Turkish marches

It’s the time of the year when I re-connect with Ellen Sulkis James, an old friend, going back to the early 1960s, when we were both on the staff of the Reading Eagle newspaper in Reading PA, an old friend whose birthday (on 8/30) is just a week before mine, a fact we play with annually. (As it happens, this year I’m also in almost daily contact with Ellen M. Kaisse, another old friend — and linguistics colleague, now retired from the University of Washington in Seattle — going back to the early 1970s, who is now plotting a possible visit to me here in Palo Alto; for the record, my other old friends named Ellen, Ellen Evans and Ellen Seebacher, who came to me through the newsgroup soc.motss in the late 1980s, are also a regular presence in my life. Yes, this is all very confusing.)

Back then, ESJ and I were college students who did not go into the newspaper business — she went on to become a professor of art history, I went on to become a professor of linguistics — but it turned out that we shared an enthusiasm for classical music (we still exchange discoveries of new performers and performances), and we were both pianists. So in my visits to her house, we ended up playing together, including what she remembers as a 1 piano 4 hand version of Mozart’s Rondo alla turca, originally written for solo piano. For complex reasons I’ll eventually explain to you, I wasn’t so sure it was the Mozart, but might have been a 1 piano 4 hand version of what is known as the “Turkish March” (by Beethoven, from his incidental music for the play The Ruins of Athens), originally written for symphony orchestra.

Now, EMK is also a musician (an accomplished singer) with an enthusiasm for classical music (we exchange discoveries of new performers and performances). You can see that at the moment I tend to suffer from Ellen Blending. At least neither of the Turkish pieces seems to have been supplied with a vocal line.

In any case, I’m now convinced that ESJ is right about our having played the Mozart, not the Beethoven, those 60 years ago. I just wasn’t used to the Rondo alla turca being called a “Turkish March”. But Wikipedia reports this alternative name, and ESJ unearthed this performance of the (solo) Rondo alla turca (by Ronald Brautigam) recorded under the title “Turkish March”. So there.

The Mozart piece. From Wikipedia:

The Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 / 300i, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a piano sonata in three movements.

The sonata was published by Artaria in 1784, alongside Nos. 10 and 12 (K. 330 and K. 332).

The third movement of this sonata, the “Rondo alla Turca”, or “Turkish March”, is often heard on its own and regarded as one of Mozart’s best-known piano pieces.

I played the solo Rondo alla turca in a recital I gave in the spring of 1956 (and I have a recording of that performance). Hold that year in your mind for a moment.

The Beethoven piece. From Wikipedia:

The Turkish March (Marcia alla turca) is a classical march theme by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was written for the 1809 Six variations, Op. 76, … and in 1811, Beethoven included the Turkish March in a play by August von Kotzebue called The Ruins of Athens (Op. 113), which premiered in Budapest, Hungary in 1812.

The march is in B-flat major, tempo vivace and 2 4 time. Its dynamic scheme is highly suggestive of a procession passing by, starting out pianissimo, poco a poco rising to a fortissimo climax and then receding back to pianissimo by the coda.

Franz Liszt wrote a version for piano and orchestra in 1837 entitled “Fantasie über Motiven aus Beethovens Ruinen von Athen” (S. 122). He also wrote a piano transcription in 1846, titled “Capriccio alla turca sur des motifs de Beethoven” (S. 388). Anton Rubinstein arranged a popular piano version of the march in B♭ major.

I was vaguely aware of the rousing Beethoven orchestral version, but then in the summer of 1957 — I told you to remember the year 1956 for the Mozart — I was enlisted in taking part in a 2 piano 8 hands performance of the Beethoven, for the (Berks County (PA)) Bynden Wood Youth Concert in July. Wow, lots of fun under the stars, and it didn’t rain. (I also got a solo portion of the concert, as did the other performers; it’s just that there were four pianists on the program, so someone dug up an 8-hand transcription for us to pound out on two grand pianos.)

The Mozart is a regular target for 4-hand transcription (on either 1 or 2 pianos). More oomph, more heft, a chance for a bit of counter-melody. Here’s Mozart’s Rondo alla turca, arranged (2018) for 1 piano 4 hands by Peter Petrof (with sheet music keyed to the performance). (Petrof, born 1961, is a Bulgarian composer, performer, and teacher who since 2016 has worked in Chicago IL.)

Now, the Beethoven starts out as an orchestral work — here’s the orchestral version performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra — but all that thump just cries out for the percussiveness of a piano rendition. So we get virtuoso solo performances, like the flashy solo piano arrangement by Anton Rubinstein, played with gusto by Evgeny Kissin at the Royal Albert Hall, London, during the BBC Proms of August 1997.

And 2-piano arrangements, as in this performance by Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Jayson Gillham.

All the way up to the “Turkish March” as arranged by Richard Blackford for 8 pianos (and 16 hands); played by Gina Bachauer, Jorge Bolet, Jeanne-Marie Darré, Alicia De Larrocha, John Lill, Radu Lupu, Garrick Ohlsson and Bálint Vázsonyi at a Gargantuan Pianistic Extravaganza in London, 1974 (two successive performances: the first is more or less straight; the second, with tons of fooling around, is a hoot).

My 2 piano 8 hands adventure seems tame by comparison.



2 Responses to “Turkish marches”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    A comment by Robert Coren (who for some reason wasn’t allowed to post it here):

    There is an English Country dance named “The Good Man of Cambridge”, written to go with (an abridged version of) the Mozart Rondo. It’s a fun dance, but a bit tricky, so it’s not called very often. For dancing purposes the tune has to be taken a bit slower than most pianists perform the Mozart.

    I’ve now listened to a lot of performances of the Rondo alla turca. They differ on various dimensions, two notably: metronomic regularity vs. highly expressive performance (you can go wrong at either end) — the “musicianship” dimension; and tempo, from measured, stately performance to lightning-fast. I was surprised at what can be done with an elegant, more stately pace. My own 1956 performance is still pleasing to me for its musicianship (one of my strong points as a pianist), but it’s faster than is comfortable for me now (well, I *was* 15 at the time).

  2. Mike Pope Says:

    Another small-world connection: Ellen Evans was a tech writer at Google; though she and I did not work together-together, our paths crossed

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