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The Golden Age of The Piano

George Bernand Shaw wrote: " The pianoforte is the most important of all musical instruments; its invention was to music what the invention of the printing press was to poetry. " Before piano grew in popularity as a musical instrument with the beginning of French and American revolutions, aristocratic harpsichord dominated the music scene. Piano is a symbol of democracy, self-reliance and personal expression. With piano's perfection and dissemination, it had quickly become the chief instrument of most of the great composers and became a cultural symbol of the luxuriant materialism of the Industrial Revolution. The two finest pianists during the 1770s were Clementi and Mozart. The latter represented the Viennese school of playing, which was distinguished for its precision, rapidity and clarity. Clementi played the English pianos which represented the mighty aspect of the Industrial Revolution. By 1800, harpsichord building had practically ceased. In literature, Napoleon became Byron, and in music the awesome image of Beethoven appeared dishevelled, inspired, improvising god-like harmonies on his battered piano. He definitely became the prototype for the Romantic genius and has remained so. It was the magnanimous Liszt who not only established the solo recital but broke the mold of playing only one's own music. He had established the concept of the 'interpretive' musician, and after his retirement, with few exceptions, pianists were now expected to perform a wide range of music. From that moment on, the chasm between composer and interpreters grew. Could Robert Schumann, who desperately wanted to be a concert pianist, have in his short life created such a tremendous output if he had not paralysed his fourth finger? During the 1870s, the Russian school produced a flood of great pianists inspired by Anton Rubinstein. Each was a superb technician. Godowsky, Lhevinne, Hofmann and Rachmaninoff who all resided in the United States had enriched its pianist culture greatly. Recording provided immortality itself. Because of recordings, pianists were becoming a more serious species. They had to learn what sounded good on stage and what sounded good on record. This tremendous battle between live performance and recording has continued through the century. The pianists of the early twentieth century had non-intellectual, gracefully sensuous, charming qualities that wee vanishing. Rosenthal, Hofmann and Rachmaninoff combined technical perfection not only with spontaneity but with the appearance of improvising. The technical mastery may still be found, but their ease of manner and their sense of high style have been lost forever: they played like gentlemen.

Extract from the script of documentary "The Golden Age of the Piano" by Philips