About me

I am an active composer and organizer of music events. I share a monthly Music as Meditation concert with listeners and fellow musicians and I organize several concerts of new music each year. I use this blog to tell people about my musical endeavors.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Beethoven's Reach
or why I am studying “The Moonlight Sonata” at last

Many years ago, when I was the darling of my piano teacher and a senior in high school, she suggested to me that my next piece might be Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. Around that same time, I received a flyer in the mail for a set of piano literature designed for students and published at a student-friendly price—or so the advertisement said. Not having the best head for finance, I purchased the set. I remember unpacking it on my mother's pedestal oak table. Out came two volumes of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Mozart Sonatas, and Chopin preludes. The two volumes that caught my first attention, though, were those of the Beethoven piano sonatas. I went to the piano with them immediately.

Since then, whenever my mind and soul are frayed from too much sociability, work, or too many children's needs, my solace has been to spend an evening reading through Beethoven sonatas. I joked that I just wanted to read them the way one reads a novel—to see how it comes out. Since Beethoven's music is anything but predictable, this made some sense, but that's not really what drew me back to Beethoven again and again.

For years I attributed my fondness for the Beethoven sonatas to what I call “the church measures” in every one of them—those measures of inimitable harmonic perfection. As lovely as they were, though, I don't think that was why I kept returning to Beethoven. Sometimes I blamed the “inevitability” of each of Beethoven's runs. The notes in this descending figure or that ascending set of triplets are always exactly the right notes, though they don't follow predictable harmonic patterns.

Sometime after I started composing seriously, I came across an online course on composition that used the Beethoven Sonatas as examples. I would read a chapter of the course, look at the sonata score, and wind myself back to the piano to try out the truth of the author's rules of composition derived from Beethoven. I remember finding the course useful as I began the long process of gaining some small amount of control over the direction and form my compositions took.

Along the way, some of the slower bits crept their way into my repertoire. I could play the slow movement of the Pathetique, and of course, I learned the Adagio Sostenuto of Opus 27, number 2—the so-called “Moonlight” Sonata. My friend David Emerson, who was a welcoming voice on the other end of the phone and a willing collaborator when I first started making the way safe for music here in Conway, told me that he loved that piece. I don't know if I ever got to play it in his hearing, but I had the privilege of playing it at his funeral—and it will always afterward remind me of his bright soul.

So I supposed it was inevitable that I would finally decide to study all of “The Moonlight Sonata.” I dove in after my big summer projects were finished and found that I could at least play the notes at a slow pace. Now many months of study have gone by and I find that I can play the whole sonata, and communicate at least some of the interpretations I've gleaned from the dots and lines on the page.

When I got to the first A major piano section in the third movement I wondered what in the world Beethoven was doing throwing in that tinkly little theme. But as I studied the music of this movement from the tumultous opening to this cute figure I began to appreciate the power of such stark contrasts. These contrasts constitute what I think is important about the whole sonata. The dark night of first movement, with it's funeral march figure, gives way to the innocent optimism of the second movement, with its lightness and ease. That ease in turn reverts to more tumult made from rising arpeggios wringing with anticipation and seasoned with a pining melody.

Every note is in the right place, and is held the right amount of time. Each chord resolves in precisely the right way to the one that follows. I admire that thoroughgoing musical logic, the perfect harmony, and the poignant melody. The perfection of the whole does not explain the power of the music, however. That is the mystery of Beethoven's gifts to us.

For many years now, I've spent a large part of the time I have at the piano on composition. The allure of this activity is for me as mysterious as my affinity for Beethoven's music. Even though piano is my first and most beloved instrument, one of the paradoxes of my composing journey is that I've always been intimidated by writing solo piano music. I wrote a few pieces some years ago and think of them as student pieces, although one is more complicated than that, actually. I put piano parts in much of my chamber music. But the complexity engendered by 10 fingers times 88 notes, played in so many articulations and combinations, put me off the idea of writing piano music for a long time, not to mention the difficulty of writing all that on only two staves. Somehow, though, while I was engaged in the study of Beethoven's most famous sonata, I found myself composing piano music.

