SHAPING SHAPEY – 21 VARIATIONS FOR PIANO
by DAVID HOLZMAN
from SONUS, Vol. 28, Number 1, Fall 2007
Reprinted with permission.
Ordering information: www.sonicdesign.org/sonus.htm
While all music bears the imprint of its creator, Ralph Shapey's works do so in numerous ways, both subtle and glaring. At some point, even in his most complex compositions, a knowledgeable listener will hear a contrapuntal clash, a 6-pitch cluster hovering in the air, or even a plaintive melody. These signatures will enable the listener to say, with a smile or perhaps a different expression, "Oh, there he is again".
This imprimatur can be felt in broader ways as well. In the piano works, there is a brusqueness to the arrivals and departures of the music. The thick dissonances, strong dynamics and stark rhythms, which begin these works betray an ornery guest, neither able nor willing to bestow a smile, let alone a kiss, to the host. The harsh conclusions to the scores have a ritual element in which slabs from earlier sections are repeated, almost verbatim. This does not indicate a guest who has been mollified by an evening with friends; rather, one senses a person preoccupied with tasks, both present and future, who walks out the door much as it was entered to.
It is, however, in the middle of these works, as often with social encounters, that unguarded moments – even confessions – of innocence, tenderness, wit, and meditation, even sentimentality, can be found. These treasures betray the deeper, more humane individual, whom only the closest friends know is there.
For the performer-pianist, the upsetting presence of Shapey is felt even before one's hands reach the keys. The near-illegibility of both words and pitches is already a roadblock to one's determination. Even worse is the remarkably careless proof -reading, in which mistakes of pitch, rhythm, registration, et al, abound. A single example must suffice, taken from Mutations II (1966), Ex. 1. The eighth rest in the treble is missing a dot, despite the lining up of the first chord as though it were indeed an eighth beat. One can only recognize the solution by looking at the final sixteenth of the phrase which is indeed lined up with the bass sixteenth rest. The passage is stunningly difficult even if notated correctly (the arrows are also of no conceivable use ). I tried to find a different solution, not accepting that such a blatant error was indeed a fact.
Ex. 1 Mutations II
Shapey composed quite rapidly and one could perhaps make the case that he wrote in haste. However, this sloppiness is a slap in the face to all performers and it is no wonder that only the most dedicated would persevere to face the deeper challenges which the music presents.
While the brusque bookends of the works pose minor interpretative issues of fidelity to composer or to oneself, none of the above is a musical challenge as much as a nasty obstacle. There are other richer issues that a performer must confront and conquer in order for the inner humanity and the sheer exuberance of these works to be translated to the listener. The two challenges which I am referring to can be labeled, with sufficient accuracy, as follows – awkwardness and ambiguity. While neither unique to Shapey nor to recent music, these are more problematic today than before as the negative label of ‘abstract’ or ‘cold-blooded’ continues to becloud some of the most important music of our time. The failure to fully overcome these challenges and to achieve a pianistic virtuosity makes these labels more potent, while the successful overcoming of these challenges shows the direct communication and sensuous pleasure which is in the works.
For a pianist, awkwardness conjures up images of thick chords and disjunct passage-work, often at break-neck speeds. Brahms Rhapsody Opus 119 was a scary instance of this in my student years. Uncongenial hand positions – due in part to the need to use one's thumb on black keys – are, to a degree, unusual in diatonic and early 19th century, yet are common in 20th century music.
The self-consciousness of fear and caution can take over, as one’s eyes move frantically across the keys and from score to keyboard or even from treble to bass staff. The habit of preparing new hand positions is often resorted to, as the pianist gets to new registers and chords before actually striking them. This is especially damaging in 20th century scores and in Shapey these devices cannot be resorted to without destroying the music. Equally awkward are the complex rhythms and equally damaging is the cautious and expressively cramping use of metric subdivision for mental mastery. It needs stressing that awkwardness is not unpianistic. When the Shapey movements are played with exuberance and confidence, they, like their counterpart in works of Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, and countless others, are among the most brilliant and powerful pianistic effects ever created.
Ambiguity is a largely interpretative issue, one of the great delights for a performer as what is true one year (or one day) is not true the next. Issues of phrase structure, touch, tempo, and freedom are found in all music even the most mechanistic. Shapey’s works present this issue in the most stimulating, albeit at times frustrating manner, due in part to flaws in the scores themselves. One such flaw is the frequent absence of interpretative signs such as dynamics, phrase marks, or expressive indications. Another is the misuse of notation, most notably pedal indications. A third is the contradiction between indications such as metronome marks and the expressive content of the music. All. of the above necessitate the ‘re-composing’ of the music by the interpreter to some degree. In the case of a living composer, one can at times have a civilized discussion. Or else – a cardinal sin – the performer can give up one’s own personality and simply play machine-like.
