On-line Book Review

ALISON DUNLOP


FRONT COVER
OVERVIEW

Dimension 24.0 x 16.4 x 1.5 cm
TITLE The Piano in Nineteenth-Century British Culture. Instruments, Performers and Repertoire, edited by Therese Ellsworth and Susan Wollenberg
PUBL. DETAILS Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing (2007) xxv, 270p. Hardback, £55.00 / $99.00.
ISBN 978-07546-6143-6
TO ORDER Ashgate Publishing Limited, Gower House, Croft Road, Aldershot, Hants GU11 3HR, UK
SUMMARY
DESCRIPTION The core of The Piano in Nineteenth-Century British Culture formed a themed session at the Fifth International Biennial Conference on Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain, held at the University of Nottingham in July 2005. The essays focus on individual pianists, composers, concert life, centres of musical activity, reception history and instruments.
WORKS COVERED Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier; Clementi, Gradus ad Parnassum; William Sterndale Bennett, various.
READERSHIP Musicologists, performers, general.
RESEARCH 
CONTRIBUTION
A series of critical, detailed articles on a relatively young area of musicological study.

U ntil recently, the nineteenth century was often viewed as a barren period in Britain’s musical history. However, the vast array of scholarship currently undertaken in this area, owing much to Cyril Ehrlich and Nicholas Temperley, demonstrates that the labelling of Britain as a ‘land without music’ is unwarranted.

The book was conceived as a critical introduction to piano in nineteenth-century Britain, revealing new perspectives on the topic. It also responds to the desire for a more detailed and contextually-informed understanding of the instrument.

Temperley’s introduction provides an eloquent but concise opening, addressing issues such as the symbolism of the piano in Victorian society, the piano boom in nineteenth-century Britain, the influence of émigré musicians in London and the role of women in the history of the instrument. It also provides an excellent overview of literature on the piano, highlighting the importance of London as a cosmopolitan centre of musical culture, pedagogy, different schools of pianism and concert life, promotion and repertoire.

Contents in brief
Foreword, Nicholas Temperley
  1. Introduction, Therese Ellsworth and Susan Wollenberg
  2. 'That domestic and long-suffering instrument': the piano boom in 19th-century Belfast, Roy Johnston;
  3. 'Most ingenious, most learned, and yet practicable work': the English reception of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in the first half of the 19th century seen through the editions published in London, Yo Tomita;
  4. The faces of Parnassus: towards a new reception of Muzio Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum, Rohan Stewart-MacDonald;
  5. Mendelssohnian allusions in the early piano works of William Sterndale Bennett, R. Larry Todd;
  6. William Sterndale Bennett, composer and pianist, Peter Horton; Victorian pianists as concert artists: the case of Arabella Goddard (1836–1922), Therese Ellsworth;
  7. Origins of the piano recital in England, 1830–1870, Janet Ritterman and William Weber;
  8. 'Remarkable force, finish, intelligence and feeling': reassessing the pianism of Walter Bache, Michael Allis;
  9. Fanny Davies: 'a messenger for Schumann and Brahms'?, Dorothy de Val;
  10. Three Oxford pianistic careers : Donald Francis Tovey, Paul Victor Mendelssohn Benecke, and Ernest Walker, Susan Wollenberg;

Index.

 

The Piano in Nineteenth-Century British Culture. Instruments, Performers and Repertoire, edited by Therese Ellsworth and Susan Wollenberg
Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing (2007) xxv, 270p. Hardback, £55.00 / $99.00.
 
How it looks


Roy Johnston’s essay on the piano trade and concert life in nineteenth-century Belfast is an evocative depiction of the piano’s arduous journey from London or Dublin in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His main resource are regional newspapers, from which he manages to vividly reconstruct a social and economic history of the piano in Ireland. Among the many interesting and sometimes surprising facts are the visits of internationally-acclaimed virtuosi including Frédéric Kalkbrenner (in 1824), Sigmund Thalberg and Franz Liszt (in 1841). Incidentally, Liszt played to a half-full Musical Hall, which one paper blamed on the harsh, wintry weather.

Yo Tomita examines the reception of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in the first half of the nineteenth century through editions published in London. Tomita addresses the issue of the “delayed response” to Bach’s music and discusses the key figures involved in its dissemination and transmission. He includes a number of facsimiles and comprehensive tables of printed editions with their genealogy, and discusses their popularity, accuracy and implications these have for performance practice. From this survey, one can see how quickly the Well-Tempered Clavier established its receptive life in London and gained an audience from a broad social spectrum.

