Nineteenth-Century Piano Music, edited by R. Larry Todd; Twentieth-Century Piano Music, by David Burge

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19th Century Piano Music

Nineteenth-Century Piano Music, edited by R. Larry Todd. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990, xvi + 426 pp. ISBN 0-02-8772551-4.

Twentieth-Century Piano Music, by David Burge. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990, x + 284 pp. ISBN 0-02-870321-9. 

These two titles are the first in a series called Studies in Musical Genres and Repertories that Schirmer is publishing under the general editorship of R. Larry Todd. Despite similarities of title and cover design, they are remarkably dissimilar, not least because Nineteenth-Century Piano Music consists of diverse essays, whereas Twentieth-Century Piano Music is the work of a single author.

Nineteenth-Century Piano Music, edited by Todd, includes essays on the piano in the nineteenth century (Leon Plantinga) and on nineteenth-century performance practices (Robert S. Winter), and individual discussions of Beethoven (William Kinderman), Schubert (Eva Badura-Skoda), Weber (Michael C. Tusa), Mendelssohn (Todd), Chopin (Jeffrey Kallberg), Schumann (Anthony Newcomb), Brahms (Walter Frisch), and Liszt (Dolores Pesce). (Given the book's quasi-chronological format, the fact that it concludes with Liszt—not Brahms—is something of a mystery; Frisch's final thoughts on the influence of Brahms on Schoenberg and Reger would have provided a more satisfying conclusion than Pesce's discussion of the third Mephisto waltz. Of course, readers can read these essays in any order they want without sacrificing continuity.)

Most of these essays survey the pianistic output of their respective composers, emphasizing matters of form and harmony. These discussions will provide program annotators and record-liner writers with helpful material for years to come. The chapters by Plantinga and Winter compensate for the relatively narrow focus of the essays on individual composers, though, more naturally, integration of the analytical, the sociological, and the historical would have been preferable.

This lack of integration represents only one limitation of a volume that actually offers a fair degree of stimulating reading. Two other limitations, however, need to be mentioned at once. First, the book treats the work of only eight composers. The editor himself, in his introduction, informs us that "recent studies of the role of women composer-pianists in nineteenth-century European culture—figures such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Louise Farrenc, and, later in the century, Cecile Chaminade—have revealed that an especially productive new line of inquiry remains to be pursued" (p. x). Alas, not here. More troubling is the omission of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky, Gottschalk and MacDowell, Franck and Fauré, and Grieg and Dvořák. That the book's perspective is that of Germany a hundred years ago is one thing; that the book's title misleads is another.

The editor's disclaimer that "the ever-accelerating pace of new research about these familiar figures and the sheer limitations of space lead, as if inevitably, to this organization" seems questionable. For all its sensitivity, Kinderman's essay, for example—a kind of compressed Tovey's Companion—in large measure could have been written sixty years ago. And do we really need—in a book of this nature—a detailed discussion of the pianistic oeuvre of Mendelssohn or Weber at the expense of any consideration whatsoever of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue or Grieg's Sonata or MacDowell's Woodland Sketches?

Moreover, the book as a whole is extremely uneven: the individual essays seem intended for the specialized needs, alternately, of the historian, the music theorist, and the piano teacher. Todd's own fine essay on Mendelssohn, with its balanced concerns for the composer's taste, influence, pianism, and achievement, suggests the kind of discussion he and Schirmer ostensibly had in mind for this volume. But for better or worse, the individual contributors have gone their own way, more in the spirit of a symposium than of a coherent survey. This perhaps makes for a more exciting read, but it mitigates against the book's usefulness as a text or reference book.

Such concerns aside, this volume contains much that is informative and insightful. I liked, in particular, Winter's essay on performance practice, which makes two principal points: First, pianists need some familiarity with the tonal colors of nineteenth-century pianos in order to make sensible decisions concerning balance, clarity, tempo, and pedalling. Second, pianists need to free themselves from twentieth-century performing traditions and consider anew the composer's directions, especially regarding tempo. Winter further suggests ways in which pianists might play nineteenth-century piano music more effectively. These suggestions, however, conflict at times, as Winter allows the competing demands of color and tempo to go unreconciled (why observe the composer's tempi, when, as the author himself argues, color considerations might demand an altered tempo at the modern piano?). Such problems notwithstanding, Winter's discussion deserves the special attention of every pianist. If you have time for only one essay, read this one!

