November 26, 2011

Composers A-Z: Emma Lou Diemer

It's been a long time since I wrote one of these Composers A-Z things. And that's largely because I reached the letter E, which doesn't offer a lot for pianists. Probably the most notable composer whose last names begins with E is Edward Elgar, whose output for piano is pretty small and not well known. Instead I decided to break my own rule and feature a composer whose first name starts with E: Emma Lou Diemer. Better known among organists than pianists, Diemer's style is catchy, accessible and constantly changing in a way that can appeal to modern audiences.

I'm not going to write a ton about Diemer, because I frankly don't know her output all that well. I know her teaching pieces best, which are nearly always highly effective and well received by students. What I love about Diemer's didactic pieces is that they have the length and depth of a piece for an advanced student, yet have difficultly levels that can suit the intermediate student. Here's one such piece, "Another Moonlight Serenade" performed by the pedagogy professor from University of Iowa, Dr. Alan Huckleberry. I also have a student preparing this piece for a spring recital.

The piece allows for great freedom in dynamics, malleability in tempo, and exploration of the piano as a tool for color creation. Many of her pieces allow for this kind of exploration that is not always found in educational literature. Also, there's a ton of pieces.

Her advanced pieces are also extremely appealing. She's written several sonatas, my favorite of which is the third. This large work (it's about 40 minutes long) is a traditional four movement sonata with a Tango in the place of the third movement scherzo. Her themes never go on very long (think of her as the antithesis of Schubert sonatas) which I think reflect the modern audience very well. We tend to like pieces that are constantly changing, however subtly, and Diemer's writing caters to this well. Themes are constantly introduced, altered, or abandoned for new ones, all over a shifting tableau of keys and time signatures.

Diemer's most popular concert piece is probably the Toccata. Likely this is because the piece is very accessible to audiences and performers alike, while still using conemporary extended techniques. Many pianists avoid contemporary music, but by the time they get to graduate school feel the need to learn one token 20th century piece, and this has become one of them (other pieces include Lowell Lieberman's Gargoyles, Adams' China Gates, and Prokofiev Sonata #2...even if that's not really contemporary). That is not to deride the piece though. It's very engaging, and the extended techniques are an excellent fit. I actually have plans of my own to tackle the work. Here's an excellent student performance of the Toccata.

That's all I'll say about Diemer. She's a fairly new composer to me (introduced through her educational pieces) but everything I listen to or play makes me fall more in love. She's still living too, teaching at UC Santa Barbara. Check her out.

Honorable Mentions:
The letter E doesn't have much going for it...but here are some

  • Edward Elgar: Brits didn't love writing for solo piano so there's not much going here.
  • Maurice Emmanuel: Frenchman who wrote some lighter pieces over the turn of the 20th century.
  • Georges Enesco: Romanian composer known more for his violin pieces.
Next up is F, I'm thinking more educational composers, Ross Lee Finney, is it your turn next?

November 12, 2011

When I'm Tired

Sometimes, when I'm tired, I just hear dozens of high-school kids saying "Mr. Kraack" in different ways.