2012 MTNA Conference – Sunday Afternoon – A Natural History of the Piano from Mozart to Jazz and Everything In Between with Stuart Isacoff

Gail Berenson, past president of MTNA welcomed attendees and introduced author, Stuart Isacoff.

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Stuart began his presentation on A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between. His goal in conducting this research and writing the book was to look for common threads throughout history instead of considering various periods and aspects of music history in a disjointed manner.

He illustrated this point by playing an excerpt from a piece by Couperin that is reflective of parallels in some of Ravel’s music.


An excerpt from Bach seems to be a precursor to Johnny Hodges Jazz music…

Stuart continued by giving an overview of what is include in his book, including a history of the invention of the piano by Cristofori (which is actually pronounced with the emphasis on the “o” as a short “o”). Its remarkable ability to change dynamics based on the amount of force/touch used made it unique from all other keyboard instruments. This design allowed it to sing for the first time.

[Incidentally, I had the privilege of seeing the original Cristofori piano at the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday! As soon as I started writing that, Mr. Isacoff said that he actually had the experience of playing the Cristofori piano at the museum! Guess he one-upped me on that one. :-)]

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At first, pianos were very scarce, but Mozart and his piano concerto compositions had a great deal to do with the growing popularity of the piano. He began offering his music in restaurants and guest houses. The piano was not yet a universal instrument, but continued to evolve for years. It was developed until it had the full 88-key keyboard by the end of Beethoven’s lifetime.

The growth of the piano’s popularity was also due to the changing views in society. In those years, instrumental skill was considered to be “of primary importance in the education of women.”

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The piano was incorporated into all sorts of different shapes and styles. This gave rise, also, to traveling virtuosos. One man claimed that Beethoven’s Sonatas were responsible for moving music out of the homes and into the concert halls.

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Piano companies sponsored the virtuosos and released all sorts of ads promoting their concerts.

Mr. Isacoff said that in order not to be arbitrary, he started looking for threads in the sound of the piano itself. Just like a painter has access to the same palette of colors, they have different techniques and brush strokes and ways of capturing light to create their masterpieces, pianos are created with the same basic components but have many variables in regards to tone production, dynamic capacity, emotional expression, and harmonic chemistry.

He uses categories when discussing the way different pianists make use of the components of the piano:
Combustibles – people who make use of dynamic contrasts (Beethoven, Jerry Lee Lewis)
Melodists (Schubert, J.C. Bach, Schumann)
Alchemists [creating atmospheric qualities] (Bill Evans, Claude Debussy)

No great musician will be forced into one of these categories; they will be capable of all of them at different points in different situations. But what do people hear when they hear the music of a particular composer or performer played in a concert setting? What stands out to them?

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