Schonberg: The Great Pianists

September 23, 2011

The Great Pianists
From Mozart to the Present
Harold C. Schonberg
(Simon & Schuster, 2006) [1987]
525 p.

I tend to think of the piano as the most firmly established of instruments, the one which, because of its versatility, most people with a serious interest in music will study, the one which will most often be found in the homes of ordinary families, and the one which will last as long as music-making does. Harold Schonberg’s fascinating history of piano-playing offers, among many pleasures, a sobering reminder that, while it may be true that the piano will be with us for a long time to come, its golden age is very likely already past.

The piano (or piano-forte, as it was known in the early days), was an instrument that developed from earlier keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and clavichord. It was only in the late eighteenth century that it began to be produced, and not until roughly the 1830s had it become more or less the instrument we know today. Mozart was one of the earliest virtuosos to adopt it, and Beethoven belonged to the first generation to grow up with it. Through most of the nineteenth century and, arguably, into the first few decades of the twentieth, the piano was at the center of Western music, with many of our greatest composers (Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt) lavishing the instrument with their finest inspirations, and many towering virtuosos devoting themselves to playing it. Especially in the nineteenth century it was via the piano that much music — even orchestral music — was heard by a great many people, and the piano became part of the standard furnishing of a reasonably comfortable European home. In the post-war period, the centrality of the piano declined, and though today it is of course fairly common to study the piano, it is not as common as it once was. More importantly, the guitar has unequivocally displaced the piano as the principal instrument in popular music.

As its title indicates, however, Schonberg’s book is not so much a history of the piano as a history of those who have played it exceedingly well. Any study of great pianists of the past immediately runs up against a major problem, of course, insofar as many of them were already dead or past their prime before recording technology was invented. We can learn about their lives, and (in the case of composer-pianists) we can hear their music played by modern pianists, but we can never hear them play with our own ears. This, especially in the case of certain renowned pianists (I think of Chopin or Liszt) is a great pity. Instead, we must rely on the testimony of contemporaries, much of it well-informed, who wrote about the playing of the most celebrated pianists of their day. Accordingly, Schonberg has dug up surviving descriptions, culled from letters, reviews, newspapers, and treatises, and integrated them into a coherent narrative.

One might think that having a musical score, and hearing a modern pianist play it, is an adequate substitute for not having recordings of nineteenth-century pianists, but one would be mistaken. There is plenty of evidence not only that piano playing at that time differed in certain respects from modern playing, but that the ethos of piano-playing and concertizing was different. Pianists in the heydey of romanticism, much like singers in the same period, took considerable liberties — or what we, at any rate, would today consider liberties — with the score, adding embellishments, inserting improvisations, stretching rhythms, and so forth. Such playing was not only tolerated, but expected, and was viewed not (as it would be today) as a daring imposition of the player’s personality on the composer’s wishes, but simply as an aspect of the art of music-making.

This approach to piano music began to change in the early part of the twentieth century. One of the first major talents to advocate for a stricter fidelity to the printed score as a criterion of good taste was Josef Hofmann, who, writing in around 1925, wrote:

The true interpretation of a piece of music results from a correct understanding of it, and this, in turn, depends solely upon scrupulously exact reading… A purposed, blatant parading of the player’s dear self through wilful additions of nuances, shadings, effects, and what not, is tantamount to a falsification; at best it is ‘playing to the galleries,’ charlatanism. The player should always feel convinced that he plays only what is written.

This way of thinking has a firm grip on almost all modern classical pianism (and indeed on classical music generally). In baroque music one will sometimes find that, in accordance with period practice, players add minor decorations when a section of music is repeated, but in music of later periods this happens rarely, if at all. Fidelity to the score is paramount. As a result, what has emerged in our time is what might be called an international school of pianism, in which there is relatively little variation from one pianist to another, and they tend to sound more or less the same.

That this passion for faithfulness to the composer’s intentions has established itself in our age is not without paradox. It is essentially an argument from authority, and that it should thrive in a culture reflexively hostile to authority, and devoted to self-expression, is peculiar, to say the least. It is at odds, too, with the artistic, and financial, viability of classical music, for the fact that 53 recordings of any given piece are readily available surely provides an incentive for a pianist to distinguish his reading in some way, but the authority of the score makes it very difficult for him to do so. I will not be surprised if, in time, the sheer weight of the ever-growing heap of strict interpretations provokes some pianists to experiment with creative departures from the written score, reviving something closer to romantic performance practice. Ironically, doing so might actually be more faithful to the composer’s expectations for the performance of his music.

