Does the Piano Have a Future?
I am now fifty-five years old. I have been playing the piano for the last fifty-two years, and I suppose that in some way I shall continue to play it for as long as—or perhaps even for a bit longer than—my fingers are able to move. My intention, at least, is clear; what is murky is how long the piano will be around.
The present-day piano is the successor to the aristocratic harpsichord, but unlike its elegant ancestor its strings are struck rather than plucked. It is a ponderous agglomeration of wood, metal, and cloth; its more than two hundred strings are hit with considerable force by compacted felt hammers, and its cunningly designed sounding board enables the struck strings, and their sympathetic neighbors, to project their rich vibrations into grand public spaces. In varying designs—long (a “grand”), high (an “upright”), or short and low (a “console” or “spinet”)—the piano is played by applying the fingers to a keyboard containing, in its final, fully-developed form, eighty-eight keys. At least ten of these keys may be struck by the pianist at any one time; with the help of a sustaining pedal, actuated by the right foot, all the notes may be made to go on sounding long after the initial impact of hammers upon strings.
Almost all the greatest composers of the past two centuries have written for the piano; in the case of several, notably Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy, they entrusted to it some of their most profound—not to say attractive—thoughts. Equally importantly, the piano throughout its history has arrogated to itself music written before its own modern development, including that of Bach, originally composed for the thin-sounding harpsichord, the whispering clavichord, and the majestic, albeit unwieldy, organ. Haydn and Mozart, too, both of whom wrote marvelous music for the fortepiano, a transitional instrument between the harpsichord and the modern piano, were quickly gathered up to feed the new instrument’s imperial triumph.
Great and even mythic careers have been made playing the modern piano. Past celebrities, beginning on the highest level with the composer Liszt and the hardly less popular Rachmaninoff, have included Anton Rubinstein, Josef Hofmann, and Ignace Jan Paderewski. Closer to today we have witnessed the meteoric careers of Arthur Rubinstein, Artur Schnabel, and Vladimir Horowitz, and still more recently, the brief access of Van Cliburn, rocketed to fame in 1958 on the imprimatur of Nikita Khrushchev.
The piano could hardly have become so popular had the music written for it not occupied a position at the top of European culture, and had that music not been immediately recognized as among the highest achievements of world civilization. But at the same time the piano has always served as more than a medium of musical greatness. Throughout the 19th century, it was the indispensable item of middle-class home furniture, its possession a sure sign on the one hand that art was no longer the birthright of an increasingly redundant and superannuated aristocracy, and on the other that a household prosperous enough to own a piano had permanently escaped the coils of the peasantry and the working class.
Much more can be said, of course, about the piano’s appeal. To take only one example: for several generations of upwardly mobile Jews in Western and Eastern Europe and later in America, the piano provided a wholesome vehicle for indulging the cultural aspirations kindled in them by the Enlightenment. Always concerned first with the education of their children, Jewish parents soon noticed that more was at stake in playing the piano than simple—in its working-out, hardly so simple—acculturation, social progress, or, on a higher level, what the Germans called Bildung (the formation of character and mind through the acquisition of civilized learning). In fact, given the rage everywhere for classical music, those Jewish children who showed remarkable talent were quickly able to become successful figures of European and even world importance.
To understand what the piano has been in the past and is today, and what its future might hold, we must examine four areas: the instrument, its public, its players, and its music. Between them, two books published in the past year go much of the way toward mapping this territory.
The first, The Piano in America, 1890-1940, by the business historian Craig H. Roell,1 is an example of an emergent trend in the social sciences toward descriptions of the tangled relationship between culture and commerce. Despite the title, it is not Roell’s purpose to describe the different pianos made in America; his interest is clearly not in manufacture but in marketing, and his book offers a detailed account of the way piano-makers, during the heyday of the American industry, attempted to sell their products in an environment of rapid and sweeping changes in consumer tastes and behavior. The second book, The Art of the Piano, by the music historian and broadcaster (and sometime pianist) David Dubal,2 is a more traditional omnium gatherum directed at present and prospective devotees; it consists of brief sketches of well-known pianists yesterday and today and the repertory they have played, together with lists of the most important recordings (in Dubal’s opinion) of this repertory available since 1949 on LP, and now on compact discs.
