Opus 130

1.29.14 | To forget

From a technical standpoint, time is absolute. Time only feels relative. The next five minutes of my life will not be perceived similarly to those of yours. If time were relative, five minutes in one’s childhood would feel longer than five minutes in one’s adulthood. But let’s talk about a more significant amount of time. Take two years. I can remember parts of my life two years ago, but it all feels so distant. I can recall specific memories; I know they happened, but it is extremely difficult to truly re-immerse myself in the moment. So many experiences, no matter how insignificant, have passed since then, and because of this, it is impossible to accurately repossess my past perception of the world around me. Mentally ‘going back’ would be a very disorienting task. Regardless of whatever your ‘two years’ have consisted of, time is more than just a number; time is measured in experiences.

Chopin’s fourth ballade is widely accepted as his single greatest work. Despite the compressed form of his four ballades (relative to standard large-scale works, such as sonatas, they are a fraction in size, in terms of time), these works are among the most enduring of Chopin’s compositions. Chopin’s fourth ballade is regarded to be the the epitome of his output, and one of the greatest works of the Romantic era. John Ogdon, a 20th century pianist, speaks, “[it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”

The ballade opens with a completely innocent theme, adorned with a simple alternating accompaniment. These short seven measures will lay the foundation for the gargantuan narrative of the piece. If the Op. 52 Ballade were a human, these measures would be his childhood. After a brief pause, the piece strolls into a melancholic troubled theme, however absent of despair. This section takes on Chopin’s nocturne style, with clear lyricism and carefully placed ornamentation. His mastery of variation from is shown in the easily recognizable, repeated 8-note motif that never wears itself out. The piece carries itself to a brief climax, only to quickly settle down to a repose. I find this section to be representative of the turmoil of the early adulthood.

The major key theme appears again to kindly point out the exaggeration of the preceding tension, only to give way to the development of the minor key theme. It is not readily apparent, but the relative tempo has significantly increased since the beginning of the piece. The second full statement of the 8-note motif is introduced, and this creates an unnerving sense of doubt to be resolved. New variations are created, and Chopin saturates the melodic line with heavy ornamentation. The major key theme appears for the last time as momentum picks up to lead into the coda. What I find especially interesting about this transition is how seamlessly it is done. The fourth ballade is unusually restrained, even for Chopin, and without careful attention, one can feel totally lost when listening to the coda. The music holds its register for serenity and absolute clarity for a moment, without sacrificing momentum, and plunges into five sweeping sets of arpeggios. The ballade reaches a peak of volume as massive chords settle into a brief modulation.

One cannot ignore the tremendous technical difficulty of the double notes when speaking of the coda, but finger-breaking acts aside, Chopin chooses to end the peak of his compositional career by anticipating the style of Johannes Brahms- conservative melodic lines driven by sheer rhythmic momentum. After a very disorienting virtuosic display, the ballade ends decisively in F minor, utilizing the bottom octave F for the final chord, making for a rich sonority. Much can be said about the structure of the coda alone, but I will leave that for another topic of discussion.

In a short twelve minutes, Chopin was able to evoke the drama of an entire (although ambiguous) narrative many composers would have fallen short of, even in a complete sonata. Interpreting music isn’t trying to figure out what to do, it is trying to figure out the possible. A well-trained musician may have forgotten the mood of preceding music by the point of the coda, considering the immediacy of the moment, but he/she will know that the important thing is to decide what to do in the present.

(Video courtesy of ArtMusicRepository, a YouTube channel archive of public domain art music)


1.14.14 | Detail

In reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I have noticed a painstaking amount of detail put simply into the description of the environment. Charles Dickens also wrote with such detail in his novels, but I believe that Shelley intended to emphasize the brilliance of nature in contrast to the seemingly grotesque monster of Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster can appreciate the sublimity of nature even in the midst of the contempt humans have for him. His creator has an affinity for nature, where the elements of nature metaphorically represent his state of mind. Nature is the one thing that neither of these characters can be rid of, or be rid from.

Igor Stravinsky’s musical work, Petrushka, presents a narrative in which a puppet is brought to life only to find suffering and a hasty death. Ironically, the piece takes on a joyous mood more often than not. The puppet is a ballerina’s lover, but is disappointed to find that she has eyes only for a Moor. In the four tableaux (characteristic sections of the entire piece), the puppet is illustrated with intense humanization, much of which underlines his sorrow and conflict with the Moor. However, Petrushka is brought to life with the setting of this ballet set to music. The piece traverses a lively fair in the first tableau, a dark cell in the second tableau, the Moor’s room in the third tableau, and the restatement of the fair in the fourth and final tableau.

Petrushka is not of a simple programmatic nature, but is quite unique in the relatively unorthodox methods of the composer to intertwine human character with environment.

Original orchestral work:

Abridged piano transcription (by the composer):


1.8.14 | Nostalgia

It seems as if an eternity has passed since I’ve first heard this piece.


12.10.13 | Off

Sometimes we do ourselves a disservice by thinking too much.

– Raymond

12.2.13 | Silence

Silence is the absence of sound. Or maybe it is a different type of sound. I prefer to think of it as the most powerful sound. Nothing grabs my attention more quickly than silence. You can discern the type of situation by the sounds of the environment, and even in the most dire moment, the danger never hides. But silence is another species. It is a rare and special occasion, but it is also the environment rendering you the most vulnerable.

