Saturday, 16 July 2016

Thomas Dunhill: First Year Pieces for pianoforte

I have remarked before that pianists are often in a hurry to get away from ‘educational music’. Naturally, there is always going to be the desire to play something that sounds virtuosic and impresses the listener. Yet, the piano repertoire is full of short pieces of more or less worth designed to help the young pianist develop their technique. English composers have not been backward in producing this kind of teaching music. Pianists of a certain age will recall playing pieces by Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead, Walter Carroll and many others.  Some of this music is downright simple and easy to play. But there are pieces that seem to be designed to trip up the careless pianist. And the best of it leads the player to concentrate on the development of one or other matter of technique, no matter how basic.

I was in a charity shop the other day when I came across an album of ‘First Year Pieces for pianoforte by Thomas Dunhill.’ It is not the place for a full biography of the composer, save to point out that he studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford, wrote a diverse range of music including his operetta Tantivy Towers, an impressive Symphony in A minor and much chamber music. He is probably best remembered today (where recalled at all) for his song ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ (W.B. Yeats) and his piano music for young pianists. I should add that he did write some ‘concert works’ for the piano as well. Dunhill was born in Hampstead on 1 February 1877 and died in Scunthorpe on 13 March 1946.
‘The First Year Pieces’ were published by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1935. They have been republished and anthologised over the years by the Associated Board and have often been used in examinations up to Grade 2. I guess that the problem with these pieces in 2016 is that their titles are probably a little tame, and will not readily appeal to young players.

First Year Pieces:
Melody in C
The sheep on the downs
The old windmill
The old abbey
A little hush-song
Where the nodding violet grows
On the river bank
A song of Erin
Gavotte in G
A sad story
Swaying branches
Jock plays the bagpipes

Each piece is a little tone poem, which exploits a very traditional style of harmony. There are relatively few accidentals and modulations are kept to a minimum. 
Each piece is melodic, written in varied style using relatively straightforward rhythms of crotchets and quavers. The numbers are marked by a considerable change of mood and style. For example, the Celtic mood of ‘A Song of Erin’ is followed by the almost Bachian ‘Gavotte’, then an ‘arpeggiated’ Swaying Branches.  Jock plays the bagpipes introduces characteristic grace notes and a ‘double pedal’ in the left hand.  The circular motion of 'The Old Windmill' is captured by a little ostinato phrase played by the right hand. 'The Old Abbey' is the only piece to make use of chordal progressions, including mild (major seventh) dissonance.

Although these pieces are ‘easy’ there are occasional traps for more advanced pianist when sight reading. The keynote of each piece is musicality, in spite of the elementary level of technique required. 

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