I believe in using the entire piano as a single instrument capable of expressing every possible musical idea.
CHAPTER AIM: Celebrating the vital importance of the piano in music
Gershwin Piano Concerto, excerpt
In this chapter, we are going to celebrate what must be classical music’s single greatest invention. Indeed – I’ll happily stick my own neck out on this one – what has to be one of the greatest inventions our species has ever come up with: the Piano!
With the piano you get everything. The instrument can be lead singer, or accompanist. A place to write music, a rehearsal tool, and a delivery system for some of the greatest music ever written.
It is a star performer, the king of the concert hall, and you’ll find examples of the very best in every greatest venues across the planet. But its reach extends far, far further. Go into the homes of ordinary people in Kentucky, or Kyoto, Buenos Aires or Beijing…the piano is literally part of the furniture in millions of homes across the globe.
Music, western music in its entirety, would be unimaginably barer without the piano. This is an instrument that demands an entire chapter of its own.
So this chapter, we are briefly going to tell the story of the piano. To do that, we’re going to go back, beyond 300 years ago when the piano itself was invented, back to a much earlier ancestor…
The earliest form of the piano is known as the clavichord or clavier. It’s an instrument that goes back to medieval times. The mechanics are simple. When you push a key, a hammer strikes a string.
This means the dynamics of the note change, depending on how hard or softly you struck the key. Press hard, you get a louder note. Softer means quieter.
The clavichord has a major disability, however. Because, after striking, the striking hammer now lies against the string, the sound is dampened and muffled. The string cannot fully resonate. This means the instrument is very quiet. It struggles to compete with a single violin or cello.
Amongst an entire orchestra? Forget it.
And so the clavichord always remained a private, specialist instrument. We know Bach loved the instrument, since he wrote his famous 48 Preludes and Fugues for it, and that work was hugely influential to the development of Classical Music (). But these were relatively private pleasures. Bach would would use the instrument only for his own pleasure, or a small handful of listeners.
Playing the ’48’ (as the preludes and fugues are informally known) upon an actual clavier is pretty much unheard of today. The lack of volume means the clavier just cannot cut it as an instrument for public performance.
The clavichord was fine for private play, but the big beast of the baroque period was the harpsichord.
With the harpsichord, when you press a key, the relevant string inside the case is plucked by a mechanical lever, rather than struck with a landing hammer. This means the string is free to resonate.
The resulting sound is a far louder than the clavichord. With the harpsichord, you have a keyboard instrument that can play along with a other instruments. That’s the reason you often hear the harpsichord playing within a baroque orchestra, in an accompanying role known as a continuo. The harpsichord can reinforce, even augment, an entire musical ensemble.
So now we have a sound loud enough to compete with an an orchestra. But there are no dynamics to the sound. No matter how hard or softly you press the key, the sound is the same.
The volume knob is stuck on one setting.
Some time around 1700, an Italian called Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a system by which the hammer inside a clavichord could be released from the string, immediately after striking. Now, after playing, the string was free to resonate.
That meant volume. And that meant dynamics.
The new instrument could be played both loudly (italian forte) and softly (italian piano). It was the reason it was christened the ‘pianoforte‘ (the ‘quiet-loud’) on it’s arrival, a phrase since slimmed to the piano we use today.
J.S. Bach lived a little early to take full advantage of this amazing new instrument (he was not overly impressed with an early prototype that he had seen). But the second half of the 18th century saw a flurry of technical developments for the new instrument that made it both louder and fuller in tone, and yet more sensitive and subtle to touch and control.
The dynamic range was increased by the addition of notes, both in the bass and treble.
Bach’s sons C.P.E and J.C. Bach were both huge fans of the instrument. But it was another composer (and friend of J.C Bach) who was to have an the greatest effect on the legacy of the piano.
And that man was Mozart.
