The Technic of the Second Classical Period

When we compare the sonatas of Scarlatti, the suites of Handel and the suites, partitas, sonatas and concertos of Sebastian Bach with the sonatas of Emanuel Bach, we find no sudden change in technical qualities. Indeed, the development of the technic of the pianoforte was a slow and gradual process, and neither Emanuel Bach, Haydn nor Mozart ever fully recognized the peculiar capacities of the new instrument. All three were bred harpsichordists, and even in the Mozart concertos, the culmination of technic in these three authors, most of the passages are perfectly practicable for the harpsichord. In these works, as in those of Haydn and Emanuel Bach, we find the same demand for lightness and fluency which characterized the concertos and other compositions of Sebastian Bach’s time.

This was, in part, due to the fact that the Vienna pianofortes had very light actions, modeled on those of the harpsichords then in use. The ideals of pianoforte technic and effects were drawn from the experience of harpsichord players, modified only by the single consideration of the possibility of shading.

But this capacity for varying the power of tones was an element which gradually enlarged the ideas of players as to the possible effects derivable from it, and, after a while, led to great changes in the construction of the instrument.

Nevertheless, Vienna was not the place where these modifications first suggested themselves ; the Viennese players and composers continued for a long time to be the exponents of a smooth, easy-going, superficial style of technic and of playing, and the Viennese pianofortes continued to be very light in action and lacking in sonority, making small demands on the power and endurance of players, and incapable of broad or powerful effects.

From the above judgment of Viennese composers, Beethoven, and in a less degree, Schubert must be excepted. More of these hereafter.

The most important service rendered by Emanuel Bach, Haydn and Mozart in the development of pianoforte technic was their progressive recognition of the lyric element. The adagios in the sonatas of Emanuel Bach were distinct attempts to improve upon the singing effects already attained on the clavichord. They were probably calculated for that instrument, at least quite as much as for the pianoforte, for, although Bach played both instruments, and the harpsichord as well, he is said always to have preferred certain effects obtainable on the clavichord to any of those which could be produced by the pianofortes of his day.

The most peculiar of these effects was the “Bebung,” a peculiar tremulous effect produced by a rapid repetition of slight pressure on the key. The ” Tangent,” which was in contact with the string as long as the key was held down, transmitted this vibratory motion to the string, producing an effect probably analogous to that with which we are familiar in the playing of violinists and violoncellists.

But although Bach preferred the clavichord for the performance of his lyric pieces, the stress he laid upon the lyric element in playing must have tended strongly to develop the lyric capabilities of the pianoforte, an instrument which was now rapidly growing in favor, so much so as to fairly supersede the older instruments about the time of Emanuel Bach’s death (1788).

Haydn and Mozart also cultivated the lyric element of the pianoforte. Their works show a steady development of it. Haydn modeled on Bach, and Mozart on Bach and Haydn, and in the Mozart sonatas and concertos we find what was probably a full and complete recognition of the lyric possibilities of the small, light Viennese pianofortes of his time.

The extended scale and arpeggio passages of the Mozart concertos also show a distinct recognition of the capabilities of light and shade peculiar to the pianoforte, although their relation to the harpsichord is almost as close as their relation to the newer instruments.

But there was an Italian contemporary of his who, though he was no such original genius as Mozart, rendered more important service than he in the development of pianoforte technic. This was Muzto CLEMENTI (1752-1832 ), an artist and virtuoso who occupies somewhat the same relation to Mozart and Haydn that Domenico Scarlatti did to Bach and Handel.

He was born at Rome, went to England in his childhood and spent most of his lifetime there. His eighty years were full of honorable and useful activity. He was a thorough musician, an excellent composer, so far as technical attainments went, and had very marked talent, so much, indeed, that no less a judge than Beethoven preferred his sonatas to Mozart’s. He composed about a hundred sonatas, the same number of studies (Gradus ad Parnassum), besides symphonies, choruses, etc.

He was a superior teacher, and formed some of the finest pianists of the next generation ; among them J. B. Cramer, John Field, Alex. Klengel and Ludwig Berger. He also conducted Italian opera in London, and engaged in the manufacture of pianofortes.

In early life, he aimed at brilliant execution, and especially cultivated difficult playing in double thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves. He afterwards acquired a broad cantabile and a nobler and more artistic style generally. He was a pianist rather than a harpsichordist, and was really the first of the great players of whom this could be said. He preferred the English pianofortes with their heavy action, and adapted his playing and his compositions to these instruments.

These English pianos had greater sonority than those of Vienna ; the heavier stroke suggested heavier strings and a larger sounding-board, and they required a technic approaching that of the modern instruments. It is Clementi’s great contribution to pianoforte technics that he fully apprehended the requirements and capacities of the best English instruments of his day, and in his playing, teaching, and composing, gave them adequate recognition.

The whole fabric of modern pianoforte technic rests on the Gradus ad Parnassum. Up to the compositions of Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, there is nothing for which these studies do not afford an adequate foundation. Even the Beethoven Fifth Concerto does not go beyond the Clementi technic, in its principles or its extreme difficulty.

Clementi’s lifetime covers a period from seven years before the death of Handel to four years after that of Beethoven and up to within two years of the establishment of the Neue Zeitschrift fuer fusik by Schumann. He lived through the whole epoch of the development of the sonata, its culmination and transformation, and into the very sunrise of the Romantic epoch.