Alexander Waugh

Music And Madness

Piano Notes: The Hidden World of the Pianist


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 246pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

THE COVER IS magnetic – a black-and-white photograph of George Gershwin’s crossed hands playing a C major 7th chord. If you can understand the allure of that. you  are the right reader for this book. Every aspect of it, from the cover inwards, has been tailored to the voracious appetite of the piano fetishist – the sort of person for whom the very sight of a black-and-white keyboard convulses the body with shivers of desire. There are more of us pervs about than you may care to imagine.

Once isolated figures, we are now an international movement, cross-pollinating ideas about out-of-print, left-handed arrangements of Chopin etudes on Internet forums, squabbling over the merits of the latest recording of Medtner’s Night Wind, offering each other fingering advice or bitterly complaining about the slur markings in a recent edition of Beethoven’s Bagatelles. What a life! We thmk we enjoy it (perhaps we do), but there is a paradox. The pianophile, like all fetishists, is ultimately only contented to follow his own nose. He desires to share information with like-minded enthusiasts. but usudv for the purpose of rejecting theirs and bolstering his own corner. He is conceited and blinkered, a hoarder and an addict, and predominantly male. His passions lead him down blind alleys, but still he forges on like a moth in pursuit of the moon. After a whlle hls ego and hs fetish hse so as to be indistinguishable one from the other. Findv he 1 dies unrequited, unresolved and beddered.

These instant reflections on the fetishist’s condition ‘I naturally disgorged themselves as I read Charles 1 Rosen’s Piano Notes. Rosen is an eminent concert I pianist – a pupil of Moriz Rosenthal, who in turn was a pupil of Liszt. ~osen’s most famous book, The Classical Style, was required reading when I was studying 0-level 1 Music in thk 1fi0s and it was pressed on me again Sometimes a piano during my last year of music at university. Both his playing and his writing proclaim him an intellectual. His performances of the Romantic repertoire have been criticised for a lack of expressive warmth, but he has gained an enviable reputation for his interpretations of modern music (particularly Elliott Carter, Boulez and Schoenberg) and as an all-rounder, a polymath who is expert not just in music, but mathematics, philosophy and literature as well. At heart though, at Rosen’s great, soft, unfulfilled centre, he is just another piano nut.

As the title of Piano Notes suggests, he has allowed himself the luxury of sounding off on a wide variety of disconnected ideas gleaned hm a long and distinguished lifetime of piano mania. He discourses on the action of the hammers, the infelicitous overuse of editing in classical recordings, the technique of playing a single-octave C major scale, the importance of sight-reading, the corruption among the adjudicators of international piano competitions, pedalling in Bach, legato in Mozart, and the proper attitude to difficult modern music.

In this rich minefield of attitude and dispersed information like-minded piano nuts will find much to acknowledge and much to repudiate. Personally, I was delighted by the author’s counsel on practising. Difficult pieces, Rosen argues, require many hours of ‘mindless’ practice in order to build up muscular memory. To this end, following Liszt’s advice, he reads while working at the keyboard. ‘Poetry’, he says, ‘interferes subtly with the rhythm of the music, and so does really adrmrable prose’; his favourites, therefore, are detective stories, sociology and literary criticism. Thinking this to be pure showingoff, I took a mediocre Edwardian novel called Joseph in Jeopardy to the piano and found, to my astonishment, that I could not only read it aloud while practising, but also memorise difficult passages of the music in half the time.

Equally. int erestin-g are Rosen’s thoug-h ts on ‘period performance practice’. I Most solo viano music from the tiGe of Bach at least until the end of the nineteenth century was originally conceived as Hausmusik – that is to say, music for the home. Schubert sonatas, for instance, were never given concert performances during the composer’s lifetime; they were played to friends at intimate gatherings in private houses. Yet when I we buy a CD recording we expect it to sound like a I cohcert-hall performance. is just a piano So much then for the composer’s original intentions.

By the very nature of the piano nut’s discursiveness, most of what Charles Rosen has to say in this book d doubtless be auibbled over: but that. as I say, reveals more about his readers than about Rosen and his excellent new work. He has a clever and original mind, able to reflect what is seemingly obvious from a virtuosic variety of new angles – an important and refreshing addendum to the maniac’s spiralling collection.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter