Grieg’s Arietta Tutorial: An Intermediate Step to Liszt

In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to work on an intermediate-level piece called Arietta composed by Edvard Grieg. I love teaching this piece for a few reasons – it’s beautiful, but it’s also a good stepping stone to Liszt’s material.

Today we’re going to discuss this piece in more depth, I’ll play through it, and then we’ll break it down and I’ll give you some tips to learn it.

Let’s get started!

Grieg’s Arietta: Difficulty level

My students tend to be eager to get into Liszt’s music, but most of it is very difficult (as we discuss in the video “The Easiest Liszt Pieces”). His easiest pieces are around a grade 8 level – but Grieg’s Arietta is a grade 6 level (RCM)/grade 4 level (ABRSM).

If you’re wanting to approach one of Liszt’s easiest collections, Consolations, Grieg’s Arietta is a good place to start.

Grieg’s collection of Lyric Pieces is excellent. In general, the first volume, op. 12, is the easiest and can be played by the intermediate student. I encourage you to check out any of the Lyric Pieces volumes – the pieces are catchy, unique, and explore a diverse range of moods and styles.

In the future we’ll also talk more about Grieg – watch this space!

Grieg’s Arietta: Backstory

One thing I always like to do before getting into the tutorial is talk about the backstory of the piece in question.

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces include 66 pieces, of which Arietta is the very first (op. 12 no. 1). They cover a wide time period in Grieg’s life, from 1867 to 1901. Volume I, op. 12, was composed when Grieg was in his mid-twenties.

Most of the pieces in Lyric Pieces are short and sweet – you won’t find sprawling 10-minute compositions here. Arietta is no exception at about a minute and a half long.

This piece has a sweet and clear melody and a melancholic mood. It feels influenced by Chopin and Liszt’s romantic piano style. It’s very appealing and makes a great study in harmony as well (which we’ll discuss shortly).

Let’s take a listen and then get into it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Vswzh8qJ5k

Arietta: Basic Details

The first things I like to do with a new piece are:

  1. Figure out the key signature: This one is in Eb major since it has 3 flats, and Eb major is our first chord
  2. Figure out the overall mood: What does the title suggest? The tempo marking?

To answer question 2, let’s first discuss what an arietta is. The dictionary says:  

“A short aria”.

Well then, what is an aria?

“An elaborate melody sung solo with accompaniment, as in an opera or oratorio.”

When piano composers used “aria”, they’re basically saying their piece has a very lyrical melody – a melody you could sing. That gives us a lot of information right off the bat.

Second, the tempo marking is Poco Andante e sostenuto. Andante is a term many of us learn early on – it means “walking speed”. This is useful as well! Poco is “a little”. E sostenuto is “sustained”. You can interpret this as “a little sustained, and at a walking speed”.

We haven’t even pressed a key yet and we already have much more information!

Arietta’s form and structure

The next thing to look at is the structure of the piece. It’s actually very simple in this case – I just mark it as “A” and “A1”. It’s pretty much the same material twice, only the second time there are some slight changes at the end. This is good to know. It means that, instead of having an entire page of original material to learn, there’s going to be a lot of repetition.

The melody of Arietta

My students usually look at this music and then … they don’t practice it.

I get it – it looks tough. There are a lot of notes. But once you can work your way around all these notes, you realize it isn’t quite so tricky at all.

The first step is to find the melody, isolate it, and play it. I even recommend singing it, since that’ll help you play it more beautifully.

Luckily for us, the melody is easy to find and isolate – it’s found in the highest notes of the piece.

Those of you who are into music theory might be wondering why the stems are going up with those top notes – usually high notes have stems that go down. In this case it’s to isolate the melody and separate it from non-melody notes.

Working in 4-bar phrases, play through the melody. Don’t worry about correct fingering yet – you’re just aiming to get a sense of the tune. Do try to play it as beautifully as you can, though!

Once you’re comfortable with the melody, it’s time to look at the other “voices” in this piece.

Other voices in Arietta

There are two other “voices” in Arietta – the bass part and the middle part. The bass part is easy to see, since it consists of the lowest notes in the piece, and the stems go downward (to indicate it’s the bassline).

Do the same thing with the bass that you did with the melody – play through it to get a feel for it – it should be quite straightforward to sight read it if you’re an intermediate-level student.

Next, try playing the melody and the bassline hands together. Again, you’re focusing on keeping the melody beautiful, but the bass will help give us some harmonic shape.

For now we’re completely ignoring the inner voice. We’re just looking at the melody (highest voice) and bass (lowest voice).

