Virtuosity

János Mácsai

Virtuosity 2020-03-27T12:58:49+00:00

Perhaps more people are aware of the adventurous life of Georges Cziffra than know of his art and recordings. He reached global successes and was marked by the most terrible tragedy. Each time he was thrust down into the depths of despair, a “new artistic resurrection” (as he put it) took root in his fate through his talent. For anyone with even a slight knowledge of classical music, his name is synonymous with piano playing skill. Just as was the case with Ferenc Liszt in an earlier age. Cziffra is frequently mentioned as a worthy, indeed the only true pianist successor to Liszt.

His talent was a natural endowment but he could build his exceptional knowledge on a collective musical past of several centuries, the conquest of which demanded that he traverse the entire gamut of individual artistic development. Virtuosity is partly a physical gift but it is cultivated and matured only at the cost of enormous effort. Critics are of the opinion that in itself, lacking any musical profundity, virtuosity is empty. Mere acrobatics, poor circus dare-devilry. But technical perfection cannot be dispensed with in piano playing, either. Georges Cziffra became the unparalleled virtuoso of his instrument and – in the intellectual sense, too – master of the music he shaped. He was committed to and a cultivator of art of the very highest degree.

The virtuosity of Georges Cziffra didn’t appear out of thin air, so it might be worth going a bit deeper into the history of virtuosity in order to clarify the significance and past forms of this often used term. First we should look back to the original usage of the word in 16th century Italy: at that time it was applied to individuals who were particularly proficient in some intellectual or artistic field: poets, architects and scientists. Even today we find the word applied to those pursuing activities other than music, albeit often with slightly ironic overtones although in the sense of recognizing worth. The word itself can be traced back to the Latin expression ‘virtus’, meaning virtue, courage, perfection, nobility and skill. The many positive attributes began to take on negative connotations only in the 19th and more so in the 20th century, when it was used to criticize a superficial, empty performance style.

In the 16th century, it was applied to musicians who were practised and skilled in their art. At that time there were instrumental virtuosos throughout Europe, although keyboard instruments were not the most important but rather the strings and lutes. For instance, Bálint Bakfark, considered to be a Hungarian, was one of the most renowned. At the time these people were not only performance artists but in almost all cases composers, too, not to mention being theoreticians. A maestro di cappella operated as a kind of music ‘jack-of-all-trades’, composing, performing, teaching, organizing and administrating. This was totally natural right up until the mid-19th century. Just consider one of the best known of all musicians, J.S. Bach, who was active in all the areas mentioned above, providing the very finest quality in all, and yet in his day he was perhaps held in highest esteem as an organ virtuoso.

Keyboard virtuosity started developing in the 17th century. The Englishman Bull, Dutch Sweelinck, German Froberger and Italian Frescobaldi were all rightly called keyboard virtuosos. Parallel with the increasingly extensive printing of sheet music, there was also a growth in publications in which the lute, organ or other keyboard instruments generally referred to as virginals played a part. For the most part, these were all interchangeable. It was only towards the end of the century that music specifically for the clavichord or one of the harpsichord instruments began to enjoy a measure of independence. In the early 18th century, French and German music lexicons (Brossard 1703, Walther 1732, Mattheson 1720) always employed the expression musical virtuosity in a positive sense. One important composer, Johann Kuhnau (the predecessor of Bach at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig), was already differentiating the true virtuoso ‘der wahre Virtuose’ and the competent musician ‘glückselige Musicus’ in his tract published in 1700. Naturally, the latter were in the majority, but it is worth noting that even they were so good that they sometimes received positions or support from the German courts for the entirety of their lives.

By the turn of the 17th century, demand for virtuosity (in the sense it is used today) in instrumental technique had been fully established. Scarlatti, Händel, Couperin and Rameau (all of whom were born in the middle of the 1680s) and the incomparable J. S. Bach remain to this day essential figures in everyday music life.

When in the late 17th century considerable numbers of Italian musicians flooded into cities in Northern Europe, they carried with them not only their practical skills but their musical styles, too. All this found fertile ground – particularly in the vocal and strings performing arts – throughout the entire region. Interestingly, the consequence was that from the end of the 18th century a counter-movement got underway, and in the majority of countries one of the most important objectives was to bring national music to the fore, or to actually create such national music.

The wildfire expansion of opera meant that the vocal genres overtook the popularity of instrumental music in the area of virtuosity from the 17th century. The singing ‘output’ of operas was nearly always more important than the actual content or stage quality. People flocked to the ever increasing number of opera houses to watch prima donnas, primo uomos, but above all else castratos, and the popularity of the genre has been maintained – with one or two minor downturns – to this day. One just has to consider the Baroque opera cult that has arisen in the past 10-20 years, thanks in large part to the truly remarkable abilities of a few singers. Their virtuosity finally shows modern audiences what it was about Baroque opera of old that was so intoxicating. In the 19th century there was a gradual closing of the gap between vocal bravura and a demand for more and better stage content, yet even today the single greatest attraction offered by opera houses is the exceptional singer.

