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On Playing the Piano

It is important to realize that technical difficulty is often essentially expressive. Composers will frequently write in a detail that sounds difficult but is actually easy to play in order to add sentiment: this is particularly interesting when the difficulty is a mimicry of vocal difficulty—and most of the expression of Western instrumental music is an imitation of vocal technique. Perhaps the most obvious device is the imitation of a singer trying to reach a high note, always an expressive effect. In the Intermezzo in A Major by Brahms, opus 18 no. 2, the leap of a seventh from bar 1 to 2 is made to sound more difficult and therefore more expressive by Brahms through the addition of an arpeggiated tenth:


This mimics the difficulty a singer would have reaching a high note.

These considerations should be sufficient to show that music is not just sound or even significant sound. Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music: that would not be enough to justify a dreary existence of stuffy airplanes, uncomfortable hotel rooms, and the hours trying to get the local piano technician to adjust the soft pedal. There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard, a love and a need which may be connected with a love of music but are not by any means totally coincident with it. This inexplicable and almost fetishistic need for physical contact with the combination of metal, wood, and ivory (now often plastic) that make up the dinosaur that the concert piano has become is, indeed, conveyed to the audience and becomes necessarily part of the music, just as the audience imagines that the graceful and passionate gyrations of the conductor are an essential component of musical significance.

This aspect can be abused, we may think: the pianist who looks soulfully at the ceiling to indicate the more spiritual moments of lyricism is a comic figure, and so is the performer who throws his hands into the air to indicate a daredevil recklessness—outdone in unintentional comedy by the pianist who gestures wildly only with his right hand, as if afraid that his left hand will not easily find again its place on the ivories. But these are only excesses. For all of us, music is bodily gesture as well as sound, and its primitive connection with dance is never entirely distilled away.

The relation of the performance of music to sound is complex and ambiguous: this is what makes possible Mark Twain’s joke that Wagner is better than he sounds. We need to understand the peculiar nature of the production of piano sonority if we are to elucidate the history of music in Europe and America after 1750. The piano has been the principal tool of composers from that time (less than half a century after its invention) until the present. Piano music is the preeminent field of experimentation.

It has often been noted that when Beethoven struck out on a new path, he began with the piano sonata, then turned to the symphony, and consolidated his experiment with the string quartet. The innovations of the early piano sonatas were carried further in the early symphonies; it was not until he was twenty that he published the string quartets, opus 18. The new turn with the three sonatas for piano, opus 31, was followed by orchestral works: the quartets of opus 59 confirmed the new style. The piano sonatas of opus 106 to 111 mark a radical development, and were succeeded by the Ninth Symphony and the Solemn Mass: quartets were the end of this last change in style.

Most composers, in fact, have followed the same procedure. The first decade of Schumann’s composing life was devoted almost entirely to piano music—in any case that is all he saw fit to publish. Debussy’s first radical attempts at harmony are found in his piano pieces. Schoenberg’s initial move to atonality is initiated by his Three Pieces for Piano, opus 11, that were followed by the Five Pieces for Orchestra and Erwartung. The first attempt at dodecaphonic music is his gavotte from the Suite for Piano, opus 25, and the Variations for Orchestra came soon after. Most striking is the first version of Le Sacre du Printemps of Stravinsky, which is for one piano, four hands. He always intended to orchestrate it, of course, but the four-hand version astonishingly does not sound like a piano reduction of an orchestral work but like a piano piece in its own right, brilliantly conceived for the two performers. (When he later orchestrated it, he made several changes.) It is, in my opinion, Stravinsky’s finest work for piano. When he finished the piano version, he took it to Debussy, and they read it over together at the piano: at the end Debussy got up and left without a word. I wonder what the sight reading sounded like, and what Debussy actually thought at the time. In any case, in the Etude pour les agréments [“for ornaments”], he produced a clear reminiscence of the opening pages of the evocation of the Russian spring night in Le Sacre.


Composing at the piano has had a bad press. Berlioz was proud that he could not play the piano, but only the flute, guitar, and tympani: that saved him, he thought, from the terrible influence of keyboard style. The finer composer, it was felt, should be capable of elaborating the work of music solely in his head, and ought not to need the crutch of trying it out at the keyboard. This is an interesting example of the snobbish idealism that wishes to separate body and mind, with the body considered morally inferior to the less material, more ethereal mind. We have here an interesting aesthetic prejudice: the work of music should be conceived not directly in material sound, but as an abstract form. The realization in sound then oddly becomes secondary.

