Burgmuller - L'Hirondelle (The Swallow) Op 100 No 24
Johann Friedrich Franz Burgmuller (1806 – 1874) was born in Germany but, after studying music for many years, he settled in Paris where he remained until he died.
Burgmuller wrote numerous short piano pieces and The Swallow is one of 25 easy studies that have become deservedly popular with teachers and students alike.
Pupil Match & Suitability
Students who enjoy the imagery of Romantic music will relish portraying the graceful flight of the swallow. The novelty of hand crossing featured in this piece will be an enjoyable way of developing the confident agility and secure sense of keyboard geography required here.
Small hands should easily cope with the technical demands and there are no tricky rhythms to negotiate. As long as the student has a grasp of arpeggios, the learning process can be made relatively easy.
Style & Tempo
The style is that of a typical Romantic miniature so a degree of rubato is essential to give a supple melodic line.
The RH semiquavers might be thought to suggest the delicate fluttering of the swallow’s wings whilst the LH melody might represent the swooping and soaring flight.
Phrasing & Articulation
The music falls naturally into four bar phrases and, to achieve a subtle rubato, the performer could imagine the swallow gathering momentum as each phrase progresses upwards in pitch, with a crescendo. The swallow then glides down at phrase endings with a slightly more relaxed pace that coincides with a diminuendo.
Tone & Texture
The notes of the tune are in the LH and they need to show a singing quality, whereas the RH plays arpeggiated chords as an accompaniment.
It is essential to keep the RH notes quieter than the LH melody, supporting it through the graded rise and fall of the dynamic colouring, but never becoming obtrusive.
Although the melody is always is the LH, the student should notice how the tune flits in a bird-like manner between the high register and the lower notes, this being particularly noticeable in the middle section and towards the end of the piece.
Listen to this effect in the audio extract.
The techniques most relevant to this piece are:
evenness of the RH, semiquaver accompaniment;
achieving a prominent LH melodic line; hand crossing.
The hand crossing aspect of the piece is fun for the student and rarely causes problems. However, it may be advisable to explain that the hand that crosses over needs to move faster than the speed of the pulse. This will ensure that the LH arrives at the right place a little ahead of time, giving a moment to ensure that the fingers are poised over the correct notes.
Effective shaping of the LH melody can be influenced by helpful fingering – students should be discouraged from using just finger 2 or 3 in the LH, as using 5, 2, 1 going into the phrase at bar 2 promotes an easy crescendo, whereas using either 3, 5, 1 or 4, 2, 1 coming out of the phrase assists in the diminuendo and gives a more secure memory of the correct notes.
Note that bars 7, 15, 18, 20, 25 and 27 require legato articulation, which will not only help the performer to achieve an effective crescendo and diminuendo, but also give a slightly different sound from the detached, pedalled lines elsewhere.
Although pedalling is not specifically marked into most editions of this piece, it is certainly needed here to give a convincing sense of style.
It is correct to pedal through the semiquaver rests in this piece, but it must be remembered that the use of the pedal will also enhance the RH arpeggios so the melody line must be brought out sufficiently strongly for it to sound prominent even at the piano dynamic suggested.
The pedal should be released in sympathy with the chord changes, avoiding any blurred harmonies whilst still giving a wash of even semiquavers.
Listen to how the pedalling is managed at the end of the piece in this audio extract.
The easiest way to teach this piece is by first asking the pupil to learn the relevant arpeggios of G major, D major, C major and B minor. It will be noticed that the chordal structure of the music centres largely on these arpeggios.
If the chords are named aloud by the student (as G major, C major etc or as Chord 1, Chord 1V etc), this will give a secure knowledge of the harmonic progression and the key change to B minor at bar 17 can then be fully appreciated.
When the piece is played as written, ensure that the pace is slow enough for accuracy to be maintained as learning is most efficient when early mistakes are avoided.
Working on one four bar phrase at a time, the student will profit from:
1/practising the RH as block chords first
2/playing the LH melody separately
3/then combining the two parts.
Finally, play as written.
It is useful to practise changing the pedal at the early stages of learning.
1/First simply practise sustaining the LH bass notes, repeating Bar 1 several times.
2/ Next practise using the pedal as you play the LH with block chords in the RH.
The dynamic grading can be explored very soon in the leaning process, as this will give additional interest to practising.
Practise listening primarily to the melody line to ensure that it really can be heard above the accompanying figure.
If this proves problematic, try playing simple five note scales, first making the RH louder, then the LH.
Sometimes practise listening particularly to the accompaniment and give yourself a mark out of 10 for evenness. Then aim to improve this mark on your next attempt.
The bars that commonly go wrong are the ones where the RH changes pattern such as in Bar 7. Careful, consistent fingering will prevent inaccuracy here.
The section in B minor, being different from the main G Major sections, presents more of a challenge to the memory and extra, careful practice is needed between bar 17 and the end of the piece.
You may need to explain the division between hands in the final two bars of the piece.
If fast playing is a problem, then individual sections may be played up to speed, pausing between sections in order to gather the thoughts ready for the next phrase. The pauses then become less lengthy and eventually the sections are seamlessly 'stitched' together.
Once all the hard work has been done, some good advice to give your student before a performance of this joyful piece might be the words of Lang Lang's first, beloved teacher, Professor Zhu:
'Just relax. Think of what makes you happiest, and then play' (2009:24)
An excellent performance will combine fluent accuracy with musically shaped phrasing that is supple enough to express the subject of the music. Rubato will enhance the performance, along with subtle dynamic grading. The minor key section of the piece will show a contrasting mood until the bright return of the G major key.
Technical control will be assured in use of the sustaining pedal, in control of balance between hands and in maintaining even rhythmic flow.
Most importantly the melody must sing and the pace should be sufficiently lively for a persuasive interpretation of this lovely, light-hearted piece.
A good performance will be fluent, despite the odd smudge in accuracy. There will be some emerging sense of character, with shaped phrasing. Awareness of the textures will be demonstrated in an attempt to make the melody prominent, although control of the tone may not yet be completely poised and balanced. Use of the sustaining pedal will be appropriate, if not yet consistent.
The baseline for a sound performance is that there will be steady continuity with prompt recovery from any mistakes. Even though the pace may be somewhat cautious, a developing feel for the character of the music should be evident in use of dynamics and the sustaining pedal will be used with a varying degree of success.
Lang Lang with David Ritz (2009) Journey of a Thousand Miles, London: Auram Press Limited.