How One Thing Might Lead to Another

November 7, 2018

I was going to write a piece about pianists in the first part of the 19th century, and while doing my research, realized that one can’t really discuss this era of pianists without looking at a famous violinist.

To begin, keyboard players in the baroque and classical eras were generally taught to sit straight, not move around very much, and keep the hands right over the keyboard.  Quite frankly, that was the best way to play the instruments of that time.  The organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord were the primary keyboard instruments, and a soft touch was really all that was required.  The harpsichord and clavichord didn’t have a dynamic range (changing volume), and achieving that on the organ required the use of additional stops and opening the swell pedal to get more into the pipes.  The keyboard itself had nothing to do with it.  In fact, we know from CPE Bach that his father (Johann Sebastian), the greatest keyboard player of his time, didn’t press on the keys so much as he “stroked” them. Carl said that his father kept his fingers curved, and would basically draw back on a finger to play a note.  An interesting technique that would work for an organ or harpsichord, but not very well for a piano.  That is perhaps why, when J.S. Bach visited the court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, where his son Carl was the court harpsichordist, that when introduced to a pianoforte built by Silberman (one of the most respected organ and harpsichord builders of the time) that he was dissatisfied with the instrument.  That did not sit well with Silberman.

The piano was invented around 1700 by Bartolomeo Christophori.  The original name of the instrument was “Gravicembalo col piano e forte.”  That means, “large harpsichord with soft and loud.”  This became shortened to “pianoforte.”  The first ones probably didn’t sound that great, and there was a lot of developing that had to happen over the next couple of decades.  During the first part of Mozart’s life, the harpsichord was still the primary keyboard instrument.  The pianoforte was considered still somewhat experimental.  Designs improved over the years, and before too long, the pianoforte (or fortepiano as it was called in England) eclipsed the harpsichord, which became an anachronism.  Muzio Clementi is considered the father of the pianoforte because it is felt that he was the first composer to really approach the instrument as a new instrument, and not as a modified harpsichord.  A new style of writing was needed for this instrument, and it was Clementi that set the standard.

By the 1830’s, the pianoforte was pretty much the instrument that we know today.  Makers such as Steinway, Erard and Playel improved the sound, the range, and the reliability of the instruments.  This paved the way for the great surge of piano virtuosos in the 19th century.

This is where we stop looking at pianists and discuss a violinist.  Nicolo Paganini was the greatest violinist of his time, perhaps the greatest who ever lived.  He was not only a musical genius, but he was also the first musical PR genius.  He ws able to do things on the violin that nobody had ever seen before, and back in those dark days it was thought that the only way someone could do that would be if he were in league with the devil.  When Paganini heard that story, he hit upon the most brilliant musical marketing campaign ever.  He was tall and gaunt, which gave him a somewhat fiendish appearance.  Couple that with wearing a long black cloak, and arranging stage lighting so that he was lit from below only, and then gesticulating wildly while playing unbelievable music on the violin, and he would fill the concert hall every time.  It is hard to imagine how one musician could capture the world’s attention like that, but he did, and one of the first people to really take note of it was Franz Liszt.

Liszt was fascinated with Paganini, and realized that if that sort of thing could work for him, why should it not work for a pianist?  Thus was born the “pianist performer.”  Gone were the days of sitting still at the keyboard with fingers curved and never lifting more than an inch above the keys. The modern pianoforte allowed one to play loudly, and that was achieved by hitting the keys harder, and that meant raising your hands way above the keyboard to come crashing down in an explosion of sound.  Additionally, the innovation of dampening and sustain pedals gave the pianist the opportunity to pull off some of the same stunts on their instrument that Paganini did on his.  Before you knew it, there were touring virtuosos all over the place, and each one had his own trademark.  Sigismond Thalberg  developed a technique that created the impression of a third hand at the keyboard.  Alexander Dreyshock astounded listeners with his freakish technique playing thirds, sixths, and octaves.  It was said that he could play Chopin’s “revolutionary “etude at tempo in octaves.

Of course, there was Chopin.  Perhaps the most refined of them all.  He could do anything the others did, but just couldn’t do it very loudly.  It was said that his dynamic range was amazing but never got very loud.  This served him well when playing for small groups, which was his preference.  He once said of Liszt, “he plays my music the way I wish I could.”  Chopin was plagued with ill health much of his life, and was too weak to play with great force. He compensated for it with great sensitivity, and a rubato that, by all accounts, could not be matched.

Of course, there was Liszt. He was the standard by which every touring virtuoso measured himself, and most came up short.  He was a rock star in his day.  Women would swoon and actually throw their underwear at him! How ’bout that, Tom Jones!  Liszt was important not only in developing piano technique, but in fostering interest in musicians that might otherwise be forgotten.  Let’s not forget that Franz Schubert was relatively unknown outside of Vienna.  Liszt was a great advocate of his music and really brought it to the attention of the rest of Europe.  He was also generous with young composers and helped them when he could.  There is the story of young Edvard Grieg approaching Liszt with his recently completed piano concerto, and asking the maestro if he might be willing to look it over and tell him what he thought.  Liszt took the music from the young Norwegian, went the piano, and sightread it, doing a reduction from the orchestral score as he played!  They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Well, I suppose I could go on and one, but we’ll save something for the next time we are together.