Morgan Smallbone reflects on the notion of peacefulness as it applies to classical music when curating the Peaceful Piano Moods 4-CD set and its extended 11-hour digital cousin. But first, all the music had to pass the ‘Sleep Test’ …
Peaceful Piano Moods
‘Peaceful’ is an increasingly bandied-about word in the music world these days with every appropriate playlist or physical compilation being issued with this moniker. Increasingly too, music occupying this space has been explored scientifically – by such composers as Max Richter in his epoch making eight-hour Sleep. When I was first approached to compile a sequel to Decca’s Peaceful Piano, the work started as a top to bottom list of peaceful works that helped to decompress and relax. Soon, the titles of tracks such as Ola Gjeilo’s Before Dawn and Max Richter’s Dream Solo, planted the seed of an idea to tie the music to time. Before long, I was putting pieces through the ‘sleep test’, playing them on a loop through the night, and scratching them from the list if they woke me up!
I began to expand my idea of what ‘peaceful’ meant
And then I heard Liszt’s ‘Pastorale’, from the first (Swiss) set of his Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). It instantly transported me to a hike through the alpine meadows of Switzerland, and, despite the jolly up-tempo feel to the work, I immediately felt at peace. Knowing this would not pass the ‘sleep test’, I began to expand my idea of what ‘peaceful’ meant – dawn and dreams were now woven into a soundscape with lilacs and butterflies, Venetian gondolas and afternoons of fauns. It was no surprise that it was a piece by Liszt that opened my imagination to what would follow when I read the following words by him about his inspiring years of pilgrimage and wandering:
‘Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.’
Now with an understanding of peace that moved past merely the soporific, I immersed myself in hundreds of works to achieve Liszt’s ‘real rapport’, and the Peaceful Piano Moods anthology began to take shape.
The careful unfolding of time and space through music
Key signatures, time signatures – ‘Afternoon’ hosts a lovely run of waltzes – phrase endings and phrase beginnings, musical shapes, or music with a certain feel – all played a part in the careful unfolding of time and space through music. Albéniz’s Tango (Godowsky’s arrangement instilled with Shura Cherkassky’s magician-like pianism) …
segues beautifully with the opening descending trill of Benny Andersson’s The Day Before You Came …
passing through an arrangement of Yiruma’s River Flows In You …
via a posthumous Chopin waltz …
to the blissful Song From A Secret Garden.
Where else would Albéniz join hands with ABBA, a Korean celebrity, a Polish giant and one half of a Norwegian duo, whose pathway to fame was heralded by Eurovision?
The piano is such a timeless sound
Víkingur Ólafsson’s tribute to J.S. Bach, For Jóhann and …And at the Hour of Death, were naturally followed by the work that inspired them, the ‘Prelude in C major’ from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. This merging of the present and past is effortlessly ubiquitous throughout Peaceful Piano Moods. The piano is such a timeless sound, even when used to perform works that predate its existence, be it Rameau or Bach or Scarlatti.
Then I had a problem – too much material for a single conventional CD. Thinking once more of dawn and dreams, I decided to forget about lists and curate a cycle – and what better illustrates a cycle than the face of a clock? Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night were settled on as quadrants of the circle, having no beginning or end but endlessly moving on to the next, ready to be picked up and put down at any point in time. Chad Lawson composed a brand new work, Of Twilight Skies, especially for Peaceful Piano Moods which seamlessly completed the circle, beautifully capturing the ephemeral moment between night and morning.
Find peace and tranquillity to match the time of day
However …still too much material! Four CDs were bursting with around 80 minutes of music each, and a very satisfying 100 tracks. But just as Vivian Roost’s ethereal reworking of Eric Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 2 brought the piece into the 21st Century, so streaming provided us with an opportunity to create a compilation based on time yet unconstrained by time itself. Five extended eAlbums – ‘Morning’, ‘Afternoon’, ‘Evening’, ‘Night’, a fifth combining all 185 tracks into one continuous 11-hour listening experience – were carefully curated to provide a musical timepiece of the hours of day and night, allowing the listener to find peace and tranquillity to match the time of day.
The physical CDs and digital playlists for Peaceful Piano Moods provide two very different listening experiences. The physical CDs, as mentioned, create a cycle with no beginning or end. The digital playlists are a longer journey through each period of the day, culminating in the union of the piano and full orchestra, with a movement from one of four piano concertos – two by Mozart, Ravel’s in G major, and the sublime slow movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Other than these movements, the works are largely for solo piano.
It is impossible to create a compilation that includes works from the 20th century onwards, without considering the movie soundtrack composers. The incredibly gifted Van-Anh Nguyen was enlisted to reimagine favourite film melodies and songs to fit perfectly into our curated soundscape, with moments from The Sound of Music, The English Patient, Missing and Sense and Sensibility.
They are joined by masterpieces from Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire (both performed by their composer Vangelis), as well as Darkest Hour, The Deer Hunter, Hostiles, My Fair Lady, Titanic, The Greatest Showman, The Piano (of course!), Amélie, Lady Be Good, Personal Effects and Schindler’s List. And in this golden age of premium television series, Max Richter’s haunting and beautiful theme ‘The Departure’ from The Leftovers, here performed by Lang Lang, was a ‘must have’.
Music doesn’t need to be labelled to be enjoyed
And it takes the genius of Stephan Moccio to translate his own pop hits Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus) and Earned It (The Weeknd), both making their first appearance in physical format, into perfect solo arrangements for Peaceful Piano Moods. From Bach and Rameau to Lawson and Moccio – time-dissolving, genre-bending, classically-informed, yet proving once again, that music doesn’t need to be labelled to be enjoyed.
Buy or stream Peaceful Piano Moods now.