No Job Requirements

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.

17 thoughts on “No Job Requirements

  1. sarahcahill

    piano writing
    Hi Teresa- Very interesting column! When I saw you at Stanford a few nights ago, we should have compared hand sizes. I’m frustrated by not being able to reach anything larger than a ninth. Apparently one reason Leo Ornstein (whose music I just recorded) gave up concertizing was that he felt his hands were too small. But that didn’t stop him from writing some dazzling, virtuosic piano music. I’ve been working on a new piece by Frederic Rzewski, and wrote to him expressing frustration that I couldn’t reach some of the big chords he wrote. He e-mailed back: ” I think you can play anything on a piano, including impossible chords. Christian Wolff’s music is full of such impossible chords, and that’s what makes it beautiful. (All the chords in Cage’s Etudes Australes, on the contrary, are possible, and that makes them beautiful too.)” Still, it’s too bad to break chords rather than play them solidly, don’t you think?

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  2. mdwcomposer

    Great column, Teresa. This opens up so many things about how the act of playing influences the act of composing, and vice versa. Surely you’ve tried your own hand [!] at composing in some small way (or maybe large). How did your own work as a performer influence your counterpoint exercises? How does the memory of composing influence your own playing?

    Personally, I have a big thing in the way of my piano writing. I’m an organist. I feel like I’ve had to work hard to write “idiomatically” for piano. Not in what the fingers / hand can and can’t do, but at really hearing the piano sound correctly and remembering what it does as music: like the ability to shape a phrase by varying the dynamics of the rise and fall of the line. Or like knowing how color is achieved from touch. Or voicing of chords. Or and or and or. Even though they won’t admit it out loud, the typical organist response underneath it all is “what do you mean it plays louder the harder you press it?”

    So I have a similar experience in that I’ve gotten comments about how it must be easy for me to write for piano since I’m an organist. Whereas I really feel like the opposite is true.[and I don’t even want to get into how bad my own piano playing is]

    Following Sarah’s comment – I have fairly large hands, and I know that got me into trouble in a recent song-cycle I did. I had to revise the last movement (fast) because it was just too awkward. I could see it in what I had done to the pianist (guilt, guilt). But there too, it’s not just the hand size. I had forgotten (or gotten carried away in the heat of composing) that it is crucial to think of how you get the notes down on the piano. On the organ, how is less important than when. Heavy or light finger pressure, being centered on the key, touch uniformity in a chord; all those don’t really matter so much on the organ as long as the strike point occurs at the right time. Not that one can ignore all those things on the organ, but they are certainly of less consequence to the music.

    So I have to agree with you wholeheartedly: “writing well for the piano is actually a very difficult task”. But ultimately a rewarding one: nothing sounds or works quite like it, and it does a lot of cool things

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  3. philmusic

    I might add that the piano has many guises and attitudes; as a solo instrument by itself, as solo instrument with accompaniment, as in a piano concerto, or as an accompanying instrument for singers and instruments.

    Or as an equal or unequal partner in Chamber music.

    As an accompanying instrument the piano must be adjusted to the range and sound aspects of the instrument accompanied. How many times have balance issues occurred because the piano accompaniments cover the soloist’s registers or offers too much support?

    There’s more to piano orchestration than just filling up the hands.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s Page

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  4. philmusic

    “..yet when you compare it to Liszt, you can see readily that Brahms’s piano writing is more cumbersome and awkward for the pianist…”

    I’m not sure that everyone agrees with this. I know I don’t.

    Phil Fried

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  5. sarahcahill

    I agree with Teresa about Brahms and Liszt at the piano. However virtuosic Liszt’s music is, it’s meant to fit well in the hand, while that wasn’t a main consideration for Brahms, I think.
    As for the word “accompanist,” I’m sure I’m not the only pianist who bristles at that term (Teresa, how about you?). It’s often used to describe a relationship in which the pianist has as least a hefty role as the instrumentalist or singer (there’s a reason why Beethoven wrote Sonatas for Piano and Cello, rather than Sonatas for Cello and Piano). Just this morning, I met with a French horn player who said that Robert Helps had once been his accompanist. “You mean he was your duo partner,” I corrected him. Robert Helps would never overpower a singer or instrumentalist, but he was also one of the most extraordinary pianists of any era, and no mere “accompanist.”

