Piano versus violin: the eternal battle to be the dominant player

A talk by Keith Pascoe in the NCH Insights series focused on the changing relationship between the two instruments

The National Concert Hall’s education, community and outreach department has begun a new strand of talks and interviews. Pre-concert talks and interviews have been part of the scene for a long time now. But the NCH’s new Insights series breaks out of old habits in two significant ways. The talks no longer take place immediately before the event they are connected with – the separation can be up to 10 days – and they’re no longer free. The price of admission is €8.

The thought-provoking talk on February 10th was given by Keith Pascoe, second violinist of the Vanbrugh Quartet, in connection with tomorrow night's violin and piano recital by Ray Chen and Julien Quentin. Pascoe came up with a great title, David and Goliath, The Ballet of Unequals: A Stradivari and Model D Steinway Recital. Using videos from YouTube as illustrations (which unfortunately allowed in snippets of a couple of unwanted advertisements), Pascoe began at the beginning, with the emergence of the piano and violin as instruments in their own right, and traced some of the changes they have both undergone in the centuries since.

The piano has become bigger, stronger and louder. Not only were extra notes added to the keyboard, but the early wooden frames were replaced with cast iron. The violin may not have grown externally, but the shape of the body was remoulded, the neck and fingerboard realigned, and internal buttressing extended, all with the intention of producing greater sound.

What composers did with the combination of violin and piano – and before that, violin and harpsichord – changed too. In the typical baroque violin sonata, the violin was to the fore. In the classical era, the roles were reversed, although this reversal has long been dishonoured by performers. And in the 19th century, the balance as we know it today began to take hold. That balance usually presents the two performers in a master-servant relationship, the violinist usually the boss whose bidding is carried out by the pianist.

Virtuoso tradition

The publicity for the talk promised an answer to the question of how the violin and piano format managed to survive, and, specifically, “how and why has the violin, hardly altered since the 18th century, managed to hold its own?”

Pascoe’s suggestion is that, in spite of the depredations of the 19th-century virtuoso tradition that followed Paganini, great composers remained faithful to the medium, and wrote great pieces for it.

Pascoe is a violinist, and he came at his subject at times from an almost proprietorial perspective. He chose a lot of examples featuring David Oistrakh, his favourite violinist. And his concentration on the violin seems to have blinded him to the fact that the harpsichord used in his illustration of Oistrakh playing Bach was clearly a 20th-century model of a style and tone that’s nowadays almost extinct in 18th- century music, and that the Oistrakh recording of a Mozart sonata made with Paul Badura-Skoda actually features a Bösendorfer piano rather than a Steinway. His favourable comment on the piano balance struck by Badura-Skoda was certainly consistent with his categorisation of the modern Steinway concert grand as a “Frankenstein’s monster”.

One of the most fascinating examples he played was of Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata, performed not on a Steinway or a piano of any sort, but on a harpsichord. The original edition of this work stated that it was for harpsichord or piano, and in fact this designation was used as late as the Moonlight Sonata. It made commercial sense for publishers to encourage households with harpsichords to buy their music, too. There can be no doubting that homes around Europe resonated to the sound of early Beethoven played with the brighter, more percussive sounds of a harpsichord.

Harpsichord and piano are very different instruments to play, and what made Pascoe’s chosen example so fascinating was the way Beethoven’s music was reshaped – or rewritten, if you prefer – in terms of the harpsichord tradition. Not all the notes were Beethoven’s, but the performance was closer to the spirit of Beethoven than any literal performance on a harpsichord could ever be.

Pascoe spent rather more time worrying about today’s balance between violin and piano in music of the classical era than he did explaining that the violin sonatas of Mozart and early sonatas of Beethoven were written at a time when the roles of the two instruments were genuinely the opposite of what they are today.

Witness Mozart writing to his father in April 1781 about a concert that included three new works: "A rondo for a concerto for Brunetti; a sonata with violin accompaniment for myself, which I composed last night between eleven and twelve (but in order to be able to finish it, I only wrote out the accompaniment for Brunetti and retained my own part in my head); and then a rondo for Ceccarelli". And George Bridgetower, who gave the first performance of Beethoven's concerto-like Kreutzer Sonata, referred to himself as having "accompanied" Beethoven at the piano, rather than the other way around.

Brahms revisited the old style when he came to write his sonatas for violin and piano. Only in his late clarinet sonatas does the piano get second billing. The composer’s clear distinctions, however, are rarely heeded by performers today.

So why do modern players typically treat the violin as being more important than the piano in works that Mozart and his contemporaries viewed the other way around? Well, the late 18th-century was awash with music that no one pays any attention to today, written for keyboard with dispensable accompaniments for other instruments. The unequal division of labour that made these works so attractive to the amateur players of the time is the very feature that renders them of little interest to professional performers today. The accompaniments, written to be graspable by players of limited ability, are often bland and inconspicuous. Contemporary accounts suggest that the more demanding keyboard parts were intended for the daughters of well-heeled families, for whom music was expected to help in finding a husband, the accompaniments for the sons, for whom music was less important.

‘That venerable shivaree’

Strangely, one of the most enduring of these works surfaced first in Ireland. The crudely pictorial Battle of Prague by Frantisek Kotzwara was published in Dublin in 1788, for keyboard (piano or harpsichord) with ad lib parts for violin, cello and drum. It went on to be a major success on both sides of the Atlantic, and was reprinted in more than 40 editions. It's even mentioned in Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad as "that venerable shivaree". It's so truly awful, you'll have no difficulty seeing why the tradition it represents is now neglected. You can check it out on YouTube if you dare. Kotzwara's greater claim to fame is his death, in the presence of a prostitute, by erotic asphyxiation. The next Insights talk, On Wings of Song, Music and the Lyric Poet, is given by Virginia Kerr on Wednesday, March 18th