Scaling back

Gradus-ad-ParnassumMany of us will remember taking those first steps on the Gradus ad Parnassum, when we negotiated the initial mysteries of scales. Starting with the deceptive simplicity of C major, played hands separately, teachers soon upped the pressure with demands for complicated contortions of the fingers and sounds to match.

We were told that being able to handle such demands would introduce us to the treasures at the core of the repertoire; Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, here we come.

In composition, we were taught to emulate classic melodies that all have a judicious mix of notes moving both by step and leap, plus repeated notes; look no further than Jingle Bells.

But if, like me, you withered in the face of such complexity, let’s take a crumb of comfort from the fact that many fine melodies have simplicity at their core.

In the twentieth century, North America took the Christmas carol Joy to the World (Naxos 8.557160) as its own, featuring it in countless hymnals. The words are by the 18th-century English hymn writer Isaac Watts; the prolific American hymn writer Lowell Mason set the verses to music in 1839, choosing to open with a disarmingly straightforward descending major scale (Naxos 8.557160).the-nutcracker

Fifty years on, Tchaikovsky applied the same simplicity to his wonderful pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince Orgead in Act 2 of his ballet, The Nutcracker (Naxos 8.550515). Turning the idea on its head, an artless rising major scale forms the basis of the Waltz in his Serenade for Strings (Naxos 8.550404)matterhorn

Richard Strauss took 4 years to write his Alpine Symphony (Naxos 8.557811), between 1911 and 1915; the symphonic poem describes the forces of nature encountered during a mountain expedition. Strauss calls on vast orchestral resources to provide the sounds he needed, including an onstage brass section of 14 players, with a further 16 off-stage.

Setting the scene in the opening minutes, however, Strauss turns night into day simply by using a descending scale for both sundown and sunrise, by turns mysterious and majestic in the orchestration.

A rising scale and falling arpeggio will have raised stress levels for many a student getting to grips with J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major for organ. It opens with a pair of feet rarely so exposed, before getting stuck into those complex digital scale passages.Judy-Garland

Using just the first and last notes of a scale, the octave leap has a strength that belies its meagreness. The opening of Somewhere Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120563) is a familiar example, used here to express optimism.

In contrast, the overture to Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (Naxos 8.570296) opens with a slower, rising octave that immediately presages the sinister plot that lurks behind the curtain, the fight between good and evil.

The scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Naxos 8.553478) opens with leapfrogging octaves, including an unexpected one from the timpani, which must have taken the audience completely by surprise at the work’s première.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (Naxos 8.572486) launches into its finale with octave leaps from the horns that are ablaze with the light at the end of the tunnel, while Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80990) uses a similar horn motif to express the confidence of the rampant philanderer of the title.one-note-samba

So, if you never progressed beyond Chopsticks on the piano, rest assured that you can go and pick out some of classical music’s best-known themes without much difficulty. And, if all else fails, you can always melt into a confident rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s masterpiece of understatement, his One Note Samba (Naxos International 8.990029).