Development Of Pianoforte Music

UP to the time of Beethoven, music for the pianoforte consisted mainly of program me  music of the purely descriptive order, that is to say, it was generally imitative of natural or artificial externals. To be sure, if we go back to the old clavecinists, and examine the sonatas of Kuhnau, sundry pieces by Couperin, Rameau, and the Germans, Froberger, C. P. E. Bach and others, we find the beginnings of that higher order of program me music which deals directly with the emotions; and not only that, but which aims at causing the hearer to go beyond the actual sounds heard, in pursuance of a train of thought primarily suggested by this music.

To find this art of program me music, as we may call it, brought to a full flower, we must seek in the mystic utterances of Robert Schumann. lt is wise to keep in mind, however, that although Schumann’s piano music certainly answers to our definition of the higher program me music, it also marks the dividing line between emotional program me music without a well-defined object and that dramatically emotional art which we have every reason to believe was aimed at by Beethoven in many of his sonatas, and which, in its logical development and broadened out by orchestral colors and other resources, is championed by Richard Strauss at the present day.

We have already learned that C. P. E. Bach had entirely broken with the contrapuntal style of his father and his age in order to gain freer utterance, and that the word ” colour ” began to be used in his time in connection with music for even one instrument. It is, perhaps, needless to say that the vastly enlarged possibilities, both technical and tonal, of the newly invented forte-piano were largely the outcome of this seeking for colour in music. In addition to this, the new art of harmonic dissonances was already beginning to stretch out in the direction of new and strange tonal combinations, thus giving to the music written for the instrument many new possibilities in the way of causing and depicting emotions. That the first experiments were puerile, we know, as, for example, Haydn’s attempts, in one of his pianoforte sonatas, to suggest the conversion of an obdurate sinner.

When we consider Mozart, it is impossible to forget the fact that in his piano works he was first and foremost a piano virtuoso, a child prodigy, of whom filigree work was expected by the public for which he wrote his sonatas. (We cannot call this orientalism, for it was more or less of German pattern, traced from the fioriture of the ltalian opera singer.) Therefore, emotional utterance or even new or poetic colouring was not to be expected of him.

As has been said before, it remained for Beethoven to weld these new words and strange colours into poems, which, notwithstanding the many barnacles hanging to them (remnants of a past of timid adhesion to forms and fashions), are, in truth, the first lofty and dignified musical utterances with an object which we possess. I mean by this statement that his art was the first to cast aside the iron fetters of what then formed the canons of art. The latter may be described (even in reference to modern days) as constituting the shadow of a great man. And, although this is a digression, I may add that all students of piano music no doubt realize the weighty shadow that Beethoven cast over the first half of the nineteenth century, just as Wagner is doing at the present time.

Our purists are unable to realize that the shadows are the least vital part of the great men who cast them. We remember that the only wish expressed by Diogenes when Alexander came to see him was that the king should stand aside so that he could enjoy the light of the sun.

To return: We find that Beethoven was the first exponent of our modern art. Every revolution is bound to bring with it a reaction which seeks to consolidate and put in safe keeping, as it were, results attained by it. Certainly Beethoven alone can hardly be said to have furthered this end; for his revolt led him into still more remote and involved trains of thought, as in his later sonatas and quartets. Even the Ninth Symphony, hampered as it is by actual words for which declamation and a more or less well-defined form of musical speech are necessary, suffers from the same involved utterance that characterizes his last period.

Schubert, in his instrumental work, was too ardent a seeker and lover of the purely beautiful to build upon the forms of past generations, and thus his piano music, neither restrained nor supported by poetic declamation, was never held within the bounds of formalism.

It was Mendelssohn who first invested old and seemingly worn-out forms of instrumental music (especially for the pianoforte) with the new poetic license of speech, which was essentially the spirit of the age of revolution in which he lived.

In holding up Mendelssohn as a formalist against Beethoven, and at the same time presenting him as the composer directly responsible for our modern symphonic poem, there is a seeming contradiction, which, however, is more apparent than real. While Beethoven never hesitated to overturn form (harmonic or otherwise) to suit the exigencies of his inspiration, Mendelssohn cast all his pictures into well-defined and orthodox forms. Thus his symphonic poems, for example, the overtures to ” The Lovely Melusina,” ” Fingal’s Cave,” ” Ruy Blas,” etc., are really overtures in form; whereas, the so-called ” Moonlight ” sonata of Beethoven, as well as many others, are sonatas only in name. The emotional and problematic significance given by Mendelssohn to many of his shorter piano pieces, including even such works as preludes and fugues, is familiar to us all. These works, however, but rarely departed from the orthodox forms represented by their names. His ” Songs without Words ” have been so often quoted as constituting a new art form that it is well to remember that they are practically all cast in the same mould, that of the most simple song form, with one, and sometimes two more or less similar verses, preceded by a short introduction and ending with a coda.

We may say then, broadly, that Beethoven invested instrumental music with a wonderful poignancy and power of expression, elevating it to the point of being the medium of expressing some of the greatest thoughts we possess. In so doing, however, he shattered many of the great idols of formalism by the sheer violence of his expression.

Schubert, let me say again, seemed indifferent to symmetry, or never thought of it in his piano music. Mendelssohn, possibly influenced by his early severe training with Zelter, accepted symmetry of form as the cornerstone of his musical edifice; although he was one of the first in the realms of avowed programme music, he never carried it beyond the boundary of good form. And, as in speaking a moment ago of the so-called canons of musical art, we compared them with the shadows that great men have cast upon their times, it may be as well to remember that just this formalism of Mendelssohn overshadowed and still overshadows England to the present day. On the other hand, Beethoven’s last style still shows itself in Brahms, and even in Richard Strauss. Schumann was different from these three. His music is not avowed programme music; neither is it, as is much of Schubert’s, pure delight in beautiful melodies and sounds. lt did not break through formalism by sheer violence of emotion, as did Beethoven’s; least of all has it Mendelssohn’s orthodox dress. It represents, as well as I can put it, the rhapsodical reverie of a great poet to whom nothing seems strange, and who has the faculty of relating his visions, never attempting to give them coherence, until, perhaps, when awakened from his dream, he naïvely wonders what they may have meant. lt will be remembered that Schumann added titles to his music after it was composed.

To all of this new, strange music, Liszt and Chopin added the wonderful tracery of orientalism. As I have said before, the difference between these two is that with Chopin this tracery enveloped poetic thought as with a thin gauze; whereas with Liszt, the embellishment itself made the starting point for almost a new art in tonal combination, the effects of which are seen on every hand today. To realize its influence, one need only compare the graceful arabesques of the most simple piano piece of to-day with the awkward and gargoyle-like figuration of Beethoven and his predecessors. We may justly attribute this to Liszt rather than to Chopin, whose nocturne embellishments are but first cousins to those of the Englishman, John Field, though naturally Chopin’s Polish temperament gave his work that grace and pro-fusion of design which we have called orientalism.