“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hands Together, Please

     I have been following a lengthy, sometimes heated, discussion on the turn-of-the-20th century practice of splitting chords between hands, sometimes referred to as rolling chords. The evidence in support of this theory is based largely, if not entirely, on recordings made at the ends of the careers of some legendary pianists who may or may not have sensed the import of these recordings. At the time, recording was a novelty, not the industry that it has become, and pianists very possibly were not thinking in terms of posterity, that they would be held up as an example of a particular style of playing. Still, there they are, these recordings, for us to ponder and marvel at. I personally love feeling the connection to the musical  past.

I don't dispute the notion that chords were often rolled for expressive purposes, rolled without authorization from the composer. I do dispute the notion that composers accepted this as a given, calmly acquiescing to the casual whims of any flamboyant virtuoso who happened to pick up a score. Here's why: Brahms and the others knew how to put a wavy line in the score—they often did—so why not put more of them in if that is really what they heard? It seems to me that by not putting in more wavy lines, they are telling us not to roll those chords. We have written accounts of distinguished musicians praising public performances for not deviating from the score. This tells me that, even though the practice may have been prevalent, it was not considered tasteful even at that time. It is definitely out of fashion today.
     I think what we're talking about is the propensity for playing with the hands slightly askew, a sort of rolled effect, to show how meaningful the music is. This was a style of playing that was both tolerated and enjoyed by different groups of players/listeners. I used to do it myself during the throes of adolescence to show how musical I was, not having heard anyone do it or being told to do it. It was both natural to me and annoying when I heard it back. I thought it distracted from the music. I still think so. I'm sure some pianists in the 19th century did it and some not. I would guess that Clara Schumann did not, as she was an advocate of the score and to my knowledge didn't write about this or make any indications in her editions. She virtually single-handedly changed the concert from a circus to the more serious piano recital we know today. So, for me, she has a certain authority. It seems to be about taste, which as we know changes. 
     It was suggested in the discussion that the modern way of playing, without rolling chords at will, began with pianists like, Backhaus, Rubinstein and Arrau. Well, Backhaus studied with Eugen d'Albert and heard d'Albert play the Brahms concertos with the composer conducting. Rubinstein's education was supervised by Joseph Joachim, a close associate of Brahms. Arrau studied in Berlin with Martin Krause, a pupil of Liszt. So, I have to wonder what influenced their approaches to expressive playing. Why did they opt not to roll chords and perpetuate a style of playing that is now considered old-fashioned? I suspect they caught on to the notion that music could be still more expressive without the distraction of superfluous ornamentation, which is what a rolled chord is, an ornament.     
I propose that those who enjoy this way of playing do so, keeping in mind that they might be thought eccentric by people who know the score. Yet, others who do not know the score might find it charming. This would be along the lines of Gould's experiments in playing "wrong" or differently in order to get people to listen to familiar music with fresh ears.

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