Concertos came into fashion in instrumental music throughout the course of the 18th century. They were composed for every soloistic instrument, and these works expressly served the purpose of showing off the performer’s technique and virtuosity. Cadences integrated into concerto movements also offered the opportunity for a display of improvisational ingenuity. Incidentally, the improvisational capabilities of musicians were as much a part of the performer’s armoury as manual dexterity with the instrument because it was only in the early 20th century that improvisation lost its significance on the podium. From Bach to Liszt, improvisations were the most spectacular and most rewarding displays of bravura. It was an everyday practice to improvise on a theme put up by a member of the audience. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and later Liszt were all legendary improvisationalists, willingly and proudly responding to the challenge. Improvisation became a very commonly advertised feature of concerts as well.

An improvised piece was in effect considered of equal status to the written composition. It is an interesting side note to this that during the 1740s there were attempts to develop a mechanism setting down improvisations using recording instruments applied to the keyboard family. Throughout the following century numerous machines of a similar character were developed but unfortunately we had to wait until the beginning of the 20th century before these experiments bore any practical fruit.

In the 20th century it was increasingly rare to find any artist prepared to publicly undertake improvisation. It never completely disappeared but it is only recently that the genre has begun to rise from its long slumber. It was relatively common to find in the 20th century an artist who would actually begin improvising when not in public, perhaps when testing out a piano or in studio trials before a recording. The BBC recorded just such a ‘warm-up’ by Georges Cziffra in 1962. Motifs of Chopin’s C major etude, opus 10 appear in this 6-minute-long, dizzying improvisation.

It is interesting to glance back at the other concomitant of the history of virtuosity, the music joust or duel, that came into fashion very early on. A few instances have made it into the history books. The first mention is rivalry between J. S. Bach and the famous French harpsichordist virtuoso Louis Marchand, planned to take place in Dresden in 1717 in the presence of the elector, although the contest never happened because on hearing Bach perform, the vain French instrumentalist is reported to have fled the scene. Bach was thus able to win over his audience alone. (In fact there is evidence that such competitions were arranged in Dresden around 1650.)

The other famous musical duel of the 18th century took place on Christmas Eve 1781. Mozart, who had only recently moved to Vienna, and Clementi, who was just passing through the city, faced off against each other in the presence of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and the Russian Grand Duke and Grand Duchess. It is likely that no winner was declared, instead the aim being to introduce the artists and let them get to know each other. The degree to which improvisation represented a key part of the life of a virtuoso is clearly shown by the fact that the main element of appearances by both Bach and Mozart was improvisation on a theme given by rulers. Such social spectacles are also recorded in the 19th century: for example, in 1837 Princess Belgiojoso invited Liszt and Thalberg to her salon in Paris. Due to the considerable press coverage, we know about the result of this duel summed up by the princess using her immortal bon mot: “Thalberg is the greatest pianist in the world but Liszt is the only one.” To be fair, historians mention that Liszt’s former teacher, Czerny, also attended this famous duel; like the true impartial teacher that he was, Czerny does note in his memoirs written not long after the event that Liszt’s play was brilliant but ‘disorderly’.

Thus we can trace – since the early Baroque and with increasing clamour from the mid-18th century onwards – the demand for ever better mastery of skills shown by instrumentalists. Works placed ever greater demands on the technique of performers: this was actually required of singers, mainly in Italy, earlier, and then on instrumentalists from the mature Baroque period onwards. During the Classical period, in the second half of the 18th century, the artist wanting to perform on an instrument to the highest standard needed not only many years of hard work but good fingering skills as well. Works intended for ‘Kenners’ and ‘Liebhabers’ – that is, authorities and enthusiasts – became increasingly divorced from one another. It required the skills of professional artists to perform adequately pieces by Haydn, Mozart and even more so Beethoven. Even so, the occasional persistent amateur could actually conquer these heights – with the exception of a few truly difficult works – but it required enormous diligence.

There was a fundamental transformation in the situation of piano music in the early years of the 19th century. Notwithstanding the fact that Bartolomeo Cristofori, master of Florence, had already created the first hammer-action keyboard instrument around 1700, this only started to spread rapidly from the 1760s. The word fortepiano in its original sense means volume that can be changed with the strength of touch, but the expression came to be associated with the instrument itself. In Hungarian terminology there is much confusion in this matter; instruments made without an internal iron brace and generally constructed up to the middle of the 19th century are called fortepiano, while later instruments are called piano. But whether we use the expression fortepiano or piano, they are all hammer-action pianos. As quickly as the popularity of the piano spread, so the until then supremely dominant harpsichord went out of fashion at the very same speed, basically in just 10-15 years. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the piano was the mobile phone of the age, it enjoyed a mass demand and new models popped up almost every year offering ever greater options, register, volume and improved repetition.

