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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 485-494

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Art of the Piano

Denis Dutton

CHARLES ROSEN is so familiar to readers as an acute music theorist and historian of European ideas and literature that it is easy to forget that he is one of most stimulating and compelling pianists of the last fifty years. In Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist (Free Press, $25.00), he combines his intellectual and musical gifts to take stock of his profession as concert pianist. The result is engaging, insightful, and for lovers of piano artistry, not a little disturbing.

The piano, in case no one has noticed, is in steep, serious decline. My piano tuner, Adam Linning, began his career in Glasgow. He worked for the largest piano retailer in the city: it had seventeen tuners on the road in 1954, the year Glaswegians first got television. By 1959, when he left for New Zealand, there were three other tuners working with him. Adam explains the decline in terms of Glasgow apartment space. The piano and the TV had to share the living room, and so long as the room flickered with gray-blue light, the piano had to remain silent.

People used to gather around and sing together at the piano—in my childhood experience, any group of a dozen middle-class adults would contain at least one competent sight-reader who could play, if not Beethoven, then Christmas carols, reductions of Your Hit Parade songs, or scraps of boogie-woogie. This meant that there was abroad in the land a critical mass of amateur pianists who knew enough about music literature, notation, and performance to constitute a core audience for the piano masters of the day—Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau, Cherkassky, and the like—and who also had an appreciation of jazz greats such as Art Tatum.

The decline in the number of amateur pianists, people with knowledgeable admiration of piano playing, has tracked the decline of the [End Page 485] piano virtuoso as classical star. Recording too has played a role in these changes. I doubt that there was a greater love of classical music fifty years ago than now. But attendance at live performances of anything is no longer required in order to attain familiarity with repertoire. Recording, particularly from the LP era on, enormously enlarged general knowledge of the musical literature: people who a hundred years earlier would have been lucky to hear three Haydn symphonies or two Handel operas in a lifetime can now, no matter where they live, listen to them all. Recording did to music something like what the Roman alphabet and moveable type did for news and literature: it enabled the universal dispersal of all of music's products, the worst to the best. For years professional musicians tended not to appreciate this. While it is true that there are fewer people about who can actually play Scarlatti sonatas, that has to be balanced against the agreeable fact that knowledge of these small masterpieces is no longer limited to the fifty or sixty included in early editions, from which was derived the same two dozen that we would hear from pianists over and over. Now we can hear all 550+, and learn about them for ourselves (Arts & Letters Daily even links to a website where you can find any Scarlatti sonata in seconds, click on it, and listen.)

This is a big change. Keyboard virtuosity goes back a long time, even before Bach, although it was Liszt, as inspired by Paganini, who gave the piano its first real idol. Enter Edison a few decades later, and with his appearance it became possible for people to joke, "The only instrument I play is the phonograph." If there are fewer pianists able to make a living performing the classical repertoire today, it is because a world of mostly non-pianists that is oversupplied with CDs just doesn't need them all, either to hear the playing or enjoy the music.

A notable aspect of Charles Rosen's regard for piano playing is that he conveys no dewy-eyed nostalgia about...


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