A Sarabande and a Waltz: Krebs vs. Chopin

I have become enamored of Johann Ludwig Krebs ((1713 – 1780). It’s only in the last hundred years that he’s gotten some of the recognition he deserves. A protégé of Johann Sebastian Bach, he was reputed to be the better musician, but he did not prosper as his teacher did. For one stretch of his life he had, in fact, to work just for food for himself and his large family. And then, to add insult to injury, much of his composition, largely for organ, was attributed to Bach until the beginning of the 20th century. Talk about getting no respect.

The only pieces for piano keyboard (klavier) I have been able to find is a set of twelve pieces called Clavier-Uebung, IIe partie – Suite pour clavecin. A Prelude, Fugue a 3, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, Minuet I, Minuet II, Scherzo, Polonoise, Cantabile and Gigue. Being still a rank beginner I am sticking with the least demanding of these, which are the sarabande, polonoise and cantabile.

Krebs is said to bridge the period between the Baroque, marked by the death of Bach, and the new music exemplified by Bach’s son and then by Mozart. These twelve are little masterpieces. But I have learned that trying to learn a piece I can’t stand to play 200 or 300 times is  hopeless. My brief piano experience is littered with pieces I’ve taken up that were either too ambitious or for which after a couple dozen run-throughs the thrill was gone. I sometimes think what it must be like for someone, a child especially, to be forced to practice meaningless scales or other exercises that have no emotional appeal. Although I’ve come across at least one accomplished pianist who confessed to loving scales, I suspect someone like him nowadays would get diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive and be medicated long before he became proficient enough at the keyboard to be called a talented musician.

Since I mostly play for my own enjoyment, with only enough pride involved to the point that someone hearing me does not wince and perhaps even takes some pleasure in what they hear, I concentrate on a handful of pieces I do not tire of playing, even though my progress is slow or sometimes hardly recognizable. The first I took on is a simplified version of  the Largo from Haendel’s Xerxes. This was a mistake. The Largo was not written for piano but for voice, and the version I play is itself bowdlerized. And yet I am now into the third year of playing this piece and am still surprised and moved by it.

The second piece I can play through, sometimes without more than one or two mistakes, is Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A Minor. I marvel that people can play this piece rapidly, not just because I cannot play anything rapidly but because the music is so rich in every respect that to play it more than at a moderate speed seems sacrilegious. Artur  Rubenstein said that Chopin’s so-called posthumous works are actually the pieces  he did not consider good enough to publish in his lifetime. I can’t imagine, if this is true, what Chopin had in mind except that he found this piece to be so simple by comparison with his more demanding works that he thought it unworthy of him. In any case, I doubt I will ever tire of playing it, whether or not I ever learn to play it as well as it deserves.

And now I have Krebs. The Sarabande, the piece I’ve chosen to learn first, is deceptively simple — because there aren’t that many notes on the page, and there are few chords. Yet I’m laboring more with it than I did with either Haendel or the Chopin. Why is that? Is it a matter of my brain not being wired as well for this type of music as it is for the more romantic variety? I’m also experimenting at the moment with a Chopin polonaise, also relatively simple. I can’t help wondering why I can play and already remember chunks of this composition, which includes big chords, and have yet to master the basics of the simpler Sarabande, which I have played many more times.

So far, I don’t feel surfeited by  Herr Krebs, although I find it annoying that the Sarabande doesn’t seem to play itself the way Chopin’s waltz and polonaise do. I’ve given some thought to why this is so, apart from my own ineptitude. I’m assuming these 12 pieces were written for harpsichord. By the way he uses whole notes to bridge an entire bar or to remain sustained from one bar to the next, I suspect that he expected the keyboard player to do this without the use of a sustain pedal. Anyway, that’s the way I play it, a very different matter indeed from the way I play Chopin when, at least in my case, the pedal is more often down than up.

And yet it’s clear Krebs expects this music to sing. How do you make a harpsichord sing? I mean sing with my fingers the way it’s sings in my head when I’m out walking around the neighborhood. I understand Mozart had an instrument that allowed for some kind of sustaining tone, though not the pedal we are used to. Perhaps Krebs did as well, but, as I say, because of his notation I tend to doubt it.

Another “find” who’s staying quality is yet to be proved is Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a British composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His father was African, and Taylor took an interest in African and African-American music. He arranged a number of African pieces, and they sound remarkably bluesy to my ear. Apparently Taylor was extremely popular in Britain in his day. His The Song of Hiawatha was the most performed piece of its kind, running second only to Messiah. So far, his “The Stones Are Very Hard” provides an antidote to my sometimes frustrating efforts with Krebs’s Sarabande, and so, for now at least, Taylor’s welcome is far from worn-out.


2 Comments to “A Sarabande and a Waltz: Krebs vs. Chopin”

  1. Tom – how about adding the option to this blog for your viewers to be notified whenever you add a new post? I almost missed this because I don’t usually go around blogs of interest to see what’s new. I’d love the option of being told. You can post the option when you are signed in by going to Appearance/widgets/follow blog (she said helpfully — or at least hopefully). Terry

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