I don’t know if the art of précis is still taught in the classroom. It was one of my stronger points as a teenager, although in a subsequent phase as a journalist, and in the face of a word count that exceeded the interest factor of the commissioned piece, it was easy to succumb to “why use two words when you can use four?” No such options with Twitter’s message board. You have to tweet what you want to with no more than 140 characters. A certain world leader has recently honed the art, if not always the spelling.
So what of the musical ability to compress expressions into fewer than 140 seconds? Bruckner and Mahler won’t be featuring in today’s blog, of course. Rather, a selection of pieces that might get overlooked because of their relative titchiness, but prove that size doesn’t necessarily matter. I’ll present them in the order of increasing brevity.
First up is the intriguingly titled Scrub, brothers, scrub! (8.223522) by Ken Warner (1902–1988). Articulating repeated notes by means of a back and forth movement of the bow across the string—‘scrubbing’ is a good word—produces a unique effect. Warner took that process to its ultimate in this piece, when practically every note of his melody is presented on the same double articulation principle. When this goes on and on—and on—and on—it becomes very demanding on the players. It’s easy to imagine a rehearsal session, with the enthusiastic composer countering his colleagues’ flagging energies with a clarion call of “Scrub, brothers, scrub!” The piece comes in at 120 seconds.
Next, to a piece by Victor Herbert (1859–1924), who is perhaps best remembered as the composer of delightful and elegant songs. Irish-born and German-raised, he was a cellist in the Stuttgart Royal Court Orchestra when he met his wife-to-be, soprano Therese Foster. They married in August 1896 and moved to America shortly afterwards, where they both found positions in New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It’s not surprising, given Herbert’s prolific talent as a composer and arranger that many of his finest efforts were the result of his collaboration with Therese and, by extension, the soprano voice. Italian Street Song (8.559026) was part of Herbert’s great hit, his 1920 operetta Naughty Marietta. The singer certainly sounds as though she’s been misbehaving with a drop of the Chianti Classico by the end of the song, which takes 112 seconds.
It takes almost as long to announce the title of my next selection as it does to perform it (around 100 seconds). It’s Leopold Godowsky’s (1870–1938) Chattering monkeys at the sacred lake of Wendit, from his Java Suite, “Phonoramas: Tonal Journeys for the Pianoforte.” (8.225274) A composer as well as a pianist, Godowsky’s 1925 Java Suite offers a series of evocative tone-pictures inspired by the landscape and people of Indonesia, which he had visited during a concert tour. Godowsky, who counted Saint-Saëns and Einstein among his close friends, was a phenomenal performer, his New York Times obituary stating: “He could play everything when he was at the zenith of his powers with a finish and apparent ease attainable by few.” Including this piece, no doubt, which challenges with its keyboard equivalent to ‘scrubbing’.
Frank Bridge’s (1879–1941) most famous pupil was Benjamin Britten. But among his other students were three sisters: his violin pupil, Betty Hanbury, her cellist sister, Rachael, and pianist sister, Patricia. Bridge wrote his three sets of Miniatures for piano trio for them. Published in 1915, they’re wonderful examples of Bridge’s skill at writing works for the specific skills of young musicians which test their techniques through immediately engaging short pieces. At 74 seconds, here’s the Allegretto from Set 1 (8.570792).
And so to a fallow patch in the rising-star stage of Mozart’s life. He found that the Paris that had adored him as a brilliant six-year-old in 1762 ignored him as a brilliant but ‘un-novel’ 22-year-old. “You have no idea what a dreadful time I am having here,” he wrote to his father. “I am trying to get away as quickly as possible.” Mozart tried to obtain commissions, without success. As part of those endeavours, he curried favour with the influential ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre by writing him a ballet, Les Petits Riens (8.557243). The pieces were used as entr’actes inserted into an opera by Piccini; the Agité interlude comes in at only 40 seconds, but still makes its mark.
And so to music by the Catalan-born composer Leonardo Balada (b. 1993). He wrote his Mini-Miniatures for piano (8.572594) in 2010. Here’s the first of the eight untitled movements, which takes less than 30 seconds to dispatch.
Finally, with a similar angularity but an even more economical expression, is the fourth movement from Schoenberg’s (1874–1951) Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19 (8.553870). Titled Rasch, aber leicht, it crosses the finishing line in just 22 seconds. Don’t cough, or you’ll miss it!