It is interesting that in Shapey’s first Mutations (1956) there is extensive interpretative notation. In Mutations II there is little but it matters less, as the piece is a series of polished jewels in which even the insane violence of the finale seems like a well-chiseled vignette. It is in 21 Variations for Piano (1978) that the loss is most deeply felt as it is perhaps the best of his piano works, and is a massive architecture which requires shape and subtle motion on the part of the performer.
Rather than divide this essay into two parts, dealing with the twin challenges of awkwardness and ambiguity, I will focus upon the four large movements of 21 Variations and freely explore these two issues, since there is no clear wall between them. As will be evident, mastery of one aspect of a work requires mastery and comprehension of all aspects. The four movements of the work, each involving several variations, make basic demands upon the performer:
Movement I presents the first 5 variations and is largely the exposition of both the theme and the various rhythmic and serial motives which pervade the work; clarity of rhythm, touch and pedaling is a central issue.
Movement II presents the next 5 variations in which effortless pianistic brilliance is a must and physical awkwardness must be fully overcome.
Movement III with 6 variations is the expressive center of the work and intimacy of expression, subtlety of motion, and interpretative questions are always present.
Movement IV is a surreal commentary in which mood painting is central; awkwardness and ambiguity abound in these final 5 variations.
21 Variations – Movement I
The theme itself, Shapey’s unconvivial hello, is an apt welcome for the pianist in that issues of touch, rhythm, and pedaling – awkwardness and ambiguity – are already present, Ex. 2. The opening 4-pitch chord of the theme seems almost a direct homage to the 4-pitch chord of Aaron Copland's Variations. Indeed, the two works bear striking formal and expressive parallels, notably the 20 variations and coda structure of both, and to be played with the same brazen gruffness. In the Copland it requires attacking each pitch with arm-strokes and two-fingers per pitch (usually thumb and second finger). The Shapey requires a similarly muscular and theatrical arm-stroke with a crucial use of thumb on D, not C, in order to achieve the full-blown depth of touch. Cautious or careless fingering, i.e., using thumb on C or not using it at all, would damage the communication from the very first pitch one plays.
Ex. 2 Variation 1 – the opening 4-pitch chord of the theme
This brazen crisp sound permeates the first five variations of this movement with the crucial exception of Variation 2 whose fluidity of line must be brought out. Maintaining the clarity of touch and harmony and the crispness of the dotted rhythms is central to the whole section (and beyond) and most crucially
involves constant and creative use of the sostenuto pedal. This use of middle pedal involves rejecting Shapey’s faulty indications and adding the pedal in numerous places where Shapey himself neglects to indicate it.
The interpretive ambiguity of the opening still presents a difficult choice as Shapey’s pedal indications contradict each other. His use of sostenuto pedal (described as pedal III) is negated by the right pedal indication above, which creates a resonant blur over the entire phrase – a justifiable interpretation. I feel, however, that the clarity of the harmonies as well as the crucial dotted rhythm requires a change of pedal for each of the last three chords (with middle pedal still in use to hold down the six bass pitches which form the majestic and ever present 6-pitch set). The use of middle pedal allows me to overrule Shapey’s own notation at the middle of the second system and to hold the middle pedal for a bit while releasing the right pedal. This allows for a harmonic resolution from C# to Bb which is present at all climatic moments of the work and can be adjusted subtly for expressive reasons.
The need for crispness and articulation presents technical problems in all five variations; but in Variations 3 and 5 creative pedaling solutions are required to maintain the consistency of color and texture. Variation 3 marks the first appearance of the l2-pitch set which interacts more and more with the 6-pitch set heard earlier, Ex. 3. One can achieve textural and rhythmic clarity without resorting to sostenuto pedal but when reaching the top of page seven of the score an unforeseen problem arises due to the sonorous bass tones (the 6-pitch set) whose overtones will blur the chord progression above if one uses the right pedal, Ex. 4. The only solution is use of sostenuto pedal to capture the dotted sixteenths in the treble while allowing the bass pitches to be unpedaled and thus released precisely as sixteenths.
