As I have been playing the piano for about 15 years and I coincidentally also am preparing for a piano exam at the moment, I wanted to find out more about the piano’s development and social history. At the beginning of the Romantic era, people moved away from larger forms of compositions. One of the probably most influential instrument during the Romantic era was the piano, which was in constant development and improvement during Beethoven’s time.
The modern piano has about seven octaves, which would allow a pianist to capture the range of a whole orchestra. It is part of the keyboard family under which are also the clavichord, harpsichord and the organ. With the last one being an exception, all of these instruments consists of a harp, surrounded by a wooden corpus, there are one or more strings for each semitone within its range. The strings of a pianoforte are starting to vibrate by a mechanism that strucks the strings with felt – covered hammers. If the hammer stayed on the strings, the sound would be cut off immediately, therefore pianos normally include an escapement device for taking the hammers off the strings as soon as they have touched it. 1, 2
The first modern piano was built in Florence at around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731). He wanted to create an instrument that was more sensitive to the player’s force on the keys than its progenitor, the harpsichord. He furthermore referred to it as “graviceembalo col piano e forte”, (harpsichord with quiet and loud). The cause of the sensitivity was, that the strings were hit by hammers instead of being plucked with a plectra. Therefore, the applied force to the key determined the volume of the produced note. 1,2, 4
Nevertheless, it was only about 100 years later, when the piano became more popular than the harpsichord. Starting at around 1800 the piano’s mechanisms were improved more and more. In 1826 the hammers were covered with felt for the first time, to make the produced sound softer. Four years later the strings weren’t aligned parallel anymore but parted in two groups: The bass – strings from a grand piano are placed from the front left across to the right, (within a grand piano from the top left to the bottom left). The higher strings are aligned the other way round. One of the most important changes was probably the strengthening of the frame with metal bars and plates, which eventually resulted in the metal frame invented by Carl Rönisch in 1866. This strengthening granted more pressure, thus more strings could be added and the range was increased. A further new mechanism, called “double escapement”, introduced by Sebastien Erard, allowed quick repetitions of the same note. 1,2,4,5
To make most of these new capabilities, many composers stopped writing piano sonatas and started writing smaller pieces. One of the most important composers during that time, who tried to make use of the full potential of the piano was Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1819). In 1833 he published his Op.19, the first volume of his etudes. Composers have normally always been pianists as well, but Chopin was probably the only one, who wrote almost exclusively for the piano. Interestingly, he is seen as one of the most important composers of his epoch, even though he didn’t write any greater works. Furthermore, his activities as a concert pianist were rather humble, within his whole lifetime he only played about as many concerts as Liszt within one single month. 6
I myself am currently learning Chopin’s Fantasy – Impromptu in C- sharp Minor (Op. 66). This piece was composed in 1834 and has a simple A – B – A – Coda structure. If one compares the musical score with Beethoven’s moonlight sonata for example, one can see, that Chopin put a lot more detail into pedalling as well as the dynamics.
Interestingly, it took a long time before the piano established itself as an instrument of the modern orchestra. This may be due to the fact, that unlike most other instruments, its sound doesn’t really mix with any instrument groups and will therefore always be noticed. Only at around 1900 the composers Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, who were pianists themselves, tried to expand the orchestral sound and, among other instruments, added pianos to it. Thus, in an orchestral work from the Classical era, there is often no piano part, therefore many orchestras don’t even have a defined pianist. When used within an orchestra, the piano is often played in a fifth keyboard – section near the percussion instruments. 8,9
One example for an orchestral work involving a piano, which is not a solo –instrument is Barók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, composed between 1918 and 1924. Here, the piano is really just used to emphasize the overall sounds of the orchestra, nevertheless, its tone colour can still easily be distinguished. I personally still had the impression, that Bartok used it in a very effective way to underline the sounds from the rest of the orchestra.
