THIRTY FINGERS FOR EIGHTY-EIGHT KEYS
by Piero Rattalino
Let’s be honest, even blunt: composing a piano piece for six hands, first hearing it in your head and then writing it all down, is a real dilemma. Let’s consider the writing. Music for solo piano, i.e., for two hands, is written on rectangular paper measuring about 35×24 cm. Since it’s on bound pages, the pianist looks at two vertical rectangles. Old and venerable rules require the pianist to sit at the piano with his/her navel opposite middle C on the keyboard, corresponding to the line where the two pages are joined. So the pianist can easily read the music by gracefully moving his/her head to the right or left. Likewise, the foot pedals, easily reached, are at the center of the piano, under the keyboard. The solo pianist is therefore physically very comfortable when performing.
Music for piano four hands considerably reduces the solo pianist’s familiarity with the instrument. First, the two pianists’ navels aren’t aligned with middle C because this key is at the point where their elbows make contact. The pedals can’t be moved and, since they’re in the center, the pianist on the left (whose job it is to use them) has to sit a bit obliquely to reach them.
Actually, certain hedonistic sybarites once maintained that the left pianist’s position offered numerous unexpected advantages – when, of course, there was a man on the left and a woman on the right: to reach the pedals, the left pianist, sitting obliquely on his chair, pressed his right thigh against the right pianist’s left thigh. And this generated a continuous and irrepressible erotic thrill which, even more than the music and its performance, sent them both into rapture. Not to mention the fleeting touches of hands (foreseen by the composer or invented by the performers) that augmented these delights. And let’s not forget that the man (usually taller than the woman) was offered the blissful (if only partial) view of his partner’s luxuriant breasts.
The piano four hands gave rise to secret, ephemeral love affairs, marriages, full-time adulterers. And it also led to the “Magdalena format,” which made reading easier: the vertical pages were made horizontal (35 cm wide x 24 cm high), set comfortably on the stand, and the players’ eyes bulged a lot less. The piano four hands: what a great invention!
The piano six hands ruined all of the delights of the piano four hands. The player in the middle has his/her navel opposite middle C and uses the pedals without any obstacles, while the other two have their belly buttons wherever their bodies allow. But how do you write music for three players on just one keyboard? The Magdalena format is too low. You have to go back to the vertical pages: the first pianist’s part is on the right page, the third pianist’s is on the left page, and the second pianist’s part is in a space left at the bottom of each of the two pages. It makes reading complicated, to say the least. But other possible ways would be even messier.
These are the problems involved in writing music for six hands. But as I said, composing also has its obstacles. The piano four hands easily covers the entire sound space of the orchestra and makes use of the traditional three-layer structure: melody, or theme, in the right half of the keyboard, bass, or countermelody, in the left half, and connective tissue between the melody and countermelody. This is the typical arrangement, with numerous variations that never cause any problems for the four hands. With six hands, the ten fingers of the pianist on the right are limited to very high notes that not many orchestral instruments can reach, and that therefore are used only occasionally. If music for six hands were written as usual, the pianist on the right would have very little to do. To keep him from looking like a spare tire, you have to invent embellishments or doublings or comments that enhance the melody, i.e., you have to add a fourth layer. And this is the hardest part, because anyone can add a flounce or two, but very few can design a flounce that makes the dress more elegant.
On this cd by the Trio Pianistico di Bologna, both the original works and the transcriptions do their best to give the pianist on the right something to play. I think Carl Czerny’s pieces are the best and most clever in this respect: his Rondeau brillant and Fantaisie sur ‘La sonnambula’ de Vincenzo Bellini, Op. Posth are models of six-hand writing. The Victoria Quadrille Quadrille pour les Noces de S.M. la Reine Victoria is less balanced, because the need to respect the five phases that form the structure of this dance generates very frequent interruptions in the flow. Second place in this efficiency contest goes to Angelo Panzini (1820-1886), much less famous than Czerny, but whose name appears on the record of Puccini’s diploma. A flautist and composer, Panzini taught at the Milan Conservatory and specialized in paraphrasing opera melodies: he wrote 19 for piano and 19 for flute and piano. The bronze medal goes to Johannes Nicolaj Hansen for his transcription of Swendsen’s Fest-Polonaise.
An all-around composer from Sweden, Swendsen, just like many of his colleagues – and this includes even Brahms! – didn’t disdain from offering lighter fare. Serious and light music were separate after Beethoven, but composers of serious music weren’t immune to the allures (especially financial) of light music. And so the sub-category of light classical music was born. All of the works on the cd, except for the famous ones by two specialists (Strauss, father and son), are light music that express an ineliminable human need: the pleasure of play. This is how they had fun in the 19th century: listening to light music played by three pianists who inevitably squirmed and therefore also provided visual entertainment. Can we still have fun this way? I certainly think so.
