Guest article by Josh Winiberg
Divisive as ever, the inclusion of two pieces by Ludovico Einaudi in the ABRSM’s 2021-22 piano syllabus has generated some heated discussion around the pedagogic merits of his work. Teachers who enjoy his music are happy to see him included. Others do not like his work but are pleased on behalf of their students. The rest are dismayed, seeing it as representative of a dumbing down of standards. Most of my friends and colleagues online fall within the latter two categories, although it is worth noting that there are some very well-respected pianists and educators who have ‘outed’ themselves as fans of his work.
There is merit to the point that the ABRSM piano syllabus is easier in general this time around, (especially with its revision of the scales), and symptomatic of this is the choice of composition by Einaudi that was selected for the Grade 5 syllabus, Elegy for the Arctic. It is the kind of piece I might use as a free choice option for a student who is working up to, or has just completed, Grade 3. For a Grade 5 pianist this really should be sight reading practice, an exercise in independent learning, and I would not expect to work on it in a lesson with a student of that ability until they’d put in the majority of the legwork themselves.
The inclusion of this as a Grade 5 piece is unfortunate. Einaudi has long been a target of criticism by people who believe he unethically markets himself as a modern day great, classical composer, misleading naïve listeners who don’t know any better, and impeding the intellectual and artistic development of any poor sap who happens upon his music (not a hyperbolic misrepresentation of the arguments I’ve seen put forward). Personally, I think this is a misunderstanding of his work, which is more an extension of popular/folk music than a recontextualisation of it within a classical context (closer to The Beatles than Bartók).
I am all for including pop and jazz (or any other genre) in the exam syllabuses, providing they maintain the performance standard expected at that level. I do not know the ins and outs of the criteria for grading music, but instinctively it feels like Elegy for the Arctic fails to satisfy that caveat by some considerable margin. All this plays very neatly into the narrative of Einaudi’s critics, which is a shame because had ABRSM picked a more interesting and challenging piece (examples of which I will signpost later in the article for the benefit of fans and their teachers) it could have paved the way for a better appreciation and understanding of his work.
Criticism of Einaudi’s music which targets its repetitiveness, lack of virtuosity, and harmonic conservatism is not entirely underserved. While I do feel this is a caricature of his wider body of work, it is understandable that those who have not looked deeper would think of negatively of it as they do. It is unrelentingly the ‘greatest hits’ type pieces with which students come armed to lessons, for example, the endless vi-IV-I-V loop that is Nuvole bianche. Pieces like this account for a fair amount of Einaudi’s work, especially in recently years, but for those willing to look scratch the surface (as well as the crust and upper mantel), there is some beautiful and technically engaging music which is no less worthy of being included alongside the more traditionally accepted intermediate or early-advanced level repertoire.
Given the popularity of Einaudi, teachers really owe it to their students to have a solid overview of his work in order that we may nudge students towards his more interesting pieces. In this article I will direct the reader to such music, filtering out pieces which live up to the negative stereotypes of his work and highlighting areas of technical interest. I do not expect this will convert anyone to superfan status, but I do hope that it will give you the tools to keep your students motivated, while also presenting them with challenges that you may not have expected to find in Einaudi’s work. Before directing you towards material for your lessons, I hope to pique your curiosity with some examples of Einaudi’s early compositions, many of which could not be further removed from what he writes today.
Einaudi (b. 1955) studied with Stockhausen and Berio. His early period tended towards neo-classicism (in the original sense of the word) and the avant garde. though unfortunately it is difficult to find examples of most of these works. An admirer of the traditional music of various cultures, he also cites as inspirations composers who shared that same interest (Stravinsky, Prokfiev and Bartók), as well as pop and rock musicians of the 20th century.
Here are some interesting examples of pieces from his formative years:
- Rumore Russo (1977) and Sarabande (1979) – progressive/fusion albums by Venegoni & Co, featuring Einaudi on electric keys. There are some impressive licks in the section beginning around 23 mins into Sarabande!
- Ai margini dell’aria (1988) – a work for quintet reminiscent of Stravinsky.
- Prima, Rapido, and Sospeso from Time Out (1988) – an album which blended dissonant, pulsing orchestration with avant gard electronics and spoken word.
Apostate though he is, Einaudi is clearly a more accomplished musician than he is given credit for. Einaudi describes his very early work as interesting but having left him cold, though in a more recent interview he expressed nostalgia for the experimental process. In 1992, he began to embrace minimalism more fully with his album for solo electric harp, Stanze. Further exploration of this language resulted in his score for the ballet, Salgari (1995), including this piece and this piece, which may sound familiar to the attentive fan (Orbits, and La Linea Scura, respectively).
Pointers for Teachers
In 1996, he took to the piano as a solo instrument and achieved mainstream success with Le onde, a concept album inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Although this is Einaudi’s first solo piano album, it is with Stanze that I would like to begin. Recorded by Cecilia Chailly on electric harp, it was originally composed for piano. Unfairly neglected, it features a couple of pieces which are more technically demanding than Einaudi’s usual work, which would be suited to students working at later grades or even early diploma level. The rest of the pieces have some challenges for the intermediate pianist concerning rhythm and voicing, and I think is worth exploring in its entirety. That said, I would like to point you towards two pieces specifically.
Moto perpetuo is deceptively tricky, requiring rhythmic precision, a fair amount of stamina, and the relaxed touch that comes with good technique. Semi-quavers quickly alternate between hands throughout, which could easily quickly reveal tension problems, and occasional rhythmic displacements between sections will require attention. A version with expanded instrumentation was released on a rarity by the name of Ultima Fuochi (1998). Anybody interested in taking on this piece may wish to listen to that, as well as the truncated solo harp recording found on the original album. I would suggest this to a more advanced student, but it could be managed at a more relaxed tempo by an intermediate student.
Vega is not quite as difficult but has an exciting climax as melodic fragments featured throughout the piece are layered with increasing intensity. This track features some interesting rhythms and speedy hand crossings, and requires dynamic control to distinguish between the different fragments without going overboard. I would place this as suitable for players in the Grade 6-7 region but again, played slower, it would be more accessible (though also much less effective).
Le onde is another album which I recommend looking at in its entirety, but I will recommend three pieces. Questa notte is a fun, dynamic piece which helped me to develop strength and wrist control when I very first started playing (this song was my motivation to take up the piano and one of the first pieces I learned so I have a very soft spot for it). The final pre-chorus features a fast 9 against 6, paving the way in the long term for something like Fantaisie Impromptu, which requires rhythmic independence of the hands. Suitable for intermediate players.
Onde corte, from the same album, features the same kind of moderate rhythmic and dynamic challenges found throughout Stanze – multiple layers requiring distinction through careful articulation, and plenty of syncopation. Features some left-hand jumps and requires confident pedalling to ensure clean gaps between the phrases. Intermediate difficulty.
L’ultima volta is simple but has a lot of scope for creativity. To play this strictly as written would be against the spirit of the song, which calls for rhythmic plasticity but not of the sentimental sort. I love to slightly offset some of the rhythms when playing this one, playing with accents and articulation to create subtle variation throughout. Students could experiment with this, which might be helpful for any players who are a little rigid and need to inject some creativity and spontaneity into their performances.
Moving onto Eden Roc (1999), Un mondo a parte, one of my favourite pieces by Einaudi, features a beautifully crafted cantabile melody over some simple yet effective chromatic harmony. Students will have to deal with some fragmented phrasing between sections and will need to transition effectively out of the forte climax which dies away prematurely to a pianissimo. Intermediate difficulty.
Also from I giorni is La nascita delle cose segrete, a sweet little ballade which betrays the composer’s love for bands such as The Rolling Stones.