Rohan Stewart-MacDonald looks at how Clementi’s monumental pedagogical work Gradus ad Parnassum is received today and explores some reasons behind its conception. He discusses the two simultaneous pedagogical levels on which the work operates, pianistic and compositional, and convincingly argues that it should not be discarded merely as a receptacle for unwanted parts of Clementi’s output, or a series of technical exercises. A particularly interesting point is Stewart-MacDonald’s speculation that the choice of repertoire for the Associated Board’s piano exam syllabi, favouring Clementi’s sonatinas, may have contributed to the obscurity of the Gradus as a didactic work today. He discusses the ‘learned’ and ‘archaic’ styles of J.S. Bach and Palestrina as potential models for his contrapuntal works. Generally, the issue of Clementi’s contrapuntal technique is one area which Stewart-MacDonald touches upon that merits further scholarly attention.

Janet Ritterman and William Weber write about the origins of the piano recital in England, a phenomenon which became particularly significant between the 1840s and 1860s. They trace the evolution of the concert programme, and discuss trends in repertoire, length of recitals and the modern convention of performing without music. They also demonstrate that London was one of the most progressive musical centres in Europe; the solo recital flourished here much earlier than in other large European cities and programmes tended to be more experimental.

Two articles are concerned with one of the most significant but neglected pianist-composers of the mid-Victorian era, William Sterndale Bennett. Peter Horton provides a thorough introduction to Sterndale Bennett’s musical influences, compositional styles and development, and his repertoire as a pianist, while R. Larry Todd’s chapter focuses more specifically on the Mendelssohnian allusions in the early piano works.

Michael Allis writes about the lesser-known pianist Walter Bache, who is recognised for his almost single-handed promotion of Liszt’s music but whose talents as a pianist have been virtually ignored in previous scholarship. Allis discusses Bache’s career in the context of contemporary British concerts, addressing issues such as the status of English performers in relation to their foreign counterparts, ethics of transcription and arrangement, approaches to repertoire and programming as well as issues of canon and reception.

An example of much deserved scholarship on musicians who, in spite of their prominence in nineteenth-century English musical life, have fallen into obscurity, Susan Wollenberg’s article examines the pianistic careers of three Oxford scholars —Donald Francis Tovey, Paul Victor Mendelssohn Benecke and Ernest Walker. Tovey is, of course, widely known today, but as a musicologist rather than pianist. Looking at how Oxford, with its unique musical culture, influenced these men and enriched their careers, Wollenberg provides an insightful account of the local concert life and repertoire.

Therese Ellsworth and Dorothy de Val’s chapters present fascinating insights into the lives of two female pianists, drawing particular attention to their striking modernity. Ellsworth examines the phenomenon of pianists as professional concert artists with special reference to Arabella Goddard, who was revered both for her technical and interpretative skills. She discusses Goddard’s influences, reception, the diversity of her repertoire, her promotion of British music and pioneering ventures as a female pianist. She also notes that, for the most part, reviewers of the period did not rate her achievements as exceptional for a ‘woman pianist’, but regularly compared her with other male and female musicians. Clara Schumann’s pupil, Fanny Davies, who was allegedly inspired to become a pianist after hearing Goddard play, is the subject of De Val’s article, which provides a personal and professional biography of the artist, drawing on her somewhat troubled relationship with Clara Schumann and teaching career. De Val traces the evolution of Davies’ concert repertoire, initially strongly rooted in the Austro-German tradition, which gradually diversified and after World War I came to include many contemporary British works, Czech works and early music. De Val draws to the reader’s attention the lack of recognition of pioneering female figures such as Davies, who, had she been a writer, would have almost certainly been celebrated as emblematic of ‘new womanhood’.

Numerous tables in the book illustrate trends in repertoire of individual composers and pianists, while musical examples particularly aid discussion of lesser-known works. A minor criticism concerns the slight imbalance between instruments, performers and repertoire; only Roy Johnston’s chapter touches upon instruments and the piano trade. This perhaps reflects the amount of scholarship already undertaken in this area, although there are undoubtedly more opportunities for further research Temperley writes in the foreword “the nationality by birth is important only to nationalists”; this volume successfully avoids insularity by interpreting the piano in “British culture” in the broadest sense and does not restrict discussion to British-born composers and artists. It certainly meets its aim as a critical introduction to the piano in nineteenth-century Britain and would make the ideal first volume in a series of the same title.

Published online on 11 June 2008