to the mainstream German tradition (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven).

The Italian String Quartet has indeed an interesting and underestimated history, which followed a different (if not opposite) path to the German tradition. I hope to shed some light on this particular topic in the course of my PhD research.

I had the chance to describe my work on Campagnoli’s quartets in a paper presented at the Conference ‘P.A. Locatelli and J. M. Leclair: Legacy in the 19th Century’, held in Bergamo on 17-19 October 2014 and organized by the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini. I just finished a preliminary draft for a critical edition of this set, which will be published by A-R editions (USA). I hope to proceed in the same way for the violin concerto, and to make the score available soon for performers.

It is such a pleasure to hear compositions that have not been performed for centuries, and to hear them coming out so fresh and vibrant after such a long sleep. I really do hope to hear further performances of these scores by curious musicians, and to keep raising interest in the neglected repertoire of Italian instrumental music from the late-18th and 19th-centuries.

‘Shakespeare of music’ finally gets his own blue plaque

Professor David Wyn Jonesconversationlogo

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

London is about to get its latest blue plaque. A building on Great Pulteney Street in Soho will soon be marked as the site of the house where the Austrian composer, Joseph Haydn, lived from January 1791 to July 1792.

Located in the middle of fashionable Soho it was conveniently close to the Hanover Square Concert Rooms, where Haydn was resident composer in a series of concerts. It was also within walking distance of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, for which he had been asked to write an opera and a few minutes away from a Catholic chapel in Golden Square, where Haydn the devout Catholic could worship.

Although he was making his first visit to London, his music had dominated concert life in the city for nearly ten years, an astonishing achievement when one remembers that public popularity of composers at the time still tended to be dependent on their physical presence.

Dubbing him the “Shakespeare of music” the English press had already paid him the ultimate compliment. Repeated attempts to get the composer to visit London finally paid off iJoseph_Haydnn 1791. It could have been an anticlimax, but Haydn and his music became central to London’s busy musical life, so much so that a second visit followed in 1794-95.

The music that Haydn composed in, and for, London included an opera, 12 symphonies, six quartets, piano music of all kinds, songs, settings of Scottish folksongs and even an arrangement of God Save the King (now lost). The London symphonies, in particular, cemented a fundamental shift in musical history, from opera being regarded as the ultimate creative challenge for any composer to instrumental music being its equal, if not in certain respects its superior.

Beethoven, who was Haydn’s pupil between the two visits and who was to have accompanied him for the second, was one composer who responded to this seismic shift. One of the tantalising “what-ifs” of Western musical history is to ponder whether Beethoven’s symphonies would have emerged in the way they did if Haydn had not composed his London symphonies. If the answer is probably not, then the whole history of western art music in the 19th century would have been very different.

As well as musical history, Haydn’s presence in London in the 1790s had wider cultural and political resonances. His visits coincided with the beginnings of the French Revolutionary Wars. From 1792 onwards, Austria and Britain were frequent coalition partners in the fight against France, and Haydn, the newly enthusiastic Anglophile and a Habsburg loyalist of the most traditional kind, came to embody that relationship.

He visited the dockyards in Portsmouth to see the remnants of the French fleet after Britain’s fleet won the Glorious First of June battle, composed marches for the Derbyshire Regiment, and was a revered guest of King George III and the Prince of Wales. Back in Vienna he composed the erstwhile Austrian national anthem Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, clearly modelled on God save the King.

He wrote a cantata for Emma Hamilton to sing that celebrated Nelson’s stunning victory at the Battle of the Nile and, most enduringly, composed a bilingual oratorio, The Creation, that reflected the inherited musical, literary and religious traditions of Austria and Britain.

At the end of the 18th century Haydn was unquestionably the greatest living composer – and London had played a determining role in that elevation. A blue plaque was long overdue.

Would Haydn have approved? As a person, he was a paradox: a modest, dutiful man who nevertheless liked recognition. He valued his Oxford honorary doctorate, sat for several portraits while he was in London and kept a box of press cuttings from the two visits. A discrete blue plaque for the Shakespeare of music could not be more appropriate.

In the Media: Gareth Gwynn’s Little Book of Welsh Rock

Dr Sarah Hill joined satirist Gareth Gwynn for a BBC Radio 4 documentary exploring Welsh-language rock and pop.

Dr Hill, Senior Lecturer at the School of Music, is the author of ‘Blerwytirhwng’: The Place of Welsh Pop Music, which is a definitive history of Welsh-language pop.