This prejudice against sound has determined a great part of the aesthetics of performance as it is still conceived today. What is considered primary is a set of pitches which we must imagine as independent of any instrumental color: rhythmic indications are less primary (that is, they can be inflected to some extent according to the personal taste of the performer, with rubato and expressive alterations and deformations), but they are still relatively abstract. 1 Any other indications of the composer for dynamics and phrasing may also be arbitrarily altered by the performer if he thinks he has a better idea—they are thought to have less to do with the abstract structure of the composition and more to do with the realization in sound. The directions of the composer for tempo or for the use of the pedal or for fingering are generally treated as simple suggestions that have little or no authority, although both Beethoven and Chopin, for example, indicated the structure of the phrase by fingering, and the pedal indications and metronome marks were often essential to their conceptions.

Very few pianists pay the slightest attention to Chopin’s pedal indications, and most editors have disregarded them, and still today continue to disregard them: they are regularly infringed or discounted even in the new critical edition that comes from Warsaw. Almost no pianist, however, would dream of changing the pitches of one of Beethoven’s or Chopin’s works (except, of course, when Chopin has provided us with different versions of the same work). The ideas of the composer for the actual realization in sound of his abstract pitches are oddly a secondary matter for most musicians and seem to have very little authority. The followers of the “authenticity” movement have tried to reverse this metaphysical conception, and to make, in an extremely rigid manner, the actual sound the composer would have heard, or might have heard, the primary consideration. They attack the suppleness of the Western tradition with regard to realizing musical sound. We have all forgotten the traditionally lax attitude of a good many periods of Western music with regard to the actual pitch content of a composition, which was much less fixed than we tend to believe.

There may have been a strong moral prejudice against composing at the piano, but such a method of composition has been widely practiced. Haydn always composed at the keyboard. Mozart is traditionally supposed to have composed in his head away from the piano, but in a letter to his father he writes that he is unable to compose at the moment since there is no piano available: “I am now going off to hire a clavier, for until there is one in my room, I cannot live in it, because I have so much to compose and not a minute to be lost.”2 Shortly after Mozart’s death, his biographer, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, wrote about him that he “never touched the piano while writing. When he received the libretto for a vocal composition, he went about for some time, concentrating on it until his imagination was fired. Then he proceeded to work out his ideas at the piano; and only then did he sit down and write” (my italics).3 In this account we see the prejudice against using the piano while composing, and yet an acknowledgment of its fundamental utility.

Beethoven was the great figure who composed away from the piano: that was why his increasing deafness made so little difference to his methods of work. Nevertheless, in his case, his genius at improvising at the piano must have allowed him when young to work out many of his ideas directly at the instrument, and he had for the rest of his life a repertoire of improvised phrases and motifs that served him for decades to come. It is also clear that he hammered out many of his ideas at the instrument for a good part of his life. It was, however, his prestige that made composers after him feel guilty if they were unable to compose without the assistance of the piano. Schumann, in particular, felt ashamed of his reliance on the piano for inspiration.

The utility of the piano for composing was its theoretically neutral tone color: in theory (although not in reality) the tone quality of the bass is the same as the treble. In any case, the change in tone color over the whole range of the piano is, or should be, gradual and continuous (there are breaks, of course, when the notes go from one string in the bass to two and then to three). The monochrome piano might be used therefore just for its arrangements of pitches, and the quality of the sound could—absurdly in many cases—be considered secondary.

Keyboard instruments are the only ones capable of realizing and controlling the entire texture of polyphonic music. The use of a keyboard to work out one’s compositional inspirations dates from the increasing use of a full score, as opposed to separate parts. Exactly when composers used a full score instead of composing polyphonic vocal music in separate parts is an exceedingly complex question; but it is significant that the publication of full scores took a relatively long time to catch on. I presume that composers used scores as a working device to some extent for a considerable time before the publication of scores became widespread, or even before we have any evidence for it.

  1. 1

    In painting, the corresponding prejudice claims that contour is primary and color is secondary. Ingres, for example, insisted that one could not judge a picture without seeing the engraving.

  2. 2

    Quoted from Robert L. Marshall (August 1, 1781), Mozart Speaks (Schirmer Books, 1991), p. 24.

  3. 3

    Mozart Speaks, p. 24.

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