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Interpreting piano music: Should we truly realize the composer’s intent?

Matters of interpretation came up at the “Y” Gym yesterday when I bumped into the pianist from a North Berkeley house of worship. Aline is a fine musician who intersperses the service with great masterworks. Recently she played Grieg’s “Wedding March” during the basket-passing which lifted spirits as it amassed $$$$.

At that very instant, I thought about how Edvard Grieg might have rendered his own music. (To hear his personal reading would certainly provide authentic tempo references and suggested phrasing) After all, how many times had piano students been told to worship the composer at his altar –channeling his music as he would have intended.

When I studied Grieg’s “Butterfly” from the Lyric Pieces I managed to dig up a scratchy rendering of Grieg’s that was compelling in its departure from my so-called original edition.

But was His the Holy Bible of interpretation compared to others I sampled on You Tube.

Had the Creator set the piece in stone?

How about this reading?

It seemed warmer with judiciously used sustain pedal.

And my personal favorite played by Sviatoslav Richter–he escapes the tendency to race through.

In summary, I didn’t necessarily embrace the composer’s approach to his own music.



Here Bartok plays his hauntingly beautiful “Evening in the Country” with a wide brush of rubato that makes measuring the piece in notational form nearly impossible.

Compare to another rendering that’s compelling.

And now a more “measured out” performance that doesn’t seem to capture the improvised nature of the folkloric idiom, though one may argue that the reading is a personal expression of the artist that doesn’t have to match up with the composer’s so-called ideal.


Gershwin plays Gershwin

“I Got Rhythm”

Updated and transcribed in a virtuoso framing:


Traveling back over centuries where masterworks have no recorded expressions by their creators, we have treatises by C.P.E. Bach, for example, that inform about ornament execution, tempo, affect, etc.

Yet beyond what’s written by historians, the music itself, including melodic and harmonic flow give the player an interpretive map that is individually followed within the historical period of composition. This seems to be a better overall paradigm for interpretation than trying to be a carbon copy of the composer in any era.

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Beethoven’s Fur Elise with orchestra? or without (Videos)

During the night, I stumbled upon a piano solo with orchestra arrangement of “Fur Elise” that included a set of nuanced special effects. First, the pianist, nonchalantly flowed into the first theme to a stream applause, reminding me of the time I played this same piece without embellishment in the dining hall of Fig Garden Retirement.

With no smiling orchestra members surrounding me, I was squeezed into a tight space, drowned out by cranky residents who complained about digital piano volume levels.

It was nothing like the smoothly-staged you tube performance of Beethoven’s treasure that seemed rehearsed to finite detail.

I noted the broken E octaves in the opening section, with an animated conductor gathering the forces of nature under his sprightly baton.

Was this a Grieg transcription with a counterpoint of clarinet, nasal oboe, strings, and triangle? (It was phrased in twos, if you will, with a few chirping birds needed for added effect)

In the midst of this serene musical forest, the pianist played, but where were the seven dwarfs and Snow White?

Compare to what Beethoven had intended, minus a green bag of Trader Joe Pine Litter that was shabbily left on the set.



Mystical Journey–Relax Music at Georgii Tcherkin’s You Tube Channel-He presents solo and orchestra arrangements of the “Moonlight” Sonata.

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Chopin Waltz in Ab Major, Op. 69 No. 1–considerations of mics, recording conditions, and tempo, with performance comparisons

First, I have to admit that my prized Yeti mic suffered yet another break-down. “Break” is to be emphasized. I tripped over the wire on the way to Haddy Haddorff, and the sensitive connector from iMac’s USB port to the mic itself was altered. Yeti wouldn’t register on “Preferences” as an external no matter how I tweaked that little metal doo-dad that plugs into its host. The more I twisted, turned, cajoled, and said any number of prayers, the less anything registered with the powers that be.

So I didn’t want to abandon my recording session in any case, and decided to wing it with iMac’s own built-in job. Ugh! I had awful experiences that preceded this one, so I wasn’t expecting an overnight miracle or transformation.

Just the same, I figured, I’d swoon over the Waltz and hope some Romantic flavor seeped through one way or another. And then I reminded myself of those old, scratchy recordings where Arthur Schnabel played divine Beethoven, or Cortot lectured about Chopin with those hard-to-decipher playing samples. Still, people listened.