With trepidation, I began to structure the music I was improvising into my Sonata in the Old Style. While I was never consciously quoting Beethoven's music, my sonata looks backward to the music I've been swimming through for years. I spent several months with two movements of this sonata, coaxing it into a classical form as much as it would go. On Christmas Eve, I played my sonata—the two movements of it that existed that day—and let my fingers wander over the keys in a conscious attempt to listen to what might come next. Out spilled a pastorale filled with overlapped resonances. It is quite different from the other movements, and it is comes from them in some way, but takes into account other voices, I hope.

Beethoven did not spring into existence from nothing. He made his way to Parnassus in the usual fashion with teachers and textbooks. One of his teachers was Joseph Haydn—and that should surprise no one who has played Beethoven's more accessible piano works. Maisie Brown shares the gem that is Fur Elise. The middle section of that piece reads a great deal like many Haydn sonatas—but it includes a fiery section that is all Beethoven.

Haydn's D major piano sonata shows off the roots of Beethoven's beginnings very well. There are vibrant passages that resolve to satisfyingly incomplete minor chords. There is a lovely poignant melody worked out in ever-increasing complexity. In the final movement there is a coda that begins with a dramatic chord. It's easy to see that Beethoven wasn't inventing from nothing—he was innovating from a great height.

Beethoven's music seems to resonate for everyone. It has held the attention of musicians and listeners for centuries including Dmitri Shostakovich. The last piece Shostakovich wrote before he died was his Viola Sonata. This piece clearly quotes “The Moonlight Sonata.” It makes new music of it, and ends with a profound return to the simplest of musical relationships. Julia Howell helps me share the final movement of this sonata. As Julia put it “the ghost of Beethoven appears, and then you die.”

I will perform this music at several upcoming concerts. I'll play a Music as Meditation that includes this music on Tuesday, January 30th at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Eastern Slope in Tamworth, New Hampshire at 6:30 PM. Admission to that concert is free. Donations to offset the Fellowship's expenses for heating and piano upkeep will be collected.

Another performance will take place on Saturday, February 3 at Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany. The concert is titled “Beethoven's Reach” and is presented by Mountain Top Music Center. Tickets cost $25 and proceeds go toward furthering Mountain Top's mission of enriching lives through music. The Concert starts at 7:30 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at mountaintopmusic.org or by calling 603-447-4737.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Program from Music for Meditation of November 5, 2017

Music as Meditation ~ November 5, 2017
Program
Kindness a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye
Evie's Melody Ellen Schwindt
Home from Hagerstown Waltz Ellen Schwindt
Poor Wayfaring Stranger traditional
Turning Back a poem by Lao Tzu, rendered by Ursula K. LeGuin
Turning Back tune from the Cantata Tao and Te Ellen Schwindt
Lillehammer Waltz Jonathan Jensen
Velvet Tear Chip Davis
Adagio excerpt from a forthcoming piano sonata Ellen Schwindt
Bagatelle in E flat major Ludwig van Beethoven
Andante Semplice excerpt from a forthcoming piano sonata Ellen Schwindt
Bagatelle in c minor Ellen Schwindt

This Music as Meditation is dedicated to a young woman I know who is facing a cancer diagnosis with grace and optimism. I met her when she was a teacher at our area's Head Start. I visited the classroom once a week to sing songs and play music games with the children. I watched her guide the children, many of whom needed extra attention, with patience and love. I appreciated her shining spirit then. When I heard about her cancer diagnosis, I wanted to do something to help her through. This performance is meant as some kind of comfort. I have placed a basket at the back of the church to collect donations for Jen's Friends—an organization that is helping her and others in our community who are facing cancer. You can find more information about this group at www.jensfriends.org.
As I was gathering music for today's event, I was focused on finding simple tunes that would act in contrast to some of the more complex piano music I was planning to play. When I saw the tunes written in my scrawling hand-writing on a long piece of paper, I realized that many of the pieces were arranged or composed with other people in mind. Evie's Melody was written for a baby who was baptized At Christ Church in the fall of 2017. I arranged Poor Wayfaring Stranger for my friend Peter with whom I played folk music for a long while. Turning Back comes from a cantata I composed on poems of Lao Tzu as a graduation gift to my son. I transcribed and then arranged Lillehammer Waltz for my husband Bill because he loves the tune. Home from Hagerstown Waltz I wrote for Bill, or maybe because of Bill, before he was my husband.
The benefit of composing for others, though I am certain it exists for me, is also completely mysterious to me. Making a piece of music for someone is a strange kind of gift—one that feeds me as much, or rather more, than it helps the intended recipient. I do trust that it also helps the recipients. Evie's parents were quite appreciative and I know my husband likes it when I practice one of his favorite tunes. I hope today's music, dedicated as it is to my young friend, gives her, and all of us, some sense of comfort “while traveling through this world of woe.”

Music as Meditation is meant to be a healing experience for all of us. You may learn more about this event and my other music endeavors by finding me on facebook, at ellenschwindt@blogspot.com or by e-mailing me at ellen.m.schwindt@gmail.com.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Music as Meditation 
with a concern for healing

     My experience of Music as Meditation is one of nourishment and healing. I hope that others find it so as well. Last August while traveling I learned that a young woman I know faced a cancer diagnosis. She is undergoing a rigorous treatment designed to save her life. This treatment will make her sick in the short term. I learned of her misfortune because a team of people came together to offer their support--and no wonder--she is a generous person with a beautiful and open spirit. I know her from her work at an area pre-school where I watched her teach needy young children with patience and love. This month's Music as Meditation is offered with an explicit concern for her healing--and for the healing of all of us. I trust that our concern for her health while we are engaged in the practice of playing and listening to music may bring her some comfort--if only because she knows we wish her well. I will make a collection basket available in case you want to give a monetary contribution to Jen's Friends--the local organization who is helping this young woman and others faced with cancer. 
     As an antidote to the troubles life is throwing at all of us, I have been playing Beethoven. That composer certainly faced his share of calamity: he had an overbearing father and he knew that one day he would be unable to hear the music he created. I'll play two Beethoven Bagatelles. In response to my intense study of Beethoven's C sharp minor piano sonata (called the "moonlight" sonata) I am composing one of my own. I will share some excerpts from this new sonata on Sunday. I'll play some violin or viola as well--as those particular resonances offer me healing every time I draw the bow across the strings. I hope many of you can join me in this Music as Meditation. If you cannot attend but you would like to make a contribution to Jen's Friends, here is a link. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halfway from one Meditation to the Next One
I've been meaning to get in the habit of posting my programs from Music as Meditation events. It sometimes takes me many days, however, to dig down through the pile on my desk to find the actual wooden surface beneath all those papers.  Posting the program from October 1, allows me to highlight my plans for the program on November 5. That Meditation will include another Beethoven Bagatelle that is quite Haydn-esque along with more Chip Davis and some new notes from a Piano Sonata I seem to be composing these days. I hope you can join me. 

Music as Meditation
Sunday, October 1, 2017

Open fifth resonance and its outcomes on the violin Ellen Schwindt
And Bob Dylan—a poem by Mary Oliver
C diminished rising and its arrival at E flat major Ellen Schwindt
Interlude I Chip Davis
Bagatelle 1 from Seven Bagatelles Ludwig van Beethoven
composed 1802
Two tonal poles: The beginning of the middle Ellen Schwindt
Sonata in D Major Hob. XVI/24 Franz Joseph Haydn
to Nikolaus Esterhazy composed in 1773
Allegro
Adagio
Presto
Improvisation on Childgrove Ellen Schwindt
Improvisation on Hymns from Summer Suite Ellen Schwindt
A fast return Ellen Schwindt
Many Happy Returns of the Day
Welcome to this day, the beginning of a third season of Music as Meditation. Today's program seems to be about returning. I began working on the Haydn Sonata that is the centerpiece of today's music as a way to experience order in the world. Jospeh Haydn wrote music with precision and detail and still somehow lots of room for interpretation. It is indeed ordered and predictable, but full of humor, vivacity, sorrow, and joy. This music was a perfect antidote to a year full of surprises. Practicing it seemed like a way to reestablish order in life on a daily basis.
As a young person, I played a lot of Haydn and other baroque keyboard music. There was one particular volume of music I checked out from our local library repeatedly. I enjoyed the well-organized harmonies and the clear subdivision of time that made up the music. I still enjoy it, so in that sense playing Haydn is also a return. I find much
more in the music now, however. And perhaps in that way it is like a return as well, because in my experience, when I return to a topic well-loved, I usually learn something new. I hope returning to the baroque era is equally rich for you.

