Love songs without words
Friday, May 27, 2016
The modern piano is sometimes considered something of a beast, or at least a vehicle for virtuosity and thundering pyrotechnics. But as the dynamic and expressive range of the piano developed over the course of the nineteenth century, composers also turned to the instrument for some of their most personal and intimate outpouring of feeling. Take, for instance, Zdeněk Fibich’s Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs, an extraordinary collection of nearly four hundred piano pieces that he wrote as a kind of diary of his affair in the 1890s with Anežka Schulzová, a talented and beautiful pupil. In these heartfelt and touching pieces the composer records his own feelings for Anežka, reminisces about events they shared together, and offers tributes to every part of her body. The piano seems to me the perfect instrument for this kind of soul-baring, given its expressive potential combined with its self-sufficiency. Fibich’s model for these pieces, three of which appear on my album, was of course Schumann, who also excelled in writing mood-painting miniatures for the piano.
I have always loved piano repertoire that challenges the performer to search for subtle shades of colour and to draw a beautiful and lyrical sound from what is essentially a percussion instrument. Putting together a whole album of songs has therefore been pure pleasure; I would say that this has been the most satisfying and enjoyable of the 45 or so recordings that I have made over the course of my professional life, and the most indulgent. The pieces I have chosen for the album are, of course, songs without words, but they are also all expressions of love in its various aspects and in this way have much in common with music across the ages and from across the world. Some are arrangements of love songs (e.g. those by Liszt of Schubert’s Ständchen and Schumann’s Widmung) but most are original piano pieces, composed mostly in the nineteenth century. They are all exquisitely written and all, in my opinion, have something memorable about them. You could say that they are as close as classical piano pieces get to pop music, and it is no coincidence that several of the pieces on the album have had interesting afterlives. Fibich’s Poème, for example, always seemed familiar to audiences of a certain age when I performed it in the 1980s, even though Fibich himself was very little known in the UK then. It was only after some years that I discovered that it had been a smash hit in 1933, sung by John McCormack with the title ‘My Moonlight Madonna’. Liszt’s Liebestraum No.3 was taken up by Elvis Presley (Today, Tomorrow and Forever) and Schubert’s Ständchen by Nana Mouskouri. Many other pieces on the album have appeared in film or TV scores, but not all of them; I don’t think many seasoned classical lovers would know Vítěslav Novák’s haunting Serenade Op 9 No 3 or Smetana’s delightful waltz-like Láska (Love).
It goes without saying that all the pieces on the album are favourites of mine, but I am hoping that they will also appeal to a wide audience. I would defy anyone, whatever their music tastes, not to fall in love with one or more of them! But there is also a more serious purpose to this project, for the next stage of which I will commission 16 contemporary love songs and launch a competition, open to all ages and nationalities, for the composition of love songs for piano. Just as I hope my album can help to blur some of the real or imagined boundaries between ‘classical’ and other kinds of music, so I hope the next phase of the project will kindle a wider interest in the fascinating range of music being written by living composers. I will be very interested to see how composers of today respond to a genre that has such romantic connotations, but I am confident that some memorable piano pieces will appear over the coming months and am hoping that the universality and intimacy of the love song genre will win friends for this new repertoire.
William Howard’s album ‘Sixteen Love Songs’ (Orchid Classics ORC100056) is released on May 27, 2016.
Howard will perform ‘A Love Song’ by David Matthews and give the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s contribution to the new love song collection at the Forge, Camden Town, at 7.00pm on June 6. Tickets are available here.
Details of the piano love song competition will be available from June 1 on William Howard’s website: www.williamhoward.co.uk