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September 01, 2006

The Voice of the Instrument - David Conway falls in love with an old Bösendorfer

Posted by David Conway

David Conway reflects on the relationship between the piano and its player.

For two years my wife and I have been progressing the restoration of an ancient house in a beautiful but forgotten corner of Central Europe. Now that the house has reached a stage where it is comfortably inhabitable we have been spending the summer there. But to me, it wanted one thing to make it feel truly a home, namely a piano.

I am an enthusiastic pianist myself, if barely tolerable to those who have to listen to me. The pianos I have played began with one thrown out by my neighbours when I was ten years old, and have included an assortment of uprights and grands of varying quality. When I lived for two years in Kaliningrad (olim Koenigsberg), the apartment I rented was initially entirely empty except for a wonderful upright piano, maybe a hundred years old, evidently abandoned by its owners at the time of the Soviet ethnic cleansing of Prussia, whose complex mechanism took myself and the city's only piano tuner the entire length of my stay to figure out. In London I have played for twenty-five years on a Yamaha six-foot grand which I purchased new from a dealer operating from a series of garages in Tottenham, and which has matured over the years into a magnificent, rich and powerful instrument which truly shows its paces when played by my genuine musician friends.

Our recent search for a piano began when I spotted a van driving past us in the nearby market town with the name and phone number of a piano-tuner. Here surely was a man who could put us on the trail of any pianos for sale. And so it proved; my wife - who speaks the language - obtained from the tuner the name of the main piano dealer in the region, Mr K. We learned from him that the main source of good pianos for the area was across the border, in Budapest, (about four hours drive at speed), whither he offered to accompany us, indicating that he knew the whereabouts of, amongst others, a Bluthner and a fine Bösendorfer at very tempting prices.

The Bluthner had been completely refurbished and was indeed nice, but not really much more than nice; although at its price it might have been a contender if nothing better had shown up. In the same location was a superb, but unrestored, French Erard piano of about 1880, with a beautiful touch and silvery sound - the sort of piano which had been played by Liszt and Alkan, and (in the earlier years of the Erard company) by Chopin. I had never played one before and was enchanted by its tone and handling - but alas it was not for sale; just as well really, as my wife pointed out, as the last thing she wanted me to do was to start a collection of antique instruments.

However, two or three miles away (but a forty-minute drive through the appalling congestion of Budapest) was another warehouse, around which we were shown by the proprietor's mother (the owner himself being away on business) and where I was able to sit before the promised Bösendorfer. Frankly, it was, on my side anyway, love at first sight and touch. About eighty years old but beautifully restored, it plays like a dream; and its walnut case and massive carved legs are in perfect condition. After some aggressive haggling, I secured it for rather less than half the price I would have expected to pay in London. The next evening it turned up at our house shortly before midnight in a lorry accompanied by six hefty Roma who carefully unloaded it and set it up before vanishing into the night.

I have used the phrase "love at first sight" in a sense which is more than merely conventional. The player has a relation with his (or her) own piano which is not only emotional but very much physical. There is more to it than the beauty of any sound produced. As with a new lover, you have to get used to holding your body (and that of your partner) in a different way, a way which at first feels in some aspects uneasy but then begins to reveal new and delightful discoveries. Compared to the Yamaha, the Bösendorfer is more fluid, more suggestive, holding its power in reserve. When I return to the Yamaha in London my infidelity may make me feel initially uneasy, but at least I shall have learnt some new techniques which should enrich my more permanent relationship.

These considerations lead me to a topic I have often considered, but which to my knowledge has never been fully discussed, that is, the connection between the mechanical involvement of man and instrument and its aesthetic consequence. Up to the age of Beethoven, keyboard music may have shown, in the hands of masters such as Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, and Mozart, great musical and intellectual skills, but, it seems to me, rarely much of the personalities of the composers. Until the development of the modern pianoforte actions, indeed, keyboard instruments were relatively inflexible in their expressive ability. They could not play loud or soft according to force of attack – only by use of different keyboards on the organ or superior harpsichord, (or by the use of swell-box), could there be variation of volume. On stringed keyboard instruments, sustaining notes which were plucked by a quill was infeasible and damping the string's vibration before its natural course was unreliable.

