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Technical ability over the centuries #462464
05/22/06 06:57 AM
05/22/06 06:57 AM
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JohnEB Offline OP
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I don't want to get dragged into the Liszt debate elsewhere in these forums, but here is a closely related question.

What do you think about the general level of technical ability of concert pianists now compared to concert pianists from the past few centuries? Are today's pianists really technically more able than a generation ago, or the pianists of LIszt's time, or the keyboard players of Bach's time? I don't mean any specific individual pianist, I'm thinking of the typical level of ability.

I was listening to Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations and wondered, could anyone play these when they were written, or did they hang around for some decades until good enough players came along. Same with some other classically 'difficult' music - are there relatively more people who can perform these now than when they were originally written?

If it's true, then does that mean that piano music becomes more technically demanding as time goes on?


John
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Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462465
05/22/06 10:14 AM
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It's a hard question really. There are obviously going to be more pianists now than there have been in the past (growing population) and this means that it is more and more likely that a person with exactly the right physique will come along and totally 'blitz' the piano, so to speak (like Hamelin ) who are capable to playing the pieces that really push the limits of pianistic ability. However that is not to say that there weren't people of this ability in the past. And also there is the fact that as technique is developed from music, then you could go as far to say that because of smaller exposure to different pianistic techniques and music styles, then the pianists then may not have been able to compete readily with pianists from today, purely because they didn't have the materials available to acquire these techniques (not to say that they couldn't though).

That's what I think anyway. As for the second question, the answer will be yes.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462466
05/22/06 10:47 AM
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I think the first question is both very easy to answer, and very easy to pass off because of how easy it is to answer. The first 'easy' is a good thing; the second isn't.

The question is inherently easy to answer: Unless the piano goes contrary to every other thing that has ever existed in human history, then yes, pianists today are far better (technically) than their predecessors. The greatest example I have is Babe Ruth. If you transplanted him, he wouldn't even make a minor league team in today's baseball. Now, that's not to say if he was born today, he wouldn't be great. Nobody can know. He was the right guy at the right time, and that makes him a legend, but in any other time, we cannot say. This leads to the second part of my statement.

The question is easy to pass off: Because they are 'legends', we want to pass them off as the greatest ever. IF they weren't--if "Joe" down the street is better than Liszt was--then the legend is utterly destroyed. So, we pass it off that Liszt was the greatest ever. Undoubtedly, what he did in his time has so far been greater than any other pianist in any other time, but that's not to say that he was better at the piano than any other pianist. He was in the right place at the right time.

It is also easy to pass off on the other side: Because every other human endeavor has only gotten better, it is easy to say intuitively that today's pianists are better. But there may be a flaw in this. We naturally improve those endeavors we find dear and important to us. We naturally strive to better them, to exceed our predecessors, and find joy in so doing. But, to use my baseball analogy again, the greatest baseball player to ever play the game may very well have been Willie Mays. He had EVERYTHING, and he had it better than everyone else. He could run with the best, field with the best, hit with the best, throw with the best, and coach with the best...but the best couldn't do it in every area like Mays. You know he used to coach the team from center field with a simple wave of his glove? Yeah...he even had the power to bench people.

So that takes us to the natural conclusion: Has baseball progressed since Willie Mays, or was Willie just an amazing standout? Would Willie Mays be able to play with today's ball players, or is this another case of "Good in his time"? The answer is very difficult to determine. Today's players are bigger, faster, stronger, able to throw harder, hit farther, run faster. Certainly if Willie were born into today's generation, and had the advantages of technological and knowledge advances, he would be great again, but without those things, it is almost impossible to say whether he could 'hang'.

So, in essence, it's another speculative and ultimately futile question to ask or even try to answer. wink


Every day we are afforded a new chance. The problem with life is not that you run out of chances. In the end, what you run out of are days.
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462467
05/22/06 10:51 AM
05/22/06 10:51 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Max W:
It's a hard question really. There are obviously going to be more pianists now than there have been in the past (growing population) and this means that it is more and more likely that a person with exactly the right physique will come along and totally 'blitz' the piano, so to speak (like Hamelin ) who are capable to playing the pieces that really push the limits of pianistic ability.


