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Bel Canto on a Percussion Instrument?

by Peter Feuchtwanger

Pianists and piano teachers all too often hear experts say that the piano is a percussion instrument, and that it does not matter whether the key is depressed by a pencil or by a finger, whether it is a construction worker or a pianist who strikes the note, since the quality of the tone depends merely and entirely on the speed of the action. However, most of us suffer when the piano is being tuned and the tuner hammers out every note con furore. Pianists try to produce a beautiful tone without consciously thinking how quickly or how slowly the key must be depressed. The great difference between a construction worker and a sensitive pianist is, after all, contained in the capacity of imagining the sound beforehand - if this is not considered as the first priority, music making should be given up altogether.
Why is it that the pianists of the past were much more concerned with beauty of tone than so many pianists of the present day? Perhaps because we live in a noisy world, we often play in larger concert halls, which makes us believe that we have to force the tone. We also allow ourselves to indulge in ugly body movements at the piano, movements that interfere with the tone production and which would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. Above all, I think, we ought to search for the reason in the fact that the art of singing, the art of bel canto has been lost. The singing of today has little to do with the past achievements in this field - and the pianist has lost the ideal example of bel canto from its Golden Age.

The human voice is without doubt the most beautiful of all instruments, and as an instrument the voice has not changed throughout the centuries. What did change however, is the tone production and the training of the voice. In comparison to the singers of the Golden Age, the singer of today does not have the correct vocal training to create the dificult rĂ´les of the bel canto. In difficult passages we often do not hear the notes, but an approximation of these notes, most of the time drowned by the orchestra anyway. But even in simple passages the voice is wrongly placed, the intonation is faulty and the so-called sliding up to a high note (not to be confused with a genuine portamento) has become an everyday mannerism.
Today we are very lucky, to be have the opportunity to listen to the last exponents of the genuine Italian bel canto, since a vast number of original recordings have been transfered onto CD's. Alas, only a few of today's pianists take advantage of this privilege, although pianists are the ones for whom it would be of the outmost importance to hear these recordings, time and time again. Only in this way it is possible to develop true understanding for the piano music of the 18th and 19th century. Vladimir Horowitz never stopped talking about bel canto singers, especially Bonci and Battistini, and Arthur Rubinstein recalled how he was moved to tears by the singing of Kathleen Ferrier.

We, pianists have the disadvantage - some people may call it an advantage - that our tone is ready-made, waiting for us in the form of a key on the keyboard, whereas singers or string players have to create their own tone. But, if the pianist does not hear his tone before he plays it, for instance: if he does not hear the leading note B urging towards C differently from the B which comes from C and descends to A, if he cannot hear this difference and if he plays both B's in the same manner, then an essential aspect of music-making is lost.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in the introduction to his Inventions about the singing (cantabile) manner of playing: "Above all" the Inventions should teach "a cantabile manner in the playing." His keyboard music is very much influenced by the voice and emphasizes the vocal element. It is all the more incomprehensible that most pianists play Bach's music so aggressively, and mechanically. (Bach himself played so calmly that one could barely see his fingers move.)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach advised pianists to listen to good singers, and to sing their instrumental parts in order to develop the right understanding for the correct execution. Mendelssohn said: "To be able to express genuine emotions in piano music, one must listen to good singers. One learns from them much more than from any instrumentalists." In his letters from London we find valuable mention of singers like Maria Malibran, Henriette Sonntag or Giuditta Pasta. His friendship with Jenny Lind and his admiration for her influenced many of his works. Schumann said: "Never miss an opportunity to hear a good opera," and recommended pianists to sing in choirs. Clementi's mature style changed radically by having listened attentively to great singers. Many opera paraphrases and lied transcriptions bear testimony to the fascination that singing held for Liszt, Czerny, Thalberg and their contemporaries.
We know from the writings of Chopins's pupil Wilhelm von Lenz, that Chopin spent a considerable time in order to make him grasp how to descend from G in bar 2 to C in bar 3 - in the C minor Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1. The G was either too long or too short. Chopin was never satisfied. While teaching, he would often refer to Giuditta Pasta and to how she would sing a certain phrase. Let us reflect when playing these two notes, whether the singer would make a portamento between them. It can help us to imagine a word and contemplate whether it would be appropriate for the two notes to be sung on two syllables or just one, whether the word would start with a vowel or with a consonant, or whether perhaps the C would start with a new word… All of these problems are much easier solved by studying the arias of Bellini, who so greatly influenced Chopin. Even on his deathbed, he wished to hear once again his favourite aria "Ah, non credea mirarti" from La Sonnambula.

It is incredible and awe inspiring, how vast the number of singers, male and female was at the beginning of the 20th century. Thousands of records bear witness to their phenomenal skill although the decline of bel canto had already set in and the verismo style caused many singers to force the voice with exaggerated expression. Manuel Garcia, brother of Maria Malibran, one of the most important teachers of bel canto, said that one should never use one's resources to the utmost, as this would always lead to self-ruin and, in the case of singers, to the ruin of the voice. Pianists can learn from this statement, that moderation is not only a virtue but a necessity. Only discipline and reflection can lead us back to the great ideal of bel canto.