A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Pianoforte-Playing
PIANOFORTE-PLAYING. In order accurately to appreciate the pitch to which pianoforte-playing has reached in the present day, it is necessary to go back to the modest beginnings of virginal, spinet, clavichord, and harpsichord performances, as we find them exemplified in the works of the old English composers, and in those of the German, French, and Italian writers before 1700. In the old English works we meet with a certain brilliancy—scales and broken chords frequently applied; whilst the slower pieces are to some extent conceived in the madrigal style. The old Italian, French, and German composers of the 16th and 17th centuries treat their spinets and clavecins very much like the organ, and indeed the indication 'for the Organ or Clavicembalo' (clavecin, harpsichord) is to be met with on almost every title-page of these early publications. The only life and animation which the Suites, Sonatas, and Fantasias of these ancient masters possess, is to be found in the dance-movements, such as the Gavotte, Rigaudon, Bourrée, Gaillarde, and Gigue. A great revolution was however brought about in Italy by Domenico Scarlatti (1683–1760 [App. p.748 "1757"]), in France by François Couperin (1668–1733), and in Germany by Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Although Bach is by far the greatest genius of this remarkable triumvirate, it cannot be denied that both Scarlatti and Couperin contributed materially towards the progress of a regular clavecin style, towards a mode of writing and a production of effects which have nothing in common with the organ; and which rise by degrees to lightness, elegance, and grace. Scarlatti, although at times crude and harsh in his harmonies, is a highly original and genial composer. His pieces possess a delightful animation, the warm Italian blood runs through them; they testify to a wonderfully clever and adroit manipulation, and exhibit at times an almost electric rapidity of crossing the hands: in fact even now, when technical skill and execution are so enormously developed, they offer plenty of material for study and interest to the most experienced and practised performer. Couperin excels more in the refined and subtle working out of his short pieces. Less brilliant by far as an executant than Scarlatti, he is a more elegant, careful, and speculative musician. The preface to his works (published 1713, 1716, and 1717), in which he alludes to the manner of performing his pieces, is full of most interesting and useful hints and advice, and shows that the pervading principle of Couperin's activity is the desire to produce new effects. Scarlatti however is the more strikingly original, and more spontaneously creative musician of the two. But both were surpassed by Johann Sebastian Bach, and his Inventions, Symphonies, French and English Suites, Partitas, Toccatas, Preludes, and Fugues, are indeed the main source of our present style of playing. In Bach's music we find the greatest variety of expression, and his numerous works offer inexhaustible material for study. His manner of playing on the clavichord is said to have been remarkable at once for quietness and for the most perfect clearness; the time of his performance was slightly animated, though never so much so as to interfere with the most absolute correctness of execution. His fingers bent over the keyboard in such a manner that they stood with their points in a downward, vertical line, each finger at every moment ready for action. In taking a finger off the key, he drew it gently inwards with a sort of movement 'as if taking up coin from a table.' Only the end-joint was moved, all the rest of the hand remained still. Each finger was equally trained. The tranquil grandeur and the dignity of Bach's playing were eminently remarkable. Passionate passages he never expressed by violent or spasmodic movements, but relied solely on the power of the composition itself. His improvisations are said to have been in the style of his celebrated Chromatic Fantasia, and sometimes even surpassed that remarkable work in brilliancy and fire. His favourite instrument was the clavichord; he often said 'that he found no soul in the clavecin or spinet, and that the pianoforte (then newly invented) was too clumsy and harsh to please him.' On the clavichord he could give all the expression he desired, and he declared it to be the fittest instrument for private use and for practice. In Bach's works we meet with polyphonic treatment in regard not only to quantity, but to quality also; and it is this treatment which gives its peculiar strength, its unsurpassable vitality, and its never-failing freshness, to the music of this great master.
We thus see that at the time when the pianoforte was invented and came into pretty general use (1740–1780) the art of playing had already attained a high degree of efficiency: it possessed indeed one special kind of excellence in which the generality of our present performers are wanting—namely, the art of individualising the single parts, and the great tranquillity and dignity of performance which arise from the perfect training of each finger.
With the pianoforte an entirely new style of expression came into existence; the power to play soft or loud (piano, forte) at will, developed by degrees the individual or personal feeling of the performer, and new effects were constantly invented, and applied with more or less success. If formerly, owing to the insufficient means of the instrument, the art of playing was considered from a more objective or external point of view, the richer means of the pianoforte allowed and even suggested the indulgence of more subjective or personal feeling. And thus not only the style of composing, but the manner of playing itself, altered in a material degree. In Sebastian Bach we find a polyphonic treatment founded on science and regulated by strict loyalty to rule and order; we find also a charming piquancy and quaintness of expression, resulting from the adoption of dance movements already mentioned, and many others, to which still greater variety is given by the introduction of short movements, such as the Caprice, Rondo, Burlesca, Echo, etc. Indeed the legacy which Sebastian Bach bequeathed to the world is one of the greatest importance, and of inexhaustible richness and beauty. It was left to his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) to effect a great change in the principles hitherto observed. Emanuel Bach was the first to profit systematically by the change of treatment necessitated by the introduction of the hammer; to recognise with accuracy and method the great advantages suggested and allowed by the altered condition of things, and to adapt his style of composition to the new method of producing the tone. In Emanuel Bach's sonatas the polyphonic treatment and rigorous part-writing of his illustrious father disappear by degrees in favour of a more expressive and singing style—in short of the lyrical style. In many of his Sonatas we meet with a fantasia-like treatment hitherto unknown; and in his still valuable Essay 'On the true Method of playing the Clavier' (1753) he alludes over and over again to the necessity 'of singing as much as possible on the instrument.' 'Methinks,' he says, 'music ought principally to move the heart, and in this no performer on the pianoforte will succeed by merely thumping and drumming, or by continual arpeggio-playing. During the last few years my chief endeavour has been to play the pianoforte, in spite of its deficiency in sustaining the sound, as much as possible in a singing manner, and to compose for it accordingly. This is by no means an easy task, if we desire not to leave the ear empty, or to disturb the noble simplicity of the cantabile by too much noise.'