The documentary explores the history of Welsh-language rock, as well as the thriving, contemporary Welsh-language music scene. It is available online at:

Early Classical Music Workshops

PhD student Simone Laghi writes about how he shares his expertise in Early Classical Music with students at the School of Music…

logo REMA EU Day of EMFor the second consecutive year I’ve managed to run this little adventure of Early Classical Music Workshops at the School of Music.

21 March, the birthday of J.S. Bach, has been chosen as the European Day of Early Music. Our students will celebrate the day by performing the pieces they have studied and rehearsed with me during four workshops (from February to March).  The National Museum of Cardiff is willing to open its wonderful Art Galleries to our music, and we will have the chance to play with amazing paintings from the 18th- and 19th-centuries as a background. The concert begins at 1pm and entry is free.

In this second edition of the ECMW I’ve the pleasure of coaching four groups composed ofthree to five elements: there are two trios with oboe, violin and bass (it was quite challenging to find a piece for both of them, but G. F. Händel and W. F. Bach luckily provided stunning musical material), a trio for keyboard, oboe and bassoon (composed by G. P. Telemann), and the wind quintet Il Tempo, which will perform some lovely music by the Italian composer G. Cambini.

This is the program for the final concert:

G.F. Handel: Trio sonata in G minor for oboe, violin and continuo

Lucas Berton (violin)
Manon Bonneville (oboe)
Augustus Guan  (harpsichord)

G.P. Telemann: Trio Sonata for oboe, harpsichord and bass TWV 42:Es3

Zoe Ewers (bassoon)
Olivia Sterlini (oboe)
Tawny Charles (harpsichord)

W.F. Bach: Trio sonata in C maj for violin, oboe and bass

Victoria Thomas (violin)
Olivia Sterlini (oboe)
Zoe Ewers (bassoon)

G. Cambini: Wind Quintet n.1

Wind Quintet “Il Tempo”

The workshops were open to all the students attending the School of Music. The repertoire considered consisted of works from the baroque to the early classical period: we have been exploring the appropriate style and the connections of the composers with their historical context, as well as the links with other more celebrated composers.

During the meetings we discussed instrumentation, organology and historical performance practice (in particular articulation and ornamentation). The students were then encouraged to undertake further independent research about the history of their own instruments and the chances offered by the lesser-known repertoire.

It has been a lovely experience, and if the student have learned as much as I did while coaching them, they have learned a lot! Once again, as last year, I felt deeply gratified by the experience and by the enthusiasm everybody showed. I can’t wait to start again next year!

Breaking Boundaries

PhD student Alessandra Palidda has an invitation for fellow postgraduate students…


Dear PGR and PGT colleagues,

Every year the University Graduate College organizes an interdisciplinary conference for research students in the Arts and Humanities. This year’s conference will be held on 23 April 2015. It is a great opportunity to come and share your research and to talk about your interests and methodology within a friendly, highly interdisciplinary context. You can present on a specific aspect of your research or more generally about your project, plus you get a taste of what other students in other departments are working on. You also get the chance to listen to a brilliant keynote speaker and win cash prizes. Last year’s conference was a wonderful occasion and our department did so well, but I hope to see even more of us there this year. Come on, come all!

Visit the conference webpage to find out more. 

In the Media: Celebrating French female composers

bbc r3Dr Caroline Rae marked International Women’s Day by joining BBC Radio 3 for a special celebration on Sunday 8 March.

Dr Rae contributed live commentary for a broadcast concert featuring a programme of French women composers.

The evening concert – featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC National Chorus of Wales,  and conductor Jessica Cottis – explored the role of women in classical music, as part of BBC Radio 3’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The programme was broadcast live from BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre. Visit the programme webpage to listen online:

Moler: A Grinding Journey

Dr Arlene Sierra, internationally-renowned composer and Senior Lecturer at the School of Music, released her second portrait CD with Bridge Records in 2014. One of the works on the disc, Moler,  was commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Symphony and recently nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in the Latin GRAMMY awards. You can listen to a clip from the work on Soundcloud.

Dr Sierra at the Latin GRAMMY awards, Las Vegas, November 2014

Dr Sierra at the Latin GRAMMY awards, Las Vegas, November 2014

Here, Dr Sierra tells us about how the composition of Moler came about:

It started with an email from the artistic administrator of the Seattle Symphony : Would I like to write a piece for the Symphony’s Sonic Evolution Series of commissions? I had heard about this forward-looking initiative before, as the project has been developing over some years: A showcase of new works from the younger generation of composers that would  take inspiration, but no quotations, from popular music with a Seattle connection.

