More Thoughts on Performance Practices

This past semester I took a detour into historical instruments. Seemed appropriate, as I have been playing so much Baroque music lately. I played harpsichord and organ in the Baroque Ensemble, and spent a few weeks after the end of the semester playing and performing on some of the pianos in Berkeley’s 19th century historical piano collection. I played works by C.P.E. Bach and Haydn on a 5-octave replica of a Viennese Walter fortepiano from ca. 1790, and some Beethoven and Fanny Mendelssohn on a replica of a Graf fortepiano from ca. 1820. Learning this repertoire on instruments similar (if not identical) to the kinds of instruments these composers were playing on themselves was eye-opening. 

I’ve always been skeptical of some aspects of historically-informed performance practices. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the question of whether or not one should pedal J.S. Bach’s music. I’ve had several teachers who belonged firmly in the “don’t pedal Bach” camp, which is an approach to playing his music I have disagreed with for a long time. While it’s necessary to be careful with the pedal to preserve the contrapuntal lines, to insist that because the harpsichord had no pedal, it’s incorrect to use the pedal on the modern instrument seemed like an overreach. Historically, my defense for using pedal in Bach revolved around the idea that not everything he wrote was intended for the harpsichord. Plenty of music was written with the clavichord or organ in mind, both of which have a better ability to sustain notes. In addition, Bach is celebrated as one of creative geniuses in Western music who used every instrument at his disposal. If the fortepiano had been better developed during his lifetime, it seems likely that he would have expanded his compositional toolbox to accommodate the new capabilities of fortepianos that developed after his death. Now, after playing on these historical instruments, I realize that using the pedal is idiomatic to the modern instrument. Playing Bach without pedal tends to sound too dry and a little bit “off” because the modern instrument’s ability to dampen sound is so efficient. In contrast, playing this music on a harpsichord (or without pedal on an early fortepiano) produces a fairly resonant, warm sound — closer to the type of sound achieved by using a pedal on the modern instrument. 

When I first started playing these historical instruments, the initial adjustment wasn’t too complicated. The basic keyboard interface is the same (well, the white/black key layout on the 5-octave is reversed, but the fundamental layout is the same). The Graf seemed like an easy-to-play piano, and the Walter was similar to the harpsichord, which I had a semester’s-worth of experience with. However, as I became more comfortable on the instruments, the little differences became apparent. Most fundamentally, sound production is different. On these old instruments, there is a strong attack followed by an extremely fast decay (very similar to a harpsichord’s sound-shape); on modern instruments, there is a soft attack, a swell, and then a slow decay. This sound-shape, combined with the straight-stringing the bass strings (as opposed to the resonant cross-stringing of modern instruments) allowed chords to be evenly voiced (as opposed to weighting the top and bottom of the chords); inner voices to be played more equally; pedaling was completely different; the shallowness of the key depth meant that long-engrained fingering patterns used during passagework didn’t work as well; repeated notes required a new strategy without the double-escapement mechanism. 

When I was studying piano in school, I was taught that pianos in the 18th and 19th centuries were different. Professors mentioned that actions were lighter, keys were smaller, there were knee pedals before foot pedals came along, it took a while to figure out double-escapement, etc. But, it was wildly understated the degree to which these differences manifested. I was under the impression that older pianos felt like a Steinway piano with a super light touch. Actually playing on these fortepianos made me understand that it was a completely different instrument. Moreover, beyond understating the mechanical differences between fortepianos and the modern piano (whose design didn’t stabilize until the late-19th century), there was almost no mention of how these mechanical differences affect modern interpretation. At this moment, historically-informed performance practice is regarded as the gold-standard of “correct” playing. It seems like most pianists are being taught a fantasy that it’s possible to play the standard repertoire in a “historically correct” way, when we are, in fact, playing on a fundamentally different instrument than what these pieces were composed for. Different instruments require different strategies for technique and interpretation. 

For example, one of the first things I noticed on the fortepianos was that it was actually possible to execute all of the articulation and pedal markings; second, the weirdly fast tempo markings from the early 19th century might actually be possible when the action is as shallow and light as it is; and third, the music makes more sense on these instruments. I didn’t realize how much constant negotiation I was doing between a 19th century score and a modern piano. This is most obvious in regards to pedal — even on the newer Graf, the pedal is supposed to be used as a special effect, as opposed to the constant, subtle pedaling required by modern pianos with aggressive dampening capabilities. For example, the first movement of the Moonlight sonata has the instruction, “this whole piece must be played very delicately and with pedal.” On the modern instrument, you can pedal fairly deep, and usually change pedals as the harmonies change. On the fortepianos, you can just put your foot down once, at the beginning of the piece, and keep it down the whole movement. The sound decays quickly enough that that kind of pedaling isn’t excessive, but expressive. 

Playing on these instruments also made works like Busoni’s Bach transcriptions make more sense. Briefly hopping onto the Erard, I immediately noticed that the piano had ineffective dampening capabilities, because the dampers sat below the string. From that one piece of information, it’s evident that musicians who wanted to play J.S. Bach’s music could not play it how it was written without it turning into mush. These composers wrote in a way that took into account all of the affordances of their technology. 

It seems disingenuous, then, that many pianists are taught that it’s wrong to defy the composer’s intentions when in reality, it’s impossible to achieve those intentions at all because we’re playing a different instrument. I’m lucky to be at Berkeley and have continued access to these historical instruments. But even if that wasn’t the case, I think my approach to playing much of the canonical repertoire would be transformed from having played these older keyboard iterations. It’s exciting to have this new area to explore; we’ll see where it goes!