Emanuel Bach's maxims were closely followed by Haydn (1732–1809) and Mozart (1756–1791). In the sonatas and smaller pieces of these great composers, but especially in the 22 concertos of Mozart, we recognise a desire to please and to ingratiate themselves with the public by sweet melody and agreeable harmony, by an utter absence of eccentricity, spasmodic or fragmentary writing, and by the presence of a certain spontaneous elegance, suffused with ready wit and refreshing cheerfulness, the whole tempered by a never-failing expression of good-nature and innate amiability. Although Haydn and Mozart never forgot their duties to the art, they regarded the taste and likings of the public as of very great importance, and without yielding to its whims and caprices, they courted its legitimate demands loyally and in perfect faith, and sought to effect a satisfactory compromise in doubtful cases. The immense practice of both Haydn and Mozart in writing for the orchestra and for voices, both solo and in chorus, largely influenced their pianoforte compositions, and as a natural consequence their style of playing. Many of Mozart's most distinguished contemporaries testify to his excellence as a player, and to his supreme command over the instrument. His own remarks on pianoforte-playing are characteristic and completely to the point. He declares 'that the performer should possess a quiet and steady hand, with its natural lightness, smoothness, and gliding rapidity so well developed, that the passages should flow like oil.' 'All notes, graces, accents, etc., ought to be brought out with fitting expression and taste.' 'In passages (technical figures) some notes may be left to their fate without notice, but is that right?' 'Three things are necessary for a good performer'—and he pointed significantly to his head, to his heart, and to the tips of his fingers, as symbolical of understanding, sympathy, and technical skill.
A material change in pianoforte-playing took place at this time (1790–1800). The great technical execution of Clementi (1752–1832), Dussek (1761–1812), Steibelt (1764–1823), A. E. Müller (1767–1817), and J. B. Cramer (1771–1858), excited continual fresh interest, until at length excellence of technical execution claimed for itself an independent rank and position, which threw the more modest and less brilliant pieces of Mozart and Haydn for a while into the background, Clementi's alterations, improvements, suggestions, and additions to the development of technical execution are of the utmost importance. A glance at Nos. 1, 3, 15, 20, 22, 23, 24, 27, 31, 34, 37, 44, 63, 65, 76, 86, of his celebrated collection of studies, 'Gradus ad Parnassum,' will suffice to show the vast difference between the treatment of the pianoforte by Mozart and by Clementi. Clementi presents passages in thirds and sixths, he uses octaves in rapid succession, he widens the chords, and exhibits for the first time a hitherto unknown muscular force. The compass of the piano of Haydn and Mozart's Sonatas—5 octaves (rarely 5½ and less rarely 6) was soon extended to 6 and 6½ octaves, and the instrument became for the first time a powerful, rich, sonorous, and highly effective one. The fact that Clementi entered into partnership with the firm of Collard, testifies to his keen and lively interest in the pianoforte manufacture, and is a guarantee for his intimate acquaintance with the connexion between the mechanism of the instrument and the minutest details of pianoplaying. Compared with the manner in which Clementi writes his most difficult Sonatas and Studies—Concertos by him do not exist—the style of Haydn and Mozart appears almost small, thin and poor. Whilst Haydn and Mozart regard the instrument merely as a vehicle to convey their ideas, and think more of musical substance than of technical brilliancy, Clementi uses the instrument and the musical art rather for the display of his remarkable manual dexterity: his compositions are clever, in some instances grand and even bold, but on the other hand, they lack grace and especially warm and enthusiastic feeling; in short they do not possess that feu sacré which distinguishes so many of the productions of Haydn and Mozart, and which place Beethoven's works on so very high a pinnacle. Mozart's contemporaries declare Clementi to have been superior to Mozart in technical execution, brilliancy of effect, and masculine force of expression; they almost unanimously praise Clementi's thoroughly-trained velocity, the quiet position of his hands, the extraordinary power and fulness of his touch, the clearness and equality of his performance, and the judicious delivery of his slow movements. Clementi wrote for the pianoforte only, for the few Symphonies which he composed in 1820, when already 68 years old, count for little; the piano was therefore his only medium of expression, and the one chosen exponent of his activity as a composer. It was everything to him, and to the keyboard he entrusted every idea that crossed his mind. His ideas consequently adapted themselves by degrees to the nature of the instrument, and thus his Sonatas may with truth be called types of pianoforte compositions; for these he invented effects, technical passages, figures, combinations; and like Columbus, discovered a new world on the pianoforte. And this peculiar position of Clementi in relation to the piano explains the fact that Beethoven preferred his Sonatas to those of Mozart.
