Classic Mornings

Into the Windup


It’s a fascinating invention!  And whether you focus on just the mechanics or on the sounds produced – though, hopefully, both at once – it has a way of capturing your undivided attention.

The music box originated in the late 18th century. It was a time when music wasn’t so ever-present. Though we think of them as “one tune wonders,” attempts were made even in the earliest years of their construction to enable a variety of melodies. Some of the boxes were tiny and simple. Others were more elaborate, larger and able to produce a bigger sound. Yet the image of the music box is one of delicacy.

Composers have written works for the piano that imitate both the charming and mechanical characteristics of the music box.  Over the years, English pianist Stephen Hough has introduced us to some of those pieces including The Musical Snuffbox by Anatol Liadov (1855-1914), The Musical Snuffbox by Vladimir Rebikov (1866-1920), The Music Box by Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948) and The Musical Jewellery Box by Hough himself.

I was reminded of those pieces recently. It was 30 years ago that Hough’s first collection of assorted piano miniatures titled The Piano Album was first released. Volumes 1 & 2 were re-released 25 years ago, when they first came into the Friends of WILL Library. Hough changed record companies at that point.  Yet he continued to record an occasional “Piano Album”.

The “Albums” have included some well-known miniatures such as the Melody in F  by Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), and the Minuet in G  by Ignacy Jan Pederewski (1860-1941). Mixed in with those are rarities, arrangements and other original compositions by Hough. 

The most recent collection was just released. It’s called Stephen Hough’s Dream Album (Hyperion 68176).  Among other things, Hough has a little fun altering a few famous pieces with some amusing results.  One of those is Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March, which Hough turns into the Radetzky Waltz.

The tunes on music boxes are rather short. So it’s not a real challenge to listen with full attention to every note from start to finish. A miniature composition written for the piano isn’t all that different. What should impress you is how much is conveyed in a short piece, especially when so many works of classical music require a bit of time to introduce, develop and resolve musical ideas. Perhaps it’s like poetry versus prose.

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was a master of the piano miniature. On June 15th, we celebrated his 175th birthday anniversary. For the occasion, I reminded listeners of Grieg’s “music boxes,” namely, his “Lyric Pieces.”

While there are pianists who have recorded all 66 Lyric Pieces, one recording that always comes to mind is by the late Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon 49721). It was released in 1974. The Ukrainian-born Russian pianist selected only 20 of Grieg’s pieces for a trip to the studio.  It was enough to make us wonder how he might have played all the others.

Gilels was particular about the sound of the piano and of the recording set-up for each individual piece. It seems there was a bit of a tug-of-war between Grieg and the recording staff in terms of where to place microphones, etc.  But that demonstrates, as does his playing, that Gilels understood the uniqueness of each piece.

They all have titles, which suggest music box themes of sorts. Some of the more famous titles are At the Cradle, Grandmother’s Minuet and Once Upon a Time.

It’s likely that bits of Grieg’s tunes did indeed end up on actual music boxes over the years. But something very special would be lost in taking these pieces away from the instrument for which Grieg wrote them and on which they display their original musical colors. Though I might refer to them metaphorically as “music boxes,” the last thing you would want in performances of the Lyric Pieces or any piano pieces, with the exception of those imitating music boxes, is even a hint of the mechanics of the playing.

And the last thing you would want is for WILL-FM to interrupt your music listening on a regular basis with behind-the-scenes fund-raising results. Fortunately, listeners have taken the initiative to respond to our occasional reminders. With the end of the fiscal year coming up at midnight on June 30th, we’re so close to meeting our annual goal. If you’ve made a contribution, thank you! If you haven’t yet had the chance, please consider doing so before Saturday midnight at