The Joy of Piano-Playing

We pianists are expected to play three centuries of music on one kind of instrument, epitomized by the modern Steinway—largely unchanged since about 1890. It’s a fantastic tool, but it was designed for the smooth, long lines of late nineteenth century music.  

Earlier types of pianos reveal hidden aspects of older music, and I’ve had the privilege of playing them regularly for more than thirty-five years: antiques in private collections and museums, as well as modern replicas by the most accomplished builders. I’ve used them for concerts and recordings, in solo works, concertos, chamber music and song accompaniment. It’s been an incredible journey, and I feel very lucky. But much of what I learned from those instruments can be brought out on modern instruments as well, and that’s the story I wanted to tell. 

I’ve been gratified by the response to Piano-Playing Revisited: positive feedback from colleagues and students who found it useful as well as favorable reviews from the piano press. I was especially pleased with an invitation to do a “live” version of the book at the Oberlin Piano Festival in 2022. With four radically different pianos on stage—a copy of a Viennese piano from 1790, an actual Viennese antique from 1829 and a Broadwood from 1862, as well as a modern Steinway—students explored repertoire ranging from Haydn to Brahms. They adapted very quickly and were amazed to find that—on an appropriate piano—Chopin’s strangest pedal instructions can be followed literally, Mozart’s pesky short articulations are surprisingly natural to play, and thick, muddy textures become full while remaining transparent. Then, we explored how to transfer these effects to the modern piano.  Many stayed after the session was over to keep playing until we were obliged to leave the hall! The class was so successful that for the 2023 festival we added a second session. 

Since the book was designed to work for readers without any access to historical pianos, I filled it with musical examples, explaining how the old pianos react, suggesting strategies for creating analogous results on a modern piano, and urging readers to try these out for themselves. I also made a set of videos to accompany the text, in which I play both historical and modern pianos. 

My strongest message is a simple one: read the music very carefully. Don’t ignore the composer’s articulation markings (especially true for Mozart and Beethoven) or pedal markings (especially Chopin’s). When they don’t seem to make sense—and at the modern piano, this may happen a lot— understanding how the old pianos work can suggest alternative techniques for realizing the composer’s design. And don’t just play melodies. There’s almost always more than one thing going on at a time; keyboards were designed for counterpoint!  Early pianos (and harpsichords) don’t sing like a Steinway, but they are terrific at polyphony.   

No book can do justice to the experience of playing the old instruments for yourself, so my pianos and I have been traveling: over the past year I visited the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.   

I do hope you find have the opportunity one day to try your hand at playing a piano or clavichord and gain a deeper understanding of a much-loved work. If you would like me to visit your institution, or local MTNA meeting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. [email protected] 

 – David Breitman 


DAVID BRIETMAN is the author of Piano-Playing Revisited. The book is designed to work for readers without any access to historical pianos, and is filled with musical examples, explaining how the old pianos react, suggesting strategies for creating analogous results on a modern piano, and urging readers to try these out for themselves. David also created a set of videos to accompany the text, in which he plays both historical and modern pianos. 

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