First, then, the history. The tale Roell tells begins late in the 19th century, when the piano was already indispensable to serious music and well on the way to becoming a fixture in comfortable homes everywhere. It ends (in 1940) with the American piano industry engaged in a determined effort to sell an expensive object that no one really needed, but that everyone, it was hoped, could be made to desire.
There is little doubt that, historically, the piano was uniquely suited to be such an object of desire. As Roell sees the matter, the piano, requiring study and practice to play, could easily be regarded as an exemplar of the Victorian ethic of work. Because it could be learned and played in the home, it could become a means whereby women, trained in the gentle art of music, might civilize their always potentially barbarous men. And because music was itself elevating, it could lead everyone who came under its sway toward what has lately been called a “kinder, gentler” world.
Unfortunately, there was a serpent concealed in the conception of Eden harbored by piano-makers, and by their customers. That serpent, to mix metaphors, sailed under the old, familiar flag of “something for nothing.” Though the piano did indeed require great effort to play decently—and Roell is nothing if not candid on this score, bestowing many derogatory comments, only some of them deserved, on old-time lady piano teachers—and thus amply justified its place in the Victorian hierarchy of values, all the suffering one underwent did not guarantee a reward. Then, as now, great numbers studied the piano, many practiced it, but few actually learned to play it.
And so, in the early years of the present century, the player piano was born. By means of perforated paper rolls containing the punched-in records of great, or at least efficient, executants’ performances, this devilish triumph of mechanization enabled a specially designed home piano to burst forth with a stunningly rapid clatter of sounds. Somewhat in the fashion of cake mixes that allow the person opening the package to exercise a creative function by adding an egg, the player pianos made provision for a person sitting at the keyboard to vary the monster machine’s speed, dynamic level, and pedaling.
Not only did such an appeal to enlightened sloth prove commercially attractive, it was reformist as well: in the best democratic fashion, the player piano enabled everyone, not just the talented and the hard-working but the untalented and the lazy, to share in the satisfactions of making music, even of making great music. Not that one should overrate the quality of the music rendered by player pianos: in fact, their vogue coincided with the ragtime craze in American popular music, and as Roell quite correctly points out, authentic ragtime is very difficult to play. I can remember my own attempts, undertaken in order to impress the fairer sex, to master the cross-rhythms, accuracy in jumping around the keyboard, and physical endurance necessary for a proper ragtime performance. For the player piano, with its ability to employ all the keys at once, ragtime was duck soup.
For a time player pianos were big business. By 1919, out of some 350,000 pianos sold in the United States, fully 53 percent were player pianos; by 1923, the figure had risen to 56 percent. Ironically, however, all this was soon to change: the market for passive music-making so prosperously excited by the player piano would come to be filled not by a musical instrument but by that child of electricity, the radio. Not only was performed music, of whatever kind, soon to be accessible without any effort on the part of the erstwhile amateur producer, now consumer; best of all, it was to be available without any cost save the initial, relatively low, price of the radio and the trifling amount of electricity required to operate it.
The radio arrived in the mid-1920’s. By 1929—before the onset of the Great Depression—the piano business was irremediably marked by the hostile winds of change. Despite the widespread popularity of music, and even of serious music; despite the growth of music education in the schools; despite a more musically aware population than America had ever before known, the piano industry was now bankrupt.
At first the Depression, with its drying-up of economic activity and massive unemployment, seemed only to complete the work of electrically-assisted mass culture in destroying the viability of piano manufacturing. Many firms failed, and many were forced into combinations that overnight obliterated decades of hard-earned distinctions among competing trademarks and makers. Even the august firm of Steinway & Sons, so beloved by great artists that it could justifiably advertise its product as “The Instrument of the Immortals,” was forced to cease building pianos from 1931 to 1933.