Translation by Eric Siegel
Silvia Orlandi, Alberto Spinelli, and Antonella Vegetti were classmates at the middle school of the G. B. Martini Conservatory in Bologna. In 2013, at their 20-year class reunion, they decided to form the Trio Pianistico di Bologna.
The Trio has achieved technical and expressive excellence, with a unified approach to music-making that its members have nurtured since they were teenagers, each contributing their individual sensibility and knowledge.
The Trio made its debut in 2014 at the Pracchia in Music Festival in Pracchia (Pistoia), and since then has given numerous performances of the six-hand repertory, rarely offered in concert seasons.
It has performed at many venues, including the Sforza Castle in Milan for Expo 2015, the Wolfsburg Castle in Germany, the San Giacomo Festival and the “Circolo della Musica” Season in Bologna, the “Circolo di Lettura e Conversazione” in Parma, Villa Dolfi Ratta in San Lazzaro (Bologna), “Casa della Musica” in Piteglio” (Pistoia), the Verdi Off Festival in Parma, an open-air concert on Viale Ceccarini in Riccione (Rimini), the Lobby of Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, and at Villa Premoli for the Cavaso Classica Festival (Treviso).
Its repertory ranges from the 18th to the 20th century and contains works written specifically for piano six hands as well as transcriptions. Although preferring the great classical composers (from Czerny to Rachmaninoff), the Trio also performs elegant jazz and music for entertainment, convinced that elegant writing, beauty, and authentic emotion are the only requirements needed for a piece to attract its attention.
Many composers have transcribed or written new works for the Trio, which is constantly expanding its unique repertory.
Carl Czerny: (b Vienna, 21 Feb 1791; d Vienna, 15 July 1857) Austrian piano teacher, composer, pianist, theorist and historian. As the pre-eminent pupil of Beethoven and the teacher of many important pupils, including Liszt, Czerny was a central figure in the transmission of Beethoven’s legacy. Many of his technical exercises remain an essential part of nearly every pianist’s training, but most of his compositions – in nearly every genre, sacred and secular, with opus numbers totalling 861, and an even greater number of works published without opus – are largely forgotten. A large number of theoretical works are of great importance for the insight they offer into contemporary musical genres and performance practice.
The primary source of information about Czerny is his autobiographical sketch entitled Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben (1842). In it, he describes his paternal grandfather as a good amateur violinist, employed as a city official in Nimburg (Nymburk), near Prague. Czerny’s father, Wenzel, a pianist, organist, oboist and singer, was born there in 1750, and received his education and a good musical training in a Benedictine monastery near Prague. After marriage, Wenzel settled in Vienna in 1786, where he earned a meagre existence as a music teacher and piano repairman. Czerny, an only child, was born in Vienna in the year of Mozart’s death. He and his parents resided together until his mother’s death in 1827, and his father’s in 1832. He never married, and lived alone for the remainder of his life.
Czerny describes his childhood as ‘under my parents’ constant supervision… carefully isolated from other children’. He began to study the piano with his father at an early age, and by ten was ‘able to play cleanly and fluently nearly everything of Mozart [and] Clementi’. His first efforts at composition began around the age of seven. In 1799, he began to study Beethoven’s compositions, coached by Wenzel Krumpholz, a violinist in the Court Opera orchestra, who introduced him to Beethoven when he was ten. Czerny played for him the opening movement of Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto, k503, the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, and the accompaniment to Adelaide, which his father sang. Beethoven indicated that he wanted to teach Czerny several times a week, and told his father to procure C.P.E. Bach’s Versuch. Czerny describes the lessons as consisting of scales and technique at first, then progressing through the Versuch, with the stress on legato technique throughout. The lessons stopped around 1802, because Beethoven needed to concentrate for longer periods of time on composition, and because Czerny’s father was unable to sacrifice his own lessons in order to take his son to Beethoven. Czerny neverthless remained on close terms with the composer, who asked him to proofread all his newly published works, and entrusted him with the piano reduction of the score of Fidelio in 1805.