What about Grieg performing his “Butterfly” piece under less than perfect conditions, or any number of keyboard legends leaving bare traces of themselves on audio?

So what. While I was far from legendary, I could leave behind a less than perfect mic-ing of the Chopin Ab Waltz.


Well, since composing the previous apologia, I remedied the mic, and subbed in this video:

Next consideration: Tempo. So did I care what so and so pianist did with the Waltz in the way of pacing it? I certainly wanted a good example of tasteful rubato, and hunted down a few readings with that in mind. Stephen Hough was the first that popped up on my screen. (radar screen, perhaps) He was flashing back to the past, I think, coming toward the piano with a 40’s era hat. Everything was in black and white evoking an earlier time, but nowhere near the period that Chopin lived.

It was a creative mood painting.

I liked most of what he did in the way of interpretation, dynamics, give and take, but I couldn’t envision myself playing the Ab Waltz quite that fast all the way through, though his reading was very well styled. Would it fit me in the same way? There were sections that seemed a bit too casual, but still valid. He plied the phrases nicely. In all, I like parts of the whole, but the whole had parts I wished were more lingering.

My next stop was Leonard Pennario and his reading which I instantly doted upon. The only question I had related to the tempo change on page two. Suddenly everything took off, though I didn’t notice directions in the score to that effect. Perhaps I had been under the wrong impression all along about that specific section?

Pennario’s interpretation, overall, was my preference as compared to Hough’s. (I did note, however, that both pianists had apparently used different editions because there were some note changes between scores)

Regardless, I felt that Pennario registered a contemplative Chopin with a nice, fluid rubato. His tone was gorgeous, and he well paced the composition playing it significantly slower than Hough.

Finally came Artur Rubenstein, and as expected, I knew that I would embrace his performance. It seemed plaintively beautiful, effortlessly delivered, as if the music were allowed to play itself.

Similarly, I didn’t find any abrupt tempo shifts between sections, though, like Pennario and Hough he quickened the pace on page two, but less conspicuously.

Regardless of whether I favored one of these performances over another, a salient feature of all was the personality and conviction that came through. If nothing else, an individual and creative expression among pianists would be something to emulate.

To summarize, this You Tube outing proved to be a thoroughly valuable learning experience

For certain, tomorrow I’ll try to round up a decent mic and do my best to realize what the composer intended. Best case scenario, it should be without the handicap of a built-in sound system that could compromise a pianist’s playing in an any time or era.

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Piano Technique: “Butterfly” by Grieg, a revisit (playing and exploring the rolling, rotational motion) videos

I can see the butterfly in my mind’s eye in its flight of fancy. But I wish it were as easy to play, as to imagine.

Relaxation is the key word here, but not to the point that the 16th-notes become like glissandi–a faint gloss over the keys. First in slow practice tempo you would rotate your right hand in a circular, counter-clockwise motion, as the left hand has its “rolling” effect to feed a roll-out between the rolling hands. (an abundance of rolls)

And despite what appears to be a dizzying display of chromatically woven 16th-notes, the litheness of the butterfly should be preserved.

In the middle section, side to side hand rotation works best in the right hand, while the left continues its roll over the octave span.


The Background

A Norwegian Romantic era composer, Edvard Grieg wrote ten sets of these colorful, descriptive miniatures with illuminating titles. “March of the Dwarfs,” “Little Bird,” and “Butterfly,” among others particularly appeal to children because of their lush harmonic tapestries and engaging melodies.

“Butterfly” is a heart flutter with an improvised quality. It epitomizes Romantic music from the mid 19th Century with its fluid, rubato style of playing (flexible time)

Words cannot adequately express how beautifully Grieg weaves this Butterfly mosaic that uplifts the spirit while it touches the heart.

Analysis of harmony and movement: in back tempo


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Piano Instruction: Avoiding Injuries, using “Butterfly” by Edvard Grieg as a slow practicing example (Videos)

About twenty years ago, before I was enlightened about the risk of injuries when I practiced and how to avoid them, I sustained a ligament tear of my ring finger, right hand. It was while playing the Schumann Carnaval, and just before it happened, I had held my hand in a rigid arched position anticipating a stretch of notes well beyond the octave. It was definitely a suicide gesture to attempt to accommodate the large spread of keys with a traditionally, boxed in, ultra round-shaped hand.