But what the Depression took away the Depression was also to give back, if in a different form. For amid the economic dislocations that followed the 1929 crash there now arose the possibility of a return to a view of music as uplifting, as a noble human activity that contributed to the maintenance of traditional values.
As Roell puts it, with only a hint of condescension:
. . . the hard times brought a revival of Victorian values and provoked a new interest in the importance of home and family life. Movies and much of the literature glorified traditional American values, seeking to establish a sense of security, an identity with a somewhat mythical age of cooperation, justice, and moral economics. Iron deer reappeared on lawns, old-style wallpaper became popular, the waltz replaced the Charleston, and the flapper was urged home again.
Led by Steinway and Baldwin, then as now the only domestic competitors for the quality piano market, manufacturers were quick to appeal to the new turn of the public mind. In doing so they were only behaving naturally, for the piano industry, and especially its leaders, had always been more comfortable representing their product as a facilitator of art and uplift than as a medium of easy entertainment. Roell is generous in recognizing their high interests:
[They] were patrons of culture as well as business. They cultivated sales, but concurrently sought to uplift society through their product and its characteristic bond with art. In so doing, they encouraged their society’s appreciation of music. And as that society become more consumption-oriented, they fought to regenerate the importance of making music and of self-expression. In this, because the consumer culture can never be wholly absorbing, they were successful.
The Piano in America 1890-1940 closes on an ambivalent note: the piano industry had survived, in a healthy but reduced state, by insisting at one and the same time on the piano as art and as a “symbol of a past age” (in Roell’s inevitably dismissive phrase). During World War II—to go for a moment beyond Roell’s terminal date—the industry was quickly converted to war production, and it was not until 1946 that a flood of new pianos again began reaching American consumers. As for the more recent story of the piano business, including an account of the takeover in the past two decades of the American market by pianos made in the Far East, this remains to be written; Roell seems a worthy and likely candidate for the task.
There is, however, one curious and significant lacuna in his excellent effort. Roell writes much about pianos, their makers, their buyers, and the terms on which the public and the manufacturers met. But though he discusses the way piano-makers appealed to art in marketing their wares, he has very little to say about the art that underlay the appeal, and that must have been so important both to sellers and buyers. That art, of course, was the great music written expressly for the piano, and performable only on it, over a period extending approximately from the beginning of the 19th century to the time of World War I.
In Roell’s index there is but a single page reference to Beethoven, and the text in that instance offers merely a glancing account of Beethoven’s preference in piano-makers. There is no mention at all of Chopin, the quintessential composer of piano music playable in the home to the supreme gratification of amateur performers and casual listeners alike. Famous pianists are mentioned on occasion, but always as entertainers rather than as the communicators of high art. Roell displays a welcome willingness to treat recherché entities like Victorian values and cultural uplift as real and consequential determinants of human behavior; despite this, he seems sadly unable to come to terms with the piano not only as an instrument which, when well played, astounded and mesmerized with its brilliance—though it surely did that—but as an instrument for which great composers were writing great music.
David Dubal’s The Art of the Piano hardly suffers from a lack of talk about art. As the profiles of pianists pile up in this book, all in alphabetical order, and composers follow suit, one begins to appreciate just how massive an artistic effort has been devoted to the piano over its history. Inevitably, Dubal retraces much of the same ground covered by the former New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg in his The Great Pianists (1963, widely available in an updated version in paperback); but unlike his predecessor, Dubal eschews the vulgar, albeit often telling, anecdote in favor of the sober recounting of biographical fact.
