June Armstrong: Dreams and Dragons

Featured publications are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

June Armstrong continues to consolidate her status as one of our most interesting, characterful and imaginative composers. Her latest publication, Dreams and Dragons, is suitable for early advanced players around UK Grade 6 level and has just arrived.

Subtitled Twelve Reveries for Piano, the book is once again published by her own Pianissimo Publishing business. Let’s jump into Armstrong’s latest magical creation…

Embarking on an Adventure

As ever it is Armstrong’s imaginative development of a central concept which is the key to the inspiration for all the pieces here, her gift for painting in sound and telling a story through her music as acute as always.

In Dreams and Dragons, it is the yin and yang of each piece which lies right at the heart of the overarching scheme, as Armstrong explains:

“Welcome to the world of Dreams and Dragons, where not everything is as it seems.
The premise for this collection was to take a single musical idea and create from it both a dream and a dragon, presented as a pair of pieces. But which is the dream and which is the dragon? Many of the pieces contain elements of both. It is a soundscape of make-believe, fairy tales and legends. Some of the pairs of pieces incorporate only the initial impetus, while other pairs contain several corresponding musical ideas.”

Armstrong has recorded her own performances of the pieces, which you can listen to in full in this YouTube playlist that she has shared; enjoy dreaming as you listen, but watch out for the dragons:

Alongside the vivid juxtaposition of the dreams and dragons themselves, it is fascinating and instructive to trace the thematic development between the pairs of pieces: players must certainly be encouraged to consider Armstrong’s craftsmanship as she weaves these magical treasures to incorporate such clever and varied treatments of her musical seeds.

The twelve titles in the collection are:

  • The Breeze on the Lake
  • Knight-at-Arms
  • The Dream
  • The Snow Queen
  • Daybreak
  • Thor, God of Thunder
  • Sea Spray
  • The Enchanted Forest
  • A Midsummer Night
  • Circe the Sorceress
  • Dragonflies
  • The Dragon’s Lair

Armstrong’s personal signature throughout these pieces is tangible. Typically, the compositional structures are generally determined more by instinctive narrative flow than strict adherence to inflexible predetermined forms.

As in previous collections, too, the pieces are broadly tonal, if often more loosely so than is typical of contemporary educational composers. There is a lovely balance of dissonance, open harmony, impressionism and neoclassicism.

Underlining the importance of personal engagement when playing the pieces, the composer notes,

“Pedalling is at the discretion of the performer. It is marked where certain particular effects are desired. Metronome speeds are for guidance, but any musical interpretation is acceptable.”

Containing such Excitement

Those who have purchased or collected Armstrong’s previous scores will know exactly what to expect from this one, such is the character and quality of the branding she has established across the 17 publications in her catalogue to date.

The book is wrapped in a glossy card cover, predominantly plain and with a vivid illustration:

The 36 pages within are printed on white paper. These begin with a title page, credits and web address for downloading the full set of MP3 audio recordings from the Pianissimo Publishing website.

Armstrong includes a two-page introduction written in English, delivering a short performances note about each of the twelve pieces in turn. The insights offered here add to our appreciation of her music, and I find them useful both as a performer and teacher of the music.

The notation is a decent size and well-spaced, for the most part commendably easy to read. A minimal but helpful amount of fingering is included throughout. The majority of the pieces are two pages long, but a few are four; where page turns are necessary Armstrong has clearly given careful thought to their placement to minimise difficulty.

Closing Thoughts

Having created such an enticing range of repertoire books suitable for players from the earliest stages of learning, through “the grades” and towards a more advanced concert level, one might wonder that June Armstrong has still more music to offer.

Her unstoppable creativity certainly shows no signs of drying up, and in common with all her previous collections, Dreams and Dragons establishes its own unique space in the repertoire with ease.

The book neatly sells itself with its combination of excellent music and accessible presentation; from the YouTube recordings above, players and teachers will know whether this publications is for them. I certainly have no hesitations in recommending this music: what a delight!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.