Have you ever pondered how many teaching hours in the course of piano teaching history have been devoted to certain famous passages from the repertoire? How much time, how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the short introduction to Chopin’s G minor Ballade, for example?
I am usually unimpressed when I hear an awe-struck student recount how their teacher spent a whole lesson on just the first phrase, sometimes even on one bar – or one chord! Is this something to be respected and admired, or is it an ego trip on the part of the teacher and actually a colossal waste of lesson time?
Some places in the piano repertoire are so loaded with historic angst and baggage that the teacher feels the weight of tradition and, instead of just giving some suggestions or a few specific directions based on what the student might want to do with the passage, spouts forth from on high. No matter how well the student plays, the teacher has his or her prescription and is darned well going to pass it on. Chances are an hour spent thus on a bar of music will forever burden the student, making them feel they are never going to be able to reproduce what the teacher wanted. They will always feel unworthy – jinxed, even.
Don’t get me wrong – there is no substitute for incredibly detailed and painstaking work at the piano, sitting hour upon hour day after day in our practice striving to get something just right. However, we all know that there is no such thing as the one perfect interpretation of any piece, and that great art allows a multitude of possibilities. You only have to listen to a number of different recordings of the same work to discover this for yourself, and aping someone else’s opinions might be like forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Another hallowed place that seems to have mystical status is the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. Concertos before Beethoven’s had (almost) always begun with the orchestra. The orchestra prepared the ground by setting out the various themes, which the piano then played in its own way. In Beethoven Fourth it’s the soloist who starts, an effect which is still surprising. Imagine how this would have been received at the premiere in Vienna in 1808 (with Beethoven himself at the piano).
How many young pianists feel trepidation at attempting this opening? They’re never going to get it right no matter how much work they put into it. It seems that many famous pianists have belaboured this very spot in lessons and masterclasses, it’s been at epidemic proportions and causing neuroses for decades.
What, exactly, might teachers be after here? Here is a shortlist of a few criteria (I am sure you’ll think of more):
- Tonal balance (the proportion of sound given to each note in each chord)
- Tonal, rhythmic and dynamic relationships between one chord and another (how one chord relates to the next)
- Articulation (lengths of staccato, quality of accentuation, how to manage the small notes, etc.)
- Phrase shaping (line, timing, direction)
- Tempo, mood, colour
- Other technical considerations (synchronising the notes of the chords so all notes sound together, fingering, use of the body, etc.)
These are all very important considerations, and will need to be addressed by anyone approaching this piece. However, is the opening of this concerto a divine utterance to be treated with humble reverence, or might there actually be a simpler way of approaching it? I realise this comment is going to sound controversial, but I don’t think the beginning of this concerto is that difficult – at all. At least, no more difficult than other similar places in the repertoire that receive hardly any attention.
We tend to forget there was a tradition of improvising preludes before launching into a work in Beethoven’s day – a few bars to set the scene and establish the key, maybe even to try the instrument and warm up a bit. The introduction to the Fourth Concerto has all the hallmarks of a written-out improvisation. Chords in improvisation-style music from this period were usually arpeggiated whether marked or not, and it would seem that Beethoven rolled the opening chord broadly in the first performance (according to Czerny, who heard it and later sanctioned this). I can’t imagine any teacher today permitting (let alone suggesting) an arpeggiated opening chord in this concerto – it would be sacrilege, not in accordance with the performance practices we use.
Unless you’re a player of historic instruments, of course. Here is a recording of the concerto with Steven Lubin (fortepiano), and the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Christopher Hogwood.
For more background on lost pianistic traditions, I heartily recommend Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (click here). I recently came across a more modern example of preluding from the great German pianist, Wilhelm Backhaus, who prefaced his most beautiful playing of Schumann’s Des Abends with a short improvisation. I doubt anyone would do this today.
In next week’s post, I will look at the subject of arpeggiation – where and how we might roll or spread chords, and how to deal with tricky spots in the repertoire. I am finding this a fascinating subject to research!