I would tend to agree with that on just theoretical grounds (just look at the numbers), but historical experience contradicts that conclusion. For whatever reason, we haven't had another Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, or Schubert in the last century, in spite of the much larger numbers of people from which such a genius might emerge. The same argument can be made with regard to mathematics. How the small population of Britain (less than 500,000 at the time) could produce a Newton, or the smaller population of Greece could produce an Archimedes, is astonishing.

Quote
However that is not to say that there weren't people of this ability in the past. And also there is the fact that as technique is developed from music, then you could go as far to say that because of smaller exposure to different pianistic techniques and music styles, then the pianists then may not have been able to compete readily with pianists from today, purely because they didn't have the materials available to acquire these techniques (not to say that they couldn't though).

That's what I think anyway. As for the second question, the answer will be yes.
Quote
Originally posted by JohnEB:
I was listening to Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations and wondered, could anyone play these when they were written, or did they hang around for some decades until good enough players came along. Same with some other classically 'difficult' music - are there relatively more people who can perform these now than when they were originally written?
Could anyone perform them? Of course. They were published during Bach's lifetime, and I doubt that anyone would go to the trouble of publishing unplayable music (although I can just hear someone asking, "Godowsky published those Chopin studies, didn't he?"). Charles Rosen is of the opinion, though, that those variations were the most difficult piece of keyboard music in the literature until Beethoven published the Waldstein.

I think we do have a level of increased ability overall, and I think a major contributor to this is recording technology. It lets you hear the professionals, and you set your own standards higher. It lets you hear your own playing, and correct things you don't notice as you play. (In his autobiography, Gerald Moore commented that when he first heard his own recordings, he noticed he was playing, at times, with his left hand preceding his right, something he had been unaware of, and would have corrected at once if he had heard it in one of his students). The downside of recording technology is that it tends to homogenize performances, and, at the same time, abstract them (almost into the realm of "Platonic forms"). This is partly because spontaneity in a performance sounds fine the first time, but can grate when heard the fiftieth. When I think on this I can understand Liszt's anger when the existence of the phongraph was reported to him.


There is no end of learning. -Robert Schumann Rules for Young Musicians
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462468
05/22/06 11:30 AM
05/22/06 11:30 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Max W:
It's a hard question really. There are obviously going to be more pianists now than there have been in the past (growing population) and this means that it is more and more likely that a person with exactly the right physique will come along and totally 'blitz' the piano
i'm not sure that i agree with you there. sure there are a lot more people around these days, which creates a much larger pool of "available talent". however, unlike back then, today classical music is not at the forefront of our society. you are much more likely to find a kid learning how to play the guitar, and imitate jimmy hendrix than you are to find someone practicing bach or mozart behind a keyboard. heck if you ask me there are more contemporary and jazz pianists around these days that classical ones.

so with these two factors weighted in, i think this "talent pool" of gifted classical pianists is probably no bigger than it was back in the 19th century.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462469
05/22/06 11:34 AM
05/22/06 11:34 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Derulux:
if "Joe" down the street is better than Liszt was--then the legend is utterly destroyed. So, we pass it off that Liszt was the greatest ever.
oy, what is it with you and all this liszt bashing? have you even read alan walker's 3-volume biography on him? you'd be surprised the amount of research that went into it. really, it's not the fairy tale you'd like to believe.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462470
05/22/06 11:55 AM
05/22/06 11:55 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Palindrome:
Quote
Originally posted by Max W:
[b] It's a hard question really. There are obviously going to be more pianists now than there have been in the past (growing population) and this means that it is more and more likely that a person with exactly the right physique will come along and totally 'blitz' the piano, so to speak (like Hamelin ) who are capable to playing the pieces that really push the limits of pianistic ability.


I would tend to agree with that on just theoretical grounds (just look at the numbers), but historical experience contradicts that conclusion. For whatever reason, we haven't had another Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, or Schubert in the last century, in spite of the much larger numbers of people from which such a genius might emerge. The same argument can be made with regard to mathematics. How the small population of Britain (less than 500,000 at the time) could produce a Newton, or the smaller population of Greece could produce an Archimedes, is astonishing.
[/b]
"For whatever reason, we haven't had another Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, or Schubert"

Yes, but that deals with composition, not with pianists. Also I would say that any composers with the ability to be as good as the aforementioned could well end up writing music in other genres, because that is what pays.