Newcomb's essay is more specialized, but equally fascinating. Entitled "Schumann and the Marketplace: From Butterflies to Hausmusik," it traces the evolution of Schumann's work from the unconventional early piano music to the more commercially viable later works, a complex story that involves literary fads, Clara's influence, financial exigencies, political ideology, the Bach revival, and the composer's revisions of earlier music. (Certain parallels with Hindemith's career a century later—one need only replace Hausmusik with Gebrauchsmusik—made Newcomb's discussion all the more intriguing for this reader.) Newcomb avoids making value judgments about the early versus the later Schumann—he merely notes that, ironically, "it was the early style that took hold in the serious recitals of the later nineteenth century, and it is this style that has since preserved Schumann's name in the annals of piano music, while the style designed for public acceptance has virtually disappeared from the canon" (p. 302). This is not entirely true, of course; hardly a pianist alive has not played "The Happy Farmer" or some other little piece from The Album for the Young. But Newcomb's argument is compelling and succeeds in throwing a new and exciting light on Schumann's early and later work.

Kallberg's essay on Chopin is also of interest. Focusing on the mazurkas, Kallberg argues, first, that their melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic peculiarities underscore "an aesthetic of formal ambiguity" (p. 232); and, second, that Western responses to this repertoire evolved from discussions of "cultural" nationalism in the early 1830s to "political" nationalism in the late 1830s (I was reminded here of a similar evolution in jazz criticism in the twentieth century). I found that the scant consideration paid both to Chopin's other work and to Chopin's Parisian audience weakened Kallberg's thesis, but at the least, this essay is bound to spark discussion.

Other highlights of Nineteenth-Century Piano Music include Plantinga's depiction of the piano as the machine that communicated the century's most private thoughts; Kindermann's comparison of Beethoven's Op. 110 with portions of the Missa Solemnis; Badura-Skoda's claims for Schubert's originality; Tusa's fair appraisal of Weber's strengths and weaknesses; Todd's discussion of the Songs Without Words; Frisch's helpful explanation of genre titles in Brahms; and Pesce's enthusiasm for the late Liszt. Throughout, one finds clear and copious musical examples.

* * *

Twentieth-Century Piano Music is less monumental and scholarly than its companion volume. Its author, David Burge, describes it as "a tour of what I consider the better repertoire for solo piano from the first nine decades of this century" (p. ix). And as tours go, this one is particularly interesting.

Burge, a professor of piano at the Eastman School of Music, is best-known as an interpreter of twentieth-century music, especially that composed after 1945, an unusual specialty. In the "selected list of recordings of piano music written after 1945" that concludes Twentieth-Century Piano Music, Burge's name appears fourteen times, more than any other pianist (Aki Takahashi comes in second, with nine performances).

Burge naturally speaks of this repertoire with authority, enthusiasm, and sympathy. He has taught and played and listened to an extraordinary number of modern works; he has analyzed some of it; and he has dipped into the scholarly literature. He is not discouraged or intimidated by complexity and difficulty, but when the effort does not seem worthwhile, he says so. He knows what works for him in the concert hall and what does not. He has no sacred cows or straw men: he states his likes and his dislikes with admirable honesty.

These likes and dislikes turn out to be as unpredictable as they are informed. He can praise Ravel and Stockhausen with as much conviction as he can criticize Satie and Xenakis. Burge's thoughtful ranking of composers might be described, in a simplified way, as follows:

  1. His Heroes: Debussy, Schoenberg, Ives, Bartók, Stockhausen, Boulez, Dallapiccola, Berio, Copland, Sessions, Crumb.
  2. Figures He Respects: Ravel, Stravinsky, Webern, Messiaen, Berio, Carter, Yun, Martino, Rzewski, Albright, Takemitsu, and many others.
  3. Hitters Who Sometimes Miss: Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Cowell, Pousseur, Finney, Ginastera, Wuorinen, Rochberg, and others.
  4. Lesser Lights: Busoni, Satie, Shostakovich, Xenakis, Barber, Diamond, Babbitt, Tippett, Rihm, and others.