The middle class was created due to the industrial revolution, therefore the musicians and composers of the 19th century reached a wider audience and became more popular. Starting with Beethoven, most composers started to write large concerts to introduce their work to the public. One of the most famous pianists was probably Franz Liszt. The sudden popularity of the piano, was also due to the fact, that whole orchestral works could be narrowed down for just one instrument. This allowed people of lower classes, who weren’t able to visit concerts until then, to play popular music in their own houses. 11,12
Interestingly, within the Romantic era, there were more girls than boys studying piano, although women often weren’t allowed to play professionally. Nevertheless, the piano was a symbol of social status during that time, and women were seen as more desirable if they learned the instrument. There are a few exceptions nevertheless; Emma Wedgewood (1808 – 1896), for example, took piano lessons from Chopin himself, and performed some of his music in her own household. One of the most important exceptions concerning concert music was Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896), who is even seen as one of the most important pianists of the Romantic era. 12
One of Clara Schumann’s pieces, which I have encountered several times already is “Romance in A – minor”, composed in 1853. Similar to Chopin’s piece, the dynamical changes are very detailed, nevertheless, she doesn’t make as many markings for the pedal as Chopin did. Furthermore, I had the impression, that several bars at the beginning of the piece, were more related to the Classical era.
Personally, I have always enjoyed being able to play, and got a greater understanding of musical structures, as most of music theory can be followed up easily on a piano. Due to the wide range and ability to play up to 10 notes simultaneously, one can play full songs with a melodic line or just as an accompaniment, piano arrangements of whole orchestras and has probably almost unlimited possibilities to perform any piece. This allows any pianist to express him/ herself within a huge variety of music.
1 Ardley, N; Arthur, D; Chapmanth, H; Perry, J; Clarke, M; Crisp, C; Cruden, R; Gelly, D; Grigson, L; Sturrock, S. (1977) The book of music. London: Macdonald Educational Ltd, p. 43, 98 – 101
2 Parakilas, J. (2009). Piano roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. [ebook]. Yale University Press. pp. 26 – 42 Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/reader.action?docID=3419892 [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
3 Five lectures on the acoustics of a piano. [online]. Timing in the action. Available at: https://www.speech.kth.se/music/5_lectures/askenflt/timing.html [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
4 Gedan, J. (2010). Klaviergeschichte. [online]. Die Klaviermachermeister – Letuha & Müller OG. Available at: https://www.dieklaviermachermeister.at/klavierwissen/kaviergeschichte/ [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
5 Heuköufer, N. (2014) Musik Abi – Kompaktwissen Oberstufe. 5th edition. Berlin: Cornelsen Scriptor, pp. 159
6 Huneker, J. (2009). Chopin: The Man and His Music. [ebook] The Floating Press. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/reader.action?docID=340579 [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
7 The score has been provided by the Petrucci Music library and can be found under: https://imslp.org/wiki/Fantaisie-impromptu,_Op.66_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)
8 Wood, R. (1934). The Piano as an Orchestral Instrument. [online] Music & Letters, Vol. 15, No.2. Oxford University Press. pp. 1 – 8. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/728641?seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
9 Dobney, J. (2004). Ninteenth – Century Classical Music. [online] The Met. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/amcm/hd_amcm.htm [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
10 A piano teacher writes. (2012). Seating Plan: The modern classical orchestra and the piano. Available at: https://franspianostudio.me/2012/04/09/seating-plan-the-modern-classical-orchestra-the-piano/ [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
11 Susan, K. (1976). A social History of the piano. [online]. Library Journal, Vol. 113, Issue 10, p. 114. Available at: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=e18981c2-a89c-438c-917e-55c3f90ecba7%40pdc-v-sessmgr05&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=6541514&db=ehh [Accessed: 15.07.202]
12 Loesser, A and Wolf, R. (1958). Men, Women and Pianos, a Social History. [onine] Revue belge de Musicologie, Vol. 12, No. 1/4. Available at: https://www-jstor-org.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/stable/3686468?origin=crossref&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed: 15.07.2020]
13 The score has been provided by the Petrucci Music library and can be found under: https://imslp.org/wiki/Romanze_in_A_minor%2C_WoO_28_(Schumann%2C_Clara)
Listening Log entries for the Assignment:
Fantasy – Impromptu in C – sharp minor
- Composer: Frédéric Chopin
- Year of composition: 1834
- Instruments: Piano
- Performed by: Daniil Trifonov
- Listened to: 15.07.2020
This piece includes some parts which have to be played incredibly fast, nevertheless, as there is always one note within the many arpeggios sticking out as the melody line, it has a very passionate, but calm character. It is structures as an A – B – A form, with a coda at the end. The B – part is in contrast to the outer two incredibly fast. Interestingly the second not in one of the normally related major key or dominant, but in the enharmonic equivalent Db – major.
