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Choosing Music Purposefully

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The playwright helpfully suggested music for the various moments on stage which required it, but since I (the director) am also a piano teacher, choosing piano music was a pleasure, and allowed me to revisit some of my favorites from my own student days. However, unlike Irena–who believes that Bach should be the foundation of any student’s repertoire–I have not played or taught a great deal of Bach. But since it was important to the script, I knew I would need to make carefully appropriate selections.

One challenge of selecting piano music was that music serves several purposes in the script: it reflects the skill level of the character playing at that moment, her emotions at the time, and the mood of the scene. All this, plus it must be an appropriate length—generally, the shorter the better. The audience has not come to see a concert, after all! (The other challenge was that it all needed to be music I could play with little or no rehearsal, and record myself on my own keyboard.)

In one case, a prelude is played badly by Kat (Rebekah Fodrey) during a long lesson sequence, then played well later. But since the “good” version is also an underscore for an emotional monologue by Maja, I chose to play that version in an un-Bach-like style: very sustained, with pedal, because it must nearly disappear under Maja’s words. The original version was spare and percussive and intruded on the scene.

Another critical piece of music is the piano/violin duet which is a central part of the lessons.  The suggested piece is a Bach C Major Prelude No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which is partnered with “Ave Maria”.  I assume that the playwright chose these partner melodies because the prelude is a very simple piano piece, suitable for the student who plays it. It is also lovely as the accompaniment to the gorgeous “Ave Maria” melody played on violin.

But there are several problems with this selection.  First, the piano prelude is a bit monotonous to be used as many times as it is called for. Second, Charles Gounod wrote the “Ave Maria” for cello (specifically to go with this Bach prelude)…137 years later after Bach’s composition. Third, Irena sings to comfort Maja during a bombing, (“We have Bach, and we will sing until they stop.”)  What she sings is supposed to morph into Eddie’s violin lesson, so they need to be the same melody…and the Ave Maria is not Bach. Finally, this duet also serves as the polished piece that Kat and Eddie play at the end of the drama. But besides the foregoing, it is also rather long to play in its entirety without feeling anticlimactic, and it is not possible to excerpt.

The solution to all these concerns, I found, was to substitute an abridged version of the main theme from Bach’s chorale, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” arranged for piano and violin. Since it includes lyrics for a simple melody, as well as a more complex accompaniment, it was a good choice. In Eddie’s first lesson, he is working on the melody; in the second act, he is playing the more complex part. Kat plays the simple chordal melody with him, which includes brief solo sections…nice, and also believable that she could learn it in one day.

[There is an inside joke in that choice, though it was not intentional:  the last time we used that piece, it was an important part of a play called Miracles (2011), about an autistic girl. At the end of the drama she plays part of “Jesu, Joy…” on the piano. Bekah Fodrey, who plays Kat, also played the girl in Miracles. Guess what Bekah is doing at the end of The Music Lesson?  Yup. Ironic. ]

Other piano pieces you will hear:  part of Bach’s Musette in D Major, his little prelude in D minor, another prelude in C Major, as well as fragments of:  Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Chopin’s Prelude No. 5 in A minor and Handel’s “Sarabande”. Irena and Ivan play a piano/violin duet version of the main theme from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), second movement. [Several of these pieces can be found in the John Thompson method books, and this nod to piano students of my generation is another inside joke of sorts.]

Special thanks to Ben Steiner, who spent an hour one Saturday playing several fragments over and over again, in order to get the timing exactly right. Later on, we combined two of his recordings into a duet! Also thanks to Matt Cwanek, who engineered that session.

The genius behind it all, Scott Kump, took my digital piano recordings, the violin recordings, sounds of warfare, and a digital metronome, and put everything together in its finished form through the magic of digital technology.

The piano in our production is center-stage, straddling the worlds of Pittsburgh and Sarajevo, reality and memory. Since we assume that the piano the Batonovic couple acquires is not a good instrument, I used a sound on my keyboard called “Honky-Tonk”–a jangly bright sound, not quite out of tune, but grating. When the piano is played in memory, it is a mellow grand sound. [The one exception is the final phrase of the play…the music segues from the Bosnian folk song back to “Jesu, Joy…” I hated to end the play with that jangling sound, so I kept the more mellow tones for the play’s final moment.]


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