Play the piano music properly

How to interpret the piano music

Play the piano how it should be done. Music has been called the language of the emotions. Like all other languages, it must be used in a disciplined and intelligent way if it is to convey any meaning. An uncontrolled display of emotion is like an incoherent welter of words; it can bring no enjoyment to others, and it will be powerless to move them except, perhaps, to feelings of pity or distaste. In the creation of a musical work emotion must be distilled and clothed in sounds and rhythms. Then, through the sensitivity and skill of an interpreter, music can speak, in the words of Haydn, “from the heart to the heart”.

We may define the verb “to interpret” as “to make intelligible”. When interpreting music, it is not enough merely to allow the feelings which the music evokes to well up within ourselves, however pleasurable this may be. Our task is to play in such a manner that these feelings may be conveyed to our listeners; and we must not forget the obvious fact that sounds arranged in varying patterns and rhythms are our only means of expression. It is only too easy to play ‘with feeling’, in the fond imagination that our feelings will transmit themselves somehow, telepathically perhaps, to others.

The time for our most wholehearted abandonment to the emotions of the music we wish to play is during the period of study. It is then, when we have largely mastered any physical difficulties which the performance of the music may present that we must respond most acutely to its emotional impact, and having so responded, we must ask ourselves how we can, by our playing, enable others to experience a similar response. In performing to others, it is ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’ that counts. Not, indeed, necessarily in outwardly apparent tranquillity some music calls, at least physically, for anything but that; but in an inward tranquillity or serenity which enables us calmly and deliberately to sound the notes as we, at that very moment, desire. For the “how” and the “when” of each note must be controlled if the sounds are to be intelligible and eloquent, however impassioned the music may be.

In this state of tranquillity or serenity we must, of course, recollect, and to some extent re-live, the emotion, though the degree to which this is done varies enormously with different performers. It was said, for instance, of Sarah Bernhardt, that even when moving her audiences to tears she felt almost nothing herself; and a similar observation was made of Liszt by his pupil, Amy Fay. The important point is that ‘in action’ we must not be wholly given up to our feelings. Kathleen Arnold, one of our finest teachers, has remarked that, in playing, the heart must feel but the head must be cool. The heart of the veriest tyro can seethe with emotion, but it is the cool head of the experienced artist that will move audiences.

Key factors to know when you play the piano

No two performances of the same music by the same performer will be exactly alike in every detail. If they were, they would be “reproductions” instead of ‘originals’, to use a pictorial expression. (This may partly explain the comparatively “flat” sensation of listening to a familiar gramophone record; after the first hearing, a reproduction can never again give that subtle sense of the unexpected which is always present in a “live” performance.) We must naturally have decided, during our study period, upon the way in which we mean to play; we must have chosen those minute inflections of tone and time which, almost in spite of ourselves, will make the interpretation our own. But at the moment of performance we must mean every note afresh; the tiny, almost imperceptible variations which will occur because we are human beings, not automatic – will impart to our playing an air of conviction and spontaneity.

Perhaps, in deciding upon interpretation, our first consideration will relate to tempo. Almost every pianist who has made a gramophone record, and has afterwards listened critically to the reproduction, will have noticed a curious fact: in rapid passages the notes seem to follow each other more quickly than they appeared to do when he was playing. Various explanations of this phenomenon have been put forward, all of them, so far as is known, hypothetical; but, from such an experience, we may take it as axiomatic that a listener hears music at a slightly faster tempo than does the performer. In a large concert hall this phenomenon constitutes a red problem, which becomes even more urgent if the hall is particularly resonant. In such conditions the sounds need more time to ‘get across’ satisfactorily; it is therefore necessary to play more spaciously than in a smaller room in other and simpler words, more slowly.

