Bowen - Prelude in E minor Op 102/10
York Bowen (1884–1961) was an English composer and pianist whose reputation in both fields was at its peak before the First World War, although he was musically active throughout his life. Bowen did not change the late-romantic style of his pre- First World War style, continuing to write in a chromatically-spiced tonal idiom which shows the influence of Rachmaninov and impressionism.
Listen to York Bowen playing Rachmaninov's Prelude Op 23 No 5.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This piece would suit a pupil who has a light, sensitive touch, and can control dynamic levels below mf. Finger dexterity is necessary although the requirement comes mainly in short bursts rather than over sustained stretches. The foregoing qualities need to be allied to a musical imagination that can conjure up what Stephen Hough describes as the “mysterious humour” and “will o’ the wisp” character of the music.
Large hands are not called for – there is only one chord that spans more than an octave, and this can easily be split. A relaxed sitting position, centrally placed in relation to the keyboard, will facilitate execution of the roulades and the rapid hand-crossing required.
Style & Tempo
Helpfully, the composer has supplied a metronome suggestion or, rather, a range (crotchet = 92–96). The tempo band indicated seems ideal in that it reflects the fleeting character of the music whilst guarding against inappropriate haste. For the less dextrous player, a tempo of crotchet = c.84 preserves some of the musical character, but playing the piece any slower than this is likely to create the impression of plodding – and taking it faster than crotchet = c.96 is likely to give the impression of scrambling. Neither extreme is desirable. The demisemiquaver flourishes may require a certain flexibility in the pacing, so as to avoid a mechanical feeling, but generally the pulse needs to be steadily maintained, the only significant change to this occurring between bars 40 and 48.
The composer instructs “a capriccio” – like a caprice, a flight of fancy. Not only should this be reflected by the tempo but also by the sound world – a sound world of fleeting shadows and sparkling colours, of brief nocturnal dances and momentary broodings. The ideal piano for such a piece would be a light-actioned, soft-voiced instrument, capable of yielding the subtler tone colours – but, of course, as a pianist, you play what you are presented with! A little bit of warm-up time, trying out the action of the piano ahead of a performance would be time well spent where this piece is concerned.
Phrasing & Articulation
The distribution between the hands of the demisemiquaver flourishes is mostly fairly obvious and shown quite clearly by the notation. However, there are places where alternatives can be explored.
Tone & Texture
The loudest specific dynamic marking in the score is mf, which, along with the several markings of p and below, strongly suggests that lightness and delicacy of touch are needed most of the time.
One way of gauging the dynamic levels is to decide how much volume is needed for the mf passages, such as that between bar 27 and 30.
Once this dynamic level has been established and the coordination of aural effect and related physical sensation memorised, it is then a good idea to practise a quieter passage – for example the opening – so as to achieve a direct comparison. The association of physical sensation with an appropriate sound level needs to become habitual.
However subdued a pp sound level is – for example at the end – room needs to be left for an even quieter dynamic, where the composer has marked ppp in bars 42–47. Here, fingers need to be kept in contact with the surface of the key and the wrist lifted just enough to ensure that the notes speak. The hand position should be finely balanced, leaning neither to the left nor the right, and the fingers in alignment, to aid as even a voicing of the chords as possible. Use of the una corda pedal will enhance this hushed effect.
The demisemiquavers need to be swift and leggiero and therefore should not be played clumsily or heavily. They can be practised slowly so as to ensure the smooth passage of one hand to the other, but also practised staccato so that a sense of the finger leaving the key is developed. However, the staccato movements should be fairly economical if the dynamic is to remain at mp or below.
Playing staccato when the music is taken up to speed is neither desirable nor in fact possible, but slow, staccato practice should encourage the feeling that the way in which the key is quitted is at least as important as the manner in which it is attacked. This feeling should promote articulative precision and clarity, both of which are necessary if these flourishes are to be fully effective musically.
Aside from the redistributions suggested in 'Phrasing and Articulation', fingering is not a major problem. However the ability to slide seamlessly from a black to a white note, using the same finger, may be a new experience for some.
For example, at the end of bar 3, the second finger needs to move from A-sharp to B without an audible gap and without the use of the pedal. This is best achieved if the staccato chord has been fully released and the whole forearm is moved gently outwards, allowing the finger to slide over the right-hand front edge of the black key downwards into the
In bar 40 however, using the thumb before transferring to 2 on both the G-sharp and the G-natural facilitates the legato line.
Although some pedalling has been marked into the score, this seems a little erratic and, like all such intermittent indications, it is not necessarily comprehensive.
As ever, one needs to use one’s ears as guides at least as much as one’s respect for the composer’s possible intentions. Use of pedal in the demisemiquaver flourishes is sometimes indicated, sometimes not, but they will tend to sound brittle rather than brilliant if the texture is entirely dry. On the other hand, a semi-articulate blur is also undesirable!
As the date of a concert or exam approaches it is useful for your pupil to give a few ‘mock’ performances to a critical listener/listeners. One of the main benefits of doing this is that undertaking performance simulation entails many of the same stresses and strains as the real thing, and will therefore expose weaknesses and areas for further practice that might come as a nasty surprise should they rear their ugly heads for the first time in a performance! There is no guarantee against making mistakes, but the process of practising performance encourages the idea that a performance has to keep going whatever happens, and builds up a belief that continuity is possible under any circumstances.
The other main benefit is that a ‘mock’ performance gives your pupils a chance to ascertain whether their musical ideas are really being communicated to the listener. If pupils are used only to playing to themselves or to a teacher, there is a chance that a performance of Bowen’s prelude will reflect this and come across either as too hard or too boisterous, or, on the other hand, as inarticulate and wishy-washy. This music does require intimacy, and over-projection could render it too extrovert, although the musical ideas need to be communicated. An actor’s ‘stage-whisper’ which, whilst quiet, will reach the back of the auditorium is a useful model for pianists. The expressive features in the music should not be exaggerated but need to be clearly communicated – the tempo changes in particular. The careful adjustments needed to achieve appropriate character and dynamics can be usefully gauged by a critical listener during a ‘mock’ performance situation.
The following points are worth revisiting in practice sessions:
• The music should be played moderately and to a steady pulse, though not rigidly.
• Fingerwork needs to be precise and clean, but not percussive, with the demisemiquaver roulades sounding like musical phrases rather than technical exercises.
• Legato and staccato elements need to be strongly contrasted.
• Dynamics need projection but within a framework of mf and below.
• The pedalling should aid the musical flow but not undermine articulative or harmonic clarity.
• The music should sound fleeting and capricious, but thoughtful in the less active moments.
Performance by Joop Cells (Chandos - Chan 10277)
An excellent performance will demonstrate:
Mastery of the notes allied to subtlety of tone control and dynamics; fluid but articulate passagework; a moderate tempo in which the demisemiquaver flourishes can sparkle but not scramble; well-judged tempo changes as appropriate; skilful pedalling reflecting the musical character and serving the technical needs of the piece; a grasp of the musical essence and communication of this in performance.
A good performance will demonstrate:
Confidence in playing the notes, with some subtlety of tone and dynamic control; fluent, generally well-controlled passagework; an appropriate tempo in which the demisemiquaver flourishes sound neither laboured nor rushed; well-managed pedalling appropriate to the musical and technical needs of the piece; reasonable understanding of the musical essence and some communication of this in performance.
A sound performance will demonstrate:
Adequate knowledge of the notes along with evidence of tonal and dynamic control; generally even passagework; an appropriate tempo in which the demisemiquaver flourishes are mostly accommodated; pedalling that mainly serves the musical and technical needs of the piece; a basic grasp of the musical essence although communication of this in performance may not always be consistent.