Posts Tagged 'piano'

Parallel Lives IV: Glenn Gould

The rise of a prodigy
Glenn Gould was born in Toronto in 1932 and died there shortly after his fiftieth birthday of a heart attack. He was a considerable child prodigy, and had a big native reputation by his middle teens. He began a career as a travelling virtuoso, but abandoned it for a life of reclusiveness and recordings in 1964, when he was only 31. His mannerisms on the stage during his brief international career were notorious. A dedicated lifelong hypochondriac, he wore an overcoat on the stage under most circumstances, and mittens. He sat at an incredibly low stool, so that his head was just about on a level with the keyboard; and he always had a glass of water on the piano, from which he frequently sipped. Most vexingly, for the home listener, he was an incorrigible hummer-cum-singer, so that, despite his recording engineers’ best efforts, nearly all his records are enhanced or disfigured, according to taste, by quite noisy vocalising, bearing no recognisable relation to the music being played.

Why the cult?
He is perhaps the object of a more intense cult than any other post-war musician. Certainly he assiduously exploited all those parts of his personality and talents which were most likely to lead to frenzied discipleship. There is even a novel by the great American writer Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, about a character who commits suicide because he can’t play as well as Glenn, whom he refers to with intimate reverence.

Reputation verdict
Gould had a passion for contrapuntal music, above all that of Bach, and a phenomenal capacity to make each voice sound separately so that his fingers seem wholly independent of one another. His most famous recording is of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1955. He re-recorded it in 1981, and there are several live performances available too. They command fanatical devotion or revulsion; certainly they are highly interesting, whatever else. He loathed Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and fortunately didn’t play them apart from Mozart, in a way calculated to spread his dislike. He was keen on some difficult modern music, and his Schoenberg and Hindemith are well worth listening to. He often ignored completely directions as to volume and tempo, and there is a famous concert (privately recorded) in which he plays Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, preceded by the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, dissociating himself from the pianist’s chosen speeds. It is hard to know how wilful he was, and how much was genuine eccentricity. Whatever the proportions, I find him, except in Bach and some modern music, too unpredictable and often perverse to listen to.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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.

Continue reading ‘How the Piano Changed Music (3/3)’

How the Piano Changed Music (2/3)

Chopin and the study
But even Chopin’s relatively small, select audiences complained that he played too quietly, and the sort of piano he preferred, a Pleyel, was dismissed by Liszt as a ‘Pianino’. In 1837, for a recital Liszt gave at La Scala, Milan, to an audience of 3,000, he used an Érard with a range of seven octaves – the same as most modern uprights and only three notes less than a modern Steinway. Next day, Liszt wrote to Érard: ‘Let them not tell me any more that the piano is not a suitable instrument for a big hall, that the sounds are lost in it, that the nuances disappear, etc. I bring as witness the 3,000 people who filled the immense Scala theatre yesterday evening from the pit to the gods on the seventh balcony (for there are seven tiers of boxes here), all of whom heard and admired, down to the smallest details, your beautiful instrument.’

Liszt was taught by Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven. But Chopin’s 24 studies, in two sets, Op. 10 and Op. 25, are not only the basis of modern piano technique but great music which is deeply rewarding to the listener.

A performance of Chopin’s Revolutionary Study like Louis Lortie’s is inconceivable on a piano of 1830, when the music was written. On the other hand, not only the transparency but the intricacy of his textures in a work like the fourth Ballade cry out for a thinner, more limpid sound and a lighter action than the modern Steinway’s. This is, perhaps, the most famous of all Chopin’s studies and its romantic nickname came from a rumour that he wrote it in anger at the Russian occupation of Warsaw. ‘Heroic’ would be an equally good title. In most piano music, the fingers of the left hand need to do less work than those of the right, but here it’s the other way around – the left hand is constantly rushing about while the right gives the orders. Liszt played some of Chopin’s second set at the Salle Érard in Paris in 1837.

Continue reading ‘How the Piano Changed Music (2/3)’

How the Piano Changed Music (1/3)

Which instrument did you first hear playing live? The chances are that it was a piano. Adrian Jack shows the history of the wood and ivory box which has become the first lady of musical instruments.

The piano on the beach in Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film is one of cinema’s most memorable images. The film’s soundtrack by Michael Nyman won huge audiences. Today 12 per cent of the UK’s population plays a piano, and despite its cumbersome size it’s the one by which other instruments are tuned and around which most composers have worked. But how did it come into being? And in what ways has it been used by the great solo keyboard composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt?

The piano has had a central place in music since the middle of the eighteenth century when it began to supplant the harpsichord. From the 1770s keyboard sonatas by classical composers like Clementi, Mozart and Haydn, and even the first 20 sonatas by Beethoven (1793-1803) were published for harpsichord or piano. Haydn probably didn’t own a piano until the 1780s, but in 1790 he wrote to a friend: ‘It’s a pity Your Grace doesn’t own a Schantz fortepiano, on which everything is better expressed. I know I ought to have composed this Sonata in accordance with the capabilities of your harpsichord, but I found this impossible because I was no longer accustomed to it.’

Continue reading ‘How the Piano Changed Music (1/3)’

Music Monday: Lists XV

Ten conductors insulted
1. Karajan: ‘A kind of musical Malcolm Sargent’ – Beecham
2. Richter: ‘The generalissimo of deceit’ – Bruckner
3. Weingartner: ‘A conscientious gardener’ – Debussy
4. Bernstein: ‘He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting’ – Levant
5. Mengelberg: ‘That revolting red Dutchman’ – Hindemith
6. Nikisch: ‘His virtuosity seems to make him forget the claims of good taste’ – Debussy
7. Stokowski: ‘He is a very fine man I am sure and interested in many things – but not, I think, in music’ – Sibelius
8. Koussevitzky: ‘That Russian boor’ – Toscanini
9. Richter: ‘He could conduct five works, no more’ – Beecham
10. Klemperer: ‘Two hours [rehearsal] with Klemperer is like two hours in church’ – Levant

Ten singers who died before the age of 50
1. Fritz Wunderlich: 36 (German tenor, fell down stairs, 1966)
2. Conchita Supervia: 41 (Spanish mezzo, died during childbirth, 1936)
3. Kathleen Ferrier: 41 (English contralto, cancer, 1953)
4. Karl Hammes: 44 (German baritone, died during Luftwaffe raid on Warsaw, 1939)
5. Peter Anders: 46 (German tenor, car crash, 1954)
6. Claudia Muzio: 47 (Italian soprano, heart failure or possible suicide, 1936)
7. Enrico Caruso: 48 (Italian tenor, pleurisy, 1921)
8. Leonard Warren: 49 (American baritone, on stage at New York Met, 1960)
9. Grace Moore: 49 (American soprano, air crash, 1947)
10. Jussi Björling: 49 (Swedish tenor, heart attack, 1960)

Ten nicknames of Beethoven piano sonatas
1. Pathétique (No. 8)
2. Funeral March (No. 12)
3. Moonlight (No. 14)
4. Pastoral (No. 15)
5. Tempest (No. 17)
6. Waldstein (No. 21)
7. Appassionata (No. 23)
8. À Thérèse (No. 24)
9. Les Adieux (No. 26)
10. Hammerklavier (No. 29)


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