Ex. 3 Variation 3
Ex. 4 Variation 3
Variation 5 makes subtle use of a shy 3-pitch set, rather like a waltz, which is contradicted by a violent use of the dotted rhythm motive, Ex. 5. His use of sostenuto pedal is fine until line three where one faces the final B in the bass and one can either release it to allow for the treble clarity or hold it and blur the treble – an unacceptable lack of consistency. My difficult solution was to silently press the low B two beats sooner and hold it with the sostenuto pedal. While risky, as the B might not sound, it allows the 6-pitch set to interact compellingly with the dotted-rhythmic motive above. As an aside, this is a variation where an expressive indication would have been enormously valuable. The grotesque charm is not easy to discover, let alone illuminate, and a directive from the creator would make all feel the humanity.
Ex. 5 Variation 5
The rhythmic challenge presented by the opening involves what pulse to feel as one begins with a triplet within a triplet and then immediately turns to duple time. I hear eighth triplets creating a kind of metric modulation which leads smoothly to the eighths of measure 2. It only needs stressing that this necessary subdivision eventually forms a kind of sub-conscious shell in which one’s concern is the color of touch and the long line of both treble and bass sets. The epiphany of a long breath which encompasses the entire theme – two periods and emphatic cadence – is the ultimate and necessary goal.
The brilliant Variations 6 to 10 present the central pianistic challenge of the work, and all involve awkwardness as described above; i.e., quick passage-work in chords or disjunct skips, contrapuntal and rhythmic warfare with the risk of mental confusion. Variation 6 is a cruel combination of the dissonant opening of the theme and the l2-pitch set of Variation 3. It at first seemed invincible; but, having faced other ‘un1earnable’ scores, I knew how to persevere. The first step is a lengthy stay in the ‘kitchen’ with a sharpened ‘knife’ in one's hand. Fingering, hand position, and touch (one unified challenge), are the first step which precedes all other issues. One needs the right hand thumb on D as in the theme, a precise degree of curve of the fourth finger for the triplet chords, and knowing exactly when to move inside the keys to get from the second to the third triplet with no friction. The left hand is a steady arm attack with virtually no room for changing fingers on a key for comfort. Thus, one must know how to give the rhythmic patterns of each hand their powerful and even frightening inevitability and momentum.
The signature rhythmic pattern between the hands features a complex ostinato in the bass with an even more complex chordal ostinato in the treble which last a few beats longer. Due to the added 16ths, there is a complex interaction in which hands will either defy each other, ignore each other, or work together, leading towards the triumphal augmentation at the end. There is no room for rhythmic imprecision, especially the 16ths, and, just as important, there is no room for variation of touch within each line. The deep-arm marcato-tenuto of the bass is matched with the more violent arm-finger attacks of the treble (attacks are further away from the keys for both color and balance). Hand positions cannot alter between eighths and there is no time for preparing new positions. Thus, fingering is crucial, especially in the treble triplets and 16ths upbeats. The triplet can on no account be sub-divided, and ultimately one’s arms play it autonomously, wherever its metric position. Hand- together is a nightmare which must await mastery of each hand. Once one masters the above, one can face the issue of direction and shape. Despite the utter lack of dynamic indications, I felt the friction between contrasting up-and-down beats made for a remarkable momentum as the utter chaos and contradiction of the first few lines slowly achieves coherence in the unified upbeat-downbeats of page two. By page three, phrases will start together and, by the final page, the treble in augmentation overrides the chaos that re-emerges rhythmically. I achieved this inevitability by maintaining a trance-like state in which my hands are autonomous, my eyes seldom wavering or even focusing, and my musical being is attuned to upbeat 16ths – unity, disunity, and final triumph. My only ‘crutch’ was to recognize that the left hand upbeats were either black key to white or white key to black – a road sign that enabled me to feel longer lines.
This Shapean polyphonic technique is used frequently in these variations (the Scherzo from Ruth Crawford's Violin Sonata presages it remarkably). An even more manic example is from the finale of Mutations II described above for its grievous notational error. The compositional technique is exactly the same as in Variation 6 and yet the 3-pitch chords in the treble and the grotesque 16th rest in the bass creates exactly what Shapey’s rare expressive indication describes: “with furious wildness, intensity, brilliance, and sound”. To create this frightening image, I used violent arms attacks to begin each half of the bass ostinato, with no thought of upbeat or subdivision – i.e. 5 plus 3 beats. One cannot play the F which begins the second phrase either too far out or too close in, and pianists must find their own extremely subtle hand position to allow both full tone and clear triplets to triumph.