The picture on my new Music as Meditation card is also a symbol of return. It is Pequawket Pond. Please share some of the cards if you'd like to help spread the word about Music as Meditation. Please let me know what you think as well. You can reach me at ellen.m.schwindt@gmail.com .

Sunday, August 27, 2017

New Music in Winfield, Kansas

Music for a Resonant Space: A New-Music Collaboration in Winfield, Kansas


Ellen Schwindt, Kansas native and composer, organized this project as a way to share her music with people in her home state. She recruited soloists who are collegiate-level string teachers in the state—Ann Samuelson, who teaches violin at Bethany College in Lindsborg and at Kansas Wesleyan College in Salina, and Lillian Green, who teaches viola at Bethany College and at Kansas Wesleyan College. These two graciously embraced the opportunity to play new music. 

Ellen grew up in Salina, where she participated in a vibrant string program and made friends with Winfield resident Kim Helzer. Over many years of friendship, she heard stories about Winfield's vibrant strings program and the dedicated teacher Roberta Banks. Kim provided an introduction and Roberta—“Robbie”—enthusiastically explored how to make the project a reality.

Ann Samuelson is violin soloist

Music for a Resonant space serves as title for the concert and for one of the pieces to be performed. The piece is structured like a concerto in that there are two soloists—Ann Samuelson on violin, and Ellen Schwindt on piano—and an ensemble, but it is unlike a traditional concerto in that neither soloist spends much time playing fast or loud; rather it is crafted as a conversation across all the levels of the orchestra. The music of the piece turns on the shared resonance of strings. Some sounds will come from piano strings vibrating sympathetically to pitches produced by the violin. This kind of music is only possible in a resonant place, and the First Presbyterian Church provides just that kind of space. 

Young Kansas Composer Hannah Bartel Groening 

Hannah Bartel Groening began writing music to play with her four sister in their string quintet, so the vast majority of pieces she's written are for strings. Hannah majored in music composition at Kansas State University and had several of her works performed in student recitals and one full orchestra piece commissioned by the K-State Symphony Orchestra. Hannah shares the piece Pages Floating on Air with the students in Winfield.

Lillian Green to play as viola soloist

While attending a conference in Baltimore last Spring, Ellen noticed a presentation by Lillian Green, a violist from Bethany College. Ellen, whose hometown is only a few miles from Bethany College, introduced herself and asked if she could write something for Lillian. The result is Summer Suite for Viola and Strings. It consists of a dragonfly dance—meant to evoke those sleepy hot days of summer when the sun bakes an idler into a daze—and the experience of listening to hymns sung sweetly and with vigor. 

A Pastorale and Allegro complete the program and offers the Winfield High School Orchestra an opportunity to demonstrate its cohesiveness and artistry. The project includes time for Ellen to visit the high school orchestra's rehearsal and an after-school workshop on composition. The workshop is focused on composition and takes place at 5 PM on Thursday, September 7 at Southwestern College. To participate in the workshop, R.S.V.P. to ellen.m.schwindt@gmail.com. 


Ways to Help

This project is undertaken in the spirit of sharing and with the aim of keeping monetary costs to a minimum. Many people's efforts will make for a successful project. You can help this project along in one of these ways: 
  • Attend the Concert. Admission is free. Donations will be gratefully accepted and will go toward direct costs of the concert.
  • Spread the word about the concerto
  • Volunteer to help with the supper for the players or ushering at the concert (contact Ellen at ellen.m.schwindt@gmail.com .)
  • Donate a small amount of money to help cover the costs of tuning the piano, printing, programs and posters, feeding the orchestra members, giving a stipend to the host church, giving a stipend to the orchestra, and offering travel stipends to the soloists. To make a donation use the paypal button on Ellen's blog: at ellenschwindt@blogspot.com .

Sunday, August 6, 2017

My heart is so full I can't sleep. It is the early morning after the evening of the Summer Strings concert. So many people came to hear our music. I enjoyed so much connected time with the musicians and composers over the last week. I will share one more thing. Here is a story about banana squash that I wrote for the program.

Gratitude and Summer Strings
 photo taken on the Bickford Brooke Trail.
This has been a summer of abundance for me. I've had time to garden, hike, take pictures of mushrooms, and even go swimming on occasion. These days I wade through the rampant greenery of the garden and marvel that there is so much to bring, so much to share. Some of it I didn't even plant.