The extraordinary effect produced by Clementi brought him a host of admirers and followers, and he soon became one of the most desired of teachers. The difference between his style and that of Mozart resulted in the distinction between the so-called 'Vienna' or 'Mozart' school, and the 'Clementi' school. The original cause of this difference is chiefly to be sought in the instrument itself. Clementi used the English, Mozart and his successors the Vienna pianoforte. The English instrument had a richer, fuller and more sonorous tone, the hammer had a deeper fall, and was thus favourable to the sure execution of thirds, sixths, and octaves, and to the clear and precise playing of chords in succession; the tone of the Vienna piano, though thin and of shorter duration, was highly agreeable, and its action was so light that (as in the harpsichord) the most delicate pressure produced a sound from the key. From this facile mechanism results the rather extraordinary expression 'to breathe upon the keys,' an expression which the most distinguished disciples of the Vienna school, Hummel and Czerny, frequently used, dementi's piano was therefore favourable to a substantial and masculine treatment; while the Vienna piano responded best to a rapid fluent style and to arpeggio playing. Clementi's piano was furthermore well adapted to the cantabile, and some of his pupils (as J. B. Cramer and John Field) made good use of this advantage, while the Vienna players, feeling the weak points of their native piano, sought by cleverness and taste to make up for its deficiencies, and surrounded their cantabile with such quantities of light, airy, elegant, tasteful passages, runs, broken chords, and ornaments of all kinds, as in great measure to hide the failing. The Vienna school strove rather to retain the character of the piano as a chamber instrument, whilst the stronger and more solid construction of the English one tended to make it an exponent of orchestral music. Both schools have their distinct history. The Vienna one deteriorated sooner than that of Clementi; after Mozart's death it lost much of the intellectual force and the innate gracefulness and affectionate warmth that distinguish the best of his Sonatas and Concertos, and some of his smaller pieces. With Hummel and Moscheles it reached its climax. Hummel's playing was distinguished by certainty, correctness, and transparent clearness, an admirable evenness and subtlety of touch, and refined and correct rhythmical feeling. His high and exceptional powers as a performer were, however, best shown in his extempore playing, a department in which he had no rival. Moscheles, superior to Hummel in the variety of his tone-gradations (light and shade of touch), and in a more decided and energetic bravura style, excels him also in grace and elegance; but both were wanting in warmth and spontaneity. In Mozart technical execution and intellectuality were still evenly balanced; with his successors—although both Hummel and Moscheles wrote works deserving the epithet 'classical'—technical execution gains the preponderance, and this led Woelfl (1772–1812), Steibelt (1764–1823), Czerny (1791–1857), and Herz (1805– [App. p.748 "1806"]) to devote themselves entirely to the demand for public amusement and momentary excitement, and thus to lose sight of the principles which made the school of Mozart so great. At the same time it must be admitted that the technical execution of Woelfl was highly remarkable, and even exceptional; that Steibelt proved a dangerous rival to Beethoven at Vienna; that Czerny's merits as an educational writer, and a most painstaking, thorough, and successful teacher were quite exceptional, and that Herz had in his best time no equal for elegance and brilliancy of execution. The effect produced by these excellent pianists was founded on legitimate principles of technical execution, and was due to a patient and complete training of the fingers. Czerny in particular, in his 'School of Velocity' (op. 299), in his admirable 'L'Art de délier les Doigts' (op. 740), and in his 'School of the Legato and Staccato' (op. 335), shows a consummate knowledge of all the minutest details of pianoforte-playing. To complete this part of the subject it may be mentioned, that amongst Hummers pupils we find the names of Hiller, Henselt, and Willmers.
Clementi's direct pupils were J. B. Cramer (1771–1858), John Field (1782–1837), Ludwig Berger (1777–1839), A. A. Klengel (1784–1852): as indirect pupils may be mentioned, Dussek (1761–1812), Kalkbrenner (1788–1849 [App. p.748 "1784"]), and Charles Mayer (1799–1862). The celebrated J. B. Cramer was one of the most excellent pianists in the history of the art. Though never overstepping the limits of the legitimate resources of the piano as a chamber-instrument, his performance displayed an unusual sense of that richness of variety and treatment which the piano can be made to reveal; his playing possessed plastic roundness and rare expression of harmony and beauty, while his appearance and deportment at the instrument were eminently gentlemanlike; in fact, Cramer may be said to have combined the best qualities of both the Mozart and the Clementi school. Beethoven preferred his 'touch' to all others; the quietness, smoothness, and pliability of the movements of his hands and fingers, the unexceptionable clearness and correctness of his execution, and the exquisite moderation of his style, rendered his performance unique; added to which he possessed an innate nobility of expression, and a rare suavity and euphony of delivery. His celebrated 'Studies' are the best proof of his incomparable manner of playing.
At this time the construction of the pianoforte was making great progress, and meeting more than ever the desires and needs of the executants. The richly gifted Irishman John Field, usually called 'Russian' Field, the inventor of the universally popular form of the 'Nocturne,' was one of the greatest pianists of all time. His touch, with an almost perpendicular position of the fingers, surpassed in sweetness, richness, and sostenuto all that had been heard before; and with regard to the picturesque distribution of light and shade, the greatest correctness and neatness, combined with a peculiar Irish frankness and simplicity of feeling, he had scarcely a rival. At this time the greatest attention was shown to the cantabile style; the varieties of touch, its beauty, mellowness, roundness, and singing quality, its brilliancy and crispness, were studied with unremitting zeal and care, and performers even thought it worth their while to investigate the anatomical construction of their hands and the sources of strength, elasticity, and endurance; the degrees of force were carefully measured, and all thumping, banging, indistinctness ('smearing' as the Viennese called it), was held up to ridicule.
