Composer As Virtuoso

Composer As Virtuoso

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Each age produces its share of composers and performers who appear destined for immortality. A much rarer Phenomenon, however, is the composer who is also an outstanding performer. The composer-virtuoso is especially interesting, because in many cases not only do we still have his music, but he has frequently influenced, if not revolutionized, the performance of music on his particular instrument. He has, in effect, become one of the immortals as much for his compositions as for his manner of playing them.


Take Corelli, for instance. At a time when nearly every composer was writing vocal and instrumental music, he wrote only for one or two violins, or for string orchestra. Even in his own, very limited sphere, he was limited. He had difficulty in playing an opera overture of Handel, explaining that it was "in the French style, of which I have no experience", and the brilliant playing of Alessandro Scar­latti's orchestra astounded him.


Still, within his limitations, Corelli did almost as much for violin technique as Scarlatti did for Neapolitan opera. There is a purity of style, a classicism, in his concerti grossi, which is lacking in those of say, Handel or Vivaldi. While there is generally a lack of brilliance in Corelli' s works, the writing is clear, refined, and almost aristrocratic. The slow movements of his Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, Opus 5 (MHS 1690-92), contain an expressiveness of style at times bordering on pathos, which was completely new for the time. The lyrical quality of his melodies appealed to his contemporaries, so that we find a similar singing style in the slow movements to Handel's violin sonatas, and even in England, Purcell acknowledged the influence of Corelli's sonatas for two violins and continuo. In France, Couperin acknowledged Corelli's contribution to the development of music and string technique, in his Apotheosis to Corelli (MHS 521) for two violins and continuo. It is no coincidence that young violinists today are started off on the works of Corelli and Handel, since that is where the "singing" style of violin playing begins.


Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, three composer-keyboard virtuosi who changed the nature of keyboard playing. Well, actually Bach and Beethoven didn't change keyboard technique as much as they summed up centuries of writing for their instrument. Beethoven, for example, made it possible for a composer like Liszt to actually develop a new style of keyboard technique only hinted at in the works of Weber and Hummel.


Nearly every music-lover is aware of the fact that Bach wrote preludes, toccatas and fugues for the organ. The difference between Bach's works, and say, those of Buxtehude, Kuhnau and Pachelbel, his exact contemporaries (and quite apart from their musical content), is their length and the technical skill required to play them. For one thing, the use of the pedals in Bach's organ works is far greater than is generally found in the organ music of the other composers, and the manner in which he used them sometimes leaves one wondering if the part was not really played by a third hand. This sort of technique does occur occasionally in some Buxte­hude preludes and fugues, but the pedals rarely receive the constant use one finds in Bach's organ works. Also, the length of Bach's preludes and fugues is generally considerably greater than most of those by Buxtehude. In brief, while Buxtehude, Kuhnau and Pachelbel wrote a great deal of fine organ music, their pieces are generally considerably shorter and simpler than those of Bach.


Another important contribution of Bach as a keyboard virtuoso and composer, are his concerti for one or more harpsichords and orchestra. By applying Vivaldi's technique of writing concerti for one or more violins and orchestra, to the harpsi­chord, Bach developed a concerto which had literally never existed before. This was a real contribution, and in terms of musical history almost as important as the harmonic innovations of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. It must be emphasized though, that Bach did not deliberately set out to do something new and different. Being a virtuoso on the harpsichord, he merely wrote a lengthy and technically demanding work for himself to play on one of his favorite instruments with the accompaniment of a string quartet or string orchestra. From this simple, almost accidental beginning during the first quarter of the 18th century, came the first harpsichord and piano concerti by his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian Bach, and then, within fifty years, the great piano concerti of Mozart--all because of the need of a church organist and harpsichord player to make music with his family, friends and students!


In the 1770' s and 80' s, there were still people alive who had been personally acquainted with Bach, and who preferred the sound of the harpsichord and that of the piano. The earliest keyboard pieces of young Beethoven, in fact, were written to be performed on either the harpsichord or piano, and as late as 1802 he indicated that the piano sonatas opus 31 could be performed on either instrument, though it is probable that this was more from habit than intention.


By 1800 Beethoven had been living in Vienna almost ten years, and was well on his way to becoming one of that city's leading composers. The nobility, however, regarded him primarily as a pianist to perform at their musicales, and as a teacher of themselves and their children.


There are several accounts of his piano playing dating from about this time, nearly all of them laudatory. It was generally agreed that he was without a peer when it came to improvisation, although as a pianist, that is, as a technician, he had his equals in Joseph Wolfl and Johann Cramer. Although his writing for the piano didn't change radically until his last piano sonata, his contemporaries were quick to compare his playing to that of Mozart and his student Hummel. According to Czerny , who studied piano and composition with him,


"If Beethoven's playing was notable for its tremendous power, character, unheard-of bravura and facility, Hummel's performance, on the other hand, was a model of all that is clean and distinct, of the most charming elegance and delicacy ... since he combined Mozart's manner with the Clementi school so wisely adapted to the instrument ... Hummel's followers reproached Beethoven with maltreating the fortepiano, said his playing was devoid of purity and distinctness, that his use of the pedal produced only a confused noise, and that his compositions were labored, artificial, unmelodious, and in addition irregular in form. Beethoven's partisans, on the other hand, asserted that Hummel lacked all real imagination, declared his playing was as monotonous as that of a hurdy-gurdy, that he held his fingers clawed in, spider-fashion, and that his compositions were mere elaborations of Mozart and Haydn themes."