In 1800, Czerny made his public début in the Vienna Augarten hall, performing Mozart’s C minor Concerto k491. He was renowned for his interpretation of Beethoven’s work, performing the First Concerto in C major in 1806, and the ‘Emperor’ in 1812. Beginning in 1816 he gave weekly programmes at his home devoted exclusively to Beethoven’s piano music, many of which were attended by the composer. Apparently he could perform all of Beethoven’s piano music from memory. Although his playing was praised by many critics (‘uncommonly fiery’, according to Schilling), he did not pursue a career as a performer. He made arrangements for a concert tour in 1805, for which Beethoven wrote a glowing testimonial, but although he describes himself at this time as quite proficient as a pianist, sight-reader and improviser, he concedes that ‘my playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s essential equipment’. For these reasons, in addition to political instability and the modest income of his family, he chose to cancel the tour. He also apparently decided at this point never to undertake the life of a travelling virtuoso, a path that would have made him more widely known as a performer. Instead, he decided to concentrate on teaching and composition.
He spent a good deal of time with Clementi when the latter was in Vienna in 1810, becoming familiar with his method of teaching, which Czerny greatly admired and incorporated into his own pedagogy (His op.822 is entitled the Nouveau Gradus ad Parnassum). In his early teens Czerny began to teach some of his father’s students. By the age of 15, he was commanding a good price for his lessons, and had many pupils. In 1815, Beethoven asked him to teach his nephew, Carl. As his reputation continued to grow, he was able to command a lucrative fee, and for the next 21 years he claims to have given 12 lessons a day, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., until he gave up teaching entirely in 1836. In 1821, the nine-year-old Liszt began a two-year period of study with Czerny. The teacher noted that ‘never before had I had so eager, talented, or industrious a student’, but lamented that Liszt had begun his performing career too early, without proper training in composition. Czerny also taught Döhler, Kullak, Alfred Jaëll, Thalberg, Heller, Ninette von Bellevile-Oury and Blahetka.
Around 1802, Czerny began to copy out many J.S. Bach fugues, Scarlatti sonatas and other works by ‘ancient’ composers. He describes learning orchestration by copying the parts from the first two Beethoven symphonies, and several Haydn and Mozart symphonies as well. He published his first composition in 1806 at the age of 15: a set of 20 Variations concertantes for piano and violin op.1 on a theme by Krumpholz. Until he gave up teaching, composition occupied ‘every free moment I had’, usually the evenings. The popularity of his first ten opus numbers issued in 1818–19, and of his arrangements of works by other composers, made publishers eager to print anything he would submit, and he earned a substantial amount from his compositions.
The quantity and diversity of Czerny’s compositional output is staggering. He divided his works into four categories: 1) studies and exercises; 2) easy pieces for students; 3) brilliant pieces for concerts; and 4) serious music. As Kuerti (1995, p.7) notes, it is interesting and revealing that he did not regard the ‘brilliant pieces for concerts’ as ‘serious music’. The compositions for piano illustrate the explosion in the number of works published for the instrument at a critical time in its development. In addition to approximately 100 technical studies, Czerny published piano sonatas, sonatinas and hundreds of shorter works, many of which were arranged for piano, four to eight hands. He also published a plethora of works based on national anthems, folksongs, and other well-known songs. Works for other instruments and genres include much symphonic and chamber music, as well as sacred choral music. Mandyczewski’s tabulation of the works remaining in manuscript in the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde includes over 300 sacred works. Czerny published approximately 300 arrangements without opus numbers. These works are based on themes from approximately 100 different operas and ballets, plus symphonies, overtures and oratorios by such composers as Auber, Beethoven, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Halévy, Handel, Haydn, Hérold, Mendelssohn, Mercadante, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Rossini, Spohr, Verdi, Wagner and Weber.
The predominant view of Czerny at the end of the 20th century – of the pedagogue churning out a seemingly endless stream of uninspired works – is that propagated by Robert Schumann in his reviews of many Czerny compositions in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (‘it would be hard to discover a greater bankruptcy in imagination than Czerny has proved’, review of The Four Seasons, 4 brillant fantasias op.434). However, Schumann’s rather cavalier dismissal of Czerny was not uniformly shared. During his sojourn in Vienna (1829), Chopin was a frequent visitor at Czerny’s home, and a good deal of correspondence between the two survives. One of Liszt’s letters from Paris to his teacher in Vienna (26 August 1830) describes his performances of Czerny’s Piano Sonata no.1 in A major op.7, and the work’s enthusiastic reception. He urged Czerny to join him in Paris. Liszt’s high regard is again seen in his inclusion of Czerny as one of the contributors to his Hexaméron, the Grand Variations on the March from Bellini’s I puritani, arranged by Liszt, and including variations by Chopin, Czerny, Herz, Liszt, Pixis and Thalberg, composed in 1837. Perhaps even more striking and challenging is Kriehuber’s famous portrait (1846), which depicts, assembled around Liszt at the piano (in addition to a self portrait of the painter), Berlioz, Czerny and the violinist Heinrich Ernst, who was regarded as one of the greatest virtuosos of the 19th century. All are lost in the Romantic reverie evoked by Liszt’s performance. Perhaps this symbolizes Beethoven’s spirit as transmitted by Czerny to Liszt, Berlioz and Ernst.
