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When Is a Piano not a piano?

I recently came across an edition of Nocturnes by John Field whose preface contained yet another repetition of the idea that many of our most revered composers wrote music for the piano that was not "pianistic," or well suited to the piano, as opposed to music written for the piano that would have been better suited to, say, the ukulele. In this case, of course, the editor was saying it to suggest that his hero, Mr. Field, who was a contemporary of Beethoven, and a generation after Mozart, may have indeed written the first truly pianistic music ever, and that his is a major achievement.

All gratitude to Mr. Field aside (and some of his Nocturnes are quite beautiful, by the way) I have for years found this kind of statement annoying. It was made by a Doctor of Musical Arts (like myself) but that doesn't keep it from being a gross generalization, and in many ways, just plain wrong. Besides, I fear that many of us, because our time is taken up perfecting our skills in musical execution, do not necessarily know what we are talking about when it comes to matters of history or analytical thinking, these matters being reserved for persons in the theory and musicology departments!

Just what does it mean when something is, or is not, pianistic?

I will suggest to you that what one means when one says that something is pianistic is that it is a piece written for the piano in such a way that it sounds particularly as though it was written with the strengths of that particular instrument in mind, that the sound of the instrument is an important part of the piece's message or nature, and that it is difficult to imagine that the music in question could sound as good if it were transferred to some other group of instruments. Perhaps this is self-evident.

This is never defined when the statement is delivered--once someone uses the term, the matter is settled. But it would be well to reflect on the fact that the piano itself has undergone quite a bit of change since its invention about 300 years ago. The modern version is quite different from the one that, for example, Mozart knew. Or Schubert. Or Beethoven. Or even, to a certain degree, Brahms.

This is going to muddy the waters a bit, because, if we begin to ask just what musical characteristics should be kept in mind if one wishes to write something that is pianistic, we have to consider just what exactly a piano can do well that other instruments cannot, or at least what strengths it has in common with other instruments, and some of these characteristics are subject to change depending on what time period we are discussing. Again, I imagine that many who make this statement would rather not bother themselves going into this kind of detail. But these things would be worth investigating, particularly if we would like to get composers like Mozart or Beethoven cleared of the charges, or at least have their transgressions bumped down to a misdemeanor or two.

Usually, when one says that a piece is not pianistic, one has in mind some other medium in which the music would be better suited. This is in contrast to music by Bach, whose mid-century champions loved the idea that his music transcends any mere instrument, that it is pure music, and that any medium gets in the way of its exalted genius. This is a very Platonic idea. Bach's Art of Fugue does not seem to have been written with any particular instrumentation in mind, which does seem to support this abstraction, but the vast majority of Bach's works are. True, he rarely gives his vocalists a chance to breathe, as though he were writing for instruments that did not have to, and he seems comfortable assigning long lines of flowing contrapuntal contraption to any combination of instruments whatever, but history is full of performers who like to complain that composers don't know how to write for their instrument, which is often code for "it's too difficult." History is also full of succeeding generations of performers being able to surmount those difficulties, which is probably what Arnold Schoenberg had in mind when someone told him that his violin concerto was so hard it would require a six-fingered violinist. He replied "I can wait."

Aside from Bach, when composers are assigned to the "did not know how to write for the piano" bin at Recordmart (this is supposed to be a made-up name for a retail outlet; if there really is one, I'm sorry) it is because they are supposed to be writing for orchestra. Beethoven usually gets assigned to this category, as does Brahms, and Schumann, although he is often charged with not really knowing how to write for orchestra, either.

If you were German in the 19th century you wanted to write symphonies in imitation of the great Beethoven. Under his pen the 40-minute orchestral statement gained quite a reputation. And during the passionate outburst that was Romanticism it was hard to imagine giving vent to your artistic tirades with anything less than a full orchestra. Composers still did, of course. Often as training for the day when they could write symphonies. Brahms wrote some early piano sonatas which Schumann referred to as veiled symphonies, looking forward to the day when he would write the real thing. Later he did just that. At least six classical radio stations in the United States are playing one of them right now. Bet on it.