Accordingly, the number of ‘apps’ written for them and their technical state of development also increased with astonishing rapidity. Around 1830, when Liszt and Chopin were launching their careers, the cult of the piano virtuoso that was beginning to burgeon in Paris generated demand for pieces of such complexity that could be tackled only by the most exceptional artists.

This phenomenon depended on many developments: social demand, patterns of the Industrial Revolution, and changes in consumer habits. An increasing public audience with the wherewithal to buy tickets had to be dazzled. In today’s parlance, ‘mass consumption’ went hand in hand with the need for greater spectacle to arrest the attention of growing audiences who were possibly increasingly less cultivated musically speaking. Opera life ‘produced’ high capacity theatres in the 17th century, behind which financial interests were just as relevant as artistic endeavours; after all, the greater the number of people watching a performance, the more economical it became. However, the practice of paying for admission to instrumental musical concerts only became more widespread towards the end of the 18th century. Naturally, here too there was a requirement for concert halls larger than the ceremonial chambers of 18th century aristocratic mansions or the salons of well-to-do bourgeoisie. A logical concomitant of this social change was the enhanced requirements placed on instruments, that is, the demand for instruments offering greater dynamics and far better mechanical opportunities. The music industry, the improvement of virtuoso techniques and the construction of pianos went together, inspiring each other and setting each other challenges. It was only in the early 20th century that the piano had been standardized to a degree that a globe-trotting artist could rely on having an instrument with a similar action wherever in the world he/she appeared on stage. However, at the end of the 18th century the many different types of instruments exercised a strong influence even on compositions. All this can be best witnessed in the Haydn oeuvre because his early keyboard works were yoked to the clavichord-harpsichord, whereas his works from the middle period are clearly composed for the Viennese-style fortepiano, that is, a piano with a light touch allowing rapid keystrokes with a bright, clear tone, sharp damping and moderate volume. In 1792, after his tour of England during which Haydn had come across totally different types of instruments, he exploited the possibilities afforded by the more robust structure, rich tone, sonorous, slower damping in his piano works.

Pianos built in Vienna and countries west of Austria retained their different construction features right up until the middle of the 19th century, after which they tended only to differ in their mechanical elements. In the first third of the 20th century the English-type mechanism finally edged out the simpler Viennese type, which in the meantime had, anyway, grown to a similar size. However, the final step occurred in Paris at the beginning of the 1820s when Érard introduced the so-called repetition mechanism. These days we call this type of mechanism English, although it is in fact French. (On the other hand, Érard’s mechanism was a refinement of a type popular in England around 1770, but it is also true to say that this in turn followed the Cristofori-type model from Florence.) The new mechanism quickly gained in popularity because it allowed for more rapid repetition, which clearly served the virtuoso demands and at the same time the instrument became more sensitive to the delicate key touch, thereby further enhancing the possibilities for musical expression. The earlier characteristics were more than sufficient for an amateur. Érard’s repetition mechanism had a huge impact: the piano became the central instrument of music literature, allowing it to become the hero of solo concerts (these only really came into fashion during Liszt’s virtuoso period), a substitute for the orchestra, a teaching tool and the companion of the masses in their lonely hours.

It was not by chance that all this happened not in Vienna but in Paris. The focal point of music life had shifted from Vienna to Paris by the end of the 1820s, thus allowing the construction of the piano to thrive here and naturally this city was also a magnet for young virtuosos. In the 1830s, legions of pianists moved to the capital. It is well known that first Liszt and then soon thereafter Chopin stayed here, creating a new dimension of piano virtuosity in this vibrant environment. Essentially, the same we know today.

However, it was a single individual who gave the true impetus to the explosive development of technical demands that occurred over a few years, at most one decade. What is more, he was not even a pianist but a violinist: Niccolo Paganini. He had a feeling for instruments the like of which nobody had seen before and he extracted from his instruments sounds that nobody had dared dream of earlier. He was capable of such virtuosity (not to mention performing with such suggestive force) that otherworldly powers were ascribed to him. Many were of the opinion that someone capable of wielding an instrument in such a way must have made a pact with the devil, and some were perfectly serious in this view. In 1832, Ferenc Liszt heard him play and, overwhelmed by the maestro, he decided that he would achieve everything on his chosen instrument that Paganini had on the violin. Thus were born the ‘transcendent’ etudes series, which even in their title refer to ethereal difficulties. True, audiences could only be amazed by this and the like after 1830.

