Playing the piano

by Tom Ingram

One of the things that’s striking about George Bernard Shaw’s music criticism is the different way music was perceived before recordings existed. If you were a classical music lover and wanted to hear a piece, you had two options: go to a performance (which were much more common at the time, if not always up to our modern standards of quality) or play it yourself, in reduced form, on the piano. A certain amount of pianistic skill was required for the connoisseur, and Shaw makes reference to, e.g., young people clapping at the wrong moment because a popular four-hands reduction of Beethoven 8 omits a repeat in the scherzo.

Lately I’ve been working, in a slow and roundabout way, on my own piano technique. My instrument is the clarinet, and while I can play the piano, I do so on a purely recreational basis. Most recently, I printed out the score for the C Major prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. It’s a simple enough piece that even I can sight-read it, but playing the notes for yourself gives you insight into the music that listening to a recording just doesn’t provide.

I struggled with the first couple bars of the fugue, too, but they’re beyond me at the moment. There’s just too much going on at one time for my puny clarinetist’s mind to keep track of. Still, the C Major fugue gives you a picture of the level of craftsmanship in The Well-Tempered Clavier: Bach has been careful to make sure the whole thing is playable on the keyboard, i.e., he makes sure his music fits into the space of ten fingers on two hands. But the fit is snug because Bach used every inch of space available to him. Even as the voices weave complexly around each other, Bach makes concessions to practicality, but they sound so right and even inevitable that they don’t sound like concessions at all. It sounds like it couldn’t have been written in any other way.

Now to play you out, here’s Solomon playing Scriabin’s piano concerto: one of the all-time greatest pianists playing one of the all-time most beautiful pieces of music.