In reading the recent NMBx feature on composer David Rakowski, I was thinking about the fact that David admits that he is not a pianist and can’t play most of his etudes, and yet his piano writing is so brilliant.
People often make comments to me (audience members, composers, other performers, etc.) that good pianists always write good piano music—implying, I guess, that composers who are not pianists must be limited somehow in their ability to write good piano music. Actually, that is often the furthest thing from the truth. Just because certain composers can play the piano, it doesn’t make them write well for the keyboard—and vice-versa.
Writing well for the piano is actually a very difficult task, although it might seem like it is easy because the piano is such an accessible and versatile instrument. Yes, it represents the full orchestral range of sound, but its timbre can be very monochromatic and, in the wrong hands, its colors can be dull. Exploring the full range of the keyboard’s capabilities takes compositional imagination that reaches outside the box. Composers also have to consider the technical issues their writing may provoke. It’s great to push the envelope (and good writing over the past two centuries has changed the physical demands of playing the instrument), but not so much so that your piece may become more annoying than inspiring. Good etude writing often just explores one aspect of keyboard technique (such as trills or octaves, for example), not every aspect of keyboard technique invented. I think that good piano writing in general limits itself to a few defining gestures. And yet, if those gestures become too ubiquitous, then the piano language can sound monotonous and uninteresting. Developing a strong compositional language for the piano that is unique and interesting is not as easy as it might seem.
Prokofiev explored the extremes of the keyboard, both tonally and technically, and so did George Crumb, yet they did it in very different ways. I programmed both composers on the same concert recently, so this makes the contrast sharper in my mind. In many ways, they could not be more different, and yet each wrote challenging, inspiring piano music that I return to again and again. One was a virtuoso performer and the other has never performed his works in recital, yet both have written works for the keyboard that altered the genre significantly. Ligeti wrote etudes that are technically demanding, yet their unique sonorities and tight construction make them gems in this genre. Brahms wrote great piano music because he wrote for the piano in an orchestral and chamber style, yet when you compare it to Liszt, you can see readily that Brahms’s piano writing is more cumbersome and awkward for the pianist. The beauty of his music is not in its technical gestures, but in its complex harmonic sonorities and rich orchestral colors—another example of two composers who wrote well for the instrument, yet in very different ways.
What makes a memorable piano piece? Every pianist might answer that differently. For some, great keyboard writing might be found in the precision and clarity of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or the twisted beauty of Prokofiev’s melodies or Chopin’s technically challenging etudes or the haunting sounds created by playing harmonics on the strings in Crumb’s music. Or maybe it’s all of those. As a pianist, I am lucky to have so many wonderful choices.
Is it true that good piano writing requires an intimate understanding of the instrument and its capabilities? Yes. Does the composer have to be a virtuoso pianist? Perhaps it helps, but ultimately I don’t think so. Don’t forget Rakowski’s etudes or the challenges of playing Crumb’s Makrokosmos. Although the piano is not the voice for every composer, it can be a great voice for the right composer, whether they play well or not.