(p. vii ) Preface
I recently, regrettably, attended a recital of four Beethoven sonatas given by an internationally lauded player in a large hall. The artist was unexpectedly preceded by a herald with frowning brow and solemn countenance. His function was to admonish the audience that they should not cough or make any noise whatsoever during the performance, owing to the supposedly fatal effect this would have on the pianist's laserlike but evidently precarious concentration. With the vulgar multitude suitably chastised and a stunned atmosphere created, the grim visage of the great player consented to appear before his unworthy auditors. He predictably proceeded to perform with all the spontaneity of a tenth take in the recording studio—and the program featured the supposedly improvisatory “Quasi una fantasia” sonatas (op. 27) too. It was a miserable experience.
To what extent did this funereal occasion, this reverential disinterring of musical masterpieces relate to any type of concert Beethoven might have known? Hardly at all. We would have had to wait for many decades after the composition of the relevant sonatas regularly to encounter such an event. And what of the manner of performance, with its ultra‐scrupulous adherence to the letter of the score, even down to the almost exact observation of the pedal instructions in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata? The audience was understandably surprised at the murky fog of sound that arose from this, for if the pedal directions were Beethoven's, the piano certainly was not, but rather a modern concert Steinway as similar to an early instrument as a biplane to a jumbo jet. The resulting musical effect was, predictably, vastly different, and turned what was probably intended to be a subtle merging of mild dissonances into a more strident cacophony. It made Beethoven seem daringly iconoclastic, but also incomprehensible.
How did we end up here from the much more varied, spontaneous, and improvisatory piano culture of the nineteenth century—when, ironically, most of (p. viii ) our repertoire was actually composed? What lessons can the historical record teach us that might be applied again to modern performance? This book attempts to answer these questions by tracing traditions of piano playing and concert programming from the early romantic era to the early twentieth century, from Chopin and Liszt to Paderewski and Busoni. In the process it touches upon why we now play differently from players on early recordings—recordings still so avidly admired by many modern pianists—and on the elusive concept of a “Golden Age of the Piano” itself. It ends with a plea not to sideline completely the performance traditions of the great pianists of the past through a too rigorous—and again unhistorical—obsession with urtext editions and urtext playing. Dare we say that the composer need not always have the final word?
Many piano students accept more or less unquestioningly the structure and etiquette of the standard modern piano recital, but our concert decorum was for a long time far from the received norm. From the perspective of earlier eras, we might ask ourselves why we hush people who clap between movements of a piece, why we usually expect pianists to perform from memory, and why we are so worried about wrong notes—the last an especially recent psychosis that scarcely troubled Anton Rubinstein or Eugen d'Albert, only two of the most illustrious splashy players of the past. Elucidation of these issues and others equally pertinent not only points up the inevitable transience of our own customs, but provides food for thought should we wish to change our own practices in a classical music world that so often seems deliberately distant from its own audience.
This book was written because I remain fascinated by the piano and piano music. Custom has, for me at any rate, not staled their infinite variety. Yet my pleasure in the piano is matched by frustration at many of the fusty rituals of modern concert‐giving, in which the music is served up with the superciliousness of a sneering sommelier offering overpriced wine at a too‐long‐established restaurant. In the hope that a more vivid historical awareness might actually help to clear a few of the cobwebs away, I originally suggested this project to Bruce Phillips, doyen of music editors, who commissioned it with encouraging conviction. The book was subsequently cajoled along with charming urgency by Kim Robinson, and efficiently ushered into print by Suzanne Ryan, ably assisted by Norman Hirschy and Lora Dunn. The immediately brightened tone of Suzanne's voice when I—instead of proffering the usual litany of increasingly bizarre excuses—actually told her the book was finished was indeed heart‐warming.
During the writing process, a welcome grant from the British Arts and Humanities Research Board enabled me to concentrate on the task in hand, while the initial draft benefited enormously from the wisdom and perspicacity of friends (p. ix ) and colleagues who were kind enough to take time out of their own activities constructively to criticize mine. In particular, Jonathan Bellman and Larry Todd waded dauntlessly through an entire earlier version of the book, offering in the process quite indispensable encouragement and counsel. William Weber, the generally acknowledged guru of the study of concert history, very generously allowed me access to his forthcoming work and made many welcome and apt suggestions regarding my own. Jim Samson, allegedly having had his printout of various chapters confiscated “for reasons of national security” at an airport checkpoint, nevertheless was able to make many detailed and thought‐provoking comments, reconstructed impressively from memory and delivered subtly in a surveillance‐eluding whisper during an intermittently dull concert. Back at Oxford University Press, the finely tuned production and copyediting talents of Christi Stanforth and Barbara Norton ensured that the book now before the public is considerably more consistent than the one that first landed on their desks. Finally, for other advice and general morale‐boosting it is my pleasure to acknowledge that I owe more than one drink to Hugh Macdonald, Roger Parker, Robert Philip, Valerie Woodring‐Goertzen, and Colin Lawson. (p. x )