From this it will be seen that one can make no absolute and final decision with regard to tempo, but it is nevertheless the interpreter’s task to discover what seems to him to be the basically correct speed for the composition he wishes to play. When we are familiar with the music, the right tempo will seem to suggest itself, though the ‘right’ tempo may be by no means identical in the case of different performers. Nor can we look to the composer for any very precise help in this direction. Metronome marks, when given by living composers, have often been found to differ widely from the speed which the composers themselves approve in performance, and one can hardly assume that earlier writers were any more accurate in this matter. To add to the difficulty, there are countless works of Bach with no authoritative tempo indications whatever; and there is the case of Schumann, whose metronome is known to have been out of order.

In deciding this important matter of tempo, then, the intuition and musicianship of each performer must be the final arbiters always assuming that the performer in question is sufficiently endowed with these qualities; and the tempo which is chosen should be varied very slightly according to varying conditions of performance. One good rule regarding the tempo of quick passages is never feel in a hurry, A good performer always gives the impression of having time to spare even in a prestissimo. A rapid passage played with controlled rhythm and clear articulation will always sound more convincing, more brilliant and exciting (should these qualities be needed) than if it is scrambled through at a speed too fast for the comfort of the player.

Things to be aware of

As in speech we lay emphasis on certain words in a sentence when we play the piano, so in music some notes call for more stress than others. The interpreter must discover which notes give special character or shape to a phrase, which give special impetus to rhythm, and which the flavor to a chord. It is necessary, too, to decide upon the relative importance of notes that are not emphasized. There is no easy formula by which such points can be settled. Only knowledge of musical structure, musicianship and artistry can help us here. One of the greatest aids to the development of these last is to listen to fine music finely performed. Not that such listening should be undertaken with a view to copying the interpretations of others far from it; a copy will always remain only a copy. But by partaking of real artistic experiences the listener’s vision may be enlarged and his reactions to the stimulus of music intensified. Such experiences should not be confined to music. Acquaintance with and enjoyment of the other arts will bring a heightened sensibility. The firm, eloquent line of a painting by Botticelli may help us more fully to appreciate similar qualities in the melody of a Chopin Nocturne or of Liszt’s Sonetti del Petrarca; a piece of sculpture by Epstein may reveal to us more of the ruggedness and massiveness of Beethoven.

When, in a phrase of music, one note seems to us to be of greater importance than the rest, we may choose one of a variety of ways in which to give it prominence, always remembering that it is never one note in itself which is important when you play the piano. (It is amusing to recall the story of the lady who said she would rather hear one note by Beethoven than whole symphonies by any other composer 1) Music consists of sounds in relation to each other, and it is the position of a note in relation to the other sounds which gives it any importance it may have. This relationship will indicate the kind of emphasis which is appropriate.

The most obvious way to stress a note is to play it more loudly than the others, but ‘this is by no means the only way. Beethoven often indicates a subito piano at a point of climax, as if to draw attention to a note by introducing the element of surprise:

beethoven - sonata in C sharp minor - Op 27, No 2

Another way of drawing the attention of our hearers when we play the piano to an important note is by very slightly holding back the rhythm before playing it a device which can be used with good effect provided that it is not allowed to degenerate into a mannerism. The climax in the following example will be greatly heightened if a tiny break in the rhythm is made immediately before the final octaves (left hand, D natural; right hand, E sharp):

Etude in F sharp

In the following example, the C sharp at the beginning of the second complete bar calls for emphasis, but anything in the nature of an accent would destroy the prevailing mood of the music:

Chopin - Nocturne in F sharp - Op 15, no 2

If an almost infinitesimal ritenuto is made during the playing of the two preceding notes, exactly the right feeling of stress will be given.

Here we encounter the problem of tempo rubato, which may be defined as a slight departure from the strict, metronomic rhythm. Theories which attempt to analyze examples of rubato mathematically fall down again and again when tested by the playing of great pianists. The fact must be faced that here again no rule of thumb can guide us. If the music itself does not seem to tell us when and how to apply this slight rhythmic freedom, nothing else will, though a teacher who is an artist can suggest, largely by demonstration, means by which a pupil may himself become more susceptible to the exquisite possibilities lying ‘between the lines’. But one serious warning : never make the idea of tempo rubato an excuse for slackness of rhythmical attention.

