Tag Archives: music

Rachmaninov Surgery

Let’s have a big hand for the pianist

One of the joys of working with midi instruments and other electronic composition tools is that it is quite possible to write things that are impossible to play.  A composer or arranger can happily write chords that require a guitar to have seven strings or a pianist to have twelve fingers.
Now, if you’re writing for midi instruments, then that doesn’t matter; the range of an instrument and the arrangement of limbs are immaterial to a computer.  On the other hand, if you are writing a score that is intended to be played by a human musician, it helps enormously if the score is actually playable.

One of the commonest errors in creating a piano score is to write chords that exceed the span of the pianist’s hands.  I have fairly large hands and I would struggle to hit a chord with a span of a ninth without the risk of depressing adjacent keys.  For most pianists, an octave is a safe bet – though, of course, this depends on the pianist.  Take, for example, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# minor…

Whilst concert pianists like Hyung-ki Joo will find ways around the problems of Rachmaninov (and Sergei Rachmaninov himself played those chords by jumping), many pianists will struggle when confronted with passages like this.

A big hand for the pianist (part 1)There are generally two reasons why these occur.  Firstly, the composer has played the music into his computer and the computer has misinterpreted the split between the two hands.  (Usually the software works with a fixed split point – by default, usually middle C.  Everything from there upward is put into the right hand part, and all else in the left.)  Secondly, composers writing directly in the software create a chord with a particular sound, neglecting how it will be played.
In either case, the result will be the same, and the composer needs to do some editing.  The first route is always to see if notes can be switched between hands:-A big hand for the pianist (part 2)

In this case, there is still a problem with the final chord because it now exceeds the right hand’s span.  Furthermore, it can’t just be solved by knocking-out that bottom A; that would make the chord empty, with just a set of Ds and a lot of space in the middle.  A creative solution needs to be found, even if it doesn’t match the originally intended sound.  Something like:-A big hand for the pianist (part 3)

(As usual, the illustrations come from the Sibelius score-writing package, but in this case the issues are universal.)

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What’s a Musical?

What is a musical?  That sounds like a simple question, with the obvious answer being something like “a theatrical piece where the dialogue is interspersed with songs”.  Unfortunately it isn’t that simple.  For example, is Evita a musical?  It’s certainly billed as one, but the dialogue isn’t interspersed with songs.  That’s because there isn’t any dialogue; the entire show is sung.  On that basis, it ought to be an opera, but it isn’t.  I think that’s because the form of the songs is designed to deliver clarity of plot, character and emotion through lyrics, rather than the operatic exhibition of the voice as an instrument.  I’m on very shaky ground here: it can be argued that bel canto opera has the clarity of modern musicals, or that the whole point of Wagnerian singspiel is to deliver the colour of emotion and plot…
But I digress; my concern here is not the upper boundary, where stage musicals merge into other fully-musical forms, but the lower boundary, where musicals merge into plays.

The reason that this is important to me is that in order to help customers of the Lazy Bee Scripts web site find the scripts they want, we need to classify them.  The classification has to mean something (the same thing!) to us and to the customers and each class has to have reasonable boundaries.  We found that the class of “all plays that include songs” was too broad, since it ran from pieces with an incidental song through to pieces with no dialogue.  (There are a couple of youth theatre pieces by Nicholas Richards and Tim Hallett which are completely sung; one of them – Saint Nicholas and the Three Purses of Gold – is, arguably, an oratorio, since it tells the story in song without (necessarily) having characters acting-out the story.  The other piece – The Lambton Worm – is fully sung but has definite parts for different characters.)

We could set the boundary on the basis of the ratio between dialogue and music, but what’s the rule?  And how would we deal with pantomimes?   (Panto is a form of variety entertainment in which it is normal to include songs, but frequently the songs are chosen to suit the available performers, so the length can vary enormously.)

Our compromise is to split into two categories, based on whether or not music is integral to the piece.  On the one hand, we have “Musicals” where the music is integral: the songs, regardless of the number of them, need to be performed as part of the piece.  On the other hand, we have “Plays With Music” where the songs could be left out without compromising the artistic intention.

This, for example, puts Louise Roche’s Girls Night firmly in the Musicals, since it is set in a karaoke bar where the characters sing popular songs, and it puts my youth theatre piece Witch Hunt into Plays With Music, since there is a song available to complement various parts of the action, but it is not essential.

The “Browse” and “Search” functions on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site now use these classifications – along with many others!