Schonberg draws attention to an interesting aspect of the history of pianism: many of the greatest players have also been the greatest composers for the instrument. This is perhaps not surprising in itself, but it is sharply different from the state of things today. Today a concert pianist is a pianist and not (except for rare exceptions) a composer, and a major composer (if any of our contemporary composers can be said to be major in historical perspective) is a composer and not a concertizing pianist. The situation was quite different in the nineteenth century; think of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, to name only the top-tier composer-painists. (Men such as Godowsky and Busoni would make a slightly longer list.) Reasonably enough, the creativity of their piano music was related to their own virtuosity at the keyboard. I wonder whether the current bifurcation between composers and pianists is a result of the displacement of the piano from the center of music-making, or is due to the general trend toward specialization in our culture, or (on a related note) is simply a response to the expectations of the audience? It seems that a contemporary pianist who wants to also compose faces an uphill credibility battle (though it has been done, and with good results).

In the course of his survey, Schonberg discusses dozens of pianists. Some of the most important names in his narrative, such as Thalberg, Tausig, and Leschetizky (who was an important piano pedagogue) were entirely new to me. In many cases I knew a name but not much more, and the book was very informative in those cases. The most important historical figures are discussed in some detail, but in the final chapters he pans out for a more high-level overview of the current landscape of pianism, discussing in brief compass many of the pianists whose names are familiar from browsing record store shelves. Unless I am mistaken, only one Canadian pianist is mentioned in the book: Glenn Gould, to whom an entire chapter is devoted.

Since most of the great pianists have played more or less the same repertoire (focused especially on romantic music), and given the priorities of modern performance practice that I mentioned above, and considering the very high performance standards of our day, discussions of the relative merits and special qualities of modern pianists tend to focus on subtle points of interpretation. Not everyone enjoys the drawing of such fine distinctions, which can seem to lean too heavily on debatable, subjective appraisals. I myself have relatively little patience with very close comparisons of how one player differs from another — and yet, I cannot deny that there are some pianists who appeal to me more than others. My personal favourites include Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Marc-André Hamelin, and Alexei Lubimov, for instance, not all of whom are considered major figures by general consensus, but whose playing speaks to me in a special way (and examples of whose playing are sprinkled through this post). Other pianists, such as Artur Schnabel, Maurizio Pollini, Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Brendel, and (yes) Glenn Gould, who are widely acclaimed, leave me cool. Trying to put into words why this is so is difficult, and I cannot succeed to my own satisfaction. Chalk it up to the magic of music-making.

After finishing this book, I find myself pondering the future of the piano. It is evident that it is not as important to our music now as it was in the past, but, at the same time, I believe that its niche is fairly secure. Children are still probably more likely to study piano than any other instrument; I hope that my children will have the opportunity to learn to play. That said, the great pianists of the future may come from an unexpected quarter: China, where an estimated 30 million youngsters are studying the instrument, and which has already begun to produce pianists of some acclaim. We’ll see. In the meantime, I think that I will lie on the floor and listen to the Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia, piano).

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3 Responses to “Schonberg: The Great Pianists”

  1. Mac Says:

    “I myself have relatively little patience with very close comparisons of how one player differs from another — and yet, I cannot deny that there are some pianists who appeal to me more than others. ”

    Same here. I really don’t think I can hear a lot of those subtleties, or if I can I can’t remember them long enough to make a comparison. It interests me that some people are equipped to make these judgments, but a little goes a long way in reading their opinions, since they can’t really articulate them. “Conductor X’s account of symphony Y never really breathes”, etc. Like you I do have my preferences, but I’m never sure how much the quality of the recorded sound has to do with them.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I agree that it can sometimes be hard to disentangle the performance itself from the way in which it is mediated — that is, from the recording. But I do not really think that my attraction to certain players is always, or even often, on account of recording quality. Sometimes the recordings are not that great, but I love them anyway.

    I do think it possible that my cool reception of certain pianists, such as Pollini and Brendel, may be because there is something about their recordings that I dislike: a tinny, thin quality. But maybe it is in the playing, and not in the recordings. I am not sure.

    It is somewhat easier to judge with live performances. There are still the acoustics of the venue to contend with, but I think one gets closer to the music when hearing it live. I’ve heard Andras Schiff and Marc-Andre Hamelin live, and it is partly — but only partly — on account of those concerts that I am so affectionate towards them.


  3. […] The classic history of pianists and piano playing from start (Bach and Mozart) to twentieth century schools. Read more about it here. […]


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