Keys of all sorts turn up in classical music. The Ether Game Brain Trust created this playlist to separate the true KEYS from the malarKEY. Explore our favorites below.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) Keyboard Suite in B-flat, HWV 434: Sonata George Frideric Handel wrote in almost every available music genre, and although he is mostly remembered today for his occasional music: oratorios, operas, royal firework and water suites, he was a phenomenal keyboard player. From an early age, Handel had a small clavichord that he kept in the attic of his family home, so he could secretly practice (His father did not initially support his music career). This harpsichord Suite in B flat gives us a taste of what Handel’s flying fingers were capable of. The famed harpsichordist Dominico Scarletti apparently used to cross himself when speaking of the skill of Handel. The two virtuosos even once dueled keyboards at a court concert in Rome. They also share the same birth year!
Zez Confrey (1895-1971) Kitten on the Keys Edward Elzear Confrey, otherwise known as “Zez” Confrey developed Novelty piano music in the early 1920’s. Novelty piano was a mixed style, blending virtuoso classical technique with ragtime rhythms and often a kooky musical gimmick—such as imitating the sound of a playful kitten let loose on an unsuspecting keyboard. Confrey’s background making piano rolls, as well as his considerable musical skill, gave him a knack for creating showy pianistic tricks, which he then worked into catchy and well-developed melodies. While ragtime and novelty piano music had many similarities, the way they were heard by the public was considerably different. Ragtime tunes were printed on sheet music and sold to amateur pianists for playing in their parlors. The flamboyant and virtuosic effects in novelty music required extensive training, and so were usually heard through piano rolls and recordings. Fading in popularity by the end of the decade, novelty music is still often regarded merely as “inauthentic” jazz, however efforts are being made to view it more objectively.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Bluebeard's Castle, Op. 11 No.7 The Wives Bluebeard, as the original French fairy tale goes, becomes feared for his habit of killing his wives and leaving their bodies locked in a secret room in his castle, which can only be opened by an enchanted key. That key is left in the charge of his new wife, with strict orders never to use it, but when she inevitably does, she is shocked by the gruesome sight and drops the key on the floor, which is covered in blood. No matter how hard she tries to wash the blood off one side of the key, it always appears on the other side, thus her disobedience is always revealed. Béla Bartók reworked the story significantly for his 1911 opera Bluebeard’s Castle. In the opera, Bluebeard and his new wife Judith arrive at the dark castle, and Judith requests that all the doors in the castle be opened to let the light in. Bluebeard begs not to, but eventually each door is opened to reveal the curious spectacles inside: a torture chamber, a storehouse, a beautiful garden, and eventually Bluebeard’s former wives, alive but imprisoned in the castle forever.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) Le Banjo, Op. 15 Louis Moreau Gottschalk is known to us today as a 19th century American composer, but he was also well-known as a brilliant touring pianist. At one point in his career, Gottschalk gave 84 recitals in the space of four-and-a-half months. He frequently performed his own compositions, which became incredibly popular for their infusion of American folk elements, such as the piece we just heard, The Banjo. Abroad, his Creole compositions tantalized Parisian audiences, who claimed that he was the first eloquent and authentic musical representative of the new world. This is certainly high praise from a city whose conservatory initially rejected Gottschalk’s application on the basis of his American nationality. During an arduous tour in South America, Gottschalk contracted malaria. Even after contracting this deadly disease, he continued to perform throughout the continent until collapsing during a recital. Gottschalk died three weeks later from complications due to malaria.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) Psalm 67, Charles Ives became the youngest professional organist in Connecticut. Alongside performing, his duties as a church musician involved writing hymn settings and anthems. Psalm 67 is among the most famous of these settings, and one of the composer’s earliest experiments with bi-tonality: or using two different keys at the same time. Though he composed these settings in the 1890s, he continued to revise them well into the 1920s. It’s unlikely that the church choirs that Ives worked with were able to perform this music very easily. Among the many difficult compositional techniques he employed, bitonality was probably on the easier end of the scale. It mattered little to Ives, who often composed for his own musical curiosity rather than as part of his career.
Christoph W. Gluck (1714-1787) Orfeo and Euridice: Dance of the Blessed Spirits The last French monarch before the Revolution had many faults, one being that he was not that interested in music. Louis the 16th instead preferred hunting and locksmithing, a hobby that had been encouraged since childhood. However his indifference was made up for by the enthusiastic patronage of his queen, Marie Antoinette. Preened and primed for courtly life, Marie Antoinette played the harp and the clavecin, and was given singing lessons by none other than Christoph Willibald Gluck, who at the time was reforming French and Italian opera. Marie Antoinette especially enjoyed opera, and staged many new works including Gluck’s at the palace called Le Grand Trianon outside of Versailles. She herself performed in some of these operas, and it is tactfully said her elegant poise and graceful stage presence made up for certain vocal shortcomings.
Anthony Piccolo (b.1946) The Key This piece for mixed chorus and organ is a setting of a poem called The Key by 19th century English poet Christina Rossetti. It reads “Love is the key of life and death, Of hidden heavenly mystery.” Rossetti is perhaps best remembered for penning the words to the English Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter, though she completed a large collection of devotional poems and writings later in life. This setting was composed by Anthony Piccolo, a New York-based pianist, who has composed professionally since 1978. His style has been applauded for its close shifting harmonies and sinuously-shaped phrases, both of which are on display in The Key.
Francesco Landini (ca. 1325-1397) Ballata Francesco Landini became the most famous Italian composer of the late 14th century, overcoming blindness as a result of childhood smallpox and cultivating a style of Italian polyphony known as Trecento. Though we know that he wrote sacred music, almost all of his surviving compositions are ballata, a type of Italian secular song with a repeating “reprisa” that evolved from medieval dance music. We included him in our game tonight because he was also a renowned keyboard player, and is shown on his tombstone playing the portative organ, an organ that is small enough to be played on the lap or held by a strap. The performer uses one hand to play the keyboard while pumping the bellows with the other. The keyboard of this instrument likely looked different than the modern black and white keyed manual that we are used to. That keyboard did not appear until after Landini’s death. The medieval keyboard was arranged according to modal scales, with 2 or 3 keys for select accidentals.
Alicia Keys (b.1981) Fallen Alicia Augello Cook took on the performance name Alicia Keys after being discovered by an agent at 14. She had begun piano lessons at age 7 on an old upright piano that was gifted to her by a family friend, and she started songwriting as a teenager when she was attending the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan. Her rise to fame was rapid as she cultivated her individual style, which mixes elements of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, soul, and jazz. Her 2001 album Songs in A minor won her 5 grammys and its lead single Fallin topped the charts for six weeks. Keys has earned a total of 14 grammys to date, and is also a successful actress, appearing in The Nanny Diaries and The Secret Life of Bees.