Ludwig Berger, the teacher of Mendelssohn and Taubert, was a brilliant and excellent performer, remarkable for a certain spiritualistic, dreaming expression. August Alexander Klengel, on the other hand, was most successful in the strict style of performance—fugues, canons, etc.,—Dussek, already mentioned as an indirect pupil of Clementi, was a truly grand performer: he possessed a great nobility and grandeur of style, combined with a certain sentimentality, a characteristic German feature of his time; he could, like Field, boast of a beautiful and singing touch; he possessed furthermore very large hands, which allowed him to spread his chords up to tenths and elevenths; and he understood how to use the pedals with effect and judgment. Kalkbrenner excelled in a most carefully and systematically trained and thoroughly 'purified' technical execution: his scales, including those in thirds and sixths, were like strings of pearls; the most complicated figures came out with astonishing clearness; and even during the most daring and intricate gymnastic evolutions Kalkbrenner retained a perfectly quiet position of body and hands. Although entirely deficient in sympathetic warmth of expression or enthusiasm, he captivated his public by a singular elegance and neatness of style, and a 'technique' which was absolutely perfect. To complete the group of pianists who gather round Clementi, we mention Charles Mayer, a pupil of Field; he possessed most of Kalkbrenner's excellent qualities, but was in his best time (1830–1840) bolder and more original than Kalkbrenner in planning and carrying out new effects.
We now come to the centre of gravity of all that concerns pianoforte-playing in its best, noblest, and highest features,—to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Himself one of the greatest executants, endowed with rare muscular force, possessing an iron will, which conquered all obstacles, glowing with a lofty enthusiasm, and last not least, a never-surpassed self-command, he was enabled in his Sonatas and Concertos, in some of his Variations, Fantasias, and Rondos, to produce entirely and astonishingly new, rich, and grand effects; indeed he gave to the piano a soul, and succeeded in winning for it a poetical expression. The great difference between Beethoven and all his contemporaries is found in the fact that in his piano works the technical figures grow out of the principal idea; they are natural and logical consequences or results of the leading theme, and are thus in every instance in thorough harmony and relation with the initiative part. In his contemporaries, on the other hand, these technical figures are more or less annexes or supplements, which having no close relation to the principal theme, are wanting in that psychological reason for existence which makes them so strong, effective, and indispensable, in Beethoven's works. For this reason it is so difficult to find studies or exercises which bear on Beethoven's Sonatas, so as to assist the student immediately and directly in improving his performance of these unrivalled masterpieces. Beethoven recognises the beauty and importance of technical efficiency and brilliancy, but he considers them merely as accessories and powerful contributors to the harmony and unity of the whole. His genius required richer means of expression than those hitherto invented. We find in his pianoforte works a greater polyphony, stronger contrasts, a bolder rhythmical expression, a broader design and execution; indeed we meet with an entirely new instrument: yet in no single instance does he overstep its legitimate limits. At the same time the improvements which his compositions suggested to the manufacturers belong to the greatest and most important changes in the history of the piano. With his fancy penetrated by all the qualities (timbres) of tone which distinguish the reed, brass, and stringed instruments, and his imagination pregnant with grand and noble orchestral effects, he seeks to impart some of these effects to the piano, and succeeds without sacrificing the speciality—nay the idiosyncrasy—of the keyed instrument. It is more particularly in the slow movements of Beethoven's Sonatas that we recognise this desire to assimilate the piano to the sound of the orchestra. The absolute mastery which he had obtained in early years over all the various departments of technical execution is shown in his 21 sets of Variations—interesting collections of little pieces which may be called a pattern-card of every conceivable figure from Sebastian Bach to Beethoven, all full of originality, and in some instances (32 in C minor; 6, op. 34; 33, op. 120) anticipating many an effect for the invention of which later pianists have obtained credit. Beethoven's contemporaries (Tomaschek, Cramer, Ries, Czerny) agree that he was able both to rouse his audience to the highest pitch of excitement and enthusiasm, and to fill them with the greatest pleasure; they say that his performance was not so much 'playing' as 'painting with tones,' while others express it as recalling the effect of 'reciting'; all which are attempts to state the fact that in his playing, the means—the passages, the execution, the technical appliances—disappeared before the transcendent effect and meaning of the music. Beethoven, with a soul full of the purest and noblest ideas, and glowing with an enthusiasm which soared from the petty cares and miseries of this world up to the highest regions, was not particular in polishing and refining his performance, as were Hummel, Woelfl, Kalkbrenner, and others: indeed such 'special' artists he satirically calls 'gymnasts,' and expresses his apprehension 'that the increasing mechanism of pianoforte-playing would in the end destroy all truth of expression in music.' His apprehension was to some extent realised. After him the breach between the musical art in general, and technical efficiency and brilliancy in particular, became wider and wider. But before the fields of real music were inundated by those floods of arpeggios and cataracts of scales, two composers arose, who enriched the piano with entirely new effects, and offered to its performers much material for study. These were Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826) and Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Weber's compositions are a proof of his extraordinary powers as a performer; and the tenderness, romantic charm, and chivalrous force and energy, but above all the enthusiasm they possess, met with universal sympathy; not only Mendelssohn and Schumann, but Chopin, Liszt, Henselt, and Heller, all felt the influence of Weber. The new features of his pianoforte effects are the emancipation of the left hand (see among others the Introduction to 'L'Invitation a la Valse,' Slow movement of 2nd Sonata) and the happy method of throwing as it were the whole weight of the tone into the melody, by breaking the chords and at once taking the fingers off whilst the melody is held (see beginning of Concertstück). Although Schubert was not a public performer, his Sonatas and smaller pieces (Impromptus, Moments musicals, etc.) testify to unusual skill in playing. His works demand a natural, affectionate, crisp and clear execution; they require a full yet exceedingly elastic and supple touch; although Schubert inclines in some of his pieces towards the Vienna school, in most of them he follows in the steps of Beethoven.