Mozart Piano Concerto 20 (excerpt)
Mozart, with that acute aural perceptiveness that always shines from his music, was ever alert to the potential of the new arrival. He learnt music at the piano, as indeed would pretty much every composer to come after him. It was performances on the piano that really displayed the child prodigy across the royal drawing rooms of Europe when Mozart was still a young child. He could also play (blindfolded) on violin, but it was to the piano that Mozart was really attached from the start of his life to the end.
Mozart remained a virtuoso on the piano throughout his life, and he was ever hungry to try the latest models with all the latest designs and developments.
The instrument Mozart now played consisted of a keyboard covering some five octaves. A whole new tonal (and therefore emotional) range could be projected through the instrument.
This isn’t just an instrument that can accompany an orchestra. With the enlarged dynamic range, it’s the orchestra that can now accompany the piano.
Mozart proceeded to compose what remain tp this day the world’s greatest set of piano concertos, integrating piano and orchestra perfectly, and extending the expressive range of the form far beyond anything previously heard. He immediately grasped the emotional versatility of the instrument, writing music that displayed a huge range of moods, from dramatic terror to innocent purity.
This new and enlarged emotional range meant the piano was perfectly placed for the next generation of composers, and the tilt towards Romantic expression.
Beethoven to the Romantics
Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, 2nd Movement
By Beethoven’s time – a single generation after Mozart – the piano had grown to 6 octaves and more in reach. The instrument had become sturdier, and louder, with improvements like an added soundboard, which greatly increased the internal power of the instrument. The sustain pedal was another significant development. With this foot-pedal held down, the strings remain free to resonate, even when playing different notes. This hugely adds to the instrument’s range of tonal expression.
Beethoven was to provide the next huge contribution to what was already becoming the instrument’s burgeoning repertoire, with his 32 Piano Sonatas. What Mozart had accomplished for the piano concerto, Beethoven now did for the piano sonata.
Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas remain a bible for piano player and listener alike. The old adage goes that Bach’s ’48’ represent the Old Testament, and Beethoven’s ’32’ the New Testament. It’s a comparison that works rather well. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues establishes musical law, with preludes and fugues for each of the 12 major and minor keys, in two books. Whilst Beethoven’s Sonatas represent the New Testament: interpretation, and the application of feeling to law.
The piano was more than up to the task, shimmering with shy resonance or storming with diabolic intensity, whichever Beethoven’s mood.
If Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas for the piano was the New Testament, then there were a whole host of new worshipers in the next generations. The work of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Grieg, and a huge host of others is unimaginable without their work for piano. The piano was an instrument of such range and versatility that some composers, such as Chopin, could choose to concentrate exclusively on solo work for the instrument on its own.
The piano plays perfectly on its own, or as a solo star in an orchestra. But it’s also the perfect support for voice or violin. Or with other strings in trios, quartets, quintets…
The influence of the piano on classical music – indeed all western music – is incalculable. The quantity and quality of music that exists for piano remains one of the great treasure troves of music.
Concert Hall to Living Room
Liszt, Grande Gallope (excerpt)
From Beethoven’s time and across the 19th century, the piano became the stand-out instrument in the concert arena, as performers took advantage of the new range and dynamic power to really show off the instrument.
The public loved it.
Performers like Liszt were the rock-star of their day, performing sell-out concerts to packed halls that included no small number of swooning fans.
The piano was sexy.
And so this simple invention was now bringing people across the planet to the concert hall.
But it was also working the other way round.
For the rising middle-class of the late 19th century, the piano had swiftly become a must-have possession. Here was an instrument that could bring a little class into any sitting room. It was a place ladies of marriageable age were expected to entertain their male guests.
And prices for manufacturing the instrument were also falling, as demand rocketed. The piano rapidly become part of the furniture of the average bourgeois household.
This meant a new, larger domestic audience. Composers like Mendelssohn and Schumann wrote and published simple, straight-forward music, that could be played by amateur and professional alike.