As mentioned earlier, the dotted lines which Shapey makes use of as rhythmic aids are virtually useless after the first few encounters. Again, to achieve the overwhelming tonal effect and the polyphonic intensity, one must be in an utterly trance-like state. Any efforts to find out which left hand sixteenth pitch your right hand is playing with will create mental havoc. The issue of momentum or direction seems less central in Mutations II as there is a motionless polish and sparkle which permeate the work even at its most frightening.
The third movement from Mutations I provides a happier and freer version of the above 2 examples, though touch issues are largely similar. The dialectics between the hands still bears the influence of Shapey’s teacher, Stefan Wolpe (Movement VI of the Mutations I is almost a direct quote from Form I), but Shapey’s personality is already present and is made even more striking by a quote I found on the manuscript given me by the pianist and wife of Wolpe, Inna Rabemacher. She writes of Movement IV, the tender high point of the work, that Shapey wanted it heard as “an IBM machine caressing a tape recorder”.
While none of the remaining variations in the Allegro portion of Movement II has the same unrelenting pattern of rhythmic ostinato and interaction between lines, the musical effects of antiphony and friction are just as strong. Variation 7 replaces the upbeat-downbeat play of Variation 6 with patterns of eighths downbeats – one, two, and, finally, three hammer-blows. As in Variation 6, the hands are seldom in unity and again the performer must bring out this machine-like counterpoint with arm gestures which counter the finger strokes of the 16ths. This movement has a surrealistic humor reminiscent of Jacques Tati's Playtime (a modern version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis), in which Tati is trapped in a transparent glass skyscraper in which he cannot distinguish doors from windows.
The warring dialectics of Variations 6 and 7 become more transparent and organized in Variations 8 and 9 which touch the central controlling element. By Variation 10, ending this movement, one is left with a naked dotted rhythm within a triplet, starting at first on an off-beat, turning to a down-beat and returning to the weak beat. The starkness of line makes it even more essential that the dotted rhythm be played without hesitation or delay, despite the two octaves leap. This awkward leap – the climax of the entire movement – is one of the greatest technical challenges in the work and here, as in other variations, tempo is less important than clarity. While at first Shapey’s metronome marking seemed beyond reach, I find that I am approaching it by means of what I call ‘mental preparation’ of the chords. This involves visualizing and feeling the ensuing chord as an increase of mental, hence physical, electricity. This internal preparation makes the clumsiness of the chord progression appear as a ‘single gesture’ though the physical motions have merely been sublimated by the intense mental crescendo. This gestural and mental technique is almost exactly that required to master the dotted rhythm climax of the coda of Movement II of the Schumann Fantasy.
The five brilliant variations-vignettes of Movement II lead to the six variations that form the emotional center of the work and where Shapey, the guest, reveals his inner self. There is a mystical quality that slowly evolves into human expressions of tenderness, memory, and finally love. This transformation is rendered pianistically by a gradual deepening of touch in the movements; and yet expressing this change in the individual movements and in this one as a whole is an interpretative challenge in which one faces ambiguity of all kinds. The only awkwardness one encounters is the happy challenge of rendering long, lyric phrases on a ‘percussive’ instrument whose sounds fade. This is a problem in all piano repertoire and one needs to make use of 19th
century techniques of touch and pedal to find solutions.
The plainchant quality of Variation II creates a mystical prayer for the dead, Ex. 6. This is made even more compelling by the D-A fifth which conjures up the Faure Requiem. The innocence of this variation seems a direct parallel to the Pie Jesu of the Faure. The pianist is largely devoted to creating tonal beauty and transparency between accompaniment and melody. Shapey’s use of rests provides a clear distinction between the two, and one must simply have a distinct PPP touch for line and one for chordal background – a shallow touch for chords and a slightly more cantabile and dynamically varied quality for the line.
Ex. 6 Variation 11
The richness of pedal and the deepening of touch give the following Variation 12 its own unique wannth. While making use of precisely the same polyphonic techniques of Variation 6, there is here no tension; all that is required is a tender and even sentimental resolution when the opening line returns in the pure ternary form.
The sensuousness is increased yet further in Variation 13 as one senses a balletic pas-de-deux with an almost Tschaikovskian cello solo, Ex. 7. The dance reaches climax in the hemiola duet of the final lines whose rhetoric requires full use of pedal so long as the duple rhythm of the bass is still pre-eminent (another instance where Shapey’s lack of dynamic range must be overruled). Perhaps, the very opening with its glissando-like cello line required a subtler use of pedal, as getting from E to F (sliding on a string) demanded full pedal; and it must come off, not upon reaching the high-point of the line, but a micro-beat after. This legatissimo pedal technique is used throughout this variation.
