Suggested Listening: “Presto e leggiero” (Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6) by Benna Moe

Since apparently I’m on an obscure-Nordic-composers kick (see June 2’s post), this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC takes us to Denmark for Benna Moe’s Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6, performed below by pianist Catherine Penderup (DK).

About the Composer:

Benna Moe. (source)

Benna Moe (1897-1983) was a force to be reckoned with.  A virtuoso organist, pianist, and mezzo-soprano, she got her musical start at an all-girls’ school in the affluent town of Gentofte, Denmark.  It was there that she first began composing at the age of twelve, her early output ranging from simple songs to an orchestral overture.  She grew up in a bourgeois household, the only sister among brothers, all of whom supported her talents (and one of whom — a bookseller and publisher — ensured that her music went to print).

Moe ranks among the greatest women in Denmark’s history, and her music is intertwined in the stories and lives of other important Danish women.  In 1913, for instance, she composed a piece celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Johanne Luise Heiberg, star of 19th-century Danish film and theatre.  When Margarethe II of Denmark (then, heir presumptive to the Danish throne; now, Queen) was married in Copenhagen in 1967, Moe composed a wedding waltz in her honor.  (As an interesting feminist side note, Margarethe II became heir presumptive in 1953, when Parliament altered the Danish constitution and allowed for a new law of succession; prior to that year, only men could ascend the Danish throne.)  Following a performance of Moe’s music at Copenhagen’s National Scala, one reviewer commended her “ladylike attitude [as] she directs her own compositions.”

Though I couldn’t dig up much information on Moe, what I did find reveals an interesting character and important cultural figure.  As I’ve discussed in past posts, women composers receive far too little attention, so I was delighted to stumble upon her wonderful music and feature it here today.

About the Piece:

The album Romantic Piano Works by Danish Women Composers (how’s that for specificity?!) features two sets of Moe’s “instructive studies,” her opuses 6 and 9.  An instructive study, or étude, is exactly what it sounds like: a “teaching” piece of music, often challenging, for a student to practice with the goal of improving his or her technical and musical skills.  While Moe’s Op. 9 set of three instructive studies presents lighthearted sketches of Italy (titles include “Venezia” and “Tarantelle”), her Op. 6 is a much heavier, more formal trio of works.  “Presto e leggiero” (Italian performance instructions meaning “very fast and delicate”) is the first of the three Op. 6 studies.  Brooding and undulant, it challenges the pianist with swelling waves of notes in constant motion, while a plaintive melody is woven into the music’s billowing texture.  About a minute in, the key transforms from minor, hushed and urgent, to a hopeful and nostalgic major mode.  The respite is short-lived, however: by two minutes, the darkness of minor has seeped back in, tugging the musical narrative once more toward a place of despair.

If you enjoyed Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6, you might also like…

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