Back in 2019 I reviewed an excellent edition of Türk’s Pieces for Beginners, which launched the new Schott Student Edition. It has been a while, but now Schott have launched a couple more titles in the series, the first of which features two collections by the popular American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944), her Children’s Album Op.36 and Children’s Carnival Op.25, together in one elegant volume.
Individual pieces from these collections may be known to readers from their appearance in graded collections and anthologies of music by women composers. How wonderful, though, to have complete versions brought together in this publication, which also includes in-depth background and teaching notes on each piece by editor (and well-known teacher) Melanie Spanswick.
Children’s Album op.36
The Children’s Album dates from 1897 and is considerably more modest in scope than the famous Children’s Albums of Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Granados and others who preceded Beach.
Beach also eschews the fashion for imaginative character pieces which those collections had popularised, instead offering a simple group of five movements. Assuming the shape of a Baroque suite, these adopt traditional forms and dance idioms: a Minuet, a Gavotte, a Waltz, a March, and to conclude, a Polka.
The opening Minuet leaves no doubt that Beach had a supreme gift for melody, and all five pieces remind us that she had a wonderful ability to convey character in her music. It is both revealing and refreshing to discover these miniatures in their original context. For me, the Minuet and the Polka are clear favourites.
All these pieces are written exclusively using the treble clef for both hands, and as a consequence there are moments where the interplay between left and right becomes a little knotty.
Mindful of this, Spanswick offers considerably more thorough fingering suggestions than those of the first edition, expanding on Beach’s own fingerings, while occasionally diverting from and, in my view, improving on them. The care shown here improves accessibility and certainly adds to the value of this edition.
In terms of level, the collection is early intermediate, around UK Grades 3-4.
Children’s Carnival op.25
The Children’s Carnival preceded the Children’s Album by three years, and here the pieces are slightly harder, around Grades 5-6. According to Spanswick,
“These imaginative programmatic (or descriptive) gems feature characters from the Italian theatre tradition ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, or comic theatre. They are especially useful for the student pianist, as they have been written with the smaller hand in mind, and Beach herself apparently had small hands, too.”
The six titles in this suite of pieces are:
- Pierrot and Pierrette
Of these pieces, Secrets is perhaps the best-known, having previously appeared on a grade exam list and in Stephen Coombs’ enterprising American Piano Music series (Faber Music). With its broken chord patterns and simple melody, it is strongly reminiscent of Robert Schumann, and in context serves as a welcome, if more serious, lyrical interlude.
As for the collection as a whole, it delivers an unassuming succession of deftly entertaining pieces, aptly fitting the “carnival” theme; while hardly concert works that showcase Beach’s higher artistry, none of the music here would have seemed out of place in the emerging vaudeville scene, and the pieces will undoubtedly meet with enthusiasm from late intermediate players looking for music which evokes that era.
This Schott Student Edition is, very happily, a wonderful publication that lives up to the promise of its predecessor. With a classy card cover, staple binding and off-cream paper, the book itself is a sober but classy affair. Within, the editor’s Preface delivers an engaging presentation of the composer’s life, with observations about the two works.
The notation is cleanly and spaciously presented, and I have already noted that copious fingering suggestions are included to support learning. With the exception of the longer final piece, Harlequin, page turns are avoided throughout. Even so, Promenade, which might elsewhere have been given three pages, fits nicely on the two-page spread without seeming too busy.
There is no audio content, which is a pity as it would be great to hear Spanswick’s own demonstration performances of these pieces.
To the rear of the book, Spanswick’s detailed Teaching Notes are written in a highbrow tone, often poetically so; persevere with the wordiness, and they offer much insight and a wealth of advice from this leading pedagogue.
Melanie Spanswick is well acquainted with, and well known within, the world of music festivals and junior competitions; I have no doubt that pieces from this collection will find their way into many a prospectus, and that her efforts to repopularise Beach’s wonderful pieces will prove rewarding for all.
Whether the music finds a wider mainstream audience, where not prescribed, might prove more interesting. Beach’s later intermediate and advanced pieces are already proving deservedly popular; these easy pieces are certainly appealing too, but I can’t help wondering whether today’s children will warm to their admittedly old-fashioned language and perspective.
In her introduction, Spanswick says of the five pieces in the Children’s Album,
“…they form an excellent introduction to women composers for younger pianists.”
For some this will perhaps also be a compelling argument, but personally I find the suggestion a little odd, out of place; in any case, there is certainly no shortage of brilliant and well-established pedagogic material and repertoire composed by women for children at elementary to intermediate level.
I would prefer to affirm that these pieces form an excellent introduction to Amy Beach’s musical world, which has intrinsic value that far transcends identity politics, and indeed to the established vernacular piano style of the late nineteenth-century. As such, these pieces (and this publication) are quite simply a joy.
With its outstanding presentation, helpful editing, and valuable musical content, here is a collection that deserves to be given a very warm welcome.
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