Ex. 7 Variation 13
The dotted rhythms and triplets reverse hands in Variation 14 which lead to a starker, more funereal color. The mental challenge involves the division between the hands of both the delicate triplets and the grave chords. This change leads to the striking character and difficulties of the following variation. The dotted rhythm is here not only naked, but harmonically bland, Ex. 8. Combined with the 3-touch pattern, a certain smug, even ugly quality is hard to avoid. While touch was ambiguous in accent vs. staccato, the central issue was solved when one comes to terms with silences. At first I heard the movement in quarters or eighths, causing syncopations. These syncopations made no musical sense and I eventually came to see that the silences were the center of the movement. Thus, there is a purely timeless meditation – more than Variation 11 – on the dotted rhythm germ. Silences are of varying lengths and constitute blocks of time – a miniature Varese. Even when they truncate the motif, they must still be heard as strong emptiness. Thus, accents must be poco staccato and poco harsh to set off the mysterious emptiness of space. A pianist must create this with hand gestures and other body language to give the audience this sense of almost frighteningly stationary emptiness. Interestingly, the 16th rests of Variation 9 present the same issue, though a less problematic one and one returns to this variation feeling gaps rather than upbeats.
Ex. 8 Variation 14
Variation 16 is the emotional highpoint of the entire work, Ex. 9. One experiences the beauty of a 9/4 i.e. 3+3+3 meter whose simple tenderness conjures up Susanna’s Dei Vieni non tardare, also a triple meter within six-measure phrase groups. This simplicity, as in several previous variations, creates a sense of hidden but overwhelming passion, which eventually reaches the surface and achieves an intense fruition. Here, the deeply satisfying climax is the 6-pitch set in the bass beginning and ending with the home tonality of Bb, Ex. 10. One cannot resist building up to this cadence by adding a crescendo to the five-beat lead-up and give a dynamic fullness to the bass tones far outweighing the mp indication which is still present. Equally important is to disregard Shapey’s intrusion of 4/4 meter in the treble, a cautionary marking which causes more confusion than help. Again, he almost seems embarrassed by the richness of the passion inspired by the triple meter still present in the treble. Failing to hear the reference to the opening at this climactic spot would destroy both the emotional and formal substance, as this is the conclusion of the central movement of the entire work. A final means to bring this climax fully to the listener is to make even more dramatic use of the middle pedal to allow the low C# to resonate long after the treble harmonies are gone. In addition, the lovingly gentle effect of the una corda pedal on the final Bb is yet one more means to make this rich and poetic movement come to a satisfying end.
A crude and almost painful recapitulation marks the end of Movement III. Whether Shapey intended this as a formal device or a personal slap, it is not easy to switch mood so suddenly. However, there is no real choice but to portray the composer, the truculent guest, as indeed he is. One’s best strategy is to look ahead at the grotesque characterstucken which follow and thus to make the shock both musically and emotionally meaningful.
While the first three movements form unities both in function and in their subtly gradated character, the final movement is united by its very disparity. The five variations seem surreal commentaries on previous material, heard now in naked and yet evermore complex conjunction. Equally important, all make reference, either directly or implied, to less abstract, more recognizable shapes. These range from the scherzo of Variation 17, the quasi-gigue of Variation 18, the problematic waltz of Variation 19, the Schumannesque virtuosity of Variation 20 and the death march of the coda, Variation 21. To convey a convincing sense of resolution, the performer, even more than usual, must put aside Shapey’s notational constraints and find a voice in all interpretative questions, notably tempo, touch, and rubato line.
The “quasi scherzo” of Variation 17 has an other-worldly quality reminiscent of the scherzi from late Beethoven quartets (Opus 130 comes specially to mind), Ex. 11. The treble is basically a 7-pitch set – almost an inversion of the left hand’s 6-pitch set – in which the dotted rhythm motive mutates in almost unrecognizable contortions due to the addition or subtraction of 16th beats. The bass makes use of the familiar ostinato technique but the 6 pitches are presented in an uneven seven-pulse pattern. Hence, the interaction is dizzying both for listener and performer. Shapey’s tempo indication is a sad cross between an eighth and a quarter, but the character of the music makes clear that the marking must be a quarter, and that is a bare minimum. To achieve the scherzo quality, speed must be augmented by a spiccato-like touch with virtually no pedal. If one needs a degree of mental security, it can be found more in the ostinato left hand than the chaos of the right hand.