In listing pianists, Dubal is satisfactorily inclusive; the omissions I found were few, and with the possible exception of the Spaniard Eduardo del Pueyo, none seems in any way central. As might be expected, more space is given to the famous than to the little-known. If we take the number of words as indicative of Dubal’s musical esteem, the clear winner is Vladimir Horowitz, at eight-plus pages; by contrast, Arthur Rubinstein, Horowitz’s only competitor for the post-1945 celebrity title, receives a scant three pages. Fittingly, the back jacket of The Art of the Piano is adorned with an extravagant blurb by Horowitz: “It must be read by everyone who loves the instrument.”
On occasion, Dubal can be harsh in his comments. Thus, of the flamboyant Earl Wild, a specialist in virtuoso (and for many, including me, meretricious) salon transcriptions, he remarks:
He is lavish in his use of rubato. A witty man, he once told me that his performance of the Chopin Ballade in G minor one evening had had enough rubato to last for two years. (I remember thinking how ghastly the performance had been.)
Dubal is hard, too, on the hyper-serious Czech specialist Alfred Brendel, whom he finds (despite commendable artistic seriousness) often dry, lacking in suggestiveness, and without real technical flexibility. He is even hard on Josef Hofmann, beyond reproach to many piano lovers, whom he accuses of frequently playing in order to shock the audience rather than to illuminate the music; he is also tough (in my opinion correctly so) on Hof mann ‘s pupil Jorge Bolet, whose playing—especially on records—he describes in such terms as tired, earthbound, humdrum. By contrast, he seems very kind to the many young pianists about whom he writes briefly, stressing their achievements and minimizing their flaws.
Yet even taking into account his reservations, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Dubal is a fan writing for other fans. He concentrates on saying good and frequently extravagant things about the scores of pianists he has heard in concert and on record, and he has equally good things to say about the scores of earlier artists about whom he has only read. In addition to being a great fan of pianists, Duval is a great fan of piano music. The almost two hundred pages he devotes to a discussion of the important works of the repertory are universally enthusiastic; furthermore, in listing recommended recordings—often as many as ten—of each work or group of works, Dubal declines to rank competing versions but is content to list them alphabetically.3
What seems finally so curious about Dubal’s approach is just this unwillingness to take sides. Reading his book, one is fully aware that he likes the good pianists and dislikes the bad; more than that, one is aware that he is mightily impressed by individualistic playing, whether oriented toward technical display or toward musical expression. It is also plain that Dubal wants to avoid comparing the work of today’s pianists with the work of past masters. But what is so difficult to tell is just what kind of playing he really prefers.
There are, after all, great differences among pianists, expressed both in the individual and characteristic features of their art and in the nature of their appeal to sophisticated and unsophisticated listeners alike. Pianists are young, middle-aged, or old, tense or relaxed, brilliant or refined, direct or subtle, and (dare it be said?) male or female. Even excellent pianists possess widely varying amounts of technical equipment and musical knowledge; even successful and famous pianists exhibit widely varying levels of mastery. And beyond all these relatively easily identifiable characteristics, each artist displays, and displays the more on closer acquaintance, a world of subtle differences, expressed through dynamics, tone, phrasing, rhythm, and pulse, of individual style, personality, and communicated emotion. Put another way, the differences in the F minor Sonata opus 57 (the “Appassionata”) of Beethoven as played by Rubinstein, Schnabel, or Horowitz (to choose three incontestably great artists each of whom recorded the work in the past) are so great that, excellent though each may be, a sophisticated listener is all but compelled to choose among them.
Then, too, there are the various nationalities of pianists—German, Russian, French, Spanish, English, American. Despite the endless variations within each nationality, it can be said that each country as a whole has produced a school of playing. Moreover, each national school has a national specialty, invariably made up of national composers, and these groups of composers also make up schools of composition, each widely different from the next, and instantly recognizable. In the close relationship between national composition styles and national playing styles—between, for example, Germanic pianists and Beethoven and Schubert, or between Polish pianists and Chopin, or between Russian pianists and Rachmaninoff, or between French pianists and Debussy and Ravel, or between American pianists and Gershwin and Samuel Barber—lies perhaps the best chance that a given composer’s intentions will be realized (though even the best such rendering is unlikely to be equally beloved by all).
