It’s fairly well-known in piano teaching circles that Liszt and Clara Schumann made fashionable the practice of performing from memory. Many students have cursed them for this. What’s not so well known is that Beethoven and Chopin – two great performers as well as two of the best composers – wanted nothing to do with the new fad.
This is one of quite a number of shifts that have occurred in the performance and teaching practices since the Golden Age of Piano Teaching, which is identified as the period from 1840-1900. In a presentation to the ARMTA Calgary teachers at the recent Annual General Meeting, Professor Edwin Gnandt from Ambrose University College identified a number of such shifts in the world of teaching and performing piano music. He presented them as facts, without any value judgments, acknowledging that we cannot return to things the way they were. We are becoming more and more removed from links to the composers themselves; this is not entirely a bad thing, for along with the loss of unwritten knowledge being passed down directly, some of the excesses have also disappeared.
The standard two-hour recital or concert is long enough for most people today. Back in the mid-1800s recitals would last 3-4 hours, a good deal of which was spent improvising on themes suggested by the audience, or “preluding” before and between pieces to get a feel for the piano and to quiet the chattering crowds. The concert in those days was less about the music and more about the performer; Liszt was the ultimate pop performer of his day. As the decades passed, concert length and choice of music changed to the current model that includes music from all the major periods of history. Audiences have become quieter and more respectful, and improvising and preluding have disappeared. Now it is less about the performer and more about the score.
The recording industry has produced an obsession with the right notes. Brahms wasn’t so worried about wrong notes when he performed; he took it for granted that the audience would have known what they should have been. Tempos have increased fairly dramatically; in Bach’s day the fastest thing was the horse! This can be a guide in determining how fast a piece should be played.
The focus today is on the artist who possesses a package of youth, talent, technique, good looks, a support system (stage mom), personality in front of a camera and sales for a recording company. The pressure to succeed is more intense than ever before, and the younger, the better. What implications does this have for our teaching studio? With everything happening so quickly, the idea of the long process of evolving as an artist has waned. It is worth considering our philosophy as teachers, as we continue to teach the essentials of good technique and musicianship.
Professor Gnandt is continuing his exploration of the changes in the history of teaching and performing. His talk was entertaining, informative, inspirational and he left us with a number of points to ponder. I hope I have the chance to hear what else he has to say about this in the comings months or years.