It wasn’t easy to find a Z to complete A Pianist’s Alphabet, but Carlo Zecchi (1903-84) fits the bill perfectly, being a pianist, music teacher and conductor. He studied with Busoni and Schnabel. His Paris debut was rather overshadowed by one Vladimir Horowitz but he enjoyed success in Russia in the inter-war years and was particularly acclaimed for his performances of piano works by Scarlatti, Mozart, and Debussy, and of Romantic music.
A Pianist’s Alphabet has lain rather fallow for the past few months but it’s back again now to ponder the eternal question of Why? (Do we do it?). When this Alphabet is complete, it is my intention to continue the series, returning to the letter A. If you would like to contribute to A Pianist’s Alphabet, please contact me
So why do we do it? Why do we play the piano. Why do we choose to spend so much time with that big box of wood and wires?
As children, I suspect many of us didn’t really question “Why?”. Perhaps we were simply pushed, gently or otherwise, by parents. As I recall (and I was only about 5), I was encouraged to learn the piano. I liked the instrument – my grandfather played the piano and I used to enjoy sitting next to him as he played, as well as rummaging through the piano stool, which contained old Methodist hymn sheets, music hall songs and albums like ‘Hours With the Masters’ and ‘Step by Step to the Classics’ by Felix Swinstead. As I grew up, I developed a very strong attachment to the piano: as an only child it provided a place where I could escape and create my own fantasies and stories, losing myself in music and my imagination for hours at a time. In addition, I was a dedicated student, who practised regularly and carefully and who progressed through the grade exams with relative ease. Now, as an adult who has returned to the piano after a long absence (some 20 years), it is my life and I would be bereft without it.
So why do I play the piano?
I like the sound of the instrument and the endless opportunities it provides to create myriad of timbres and colours
I like the physical feel of playing the piano, the sensation of finger on key, the engagement of the whole body when playing
I enjoy the solitariness of being a pianist
There is a wonderful and vast, vast repertoire to be explored. Enough keep one occupied for several lifetimes and to satisfy all tastes
I relish the personal challenge and intellectual stimulating of learning and studying music
My piano is not only my work horse but also a beautiful addition to my living room
Of course, all of these points could be applied to many other instruments, but I chose the piano. There are many other Whys?, both prosaic and philosophical. Why not share your Whys? in the comment box below……
…a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public.
Music in the Western civilization by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Google “virtuoso pianist” and the image search will throw up pictures of Richter, Brendel, Rubenstein, Argerich, Arrau, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Trifonov, Pollini, Cziffra, Gould, Kissin, Uchida, Hough, Pires, Ogdon, Schiff, Cliburn, Hamelin, Schnabel, Cortot, Horowitz, Hess, von Bulow, Andsnes….. The list is seemingly endless, with every significant or “great” pianist of today and previous eras afforded the accolade of “virtuoso”. Along with the pictures there are 100s of articles ranking pianists – the 25 greatest pianists of all time, the 10 greatest living pianists, 50 legendary virtuoso pianists……
The word “virtuoso” literally means “a person who is extremely skilled at something, especially at playing an instrument or performing“. It describes an individual with exceptional and extraordinary technical and musical abilities, but as the opening quote notes, the word is more usually associated with dazzling displays of piano pyrotechnics.
Today virtuosity in the sphere of classical music has become almost synonymous with an over-developed technical facility without a comparable level of musical understanding/interpretation or broader musical education. The word has been misappropriated and more often than not is now attached to the performer who simply plays very fast and loud, or one who attracts more attention to themselves than the music (I am sure we can all think of a few examples…..). It troubles me when the word is used to describe young children playing (seemingly) complex piano repertoire, whose irritating videos are posted across the internet. How many of these “piccoli virtuosi” will actually grow up to be true virtuosi, in the purest, most romantic sense of the word? As we gasp in amazement at these pianists’ fleet fingers and glittering pianistic athleticism, the word has come to mean something rather superficial and derogatory.
