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’.