It was about 1830 that public taste inclined more and more in the direction of technical brilliancy, and the lighter, more pleasing style of composition. The cyclical forms of composition became by degrees more rare; concerts without the assistance of an orchestra began to be more frequent; even chamber-music, such as trios, quartets, and quintets, with string or wind instruments, were excluded, and the pianist reigned supreme. In one respect this change was satisfactory: to rivet the attention of an audience for an hour and a half to a pianoforte performance alone, the executant had to be very clever, to produce constant fresh variety and new charm; effect had to follow effect; indeed the ingenuity of the performer was constantly tasked to discover new devices for feeding the insatiableappetite of his hearers. It is to this state of things indeed that we owe the present extraordinary development of pianoforte-playing. Technical efficiency has a thoroughly legitimate and necessary, nay an indispensable, existence; it gives effect and power to the composition; it is in reality the garb in which the musical work is presented; but if the importance of this existence be exaggerated, the performance ceases to be the reproduction of an intellectual work, and becomes merely an amusement or excitement for the senses. Formerly rapid passages acted as a contrast to the cantabile; but if that contrast is gradually reduced to a mere alternation of more or less rapid movement, the cantilene disappears almost entirely, and all becomes movement and bustle. The most insignificant figure is now swelled to the dimensions of an entire piece; thus the étude or study becomes the leading form of pianoforte pieces. Ever more brilliant and dazzling becomes the execution; effects are invented that may vie with those of the full orchestra; the physical strength required to thunder out the rapid octave-passages, the dexterity and almost electric rapidity in changing hands so as to produce the effect of three hands rather than two—indeed the number of qualities required to satisfy the various requirements of modern pianoforte-playing—is truly astonishing. Such increased force and rapidity demanded an alteration of the movement of the arm, hand, and fingers. The quiet unobtrusive position of the older players at the instrument, had to give way to a kind of swinging movement of the hand 'playing from the wrist'; or to a nervous force, that arises from a stiff elbow, and leads with some performers to the kind of playing commonly called 'thumping.' Spasmodic movements of the hands and arms, a continual rocking to and fro of the body, and a passionate, almost frantic, throwing back of the head, seem to be part of these exaggerated gymnastic feats. Curious to say, by these jerky movements the quality of tone suffered greatly; it lost its fulness and sustained power, and became shorter, drier, and less distinct. The greatest heroes of this period of pianoforte-playing were Thalberg, Liszt, Henselt, and Dreyschock; and in a lesser though still high degree, Willmers, Döhler, and Leopold von Meyer. Thalberg (1812–1871), whose exquisite playing caused quite a commotion among all who interested themselves in piano-playing, possessed a wonderfully well-trained mechanism; the smallest details were polished and finished with the utmost care; his scales were marvels of evenness; his shakes rivalled the trill of the canary-bird; his arpeggios at times rolled like the waves of the sea, at others resembled the airy and transparent folds of the finest lace; his octaves were thundered forth with never-failing accuracy, and his chords seemed to be struck out with mallets of English steel rather than played by fingers. Indeed he was the Seigneur de Bayard of pianists, 'le Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche'; his tone was at once grand, delicate, and mellow, never harsh or short; the gradations between his forte and piano were exquisitely traced: in short, everything which concerned the technical execution was perfection. The extraordinary ease and absolute certainty with which Thalberg played, was due to a practical mode of fingering, from which, after it was once adopted, he never departed, and from the fact that he never played a piece in public until he had made it the absolute property of his fingers. The feature which rendered Thalberg's so-called fantasias (in reality they are medleys on operatic airs, with variations) so celebrated, was his method of dividing the melody between the two hands, whilst at the same time the right hand performs in the higher register a brilliant figure, and the left hand exhibits a full and rich bass part, and supplements it with an accompaniment in chords. This device was, however, not invented by Thalberg himself; it is anticipated in some studies of Francesco Giuseppe Pollini (1778–1847 [App. p.748 "1846"]), and was successfully applied by the still unrivalled English harpist, Eli Parish-Alvars (1808–1849). Thalberg merely extended it, and adapted it to the pianoforte. So eminently successful was this method, that even Mendelssohn, in his Concerto in D minor, could not resist employing it; and besides this illustrious composer, almost all contemporary writers for the piano have more or less followed Thalberg's lead. But whilst Thalberg devoted his intellectual and digital powers only to his own compositions, and seemed not to take any interest in the works of other authors, Franz Liszt, endowed with even greater abilities, devoted them to the musical art in general: his transcriptions, paraphrases, and arrangements, comprise not only vocal and orchestral works of German, French, Italian, and Russian composers, but also the national melodies of Europe, Asia, etc. In versatility Liszt has probably never had an equal; he has tried (and in most cases with success) to assimilate his own talent with everything of note with which he came into contact; his Spanish Cancion, 'El Contrabandista,' is essentially Spanish; his 'Rhapsodies Hongroises' are true tone-pictures of Hungary; his transcriptions of Wagner's operatic pieces reproduce the orchestral effects as well as they can be reproduced, and his famous arrangements of the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Franz, are justly esteemed and admired. Liszt has widened the domain of the piano to an extent which seems almost incompatible with the special nature of the instrument. His innovations in the art of playing are manifold; in transcribing Paganini's Caprices he secured for the piano technical figures never before applied; in arranging Beethoven's and Berlioz's Symphonies he expanded the chords to dimensions which, for the majority of players, are absolutely impossible. An adequate rendering of his pieces requires not only great physical power, but a mental energy we might almost call it a fanatical devotion which few persons possess. Liszt himself has these physical powers, this iron will, this spontaneous enthusiasm, but only a very few of his disciples can boast of possessing them in concert. If Thalberg was blamed because his successful Fantasias promoted the composition of shallow and worthless pieces, Liszt might be equally reproached for having caused more bad piano-playing, more 'thumping,' and more empty noise, than was known before his time. It must be admitted that he himself, thanks to his exceptional powers, has, in regard to technical execution, attained the highest point that human intelligence and skill can possibly attain; although even in his best time he was never so certain of a perfect performance as was his more phlegmatic, sober, and careful rival, Thalberg. Occasional shortcomings, however, are readily excused in a man so full of genius, and of grand liberal ideas and intentions, and so rich in all possible accomplishments, a man indeed, who, independently of his musical attainments, belongs to the most distinguished persons of this century. But the followers and disciples of Liszt cannot boast of the exceptional qualities of their idol, and therefore their thumping, jerky, and incoherent playing, their inability to produce a mellow singing tone, their want of respect for the old classical school, and their one-sidedness, will not meet with such ready excuse as was willingly granted to their great master.