Virtuosos are constantly tempted to indulge in an undue exhibition of their wonderful technic, and as many have succumbed to the temptation, the term virtuoso has come to be considered by many as slightly depreciatory, and the greatest artists usually object to having it coupled with their names
W.L. Hubbard et al, 1908
For me, and I suspect others who appreciate the art and craft of pianism, virtuosity transcends technique. It is less about the ability to play the fastest, most treacherous passages of Rachmaninoff or Liszt or to scale the high Himalayan peaks of works like Gaspard de la Nuit or Islamey, or to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through one’s playing and an ability to stand back from the music to allow it to speak on its own terms. Nor is it about flashy piano pyrotechnics and extravagant gestures, which may wow the audience but do not serve the music. Indeed, a number of pianists whom I regard as true virtuosi are also some of the most “immobile” in the profession – Marc-André Hamelin, Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough being notable examples.
A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life”
Franz Liszt is usually held up as the first great virtuoso pianist, yet for many he remains merely a “showman” whose virtuosity was a negative attribute. A poseur and a charlatan, superficial and bombastic, whose playing and music was affected, grandiose and vulgar. But Liszt was no superficial showman: in addition to playing his own music, he played all the best music of his day and all the best music which had been written for the piano. He was “the very incarnation of the piano”. In addition, he was a pioneering conductor, concert promoter and champion of young composers (notably Wagner, who described him as “the most musical of all musicians”). His musical outlook in general was noble, transcendental, sacred, orchestral and metaphysical – surely attributes to be admired rather than denounced?
With Liszt, one no longer thinks of difficulty overcome; the instrument disappears and music reveals itself
The virtuoso appreciates and understands that each performance is a “critique” in the purest sense of that term; it is a profoundly thoughtful, insightful, penetrative response to the music in which the performer invests his or her own self in a symbiotic process in which he/she becomes not a re-creator but a collaborator with the composer. The virtuoso respects the demands placed upon him/her by the composer by playing the music with passion, poetry and extraordinary technical ability.
In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.
…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius: his virtuosity
Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!
The virtuoso takes risks in performance – by which I do not mean coming to the stage ill-prepared. Indeed, the most risk-tasking, vertiginous, exciting or profound performances are often the result of many long hours – nay, years – spent living with the music. Even a flawed virtuoso performance can excite, delight and enthrall far more than a perfect non-virtuosic performance: technique over artistry nearly always fails to impress.
The virtuoso understands that while there is no “definitive” performance, one can create, in that “existing in the moment” of the live concert experience a performance whose communicative and emotional power renders it “perfect”. Audiences know this too – these are the performances during which we enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard (often the hardest concerts to review, in my experience!) because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being. I would cite concerts by Maurizio Pollini (in Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata), Steven Osborne (in Messiaen’s Vingt Regards), Marc-André Hamelin (in Liszt, Ives and Stockhausen) and Richard Goode (in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas) which transported me into that particular state of wonder.
The miracle of an aristocratic performance lies in its capacity to vaporize everything that surrounds it, and in particular all efforts to appropriate it.
Mark Mitchell, ibid.
And there’s more – because for me true virtuosity goes beyond the notes. It includes the ability and willingness to tackle a wide range of repertoire. By which I do not mean playing a lot of pieces, as some younger performers feel they should be doing, but rather playing a broad range of music. One of the chief exponents of this art is, in my humble opinion, Maurizio Pollini. Not many pianists would programme Chopin’s 24 Preludes, a selection of Debussy’s Preludes Book 1 and Pierre Boulez’s Sonata No. 2 in the same concert. Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin are also notable examples in their championing of lesser-known repertoire and their own compositions.
People will always be impressed by fleet fingers and noisy piano acrobatics, but for me the most profound musical experience often comes in the quietest, slowest or most intimate moments in music when a venue as large as the Royal Festival Hall shrinks to the size of Schubert’s salon through the pianist’s power of expression and musical intuition and understanding. That is true virtuosity.
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) – composer, architect, boffin. Fearsomely experimental, he linked his disciplines by writing and designing co-dependent music and listening spaces. He arguably laid the foundations for modern electronica. And he was one of the first composers to use mathematical theory in creating music.
Why does Xenakis belong in a pianist’s alphabet? Because his first longer-form work for the instrument has been called ‘the most difficult piano piece ever written’. Clearly seeing this as underperformance of some sort, 12 years later he produced a second piece for solo piano that is, strictly speaking, ‘impossible’. What’s not to like?