I half agree with Derulux's analogy, I notice that piano relies on the repertoire (mostly) to advance technical abilities, and this kind of applies to baseball as well as it relies on the expertise of older players to advance the younger ones (hence with each generation of players they will be better than the last) - this analogy doesnt quite work out but it's good enough for me. Also I don't know much about baseball, but I assume that new developments in equipment have resulted in easier to swing bats, better travelling balls, grounds that are easier to play on, better training equipment, etc...this is certainly true of golf.

"heck if you ask me there are more contemporary and jazz pianists around these days that classical ones."

I don't believe this is true - if it was then there would be a much larger proportion of people studying degrees in jazz than there are doing a 'standard' music degree. Music degrees are amongst the most competitive to get into.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462471
05/22/06 11:55 AM
05/22/06 11:55 AM
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There is another very important point to be made.

The REQUIRED techniques to play the piano have been increasing and evolving over the centuries.

Aside from the evolution of the piano, which itself requires different ways of playing the piano today than was required in Mozart's time, look at the music itself.

As a general trend, newer music tended to be harder than older music. Liszt's music was harder than Mozart's music. A lot of Rachmaninov's and Bartok's and Prokofiev's music is harder than Liszt's music.

and it's not just because there are more notes or less notes, but because the particular techniques evolved, because certain techniques are required in Liszt that weren't required in Mozart, and certain techniques are required in Prokofiev that weren't required to the same extent in Liszt, and certain techniques are maybe required in Ligeti that aren't required or aren't required to the same extent in Prokofiev.


So, what is the result of this? Pianists HAVE to be better today that they had to be 200 years ago, because technical expectations within the composition of the newer music are simply more demanding than they were 200 years ago.


That is of course a generalization, and not all newer music is harder or requires newer techniques than all older music. But the trend is there, because music evolves. It is not static, and it changes over time, and the requirements and necessities change over time.


Sam
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462472
05/22/06 12:00 PM
05/22/06 12:00 PM
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There is another important point to be made, which has already been briefly mentioned.

The EXPECTED perfection in playing the piano is so great today. I don't know if it was like that in the past.

As mentioned by someone else, recordings have changed our perspectives. We listen to lots of recordings, and we are inspired to play better and better. We hear today technically perfect recordings, and so we try and try and try to imitate that, because we expect that if others can play so perfectly, then we too should expect ourselves to also play as perfectly as possible.


Recordings have also changed our perspectives in other ways, as well. We learn from them! We hear ideas that we maybe never would have thought of ourselves. We can hear if we are playing something unintentionally wrong, by listening to a recording, and then strive to fix that when otherwise we would not have noticed the mistake.


We can listen to how others play with such a wonderful tone, and yet we ourselves maybe bang a lot. Perhaps we never would have noticed our own banging if not for the recordings, so then we strive to fix that issue with tone quality.


Sam
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462473
05/22/06 12:01 PM
05/22/06 12:01 PM
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Quote
I don't believe this is true - if it was then there would be a much larger proportion of people studying degrees in jazz than there are doing a 'standard' music degree. Music degrees are amongst the most competitive to get into. [/QB]
well many piano players these days are "trained" in classical, but soon thereafter make a transition to contemporary and/or jazz.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462474
05/22/06 12:04 PM
05/22/06 12:04 PM
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Also consider the wealth of literature.

Yes, there were always books on piano technique, but as anything else, our understanding of the human body, of physiology, of physics, and of music itself have evolved and improved greatly over time. The books of the 20th century don't just repeat what was said by the books of the 19th and 18th centuries, but improve upon them and present newer ideas that are based on the old ones.

Today, we can read and study these books to gain a better understanding of our bodies and the piano and how to play better. This must lead to an increase in the overall population of great pianists, simply because knowledge and understanding helps us to better play the piano - and perhaps some of the older ideas that were espoused during previous centuries actually were injuring and hindering, because at the time they did not understand as well human physiology and anatomy and general physics as well as we do today.