Ex. 9 Variation 16
Ex. 10 Variation 16
Ex. 11 Variation 17
Variation 18 presents the 6- and 12-pitch sets in more violent conjunction, Ex.12. The triplet marking makes a gigue reference inevitable, but it is crucial that the performer overcome the hemiola quality and focus upon poly-tempo rather than poly-rhythm. In this it is strongly reminiscent of the final Gigue from the Stravinsky Septet where two meters are finally heard as utterly independent lines. Thus, the right hand must be felt as a firmly moderate 3/4 while the left hand is a fast 4/8. The left triplet is no triplet, rather a device to make two distinct speeds tenable. Both the metronome markings and the dotted lines are of no value. I simply make his triplet eight a real eighth, and speed it up which gives this variation a dance- like nuance and a certain frozen brilliance.
Ex. 12 Variation 18
The quasi waltz of Variation 19 combines the 6- and 12-pitch sets in metrically fantastic ways, Ex. 13. Here, the treble is the 12-pitch set in a basic 3/2 meter. The left hand presents the 6- pitch with deep-bass accents, but the 3/2 meter quickly disintegrates into all possible quarter combinations. The ambiguity of the music stems from the disparity between speed, meter, and Shapey's quasi waltz description. A waltz is seldom so slow, and when slow is gentle and without the crudities of the bass. One cannot hear it in half durations as Shapey seems to desire by his dotted lines. My solution was to make use of the ‘quasi’ by using a gentle rubato in the treble line (the dotted rhythms were especially apt) while giving bass upbeats a Viennese lilt. Still, the basic character is more a stylized minuet (much as the Minuet in Mozart's Concerto K. 271) where the left hand quarters can be heard as pizzicato accompaniment. As in several of the slow variations, there is a certain subterranean pressure, which seeks for the naked meter to be released with passion. I allow this pressure to build in the final lines and treat the final cadential line as a hearty 3/4 triumph. Again, Shapey should have marked a meter here rather than chance a performer missing this sentimental gesture.
Ex. 13 Variation 19
In Variation 20, the left hand makes use of the opening of the 12-pitch set, but one can hear the quintuplets as a brilliant expansion of the two upbeats which lead to the motivic cadence, Ex. 14. This is the most pianistically gratifying of the variations, in its sheer joy and arpeggiated brilliance close to the fast movements of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Climaxes occur when dotted rhythms are combined with quintuplet runs and with the use of silences to disrupt the dotted rhythms as in Variations 15 and 1 7. These fragmented half-cadences create strong impulse to the most massive return of the theme which prepares for Variations 21, the coda.
Ex. 14 Variation 20
Regarding metronome speeds, Variation 20 is again cautiously slow and must be disregarded. Shapey often used specific speeds for their unifying effect. Here, the quarter at MM54 leads to the eighth also at MM54 of the theme. While the principle is of value, it is clearly putting the cart before the horse, as convincing formal and emotional shapes rely as much upon contrast and modulation as upon abstract sameness. More, as I stress, the spontaneity which is invited by the music is dampened by such abstract devices.
The stark death march of Variation 21 is a verbatim return to the left hand octaves that conclude Variation 1 and the stentorian right hand line of Variation 18, Ex. 15. The issue of awkwardness is present as the naked lines make rhythmic precision crucial, most notably with the 32nd upbeats which must reach up three octaves with no hesitation. As in Variation 10, a mental crescendo is a central component of the solution. One can only reach this point by practice techniques which allow for precise recognition of the height of one’s wrist when getting from white key to black key, black to white, etc.
Ex. 15 Variation 21
At first, I found this Variation 21 quite unsettling as its barren sonorities are, as noted, a less than friendly farewell. However, as before, the worst solution is to attempt to mitigate the harshness. Rather, by giving Shapey his due, I have found that this last Variation 21 has proven especially enthralling to many listeners. A listener even calling it “haunting” as it summed up the previous 25 minutes!
The conjunction of crudeness and beauty, of daunting complexity with naive simplicity, is found more in 21 Variations than in any other of Shapey’s keyboard works. For this, it is both the most challenging and satisfying for pianist and listener. The issues of awkwardness and ambiguity which permeate the score are, as stated, not unique to Ralph Shapey, though he was his own worst enemy. What performers should both take into and take away from the music and all similar encounters is the recognition of the inability of words and musical symbols to do more than point towards musical truth and spontaneity of expression. It is the joyful obligation of the performers to make the composer’s building their own home.
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