Why pianists don’t like being called accompanists

2nd June 2020 | Concerts, Musings | 8 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’.

8 Comments

  1. Mary Cohen

    A partnership at the very least!

    Reply
  2. Ivan

    Thanks as ever, Susan, for such knowledgeable and thought-provoking writing. As one who enjoys several kinds of music, I often have similar thoughts when listening, for example, to the famous popular singers of the 1930s and 1940s. You may often hear a violin or piano or muted trumpet doing virtuosic and gorgeous things while ‘accompanying’; yet the musicians’ identities are not revealed. By the way, I hope your recent birthday was enjoyable, despite the lock-down!

    Reply
  3. Susan Tomes

    Thank you everyone for this kind feedback!

    Ivan, you’re quite right, there are so many unsung heroes who contribute wonderful things to musical performances, and we rarely know their names.

    I think ‘accompanying’ as a member of a band or orchestra is a slightly different thing to the role of the pianist as discussed in the blog post – partly because the sort of contributions you’re highlighting are often brief or incidental – but I do know what you mean!

    Reply
  4. Jeremy Hill

    The competition world does have particular characteristics that I suggest don’t lend themselves to either the creation of a firm partnership/duo, or its presentation as such; it is, after all, only the young musician who is competing here, and where the spotlight will focus. However, that doesn’t justify ignoring the pianist/other musicians who are part of the performance. I would contrast this series of programmes with the last Cardiff Singer of the World, where I recall Llyr Williams was rightly praised for his contributions.

    Gerald Moore’s autobiography “Am I Too Loud? memoirs of an accompanist” may have raised his profile, but can hardly have helped the situation. There remains no other obvious word for him and his successors – wonderful pianists (for the most part) whose careers have concentrated on partnerships with singers and other instrumentalists.

    Such partnerships have emphasised the value beyond the concept of the “hired accompanist”, and, along with appropriate consideration and mention of all the performers, should help to redress the balance.

    Reply
  5. Amy Zanrosso

    Thank you so much for this! The word accompanist has always made me cringe and I avoid it at all costs. I’m usually smiling through gritted teeth when people use it in relation to me or any of my pianist friends. Your blog post clarified the issue even further for me – we do not play the accompo!!!

    Reply
  6. Susan Tomes

    Amy, thanks for getting in touch. I hope you’ll gently correct people next time they call you an accompanist!

    Reply
  7. Jeanell Carrigan

    Amazing blog. Thank you so much for this!

    Reply

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