Piano notes

Why are pianists good at writing about music, asks Rebecca Franks

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Writing about music, like dancing about architecture, is often portrayed as an essentially futile activity. After all, music, if Felix Mendelssohn is to be believed, expresses the inexpressible. Why tread all over pure music with clumsy words?

Well, the task may be difficult, but it doesn’t stop countless writers, journalists and musicians having a go. And of this latter group – the performers who attempt to explain or capture something of music in words – it often seems to be pianists who do the best job. Robert Schumann was one of the first, juggling criticism with chromatics in his early career. As the 20th century in particular proved, he was not alone in enjoying this blend of talents. 

Charles Rosen's The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation have become classic texts; his recent Music and Sentiment another gem. Meanwhile reflections on life as a chamber musician in Beyond the Notes and Out of Silence, have earned pianist Susan Tomes glowing reviews. Alfred Brendel might have left the concert stage, but his poetry is providing a second career, and that's on top of two books of published essays. Yevgeny Sudbin writes his own programme and CD booklet notes, not to mention recently penning a BBC Music Magazine feature about Alexander Scriabin. Stephen Hough and Jonathan Biss write engaging blogs, while the one-of-a-kind Glenn Gould was a prolific writer about music.

Compare that to the small handful of writer-musicians who play other instruments: cellist Steven Isserlis, a published and popular author, is one of only a few examples. There’s a smattering of blogs – violinist Hilary Hahn and singer Joyce DiDonato spring to mind – but not many instrumentalists and singers write entire books about music. Conductors, perhaps, are the other exception. Sir Adrian Boult has several books to his name (although you’ll have to delve around in a secondhand store to find them today), and Sir Georg Solti penned a memoir. But then conductors are often seen as a breed apart, and if one wanted to push the point, what conductor hasn’t put in hours at the ivories?

So, I've been pondering, what is it about the mindset of the pianist that makes them put pen to paper? I've toyed with a few explanations. Perhaps it springs from the particular demands of playing the piano – a singularly independent instrument that often finds its practioner toiling away alone at the keyboard, separate from other musicians. Of course, that’s just one view of a pianist’s life – I’m sure chamber musicians, accompanists, orchestral pianists and repetiteurs feel far from alone. But still there’s a sense that the pianist is a lone creature. Like the writer.

When allowed to roam free among the other instrumentalists, the pianist is still an unusual species. In chamber groups they are, as Susan Tomes notes in the introduction to Beyond the Notes, the only person to see the whole score. Pianists, like writers, need to simultaneously grasp the overall architecture of a piece and the detail.

Perhaps the writing spark happens because so many of the composers whose music forms the pillars of the piano repertoire were interested in literature, poetry and art. Think of the Romantics – Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. Debussy, who famously preferred the company of artists to that of musicians; Beethoven, who revered the novelist Johann von Goethe (his writing, not the man). Pianists are immersed in the writer's world.

Or could the explanation be more scientific – in a nutshell, music's often thought to help enhance other abilities, why not writing? But, then the argument goes, why would the pianist be any different than, say, the violinist. Erik Levi, reviewing Out of Silence earlier this year wrote, 'In my experience highly gifted performers often find it extremely difficult to articulate their ideas about music and reveal the secrets of their craft through writing.' But some do, and, to return back to my original theory, it's often pianists. Why? Please do add your own thoughts…

 Rebecca Franks is online editor and staff writer for BBC Music Magazine

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