Music for the Piano: A Short History, by F. E. Kirby

October 1, 1996

Music for the PianoMusic for the Piano: A Short History, by F. E. Kirby. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1995. 466pp. ISBN 0-931340-86-1.

Professor Kirby has done it! The task of creating a comprehensive text that deals in some depth with the literature for the piano has been attempted by numerous authors. Even Kirby's own previous effort, A Short History of Keyboard Music (New York: The Free Press, 1966), fell into the category of books which achieved an impressive partial success. But the present work is a book that can be viewed as valuable from beginning to end and useful in the study of each of the periods of piano literature. Particularly attractive are the listings of principal works by each of the major composers set off within the text.

The amount of detail packed into a short book covering several centuries of piano literature makes for very intense reading. Of great use to the reader and to the serious student are the sixty-nine pages of bibliography and the convenient index at the end of the book. The wealth of material found here is well organized and it effectively supplements the careful endnotes accompanying each chapter. The pages treating the earlier periods of the literature, so successfully presented in Kirby's earlier book, contain material every bit as good as the first text. But to fully appreciate it, the reader must retain every word of the present text. It is so distilled. Thus this is a book not just for reading but for study. As such it makes an ideal text for any piano literature course, from survey courses to specific period courses.

Kirby's analysis of key works is often insightful and seldom superficial, although a few of Kirby's analytical conclusions about musical form may provoke debate. Some may argue that the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 is indeed in sonata-allegro form. Many would say that Schubert's Fantasia, D. 760 bears a resemblance to sonata form similar to that in Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, and that to assert that there is an absence of sonata form here is misleading. In the difficult area of form in the Ballades of Chopin, there are often choices of analytical opinions, and here too scholars may find that Kirby prompts discussion. For example, it may not be accurate to state that in the A-flat Ballade the "figuration is unrelated to the thematic material of the exposition" (p. 183). The exposition must certainly include the first appearance of the "b" material (following the slurred right hand octaves). In this case the figuration in question is developmental, serving in the same way it would in any classical variations or development section. In the F Major Ballade it may be clearer to point out that the key relationships of F major and A minor foretell the tragic final cadence in which the French augmented sixth chord of F brings about the final resolution to A minor. This might lead one to regard the F major opening as an extended introduction to the dramatic principal theme in A minor. Once A minor is felt as the principal tonality of the work, the form takes on new shape. However, through the abundant and excellent analyses in this volume, the reader must remember that the risk of controversy over a particular analysis will always be present when this depth of treatment is attempted; but this sort of polemic is healthy and certainly preferable to a bland treatment of the subject.

The scholarly success of this work suggests that the general reader might find it too difficult to read, but the lucidity of the writing and the wonderful logic of the musical approach make it interesting and accessible to the general reader as well as to the pianist or musicologist. Any general reader genuinely interested in the literature for the piano will find a treasure of concentrated information presented in easily comprehensible reading on the subject. This is a highly worthwhile book that should remain in the permanent library of every serious pianist. Indeed, it is one the best books on piano literature ever written. I salute Professor Kirby and hope the book will gain wide acceptance and a long history of success among pianists and scholars of music for the piano.

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