When you get the hang of that, you can look at the inner notes – the middle voice. This voice is divided between hands evenly. You’ll notice it tends to move in pairs – the left hand plays two notes, and the right hand plays two notes.

Play this inner voice completely on its own until you get a feel for it (just like you did with the melody and bass).

Once you can play the inner voice well, it’s time to mix and match! Now’s the time to get clear-and-specific on what fingers you’ll ultimately be using.

  • Try the melody with the middle voice
  • Try the middle voice with the bass
  • Try the melody and the bass (you’ve already done this one, right?)

Once you’ve tried all possible two-part combinations, it’s time to get all three parts happening at once! This’ll be a little awkward at first. But if you’ve worked through each line individually, it’ll be doable. Without going through each line individually, it tends to just be a confusing mess to play.

Bringing out the melody

One challenge of playing a piece with multiple voices is to bring out the melody notes so that they ring loud and clear above the harmony notes. In this case, your highest notes must be louder than all the other notes.

Try working with the right-hand notes and see if you can “weight” things in the direction of your pinkie, which will be doing most of the melody work. This takes some trial and error. If you’re not sure, record yourself playing and see if the melody shines through clearly, or if it’s muddled by other notes.

Another brief note about the melody – we have a lot of repeated notes. 5 G’s, then 5 F’s. Repetition like this can sound unpleasant without some variation. Think about singing. If you sang 5 G’s all at the exact same volume and tone, it would be jarring to listen to. Try to create some variation from one note to the next – this will help us create a beautiful, song-like sound.

Phrasing

To create a beautiful melody, we not only need to vary the tone from one note to the next, but we also want to pay attention to the phrasing.

(Some editions will have the phrasing marked in – others, like the one you see on the screen, don’t.)

In general, this piece moves in 2-bar phrases. That means at the end of each two bars, there’s a natural pause in the melody. If you were singing the melody, this is where you’d breathe.

We want to keep these natural rests in mind when playing on the piano. Be sure your melody note doesn’t drag through between bar 2 and 3 – make sure there’s a lift in the sound. It’s especially important in arias and ariettas to emulate the sound of a human voice.

You’ll also notice little dynamics – crescendos and diminuendos – which follow the natural shape of the phrase. It gets a little louder toward the middle of the phrase and tapers off at the end of the phrase. This swelling and retracting pattern is very common and sounds lovely.

Pedal

Some editions will have the pedal marked in – others might just say “Ped.” at the beginning.

You’ll be pedaling in syncopated style. If you’ve never done syncopated pedaling before, this piece isn’t the place to start! Go back and practice the pedal in easier pieces first.

This piece requires a good ear for pedaling, since it’s easy to overdo it. You want to create a nice smoothness with the pedal, but it’s easy for things to get muddy and blurry. Depending on the notes, I tend to lift the pedal once or twice per bar.

Harmony

Finally, let’s look at some of Grieg’s harmony choices in Arietta.

This isn’t something you have to do, but I think chords are interesting and I always learn something when I study them in a piece. Doing this really helps you “get inside” a piece, and practicing chords is a skill that takes time to build like anything else.


One common chord progression is I – V7. In the key of Eb, that would mean Eb – Bb7. Grieg changes it up in the first line though, going from I – vii*7. Interestingly, this chord is almost identical to a V7:

V7 (Bb7): Bb D F Ab
Vii*7 (Ddim7): D F Ab Cb

You can see that three out of four of the notes are the same. So substituting V7 with vii*7 is a common – and more tense – choice.

In the second line we walk through the same chord progression twice (you’ll notice each set of 2 bars repeats):

vi – I – iv*7 – iii

What an unusual progression! Note that the “Gm” could also be interpreted (rightly) as Ebm7. This progression basically has the sound of “sad, to tonic” then, “tense, to tonic (ish)”.

We have tension and resolution in little two-chord blocks.

A full harmonic analysis of the piece would take ages, but this gets you started. It’s really cool to dissect music like this.

Conclusion

That should be enough to get you going with Grieg’s Arietta. Here’s the link to imslp.org’s website where you can find different PDF versions of the piece.

If you’d like to check out Grieg’s full collection of Lyric Pieces, here it is on Sheet Music Plus:

look inside Complete Lyric Pieces (Centennial Edition) Schirmer Library of Classics Volume 1989 Piano Solo. Composed by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Piano Collection. Classical Period. Collection. With standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 216 pages. G. Schirmer #LB1989. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50482380).

Have fun practicing, and I’ll catch you in the next video!

-Allysia