Playing Mozart’s Piano Pieces as Mozart Did
By RACHEL NUWER.
Recently Dr. Godoy turned the technology on a fascinating question: How were such classical pieces as Mozart’s Variation K. 500 and Hummel’s Etudes, Opus 125, originally played, and how might that have made a difference in sound and in audience reaction?
To find out, Dr. Godoy struck up a collaboration with Christina Kobb, a doctoral candidate at the Norwegian Academy of Music and head of theory at Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo. Ms. Kobb has developed an unusual expertise: She has learned how to play the piano according to techniques described nearly 200 years ago.
As a visiting student at Cornell University in 2010, she researched 19th-century pedagogical piano treatises — essentially, instruction manuals for piano playing. The techniques that they described, she realized, differed drastically from those she had been taught.
“I was not following even the most basic instructions given to beginners at the time,” Ms. Kobb said. “I wondered, ‘Would this make a difference in my playing?’ ”
For the next three years, she gradually replaced her modern way of playing with 19th-century technique, gleaned from around 20 treatises. Most were written in Vienna in the 1820s, while a few were published in France and England. Her primary source, however, was “A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte,” the seminal 465-page treatise published in 1827 by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, one of Mozart’s students.
While modern players tend to hunch over the keys and hold their forearms nearly perpendicular to the keyboard, 19th-century style dictated that pianists sit bolt upright. The posture prevented players from bringing their weight to bear on the keyboard, instead forcing them to rely on smaller finger movements. The elbows were held firmly against the body, with forearms sloping down and hands askew.
As Ms. Kobb became more fluent in this approach, she found that certain movements — jumping quickly between disparate chords, for example — became swifter and more fluid. “The elbow against your body serves as a sort of GPS, so you always know where you are,” she said.
Chords and scales sound smoother and can be played faster, Ms. Kobb also found, and dramatic pauses between notes — often a matter of physical necessity rather than of style — are lessened. The old style also allows the performer to be more discriminatory and subtle in choosing which notes to stress, Ms. Kobb learned, producing a performance that is subdued by today’s standards.”
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