But as the modern piano with its strings struck by hammers and its sustaining pedal came into being, the voice of the instrument became a factor in musical composition as well as the voice of the composer. You can begin to hear this in the later works of Haydn and Mozart, where the keyboard writing starts to go beyond the familiar resources of scale, arpeggio, melody and counterpoint and begins to include powerful dynamic contrasts of block chords and softer passages, use of the sustaining pedal, and use of the extremes of the keyboard.

With the music of Beethoven one feels the force of the personality as a listener, but as a performer one also gets a sense of his bodily presence as his writing makes one turn to the keyboard and react with it in a new and individual way - right from the first movement of the first Sonata, with its wincing discords containing every note of the scale and its peremptory, rhythm-shattering violent close. Beethoven is reported to have reduced his Vienna-made pianos to near-wrecks before he was given, by the maker, an English Broadwood grand, whose iron frame and advanced action made feasible the great masterpieces of his later period. (This instrument is now in the museum-apartment of Liszt in Budapest, together with Liszt's own Bösendorfer piano and his Erard piano-harmonium).

In playing this music, and that of Beethoven's later virtuoso successors, one must in some sense physically "become" the composer as the music makes one use one's body in the way the composer did - not just the fingers and wrists of course, but the whole arm, the shoulders and spine, not forgetting the feet on the pedals. The truest interaction would come of course if one were using the identical instrument that the composer played and thus getting the reactions of the other "party" - but, despite this, perhaps this is the nearest one can get, outside of acts of love, to inhabiting another person's body.

Here there is an interesting link to the ideas of the nineteenth-century psychologists, who believed that emotion was the result of physiological disposition - that nervous tension for example followed from muscular tension. Nowadays we tend to think of the influence being the other way round. Yet the physiological sequences which keyboard writing imposes on the pianist seem to me to be an important factor in generating a specific set of emotional responses in the player. (Doubtless the same is true of writing for string instruments, which I have no experience of playing - and maybe for woodwind, although I have to confess that as a quondam bassoonist I never felt this force touching me). And these responses in turn, in a manner which no one has yet successfully interpreted in terms of modern psychology (but which was engagingly tackled by Schopenhauer), have the power to infect and impress audiences.

Somewhere, I am sure, in the physical relationship between performer and instrument, and the way in which that can communicate the physicality of the composer, is the reason why Beethoven and his successors seem to us today to be human (or superhuman) whereas Mozart and Bach have almost the remoteness of gods. This is the musical equivalent of the Industrial Revolution - man and machine coming together transformed our cultural landscape.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Alexander Pope wondered if one of heightened sensibilities might “die of a rose in aromatic pain” but this sounds like the musical equivalent. It also prompts me to denounce those who would use the proverb “a bad workman blames his tools” as a pretext for giving good workmen sub-standard tools – im Universitätskontext, natürlich.

The mention of Kaliningrad also reminds me of the famous problem of the Königsberg bridges which was solved by Leonhard Euler. In so doing he laid the ground for a new branch of mathematics, namely Topology (literally the study of space, not of Italian mice).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 3, 2006 03:17 PM
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As your link points out, Euler did not in fact 'solve' the problem of the seven bridges, (of which alas only one is in place today in its original location), but demonstrated that a once-only circuit of transit across each, returning to start, was an impossibility. When I mentioned this to an artist friend in Kaliningrad he and his wife struggled for a week before admitting that it was indeed impossible. He then produced for me a wonderful bookplate, illustrating a 'solution' of an eighth, flying bridge, which could slip into place when required.

Posted by: David Conway at September 5, 2006 03:44 PM
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