Ballads, Songs, and Snatches

Duration: ca. 30′

Instrumentation: solo piano

Score: View score

Performance note: Ever since I first heard them, I’ve always loved Leonard Bernstein’s piano Anniversaries. A set of nineteen miniatures published in four volumes between 1948 and ’88, they basically span Bernstein’s career, from promising thirty-year-old to the Grand Old Man of American music. What particularly struck me about them were two things: their stylistic breadth and their wide range of technical demands. They’re each fairly short – from about thirty seconds to two-and-a-half minutes in length – and many of them include music used in other pieces (most of the Five Anniversaries, for instance, turn up in the Serenade). Some require a professional level of keyboard proficiency; others can be played with relative ease by non-pianists like myself. And they all speak in a very direct way: they all sound like Bernstein and, even while some movements are more memorable than others, they all express themselves with a certain immediacy.

I was thinking of all of this as I wrote Ballads, Songs, and Snatches over the middle half of 2016. My only keyboard music to that point was the fiendishly difficult Cloches (2012-13) and I very much wanted to write something that fell, at least in technical terms, on the nearer side of reasonably playable than not.

That said, a lot of tricky passagework found its way in. “Ramble,” a jaunty, unpredictable dash up and down a series of oddly-shaped musical hills, has its share. So do “Apparitions” and “No Exit,” both knotty and unstable (and, in the former, requesting the pianist whistle – or sing – a bluesy tune).

But, for the most part, Ballads, Songs, and Snatches is straightforward, if not quite as easy to play as I had initially intended. Oh, well: in my experience, when the piece suggests something not in my original plan for it, the piece usually wins out. It’s also, typically, right.

Several movements – “Elegy,” “Waltz,” “Scherzondo,” and “Old Tom Bumble” – are drawn from earlier keyboard pieces I’d written in college or graduate school. They were each revised (sometimes significantly) but I was struck by the consistency of musical language across, in at least one case, nearly two decades.

The score’s title comes from Nanki-Poo’s ballad “A Wandering Minstrel I” from The Mikado, a turn of phrase that, to me at least, has always seemed to be an appellation in search of a piece.