At a festival in Zichron Yaakov, pianist Malcolm Bilson will try to prove his contention that 300-year-old pianos can produce more faithful sounds than Steinways.
Let’s say you’re a pianist, or a devoted fan of classical piano music. And let’s say that to your ears, Steinway pianos are the best in the field. Would you be satisfied exclusively with a Steinway? The American pianist and musicologist Malcolm Bilson, for one, talking about how to choose a piano, offers the example of the person in charge of tuning the collection of antique pianos at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where Bilson is a professor of music. That piano tuner, he explains in a talk that can be found online, also does a better job of tuning modern Steinways than someone who specializes only in modern Steinways. It’s like a mechanic who deals only with Mercedes cars and thus knows less in the aggregate than a mechanic who is familiar with many different cars.
In regard to Mozart’s “expressive instructions,” as Bilson terms them, the key point concerns groups of sounds that are meant to sound connected, like a single “singing” line, as opposed to those that are to be separated. An illuminating example is the opening phrase of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466. The composer’s direction to separate the first three connected notes from the next three can be executed nicely only on the fortepiano, Bilson notes and demonstrates. Whereas on the modern piano, the separation will sound clumsy, fragmented, “like a hiccup.”
Beethoven’s piano sonatas will also definitely benefit from being played on a period instrument, Bilson says in reply to another question. In the case of Beethoven, it’s crucial to choose the correct fortepiano, he points out, because there are vast differences between the first sonatas and the later ones (which were composed for very different fortepianos). Steinways or other contemporary pianos are not suitable for playing the sonatas, Bilson avers, one reason being that very brief powerful notes (sforzando), such as Beethoven calls for, cannot be effectively produced on modern pianos, on which the sound develops slowly.
Overall, Bilson says, there are more nuances of loudness in the fortepiano, though modern pianos are preferable in terms of color changes. However, what’s important in Mozart and Beethoven, he says, is not the changes of color but the articulations, as previously explained. “It is difficult to execute those changes on a modern piano,” he says.
In the third in his symphony series, Tom Service goes back to 1786 Prague and Mozart’s 38th symphony, in which you can hear the composer straining at the limits of what his orchestra, and the form, can do.
The 30-year-old Mozart hadn’t written a symphony for three years when he started composing a new piece for Prague at the end of 1786, the Bohemian city where The Marriage of Figaro was going down much more of a storm than it had in Vienna.
Since the Linz Symphony of 1783, Mozart had pushed himself as a composer and musician in all possible directions: he had incarnated pretty well his own genre of the piano concerto and had already brought it to astonishing heights; as an opera composer, he was embarked on those epoch-making collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, starting with Figaro; and in the six string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, published the year before, he challenged himself – and his listeners and performers – to attain a new kind of chamber-music consciousness. All that, and he had begun seriously to investigate earlier Baroque repertoires.
In the Prague, you hear the effect of all these expanding musical horizons on Mozart’s idea of what a symphony could be. This is really the first of Mozart’s symphonies – and he had written at least 36 before (no. 37 is a misnomer) – in which Mozart transforms the social and entertainment functions of a piece of grand orchestral music into signifiers of a different kind of discourse. In virtually every bar of this piece, you hear him straining at the limits of what his invention, his orchestra, and the symphony can do.
Some crazy facts before we get down to the counterpoint. The Prague has three movements rather than the by then conventional four; Mozart does without the minuet because of the scale of this symphony’s first movement and the andante; the tune at the start of the finale is a quote from The Marriage of Figaro, exploding the little duet between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II into a dazzling presto that’s by turns coquettish and muscularly dissonant; the slow movement is the most operatically lyrical and emotionally varied he had yet composed in a symphony; and the first movement starts with the most expressively extreme slow introduction to a symphony in the history of the genre.
We began our overview of Mozart’s Magic Flute with a reference to the German music critic Joachim Kaiser’s comment in his Bayern IV radio show, Beethoven: Werk und Wirkung, according to which Beethoven found its variety very stimulating. Since such an opinion might not have developed overnight, it might be very interesting for us to particularly investigate Mozart’s influence and the influence of his opera The Magic Flute on Beethoven.
This investigative journey will not be ‘smooth sailing’ across a calm sea, but a rather lively, invigorating one that will require us to, on occasion, take detours and to watch out for every ‘change of wind’. It will set out in Bonn with our observing the youth Beethoven as he becomes acquainted with Mozart’s works, but also as his teacher holds this former wunderkind and then-up-and-coming great young Viennese composer up as an example for him to follow, which might also have increased Beethoven’s curiosity and eagerness to finally meet this great man in person during his first visit to Vienna. Will his expectations of Mozart have been met?
After that, we will, perhaps again, read certain prophetic words that have found entry in Beethoven’s farewell album, after which we will follow him to Vienna in 1792 in order to learn if he was able to live up to what others expected of him in his role as Mozart’s ‘successor’. However, we will also want to observe how he tried to free himself from this role in order to pursue his own path.
What will be the result of his severing his ‘musical umbilical cord’ to Mozart? Perhaps, the result will be a continued appreciation of Mozart and also certain variations that might be of interest to us!
How will Beethoven’s relationship develop during his more mature years of the beginning 19th century? Will Mozart remain the greatest composer in his mind? What position will he take towards him in the event that this should not be the case? Will his keen understanding of the variety of the roles of the Magic Flute also have an influence on his judgement in his personal life? These are some of the questions that we will try to answer here.
An interesting blog post:
A poem for Mozart written by Margaret Marshall in 1926.
Printed out a woodblock print of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In reading about him in ClassicComposers (Magna Books, 1993), I was surprised to learn he found himself in dire financial straits near the end of his life and was even buried in a common grave.
Came across this poetic tribute to Mozart by Margaret Marshall which was first printed in February, 1926 in Gramophone magazine, and reprinted on their archive site on December 5, 2012 to commemorate the anniversary of Mozart’s passing on December 5, 1791:
A POEM FOR MOZART
A silver shield, swung down the heavy rain,
Blurring that sky where huddled clouds were blown,
Turning Mozart’s five “friends” homeward again,
While he passed to his pauper’s grave alone.
His baby lips a queen had stooped to kiss;
His were the hands that touched the hearts of kings;
The mind transmuting into harmonies
The half-dim fantasies…
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