Czerny’s complete schools and treatises combine sound pedagogy with remarkable revelations about contemporary performing practices, and present a detailed picture of the musical culture of the day. He assigned prominent opus numbers to his four most ambitious instructional works. In the Fantasie-Schule, opp.200 and 300, he uses stylized models and what he terms a ‘systematic’ approach to improvising preludes, modulations, cadenzas, fermatas, fantasies, potpourris, variations, strict and fugal styles and capriccios. His Schule des Fugenspiels, op.400, comprising 12 pairs of preludes and fugues, is intended as a study in multi-voiced playing for pianists. His most substantial work, the Pianoforte-Schule, op.500, covers an extraordinary range of topics, including improvisation, transposition, score reading, concert decorum and piano maintenance. The fourth volume (added in 1846) includes advice on the performance of new works by Chopin, Liszt and other notable composers of the day, as well as on Bach and Handel, and Czerny also draws on his reminiscences of Beethoven’s playing and teaching. In his last major treatise, the Schule der praktischen Tonsetzkunst, op.600, he returns to the models of form and descriptions of style first expounded in his op.200, but here uses them for the instruction of composers.
Czerny’s works reveal, in addition to the familiar pedagogue and virtuoso, an artist of taste, passion, sensitivity, drama, lyricism and solitude. Douglas Townsend sees in the four-hand sonata in C minor op.10 (Sonata sentimentale) a fine example of the composers who straddled the classical tradition and early romanticism. Kuerti (1995, p.491) has described the Third Sonata in F minor op.57 as ‘outstandingly original’; because it is in the same key and carries the same opus as Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, Kuerti suggests that Czerny may have been challenging his former master to a duel in the work. Townsend describes the Concerto in C major for piano four hands and orchestra, op.153 as ‘an interesting example of the late classical piano concerto combined with the emerging bravura piano technique of the mid-nineteenth century’. Certain of the exercises stand as fine compositions in their own right, such as some of the character pieces found in the Left Hand Etudes, op.718, and the Art of Finger Dexterity, op.740.
Czerny’s will (published in Dwight’s Journal of Music, 15 August 1857) details the sizable fortune he had amassed from his published works and wealthy pupils. He left his considerable library to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.
by STEPHAN LINDEMAN (with GEORGE BARTH)
from From New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.
Johan Severin Svendsen (b Christiania [now Oslo], 30 Sept 1840; d Copenhagen, 14 June 1911). Norwegian violinist, composer and conductor.
Johann Strauss (b Vienna, 14 March 1804; d Vienna,25 Sept 1849). Composer, conductor and violinist.
Léo Delibes (b St Germain du Val, 21 Feb 1836; d Paris, 16 Jan 1891). French composer. His father was in the postal service, while his mother, an able musician, was the daughter of an opera singer and niece of the organist Edouard Batiste. Léo, the only child, learnt music from his mother and uncle; after his father’s death in 1847 the family moved to Paris, where he entered Tariot’s class at the Conservatoire. He obtained a premier prix in solfège in 1850 and later studied the organ with Benoist and composition with Adolphe Adam. His Conservatoire career was without distinction, and he never entered for the Prix de Rome. He was a chorister at Ste Marie-Madeleine and sang as a boy in the première of Meyerbeer’s Le prophète at the Opéra in 1849. At the age of 17 he became organist of St Pierre-de-Chaillot and also accompanist at the Théâtre Lyrique. Although he remained a church organist until 1871, Delibes was clearly drawn more to the theatre. For a short time around 1858 he wrote criticism for the Gaulois hebdomadaire under the pseudonym Eloi Delbès, but he found his métier at Hervé’s highly successful Folies-Nouvelles, where in 1856 his first stage work was played. Deux sous de charbon, an ‘asphyxie lyrique’ in one act, was the first of his many light operettas, appearing henceforth roughly one a year for 14 years. Many were written for the Bouffes-Parisiens, Offenbach’s theatre, including his second piece, Deux vieilles gardes, which enjoyed enormous success, largely due to his gift for witty melody and lightness of touch.