In both pieces, Xenakis uses certain mathematical techniques or theories to shape and generate the music. When I heard about this kind of composition in my teenage years, I was suspicious in my ignorance. 1: If it was all down to maths, was it really composition at all, or just some kind of automated exercise? And contrarily, 2: Surely all music – including the really tuneful, harmonious stuff – has mathematical perfection at its root… so why does THIS have to sound so deranged?
I recently decided to go back to Xenakis’s piano music, purely as a listener. I wanted to satisfy myself that without considering ANY of the scientific background – deploying my ear over my brain – it still worked for me, had something non-clinical to offer.
Here is the earlier piece, ‘Herma’:
and the later one, ‘Evryali’:
I was genuinely surprised by some of my reactions.
* I found both pieces enjoyable and invigorating – but I wasn’t expecting to hear such a world of difference between the two. I think in ‘Herma’ you hear the maths, and in ‘Evryali’ you hear the music.
* The unpredictable dance to the extremes of the keyboard in ‘Herma’ make it feel like performance art – raindrops one minute, rubble the next. As a result, the piece attains a kind of spiky ambience.
* In ‘Evryali’, however, I think the sweeping curves in the structure are audible, the notes – however dissonant – seem to belong together, journey with each other. The images it conjures up in my head are geometric, symmetrical – spirals, waves.
There’s a twist in the tale, however. ‘Evryali’ is ‘impossible’ partly because in places it’s written using more than two staves (as you can see on the YouTube video). The pianist must create their own version based on which notes they want to cover and which they can live with leaving out.
Of all things, this reminds me of jazz. Jazz has very little to do with mayhem; rather it is (as the critic Whitney Balliett put it) ‘the sound of surprise’ – the unexpected choices players make within the established parameters. With ‘Evryali’, we seem to have a truly original hybrid: a composed framework through which the pianist can follow their own unique path. I love the idea that from mathematical principles, Xenakis has created a piece dependent, like so much other music, on flexibility, spontaneity and feel.
Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at http://www.adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk
In a recent article, violinist Nigel Kennedy bemoans the “narrow” approach of the conservatoire system and its focus on technique over individuality. He also cites Yehudi Menuhin (who paid Kennedy’s fees at the Purcell School) as a major influence in encouraging him to explore other genres of music, including jazz.
I do not believe music should be studied in a vacuum, separate from other arts or life-experience, but in our desire to seek perfection in what we do, to practise so that we never play a wrong note, I think there is a danger of losing sight of where the music we play comes from. It is not just thickets of notes on a page, but the expression of emotions, hopes and desires, of another sentient human being – the composer.
And so in order to transmit the composer’s intentions to our audience, I believe we should take a well-rounded approach to our music making. Cutting oneself off from normal life by spending hours and hours in the practise room is not healthy. Aside from the law of diminishing returns (after about 3 hours you stop taking in information and are simply “typing” the music), it is important to remember that the composers whose music we love and revere were normal people too – they too had love affairs, went out drinking with mates, and enjoyed a good meal with friends and colleagues – and we can connect better to them and their music if we go out and live life, just as they did. Having a social life, meeting friends, going out together, eating and drinking, going to the theatre, the cinema, art exhibitions, reading trashy novels, falling in love, falling out of love: all this feeds into our cultural and creative landscape to nourish, inspire and inform our music-making.
Of course, being a well-rounded pianist or musician is much more than this. It is about technique, for sure, but it is also about getting to the heart of the music to understand the context of its creation, why it is special. In order to do this, we need to study social and historical context, “listen around” the music to better appreciate that composer’s unique soundworld, compose, analyse and understand the philosophy of music. We should explore literature, art, poetry, go to concerts, play in ensembles, listen to music from other genres, and always – always – remain open-minded and curious. We also need to accept that there is no “right way”, to trust our musical instincts, have the courage of our convictions and not constantly compare ourselves to nor compete with others. When all these things combine, I believe we can truly be well-rounded musicians.
I am a volunteer pianist. For the past 12 years, I’ve brought music to residents of assisted living homes, memory-care centers, and retirement communities.
