As we get closer to the birthday of Debussy, I recall my first experience of Impressionism. The piece I was to learn was not by Debussy, not by Ravel, but by a composer that you may not know.
The 1965-66 school year had just begun when my piano teacher, the late Robert Koshan, handed me a braille copy of The Fifth Grade Book by John Thompson (BRM00480), containing pieces by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and some others less familiar. Later, seated at the spinet in our living room, I turned to the assigned piece, called “May Night.” The book informed me that its composer, Selim Palmgren, “was born in Bjoerneborg, Finland, in 1878 … his ‘May Night’ has been called ‘a little masterpiece of Impressionism.’” (Impressionism? What would a rock ‘n’ roll kid like me know about that?)
I turned to the music. Its key signature of four sharps led me to expect an E major opening. But the first, soft right-hand chord was A, C sharp, D sharp and F sharp, repeated for several bars. Well, maybe an E major chord would follow this. But no, another surprise–the next chord (in bar 6) was C natural, E, F sharp, A, then came B sharp, D sharp, F sharp, A sharp! —beautiful chords, but certainly not the key of E. On and on it went, through a whole-tone passage that Mr. Koshan helped me with. This music was conveying, more clearly than any lecture or essay, that Impressionism was about the vague, the mysterious.
Along with these strange chords, the left hand played a tender melody, then crossed over the right hand to play high notes (perhaps distant bells?). And I kept wondering, “Will we ever reach E major?”
Finally, it seemed to arrive in bar 21–home at last, I thought. But then came bar 22, a thicket of sharps and double-sharps that overwhelmed me. So I went to my next lesson full of trepidation. Fortunately, Mr. Koshan had a solution: “Just skip to bar 28, because from there to the end it’s all E major.” I tried this, and it sounded fine.
It was this shortened version of “May Night” that I played at our school’s Assembly program, one February morning. And I played it this way at other student recitals; if anyone suspected that part of the work was missing, they never mentioned it to me. Later, playing it as an adult, I became curious about the segment I had omitted. So I contacted the Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind, and borrowed BRM00367, a braille edition of May Night. Turning to bar 22, I slowly worked my way through those six difficult measures. At last, I knew what the entire piece sounded like.
Today, sitting at my desk in the NLS Music Section, I open our online catalog, and discover a number of other pieces by Palmgren, including Berceuse (BRM06362), and Bird Song (BRM01749). Hmmm. Maybe I’ll try BRM22228, “En Route,” to see if I can play this piano study by the composer known as “the Finnish Chopin.”