As summer vacation begins to wind down, I find myself once again on the hunt for interesting repertoire to add to my teaching library. This search is a bit more intense this summer as I am also preparing to teach a course on Elementary Piano Pedagogy and Literature in the coming months. I am always amazed at the treasures that can be found through a simple Google search.
While looking for music for young students, I decided to see what other composers had written an “Album for the Young.” Of course, I was familiar with contributions by Schumann and Tchaikovsky. That’s when I noticed a name with which I was completely unfamiliar – Xaver Scharwenka.
Scharwenka (1850-1924) was a Polish born composer who would study music once he and his family immigrated to Germany. He was known as one of the foremost pianists of his generation, particularly recognized for his lyrical, cantabile tone in his interpretation of Chopin’s compositions. Because of his fame as a performer, he was a highly-desired teacher and made significant contributions to the field of pedagogy. In October 1881, Scharwenka would establish his own conservatory of music study in Berlin; a decade later, a second branch of the conservatory would open in New York. In 1907, his treatise Methodik des Klavierspiels documented his approach to piano instruction that would influence German teachers of future generations.
In 1885, Scharwenka’s Album for the Young, Op. 62 was first published in Leipzig by Breitkopf und Härtel. The collection of 12 character pieces shows the influence of both Chopin and Schumann on Scharwenka’s compositional style. The pieces are also marked by the composer’s use of folk-like dance rhythms and intriguing harmonic choices. Each of the character pieces require relatively small hand spans (never exceeding an octave) and seem to be technically approachable by a student moving into the intermediate realm of study.
The set opens with a charming “Marche” (Op. 62, No. 1) that is reminiscent of a parade with its staccato chords and memorable melody. While the A section would be approachable by a gifted late-elementary pianist, the middle section of the three-part Marche is where the technical challenge lies. With the bass accompaniment full of large leaps and the two-voice figures that demand careful consideration of fingering patterns, this section in F major requires a mature piano student.
“Im Volkston” (No. 2) and “Erzählung” (No. 3) almost function as a pair of pieces. Both are set in D minor and feature a folk-like melody. I find “Im Volkston” the more interesting and approachable of the pair. It presents an interesting introduction to Romantic harmonic progressions without too much distraction. Since both of these pieces are very short (33 measures and 25 measures respectively) played at moderate tempos, I would be very willing to assign either to any of my students.
“Barcarolle” (No. 4) is one of the gems of Scharwenka’s Op. 62. Its repetitive bass figure and hauntingly beautiful melody make for a fitting study to music composed in 9/8. “Minuetto” (No. 5) follows and is quite possibly one of the more awkward pieces in the Album. This dance suffers from an awkward use of hemiola that seems to fight against the natural elegance that it attempts to portray. Thankfully, the next piece — “Gavotte” (No. 6) — is another treasure in this collection. The dance is graceful, light, and extremely effective throughout. More importantly, it is a joy to play and beneficial in its demands for independence of articulation and careful attention to shaping the melodic line.
As we move into the second half of the set, we find a charming “Song Without Words” (No. 7) that features a hauntingly beautiful melodic line set over a triplet-figure accompaniment. This piece has a few instances of two-against-three that are easily prepared and could serve as an excellent introduction to the pattern for developing pianists. The “Praeludium” (No. 8) continues the focus on triplet patterns, but is deceptively difficult in its structure. The triplets are split between the hands as the melody shifts between the top and bottom voices while the hands are in close proximity on the keyboard. “Entschwundenes Glück” (No. 9) is a mournful chorale setting that is easily approachable by the young pianist. Following on the chorale’s heels is a lively “Scherzino” (No. 10) that will be a fun recital showstopper. The scherzo is in 3/4 with gracefully winding scales that make the piece sound more difficult than it actually is.
The closing two pieces of the set are the hidden gems for the late intermediate pianist. “Andante” (No. 11) feels like a companion piece to “Entschwundenes Glück” (No. 9). The possibility of featuring four gifted students in a charming set of pieces by Scharwenka (Nos. 9-12 of the opus) is a very real option. Op. 62, No. 12 is the most challenging piece of the Album for the Young. “Tarantella” (No. 12) features a highly chromatic, intricate right hand figure against a broken chord accompaniment. The right hand is not challenging simply because of the figure however. Since the figure just keeps winding around on itself, the pianist must find the finger pattern (sometimes using unexpected options) to navigate the passage successfully while maintaining the musical line throughout. Don’t avoid looking at this exciting piece because of its challenges though. I think it might be a huge hit with teen boys looking for something that sounds impressive that doesn’t require too much work to achieve one you discover a finger pattern that works for you.