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  6. philmusic

    I met with a French horn player who said that Robert Helps had once been his accompanist. “You mean he was your duo partner,” I corrected him.

    Luck the person who works with Robert Phelps. I think you missed my point that that may be the theory but then again, not always.

    2 things:

    1)Performers–Not all professional musicians are good at sharing the performance spotlight no matter what instrument they play. Many famous soloists have been known not to be good at chamber music.

    2)Compositional-my main point -I have heard compositions that though technically “duets” leave one of the instruments out to dry. One instrument is primary the other is not. This has nothing to do with the collaborative abilities of the players involved merely a compositional fact. Why deny it?

    I don’t really understand your dislike of the term “accompanist” as there are may fine universities that offer degrees in accompanying.

    Some of my best friends are accompanists!

    Phil Fried

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  7. philmusic

    “Lucky” the person who works with Robert Phelps. I think you missed my point that that may be the theory but then again, not always.

    When I wrote about “accompaniment” it is simply a neutral term like melody, or bass – the building blocks of many compositions. I hope you don’t have your theory students study melody, harmony, and “duo partners”. LOL!

    I was not using “accompaniment” in the”performance” sense at all.

    Anyway I find it interesting that the piano can encapsulate so many different “persona.”

    Phil Fried

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  8. Colin Holter

    To my knowledge, the accepted alternative to “accompanist” is “collaborative pianist”–which always sounds to me like a euphemism for “pianist who doesn’t play by him-or herself.” One very dear friend of mine is a self-identified collaborative pianist; she’s currently in a degree program tailored to working with vocalists and solo instrumentalists, as well as playing chamber music. She’s excellent at it–she and I collaborated quite a bit as undergrads, when she pretty much carried my half-baked arias and lieder on her back.

    But hey, you guys are the pianists, not me. Just tell me what you want those pianists whose training and/or day-to-day music-making lies predominantly in collaboration, some of which is explicitly backgrounded, and that’s what I’ll call ‘em.

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  9. philmusic

    “To my knowledge, the accepted alternative to “accompanist” is “collaborative pianist”–…”

    A thousand pardons, I am sooo out of the loop!

    Phil Fried

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  10. Alex Shapiro

    I don’t think whether a composer writes idiomatically for an instrument has to do with whether they play it well, or even at all. Were this the case, a great deal of brilliant music for instruments other than the composer-magnet piano would not exist.

    Lay people often ask composers whether we play all the instruments in the orchestra, because it’s hard for them to comprehend how we can hear and understand such a vast language of sound and physics in our head. And coming from non-musicians, this question is totally understandable. But like Teresa, I’m always surprised when fellow musicians assume that to write especially well for piano, among other instruments (harp, guitar and organ fall into this category too), a composer must have gifted fingers as well as a gifted ear.

    Those who write well for piano, ocarina, or anything in between, often have an inherent sense of the instrument that is sometimes almost otherworldly and three dimensional. When I compose for an instrument– particularly one with which I’m less familiar– I psychologically and nearly physically feel as though I’ve become that instrument [insert ice cream binge joke for my tuba music, here]. In addition to being reasonably educated about an instrument and absorbing its sounds and idioms, what’s needed for good writing is an affinity.

    Oh, and ice cream helps, too.

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  11. philmusic

    “In addition to being reasonably educated about an instrument and absorbing its sounds and idioms, what’s needed for good writing is an affinity. …”

    One also needs a commission. Ocarina players–its up to you!

    Oh, I’m afraid I don’t work for Ice cream! Well, maybe…?

    Phil Fried

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  12. rtanaka

    I think that most logistical problems of an instrument can be worked out just simply by imagining yourself playing it. I love writing for strings but the only thing I can do on a violin is fumble around on the first few positions, which I learned in a beginning-level strings class. But I kind of got that “mapping” in my head now, of how the instrument is handled from a physical perspective. So when I write for other people, I sort of imagine myself playing the instrument, but a lot better than I can actually play.

    I think at least having a generic idea of how the instrument is handled physically is fairly important…because at least then it gives you some basis of creating a bridge between the notes on the page and the actions of the performers. Say if you have a chord that spans 6 octaves all over you’re not going to be able to hit all the pitches you want with just two hands. Then in terms of note changes, you should be able to imagine where the hands might move in relation to the notes that you’ve written. Most of the impossible stuff can be avoided this way.

    Course the easiest way is to just ask good performers what’s well-written for an instrument, and use those scores as examples for good instrumental writing. It becomes a good reference for what’s considered “idiomatic”, which usually means that it’s somewhat fun for the performer to play. Then if you’re going to go outside of that norm, then its at least intensional.

    If you want examples of good idiomatic writing for the modern horn, by the way, check out Hindemith. Little bit more unusual are Ligeti and Gubaidulina’s writings which uses the instruments natural overtones. Hindemith played almost all the instruments so he’s kind of an exception, but the latter two I don’t think that they ever played the horn. (Probably a good thing.) But their pieces are great for instrumentalists because they’ve taken the time to take into account of the nature of the instrument.

    A lot of it is just a matter of physics, I think. Are composers imagining how their music might look like in performance?

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  13. teresa

    Hi everyone,

    I meant to respond to some of these queries earlier in the week, but where did the time go? I have a few thoughts:

    I still maintain that Brahms music is less “idiomatic” for the keyboard than Liszt or Chopin, and no, I don’t agree that “idiomatic” means “that it’s somewhat fun for the performer”. It may be fun, but that does not mean it is not challenging. Fun is a rather loaded word–don’t you think?.

    Sarah–I agree that it would be nice to have larger hands…. I find it frustrating to have to break chords to accomplish this task. But anything is possible I suppose… Have you ever seen Alicia de Larocha’s hands? Tiny….

    I found the comments about organ writing fascinating. All of these assumptions about compositional style proceed in the same way: if you can drive a car, you must be able to pilot an airplane… Hmmmm… I wish..

    I’m not sure what I think about the debate around accompanist versus collaborator, except that I think these are terms which get thrown around without much thought. The fact that there are entire graduate programs devoted to “collaborative” piano playing or “accompanying” does not necessarily validate either term, in my opinion. I think we are pianists first, and then what we do with that talent is no less important if we play with an orchestra, or a french horn player, or by ourselves. If you can’t play the piano, you won’t be able to do any of those things anyway. First, do no harm…. : )

    Thanks for reading and responding!.

    Teresa (pianist, collaborator, etc.)

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  14. rtanaka

    Yeah, I guess “fun” is hard to define…though its been my experience that a “fun” piece is usually something challenging, yet at the same time, not excessively frustrating. As a horn player I’m usually exposed to the extremes of two polarities — either way too hard or way too easy. Sometimes people write whatever they want and it becomes virtually impossible to play, but on the other hand some people become intimidated by all the quirks involved in the instrument and all they give the performer is whole notes. I think that good idiomatic writing tends to find a nice balance between the two.

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  15. sbrenzel

    Teresa,

    I really liked your comments about whether you need to be a wonderful pianist in order to write compelling piano music; I think your answer of a qualified ‘no’ is right on. Nonetheless, you emphasized that it’s important to know the instrument for which you are writing. This can, and should be accomplished by being a diligent and dedicated student of the instrument.

    Sure it could help if you were an excellent pianist, but knowing the instrument inside out is the main thing. I’m sure that while George Crumb has not performed his pieces, he has studied – listened, experimented, investigated, learned from pianists – the instrument in ways that have made it possible for him to write such compelling, pianistic music.

    This is one of the many important reasons for composers to learn to collaborate effectively with performers, so that they can learn from the performers about the best ways to write for their instruments.

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  16. philmusic

    “As an accompanying instrument the piano must be adjusted to the range and sound aspects of the instrument accompanied. How many times have balance issues occurred because the piano accompaniments cover the soloist’s registers or offers too much support? ..”

    Again my above comments refers to composition-and composers not to performance. In fact its the work of musicians to make these compositional difficulties work.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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