It is a remarkable characteristic of musical life today that we no longer feel comfortable making clear statements of our own preferences in individual artists, or in conflicting national schools. This attitude is new. It used to be that every lover of the piano had his favorites. When I was growing up in the 1940’s the fur always flew when the merits of competing artists were being discussed by knowledgeable and experienced concertgoers. Today, discussing his selection of repertory, David Dubal can write:
After each composition, I have listed various recordings which represent the widest diversity of interpretation. If, for example, listeners were to hear each of my selections for the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, they would form through such “comparative listening” a great knowledge of the work’s potential and interpretive possibilities. From such listening one becomes open-minded, and always curious as to the next performance.
The end result is that Dubal has succeeded in writing a book not of criticism but of appreciation. It can be argued that these days, appreciation is just what we need. Even if this were so, however, it is impossible to ignore the loss to living art implicit in the sacrifice of hard judgment to the cause of an unbounded admiration.
Dubal’s good feelings are especially evident in a passage summarizing his attitude toward the present and the future:
One thing is certain: the piano and piano playing are here to stay. More countries produce pianos than ever before—Korea, Brazil, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, China, Thailand, Australia, and many others—while Japan has become the world’s largest piano producer. The Orient, in its obsession with things Western, has been captivated by the instrument. Asian pianists are filling conservatories and winning competitions. The future of the instrument and its literature are becoming international. Had Beethoven or Liszt ever thought of a Japanese or a Korean pianist?
This forthright statement hardly specifies just what music all the new pianists are to play. David Dubal’s book is full of the names of great pianists who wrote great music and themselves played it supremely well: the line connecting Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms to Debussy and Rachmaninoff is central to the development of playing no less than to that of composition. But this happy condition no longer obtains, for quite without exception today’s best pianists do not compose. Are there, then, non-pianists who are writing great piano music today?
Dubal’s answer to this vexing question is, once again, forthright:
[A]lthough many think that composers no longer love the piano as they once did, the piano literature of the 20th century gives abundant proof to the contrary. Indeed, one of the great challenges for the contemporary pianist will be to reveal the wealth of the 20th century’s piano literature to audiences worldwide.
It should hardly be necessary to remind ourselves that the 20th century is now nine-tenths over; very few people, musicians or otherwise, who were born in its early years are still with us today. Though Debussy wrote his great piano music in this century, and though in his day he must have seemed modern indeed, he surely belongs not to our time but to the increasingly far-distant world of pre-1914 Europe. Ravel wrote marvelous music for the piano into the 1930’s—but his compositional style was largely formed already by the turn of the century. The still very modern-sounding Béla Bartók was dead by 1945, almost a half-century ago; in fact Bartók’s Third Concerto, almost finished at his death, is the last work for piano and orchestra to enter the international repertory. Significantly, Prokofiev’s last piano sonatas, though they are still used to fill the “contemporary” niche on recital programs, were all in place by 1947, just two years after the Bartók Third Concerto.
Thus, most of what we today call modern music is in fact old music. If we are to be honest in using the category of contemporary music, it seems clear that it should apply to new music, music that is being written now rather than that which comes out of a (properly) hallowed past. And just where, one must ask, is this marvelous new music? Wherever it is to be found, one thing is certain: there is precious little of it mentioned in David Dubal’s book.
Scattered among his profiles of the famous there are indeed several composers whose works are still unassimilated into the musical vocabulary either of pianists or of audiences. Yet all of them, living or dead, were born more than six decades ago. Among them are Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Anton Webern (1883-1945), Roger Sessions (1896-1985), Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), Olivier Messiaen (b. 1908), Elliott Carter (b. 1908), Luciano Berio (b. 1925), Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928), and George Crumb (b. 1929). Several of these composers have written highly interesting works for the piano, yet not one of them shows the slightest sign of entering the standard piano repertory—the music through which a great piano career is made.
