I: Toccata
II: Air
III: Rondino
First Performance
New York, March 17 1929;
Marc Blitzstein: piano

Piano Percussion Music was written for a League of Composers concert on St Patrick's Day 1929. Blitzstein started work on the piece in June 1928, when he completed the first movement, although, at this time, it may not have been intended for this particular piece. The remaining two movements were written in early 1929, with the final movement bearing a completion date only five days before its premiere. It was at first entitled "Percussion Music for the Piano", but the manuscript has this crossed out, and the rather more succinct "Piano Percussion Music" in its stead.

The piece gained a certain notoriety, as the final movement requires the pianist to open, shut and slap the piano lid several times, giving a very literal meaning to the title of the piece. Following the success of his Piano Sonata, Blitzstein had, at this time, something of a reputation as an enfant terrible of modernism, and his audience were no doubt ready for something suitably shocking. As it turned out, the perfomance seems to have been well received, even though one reviewer remarked that a "ripple of mirth spread gently over the audience" as Blitzstein duly set about his piano. Others, however, picked out the piece as the best work of the evening, and, although dismissing the "useless ornamentation" of the lid-slamming, praised the final movement's "rhythms, counterpoints and contrasting ideas."

They had a point, as, theatrical though the percussion elements are, they pale by comparison with the pianistic pyrotechnics that the piece (and in particular its last movement) demands of its performer. And although the manner of the music is very much in an abrasive modernist style, it is not as blatantly percussive as its title might suggest.

The opening toccata, for example, is not the machinistic moto perpetuo that is usually to be expected from a piece of that name. Rather, its angular, jerky motion winds outwards from a central point to be cut off by abrubt chords.

This dotted rhythm permates the piece, and haunts the music's attempts to establish more fluid rhythmic progress. The shortest of the three movements, we are reminded that Toccata means "to touch" the keys, and that in Bach's time a Toccata was a preamble to a more substantial musical course.

So it is here, and once again, one feels the presence of Bach behind the music. A series of increasingly elaborate arabesques of the melodic line are floated over gently tolling left hand chords

The gentle tolling gives way to an asymetrical walking bass over which the melodic arabesques are replaced by a broader melodic line. A series of chromatic fourths and fifths foreshadow the opening of the final movement, as the music becomes increasingly complex. The movement closes with a return of the opening gestures, but here accompanied by a plodding bass that plumbs the depths of the piano before a hesitant trill brings the movement to an uncertain close.

The innocuously entitled Rondino breaks the silence with considerable force, its furious pianism recalling the modernist works of Prokoviev.

The incessant torrent of notes are abrubtly interrupted by a thunderous chord that seems to shatter the music, as little fragments spin over the chords fading roar. The music re-establishes momentum with a low dotted motif that recalls the opening movement. Little by little, however, the opening music gradually forces its way back, until we are once again swept along by its sheer breathtaking velocity. This culminates in a powerful series of chords that march down the piano, and once again all activity is cut by the reappearance of the earlier thunderous chord. This time, however, the spiralling fragments are hounded by the percussion of the piano lid, echoing across the fading chord.

The low dotted motif reappears, gradually descending to the depths of the piano, before a brief return of the lid-slamming brings this exuberant movement to a thunderous close.

Piano Percussion Music is a splendid piece. The ideas are convincingly presented, and the clear structures maintain interest throughout. With a total duration of some 11 minutes, the piece could find a way into many a programme, and a full-blooded rendering of its sheer theatricality would win over all but the most conservative audience.