How does one play Johannes Brahms on the other side of Ben Folds? I asked myself this question as I considered a response to my piano student’s first lesson on one of the Romantic composer’s pieces. Even though I had only listened to two or three pieces by the pop artist and played his “The Luckiest” as a solo piano recessional at a wedding, I sensed that his oeuvre might help the student pay more attention to the shaping of melody in the classical repertoire. I assigned the student to listen to some Folds and think of how this might inform playing Brahms. I also decided to further investigate why I spontaneously thought this comparison was worth pursuing.
On Spotify, I found “The Luckiest” on the 2001 album Rockin’ the Suburbs. The first gesture of the song is an arpeggio rolls up from the piano’s bass to connect with and create a motive in the middle register: the first five seconds are already reminiscent of Brahms’ piano music. Changes in the harmonic progression engender variations in the established motive. A well-shaped melody is created from the starting bass notes of each instance of the gesture. Rubato and ritardando grace the lines. From this introduction alone, I would like to hear Folds’ interpretation of some piano music by Brahms.
Textural and contrapuntal finesse continues in other parts of the song. In the chorus, there is a Brahms-like duet between the vocal melody and the melodic emergences of the piano’s middle register. Beyond this, the statements of the pre-chorus material are beautifully complex. The unexpected minor chord at the entrance of the pre-chorus yields a tonal harmonic progression with another melodic bass line. In the final pre-chorus, violin presents an additional countermelody. Between these two statements, this material occurs grandly with sustained strings, with the first half of the bass line inverted, and with pizzicato ornamenting its cadence.
I briefly listened to Folds’ live version of this song from the 2002 album Ben Folds Live. Without the adornment of strings and a female vocal, Folds’ care for embedded melodies remains evident. A week after mentioning the contemporary songwriter to my student, I heard snippets of “The Luckiest” tinkling from a practice room. Maybe it was my student, or maybe it was someone else discovering the appeal of Folds’ idiomatic piano writing.