The history of piano interpretation

The history of piano interpretation is divided into two great eras.  From the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, we can only speak of prehistory of interpretation because the sound documents are completely missing.  From the beginning of the twentieth century to nowadays, the increasing number of recordings let us make the so-called history of interpretation. 

The classic period. 

From the end of the eighteenth century to around 1840, only music for piano and orchestra were performed in public, while music for piano solo belonged to the sphere of private consumption. 

We can speak of interpretation when we begin to play music from the past, written with a notation that is no longer completely comprehensible for the vast majority of performers and responding to a taste that appears archaic, out of date. 

In this sense, the beginning of the interpretation can be set in 1791 when Clementi publishes, with the addition of his own signs, some Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti

Compositions of the past are republished with additions of signs of articulation, expression and captions; they are the result of the initiative of an expert, the "reviewer", who takes responsibility for it.  All these additions perform the task of facilitating performance for amateurs and are therefore designed for private, chamber performances. 

The public performance, limited to concerts with orchestra, is reserved for professional pianists for whom, as for singers, ample margins for personal interventions are provided. 

The romantic period. 

Thanks to Liszt's initiative and genius the recital is created and becomes a permanent institution of musical life. 

During this period, from 1840 to the end of the century, piano solo music is therefore performed in public. 

The "sound" becomes concert-based, that is, thought in function of large rooms and theaters. 

Professionals are recognized the same margins of intervention that were already granted to them in the previous period. 

Concert elaboration of the romantic virtuosos has concrete reflections in some revisions, but is only partially documented in the records of the last pupils of Liszt, as well as of  Pachmann, Paderewski, Busoni, Rachmaninov, Hofmann, Cortot, Hambourg and still others. 

The modern period. 

The history of modern interpretation begins, albeit in an embryonic way, with the wax rolls of the Edison phonograph on which some phrases pronounced by Johannes Brahms are engraved along with a partial execution of the Hungarian Dance n. 1

A cultural revolution occurs, provoked by an unprecedented technological innovation: the interpretations that lived before in the ephemeral world are now kept on record. 

At first, until around 1950, the discography was affected by the duration limits (about five minutes per side) of the 78 rpm disc, and therefore did not fully document the panorama of the interpretation.  In a second moment, after 1950, first the LP and then the CD allow to overcome the 78 rpm limit and to document a much larger number of interpretations. 

The new trends develop in parallel with the turning point that occurs in musical creation starting from around 1919 and which can be summarized as anti-wagnerism, antisymbolism, “everyday” music, new “simplicity”. 

This tendency goes towards the progressive abolition of the revision.  Certified authenticity of the text is demanded (the Urtext edition, "original text", is adopted).  The interpreter’s discretion is drastically limited: the exact implementation of the notes but also of all the other signs used in writing is required. 

During the modern period, the research not only of Urtext but also of Urton, of the "original sound", was developed; it was first limited to the harpsichord, then to the clavichord, to the fortepiano (indeed, to the various types of fortepiano) and finally to the "tangent piano” (Tangentenflügel). 

Execution treaties, aesthetic, theory and rhetoric are thoroughly studied.

Modernity and philology started jointly and with similar programs, but soon took divergent paths. 

The postmodern period. 

The modern interpretation, started as a historic moment, is then influenced by the New Music, by its poetics and its writing. 

There is the tendency to retrace the past in the light of contemporary experiences, as it happened during classicism and romanticism. 

Starting from the eighties of the twentieth century, the New Music’s perspectives are gradually abandoned and composers call themselves as neo-romantic, minimalist, etc., and reject the concept of avant-garde. 

Furthermore, the philological research of the last decades of the twentieth century opens up different horizons from those pursued by modernity, characterized by a greater attention to creativity and freedom. 

If, how much and how these horizons will be explored and if, how much and how the musical creation will have consequences in the field of piano interpretation is a problem that concerns actuality, not history, and on which it would be vain to do any forecasts. 

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