Sheet Music Review
The simple ideas – so they say – are often the best.
And with her latest publication – Piano Gallery – best-selling composer Pam Wedgwood has taken the seemingly simple idea of composing a collection of pieces inspired by great artworks, and with the visionary support of Faber Music, produced one of the finest, most imaginative and inspiring collections of original intermediate repertoire that I have yet had the pleasure of reviewing here.
So what is it about this publication that makes it such an essential purchase?
As you can see from the front cover, Piano Gallery is an eye-catching book, announcing its arrival with an image designed by Chloë Alexander which tastefully merges a piano motif with a detail from J.M.W. Turner’s Approach to Venice.
Inside, the book has 32 black-and-white pages which include Pam’s 14 newly-composed pieces, each of which is printed across two pages, nicely spaced and with super-clean engraving. There are a few fingering suggestions to get the player started, and each piece is prefaced with a few introductory words by the composer, linking the piece itself to the painting which inspired it.
According to Pam Wedgwood:
“I’ve been interested in art since I was a child, and I still love to dabble with watercolours when time and mood allow. But I’ve particularly always wanted to write a series of pieces that have been inspired by the great works of art that I love. I’ve relished writing this music that responds to the mood, colour, style, story and even humour behind each painting. I hope you enjoy playing them as music as you enjoy the wonderful art.”
One of the most striking novelties of the publication is the pull-out full colour poster, featuring all 14 paintings. This is a brilliant conceit which not only stimulates the player’s aesthetic imagination when approaching the pieces, but which has added educational benefits, as we shall see…
Each piece takes the title of the painting which acts as its muse, and the full list is as follows (with the artist in brackets)
- Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar (Auguste Renoir)
- The Dance Class (Edgar Degas)
- Starry Night (Vincent Van Gogh)
- Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Chelsea (James MacNeill Whistler)
- Fatata te Niti (Paul Gauguin)
- Paris Street in Rainy Weather (Gustave Caillebotte)
- Where’s the Antelope? (Barry Atherton)
- Woman with a Parasol (Claude Monet)
- Approach to Venice (J.M.W. Turner)
- Bathers at Asnières (Georges Seurat)
- Las Meninas (Diego Velazquez)
- Large Wave (Hokusai)
- The Swing (Jean-Honoré Fragonard)
- En route pout la pêche (John Singer Sargent)
Usually at this point I might select a couple of favourites to highlight, but in this instance that is rather difficult – every piece is a genuine winner! And taken together they make up a hugely enjoyable and rewarding collection.
The music is in an easy contemporary style, broadly classical, but with popular influences.
Underpinning it all, Pam’s special gift for melody, which has served to establish her as one of the top educational composers alive today.
Level-wise, the pieces are all around Grade 4-5 (intermediate), and would add considerable attraction to an exam syllabus at that level if selected in future years.
Beyond the Pieces
To consider the pieces in isolation, however, would be to miss the unique selling point of this collection, which is their success in marrying music with art.
Pam’s short introductory note for each piece makes those links explicit, but few players or listeners will have any doubt as to the connection between artwork and piece, such is Pam’s compositional skill.
A simple test – and a diverting entertainment – would be to pick a piece to play to a student, family member or friend – without telling them which of the pictures it depicts. Show them the poster of artworks, and see whether they can match picture to piece. I predict a very high success rate!
Not only so, but the use of the poster as a tool to ignite the imagination could undoubtedly be a powerful teaching strategy for unlocking the student’s creative, musical and interpretive potential.
And of course, for those (I suspect, many) who aren’t familiar with these artists and great masterpieces, the learning is two-way, potentially giving birth to and fostering an interest in fine art.
Establishing such vivid links between music and picture, so encouraging intermediate players to foster an awareness of cultural connection and artistic cross-fertilisation, Piano Gallery succeeds in meeting an important end, and represents a considerable educational achievement.
Pam Wedgwood has a particular gift for composing pieces which are immediately appealing, while also having long-lasting value – the impact that her music has had on a generation of players is quite simply incalculable.
With extensive and hugely popular series such as Jazzin’ About, Upgrade! and After Hours such established best-sellers, it might be easy to overlook Piano Gallery as a one-off, whimsical diversion.
To do so would be a mistake, as this is surely one of Pam’s best works yet, and without question, one of the best publications of the year.
Pam’s knack for writing engaging idiomatic piano music and for creating satisfying character pieces with ongoing value seems to me perfectly distilled in Piano Gallery, making this a collection to truly cherish.