The banana squash plant with our
stone wall in the background to
show you how giant it is.
Early in the season, when I was first breathing deeper with the relief of a too-busy schedule finally easing off, I noticed a very vigorous squash plant volunteering itself out of my compost pile. I transplanted it to what was left of my husband's gift to me on the occasion of my 50th birthday—a truckload of real horse manure. In its new, rich location, this squash began growing with an energy I can only admire on most days. It had the upright habit of a zucchini and dark green leaves. I did not know or really care how its fruit would look or taste; its vigor simply brought me joy on every garden tour I made. It was the first of my garden plants that I could really see from my kitchen window. It bloomed early. One day, there was a zucchini-shaped object underneath its large triangular leaves. A few days later I brought it in.


The fruit of  the banana squash

My husband asked “is that a banana?!” In fact, the fruits of this squash look a bit like green bananas—slightly curved and slim. I chopped the garlic and heated the oil and we had our first taste of summer that day. Now “banana squash” make an appearance on the table several times a week. I laugh aloud to think of how they came unbidden to my garden and now are taking it over.

I've been trying to learn, lately, to trust the universe to keep bringing me the abundance I need. The banana squash and Summer Strings are evidence that my trust is well-placed. This concert and our festival could not have come to be without the volunteer energy of many people. Christ Episcopal Church's community offered us the space. The players all volunteered their time and careful attention to detail. Many of them drove long distances repeatedly—a sign of commitment if there ever was one. Significant donations from the Music as Meditation listeners made tuning the piano, posters, and programs possible. Help from Ken Turley and Bill Marvel made the picnic timely and fun. All this to bring to fruition music that itself arrives in composer's ears in a mysterious fashion, volunteering itself for our joy.

I don't know what is behind the mystery of this abundance. Why is this particular strain of zucchini so sweet and prolific? Why is that particular musical phrase so compelling and satisfying? I only know I am grateful to be part of this stream of abundance—and I know that the fruits of our time and attention are meant to be shared. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Preparing for Summer Strings


I've been hanging posters this week and proofreading press releases. Today I went to the church to play the piano. Rehearsals are scheduled and the players have their music. Here is the poster and press release. Please help spread the word. I hope to see you there.
-Ellen

Summer Strings: a String Orchestra Festival Featuring New Music

The sound of vibrating strings will fill Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday, August 6. The event is Summer Strings—a new music festival featuring a string orchestra and piano. The players are accomplished musicians from around the region. Four composers have written the music. Bozena O'Brien, violin, and Ellen Schwindt, piano, are soloists. This is an extravagant approach to Music as Meditation.

The music ranges from light-hearted to grand. Ken Turley, of Bridgton, Maine, wrote a suite for string orchestra called “Un Diner Leger” (A Light Dinner). Despite its levity you may just leave the concert humming its satisfying tunes. The last movement in the suite is called “A Confection” and deserves its sweet name.

Larry Wallach, who comes to Albany every year to lead early music week at World Fellowship Center, wrote a prelude and fugue for string orchestra. It looks backward in time with some early music styles of writing, but includes some delicious modern harmonies.

Ralph Farris, who appears occasionally at Christ Church when he is in town visiting his mother, wrote a piece called Three Mirrors that turns on harmonics and repeated patterns—as if the light between the mirrors might bounce back and forth forever.

Ellen Schwindt, organizer of the festival, wrote a double concerto for violin, piano, and string orchestra called “Music for a Resonant Space.” Bozena O'Brien will play the solo violin part, and Schwindt will play the solo piano part and lead the piece from the piano bench. The music depends on tones produced indirectly; not tones produced by the piano's hammers hitting strings, or by bows pulled across the violin's strings, but by sympathetic vibrations from the interactions of directly produced tones. The performance at Christ Church will be the world premiere of the piece. A Pastorale and Allegro for strings by Schwindt rounds out the program. This piece speaks to minimalist forms while maintaining a driving rhythm throughout.

The festival runs from August 4 to August 6 and includes a potluck picnic for listeners and players on Saturday, August 5, at noon. To participate in the picnic, R.S.V.P. to Ellen at ellen.m.schwindt@gmail.com. Summer Strings is part of the Music as Meditation series hosted by Christ Church and led by Ellen Schwindt. The concert is free, but attenders may make donations for the extra costs incurred by the festival, either on my blog or after the concert.