People seem to forget that Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms were all pianists. Beethoven and Brahms were quite good at it, in fact. They made their early reputations largely as pianists. Obviously, if they wrote something for the piano, it could be played on a piano. At least by them. Still, they were more concerned with musical substance than with showing off. Is it the lack of virtuosity that makes these piece "unpianistic?" The same impulse that once made a teacher tell his student at a piano competition I was in that he shouldn't bother himself with the Brahms first piano concerto because it wasn't flashy enough?

The piano does have the ability to support rapid passagework. Showers of notes come easily to it. The 19th century (to grossly generalize) often seems dedicating to trying this grand idea out, in all possible permutations.

The piano is also uniquely qualified for the playing of harmonies. None but keyboard instruments are genuinely able to reproduce several notes at once (there are some interesting exceptions to this, such as double stops on a violin, or sung harmonics on a French horn) which means a piano can be made to play the same notes as an entire group of instruments. Even a full orchestra can in some measure be replicated on a piano. Does this perhaps mean that whenever a piano is engaged in full, thick chords, it is actually not being a piano, but rather an imitation of an orchestra?

It often seems that way. Brahms, who liked to compass such magisterial chords in his early music, is often charged with not being pianistic enough. And Beethoven, because he sometimes favors such resonant moments over the aforementioned running notes, is sometimes charged similarly, though I can think of plenty of virtuoso passages in Beethoven's piano music that not only require piano technique to burn, they would also not sound very effective rewritten for orchestra.

Pianos also come equipped with sustaining pedals, which are great for keeping full-bodied sounds ringing in the air while the fingers are occupied elsewhere. Pedals can be used to support these grand harmonies, or they can simply allow a single melody line to sound more resonant.

Which is when we get to the real truth.  The great pianistic composers, I have read over and over, are persons like Chopin, and---well, Chopin. Actually, it's a very small crowd. About 95% of our piano literature is regularly accused of not being pianistic. Which is perfect if you support a very narrow definition of pianistic. Debussy I don't think is accused of it, so he's in. Maybe Ravel gets to join the club. But other 20th century composers--Stravinsky, Prokoffiev, Shostakovich, Bartok, etc. are usually accused of treating the piano as if it were a percussion instrument. Horrors! (It is, by the way. Check a musical dictionary)

So what does the great Chopin have to offer us by way of insight? Beautiful, vocal melodies, supported by undulating accompaniments. In addition to being able to hold harmonies, and play them, the piano's sophisticated touch-sensitive action allows a skilled pianist to nuance melodic lines so that they melt into one another instead of sounding merely attacked. Paradoxically, an instrument whose sound is produced by hitting strings with hammers can sound as if the sounds were being released into the air on feathers. This is an extraordinary property for an instrument to have. Chopin's music highlights this feature.

I think we can let Mozart into this category too. His music is usually texturally thin enough.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, people have been fascinated by the piano's ability to sing. Piano teachers have imparted this wisdom to their students: that the piano ought to imitated the voice, which is, after all, the primal instrument. I can say throughout the 20th because I was often implored at lessons to make the piano sing as well.  Doubtless my students are hearing the same thing from my lips.

Chopin's music, by the way, is filled with another instrumental imitation. It is the sound of the violin. Nicolo Paginnini, a violin virtuoso like the world had never seen, had recently lit up Paris with his demonic legerdemain, and inspired both Chopin and Liszt (surely his music is also pianistic, at least part of the time) to do for the piano what he had done for the violin. Sometimes they do it so well a passage sounds as if it were perfectly suited to the violin. (listen to Chopin's 2nd ballade in the rapid passages and you'll know what I mean).

So how did a composer whose music imitates voice and violin get to be the most pianistic of our composers? Only on an instrument which is capable of so many means of expression that in order to speak of them all we have to compare them to the traits of other instruments!

Isn't life funny that way?