Now, while Beethoven did not develop a truly new piano technique, the way Chopin and Liszt did, he added a breadth and intensity of emotion to his works which were new. One has only to compare, for example, the slow movements of the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, opus 106 (MHS 125), and that of the Sonata opus 7 (MHS 117), or 10/1 (MHS 118) to hear the difference. Despite the intensity of the earlier slow movements, one is still aware of their classical lineage because of the thematic content, development and set­ting for the piano. Although the slow movement of opus 106 still shows its classical heritage structurally, Beethoven has carried 18th century piano technique almost as far as he could without actually developing a new style. Quite apart from the musical content, one finds a spaciousness, and a sonority in this movement generally lacking in his more "classical," earlier sonatas. This openness in writing for the piano is characteristic of several movements of the later sonatas and miscellaneous pieces. Although Beethoven's later works are generally regarded as harbingers of romanticism, this is a result of the musical ideas, the musical personality of the man, as it were, and should not be confused with his writing for the piano, which is generally rooted in a kind of post-Mozartian piano technique. One has only to read or listen to some of the piano works of his younger contemporary, Weber (who, by the way, died two years before Beethoven), to understand the difference between the waning 18th century pianistic style, and the about-to­break-forth new technique of the Chopin­/Liszt school.


It was Chopin, who actually synthesized the piano technique of Hummel and Weber, and produced what amounted to a new pianistic style. The bravura of Weber, the legato, flowing style of Hummel, and Chopin's own gift for lyricism, all combined to make a new style of writing and playing which utilized the

sonorities of the piano to its fullest. The technique required to play a sonata of Beethoven is quite different from that called for in a Chopin Etude or Ballade. Not only is the digital dexterity different, but the use of tone control and pedaling are almost as far removed in Chopin's music as the sound and technique of the' harpsichord is from that of the piano.


It remained for Liszt, however, to carry the new but primarily intimate style of playing to heights that Chopin himself hardly every achieved. In 1837, Henry Chorley summed up Liszt's pianistic antecedents-, when he wrote that Liszt is

''The real diamond among much that is paste--the real instrumentalist among many charlatans ... the most limited among purists must confess his prodigious mastery over his instrument and must be willing to regard him not merely as the successor of Clementi, Hummel and Moscheles but as one in whom the piano, so far, from being the end, is but the means of expressing certain emotions."


Liszt's phenomenal technique was not acquired without a great deal of hard work. He wrote that

“ My mind and my fingers are working like two convicts. Homer, the Bible, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart and Weber are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them avidly. And I do four to five hours practice as well--thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repeated notes, cadenzas etc. If I don't go mad you will find me an artist such as is needed today."


Liszt, then, not only was technically equipped to play the music of Bach, he could also perform Mozart and late Beethoven, as well as the "new-style" introspective music of Chopin and Schumann, and the bravura works of Thalberg, Kalkbrenner and Herz. Chopin is said to have been less than happy at Liszt's being able to imitate his style of playing so well that in a darkened room no one knew which of them were performing.


Although much has been made of Paganini's influence upon Liszt, it is often forgotten that he was not thinking in terms of showmanship at this time, rather it was the ability to play as well upon piano as the great violinist did upon his instrument. "You see my piano is for me what his frigate is to a sailor," he once wrote,

"or his horse to an Arab--more indeed: It is my very self, my mother tongue, my life. Within its seven octaves it encloses the whole range of an orchestra, and a man's ten fingers have the power to reproduce the harmonies which are created by hundreds of performers.''


Liszt was more than a pianist, however, he was a composer and many of his piano works not only make full use of the new developments of piano playing, he was also able to combine the forms and technique of the past, to suit the purpose of his own time. We find him writing fugues in a kind of "modern" adaptation of the Baroque style, "up-dated" versions of classical sonata-form, concerti in which the tutti-solo relationship shows how well he understood the music of the past and was able to apply it to his own compositions.


In his piano arrangements of the symphonies of Beethoven, (he also made a piano arrangement of Berlioz' Fantastic Symphony) his transcriptions of Schubert songs and excerpts from Wagner operas, he exploited the new-found piano technique and sonorities, and created virtuoso pieces for himself, which he performed at concerts.

Although his transcriptions of excerpts from operas by Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini were calculated to appeal to his public, and sometimes tend to be more theatrical than musical, he was only doing the same thing as his rivals, and it is interesting to notice that it is his arrangements which have continued to live over a hundred years later, while those of his competitors are all but forgotten.


Once again I should like to point out that Liszt, like Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, did not consciously set out to do something new. Bach wrote his keyboard concerti because he wanted some large-scale works for harpsichord and orchestra. Beethoven took the piano technique as he found it but adapted it to his own manner of playing and writing, and developed a highly personal style-­still based upon the past, however. Chopin developed a truly new style of piano technique which was an outgrowth of the Hummel-Weber style, but his manner of playing was generally introspective, and geared for a relatively small room. It was Liszt who not only synthesized the technique of the past (he was a pupil of Czerny who was a pupil of Beethoven), he also took Chopin's rather intimate style and applied it to his own out-going, flamboyant and more theatrical person- ality.


The basic reason for his developing such a phenomenal technique, however, was the best one: In order to adequately interpret the music of preceding eras, and of his own time. Naturally, living in a time when virtuosity was an end in itself, he had to compete with other virtuosi on their own terms, and out-play them. But for his friends, and more serious concerts, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Schumann were some of his favorite composers, none of whom required outstanding "flashy" technique. To be able to interpret the music of each of them on the same program, however required the intellect of a philosopher, the technical equipment of a virtuoso and the training and discipline of the well-rounded composer-musician­-writer and musical pioneer that was Franz Liszt.

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