After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, by Kenneth Hamilton

October 1, 2008

after goldenAfter the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, by Kenneth Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xv + 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-5178. ISBN 978-0-19-517826-5.

Kenneth Hamilton's recent book about the piano explores the changes in performance practices that took place from the nineteenth century to the contemporary era. This is a mighty undertaking but as a performing pianist and a music scholar, Hamilton is certainly up to attacking this behemoth.

The author lays out his scholarly purpose for the book in the Preface: "tracing [the] tradition of piano playing and concert programming from the early romantic era to the early twentieth century" (viii). But the real mission is to explore the performance field that turned a "varied, spontaneous, improvisatory piano culture of the nineteenth century" into contemporary recitals that are too often "funeral occasions," "reverential disinterring of musical masterpieces," or, in short, "a miserable experience" (vii). While some may argue with a few of Hamilton's observations and conclusions, one would be hard pressed to deny that performance practices have drastically changed since the nineteenth century, and certainly not all for the better.

After the Golden Age explores aspects of public performance in a now-scholarly, now-impertinent, and sometimes satirically humorous style. Hamilton uses a wide variety of sources to make his points, including well-researched and documented quotations from performers, critics, and audience members as well as anecdotal stories. Another important reference is the author's own careful listening to and analysis of some of the recordings from the more contemporary old-timers (Rosenthal, Paderewski, Hofmann, Friedheim, Busoni, and, of course, Horowitz). Hamilton weaves these threads together, creating an interesting and insightful look into the nebulous and wide-ranging performance practices of the nineteenth-century.

The book is divided into eight chapters, the bulk of which explores a different aspect of performance practice of the nineteenth century: what is proper literature for a recital; when is applause "appropriate;" was music always played by memory; was the published score the ultimate source or a guideline; what were attitudes toward "wrong" notes; and what was the role of improvisation?

In the first chapter, Hamilton questions the validity of the existence of a "Grand Tradition," or "Golden Age" that many contemporary classical music lovers believe existed. If, indeed, there were one, Hamilton asks the following: When and how did it begin? When did it end? What performance practices were inherent in this style and what has been retained and lost in today's performance arena? Good questions, all.

What becomes immediately clear in Hamilton's examination is that the entire area of performance in the nineteenth century is not a single, unified practice, but rather a number of wide-ranging and differing approaches to public music-making, indeed, performance practices. It is also clear that many of these practices, for the most part, have been lost in contemporary recital protocol.

The second chapter takes a look at the current view of what a recital is "supposed" to be and explores the deification of the performer and performance. After foraging for a likely suspect with which to begin his historical survey, Hamilton eventually hones in on Liszt as the musician who both initiates and represents the "Golden Age." Some of the factors behind this choice include the development and arrival of the modern piano, the creation of the piano recital in the modern sense of the word, and the sheer influence of Liszt as a composer, pianist and arbiter of music aesthetics. It probably doesn't hurt that Hamilton has written a book about this first "performance artist" (Liszt: Sonata in B-minor).

The reader finds in this chapter that concerts, both public and private, were rarely devoted to a single type of literature or genre ("pianists usually shared the stage") (39). Rather, the norm was a concert that featured solo instrumentals, singers, and orchestral or chamber music. And often excerpts were performed instead of a complete worka single movement from a piano sonata or an aria from an opera was standard fare.

The appropriateness of applause and playing a recital by memory are the topics of the third chapter ("With Due Respect"), and it certainly seems obvious that we have lost our way in terms of both in contemporary concerts. Suffice it to say the score was often on the music stand, and the audiences were much more generous and boisterous with their approval for the music highlights of a concert.

In "A Suitable Prelude," the reader discovers that a recital consisting of "by-the-score" renditions of the "classics" was about the furthest thing from a typical nineteenth-century recital. Improvisation (often in the form of "preluding") was very much an integral part of every music-making event. Pianists, for example, would typically invent preludes to sonatas and even embellish a composer's work. Most performers (from even before the time of Bach) were justly famous for their improvisations. Many performers would usually interact socially with the audience before and between numbers. Indeed, Liszt often greeted audience members as they arrived and carried on conversations with those seated close by between works he performed.

Tone quality is the subject of "A Singing Tone." This chapter is a fascinating look into some of the great studios in the nineteenth century. But of course, what a "singing tone" implied to different teachers was extremely varied. Add the complication of the rapidly changing mechanics of the piano, and one becomes hard pressed to arrive at a solid understanding of what lyrical playing means. A discussion of the use of pedals is included here, and it is important to remember that there was no "standard" number or function of those pedals.

The sixth chapter, "The Letter of the Score," takes on the issue of fidelity to the written notes. Several performers had no qualms about "updating" or "modernizing" older scores, sometimes to take advantage of the new, improved piano, but other times just to correct what they saw as "poor" writing. Some scores were made simpler, but others served as a springboard for the pianist's creativity. One need only think of the Bach-Busoni "transcriptions" to get an idea of how unsacred the urtexts were to many musicians.

Another wrinkle is the existence of numerous editions of the same composition that were available to musicians. As we all know, a published score is not always what the composer intended. Indeed, often several editions of a work provided fair game for pianists to interpret in their own, individual way.

In the next chapter "Lisztiana," Hamilton tries to separate the real man from the myth that has grown around the venerable Franz. The author is quick to point out that the youthful Liszt certainly wasn't the same as the mature or the aged Liszt in terms of his performing prowess or in terms of his attitude about performing. There are some wonderful descriptions of how Liszt told his students to play certain passages and his hints on making some scores easier to play. It is easy to see why such a powerful personality and superb musician, who dominated the piano culture for so long, would become a perfect figure for worship by the masses.

The final chapter is a quick survey of the post-Liszt performers who carried on various aspects of that grand tradition of performance, and the eventual loss of it.

One of the main culprits for the change in aesthetics, according to Hamilton, was the advent of modern recordings in which an artist is allowed—nay expected—to turn in an absolutely note-perfect performance. Listeners then expect the same level of performance in a live setting, an impossible burden on contemporary artists.

After the Golden Age has plenty of illustrations and musical examples, and there is an extensive bibliography and a useful index. I sometimes found myself wondering why some of the examples were included and why others were left out. Occasionally I found the book to be excessively self-referential (several times Hamilton cites points made earlier in the book).

The reader will find reference to all of the great, legendary pianists from the far and recent past: besides Liszt, Hamilton takes a look at Arrau, Bülow, Busoni, Chopin, Czerny, Godowsky, Grainger, Horowitz, Leschetizky, Mendelssohn, Moscheles, Pachmann, Paderewski, Richter, Rubenstein, Tausig, Thalberg, Clara Wieck, as well as a host of lesser-known pianists. The book is worth the price just for the inside look at attitudes and performance practices of these illustrious keyboard artists.

A couple of quotations might sum up Hamilton's arguments and observations. "Modern pianism is no less full of talent, but it is often more uniform and straitlaced, a mirror of our stiffer concert etiquette" (259). The author would urge performing musicians to return to a more spontaneous, more varied concept of recitalling. In comparing the 19th century with our contemporary practice, "the overall impression . . . is spontaneity, something that is often lost with modern performers who are all too worried about control and accuracy. . . . Our age often demands pianistic cleanliness and fidelity to the score; previous ages seemed less concerned with both" (266).

The book is easily read by musicians, but will also be of interest to the general music public. Some of the details and points made are a bit esoteric for the non-musician, but the overall humor and style are infectious. Despite these minor drawbacks, the book is a fun read, and will certainly challenge our concepts about contemporary performance practices. I know that I will certainly reference it often in my own teaching and performing.



Hamilton, Kenneth. Liszt: Sonata in B-minor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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