Especially the fast A – parts sometimes reminded me of Beethoven’s Moonlight – Sonata, which was interestingly also written in the same key.
The miraculous Mandarin
- Composer: Béla Bartók
- Year of composition: 1918 – 1924
- Performed by: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
- Listened to: 15.07.2020
The introducing arpeggios played by the strings reminded me of insects flying around, this effect was emphasized even more when the brass instruments joined in. There seems to be no obvious structure to this piece. It doesn’t focus on just one key and alternates continuously with single instrument groups and the whole orchestra. Overall it created a very uneasy character due to its atonality, the strings even use quarter notes at some parts. The entry at the choir at the end gave the piece and additional chilly, somehow mysterious atmosphere.
As already mentioned within the Assignment, the piano could always be distinguished from the other instrument groups, I nevertheless thought, that just the right amount was used to underline the rest of the music.
Romance in a – minor
- Composer: Clara Schumann
- Year of composition:
- Instruments: piano
- Performed by: Katherine Nikitine
- Listened to: 15.07.2020
Even though this piece was written for just the piano, it seemed to me as if the melody could have been written for a female voice, as it sounded like the piano needed to “breathe” every now and then. Some louder parts were followed by a short break. Instead of leading the melodic line, the bass line only supported the melody partially with chords or even just one note. Even though it has a rather simple structure, the mood is incredibly sad and longing.
Reflection on the course unit:
In comparison to the previous course units, I found it much easier, but therefore also less challenging, to listen to pieces for my Listening Log. This is probably due to the fact, that the music from the 19th century was still mainly based on the rules from the classical era, and therefore working with tonal systems and organic instruments.
Within my previous musical education, I already learned a lot about Beethoven’s often fiery temper, which he reflected in his music. Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware how much influence he had onto the Romantic era. To see the contrast between his first and last piano works was a very interesting exercise, as one could really see how his musical style developed from copying someone else’s style to finding his own musical expressions.
I especially enjoyed working on the exercise “Progamme music” and was really surprised by how much my initial reactions lined up with the story to the piece. As I am aiming for a career as a musician working in the film industry, I thought it was really interesting to see with which sound colours, (even really simple ones) one could create defined emotions or pictures for the audience.
The exercise “Expressing notional identity” was especially challenging for me, even though it was also a very important exercise standing in connection with film – music. I initially thought, it is almost impossible to tell why a piece sounds distinctively English, Spanish or German and it took a long time before I knew where I could start. As I focused on Spanish music, I found that some scales and instruments are automatically linked to certain regions. It is very interesting to see, that the brain somehow does this association automatically and am very encouraged to find out more about traditional sounding music from other countries as well.
The research point about Wagner and Nazism was also rather difficult for me as there was a huge amount of resources, which all claimed something different. To me Wagner’s pieces are quite obviously anti – semitic, but I myself would not fully agree with the speculation, that his music was one of the most important influences for Hitler’s (or a whole nation’s) believes.
I found the choice for the Assignment incredibly difficult. I had the feeling, that the first option, to write about the use of folk songs or dance rhythms in 19th century concert music would have been slightly more challenging. I nevertheless am very passionate about the piano and only knew it’s historical beginnings and only little about its development, therefore I chose the second option.
Overall I have really enjoyed working through this course and have the feeling, that I now have a really detailed understanding of the musical development, styles and political believes during the 19th century.