Learn to keep time before you bend it

said Chopin.

Before any rubato is attempted at all, the music in question must be learned with the strictest regard for the exact rhythm. With this fundamental rhythm as a constant background, rubato can be applied artistically; without it only rhythmic chaos will result.

Before leaving these necessarily brief hints on interpretation, let us glance at the words crescendo, diminuendo, rallentando, accellerando and their synonyms. Each of these words signifies a gradual, not a sudden, change of dynamics or of tempo. Care must be taken that such changes are graded accordingly.

What should you emphasize when playing the piano

Above all, we must observe all that the composer tells us when we play the piano. Only after considering carefully all the composer’s directions may we venture to assume any individual freedom when we play the piano. This freedom must be informed by an artistic conscience and, particularly in the case of earlier composers, by historical perspective. Music written before the eighteenth century sets interesting problems for the pianist. It is beyond the scope of this book to discuss in any detail early keyboard instruments, but we may recall that the harpsichord (and its variants, the spinet and the virginals) and the clavichord produced tone qualities quite different from those of the modern piano.

The question is:

shall we, in playing this music, attempt to imitate the tone colors of these instruments, or not?

The keyboard music of the Elizabethans, written for the virginals, ranges from very simple pieces to those of great complexity. In the small pieces for example Pawles Wharfe by Giles Farnaby, Pavane: The Earle of Salisbury by Byrd the delicacy of the writing will be destroyed by any sort of “pianistic” approach. The dynamic range should be kept within severe limits and a non-legato touch should be extensively used, so that we may faintly convey an impression of the thinner tone of the early instrument, with its lack of sustaining power.

The pedal should be used very sparingly. But the music of any great composer is at times prophetic, and a piece like The Bells by John Bull, although written for the virginals, can use, and transform into glorious sound, the resources of the modern piano.

The music of the clavecinistes like Couperin, Rameau, Lully and the rest is distinguished by its extremely ornamental style. Here the pianist is at a disadvantage because the profusion of ornament, which owed its existence to the particular tone quality of the instruments of the period, sounds unconvincing on the piano. Good editions of this music can now be obtained and should be consulted with care; then the pianist can decide how much of the ornamentation may be retained.

The type of piano technique used should approximate to that recommended for the smaller pieces of the Elizabethan period. It is sometimes difficult to know the exact instrument for which certain compositions were written when you play the piano. Controversy still rages over the question of whether, for instance, the Preludes and Fugues of the 48 were written for the clavichord or the harpsichord. But Bach himself seems to have cared very little about the precise instruments on which his music was played, for he constantly transcribed both his own music and that of other composers for various instruments.

One cannot escape the conviction that music as robust in architecture as Bach’s is comparatively independent of the medium of its performance; this is a complete vindication of the nineteenth century custom of transcribing his organ works for the piano. In playing Bach’s original works we should perhaps strive to present the spirit of the music rather than to achieve a tone something like that of his instruments.

Such dynamic indications as Bach has given if they can be distinguished from those of his numerous editors must naturally be observed. We should also consider the limitations of Bach’s instruments their inability to give big crescendo or diminuendo, for instance and grade the dynamics of our performance accordingly.


We must remember when we play the piano that the interpretation of certain..tempo indications has changed somewhat since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An allegro by Mozart should be slower than one by Chopin. An andante by Haydn is a little quicker than one by Brahms. A minuet by Bach is less quick than one by Beethoven and so on. With such knowledge, combined with innate and developed musicianship, and with, above all, a burning desire to share the delights of music with others (or at least to realize them ever more fully for ourselves), we can undertake with confidence this fascinating pursuit of interpretation.

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