Playing On the Modern Piano – Part I

The rapid change of keyboard instruments in the 18th century and early 19th centuries reflect a change in musical communication which had been described by the conductor and early music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt (In his Baroque Music Today, 1988):

‘Articulation is the technical process in producing speech, the way in which different vowel and consonants are produced. Problems of articulations are especially apparent in music from about 1600 to 1800 since, as a rule, this music is basically related to speech. The parallels to speech were strongly emphasized by all theorists of the period. Music was often described as’ speech in tones.’ To put this in simplified terms, I like to say that music prior to 1800 speaks, while subsequent music paints. The former music be understood since anything that is spoken presupposed understanding. The latter affects us by means of mood which need not be understood, because they should be felt.’

Hanonocourt’s point is illuminated by comparing the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in B Flat K.570 (1789) ) and Schubert’s G Flat Impromptu.

Both are serious introspective pieces, but their emotional content and the effect of the music is vastly different. It can rightly be said Mozart is understood but Schubert is ‘felt.’  Mozart’s piano would have had a clear, relatively dry sound which admirably suits the precise articulation which is required, especially in his slow movement. Schubert’s piano was larger with a richer tone, and with pedals which would have been used frequently. The sustaining pedal certainly and probably at various times produced a softer tone. Both pieces have beautiful tone, but Mozart punctuated the statement, but Schubert is one long line with a wash of harmony underneath it. It is interesting to observe the two pieces written into the different genre where it was written.

Playing the music on the modern pianos

Nowadays we play music from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond on one instrument that was developed at the end of the 19th century which has not changed much since. Its sound and qualities developed out of the music of the second half of the 19th century, during the height of the Romantic movement and the beginning of the 20th century Modernism. The social, economic, and political condition was very different from the Classical era.

The early pianos had highly individual voices and fascinating varieties of tone and texture. Much of it was lost in the modern day when larger, more sustained sound, of the concert grand become more widespread. We no longer have the devices which alter the sonority such as the moderator or the original una corda mechanism. We can learn from the rich Viennese masters how this might affect our piano playing.

Hand Position

At the beginning of the Classical Period, keyboard technique was derived from the requirement of the harpsichord and the clavichord. The difference between both were that the quiet hand had clear and distinct finger-action. CPE Bach in his ‘Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments’ first published in 1753, advised:

‘In playing, the fingers should be arched, and the muscle relaxed. The less these two conditions are satisfied, the more attention must be given to them. Stiffness hampers all movement, above all the constantly required rapid extension and contraction of the hand’.

In his Claviershule of 1789 D.G. Türk wrote:

‘The fingers must not be held too closely together, but rather a little apart from each other, so that whenever possible, any stretches can be executed nicely and with continuity, without motion of the hands, because playing should be done only with the fingers. For larger skips, however, smaller movements of the hands and arms are unavoidable’.

The emphasis on the quietness and fluidity of the hand continued after the piano had gained its supremacy over the older instruments. Even when the musical content of the early 19th century keyboard repertoire began to demand more drama and rhetoric in its presentation. According to Beethoven’s pupil taught that:

‘The hand always lies on the keyboard in such a way that the fingers cannot be raised more than necessary, for only in this way is it possible to create ‘tone’ and to learn to ‘sing.’ He detested the staccato style and called it ‘finger dancing’ or ‘manual air – sawing.’

Due to the larger instruments and greater demand made by composers, especially the chordal and octave passages, it became inevitable to use an increasing arm weight and a different form of staccato. Various and numerous exercises and instructions placed a great deal of importance on keeping shoulders, arms and wrists relaxed, and to avoid any unnecessary movements.

Fingering had been a subject of fascinating from the early days of keyboard playing. During the Baroque time, the choice of fingerings was more closely linked to articulation and phrasing than it is now, when comfort and convenience are foremost in the player’s minds.

The use of thumb was a strongly emphasized in the middle of 18th Century especially its turning of thumb under in scales and arpeggio passages. JS Bach had made this an essential part of his technique and it was also strongly advocated by his son CPE Bach:

If (the performer) understands the correct principles of fingerings and has not acquired the habit of making unnecessary gestures, he will play the most difficult thing in such a manner that the motion of his hand s will be barely noticeable; moreover, everything will sound as if it presented no obstacle to him‘.

And this is Türk:

‘It is well known that fingering is an essential part of keyboard playing. Therefore, the student must work very diligently to acquire commendable fingering habits, because it is not possible to play in a well-rounded and free-flowing manner when using poor and incorrect fingerings. The most comfortable finger, or that which requires the least movement of the hands, is generally regarded as being the best’.

In these two textbooks alone, ninety-seven pages is dedicated to the subject of fingering with numerous examples.

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