Among celebrated musicians who took great interest in pianoforte-playing were Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) and Robert Schumann (1810–1856). Mendelssohn was an expert and fluent performer, but it was not so much the brilliancy of his playing that was admired, as his intelligent, genial, and thoroughly musician-like reading. Mendelssohn's charming 'Songs without Words' also afforded a welcome relief to the turbulence and passion which raged on the keyboard. It cannot however be said that his Fantasias, Sonatas, Concertos, or Caprices present any particular novelty with regard to technical execution; with the exception of the Capriccio in F♯ minor (op. 5), his pieces are not very difficult, they are each and all practically written, sound uniformly well, and afford, without exception, capital material for study.
No composer has taken a deeper interest in pianoforte music and playing than Robert Schumann. His numerous remarks upon the works and performances of celebrated pianists, his suggestions as to the practice of certain figures, his desire to increase the sustaining power of the instrument, are all expressed in a lucid manner, and are thoroughly to the point. But above all, his own magnificent, original, and highly poetic pieces form an epoch in the pianoforte literature, and open a new era for pianoforte-playing. Schumann's four volumes of piano pieces contain indeed the noblest task for the student: many a new figure, many an original and ingenious combination, or valuable suggestion, will be detected by the attentive and thoughtful student. When Schumann's pieces are played in the proper manner, the instrument appears in its noblest and finest form, and in novelty and decided beauty and ingenuity of effect, his pieces are unrivalled.
Frederic François Chopin (1809–1849) was one of the most perfect pianists; his 'technique' was admirable, his touch supple, mellow, rich, full, sweet, and ethereal; his execution clear and uniformly correct; his expression noble, romantic, tender, and delicate. If in his Nocturnes he carries out the suggestions of John Field, and in other pieces recalls the romantic spirit and feeling of Carl Maria von Weber, in his later works he relies on his own peculiarly strong Polish individuality. In his Etudes, op. 10 and op. 25, in his Concertos and Fantasias, Impromptus and Preludes, Polonaises and Mazurkas, Valses and Ballades, in each and all, plenty of new material is to be found. There is a great affinity between Chopin and Schumann in point of poetical and romantic feeling; but Chopin's music is more like elegiac poetry, whilst Schumann's poetical feeling rests on an intellectual background, and has therefore a stronger substance. Each, however, completes the other, and each has rendered invaluable service to the art of pianoforte-playing in its best style. Adolph Henselt (1814–), for eight months a pupil of Hummel, owes the greater part of his excellent playing to a lady, Madame de Fladt. His playing is truly magnificent—a consummate mastery over the most intricate technical difficulties, combined with a noble and manly expression, producing a singularly rich and euphonious effect without the slightest effort, and without any risk of injury to the instrument, or of straining its limits of endurance. In one respect Henselt might be called a younger, stronger, brother of J. B. Cramer; he possesses the same plastic roundness, euphony, and mellowness of playing as did the celebrated composer of the excellent Studies. The style of performance of William (afterwards Sir W.) Sterndale Bennett (1816–1875), was full of grace and tenderness; a sweet and charming clear touch, a modest and quiet demeanour at the instrument, produced on the listener a highly pleasing and satisfactory impression—indeed his performance was that of a refined, thoughtful musician; at the same time it must be owned that his playing lacked energy, force, and enthusiasm. Wilhelm Taubert (1811–), a pupil of Ludwig Berger, possesses the best qualities of an eminent pianist; a crisp, clear, yet elastic touch, uniform correctness, refined phrasing, each and all contribute to create on the public a rare and satisfactory impression. Ferdinand Hiller (1811– [App. p.748 "date of death 1885"]), a pupil of Hummel, understood how to profit by the best that his contemporaries offered, and is justly admired for the fluency, fine rhythmical accentuation, and peculiarly clear phrasing of his performance. Stephen Heller (1815–), although seldom appearing in public, has shown in his beautiful Studies, and in many of his other poetical and agreeable pieces, that he is intimately acquainted with all the resources of the instrument. Alexander Dreyschock (1818–1869), a pupil of Wenzel Tomaschek (1774–1850), had, by untiring industry, obtained such wonderful facility and force in his left hand, as to be nicknamed the pianist with the two right hands. Theodor Kullak (1818– [App. p.748 "date of death 1882"]), a pupil of Agthe (1790) and Carl Czerny (1791–1857), most valued as teacher (among his pupils are Charles Wehle, Xaver Scharwenka, Erika Lie, Helene Magnus, Grünfeld, Alma Holländer (Haas), Heinr. Hofmann), is also one of the most excellent, thoughtful, and poetical of performers; in playing tender passages and pianissimo he had in his best time (1842–1852) no rival. Rudolph Willmers (1821–1878) was a pupil of Hummel; his specialities were the shake and the staccato, and in those departments of playing he produced extraordinary effects. We have to mention also the celebrated Antoine Rubinstein (1829–), a pupil of Villoing of Moscow. Rubinstein is a performer of Titanic force, yet capable of producing the softest, most ethereal tones; he is besides the interpreter of all imaginable styles and schools. The late Carl Tausig (1841–1871), a pupil of Liszt, possessed the most patiently, trained and most carefully refined technical execution, and had in certain branches of pianoforte-playing no rival. If at times wanting in enthusiasm and warmth of feeling, the perfection of his technical execution was, on the other hand, sufficient to afford his audience the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. Hans von Bülow (1830–) has given many proofs of a prodigious memory, which is however not always faithful to the original text of the composer, and for this reason has not the same value for the earnest musician which the general public seems to attach to it. His undertaking to play the five most advanced and most difficult Sonatas of Beethoven at one sitting, though in itself a prodigious feat, seems one of those exaggerations of the present time, which are also to be found amongst less interesting and noble occupations than pianoforte-playing. Beethoven himself would have been the first to deprecate such undertakings, as at once exhausting for the performer and wearisome for the listener. With regard to intelligence, knowledge, memory and technical execution, Bülow stands deservedly very high, and the programmes of his recitals embrace the masters of all schools and styles. Johannes Brahms's (1833–) style of playing differs greatly from that of Liszt and his disciples. His piano works are founded on the polyphonic system of Sebastian Bach, strongly influenced by Robert Schumann; his style is exceedingly intricate, and presents many difficulties for the executant—difficulties which are hardly in proportion with the actual effect they produce; and his pieces demand for a clear execution a muscular force and a sustaining power, which few players possess; at the same time their earnestness, solid substance, and intellectual, logical development, are matters of deep interest for the true musician.