Sam
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462475
05/22/06 12:32 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by gordonf238:
Quote
I don't believe this is true - if it was then there would be a much larger proportion of people studying degrees in jazz than there are doing a 'standard' music degree. Music degrees are amongst the most competitive to get into.
well many piano players these days are "trained" in classical, but soon thereafter make a transition to contemporary and/or jazz. [/QB]
Many, but not the majority.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462476
05/22/06 12:43 PM
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Greatness is relative to its time, and overall, technical ability is progressing.


“The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”
-John Cage
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462477
05/22/06 01:14 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by JohnEB:
I was listening to Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations and wondered, could anyone play these when they were written, or did they hang around for some decades until good enough players came along.
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg could play the music. Although, he played it on a harpsichord with two manuals, and therefore he didn't have to cross his hands.

See Mr. Gould's liner notes:

http://www.rjgeib.com/music/Top-Ten/gould.html


Best regards,

David Ramezani
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462478
05/22/06 02:11 PM
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JohnEB Offline OP
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That's a good point about technique advancing, but I guess we could say that it's just adding new tools in the pianist's kit-bag of technique. Is it even a meaningful question to compare the difficulty of the Goldberg with the Waldstein with Liszt with Prokofieff if they are each using different techniques to be difficult? I don't really agree with the sporting analogy - since it's possible to measure speed and declare the faster runner, but I'm not sure how you compare the difficulty of a 5 part fugue with a Prokofieff concerto.

I find it interesting that someone would write or compose something which is almost impossibly difficult to play, particularly before recordings came along. Perhaps they would just be written to say 'look at me, I'm the only person in the world who can play this'.


John
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462479
05/22/06 02:17 PM
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John,

That's right - it's just adding new tools to pianist's kit-bag of technique. I like that analogy.

It really is not useful, as you say, to compare the difficulty of Goldbergs, Waldstein, Liszt Sonata, and Prokofiev Concertos, because they all use different techniques.

But I would say that there are probably techniques in Waldstein that weren't used much before Beethoven, so pianists before Beethoven would not necessarily have acquired/needed those techniques. There are probably techniques in the Liszt Sonata that weren't used much or to the same extent before Liszt, so pianists before Liszt would not necessarily have acquired/needed those techniques. There are probably techniques in Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto that were not used more or to the same extent before Prokofiev, so pianists before then might not have necessarily acquired/needed those techniques.


Thus, a very good pianist from Bach's time might be able to handle the Goldberg's very very well, but he would not have the tools in his technical toolbox to deal with a Prokofiev Concerto. A very good pianist from Beethoven's time might be able to handle the Waldstein very well, but he might not have the tools to deal with a Ligeti Etude.


Sam
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462480
05/22/06 02:36 PM
05/22/06 02:36 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by gordonf238:
Quote
Originally posted by Derulux:
[b]if "Joe" down the street is better than Liszt was--then the legend is utterly destroyed. So, we pass it off that Liszt was the greatest ever.
oy, what is it with you and all this liszt bashing? have you even read alan walker's 3-volume biography on him? you'd be surprised the amount of research that went into it. really, it's not the fairy tale you'd like to believe. [/b]
Oy, what makes you think I'm bashing Liszt?


Every day we are afforded a new chance. The problem with life is not that you run out of chances. In the end, what you run out of are days.
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462481
05/22/06 03:43 PM
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In the Art of Piano documentary there's an old pianist who had heard Hofmann, Backhaus, and the others in the concert back in the old days, as well as the cream of today's pianists (or those of the very recent past), and he was of the opinion that the overall technical mastery has deteriorated over the years (that is, the great piano virtuosos of the past had a better overall technique than the great piano virtuosos of today (and no, that "overall technique" didn't, of course, even include sight-reading or improvisation)).

Most of us on this forum, however, or at least those who don't trust a judgement from an expert, have to resort to listening to Hofmann blazing his way through Liszt's Tarantella or La Campanella, or Shubert/Liszt Erlkönig, or a number of other things, from an old unedited recording (and weren't those old recordings often taken in one shot?). Then get back to a Hamelin recording, and wonder how many edits it contains (or go to a concert and be surprised that the playing isn't as technically secure and awesome as in the recording).