Before becoming a volunteer pianist at age 50, I had played classical music almost exclusively, along with Christmas carols and the occasional Broadway tune or popular movie theme. I love classical music; many of my elderly listeners do, too. They enjoy having piano performance students come from the local university to present practice recitals. Those students play classical music better than I ever could. I’m an amateur pianist, albeit a serious one.
So for my volunteer gigs I focus instead on standards from the 1920s through the 1940s. These songs—especially the ones popular during World War II—have deep emotional meaning for my audiences. When I play “As Time Goes By” or “Sentimental Journey,” my listeners feel a sense of ownership. “You play our music,” they tell me.
For my elderly audiences, this music stirs memories. I recognize the look of nostalgia in their eyes as they remember dancing with the spouse they’ve now lost, or longing for home while away serving in the military.
One hunchbacked octogenarian shuffled to the piano to tell me that his mother played when he was a little boy. Then he burst into tears and sobbed, “I miss her so much.” Sometimes a particular song will inspire a listener to tell me a story. Some are surprisingly personal. Upon hearing “Tenderly,” a rheumy-eyed man whispered in my ear, “That song was the cause of my five children.”
The power of music is never more evident to me than when I volunteer in a dementia unit. Patients arrive slumped mutely in wheelchairs, seeming unaware of their surroundings. But when I play a song like Irving Berlin’s “Always,” they raise their heads and begin singing. Unlocked by the music, the lyrics flow from their long-term memory.
Volunteering offers no monetary compensation. I am paid in kisses blown to me from across the room, in pats on the arm, in glasses of juice offered by shaky hands.
My work as a volunteer pianist is not all hearts and flowers. The pianos I play are often neglected and out of tune. Cell phones ring during my performances. I will always remember the man in my audience who answered his phone and told the caller, “No, I’m not busy, I can talk. I’m just listening to someone play the piano.”
I compete with the roar of vacuum cleaners, with the clattering of lunch dishes being cleared away in nearby dining rooms. On one memorable occasion, a
housekeeper dusted the piano while I was playing it. And then there was the time I got hit by a ball when an audience member decided to multi-task, listening to the piano music while he played a game of fetch with his dog.
I’ve run into a few curmudgeons over the years. One told me I was “no Liberace.” Another approached the piano, leaned in close, and snarled, “Why don’t you go play somewhere else?”
Still, I cannot imagine a more gratifying way to contribute to my community than by being a volunteer pianist. Not long ago, an elderly women slowly steered her walker to the piano as I packed up after a performance. “You have no idea how much sunshine you brought into this room with your music,” she told me. “We were all dancing in our hearts.”
Una Corda is the direction to the pianist to apply the left-hand or soft pedal. The function of the soft pedal was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the piano had evolved to have three strings on most of the notes. When the una corda pedal was applied, the action of the piano would shift so that only one string was struck – hence the words “una corda”, or “one string”.
On a modern grand piano the strings are placed too closely to permit a true una corda effect: the left-hand pedal shifts the whole action, including the keyboard slightly to the right, so that hammers which normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. The resulting sound is softer and also has a duller quality due to the two strings being struck making contact with a part of the hammer felt which is not often hit and which is therefore slightly softer in density, creating a different quality of sound. On an upright piano, the mechanism is arranged so that when the left-hand pedal is applied, the resting position of the hammers is moved closer to the strings so that they have a shorter distance to travel and therefore the strings are struck with less force, creating less sound.
While the una corda pedal can be used to achieved wonderfully soft, muted and veiled effects in piano music, it is not simply a “quiet pedal”, any more than the right-hand, sustaining pedal is the “loud pedal”, and just as there are “degrees” of sustaining pedal, depending on the repertoire, so the una corda can be depressed in a variety of ways to create multi-faceted musical colours and sonorities. As with all pedalling, an acute ear, practise, discretion and experimentation will lead to greater confidence and expertise, resulting in truly wonderful effects.