The distinguished pianists, Thalberg, Liszt, and Chopin, exercised a great influence on their contemporaries, and we find among those who followed the style and school of Thalberg, Theodor Döhler, Leopold von Meyer, Rudolph Willmers, Emile Prudent, A. Goria, Henri Ravina, and Vincent Wallace. Among those who inclined towards the style of Liszt are Antoine Rubinstein, Hans von Bülow, Carl Tausig, Charles Valentin Alkan, Henry Litolff, Camille Saint-Saëns; and among those who felt Frederic Chopin's influence are Eduard Wolff, Jacob Rosenhain, Stephen Heller, Julius Schulhoff, Joseph Wieniawski, Xaver Scharwenka, and Moritz Moszkowski. But Mendelssohn and Schumann also exercised a great influence upon a number of excellent musicians, who followed the maxims of those illustrious masters in their style both of composition and performance. Mendelssohn's style is reproduced in the works of the Dane, Niels W. Gade (1817–), William Sterndale Bennett, Otto Goldschmidt, Wilhelm Kalliwoda, and Carl Reinecke, whilst reminiscences of Schumann are to be found in the works of Woldemar Bargiel, Theodor Kirchner, Rudolph Volckmann, and Adolph Jensen.
In looking back over the growth and development of pianoforte-playing in the last hundred years we find that the rupture between the school of Mozart (called by Fétis 'les pianistes harmonistes') and that of Clementi ('les pianistes brillants') took place about 1780. Beethoven, whose first piano compositions were published between 1790 and 1800, appears as a connecting or mediating link between these schools; with Carl Maria von Weber romantic expression comes into the foreground; whilst Franz Schubert inclines more towards the lyrical phase. After this time (1830–1840) the technical school appears entirely in the ascendant; Mendelssohn and Schumann then succeed in diverting attention towards their poetical and classical tendency; whilst the genial Pole, Frederic Chopin, refines and polishes the technical material, and reintroduces the charming effect of a sweet, supple, and singing style of playing. With Liszt and Thalberg, Rubinstein and Tausig, the brilliancy of technical execution reaches its culminating point; with regard to rapidity, force, ingenuity of combinations, and dazzling effect, it is not too much to assert that the highest point has been gained, and that with respect to quantity of notes and effects our present players are unrivalled; whether the quality is as good as it formerly was (about 1825) may be questioned. Our present Grand or Concert pianos offer to the performer every possible advantage and facility, but the perfection of the instruments has in itself tended to lessen the earnest study on the part of the player which was formerly necessary for the production of tone. This defect is partly due to the ignorance of too many of the present pianists in regard to the construction of the instrument on which they perform. Whilst every player on the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, or violoncello is intimately acquainted with the interior of his instrument, few pianists are able to describe the distinctive peculiarity of a Vienna, half-English, or English mechanism, to appreciate the difference between the actions of an Erard, a Pleyel, a Broadwood, a Steinway, or a Collard Grand piano, or the degree of force which each of these different actions is calculated to bear. Something is also due to the piano itself. Whilst the Vienna hammer of the time of Beethoven and Hummel (1815–1830) was covered with four or five layers of buckskin of varying thickness, the present hammer is covered with only one piece of felt, and produces a tone which though larger and stronger, is undoubtedly less elastic; the action of the Vienna piano was very simple, and it lacked the escape-movement and many other improvements which enable the present piano, with its almost perfect mechanism, to do a considerable part of the work for the performer. Thus we find that while formerly tone, with its different gradations, touch, the position of the finger, etc., had to be made matters of special study, the present piano with its accomplishments saves this study: whilst formerly the pedal was used but sparingly, it is at present used almost incessantly. Clearness, neatness of execution, a quiet deportment at the instrument, were once deemed to be absolute necessities; it is but seldom that we are gratified at present with these excellent qualities. Whilst in past times the performer treated his instrument as a respected and beloved friend, and almost caressed it, many of our present performers appear to treat it as an enemy, who has to be fought with, and at last conquered. These exaggerated notions cannot last, and their frequent misapplication must in the end become evident to the public; and it is probable that sooner or later a reaction will set in, and the sound principles of our forefathers again be followed.
