How the Piano Changed Music (3/3)

Piano rolls and pianolas
In all essentials, Steinway established the principles of the modern grand piano by 1860; its strings were more than twice the diameter of those in the earliest pianos, and also longer, while its hammers were several times more massive. Since 1860, developments in musical styles have not influenced any major technical developments in piano building, though Steinway developed an ‘accelerated’ action for the great pianist Josef Hofman, Shura Cherkassky’s teacher. But the invention of the pianola, or player-piano, made piano music accessible to people who couldn’t play themselves. It automated piano-playing by means of a perforated paper roll and, as originally patented in 1897, rods fitted over the keys – later, the device was incorporated in the piano itself. The rolls could either be a faithful but expressionless transcription of the score, or they could be prepared from the performances of eminent pianists – and most of the great pianists, including Busoni and Rachmaninov, did make piano rolls – so that they reproduced an individual performance. Some of them have been realised on CD. In the 1920s the sales of player-pianos exceeded those of normal pianos. The craze, above all in America, died out with improvements in gramophone recording in the 1930s. But in the late 1940s, the classically-trained American composer Conlon Nancarrow started making ‘Studies’ of exceptional rhythmic complexity which could only be played on the old player-pianos; he punched the rolls himself, directly, without first playing the music on a keyboard. Nancarrow’s rhythmic innovations have influenced the recent Études of György Ligeti.

Two other innovations in piano music are also American. Henry Cowell’s pioneering use of clusters – in effect, ‘chords’ made up of all adjacent notes between given limits, which are played with the forearm, fist or fingers – dates back to 1914 and finds its ultimate expression, perhaps, in Stockhausen’s spectacular Eleventh Piano Piece, first performed by Frederic Rzewski in 1962: it requires special gloves. Cowell also introduced, in Aeolian Harp, playing directly on the strings with the fingers while keeping the dampers raised. John Cage’s invention of the prepared piano originated in 1938, when he placed bits of India rubber and other objects between the piano strings to simulate a percussion ensemble in Bacchanale. Ten years later, his Sonatas and Interludes required even more preparation.

The prepared piano expresses, in an extreme way, the twentieth-century tendency to regard the piano as a percussion instrument, as in the music of Bartók and Prokofiev, who were both professional pianists. In 1940 Bartók published 153 pieces in six volumes, entitled Mikrokosmos, forming a progressive teaching method as well as lexicon of his own musical vocabulary, from the beginner’s first steps to recital standard.

The piano today
But arguably, the most comprehensive composer of piano music in recent times is Olivier Messiaen, who completed two colossal piano cycles, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus in 1944, and 14 years later, Catalogue d’oiseaux. Each of the 13 pieces in Catalogue d’oiseaux is a sound-portrait of one particular bird, set in its natural habitat, with other birds and creatures of all kinds. The music is partly descriptive, and partly symbolic. The precise pitches of the piano are combined to simulate a vast range of sounds in nature, so sonority is more important than harmony. Messiaen marks both pedals precisely. He also gives precise details in the music as to the time of day, the surrounding landscape, as well as which birds are singing. Messiaen drew together the influences of Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy, and among his many pupils were Barraqué, Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis, who wrote some of the most challenging piano music of the last 50 years. Nyman’s music to The Piano is hardly challenging, but it shows the instrument continues to exert a fascination for composers and listeners alike.

Action The internal mechanism of a piano, connecting the keys and the strings.
Clavichord Small keyboard instrument with delicate sound in which the strings are struck by tangents; capable of subtle dynamic variations and vibrato.
Dampers Pads which stop the strings vibrating after the keys are released.
Fortepiano Early term for pianoforte.
Grand piano Usual term for a wing-shaped piano in which the strings run horizontally and straight back from the keyboard. Usually the hammers strike the strings from below.
Hammers Small mallets covered with felt (or other material in early instruments) which strike the strings.
Harpsichord Keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked, with one or two keyboards and stops or pedals to change colour and register. Smaller spinet and virginal are types of harpsichord.
Nocturne Short, slow, dreamy piece with expressive melody for right hand and accompaniment in left.
Player piano Or pianola. Device to automate performance, the mechanism ‘instructed’ by a perforated paper roll.
Soundboard Very thin sheet of wood which resonates with strings and makes the sound fuller; it lies below the strings in a grand and behind them in an upright.
Study Or Étude. Short piece working on one pattern or technical problem; Chopin made it poetic and expressive.
Upright piano Piano in which strings run vertically with hammers on the opposite side of them to the soundboard. In the nineteenth century the upright supplanted the square piano as a domestic instrument.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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