Readers can decide for themselves whether Burge has overvalued or undervalued one or another composer or work. This reader questioned, in particular, his treatment of Satie, Shostakovich, and Barber. But Burge's opinions, as a whole, seem eminently sensible and fair.

An outstanding feature of Twentieth-Century Piano Music is the author's practical advice on matters of performance and interpretation. Burge urges that each of Debussy's two volumes of Preludes be performed as a set; he warns against excessive rubato in Ravel and Berg; he cautions the pianist against playing Bartók coarsely or Webern coldly; he emphasizes the importance of maintaining the proper tempo relationships in Copland's Piano Variations; he speaks of the "personal peace and quietude" required by Messiaen; he offers guidance and helpful tips for learning rhythms (Stockhausen), depressing keys silently (Boulez), managing frequent changes of tempo (Berio), preparing a piano (Cage), and identifying and playing strings (Crumb). The bibliographic citations can help the interested student pursue such matters further. The numerous musical examples are also helpful.

In surveying the contemporary scene, Burge comes to conclusions that might surprise some readers: Europe, he claims, apparently has lost interest in the solo piano as a medium for artistic expression; the Far East, by contrast, offers great promise in this regard; and, in the meantime, the United States has produced the best solo piano music of the last twenty years. The author admits that this conclusion might be biased, since, after all, he has "more contact with American composers and publishers than those from other parts of the world. Yet, on numerous trips abroad to lecture, teach, and perform, little has been found to contradict these conclusions" (p. 257). According to Burge, the Hungarian Miklós Kocsár's Improvvisazioni and the Scottish Iain Hamilton's Palinodes are two of the few European works of recent years worth getting excited about and both pieces are already twenty years old!

This book, too, has its shortcomings. Some readers will object to the omission of one or another name or subject. Some mention of such transitional figures as Dukas, Albéniz, Farwell, Grainger and Janáček might have rounded out the book better. Further, Burge omits any discussion of ragtime and jazz (should he have mentioned James Dapogny's edition of "Jelly Roll" Morton?), Turina and Villa-Lobos, and Russian piano music after l945. Such omissions, however, do not really distract from the book's strengths and are, in any case, negligible compared to the gaping holes found in Nineteenth-Century Piano Music.

Burge also possibly underestimates the difficulties of much of the repertory under discussion. The book seems largely addressed to pianists whose skill and sophistication are comparable to the author's own, or at least to Eastman's better doctoral candidates. Occasionally, a work is touted for its technical accessibility: Kabalevsky's Sonatinas, for example, are said to "make fine teaching material" (p. 104); and Pousseur's "relatively easy" Apostrophe et six réflexions is recommended "as an introduction to avant-garde piano music" (p. 169). But many pianists and especially piano teachers could hope for more differentiation between music of various degrees of difficulty.

In its favor, the book is not burdened by jargon or scholarly matters, so that even music listeners will find this book stimulating—provided they have some interest in the subject. But the book is primarily meant for pianists, especially performers of a fairly high level, and they stand to profit the most. The reader might not immediately run to the piano in order to learn Stockhausen's Klavierstück X, let alone Brian Ferneyhough's Lemma-Icon-Epigram; but the book very well might encourage a pianist to tackle a work by Sessions or Crumb; to rethink Webern or Copland; to discriminate when approaching Cowell or Ginastera; and to keep his or her eyes open for Per Nørgård, Akira Miyoshi, Robert Wilson, Ann Silsbee, and many others.

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Last modified on Monday, 22/10/2018

Howard Pollack

Howard Pollack is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Music at the University of Houston, where he has taught since 1987.  He is the author of Walter Piston (1982); Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and his Students, from Elliott Carter to Frederic Rzewski (1992); John Alden Carpenter: A Chicago Composer (1995); Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (1999); George Gershwin: His Life and Work (2006); and Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World (2012).  In addition, he co-edited, with Claus Reschke, German Literature and Music: An Aesthetic Fusion (1890-1989) (1992), and has published articles on Joseph Haydn, Victor Herbert, Charles Griffes, Samuel Barber, and Carlisle Floyd, among other topics. His awards include the Deems Taylor Award, the Irving Lowens Award, and the Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kurt Weill Foundation, the Newberry Library, the American Musicological Society, and the Society for American Music.

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