The enormous progress made by our leading piano-manufacturers, the liberal application of metal in the body of the instrument, and the rich, full, and eminently powerful tone thereby gained, are followed by a serious disadvantage in the effective performance of chamber music. The execution of a piece for the piano, violin and violoncello, in the style which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven desired and imagined, is now an impossible thing; indeed the equilibrium between the instrument of percussion and the string instruments is now lost. The just rival of the present piano is no longer a single violin or violoncello, but the full orchestra itself. Increased muscular force on the part of the player, exerted on pianos of ten times the ancient tone, is now opposed to the tone of instruments which have undergone no increase of power—indeed the rise in the pitch of the concert piano necessitates at times the use of thinner strings in the violin and violoncello. The much fuller and almost incessant employment of broken chords (arpeggios) in the piano part of sonatas, trios, and other chamber-pieces, is absolutely overwhelming to the string instruments; passages which Mozart and Beethoven introduced in single notes appear now in octaves, which are mostly played so loud as almost to silence the weaker tone of the string instrument; and whilst formerly the thinner tone of the piano allowed an amalgamation of tone-colour, the preponderance of metal in the present instrument precludes it. It would therefore often be most desirable for the pianist to forego some of his undoubted advantages with regard to force, by playing with moderation, by using the pedal with discrimination, and (particularly in rooms of smaller dimensions), by not opening the entire top of the piano. If the above assertions are doubted, a comparison of the last movements of Beethoven's C minor Trio op. 1, and Mendelssohn's C minor Trio, op. 66, will at once show their correctness. If the piano is considered as (what it was to our forefathers) a chamber instrument, we may point to it as the most perfect and satisfactory of all; but when, on the other hand, it is used to substitute the orchestra, it falls in spite of all its prodigious capabilities short of the expected effect. The thoughtful pianist will therefore exercise a just discretion and moderation, and will thus be able to produce a legitimate effect of which neither Mozart nor Beethoven ever dreamt.
A list of the most distinguished executants on the piano in strictly chronological order will be of interest. [Years in brackets are added from pp.748–9 of the Appendix.]
|Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach||1714–1788|
|Johann Christian Bach||1735–1782|
|Johann Wilhelm Haessler||1747–1822|
|Johann Franz Xaver Sterkel (abbé)||1750–1817|
|Nicolas Joseph Hullmandel||1751–1823|
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart||1756–1791|
|Joseph Gelinek (abbé)||1757–1825|
|Nanette Streicher (Stein)||–1833|
|Johann Ludwig Dussek||1761–1812|
|August Eberhard Mailer||1767–1817|
|Ludwig van Beethoven||1770–1827|
|John Baptist Cramer||1771–1858|
|Christoph Ernst Friedrich Weyse||1774–1842|
|Francesco Giuseppe Pollini||1778–1847|
|Johann Nepomuk Hummel||1778–1837|
|Nicolaus von Krufft||1779–1818|
|August Alexander Klengel||1784–1852|
|Carl Maria von Weber||1786–1826|
|Johann Peter Pixis||1788–1874|
|Johann Hugo Worzischek||1791–1825|
|Joseph Christoph Kessler||1800–1872|
|Carl Georg Lickl||1801–1877|
|Jean Amédée Le Frold de Méreaux||1803–1874|
|Luise Farrenc (Dumont)||1804–1875|
|Carl August Krebs (Miedke)||1804–1880|
|Sir Julius Benedict||1804–|
|Anna Caroline de Belleville-Oury||–1880|
|George A. Osborne||1806–|
|Hubert Ferdinand Kufferath||1808–|
|Frederic François Chopin||1809–1849|
|Louise (David) Dulcken||1811–1850|
|Camille Marie Stamaty||1811–1870|
|William Henry Holmes||1812–|
|Charles Valentin Alkan||1813–|
|Delphine von Schauroth||1814–|
|Sir William Sterndale Bennett||1816–1875|
|Joseph Adalbert Pacher||1816–1871 |
|Leopold von Meyer||1816–|
|Antoine François Marmontel||1816–|
|Emile Beunie Prudent||1817–1883|
|Antoine de Kontski||1817–|
|Alexandra Philippe Billet||1817–|
|Henri Ravina||1818–[ ]|
|Mortier De Fontaine||1818–|
|Clara Schumann, née Wieck||1819–|
|Carl Halle (Charles Hallé)||1819–|
|Alexander Ernst Fesca||1820–1849|
|Charles Edward Horsley||–1876|
|Alexandre Edouard Gorla||1823–1860|
|Walter Cecil Macfarren||1826–|
|Hermann A. Wollenhaupt||1827–1863|
|L. M. Gottschalk||1829–1869|
|Ernst H. Lübeck||1829–1876|
|Heinrich F. D. Stiehl||1829–|
|Hans von Bülow||1830–|
|Julius von Kolb||1831–|
|Francis Edward Bache||1883–1858|
|John Francis Barnett||1838–|
[ P. ]
- The 'Parthenia' is republished complete in Pauer's 'Old English Composers' (Augener & Co.).
- Republished in Peters's Edition, No. 147.
- Amongst his pupils may be named Mme. Bellevllle-Oury, Theodur Döhler, L. von Meyer, and Franz Liszt.
- See the letters and papers of Mendelssohn and Schumann.
- Strange to say, his master was not a pianist, but an excellent bassoon-player, Mittag of Vienna.
- Some writers assert, erroneously, that it is foreshadowed by Beethoven, whilst another report attributes its actual source, still more erroneously, to the Prelude, op. 35, of Mendelssohn—Thalberg's Moïse-Fantasia having been composed previous to Mendelssohn's Prelude.
- Originally published in the 'Neue Zeitschrift far Musik,' and since collected in his 'Gesammelte Schriften.'
- See Preface to his 'Etudes d'apres les Caprices de Paganini,' op. 3.