The piano was bringing music quite literally into the homes of millions.
An Instrument for Everyman
Piano entry (4 mins in)
Which happens to be exactly what happened to the Gershwin family one morning in 1910.
Curious neighbours gathered on the street and watched, as a piano was hoisted through a window into the Gershwin’s Manhattan flat .
Gershwin’s parents had got the instrument for George’s older brother, the 14-year old Ira, to learn. But the Gershwin family sat stunned, as the 10 year-old George sat down and proceeded to play a popular tune of the day.
It wasn’t a miracle. It turned out George had been playing piano at a friend’s house. Another piano bringing music into the heart of another ordinary household.
The piano introduced Gershwin to music, introduced Gershwin to playing music, exactly as it had to Mozart and Beethoven all those years ago. And exactly as it would do to Shostakovich, just a few years later.
Gershwin loved nothing better than to play at the piano. Think of all those hours spent, pounding away on those pianos his Tin-Pan Alley days. Gershwin was ever attached to a piano. As one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, he’d love nothing better than to sit in the corner at parties, not talking to anyone, just playing for hours. Improvising away with old melodies, or coming up with new ideas.
Essentially, composing in public.
The Composer’s Study
Piano Solo (8mins in)
Gershwin was not alone: the piano is the place of work for most composers, a creative workbench to try out ideas. It’s not often appreciated how important the piano is for most composers, as a place of work. Each of our composers on this course will have done much – if not most – of their composing work at a keyboard.
The piano’s large range of notes, pitch, and dynamics mean it’s really the only instrument that can get close to replicating a symphony orchestra. Which is why all the great symphonists, from Beethoven to Mahler, used the piano to sketch out their symphonic ideas.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was actually composed entirely on two pianos, played by George and brother Ira. There was a rush: the piece had to be completed in less than three weeks.
Each day George would work out the music for four hands, one piano playing the piano part, and the other the orchestra. Ira would play the orchestra part, and George the piano part. And each evening that music was handed to another musician, Ferde Grofe, who completed the majority of the orchestral scoring for the premiere.
Gershwin was a natural pianist, and a superb performer on the instrument. It was where he wrote his songs. And he improvised on it, beautifully. His music is simply unimaginable without it.
The piano is more than up to the task. With its huge dynamic range and colour, the piano works for Blues or Jazz or Pop or Country or Soul, every bit as much as Classical Music.
It is the most versatile instrument ever invented.
An Instrument of Democracy
Piano Solo (8mins in)
The piano represents the democratization of music like no other instrument. It can articulate the most complex music, and yet it is the most simple instrument to play: press a key and out comes the sound. Done. No struggle with bowing a string, no special pursing of the lips are necessary. It’s child’s play. No surprise it is the most common instrument for children to learn.
There’s not just the dynamic range, the loudness and softness of the instrument. There also the actual range of notes: seven octaves on an ordinary domestic upright piano take you from the deepest bass to the highest treble. The range is pretty much double that of most other instruments.
And it’s not just the number of notes you can play, but the number you can play at the same time. Forget the single note of flute or oboe. Or the four achievable on the violin, or the six with the guitar. The piano can play 10 notes simultaneously, one for every finger.
And that’s not even the half of it.
Hold down the pedal to remove the dampers on the strings, and you can sound every one of the 88 notes, all at the same time! That’s not even to mention the resonances and cross-tones you can produce…
The versatility of the piano is unrivaled. Just check the geography. Look at where you find pianos: churches, bars, schools, clubs, rehearsal halls, concert venues. And homes, homes everywhere around the globe.
The piano is a wonderful and ubiquitous invention that has changed music like no other instrument before or since.
It is truly the instrument of Everyman, and its gift to human culture is incalculable.
In our final Gershwin chapter, we look more closely at the harmonics of The Blues.
I’ve compiled a separate Youtube playlist with lot’s of recommendations for this piano chapter: