How the Art of Playing the Piano Developed

By W. J. Henderson

If one seeks for a date at which to begin a story of piano playing, he need not strive to penetrate too far behind the curtain of obscurity which hides the early records of instrumental music. It is true that Francesco Landini, a blind poet and organist, was crowned, amid the glories of Venice, as far back as 1364; but his achievements were in organ playing. A more convenient period is that of Adrian Willaert, who presided at the keyboard in the church of San Marco, in the middle of the sixteenth century. Here we find evidence that there was a domestic instrument of the clavier family, and that the young women who were educated in convents were taught to play upon it. Pietro Bembo, the famous poiet, had a daughter named Elena, and she asked permission to study. This is what her father wrote in reply:

“Touching thy request for leave to play the monocordo, I answer that by reason of thy tender years though canst not know that playing is an art for vain and frivolous women. And I would that though shouldst be the most amiable and the most chaste and modest maiden alive. Besides, if thou wert to play badly, they shame. But in order to play well thou must needs give up ten or twelve years to this exercise without thinking of aught else. And how far this would befit thee thou canst see for thyself without my telling it. Should thy schoolmates desire thee to learn to play for their pleasure, tell them thou dost not care to have the laugh at thy mortification and content thyself with the pursuit of the sciences and the practice of needlework.”

What kind of playing was this which demanded a dozen years of application in those far off days? In the first place, the instrument, though called a monochord, was in reality an embryo clavichord. Strings had been added till there were twenty four tuned in unison and struck by brass uprights on the inner ends of the key levers. These uprights served also to divide the strings and thereby determine the pitch. Knowing the mechanism of the instrument and the character of the music composed in those days, we can hardly be at a loss to reconstruct the technic and the general style of performance. The clavichord can still be heard, for there are many in good condition in various collections and there are sometimes used for purposes of illustration in historical lectures.

I have played upon several clavichords and heard them played by far better performers than myself. But the feel of the key under your finger tells you more than hearing someone else play. The string of the clavichord yields to the key pressure. One discovers in a few minutes that the true clavichord touch must have been the pressure touch – a light stroke at the beginning with an immediate increase of the finger push.

This, of course, applies to cantabile playing. In the running passages so common in the old contrapuntal music the touch was naturally lighter and less clinging. One can readily understand why the clavichord was beloved of organists. It was their chosen instrument for home practice. It lived to be the beloved of Bach. And what could have more endeared it to organists than its invitation to the lingering touch? It had no pedals, of course, and when the finger was lifted from the key, the string ceased to sound. On the other hand, if the finger were vibrated a little, after the manner of the violinist’s on the stopped string, there was a response in the gently vibration of the tone, an effect not to be had from the stately organ.

In the early days of the sixteenth century the music performed on this instrument was not, as a rule, written especially for it. For example in 1559 there was published a collection entitles Fantasie, Ricercari Conpropriati per cantare c sonare d’agni sorte di stromenti. Like so much music of the time these pieces could be “sung or played on all sorts of instrument.” There could have been no clearly drawn instrumental style in such music, which must have displayed the common characteristics of the polyphonic a capella works of the period.

Willaert’s Influence

Jachet de Buus, a Fleming, was made second organist at St. Marks’s in 1541 and in 1549 published a collection of pieces for the organ and “altri strementi.” These compositions, according to the report of Weitzmann, were wanting in specifically instrumental character. More significant must have been the contributions of the successor of Buus, Girolamo Parabasco, who acquired some celebrity through his free fantasias and other imporvisations on the clavier of the period, which, “instrument da penna,” must have been of the harpsichord family.

In the development of a clearly marked instrumental style Cyprian de Rore, Claudio Merulo and the two Garbrielis (Andrea and Giovani) played most important parts. They were all influenced by the teachings of Willaert, who occupied in that period a position similar to that of the so-called modernists of our own time. In other words Willaert sought for the emanicipation of instrumental music from the rule of diatonic harmony established by the long reign of the a capella vocal style. The chromatic scale was the agent of freedom in the hands of these masters.

Tonality was not the only department in which liberty was sought, for we find in this period that composers had begun to note the availability of the music of the people. This at least appears to be the meaning of the publication in 1551 of a work entitles “A new Collection of Various Kinds of Dances to be played on the Harpsichord, Clavicimbal, Spinet or Monochord.” Here we are certain that we are in the presence of instrumental music, written in a form entirely independent of church counterpoint and necessitating the employment of monophonic technic. The fact, then, is that in this collection polyphony is almost absent, while the dance melodies appear in the treble with a simple chord accompaniment, a manner of writer almost as modern as the waltzes of Johann Strauss.

More ambitious was the music of Merulo, who published organ toccatas of much importance. The evidence indicates that these compositions were originally made for the clavier and transferred afterward to the organ. They abounded in rapid passages well suited to the tone of the clavier instrument. Naturally all the forms of this period are simple. The narrow range of modulation made this imperative. While variety by treatment of the voice parts, an instrumental work, inexorably repeating its primitive thematic matter within the breadth of two or three closely related keys, must soon have become exhausted. It was the artistic instinct of the progressives already mentioned with led them to feel that the path to instrumental freedom lay along the line of chromatic progressions.

Any approach to untrammeled modulation, however, was rendered impossible by the existence of the scientific temperament. It is not the purpose of the writer to digress into an account of the development of the modern system of tuning, but merely to remind the reader that the equal temperament now employed dates only from the era of Bach and Rameau, both of whom worked upon it independently. Bach demonstrated the value of the compromise tuning by composing forty eight preludes and fugues for the clavichord ranging through all keys. On the early instrument it was impossible to modulate into remote keys because of the want of enharmonic relationships.

With the evolution of a purely instrumental style, not subservient to that of the organ, there naturally arose a special technic. Strange indeed, seem some of its features to us moderns, and we have only to experiment with some of their rules to learn how far removed their methods of playing were from ours. We need to go so far back as the curiously named work of Girolamo di Ruta, published in Venice in 1593, but may content ourselves with a view of Lorenzo Penna’s Li Primi Albori Musicali, printed in Bologna in 1656. Amuse yourself by playing some scales according to his directions. Ascending, you use the middle and ring fingers alternately, taking care that they do not strike together. Descending, you use the middle and first fingers alternately and will have no interference to trouble you. There is nothing new after all, even in keyboard technic, for every pianist crosses the middle finger of the right hand over the ring finger in certain passages, a little feat introduced by Chopin.

Penna tells us that hands must not lie lower than the fingers, but high, and that the fingers must be stretched out. This stretching out of the fingers survived many years. It naturally determined the character of the touch and the general brilliancy of the technic in which lightness, smoothness and fluency were the prevailing features. The compositions of these early years show us in no uncertain manner that the writers had artistic regard for the powers of the instruments for which they wrote.

As John Comfort Fillmore long ago pointed out in his excellent “Pianoforte Music,” this kind of technic was especially suited to the polyphonic style of composition, in which both hands were usually occupied in the performance of interwoven voice parts. The character of this polyphony, however, was not precisely the same as that to be found in the organ music from which it was derived. The evanescent tone of the clavichord and still more of the harpsichord demanded that the fundamental conception of the melody should be somewhat different. The organ was capable of the broad simple utterance of the plain chant, but for the clavichord and harpsichord a species of florid song was imperative. The various so called ornamental devices of clavier music, the trills, turns, appoggiaturas, were not mere embellishments nor should they be treated as such in the performance of this old music. They were invented to disguise the vanishing tones of the instruments and every student of clavier music who desires to play the captivating inventions of Scarlatti, Rameau, Couperin and the rest, ought to analyze every page with a view to grasping the underlying melodic form of which these so-called ornaments are essential features.

First Use of the Thumb

It would be fruitless to enumerate the various curiosities of fingering in the early years of the harpsichord. Casper Majers, who wrote in 1741, was still at sea in many respects, but he did give rules for the employment of all the fingers, including even the thumb. For these rules he may have been indebted to Sebastian Bach, for that supreme genius was a progressive in the technic of the clavier as well as in other branches of musical art. The technic of his pupil days was still closely akin to that of Lorenzo Penna. The thumb was practically disregarded, and as the fingers were employed in an extended position with the hand well outstretched, the thumb could not easily reach the keyboard.

