Jane Ellen

1.16 Musical Karate Chops

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 16: Musical Karate Chops

This episode isn't going to be a review of a Bruce Lee Martial Arts Ballet (although, wouldn't that be brilliant?!). Actually, this is going to be about that most innocent of pieces, reviled by parents, adored by young pianists, and often hilariously misinterpreted by absolutely everyone. Even the title has evolved (or rather, devolved) so that the 1877 work originally known as 'The Chop Waltz' is now referred to only as 'Chopsticks'.

This charming waltz was written by 16 year old pianist Euphemia Amelia Nightingale Allen (1861-1949), the daughter of William Elder Allen, a popular Glaswegian dance instructor. It was published under the pseudonym Arthur de Lulli by Mozart Allen of Glasgow, a music publishing company run by her brother, E J Mozart Allen. Sadly, she never published anything else although one hopes she might have continued composing for her own enjoyment. Her occupation on the 1901 Scotland census was listed as teacher of the piano forte, and she never married.

Before we go any further, here's a tiny, 40 second tutorial on the main theme of the piece (just in case your childhood was deprived). It won't take you long to figure out why most adults despise the piece.

Okay, that wasn't so hard was it? There's actually a lot more to the music than that, but this little tutorial was necessary so that you could get the idea of how it can be played with just one finger of each hand. You may wish to refer back when I begin the Takeaway but first, let's look at some interesting variations on this ubiquitous piano piece.

Here's a video of Mr Showmanship himself, Liberace, playing the piece in Carnegie Hall. He will also demonstrate the two-finger method of playing the beginning, but then it's no holds barred as he transforms it into a bravura piece with nods to Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody and a little boogie woogie thrown in:

Just in case you're beginning to grow weary of the piece (say it isn't so!), let's turn it over to some chickens:

That video reminds me of an old joke: Why did Mozart get rid of his chickens? Because they kept saying 'Bach! Bach! Bach!' Okay, moving right along to an interpretation that is certainly not a joke. This astonishing rendition of 'Chopsticks' was recorded by ukulele virtuoso John King in 2008:

Okay, I think I'm ready to tackle the piece as it was written by Ms Allen. For the Takeaway I've chosen an evocative version by Lang Lang from his new album Piano Book:

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. After listening to the original 'Chop Waltz', think back on the first video demonstrating how the theme can be played with only two fingers. You could also watch the beginning of Liberace's variations, as he demonstrated that same playing technique. Now try placing your palms together, fingers fully extended and touching, and then make a downward chopping motion in front of you (it should feel sort of like a two-handed karate chop). Got the idea? That's the origin of Euphemia's title, 'The Chop Waltz'. She intended for the opening theme to be played with the sides of the hand, as if you were 'chopping' the piano keys. It's difficult for me to play it this way; perhaps her hands were strong, yet delicately shaped. The title soon became 'The Celebrated Chop Waltz' but then, somewhat confusingly, 'Chopsticks', complete with cover art depicting an Asian gentlemen eating with traditional wooden implements.
  • 2. After the introduction, Lang Lang begins to play somewhat briskly at 0.26 secs. There are no suggested tempo markings in the original sheet music, but I suspect the simple opening encourages one to show off where possible (and it's certainly more fun to play at a faster tempo). The piece is written in binary form; here's how that works:
       intro: 0-0.25 (theme)
       A: 0.26-0.36
       B: 0.36-45
       A1: 0.46-54
       B1: 0.55-1.03.
    'A' is the melody from the introduction, but in a slightly more complex arrangement. 'B' is the 2nd melody. 'A1' is the first melody but with lots of notes added, while 'B1' is the second melody with glissandi (slides up the keyboard) added. Now the piece repeats, with an outro tacked on for good measure.
  • 3. Hopefully you have a better idea of the structure of the piece, but I want to make sure you don't confuse it with what is called 'Theme and Variations'. Liberace's rendition of the work is truly a set of variations on a single theme; the theme is stated first, and it is followed by several different variations. Although he bookends it with the original theme at the end, it's still a single theme followed by variations. Since 'Chopsticks' only has 2 short melodies, with a single variation on each one, it's not the same as a single theme followed by multiple (and often sophisticated) variations.
  • 4. If you've had some music lessons, you may have already figured out that the harmonic structure only contains two chords. Harmony is what we use to accompany a melody. If you were sitting around a fire pit and someone was playing chords on a guitar while everyone else sang the melody, the guitarist would be playing the harmony, or the accompaniment. Some harmonies can be quite complex, especially in orchestral or jazz music. In this case, the melody is accompanied by only two chords, C and G. Here's a short video which shows 4 chords on the piano, C, G, A minor (Am), and F. This may help you visualize the difference between melody and harmony.
  • 5. I'm left with the puzzle of the pseudonym, although there's probably no real mystery to her use of a masculine name for publishing. It's possible her father might have been embarrassed by the potentially public antics of his daughter, and he may have forbidden her to use her own name. It's also possible that trying to reduce her lyrical but lengthy name to fit on a piece of sheet music might have proved too difficult. Perhaps she was shy. But frankly, I suspect her brother knew a hit when he heard one, and he did not want to discourage public consumption by featuring the name of a woman, let alone a teenage girl, on the cover. Women composers have come a long way in the past 150 years since the composition of 'The Chop Waltz', but they are still sometimes seen as second-class citizens when compared to their male counterparts.

I hope you've enjoyed this exploration of 'Chopsticks'. I can't wait to bring the JMT to YouTube. I'm working hard to be able to transform my work into audio podcasts, or even vlogs where I can demonstrate things to you, but that's still several months away. In the meantime, thank you for all of your great comments, and for hanging in with a blog-based series in the 21st century.

Find Chopsticks:
public domain sheet music
Euphemia Allen's tiny Wikipedia entry
video: Melody vs Harmony

If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)