The stipulation of no quotations was the root of the project’s appeal for me – this made the remit as free as needed to make a real statement in my own language for orchestra. Knowing the performers would be that good, and led by the excellent conductor Ludovic Morlot who is Music Director at Seattle, my mind began racing with ideas for orchestral sonorities and textures right away.

But first there was the list. As soon I indicated my interest in the commission, I was sent a list of popular artists with Seattle connections – what a range there was! Quincy Jones, Yes, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, the Blue Scholars, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, the list was long and quite unexpected. Having had a firmly East Coast American upbringing, finding so many Seattle origins to familiar music really surprised me.

There was something about the rock acts on the Seattle list that got me thinking: I’ve long been a fan of composers like Varese, Ruggles and Ginastera, who were known for getting a harder, grittier sound out of the orchestra. Yet my own orchestral work up to that point, while relishing contrast and density, had had a glossier, Francophile sound. Maybe this list from the symphony was pointing the way to something different.

With this in mind I checked out the bands I hadn’t known much about, surveying titles of songs that might be in the right kind of vein. Grind by Alice in Chains popped out from the search results. As expected it was quite a contrast from Prince’s Le Grind which I’d loved in high school… rooted in 4/4 of course, and with a heavy, guitar-laden sound.  The one surprising aspect of this song was the kind of ‘grind’ being sung about. In contrast to probably every other ‘grind’ in popular music, the Alice in Chains ‘Grind’ was a song about teeth-grinding! Now that was an idea I could turn into orchestral music.

Bruxism, photo via WikiImages

Bruxism, photo via WikiImages

With a starting point like teeth-grinding (also known bruxism), an orchestral palette could develop in interesting ways. I imagined musical objects grinding against each other, creating a kind of orchestral roughness. But what sort of environment would they live in? I often talk to my composition students about creating a world for musical ideas, giving motifs and melodies an environment – not just a background but something that interacts and grows with a piece’s principle materials. It’s an important compositional principle for me, in all kinds of genres but especially in the orchestra where the greatest registral and timbral contrasts are possible.

Medical journal articles on bruxism complimented these ideas and helped me to fill them out further. It’s been shown in scientific studies that cycles of sleep and corresponding changes in a person’s heart rate affect the speed and strength of bruxism when it occurs. Pulse, grinding, the regularity needed for sleep combined with the tension that leads to bruxism, all started to come together as sound world full of orchestrational possibilities.

Another compositional principle that drives many of my works is the need to limit one’s material. With all the welcome freedom composers have in our time, to write in any language or melange of languages that one could wish for, the need for coherence is all the more acute. In a post-Common Practice era, how can we composers create a sense of inevitability, the sense that the next note, phrase, gesture has to happen?

An excerpt from the opening of Moler

An excerpt from the opening of Moler

In the case of Moler a few opening gambits determined everything in the piece. First was the decision, as a nod to Sonic Evolution and Alice in Chains, to keep the whole piece in a simple 4/4. Above and below that essential pulse, the grinding of a few rough-edged motifs would commence and develop. The scoring too was determined by strict limits connected to a roughness of timbre: low oboes and muted trombones, flutter-tonguing brass, the exhaustive use of auxiliary instruments like bass clarinet and contrabassoon. These were part of the palette for Moler and led to a ten-minute “grind.” Using the Spanish word for grind as the title acknowledges my own musical roots in Latin American music and Western Classical interpretations of the Spanish style. The sense of movement my scores evoke is always connected to dance and physicality, and this piece is no exception.

Dr Sierra with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot, after the world premiere of Moler in 2012

Dr Sierra with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot, after the world premiere of Moler in 2012

The world premiere of Moler took place in October 2012 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Ludovic Morlot conducting. The European premiere was at BBC Hoddinott Hall in November 2012 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Grant Llewellyn. The same orchestra recorded the piece in 2013 with conductor Jac Van Steen for the Bridge Records release “Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra Vol. 2″. In 2014 the disc was cited in a Grammy nomination for David Starobin for Producer of the Year, and a Latin Grammy nomination for Moler for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.


Listen to a clip from the piece at:

Dr Sierra with conductor Jac Van Steen and Producer David Starobin of Bridge Records at BBC Hoddinott Hall, after recording sessions for the disc “Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2” in 2013

Dr Sierra with conductor Jac Van Steen and Producer David Starobin of Bridge Records at BBC Hoddinott Hall, after recording sessions for the disc “Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2” in 2013

Chopin as teacher

Our new lunchtime concert series in the National Museum Wales begins in February with an entertaining exploration of the music of Chopin, his friends and contemporaries.