After my ordeal I no longer advocated a “fixed,” unaltered hand position, and I made sure to teach my students ways to protect themselves from practice-related injuries. (I recommended “Warming” up gradually– playing scales and arpeggios in slow motion, breathing through groups of notes, and enlisting a rolling, curving motion)

To prevent finger tears, carpal tunnel and the rest, I advised that students should have very pliant, flexible wrists and hands. If there’s a big keyboard span to tackle, it’s best to use ROTATION without tightening muscles. Gently ROLLING between notes over an octave is the best approach as I demonstrated in the embedded video.

Using longer or broader fingers when attempting to play large intervals, is a hand protector.

Having natural follow-through motions while navigating the expanded intervals is another way to lower the injury risk.

As for over-practicing day in and day out, such excess might lead to nerve damage, carpal tunnel, etc.

I’d once practiced the same trills for hours at time, having to seriously consider a red flag warning: achy hands.

Once the body is telling the player to give it a rest, he/she should heed what’s in his best physical interests.


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Grieg’s music survived a failing lithium battery!

I was about to throw my camcorder across the room as the supposedly fully charged battery was flickering and about to shut down! There was no reason for the cam to go on strike, especially within minutes of Evan’s arrival. He was the last piano student of the day, and had just entered my studio while I awkwardly fumbled with the power button hoping for a miraculous recharge.

Evan had been very excited about making a You Tube after a stream of my students had made their screen debuts, calling all their friends to watch. It was getting contagious. Even the primer level kids wanted to pump out a few simple melodies while smiling at the camera.

Thank God, I noticed the cam coming back to life with a steady flow of electrical current, all set to give Evan his 800 megabytes of fame!

The video had to be planned carefully. Evan would play Grieg’s “Elfin Dance” twice: once behind tempo and then in speed. Any other haphazard approach would not produce good results.

I always told Evan and other students that piano playing was about control, how to pace yourself, breathe through your phrases, and stay emotionally connected. Vladimir Horowitz, the great pianist referred frequently to “fire and ice” emotional states when performing the big virtuoso war horse compositions of Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

The Grieg piece that Evan had prepared, was  suggestive of elves prancing around in dark caves, so I advised him to  preserve the motion of buoyant staccato notes throughout this work by playing all measures rhythmically in ONE instead of counting out three distinct beats per measure. This would keep the piece bristling with energy and shaped nicely.

After an initial fumble, Evan got grooved and settled in. In the end, he turned out a fine performance without hesitation. Trouble was, after I shouted “FANTASTIC” in response to his playing, I discovered through a re-wind and replay that my fat head had been blocking out Evan for most of his performance!  What a price to pay for not checking the camera angle before we had started recording.

Alas it had been one of those unlucky days when a failing lithium battery was an omen of things to come.

The blow by blow video journey:

Evan’s performance was uploaded to You Tube at 9:15 p.m. and would be posted if it didn’t suffer any pangs of misfortune overnight.


At 6:01 a.m. “Elfin Dance” was safely posted on my channel, but it was touch and go. For some reason the video processing lagged significantly behind the upload, so Grieg’s elves were frozen in time.

What brought these impish characters suddenly back to life was not within my ability to explain.

Despite the dim lighting and obstructive camera views, Grieg’s music managed to squeak through! Bravo, Evan!!

RELATED: “Butterfly” by Grieg

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Butterfly by Edvard Grieg

“Butterfly” is one of my favorite pieces from the Romantic era. A charming character piece, it takes flight from the very first measure in a stream of rapid sixteenth notes, weaving through two related keys.

The composer, Edvard Grieg, wrote ten sets of these colorful, descriptive miniatures that attached illuminating titles. They form a collection of Lyric Pieces.

“March of the Dwarfs,” “Little Bird,” and “Butterfly,” among others, appeal to a listener’s imagination with their lush harmonic tapestries and engaging melodies.

A heart-fluttering flight of fancy, “Butterfly” has an improvised quality that is best realized in flexible time, or tempo rubato.

How beautifully Norway’s national composer weaves this nature-inspired mosaic that uplifts the spirit as it touches the heart.