Phil Gyford


Friday 15 April 2005

PreviousIndexNext Piano Notes by Charles Rosen

Fascinating insight into the world of professional piano-playing. I think you’d get even more out of it if you either play the piano (something I haven’t done for years) or have been to a lot of concerts. Made me realise how far away I am from really understanding and knowing the few works I’m vaguely familiar with.

1. Body and Mind

11-12 When composers begin a new path in their work they usually start composing for piano, before moving on to, say, symphonies, maybe consolidating the style with works for string quartets.

13 “There are very few pianists who pay the slightest attention to Chopin’s pedal indications.”

2. Listening to the Sound of the Piano

37-8 The pianist can only reach an objective state of being able to tweak the performance, and knowing if it is any good, once his fingers know the music — if he still has to think at all about what movement to make next it’s impossible for him to tell how well he’s doing.

39 Practice is purely mechanical: “Liszt advised his students to read a book while practicing.”


The advantage of reading a book while practicing for pure technique alone is that it enables us to forget the boredom of playing a passage over and over again, a dozen, or fifty or a hundred times until the body has absorbed it. Not all books, however, lend themselves equally well to this employment. Poetry interferes subtly with the rhythm of the music, and so does really admirable prose. The most useful, I have found for myself, are detective stories, sociology and literary criticism. However, any reading matter that distracts the mind without engaging the sense or the emotions too powerfully will work.

4. Conservatories and Contest

97 While piano students tend to concentrate on getting good at a few works, they should be familiar with a wide range:

In about six months of sight-reading for three hours a day, one could go through most of the keyboard music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Another few months and one can add Haydn, Debussy, and Ravel. Another hour and a quarter would suffice for all of Schoenberg’s piano music (or two hours if you have more trouble reading it at first), and an hour and a half will get you through Stravinsky, including the works for piano and orchestra, and ten minutes each for the solo piano works of Anton von Webern and Alban Berg. For a pianist who begins to play at the age of four, not to have done all this by the age of twenty is to create a handicap that will last for the rest of life.

5. Concerts

123 [I read the following passage after spending some of the day discussing with friends the differences between writing online for friends/family or for a large number of complete strangers. Eery parallels…]

It might seem that the answer to the question “for whom does one play?” is: one plays for oneself. This is misleading. If one plays for oneself, it is unnecessary to do so in public. There are, in fact, three kinds of performance: for oneself, for one or more friends, and for a public. The experience of each is different and individual. Performance for oneself is probative, experimental; playing alone, we are less aware of the passage of time. Playing for friends is framed by conversation; it is part of the occasion, determined by the degree of conviviality, and the music is chosen very often on the spur of the moment to fit the character and the tastes of the listeners. Playing in public not only isolates the pianist: it isolates and objectifies the work of music, and it turns the performance into an object as well. A public performance is irrevocable. In private, one can experiment as one plays, and for friends, one can try the piece again with a different approach. A public performance cannot be withdrawn; it has become an object to be judged.

126 The public performance is the most objective. “The success of a public performance does not depend on the nature of the public.” A performance must please both professionals and laymen alike.


Traditions of applause change from culture to culture. Germans never applaud between the movements of a sonata, or before the end of an act at the opera. Italians traditionally manifested their immediate approval even during the singing, although more recent audiences have been infected by the international preference for silence. … I have even heard that in one town in Switzerland, the conductor had to turn around at the end of a Beethoven symphony and tell the still politely silent public that the work was over.

6. Recording

148-9 Discussing the producers and technicians involved in recording a work:

By a curious union regulation of the 1960s in the United States, the tape man was forbidden to know how to read music: that would have given him an unfair advantage over his colleagues. Of course, many of the technicians knew perfectly well how to read music but they could not admit it. That meant that when you wanted the technician to cut the tape at a certain point, you were not allowed to show him the score so that he could see where to make the splice. The tape had to be played, and the technician had to be given a hand signal at the arrival of the note as if he were a musician in an orchestra given the cue for his solo.

7. Styles and Manners

180 Almost all 18th century solo keyboard music was for playing alone or to a few friends. “During Beethoven’s lifetime, only two of his thirty-two piano sonatas were performed in public in the city of Vienna where he lived after the age of twenty.” They were intended as chamber pieces or, occasionally, just for playing at home.

199-200 Almost none of Bach’s keyboard works for two hands and no pedal were intended for public performance — educational use. Goldberg Variations was probably never played in its entirety even for a small audience before 1870. Pieces were played (usually on the harpsichord) for someone standing near who could see the hands and follow the score, and disentangle the different voices visually while listening. Less pressure on performer to make the voices distinct, like there is in a modern performance.

210-211 “The power demanded by Chopin must come for the most part from the forearm and fingers, while with Liszt, the shoulder and back muscles are brought more directly into play.”


Andras Schiff -- who you ought to see if you get the chance -- talked a couple of years ago about how he starts the day with a prelude and fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, because it gets his mind and body in the right place for the rest of the day's work, whether or not the material he practises is Bach. (He generally doesn't play with a score, either.)

Posted by nick on 16 April 2005, 6:46 pm | Link

How strange - yesterday I had a conversation which used four of these quotes. It's a wonderful wonderful book.

Posted by TomDolan on 2 November 2006, 1:29 pm | Link

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