Dubal does add a few pages describing briefly a category of music he deems “worth examination and study . . . [by] composers of special quality who have explored the piano with high ideals and particularly understand the instrument’s resources.” In this category he lists 106 composers, fully 54 of whom were born before 1900 and another 33 between 1900 and 1920. The remaining 19, the “now generation,” there is no point enumerating. They write in styles ranging from the academic to the avant-garde. I am sorry Dubal left out, in his discussion of the works of older composers, the massive Sonata (1983) by the American composer Hugo Weisgall (b. 1912), a work I have played several times and have always found moving and rewarding.
As for the younger composers Dubal mentions, my own experience of many of them gives me little hope that their music will ever be more than objects of curiosity, programmed by few pianists and heard only by that exiguous public of colleagues who make up the serious contemporary-music audience today. Sadly, but also tellingly, it is necessary to note that though Dubal places great weight on the present and future of the piano in the Orient, he does not discuss the music of a single Asian composer.
It is now time to return to the question with which I began: whither the piano?
There are three parts to any answer to this question. The first part must address itself to the current level of piano playing. Is it sufficiently high to communicate the great works of the past to new, and lamentably untrained, audiences? The second part must consider whether a living tradition of performance can exist without new compositions on which to build. And the last part must look to the nature of a cultural enterprise tied as this one is to the artistic, intellectual, and social values of the past. Can such an enterprise survive in a world increasingly given to defining itself not by its continuity with the past, but by its breaking with, and destruction of, that past?
As to the first part, the present level of performance, I myself have grave doubts. Today’s pianists, whether from the Orient or from the Occident, play accurately but no more than accurately; as compared with artists of even the fairly recent past, they lack a wide knowledge of the literature, technical flair, unforced projection of tone, the ability to communicate the differences among composers’ styles, and, above all, emotional power. The result of these shortcomings is a gap between the content of the music being played and the audiences’ perception of that content. In the piano literature perhaps more than in any other area of serious music (save opera), what is being heard by the musical public today is only a simulacrum, not the reality, of incontestable masterworks.
As to the second part: because of the absence of new piano compositions that go via the ears and minds of listeners to their hearts, performers have been robbed of their best approach to an audience: the communication of an art arising directly out of the performers’ immediate life experience rather than out of imitation, no matter how accomplished, of predecessors. Such imitation is inevitably an act of recreation rather than of creation, and it makes of today’s pianists merely ingenious antiquarians and painstaking curators; the current stampede to original performance styles provides ample evidence both of the desperation of today’s most intellectually active performers and the narrowing and debilitating effect produced by such concentration on the past even in the performance of the music of the past itself.
Finally, it has become the fashion today, as we approach the millennium, to speculate about a possible end to various fundamental processes—an end to war, or to history, or perhaps even, for the gloomy among us, to culture. Yet fashion or no, little in the condition of serious music today and little especially in the condition of the piano as an instrument for the continuing performance of great music can inspire optimism about the future.
It is difficult to believe there is a shortage of talent in the world; it is equally difficult to believe that we now know less about music than did our forebears. What does seem clear, however, is that the human basis for the creation of great music, whether that basis is understood in terms of the individual, the family, the home, the folk, or the nation, is now somehow eroded. What we have is prosperity, freedom, perhaps even satiation. What we do not seem to be able to manage is the creation of permanent culture. For hundreds of years now, such creation has often manifested itself in the writing of great music. This time of glory does seem to have come to an end.
Still, as for me, and others like me, it will be hard to stop playing, or at least practicing, the beloved piano.
1 University of North Carolina Press, 396 pp., $35.95.
2 Summit Books, 476 pp., $40.00.
3 Dubal seems to me to have erred in excluding from his recommended lists many classic recordings made by great artists on 78-rpm discs, and transferred excellently to LP in Europe. Among the most important of these are performances from the 1930’s by the great French pianist Alfred Cortot of works by César Franck and Maurice Ravel—in particular the Franck Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue and the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand.