There are very few instruments that come close to the aesthetic splendour and musical compass of the piano. Not many instruments can produce such a broad spectrum of sounds in such an impressive way as a concert grand piano. If you arrive at a concert hall and see the black, glossy outline of the grand piano on the podium it is hard not to be impressed simply by its presence. At times it feels as if it is like a savage musical beast waiting to devour the unsuspecting pianist and on occasions, the approaching soloist even looks slightly apprehensive at the prospect of trying to play the silent instrument.
Is The Piano The King Of Instruments?
The image of the grand piano has also been associated with some of the greatest names in musical history. Consider, Franz Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov, to name but a few heavyweight composer-pianists who have in no small way elevated the piano to its current status amongst the instruments. What these and many other notable classical composers have been able to do is not only demonstrate legendary virtuosity but they have created compositions that have allowed the piano to shine in remarkable, groundbreaking ways. This has come about through composers demanding more and more from the piano and composing ever more demanding works for it.
Even compared to the might of a cathedral organ, the grand piano is not intimidated. Yes, the organ may be able to produce a greater volume, but in terms of textures and timbral variety, the piano is a worthy opponent. Consider the physical properties of the piano. The Concert Grand measures in at nearly ten feet in length. It can weigh up to 1400 pounds and can sound over an entire orchestra at full strength. This is particularly true when the piano is used more like a percussion instrument than perhaps a string instrument. Pieces like the Prokofiev Piano Concertos or the Bartok Piano Concertos demonstrate the immense power the piano has when played in this way. No other instrument really has this capacity to change from a serene, melody-oriented piece, through to one of such percussive intensity.
This goes some way to explain the confusion that surrounds the musical ‘family’ to which the piano belongs. To some, the piano is clearly a keyboard instrument whereas to others, including the composers above, the piano is clearly viewed differently coming firmly into the percussion family. The fact is that the piano can seamlessly fit into either category as it possesses both these qualities.
Contemporary composers like John Cage and George Crumb, amongst others, have sort to perpetuate this delightful ambiguity. Cage started exploring the alternative sound worlds the piano had to offer in the late 1930s whilst working as an accompanist for a Cornish school in Seattle. His first piece for what became known as a ‘prepared piano’ was for Syvilla Fort titled, ‘Bacchanale’. The idea that Cage had was to create a completely new set of sounds for the piano by adding various objects to the inside of the grand piano. These included pieces of metal, pieces of rubber, nails, pan lids, and anything that could help him develop a fresh view of the instrument. This experimental process came to fruition in his famous set of twenty brief pieces titled ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ from 1946-48. These pieces are remarkably complex works that encouraged composers and performers to re-think what the piano could be with the focus clearly on the percussive qualities of the instrument.
In his ‘Makrokosmos’ (1972-73), the American composer George Crumb continued the work that Cage had begun years earlier. This collection of pieces written for an amplified piano and is based around signs of the zodiac. Crumb exploits the full dynamic range and timbral possibilities of the piano in all its sonic colours. He uses a prepared piano in a similar way to Cage and also directs the player to use all manner of techniques inside the piano. The ‘Makrokosmos’ are a stunning group of highly organised pieces that draw out the seemingly endless harmonic and percussive possibilities of the piano.
Repertoire for the piano is extensive. This is also a testament to its immense versatility. The piano is equally suited to a piece by JS Bach, Shostakovich, The Beetles or Duke Ellington. From Mozart and Haydn forward, composers across the world have composed and continue to compose exclusively for the piano. Mozart wrote eighteen complete sonatas for the piano, Beethoven an impressive thirty-two, and Chopin devoted his entire career composing only for the instrument he adored. The trend has not stopped today. Contemporary composer John White (1936), who from the tender age of nineteen embarked upon the herculean task of writing 175 sonatas for the piano alone. White’s approach to the composition for piano is perhaps more traditional than that of Cage and Crumb, but the project illustrates the continued devotion many composers feel towards the piano.
Is the piano then, the King of all instruments? It is ultimately a question of how you judge the nature of the instrument. Certainly, in terms of size, range and repertoire the piano sits proudly at the very top of nearly all instrumental families. There are really no limits to what style or genre of music the piano can play and it is just as effective powering a solo passage against an orchestra in a concerto or adding a gentle accompaniment to a Schubert Lied. Composers have expanded the once more limited timbres of the piano to include such a rich diversity of sounds as to render the instrument almost unrecognisable, yet piano still remains intact. Instruments come and go through the ages but the piano has stayed in the public and professional ear for over three centuries and I doubt its popularity will wane anytime soon. There are competitors for the top slot and the sales of pianos have dipped over the last decade in favour of the more portable keyboard. None the less, there is nothing that can replace the feeling of playing a grand piano and probably never will.