Then, of course, there are the totally harmless awkward silences–but that’s a different story.

The following is the second piece from Maurice Ravel’s piano suite, Gaspard de la nuit. The set of three pieces was dedicated to the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, and was also based on three poems written by him. The second piece, Le gibet, depicts a hanging corpse in a barren desert.

– Raymond

11.19.13 | Constraint

High points in music often are derived from absolute constraint in an earlier point in time. If the same level of drama or immediacy is kept from beginning to end, the high point would not be a high point, but rather a “mesa-like leveling”. This is a greatness of F. Chopin’s writings. He never fails to deliver an effective climax. He never intends to saturate his music with premature ideas.

I am still currently reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is said that most of the plot hangs on a relatively calm atmosphere. Melville takes time to develop the characters. The physical confines of the ship the crew is on is meant for this purpose. Even though the novel highlights a legendary whale hunt, it is the journey that matters, not the destination. Even though I am not even halfway into the novel, I can feel the characters coming more and more to life, and I will expect the destination to be worthy of the crew’s struggle.

The Chopin Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 is unarguably the most dramatic of his nocturnes. The nocturne starts off with an unpretentious, painstakingly subtle tempo. The main theme is presented in the first four bars, and it carries a feeling of sorrow. This A (of the ternary form A-B-A’) section of the piece will be the basis for the climax of the piece. The melancholy develops until the B section, where the piece modulates to C major, settling into further restraint. One may feel their sense of direction lost here. But Chopin had the innate ability to tie this absolute calm of a section into chromatic escalation, as the double octaves undulate. This transition into the A’ section is almost Lisztian.

The theme:

As the last vibrating octaves settle into the doppio movimento, the main theme is reintroduced almost melodically verbatim, however with a completely different texture and 4-3 polyrhythm. The polyrhythm proves to be a technical difficulty, but its purpose is to increase the tension of the music. A similar compositional technique is used in his Op. 66 Fantasie-Impromptu. As aforementioned, the melody in the A section is reused, but as Chopin understood the piano on an inhuman level, the atmosphere is virtually rewritten, and simple melancholy is transformed into utter despair. The doppio movimento is still amazingly restrained, with dynamics oscillating from pianissimo to piano for the near entirety of the section. Impeccable voicing and excellent tone quality with tone differentiation is required to truly do justice to this masterful composition. The nocturne is difficult without virtuosic intentions. The following near-coda is, simply put, exciting. For a few bars, I can feel that the tension cannot be pushed anymore- and it isn’t. The drama is put to an abrupt halt as the melodic line slows, and the bass figures follow a ritardando, and fall onto an absolute stop- the bottom C of the piano. The piece ends with an elaborate, delicate cadence, with fading sorrow.

The score is also provided, if you are interested in having a further look into the piece.


– Raymond

11.12.13 | Tribute to an acquaintance, tribute to a master

à mon ami Franz Liszt” – F. Chopin


11.5.13 | Community

A multitude of voices, no matter how different in character from each other, can unify to create something totally enigmatic and profound.

– Raymond

10.29.13 | Interpretation

The process of creativity is often difficult for me. Whether it be education, work, or plain life, there always comes a fork in the road where one is ‘free’ to do something how he pleases. It may seem to be a blessing, to be able to have less of a constraint on one’s actions, but is it really easier? Success in creativity is a much greater achievement than success in a rigid paradigm.

There often comes the debate of the validity of a performer’s interpretation, especially when the composer has written how a passage should be played– dynamics, articulation, tempo, tone, etc. One should not deviate so wildly from the composer’s original intentions or conception of the piece, but art is experimentation.

Below is an visual excerpt of the opening theme from Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 3.

Many of the aforementioned nuances in interpretation have been specified. Now, as we look at a couple of different interpretations of this piece, we shall find that, at the fundamental level, they keep true to Chopin’s intention of mood. However, as one listens more closely, it will be possible to pick apart the elements that construct each performer’s musical personality and creativity. Note that only professional standard pianists have been chosen, in order to rule out the factor of technical skill being an inhibitor to true interpretation.

Vladimir Horowitz

Gyorgy Cziffra

Sviatoslav Richter

Valentina Lisitsa

Whether or not the audience enjoys a deviation from the composer’s original intentions, the performer inevitably reveals a part of their creativity in their interpretation. Horowitz tends to employ sudden dynamic shifts (and how naturally they are controlled!); Cziffra is easily identifiable by his constant desynchronization of chords and wild rubato; Richter hides his brilliant virtuosity behind a restrained atmosphere; Lisitsa is most constant in tempo.

Of course, there is an infinite variety of interpretations out there, and no single interpretation will please all people. But what good is being able to ‘please all’? I believe that music is the art of communication. Performers build their legacy upon their style of interpretation.

One of the utmost joys in life is being able to look back on an achievement and know that you ‘did it your way’; you know you can call it your own.

– Raymond

10.22.13 | Bipolarity

Iago takes on multiple personalities throughout the course of Shakespeare’s Othello, therefore it is difficult to discern his true character, as his actions are mainly shaped by his motives. I find a resemblance in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Even though he writes beautiful phrase transitions, one may find himself/herself questioning how the transition was done so seamlessly, but slightly episodically.

A fine example of this is his third Piano Concerto, the apex of Romantic piano literature. Alexis Weissenberg presents a most convincing interpretation. It is a shame that the recording is discontinued.

– Raymond