Here is Beethoven giving very specific directions in the use of the una corda pedal: he stipulates lifting the left pedal so gently that only bit by bit are all the strings sounding again – only two initially and ultimately all three again:
An urtext edition of a work of classical music is a printed version intended to reproduce the original intention of the composer as exactly as possible, without any added or changed material. (Wikipedia)
The source materials for Urtext editions include the composer’s autograph (the manuscript produced in the composer’s hand), hand copies made by the composer’s students and assistants, the first published edition and other early editions. Urtext editions differ from facsimile editions, which present a photographic reproduction of one of the original sources for a work of music, and interpretive editions, which offer the editor’s personal opinion on how to perform the work.
Urtext scores came into being as a reaction against the many (and often incorrect) editorial liberties which were taken when editing and publishing music. Phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and sometimes even the notes themselves were altered as the editor saw fit, and so long as it made musical sense, this kind of editing was considered acceptable. Editors guilty of this kind of tampering include Busoni (in Bach) and von Bülow, amongst many others. These days, the urtext score is a must-have for the serious student, teacher or performer, offering as it does a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful record of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.
I still have my old ABRSM editions of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions and “the 48”. Heavily annotated by the ABRSM’s editors, the manuscript is distorted with the kind of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation markings which would probably horrify Bach. In an urtext score, particularly a Baroque urtext score, the absence of performance directions offers the performer choice, versatility and expression.
Urtext editions, in particular those produced by established music publishers such as Henle, Wiener and Barenreiter, tend to be high-quality publications, with detailed and insightful prefaces and notes, descriptions of sources (usually in German, English and French), useful fingerings, and aesthetically-pleasing design values: durable bindings, heavy cream paper, and clear music engraving optimised for efficient page turns. With the increasing popularity of digital downloads, resources such as Piano Street and IMSLP also offer urtext editions in their catalogues.
Descriptive words, usually in Italian, used to define tempo, expression, articulation, dynamics, pedaling or a specific feature such as a glissando or cadenza. We start learning and accumulating musical terms from the moment we begin to play the piano, starting with the simplest terms – forte (loud), piano (soft), allegro (quick or brisk), andante (at a walking pace). As we progress in our piano studies, we add more terms to our dictionary – allegretto, adagio, largo, presto, cantabile, accelerando, rallentando…..
Composers use terms to guide us in our interpretation of their music. With the invention of the metronome terms relating to tempo (such as presto, allegro, andante, adagio) became more standardised and suggested tempi are given on the body of the metronome in beats per minute, and also at the start of a piece. These speeds are not set in stone, however, and terms should be interpreted according to the character and style of the piece, as well as our own abilities and limitations.
Andante is a term which has always interested me. We know it means “at a walking pace”, but my walking pace may not be the same as yours. And maybe one day my walking pace is hurrying for a train, and another it is strolling in the park……. In the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A, D959, the tempo marking is andantino and the character of the music suggests to me the weary tread of a melancholy traveler. Some will disagree, preferring a brisker walking pace, or the plod of an almost-funereal Adagio.
I love highly descriptive terms – allegro con fuoco (fast and with fire), allegro amabile (which means amiably quick, but which I prefer to translate as “smile as you quickly place”), affettuoso (with affection and tenderness), accarezzevole (caressing), bruscamente (brusquely), perdendosi (dying away). Once could write a passionate love story from these terms.
When I asked for suggestions for this entry in the Pianist’s Alphabet, a number of my pianist friends and colleagues suggested Tea. What would we do without it? I must drink six or seven cups a day. It fuels my practising, my teaching and my writing. Tea keeps fingers and brain lubricated. My morning ritual is to make a large mug of smokey Lapsang Souchong which I take to the piano. The ritual is repeated at regularly intervals, and mid-morning my husband will silently bring me a cup of tea and place it on my desk behind the piano. Coffee makes me jittery and nauseous – not an ideal combination when one is trying to refine Schubert’s heavenly length.
Others T’s (suggested by friends and colleagues)…..
Getting all the notes of a piece under our fingers is only the first step on the way to performing. It’s what happens after this that engages the listener and makes the performance memorable. Of course, we naturally want to be different and make our playing stand out from the crowd, but it’s no good if we go a little overboard and play in the wrong style. Style is very important, and can be quite subjective. It’s something that we can always look into at a greater depth, and just one reason why musicians are always students.
