Saturday, June 25, 2011

Manual Transmission

Before sound recordings became widely available, a primary medium for the spread of new orchestral music was the piano transcription, in particular the transcription for four-handed playing.* Nowadays, I don't think there is a major music publisher that would pay for the extraction of a four-handed arrangement of a major new piece (piano concertos perhaps excepted.) While some things were definitely gained in the change of media — timbral variety, of course, but certainly the volume and spatial presence of a large ensemble in a larger room, as well as the record of particular musicians' interpretations, with all the wonderful nuances that can be included — some things were also lost. These include a tactile relationship with the notes that can only come from playing them oneself and also — in four-handed playing especially — the joy of making music in company. But also, the fact that practice, even for the most gifted sight-reader, means working in fits and starts, moving in and out of the piece's own temporal continuity, can leads, in combination with that tactility, to a more immediately analytical and interpretive engagement with the music. This is not to say that listening to recordings can not be analytical and there is certainly music which is so technically difficult to play from the page, that one may scarcely have an instant's thought about what one is playing, but generally speaking, recordings do invite passive listening (you can, after, do the dishes while listening to a recording, but not while playing secundo in a four-hander of a Mahler Symphony) and playing from the page is a qualitatively different experience, not least because, when playing, you, with all of your experience, tastes, and talents, are an essential element of the performance.


* I caught the tail end of the American music-making-in-the-parlor experience. My father's mother was a very good piano player and once even played Paderewski's famous Minuet for the composer who was taking his usual cure in her hometown of Paso Robles. Her favorite composer was, however, Sibelius, and she still had part of Valse Triste under her fingers in her 80s. My maternal grandparents were not wealthy, but they did afford themselves a piano, a pretty good upright Steinway, with a bench full of sheet music, mostly popular classics and the whole corpus of sentimental Irish-American popular songs. I loved to play four-handed with my grandmother, but I loved best of all, at the end of some party, when one of her school teaching colleagues would sit down to play what they called "Honky-Tonk". He played pop songs from the early 20th century and a smattering of tunes from the Methodist Hymnal (my grandmother, Irish, was R.C., my grandfather, Dutch and Reformed, but the Methodist Hymnal seemed to be preferred by all) by ear, all in F#, that is, mostly on the black keys, and everyone would sing along. To this day, I probably have a better command of popular music from the first three decades of the 20th century than of the last four.

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