Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Application, by Sandra P. Rosenblum

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Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Application, by Sandra P. Rosenblum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. xxi + 516 pp. ISBN 0-25-334314-3.

"My purpose is to provide historical information and practical assistance in applying that information to the shaping of interpretation, all with respect for musicality and the individual composition at hand," Sandra Rosenblum proclaims in the preface to her new book. This book is a welcome member of the series Music: Scholarship and Performance, edited by Thomas Binkley. In the course of the past twenty years or so, performance practice questions have increasingly influenced the interpretation of, and research on, the Classical repertory. A thorough survey of at least one area—keyboard music—is therefore timely for all interested and thinking musicians. Rosenblum's work is the first extensive volume that summarizes and compares the vast contemporary documentary material on the performance ideals and manners of the Classical keyboard repertory. This body of music remains the daily bread of professional and amateur players today just as it has been over the past 200 years.

In eleven chapters, the book discusses instruments, playing techniques (articulation and touch, dynamics, pedals, fingering), ornaments, and questions of rhythm and tempo. The author's investigations are focused mainly on the years between 1780 and 1820 (the title of Chapter II reinforces this), and the protagonists of her discourse are, besides Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, a fourth master, Muzio Clementi. The prose is illustrated and illuminated by hundreds of well-chosen musical examples.

The author's knowledge of relevant primary literature is boundless. The sheer quantity of contemporary sources cited is admirable in itself. And, being a performer herself, she naturally puts the written word constantly to the test. Every verbal description or suggestion is tellingly demonstrated with musical examples. A great deal can be learned from this book. In a single volume, it offers important information which a serious teacher or performer can no longer afford to ignore, and which can enlighten the uninitiated.

One of the major virtues of the book is the author's undogmatic presentation of her historical deductions. Beyond the meticulous (sometimes overly-scrupulous) exposition of primary documents, Rosenblum is careful to leave enough room for interpretive flexibility. Although the subjective is a shade obtrusive ("I play" appears a few times too many), the reader need not feel robbed of a necessary performing freedom, within the boundaries of the style. Highly recommendable reading is the comparative description of the various nineteenth-century metronome markings for Beethoven's sonatas (Chapter IX). Part of that account was published previously in an article in Early Music ("Two Sets of Unexplored Metronome Marks for Beethoven's Piano Sonatas," EM 16/1 [1988], 58-71).

The conscientious Chapter VII on Ornaments misses one important consideration: the particular instrument. To be sure, the entire book deals with the piano (historical or modern), yet one cannot exclude the possibility of the harpsichord and the clavichord, even if the survey focuses (perhaps not quite justly) on the later Classical repertory. The touch and nature of these very different instruments ("touch-sensitive" and "non-touch-sensitive," as we read nowadays) significantly influences the execution of the ornaments, which is one of the more sensitive means to achieve the desired Affekt. In Rosenblum's lengthy discussion of ornaments (77 pages), this question is restricted to half a sentence, referring, I assume, to different piano actions: ". . . final selection [of the realization of the turn] may even vary according to the action of the instrument being played" (p. 262).

My major reservation, however, concerns terminology. I find the consistently-used fundamental confrontation of fortepiano (= eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century piano) and pianoforte (= modern piano) incorrect and highly misleading. As is well known, both these words designated the Hammerklavier from about the mid-eighteenth century on, interchangeably (not only in "English sources from the 1760s on," as Rosenblum says on p. 31). They were used equally in publications of the same time and place (C.P.E. Bach calls the instrument "fortepiano," Quantz, "pianoforte" in their respective treatises); sometimes even the same source alternates the two terms. Koch's Musikalisches Lexikon (1802) says: "Das Fortepiano, oft auch Pianoforte genannt, macht unter den Clavierinstrumenten eine besondere Art aus . . ." It is true that today the original or replica period instrument is most often called "fortepiano," but to reserve the other name for the modern grand is still unfortunate. Why not call it "modern piano," or just "piano"? This leads to the question of the title of the book. Perhaps the author considered "Piano Music" a kind of generalization, without temporal distinction?

The other, less significant, but curious confusion results from the use of the term "holograph." In all British and American musicological writings, "autograph" is the regularly applied word for the composer's own manuscript. Of course, an author has every right to use "holograph" as synonymous with "autograph." But then why does the abbreviation "Aut." appear consistently above the musical examples to which the word "holograph" refers in the text? Is there a difference?

The typography and general layout of the book are clear and attractive, but unfortunately there are a number of mistakes in the print (whether errors of the original text or misprints, it is impossible to tell). A short list: the correct date of A. Peter Brown's book on Haydn is 1986 (note 1/70); Hob. XVI:44 is not in c, but in g minor (p. 14); the date of K. 309 is 1777, not 1778 (p. 14); Fig. 7.108 shows not the second but the first movement of K. 498; Fig. 8.20 contains mm.25-26 only; in Beethoven's Op. 26/1 the metronome mark refers to the eighth note, not the quarter note (p. 336); on p. 370 the two long citations from Türk make sense only if they are in reverse order; the fingering numbers of m. 2 in Beethoven's Op. 126/5 are reversed (bottom of p. 395).

Rosenblum's book is recommended mainly to eager-to-learn teachers and instrumentalists who have no time or inclination to do their own research. Here, on a silver platter, they will find all the necessary Aufführungspraxis information (complete with copious notes, including even short biographies of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors cited) for a closer, more direct understanding of the keyboard language of the Classical period. And those who wish for more certainty need only read and reread the beautiful motto (from Rainer Maria Rilke): "Be patient with all that is unsolved . . . and try to love the questions themselves."

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Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

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