Style is often dictated by the period in which the music was written. You wouldn’t expect a character in ‘Downton Abbey’ to come into a scene wearing a pair of skinny jeans, would you? Similarly, you wouldn’t want to play a piece in such a way that the listener is no longer able to understand how it could have been written in a certain period. The tone we use has a huge bearing on style. Recently, I played the beginning of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita in B flat major (BWV 825) to one of my teachers, and his first comment was that I needed to alter my tone. The sound I was producing would have been far more suited to the work of a romantic composer such as Brahms, so I needed to lighten my touch in order to make my style more appropriate for the work. The same principle can be applied to flexibility; a performer may choose to pull the tempo around in a Chopin Nocturne to a degree that would be out of character in one of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.
A good way to implement style is to think about the instrument for which the music was written. Yes, you’re probably going to be thinking “erm… piano”, but remember that our instrument has come a very long way from the first pianos of Cristofori in the 1700s. Of course, the music of Bach and Scarlatti would have been written for harpsichord, an entirely different instrument indeed! This does sometimes throw up disagreements over certain aspects of playing, such as the use of sustain pedal, but as long as you think generally about the instrument, then you will be far better off than if you’d disregarded the matter!
However, to play a piece stylistically doesn’t mean that you are to play in a certain way when it comes to interpretation. This is what brings originality to your playing, and makes the music as current now as it was when it was written. To demonstrate my point, below are two famous recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BMV 998), both recorded by Glenn Gould. The first was recorded in 1955, the second in 1981: both are examples of style fitting to Bach’s writing, but both recordings differ dramatically when it comes to Gould’s interpretation. You only need to listen to the opening few bars of the Aria to see my point:
Lewis Kesterton is a pianist currently studying at Birmingham Conservatoire. Read his blog here
Schubert. This entry on the letter S would not be complete, for me at least, without a mention of Franz Peter Schubert, a composer whose music I have loved and lived with all my life: as a young child hearing my father play Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsem (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’) on the clarinet, my own LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, my first encounters with the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux for piano in my mid-teens, as a precocious student who could play the notes, but who understood little of where this music came from or its emotional depth. Returning to the piano in my late 30s after an absence of some 20 years, it was Schubert’s music to which I turned first, revisiting the Impromptus initially, and then the late piano sonatas, with the benefit of musical maturity (the result of a lifetime of listening and concert-going rather than playing at that time) and life experience. As an argumentative teenager, often to be seen at weekends on CND marches, the old radical Beethoven had been my hero, a composer who wore his heart on his sleeve and whose life-affirming music declaims his existence, at once full-bodied and triumphal, but also other-worldly and philosophical especially in his late works. Schubert speaks more quietly: his soundworld is introspective, and intimate. He takes us into his confidence, and he is often at his most tragic when writing in the major key. His music packs a vast emotional punch – the range of emotions expressed within a piano miniature, such as the Impromptu in f minor D935/1, are startling, their unexpectedness underlined by his daring use of harmony and his expansiveness (which Schumann described as his “heavenly length”), underpinned by an innate sense of musical geometry and architecture. As a consequence, there are many interpretative possibilities in his music.
If Beethoven is notable for his musical structures and energy, Schubert is the spinner of beautiful melodies, music which speaks of his life in Vienna, of socialising and music making with friends, country rambles and joie de vivre (think of the joyful holiday moods of the ‘Trout’ Quintet), but always shot through with darkness and heartbreak. He had plenty of intuitions of mortality during his brief life: he contracted syphilis in 1822/23, at that time an incurable and shameful disease, and lived in a city on a continent wracked by revolution and war. These were turbulent times, both personally and politically, and his music reflects this in its emotional voltes faces – all those layers of feeling and chains of emotions – perhaps most strikingly expressed in the slow movement of the Sonata in A, D959 or in the Fantasy in F minor, D940.
Frances Wilson – pianist, writer, teacher and author of The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.
If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally recreative point of view… to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else. – Glenn Gould
R is for “robbed”. R is also for “rhubarb”. And, aged four, sat on a plump cushion, on top of my teacher’s piano stool, having just played the Minuet in G from the Associated Board’s edition of Eighteen Selected Pieces from ‘A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach’ with about as much feeling as the Honda production line in Swindon, I first came across what I initially thought was a portmanteau of the two. (By the way, I wouldn’t have known, then, what a “portmanteau” was, either. And I still have the very same music perched on my piano, today: such is the rustiness of the current state of what I laughingly refer to as my “technique”.)
