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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

The piano


On the piano, every note, whether light or heavy, is a hammer blow. On a bad piano the strikes can be heard far more than on a good one, but it is still an instrument producing melodic lines in the same way as the timpani, each note a detonation followed by a decaying vibration.

In its early history, music was the serious concern of voices, or instruments blown or bowed. Percussion and even the early harp played no part in the great development from monody to polyphony. Music was created as 'apt for voices or viols', whereas our realizations through the piano are a curiously crude representation of its melodic graces.

The piano thrives on harmony rather than counterpoint. It chords must inevitably be limited to the size of the player's hands; the 19th century is full of 'hand-music'. Even Beethoven was clumsy with the keyboard, and the importance and intricacy of his ideas eventually forced him to the far more flexible medium of the string quartet, where notes and phrases could bend and fold.

It is not without significance that the century that adopted the piano so enthusiastically also developed a concern to measure by quantity, to build ever larger orchestras and halls, and make more and more noise. The piano was transformed from gentle intimacy to huge, brash vulgarity. But the most notable characteristic of the piano is that it is eminently suitable for the tone-deaf. All that is demanded of a performer is an agility of eye and hand; the ear need have no part in the mechanical process of reading and executing the instructions! Liszt developed a physical virtuosity for the instrument and transcribed for it, sacrificing musical subtlety to an astonishing mechanical technique. He did not explore the piano's peculiar values and try to make music with them.

The true potential of the piano was not probed until composers began thinking in terms of its vertical partiality, blurred textures and melodic sparsity, composers like Debussy, Scriabin and Bartók. But those were explorations of a percussion instrument, not a vehicle for melodic lines.


Copyright © 24 January 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK



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