Why pianists don’t like being called accompanists

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 June 2020 under Concerts, Musings  •  7 Comments

The other night, after watching the last in the category finals of ‘BBC Young Musician’, I tweeted that I had now watched the wind, brass and string finals and had not once heard them mention the name of any of the pianists who played with the young competitors. My tweet attracted a (for me) high number of ‘likes’, retweets and replies. Amongst the replies were quite a few which, though expressing support, innocently used the word ‘accompanist’ to describe the pianist: ‘Yes, you should always thank the accompanist!’

I tried to reply to each with a brief explanation of why the word ‘accompanist’ is a thorn in the side of most pianists, but it became too time-consuming, so here are a few observations.

Many, perhaps most of the composers who have written great ‘partnership’ music for piano and another instrument were pianists – often famous pianists – themselves. They composed their symphonies and operas at the piano. They were accustomed to thinking of the piano as the bedrock of music. In their works, the piano is the instrument which carries the musical arc from beginning to end. When writing for the piano and another instrument such as the violin, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms thought of the piano as ‘first among equals’. On the title page they called their duo sonatas ‘for piano and violin’ – not the other way round.

How society viewed the relationship between piano and violin is shown by an advert placed in a Viennese newspaper in 1789, when Mozart was living there. ‘Wanted by nobleman: a servant who plays the violin well, to accompany difficult piano sonatas.’ 

There are several interesting assumptions in that sentence. Amongst them: that the violin accompanies the piano, and that the difficulty resides in the piano part.

In 1827 (the year Beethoven died), The Gentleman’s Magazine in England wrote an obituary of a gentleman who was gifted in music and ‘accompanied his father on the violin’.

Later in the 19th century the rise of ‘stars’ like the violinist Paganini caused a shift in the way that music for piano and violin (or other single-line instruments) was advertised. Partly because of the platform demeanour of these ‘personalities’, and their well-publicised off-stage lives, the single-line instrument started to be perceived as the star. By the early 20th century we were starting to see adverts for ‘violin recitals’ in which the violinist’s name was printed in big letters, and the pianist’s in small letters. The trend continued. When LP records came in, punters got used to seeing album covers of, say, Beethoven duo sonatas with a cover image of the violinist only. The pianist’s name was on the back cover.

The content of the music had not changed. Musically, it was still piano-based. But the rise of celebrity culture, and associated promotional tricks, trained audiences to see the violinist (or whoever) as ‘the soloist’. Of course, the violin part of many sonatas is immensely difficult, but that doesn’t take away from the difficulty of the piano part in most of the classical repertoire.

The pianist became ‘the accompanist’, a switch which would undoubtedly have enraged Beethoven and co. Along with this demotion came others. ‘Soloists’ thought they should be paid more than ‘accompanists’. The switch of language had far-reaching effects.

The word ‘accompanist’ is particularly demeaning because it does not even indicate the instrument being played!  It distorts the relationship between the two musicians, implying that one of them has the ‘true’ role, and the other one has a role in relation to the first  – as in the phrase ‘man and wife’. Feminism has taught us to de-construct that kind of language, and we should do the same with ‘violinist and accompanist’.

Let me end by quoting the wonderful reply of American pianist Robert Levin when asked if he was the accompanist. He replied, ‘No, I do not play the accompano’.

Exploring the Shelves, #14: Mendelssohn finds his voice

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 May 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Volume One of Mendelssohn’s complete solo piano music is on my music desk.  Mendelssohn was an astonishingly precocious chap and wrote some of his finest music – the Octet for Strings, for example – when still a teenager. He was first and foremost a pianist, so it’s intriguing that his earliest masterpiece was not for his own instrument.

In his mid-teens he wrote a huge amount of piano music, much of it inspired by Bach and Beethoven. He was studying counterpoint and fugues, which often found their way into his pieces. Right from the start, he had an easy command of the keyboard. Swathes of notes are offered with a light touch. Some of those early pieces might have benefitted from an editor’s red pencil, but there’s something sweet about the way he feels he can have your attention for as long as it takes. You can just imagine him as a teenager.

At the age of 16 he wrote Seven Characteristic Pieces opus 7 (1825), a collection of etudes, wistful little ‘mood pieces’ , and complicated fugues dedicated to his piano teacher. You can feel him trying out styles he later used to compelling effect in his Songs without Words and his piano chamber music.

His choice of the word ‘Characteristic’ is puzzling. Did he mean characteristic of Bach, for example? Or did he just mean that each piece had a distinct character? I smiled to remember a tale I once heard about a Hollywood film session player in the early 20th century. The boys were about to record a bit of Cuban dance music for a cartoon. One of the players was caught on tape calling out to the producer, ‘Is this supposed to be typical?’

