Schmitz - Zur Sonnenuntergangsstunde (At Sunset)

Interpreting the Music

Teaching & Learning the Piece

Schmitz: Zur Sonnenuntergangsstunde

• No key signature, A minor feel
• Gentle, dreamy, rubato style
• Careful counting needed when learning
• Time signature changes
• Clef changes and hand crossing
• Pedalling essential
• Suitable for small hands
• Sensitive listening needed for dynamics

This daunting-looking German title breaks down literally into “At-the Sun-under-going’s-hour”, or “At Sunset”. The piece is a beautiful, serene depiction of natural beauty. As it comes from a collection called “Rainbow Preludes (21 dreams at the piano)” the imagined picture of the sunset may even include a rare sunset rainbow: these can be much more red and yellow in colour than normal daytime rainbows.

A spellbinding performance of this piece will impart the sense of awe and wonder that the imaginative performer is experiencing in the music.

The gently falling RH motif could be taken to depict the slowly setting disc of the sun, while the rising LH figure could be the arc of the rainbow. Whatever picture is established in the player’s mind, it should be mostly about light and colour, rather than movement. Inner stillness is at the heart of this music.

The 6/4 time signature implies a basis of two very slow (dotted minim) beats in the bar, although it will be necessary to count in crotchets at first to learn the correct timing of the quavers. The second beat is mostly arrived at with the LH crotchet that has a hanging tie (to no following note). This is an indication of mood, that the crotchet should (with the pedal’s help) be left to resonate beyond its length.

All phrasing, articulation and dynamics are carefully marked. This is a piece where listening is especially important. The piano sound naturally decays and the attentive, listening player will grade each new sound so that it blends in seamlessly.

A more relaxed LH fingering for bar 1, involving no stretch, is to use 1, 2 on F then G, with 3 on the next F. This fingering also prevents accidental bumping of the third note in the group, instead encouraging a gentle lifting away as the hand passes over the thumb on its way up the keyboard.

An early challenge will be to learn the timing of the unusual rhythmic pattern, and then remember to modify it where the time signature changes. The basic rhythm pattern should be listened to and clapped many times, then tapped out with appropriate hands. Counting the first couple of bars while tapping each hand will also be useful for understanding. It helps that the two hands move at different times, but remember to hold the RH semibreves. Although covered by the pedal, there is a risk of losing the sound if there is an inadvertent pedal change. Planning to hold the RH semibreve will also give it the correct weight and singing tone when the note is struck.

The “Tempo rubato” marking may need to be explained. This sense of rubato is additional to the ritardando/a tempo markings in the score and operates broadly in line with the pulse, more as a lack of rigidity than as an obvious pulling around of the timing. Experimenting with different degrees of freedom, and perhaps recording and assessing different versions, can help the player decide what sounds and feels best for them.

Pedalling is essential to the musical effect. The student must know how to change the pedal gently so that there is no noise of the dampers or mechanism, or worse still, the foot on the pedal itself! If performing on an unknown piano, they should try out the feel and sound of changing the pedal beforehand, if necessary mentioning to the examiner that they are going to do this. The legato pedal change itself is done at the same point in the bar – lifted and replaced in between the second and third quavers – so it can be measured in as part of coordinating all the movements.

It is also worth trying out the una corda pedal at the quietest moments, such as bars 10-11 and 17. Depending on the piano, this pedal may give the sound a new and different quality, such that it can be used as a special effect rather than an aid to quietness. Bar 11, where the opening music returns, is one place where this could be tried.

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