PS. The "sport analogy" is one of the most ridiculous argumental fallacies I've ever read anywhere.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462482
05/22/06 06:45 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by pianojerome:
...We hear today technically perfect recordings, and so we try and try and try to imitate that, because we expect that if others can play so perfectly, then we too should expect ourselves to also play as perfectly as possible....
Quote
Originally posted by Antonius Hamus:
In the Art of Piano documentary there's an old pianist who had heard Hofmann, Backhaus, and the others in the concert back in the old days, as well as the cream of today's pianists (or those of the very recent past), and he was of the opinion that the overall technical mastery has deteriorated over the years (that is, the great piano virtuosos of the past had a better overall technique than the great piano virtuosos of today (and no, that "overall technique" didn't, of course, even include sight-reading or improvisation)).

Most of us on this forum, however, or at least those who don't trust a judgement from an expert, have to resort to listening to Hofmann blazing his way through Liszt's Tarantella or La Campanella, or Shubert/Liszt Erlkönig, or a number of other things, from an old unedited recording (and weren't those old recordings often taken in one shot?). Then get back to a Hamelin recording, and wonder how many edits it contains (or go to a concert and be surprised that the playing isn't as technically secure and awesome as in the recording)....
I've read that it took Rachmaninoff 36 takes (or maybe 46) to get his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture transcription down to his satisfaction. Can't quote the source, though. Editing does produce a false impression of easy attainability of note-perfect performances. I'm told that Paul Badura-Skoda and George Szell were recording a Mozart concerto. Badura-Skoda was sitting and listening to the (edited) playback. "Ah, isn't that beautiful," he asked. "Yes," replied Szell. "Don't you wish you could play that way?"


There is no end of learning. -Robert Schumann Rules for Young Musicians
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462483
05/22/06 11:39 PM
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PS. The "sport analogy" is one of the most ridiculous argumental fallacies I've ever read anywhere.
Thanks for the in-depth, critical analysis. :rolleyes:


Every day we are afforded a new chance. The problem with life is not that you run out of chances. In the end, what you run out of are days.
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462484
05/23/06 04:28 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by Antonius Hamus:
PS. The "sport analogy" is one of the most ridiculous argumental fallacies I've ever read anywhere.
I don't really think it's a bad analogy. If a pianist from "before" were alive today, he would be a product of the training and relative specialization of today's pianists, and might become a very different musician than he was in reality. The same thing would apply to sport.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462485
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northern new mexico
Yeah. He might take HGH, rub on "the clear" and other ointments, and hit more home runs.... er, wrong notes.

And denying it all the while....

wink

-merlin

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462486
05/23/06 07:34 PM
05/23/06 07:34 PM
Joined: Jun 2005
Posts: 5,446
Philadelphia
D
Derulux Offline
5000 Post Club Member
Derulux  Offline
5000 Post Club Member
D

Joined: Jun 2005
Posts: 5,446
Philadelphia
Quote
Originally posted by memrys:
Yeah. He might take HGH, rub on "the clear" and other ointments, and hit more home runs.... er, wrong notes.

And denying it all the while....

wink

-merlin
HA! laugh thumb

"Is that a piano-related question? Is that a piano-related question?" :p wink


Every day we are afforded a new chance. The problem with life is not that you run out of chances. In the end, what you run out of are days.
Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462487
05/24/06 02:58 AM
05/24/06 02:58 AM
Joined: May 2005
Posts: 2,230
A
Antonius Hamus Offline
2000 Post Club Member
Antonius Hamus  Offline
2000 Post Club Member
A

Joined: May 2005
Posts: 2,230
Quote
Originally posted by Phlebas:
Quote
Originally posted by Antonius Hamus:
[b] PS. The "sport analogy" is one of the most ridiculous argumental fallacies I've ever read anywhere.
I don't really think it's a bad analogy. If a pianist from "before" were alive today, he would be a product of the training and relative specialization of today's pianists, and might become a very different musician than he was in reality. The same thing would apply to sport. [/b]
That's not how the "analogy" went.

Re: Technical ability over the centuries #462488
05/24/06 03:00 AM
05/24/06 03:00 AM
Joined: May 2005
Posts: 2,230
A
Antonius Hamus Offline
2000 Post Club Member
Antonius Hamus  Offline
2000 Post Club Member
A

Joined: May 2005
Posts: 2,230
I may get back to this in a couple of weeks if there's some dire need...

EDIT: Seems like I already did...


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