Posterity knows about, and contemporaries could learn of the art of piano playing and at the same time some of its tricks thanks to several essential educational publications. Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Piano School was published in 1828 and became a core work of the period. The famous (and much dreaded by youth fleeing endless hours of practice) Carl Czerny, a student of Beethoven and then in turn teacher of Liszt, published his extensive summarized collected works on technique in 1839.

Naturally enough, in Paris there was a strong sense of rivalry between the piano virtuosos, which is why everyone tried to introduce some signature characteristic into their performance style. Alan Walker, Liszt’s most significant biographer, put it like this: ‘Dozens of steel-fingered, chromium-plated virtuosos played there, including Kalkbrenner, Herz, Hiller, Hünten, Pixis, Thalberg, Dreyschock, and Cramer. … There was Dreyschock with his octaves and Kalkbrenner with his passage-work, and Thalberg with his trick of making two hands sound like three.’ Of these ‘Klavier-Löwen’ (an expression of the period meaning keyboard lions) one of the most remarkable was Charles-Valentin Alkan, whom even Liszt was in awe of as a pianist. He was the only artist to pepper his works with technical difficulties of Lisztian proportions, and he too published an etudes series of ‘transcendent’ complexity. These days even more accomplished piano virtuosos are starting to discover his works and feature them on their programmes as curiosities.

Yet when all was said and done, Chopin still ranked as the most important pianist alongside Liszt. When he arrived in Paris in 1831, the two soon became acquainted. They even gave a joint concert in the Pleyel Hall in April of the following year. Naturally, the Pleyel piano manufacturing firm immediately pounced on Chopin, just as competitor Érard had grabbed Liszt a few years earlier. The manufacturers sponsored them, promoted them, and in return the pianists did the same for the instruments. The Érard and Pleyel concert halls were considered bastions of piano-centric concert life although in this area at that time the private salons were also important. Happily, the rivalry encouraged by the piano manufacturers and the press did not degenerate into something more serious and the two great artists maintained good relations (although it should be noted that a few years later they drifted apart for reasons of a private nature). In 1832, Chopin dedicated his first groundbreaking etudes series, opus 10, to Liszt. The etude genre with artistic pretensions was created with this cycle, going beyond mere educational purposes and not only because of its technical complexities. After this, composers could express profound content and feelings through their etudes.

If somebody can play this series honestly, it still represents what amounts to a knighthood at the ‘Round Table’ of pianists. It even caused Chopin himself difficulties, as indicated by the words written to Ferdinand Hiller, a similarly most excellent virtuoso: ‘At this moment, Liszt is playing my études, and carries me far beyond the realms of reasonable thought. I would like to steal from him the way in which he performs them.’  The comment by Ludwig Rellstab, an important poet and music critic of the age, indirectly indicates to posterity that it is a milestone: ‘Those who have distorted fingers may put them right by practising these studies; but those who have not should not play them, at least not without having a surgeon on hand.’

The most significant virtuosos of the second half, and rather the end of the 19th century appeared under the tutelage of Liszt. He taught a great number of pianists who went on to become successful and renowned, and those who attended just a few classes by the master were proud to boast throughout their lives of being his students. Naturally, with the foundation of the Liszt Academy in Budapest and the teaching carried out there, he determined the art of piano in Hungary for the entire 20th century.

Although the development of the technique for playing the instrument never stopped, only the 20th century saw more significant changes in this area from such creative minds as Bartók, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. But the piano technique has been enhanced in more recent times, too, for instance with the etudes of  Georges Ligeti. Interestingly enough, the development of piano construction basically came to a halt at the end of the 19th century. The Steinway concert piano built in the 1880s has become almost absolute by today; other instruments are called for only on the peripheries of the profession. Experiments to innovate the product carried out by today’s piano manufacturers are undertaken – without great success – only in the area of design; electronics have a role to play virtually exclusively in the world of pop.

In the second half of the 19th century a significant proportion of music life took place in the spirit of mutually competitive and complementing piano playing thanks to Liszt and many of his contemporaries, followers and students. Towards the end of his long career, Liszt turned to other piano playing and mainly music style ideals; he gave up concert piano recitals much earlier. But his students carried within them the spell of the great virtuoso period. One of his favourite later students, István Thomán, transmitted the heritage in Hungary to, among others, Béla Bartók, Ernő Dohnányi and Georges Ferenczy. Dohnányi and Ferenczy went on to tutor Georges Cziffra, in other words, he was able to take over the Liszt tradition if not first hand but rather third hand, from true masters of the art, thereby entering into that worthy service of the tradition in the second half of the 20th century. In a certain sense, Georges Cziffra represented the ‘terminus’; the majority of his fans and most musicians considered for a long time that there was no possibility of going beyond this virtuoso piano playing. And rightly so, since contemporaries and posterity always feel that after artists of epochal significance have completed their life’s work, there is simply nowhere else to go. At most, it is possible to set off – inspired by their achievements – in a different direction and (in the best case) to travel far.