Chopin-2-470x260Professor Kenneth Hamilton, internationally-renowned pianist and Head of the School of Music, will perform three concerts in the series (6 February13 February20 February). These concerts will feature works by Chopin and his contemporaries, including Liszt, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, alongside relaxed commentary on the pieces being performed.

Here, Professor Hamilton tells us about Chopin as teacher…

“Paris, 1842. No. 9 Place d’Orleans. Every week of the “season”, from around the beginning of October to the end of March, a steady stream of piano pupils would come to study with Fryderyk Chopin. It was a fashionably artistic area of the city – Charles-Valentin Alkan also lived there, and a host of lesser luminaries. Chopin was by then the most famous pianist permanently resident in Paris, and accordingly its most exclusive piano teacher. Even Liszt had not charged as much for a one-hour piano lesson: 20 gold francs. At around 4.5 zlotys, this was a phenomenal fee. A bank clerk might earn 250 zlotys a year; a gentleman could live very respectably on 2,500. As Chopin gave up to five lessons per day, piano teaching – and not the modest royalties from his music – quickly became his main source of income, just as Berlioz largely made his living as Librarian of the Conservatoire, and Wagner by sponging off friends.

“Piano pupils arriving at Chopin’s flat would be greeted by a valet, evidence in itself of unusual opulence; most musicians, then as now, had to open their own front doors. While waiting in an antechamber, the students would unobtrusively place the fee for their lesson, delicately concealed in an envelope, on the mantelpiece. On no account was cash to be handed over directly – Chopin found anything to do with money or sex equally distasteful, and avoided close engagement with either.

“Almost inevitably, most of Chopin’s pupils were wealthy young ladies with talents in inverse proportion to their social status. Wilhelm von Lenz, an occasional Russian pupil, noted that a steady stream of such students – “each one even prettier than the last” would emerge from the music room and parade haughtily past the next in line. Nevertheless, one or two of these “perfumed ladies in frilly dresses” might actually have pursued professional careers, had such a prospect not been entirely unthinkable. Camille O’Meara in particular was an extremely accomplished player with an instinctive feeling for her teacher’s style. Yet, as Liszt said many years later, Chopin was “unlucky with his students”. None achieved international fame as performers, though a few of them – such as Karol Mikuli, teacher of Moriz Rosenthal – fruitfully passed on to subsequent generations what they had learned in the Place d’Orleans. Chopin himself had especially high hopes for Carl Filtsch, an astonishingly talented prodigy only 13 years old who came to study with him at the end of 1842. “When this lad starts touring,” joked Liszt, “I’d better shut up shop.” But Filtsch was already ill. He died of consumption in 1845, a few years before Chopin’s own death from the same disease.

“Once students had spent the requisite time in Chopin’s antechamber, they would be ushered into the music room, which housed a Pleyel grand piano and an upright of the same manufacture. The pupil sat at the former, Chopin at the latter, from where he would demonstrate the correct execution of troublesome passages. Most of his teaching was by direct example – he far preferred to do rather than describe. According to Mikuli, some pupils would “play no more than a few bars during the entire lesson”. But listening attentively was unusually valuable, because what one mainly learned from lessons with Chopin was how to play Chopin. The composer would write ornaments or variants into pupils’ scores – some of them distinct improvements over the versions originally published – as well as fingerings and friendly admonitions. Playing from the score was a requirement, for in contrast to the prevailing opinion among pianists today, Chopin regarded memorisation as likely to prompt an overly mechanical performance. “I don’t want any of this,” he snapped, after discovering that a pupil intended to play a piece by heart. “Are you reciting a lesson?”

“Especially important to Chopin were the creation of a singing tone and a subtle blending of sonorities. He himself was known not for the speed and power of his playing (on the contrary, audiences in larger halls found his performances verging upon the inaudible) but for its exquisite elegance and refined rhetoric. “If you can’t sing, you can’t play the piano,” he would tell his pupils, while advising them to go to the opera and listen to Rubini, Pasta and other great singers of the day.

“Apart from his own music, Chopin was happy to recommend pieces by Hummel and Field, even occasionally Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 26 (the only one in his repertoire). He had, however, little time for “avant-garde” music, whether it was Schumann’s eccentric effusions (even Carnaval, which was dedicated to him) or Liszt’s virtuoso extravagancies. Most favoured of all was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, Chopin prepared for his own concerts not by practising the pieces programmed, but by spending a fortnight playing the 48 Preludes and Fugues. “Play Bach for me,” he would say to his students as they left at the end of their lesson…”

The article originally appeared in the 8th issue of Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone.