The Sound of Genius
In an article published yesterday, I was interested to read about one of Mozart’s fortepianos returning to his home after being removed over a hundred years ago. While Mozart owned many pianos during his lifetime, this one was used during his last nine years. This instrument helped give life to over fifty works including his late concertos.
But this fortepiano is essentially a pianistic Model T in regards to innovation and technological upgrades when compared to later instruments. While its history and owner make it a valuable collectible and wonderful museum piece, there is a greater impact it could provide for the musical world: its sound.
As I learn a new score, I am guided by the motto “When you drink the water, remember the spring.” Simply put, this means that while crafting an understanding of the music, one must fully understand not only the composer’s intentions, but also the other historical implications and influences. The water (music) is the product of the spring (the composer.) As water initially emerges from a source, it has already been altered by a number of unseen influences based on the journey thus far. As it proceeds to migrate away from the source and travel downstream, its flavor begins to change further as it comes in contact with other materials. And just as it is with the water, the further music is removed from its point of origination, the more it picks up influences and possible impurities which can alter the flavor. The value in proximity to a product’s site of origination is why several companies pride themselves for being “bottled at the source.”
But how does this connect to the sound of an old piano? At least once a month someone mentions to me how they wish they could hear a recording made by a famous composer who lived decades before audio recording was discovered. They too understand the value of the source. Through this piano, we are able to be transported to the late 1700’s and hear the sound that Mozart worked with on a daily basis, we are able to get a taste from very close to the source. The tone it makes and the type of attacks and decay the instrument produces are all valuable resources in understanding how it shaped his tempos, phrasing and musicality. This “fresher and brighter” sound has the power to enlighten and guide a performer’s interpretation and provide a better understanding to Mozart’s music.
Fortunately they have plans to hold public performances on Mozart’s last piano. But until that time, you can hear another fortepiano from that period. NPR has hosted an interview and concert by the talented Kristian Bezuidenhout on their site. You might find yourself surprised at the clarity of bass lines free of excessive overtones, the nimbleness in melodic material, and the instrument’s ability if you listen closely, to transport you back in time.
Also, one last note: If you are a pianist who is either about to work on, have performed, or are just someone who enjoys Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, do yourself a favor and listen to Gershwin’s recordings from 1924, 1926, and his piano roll transcriptions. You’ll find that he really knows how to play his own music and shows you exactly what he had in mind. It’s one of those great situations where we do have a recording of a great composer performing their own work. It is a shame that more pianists don’t use this as a guide.