So I suppose Mendelssohn’s pieces are supposed to be typical.

I played all the way to the final one before I heard the spark we associate with Mendelssohn at his best. No 7, ‘light and airy’, is a scherzo of the kind he was so good at (and in E major, a key in which he was so much at home). For much of the piece, the right and left hands alternate as they patter about the keyboard. On the final page, a surprise: as we approach what looks like being a throwaway ending, he pulls the rug from under our feet by making an unexpected turn to a minor key and a serious mood. A deep bass E tolls as the piece’s only legato arpeggio glides up into the high treble, slows down, and hovers there.

It’s quite common to find a piece in a minor key ending in the major. Much less usual is to find a long and cheery piece ending abruptly in a minor key.

This twist in the tale was quite exciting. Many of the previous pieces in the set had seemed a bit like composition exercises, but suddenly I felt I was hearing Mendelssohn’s true imaginative voice.

Exploring the Shelves, 13: Schumann’s obsessions

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 May 2020 under Inspirations  •  3 Comments

I have tons of piano music by Schumann and in lockdown I’ve been working through the volumes.

Now, I’ve always been a huge fan of Schumann, but I have to admit that when you spend a day going through some of his, shall we say, less focused piano music you become very aware of his tendency to obsess. To hit on a motif and worry it to death. To slip sideways into a lyrical phrase in a deliciously unexpected key and then not be able to think of anything to do with it except repeat it (several times). To work up a storm of energy and then sustain it for so long that you realise he’s got himself trapped and and is struggling in the semiquavers like a fly in treacle.

Recently I’ve been exploring longer sets or ‘cycles’ such as the Humoreske, the Novelletten, the Sonata in G minor, and the five-movement Faschingschwank aus Wien. This last, which means ‘Carnival prank from Vienna’, is a collection of virtuosic pieces intended to be fantastical and humorous in tone. Energetic and ebullient they are, if not actually humorous – at least not to my ears.

Over the years I’ve often thought that I should learn these pieces to concert standard and play them in recitals. I embark on practising them, only to become discouraged by pages and pages of airless figuration. The photo of a couple of pages from the Novelletten will indicate, even if you can’t see the notes clearly, the unvarying nature of the figuration, the lack of rests and silences. All his big pieces seem to have such pages, often in the final movement (where they are not welcome). I can visualise only too well the fidgeting I’ve noticed in the audience when Schumann gets into what modern listeners might call ‘OCD mode’. It happens in his chamber music too.

Yet when I revisit these piano pieces I realise that repetition is only one side of Schumann’s coin. The other side is his astonishing ability to break out of an obsessive pattern and come up with something of piercing beauty, often just when you were getting fed up with him. The slow movement of the G minor Sonata. The lyrical episodes tucked away in the Novelletten. The genius of the ‘Stimme aus der Ferne’ (voice from the distance) which suddenly speaks in a small quiet voice in the middle of Novellette no 8, recalling a tune composed by Clara, at that time estranged from him. The fourth-movement Intermezzo of the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, a rush of completely convincing ardour in the midst of rather dogged repetition in the surrounding movements.

It’s as if Schumann knew he had to work himself into a kind of trance, playing things over and over at his piano, making his ears ring with sound before he could get into the state of mind where a heavenly vision would be vouchsafed him. We, his fans, suffer with him in order to reach those glorious moments.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 May 2020 under Daily Life, Musings  •  9 Comments

It’s been eight weeks in lockdown now. (Photo: Edinburgh Castle with no visitors.)

On the whole, I have been coping fine. Long experience of working at home had prepared me for #stayhome. However, it turns out that my peace of mind during solitary periods of preparation was dependent on having complementary times when I knew I’d go out and deliver the fruits of whatever I had been preparing. Performances are the ‘equal and opposite reaction’ which makes it all feel meaningful.

Deprived of performances, it has gradually become more difficult to keep the faith. All my work has been cancelled. At first, it looked as if that would just be for a few months. Then, as various versions of the future were put forward, we all realised that there could be a ‘long tail’ of consequences.  Diaries looked empty not just for weeks but for months … or more. Concert promoters realised that there is no easy way to introduce social distancing into the traditional concert hall.

You may have seen the latest plans for train companies to ‘stagger’ their seating so that each passenger is the only person in a row of four seats (this assumes a train carriage where all the rows are facing the same direction). Passenger 1 takes a window seat in Row 1 on the left. Passenger 2 takes a window seat in Row 2 on the right. Passenger 3 takes a window seat in Row 3 on the left. And so on. The same principle could be applied in concert halls – more easily in some than in others – but clearly, only a fraction of the usual audience could be present. So, would ticket prices have to double or treble to make up for the missing patrons? If not, how long would it be before the system collapsed?

I read in the New York Times the other day that there are two ends to any pandemic: the medical end, when the disease dies out in the general population, and the social end, when people cease to be fearful about catching the disease. The social end always comes later. This is the problem facing the arts world. I ask friends when they think they’ll feel confident to attend, say, a concert or a play. Their replies tend to indicate dates further and further away. They used to say, ‘In the summer, I hope’, and now they mostly say, ‘Probably not this year.’ I have caught myself wondering if I’ll ever step out onto a concert platform again without wondering whether virus particles are circulating in the hall.

These are big worries for any musician. The one I’m thinking about today is identity, that mysterious sense of ‘What is my role in the world? What particular thing do I have to contribute?’ There’s only so long we can go on telling ourselves that we ‘are performers’ if we’re not actually performing and have no idea of when we might next perform. If we cannot actually interact with audiences, and if audiences are starting to express anxiety at the idea of going to concerts, the feeling of ‘being a performer’ starts to become latent rather than active. Our sense of ‘having a role in the world’ becomes a bit hazy.

Work-wise, I have two identities – pianist and writer.  In lockdown, I’ve noticed that my sense of identity as a writer hasn’t been damaged at all – if anything, it’s been enhanced, because I’ve been able to communicate with quite a few readers and correspondents who have more time than usual to discuss things. But my identity as a performer has been rattled (just temporarily, I hope). On some days I feel I’m just that woman down the road who plays the piano day after day in her living-room. My sense of having ‘something particular to contribute’ is shaken by having no opportunities to contribute it. (Don’t say the word ‘Zoom’.)

Of course, we all hope that the next chapter won’t be as bad as we sometimes fear. But this mini-loss of identity is another example of the effects of lockdown. It’s hard to feel that we must keep practising our instruments because someone somewhere is looking forward to hearing us next week, next month – and because we are looking forward to playing to them, hearing their  silences and murmurs as they listen.

Exploring the shelves, 12: Dvorak’s Humoresques

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 May 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  5 Comments

Another find in a secondhand book sale was a volume of Dvorak Humoresques. Who knew there were eight of them for piano? I confess I only really knew the Humoresque made famous by Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and others in arrangements for violin and piano. Kreisler’s luscious ‘slides’ from one note to another ring in my ears as I think of his recording.

But the Humoresques were actually written for piano. Dvorak was in the middle of a three-year stint as Director of the Music Conservatory in New York. He looked forward to the summer holidays when he could take the boat back to Europe, travel to his summer house in Bohemia and compose without interruption. In 1894 he took with him the sketches for some pieces which, it seems, he had intended to call ‘New Scottish Pieces’. They emerged eventually as Humoresques, a title suggesting ‘good mood’ or ‘good humour’ rather than something amusing.

The Humoresques are charming, folk-like, songful, with an open character. Yet almost all of them are in ‘difficult’ keys with forests of sharps and flats. No 7, the famous one, is in G flat major (six flats). It’s quite tricky to skip about (‘Scottishly’) on the black keys without slipping off and hitting other keys you didn’t mean to hit.

When I was little, I enjoyed sightreading books of piano music, but I used to flick through the pages, checking for key-signatures bristling with sharps or flats and bypassing those pieces in favour of ones in ‘easier’ keys. It was a long time before it dawned on me that some things are actually easier to play in ‘black-note’ keys. It’s to do with the fact that the black keys on the piano lie a little higher than the white ones. If you are playing mainly on the black keys, the white keys lie ‘below’ and don’t get in your way as you move about. Conversely, if you are playing something complicated on the white keys, your fingers may stumble against black keys as you move about. So although it seems counter-intuitive, ‘black note keys’ do sometimes make the pianist’s task easier.

G flat major is the key of one of Schubert’s loveliest Impromptus (D899). Some old editions transpose it into G major, so that the music is easier to read. Easier to read, yes, but not easier to play. I learned it in G major and was mortified when I discovered Schubert wrote it in G flat. When I re-learned it in G flat, I realised that some of the rippling patterns actually lay better under the hands.

In Dvorak’s case, though, I’m not convinced that his use of ‘difficult’ keys was entirely for the pianist’s sake. His choice of six flats for the lovely Humoresque no 7 seems a little bit forced. This one probably is easier in G major, the key in which violinists like to play it. I’ve heard string players play it in various keys, actually – none of them G flat major!

I’ve often felt that for Dvorak, writing in ‘difficult’ keys had some sort of emotional meaning. It’s as though he felt his great melodic gift would mislead people into thinking that composition was easy for him. He wanted to be thought a serious composer in the classical tradition. His mentor Brahms was fond of writing piano music in ‘difficult’ keys, and it may be that Dvorak somehow associated a phalanx of sharps and flats with serious artistic endeavour.