Susan Tomes

Why are pianists in duos all too often described as accompanists when they play the lion's share of the notes? Pianist Susan Tomes redresses the balance

Susan Tomes
Published: January 26, 2010 at 9:47 am

This February you're teaching a piano chamber music masterclass with a difference…


When you go to string masterclasses, you find a room full of, say, violinists and one person who’s employed to play the piano for all of them and expected to play whatever’s put in front of them. Over the years it’s gradually led to a wrong perception and dual works for two equal partners came to be viewed as works for solo violin with accompaniment, which is completely wrong from a musical point of view. I thought it would be fun and eye-opening to have a room full of piano students and a couple of resident string players, and a neat way of making the educational point that there's another way to view this literature for duos. I’m lucky to have secured the help of two fine young musicians, violinist Sulki Yu and cellist Sebastiaan van Halsema, to be my ‘resident’ string players for the masterclass weekend.

Where do you think this idea of the predominance of the soloist came from?

[Using the same pianist throughout masterclasses] is a very common practice that, I understand, arose when conservatoires came into being in the middle of the 19th century. At that point it was an economical way for string players to get to know the repertoire without requiring each of them to bring along their own pianist. Many composers of what’s now the mainstream repertoire from Mozart through Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms were pianists themselves and they very often called their works sonatas for piano and violin, and not the other way round. If anything the lion’s share is carried by the piano, with the violin playing an important partnership role. Pianists in a later era found themselves converted into accompanists, and often described that way in the literature advertising concerts. A violinist like Jascha Heifetz was certainly not averse to having his duo recital advertised with his name alone! A cult of personality gradually grew up, and gradually had its influence on the way that collaborative works were viewed.

But the same problem doesn't arise in larger piano chamber groups?

I play in the Florestan piano trio and no one has ever suggested my role is that of an accompanist, yet if I’m playing with just one other person the situation flips over and I find I’m not regarded in the same way. It's strange. Yet if anyone came along with no preconceptions about the music, it would be crystal clear that it was for a duo.

What are the pitfalls of teaching in masterclasses?

Masterclasses are tricky situations as sometimes you’ve never heard the person before, and you may never meet them again. You have one chance to say something helpful. At the same time you’ve got people listening in masterclasses, so I find I have to think quite carefully about what to say – you can’t put people in a humiliating position. The focus is on something greater than the whole.

Which are the most memorable masterclasses you've taken part in?

At Prussia Cove for several years I enjoyed the classes by Sándor Végh, the Hungarian violinist and learnt about the whole repertoire from hearing him talk. I went to the masterclasses of another Hungarian, the pianist György Sebök, in Canada, Switzerland and Holland for a number of years. He was a real master of the masterclass format and talked so everyone in the room could learn something from someone else’s lesson.

You're a writer as well, and your third book is out this spring…

18 March, I hope! [It's called] Out of Silence. All my books so far are attempts to give a little insight into the life of the performer. This particular one is to show how the events of everyday life provide stimulus in my search for musical ideas and solutions. I found with my other books that people don’t know a great deal of what goes into making a musical performance, and they are quite often surprised and interested. There’s more that I and others could do to show what goes on behind the scenes. Not in a gossipy way, but showing what goes into rehearsal, what goes into private practice, what makes musicians motivated.

Interview by Rebecca Franks


If readers wish to attend these masterclasses, which take place on 6 & 7 February 2010, please contact Imogen Smart, the general administrator of the Florestan Trust at There is a fee to attend, but students can attend free of charge as long as they leave their name with Imogen Smart in advance.

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