Thursday, 23 October 2008

Breakfast with Jeremy Siepmann: The Lives and Times of the Piano

Jeremy Siepmann spoke from his "keyboard",
alas not a Steinway!

Breakfast meetings organised by the Chopin Society of Hong Kong are interesting and intimate affairs, usually held in conjunction with the HK International Piano Competition or The Joy of Music Festival. Here, music lovers and personalities from Hong Kong rub shoulders with invited guests from Asia (which Dr. Anabella Freris refers to as the Asian piano caucus) and gain from the experience of the guest speakers.

Jeremy Siepmann is internationally well known for his incomparable sets of Audio books about composers and their music on the Naxos label, as well as the Editor of Piano magazine. His talk about The Life and Times of the Piano was both illuminating and interesting. If only he could get his laptop computer to work properly…

A self-professed technophobe, there was acute embarrassment where desired clips of music did not play as planned, or in the case of Noel Coward’s Mrs Worthington, Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, was a cowardly no show. Otherwise everything went swimmingly, with his droll wit matched by the excellent examples and quotes delivered.

His “sermon” began with the premise that the development of the piano had much to do with man’s attitude to women over the years. He quoted an unbelievably misogynist Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose, “the education of women should be relative to man” or “their sole purpose in life is to care for, and render lives easier for men” and “possessing neither artistic sensibility or genius” made one’s ears perk up. The piano, being a more expressive instrument, was thus eminently suited for the gender that was always stronger for showing emotion - women.

At an age (late 19th century) when pianos outnumbered bathtubs in America, its social history was to do less with concert halls and their Steinway grands, but more with sex, violence and chicanery. For example, all bordellos had to have a piano to be respectable. In the mid-18th century, the rise of the middle class meant that certain activities which aped aristocracy were encouraged; that meant all young women learnt to play on the piano. And there were far more young female students compared with the few teachers – invariably male! One would like to think what happened in lessons, other than the music. To illustrate, Siepmann quoted the “deservedly little known” W.F.E Bach who wrote a work for his lady students for six hands with him seated in the middle and reaching out to both ends of the keyboard!
Writers about music do get autograph sessions too.

Siepmann named Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt to be the men who defined the destiny of the piano and its literature. Liszt, the phenomenonal performer, reduced aristocrats into screaming mobs. His illustration was a recording of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.15 (Rakoczy March) played by Vladimir Horowitz. Such hysterics would not have been possible on any other musical instrument. However, not everything was inspired at the same level. The long time bestseller was Bardarszewska’s The Maiden’s Prayer, the insipid melody is now used by garbage trucks in Taiwan to remind housewives to bring out the trash. And what about The Mysteries of Paris by a certain Monsieur Latour, which consists of 38 solid pages of waltzes? Or the Battle of Marengo where the bass is hammered out by the side of the hand till its last dying page?

He also introduced the concept of the piano as furniture. William Jenkins’ expanding and collapsible piano - just ideal for cruises - and Millwood’s multi-purpose contraption which included a couch, bureau and drawers for bedclothes, and wait for this – a washbasin and articles of toilet. Talk about the kitchen sink. Imagine someone powdering her face with the right hand and playing the Chopin-Godowsky Revolutionary Etude on the left hand! Marc-AndrĂ© Hamelin's recording came in handy here. Also named were the chiro-piano and chiro-plast that gradually reduced and replaced the role of the pianist. The player-piano was to become the natural successor of all these, only to go obsolete as soon as it became popular. The age of the gramophone and sound recordings - requiring no effort from the listener - had soon eclipsed the D-I-Y exploits on the keyboard.

Despite the many distractions of modern day entertainments, Siepmann believes that the pianoforte, that 1709 curious invention by Bartolomeo Cristofori that replaced the clavichord and fortepiano, is here to stay.

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