Bach, however, was unwilling to rob himself of so valuable an assistant and he began to employ the thumb systematically in his clavichord performances. One readily sympathizes with Bach’s love for the clavichord. An organist, first, last and all the time, he could not become enthusiastic over the thin tinkling tone of the harpsichord, nor could he reconcile himself to the impossibility of obtaining accentuation from it by finger discrimination. With the clavichord instantly responding to pressure, such accentuation was to be had; and furthermore, there was at least an approach to sustained tone. Bach’s studies broadened the powers of the clavichord. His employment of the thumb not only contributed to this, but led the way toward modern technic.

It is a fact not sufficiently emphasized that in order to make the thumb play an important part in clavier performance it was unavoidable that the fingers should bend. The whole hand had to be pushed forward so that thumb could be used and then, in order to prevent the fingers from going too far toward the inner ends of the keys, they had to be curved and the player had to learn to depress the keys with the extreme tips. Any pianist can prove for himself the great difference between the two ways of playing by simply strumming on the edge of a table first with the fingers stretched out and the thumb not reaching the edge and afterward with the hand in the position now regarded as normal for elementary five finger exercises.

We must not forget that Purcell, about 1700, suggested some use of the thumb in his “Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord,” and that Couperin, in his De la Toucher le Clavecin” (1717), also spoke of it. But before Bach little progress was made beyond condition set forth as far back as Ammerbach’s Orgel oder Insutrment Tablulatur” (1571). The truth, indeed, as nearly as we can reach it in the absence of exhaustive evidence, seems to be that neither thumb nor little finger were used by the earliest players because these members could not conveniently reach the keys so long as the other fingers were held flat.

The far reading significance of Bach’s innovations therefore must become clear to us; and when we consider them in their fullness we can hardly hesitate to say that their introduction marks the beginning of an era in piano playing. Certainly the character of the mechanical blow and the peculiar sensitiveness of touch required for the modern piano could never have been attained with the hand in the primitive position. Not that we may not use that position for special effects, for in modern virtuosity we reject no variety of finger, wrist or arm mechanics; but this primitive position, which was the technical norm in 1700, is now exceptional. The technical norm is now the position introduced by Bach when he brought the thumb and also the little finger into command of the keys.

In conclusion we need to remember that there were certain radical features of clavichord and harpsichord playing which present sharp differences and that these had to be gradually assimilated in the formation of the subsequent mechanism of modern piano technic. In the clavichord, as I have already noted, there was the foreshadowing of the modern singing tone and of the pressure touch, while the harpsichord called for the exercise of the lightest and most rippling type of finger work, which expanded itself in later years in the music of such writers as Henselt, Hummel, Moscheles and their kind and in that virtuoso style which reached its fullest glory in the playing of Tausig.

It is interesting and suggestive to the reflective mind that the organ, from which the first technic of the piano keyboard was derived, was the instrument of sustained tone, not especially favorable to staccato effects, though a semblance of these is not entirely impossible, and that it was, therefore, the source of the pressure touch, which is regarded as a peculiarly modern development. Two clearly marked positions of the finger in creating touch are familiar to contemporaneous pianists, the thrusting and the clinging. The tendency to point the top of the nail at the key is characteristic of the former while the latter employs to a larger extent the fleshy pad behind the nail. We shall not go far astray if we accept the clinging touch of today as the product of organ playing cultivated in the young field of clavichord performance. The thrusting touch is more akin to the early harpsichord method though of course, here we must allow for infinite variations.

The question of adapting modern technical methods to the performance of early clavier music is a difficult one and those who evade it altogether by utilizing the fullest resources of the contemporary piano and ignoring the peculiarities of the instruments originally employed to make known the music have much in their favor. On the other hand, one wonders whether a finer discrimination in styles would not result from a careful consideration of the schooling and tendencies of the composers and of their experience in instruments. Certainly no pianist would be likely to make fundamental errors in the application of touch to the music of Bach if he would always bear in mind that this master was first of all an organist and secondly a clavichordist, to whom the clinging touch was natural.

Domenico Scarlatti and Handel, on the other hand, were famous harpsichordists and their music shows their schooling in the treatment of the instrument “da penna.” For such music without doubt the clinging touch should be sparingly employed, while the crisp utterance of the finger thrust would give us something like a modern echo of the ripple of the harpsichord.