From this point on, his piano writing feels to me increasingly more improvised and less ‘composed’, possibly a result of jamming on stage during his endless touring (this was around the time he achieved huge international recognition). Performing with larger ensembles sees the piano become incorporated into a larger texture, and as a result the piano writing is less engaging in its own right – if you haven’t found anything of interest so far in this article it’s unlikely you’ll find much of value in the remainder. That said, although Einaudi’s work becomes a little more inconsistent from here on out as it begins to consume itself, amplifying the features that people either love or hate, there are some standout gems which I consider among his best works.
Ritornare (Divenire, 2006). Harmonically simple, very melancholic. Those who dislike Einaudi will probably hate this one but personally I love it. The melody is rhythmically complex so this would be great for any student wishing to push their reading skills. As is often the case in his sheet music, Einaudi doesn’t highlight the bass notes with a tenuto mark or separate stem. In this piece it is important to bring out the bass as a voice of its own.
The Snow Prelude No. 2 (Nightbook, 2009) – I absolutely adore this sweet little song without words – nostalgic but not sickly. Some right-hand parallel thirds for students to deal with, and well as some intricate melodic rhythms, and hemiola. Again, be sure to treat the bass note as a separate voice where appropriate.
The Crane Dance goes down well with students. A suitable piece for the dedicated adult beginner, they may wish to look beyond the notated score in order to emulate the electronic delay effect during the sparse middle section of the recording.
The solo piano arrangement of Run (In a Time Lapse, 2012) keeps the violin parts intact. One chases the other during the ‘chorus’ section which builds up in intensity – a tricky effect to pull off on the piano. Still, an intermediate player could always leave out the second voice so there is scope to cater for less experienced pianists.
Experience features on the same album and is one of Einaudi’s most popular pieces to date, a staple of his live shows, I love its energy and sense of excitement just as much now as the first time I heard it. The instrumentation really makes this piece, but the solo piano arrangement found in the official sheet music is still good fun for an intermediate pianist. Students will encounter fairly quick left-hand scales and sudden jumps, and will require confident wrist control to maintain the stamina required to play with the appropriate intensity. Very pattern based, this one is a quick win and great to encourage independent learning for the late beginner or early intermediate pianist.
Petricor (Elements, 2015) is a piece which feels like Einaudi is feeding back into himself just a little too much, I favour the piano reduction to the original recording. The main highlight is a sudden textural shift into a slowly descending arpeggio. “Of course it’s an arpeggio!”, I hear you cry, but I think it is used to great impressionist effect here. Students will have to navigate some simple hand crossing, and will need to voice appropriately to keep the descending arpeggio separate from the pulsing ostinatos which creep up underneath it.
Whirling Winds, an evocative, minimalist piece which lives up to its name.
Golden Butterflies (Seven Days Walking, 2018) is my choice from his latest album. It will likely embody most of the things that critics of Einaudi dislike but I love the dancing melody, which students will need to focus on keeping light, with enough dynamic variation between the repeated notes so as to not feel like the melody is one long phrase.
While I doubt this article will have converted any long-time critics into adoring fans, I do hope that it has shown that there is more to Einaudi’s music than four chord turnarounds, and arpeggios. It may not be a late Beethoven sonata, but it is in my view high-quality popular music with its own distinct flavour, and as such I fully appreciate Einaudi’s work in the same way that I do that of Radiohead or Sigur Ros. More than that, I owe it to his compositions that I took the musical path myself and began composing and teaching piano. Without Einaudi my life would have looked very different indeed. If his music has the same effect on my students, I am absolutely for the inclusion of his works at an appropriate level within the piano syllabus. While I’m sure few readers’ personal tastes will be changed by this article, I hope long suffering critics compelled to teach his work will, at least, be better equipped to suggest alternatives to the next student who comes in eager to play Nuvole bianche.
JOSH WINIBERG is a UK based pianist, composer and producer who specialises in soundtracks.
As well as composing and performing, Josh is active in music education, tutoring piano, composition, production and music theory on a private basis as well as in schools and charities.