“Technically, that’s excellent,” said Mr Bury (or words to that effect); “but it could do with some rubato…” – and then, of course, he went on to explain and demonstrate, beautifully, what that was. And, although I have hunted it ever since, Snark-like: at such a tender age, my emotional range was narrowly-focused. All I could see were Boojums.
My personal definition of the word Rubato is aural; rather than written or visual. Listen to the two (fantabulous) recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which (the fantabulous) Glenn Gould made at each end of his career. The first, from 1955, <https://itun.eslasts 38:34, and is a demonstration of pure technical genius. The second, from 1981 – at 51:18 – lasts exactly one-third longer – and transforms each variation from what could easily be a mechanical Baroque exercise (see above) to something of a romantic, yet contrapuntal, serenade: particularly the opening (and closing) Aria. The difference, I believe, is not in the time taken – although there is a definite contributory effect from the time taken between making the two recordings. Subtract the first from the second – although I have to admit, given my word limit (and being, ahem, robbed of time), this is a little simplistic (and may be over-egging the pudding a little): there are a few more repeats, as well… – and what you are left with (IMHO) is the very essence of rubato.
The tempi are not so much “robbed”; as generously donated. Or, as Michael Kennedy so wisely states in the 1980 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (which also sits atop my piano), rubato is…
A feature of performance in which strict time is for a while disregarded – what is ‘robbed’ from some notes being ‘paid back’ later. When this is done with genuine artistry and instinctive musical sensibility, the effect is to impart an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity. Done badly, rubato merely becomes mechanical.
…and I’m sure you can easily evoke your own guilty parties with regards to that last comment. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if you disagreed with my exemplar, above. (I’m sure Chopin would.) But, surely that’s what rubato is really all about – the individual, “instinctive” subjectivity (hopefully dredged up from your very soul, and bypassing most of your mind) that you can bring to any piece of music: whether it be from your emotions; or even from a desire to stress a melody hidden deep within a morass of complex notes (see, for instance, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto).
In other words, rubato – whether applied to one note, or a thousand – is simply a symptom, an expression, of one’s own interpretation.
Up, up in the highest echelons of the pianistic pantheon sits Sergei Rachmaninov….
Regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, Rachmaninov had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard. Today, his piano music remains amongst the most well-loved and widely-performed in the standard repertoire, yet in the 1950s the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed it as “monotonous in texture….. consist[ing] of mainly of artificial and gushing tunes….”. He was composing at a time when music was undergoing huge sea-changes (atonality and the development of the 12-note tone row, for example), yet he remained true to his own compositional vision and his music is unashamedly Romantic, full of sweeping melodies and rich textures. Even in his miniatures (for example, the Preludes, Moments Musicaux, Études-Tableaux) his music seems to express the vastness of the Russian landscape. It has a visceral and deeply honest quality.
“A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves…My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music”
Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op 32, no. 12
Many of his piano works enjoy legendary status, and are performed around the world by the famous and the lesser known, such is their beauty, appeal and scale of challenges. Take the Third Piano Concerto, by his own admission his “favourite” of all his piano concerti – “I much prefer the Third, because my Second is so uncomfortable to play”. Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff could not practise the piece while in Russia, and instead he practised and memorised it using a silent cardboard keyboard that he brought with him while sailing to the United States. It was premiered in New York on 28th November 1909 by Rachmaninov himself, and was dedicated to the pianist Josef Hofman, whom Rachmaninoff regarded as the greatest pianist of his generation, though Hofman never actually performed the Third Concerto.
Monumental, treacherous, gorgeous, its fearsome technical difficulties reflect the composer’s own transcendent prowess at the keyboard. For the pianist it is forty-five minutes of almost continuous playing, the equivalent in energy expended to shovelling three tons of coal just to move the keys – and this excludes the emotional and intellectual energy used. For the audience, when played well it, it encompasses the full range of human emotions in its towering virtuosity.
Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture