Key developments

Rather than a theme and variations for piano, let’s take a look at some variations on the theme of the piano itself.

Early keyboard instruments that were largely capable of just a single dynamic level, such as the virginal, clavichord, harpsichord and organ, are familiar enough. Generally regarded as the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori’s early 18th-century creation of one that could produce gradual variations in sound was just one of the extended family of cousins that the keyboard has spawned over the centuries.thym-piano

Some idea of the magnitude of the contrast in tonal qualities of keyboard instruments from around Cristofori’s time can be appreciated by listening to Daniel Gottlob Türk’s keyboard sonatas (Grand Piano GP627-28), recorded on a variety of historical instruments available during his lifetime (1750-1813). The clavichord, spinet, harpsichord, fortepiano and tangent piano offer a good deal more variety than Steinway and Yamaha do today!

An even more interesting comparison pits the Yamaha against its forbears in recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano duets (Grand Piano GP619-20), with the repertoire on CD 1 recorded on a modern instrument and then repeated on CD 2 using accurate reproductions of the fortepianos Beethoven was composing on at the time.Mehterhane

In the late 18th century, Europe became fascinated with all things Turkish, the vogue extending from couture to classical music. Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Seraglio incorporates Turkish flavours, including the sounds of a Janissary band, comprising the vibrant sounds of piccolos, triangles, cymbals and drums of the Turkish military. Not to be left on the periphery of this latest fashion, piano manufacturers adapted instruments with extra pedals that, through a variety of clever means, also reproduced this in-your-face, percussive sound []. The last movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K331 (Naxos 8.550258) written in 1778 would no doubt have received numerous performances on such an instrument, being nicknamed the Turkish Rondo.

Mozart also owned a pedal piano. This was a standard instrument plus a pedal-board for the feet to play extra notes. It was favoured mostly by organists who could use it as a home practice instrument, but Robert Schumann was one of its more noted fans, writing a number of works for the instrument, including his Six Fugues on B-A-C-H Op. 60 and the Studies Op. 56.pleyel-double-piano

Music for two pianos, as opposed to a piano duet, became increasingly favoured by composers. Written in 1828, Chopin’s Rondeau in C major Op. 73 (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80637) is a good example. By the end of the century, the integration of the sound of the two instruments took the ultimate step through the building of an instrument made up of two conjoined instruments, called a double piano. The Pleyel piano manufacturing company was the most successful in promoting this instrument, though few examples survive today to be either seen or heard. Perhaps the most notable is one built in the 1920s and still taken on tour by the Nettle and Markham Piano Duo.

The piano duo genre has survived more robustly than the double piano instrument. Dating from 1969, Stockhausen’s Mantra for two pianists and electronics (Naxos 8.572398) is an interesting example.Celesta

Whereas the glockenspiel strikes individual metal bars, the celesta was capable of playing chords, rather than single notes. It was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel, a Parisian harmonium builder, and delighted Tchaikovsky who was introduced to it when passing through Paris en route for America. He had been wondering how best to represent the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in his ballet, The Nutcracker (Naxos 8.550050); with the invention of the celesta, his problem was conveniently solved.

At the turn of the 20th century, the pianola or player piano was extremely popular, ‘recording’ performances by an ingenious system of perforations on rolls of paper that were spooled to reproduce the music. Interest in the instrument inevitably declined when the early phonograph recordings improved in quality, but surviving rolls have preserved fascinating ‘recordings’ of unlikely names. Saint-Saëns playing his Rapsodie d’Auvergne Op. 73 is a case in point (Naxos Historical 8.110677).

Ondes_martenotWe shouldn’t forget the harmonium, of course, which has received sporadic attention from classical composers. Perhaps its best known appearance is in Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, and it’s most unlikely one in Schoenberg’s Herzgewächse (Naxos 8.557523), where it teams up with the celesta, harp and a high soprano to produce some stunning moments.

Let’s finish with the sounds of two keyboards nurtured by 20th-century composers. The first helped blaze a natural trail in the area of electronic keyboard sounds – the ondes Martenot. An invention of the Frenchman Maurice Martenot, which he perfected in 1928, it was one of the world’s first electronic instruments; the fact that it is still regularly performed on today is testament to the attractiveness and integrity of its sound. Most famous for its role in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony (Naxos 8.554478-79), there is a deal of other repertoire for the instrument that is worth hearing (Naxos 8.555779).toy-piano

Finally, to the baby of the family: the toy piano. Although it comes in many models, it is at its simplest a limited, diatonic, one-octave, metal-bar keyboard. Enjoy hearing how John Cage handled it at this level in his Suite for Toy Piano (1948), and with embellishments in his Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960) (Naxos American Classics 8.559726).