Why are we interested in exploring the connection between songs and piano music?
The voice and the piano – these are 2 wonderful but very different instruments.
Do they talk with each other, and what has been the dialogue between them? And do singers and pianists actually understand each other? And does doing one well help you do the other well?
Well, this last question is easy to answer: some of the best piano teachers are constantly exhorting their students that they should “sing” what they are playing (are singers surprised about this?). Here’s one of the greatest piano pedagogues of our time, Leon Fleischer:
“I recommend highly singing everything that you play …. If you sing it, somehow the lips and the tongue are not bothered by the ‘garbage’ of playing the instrument.”
Now, as for whether pianists and singers understand each other, we think the answer is “probably not”. As a broad point, there is a general lack of sympathy.
There are exceptions: the German lieder is based on the philosophy that the piano is in a “dialogue” with the voice and so lieder pianist is probably required to understand breathing more than other pianists. That is also why Liszt’s piano transcription of German lieder is so interesting (he made piano transcriptions of over 60 of Schubert songs as well as his own lieder, and did some Schumann songs, amongst others, but interestingly never touched any of Brahms’ lieder).
Anyone who knows Schubert’s lieder would understand the technical problem facing Liszt: how to telescope the vocal line of the songs into Schubert’s accompaniment, thus creating a self-contained piano piece, with no loss of musical substance and no distortion of musical sense. Some of Schubert’s accompaniments are difficult and demand a virtuoso technique. To reproduce the vocal line as well seems impossible, but Liszt always succeeds in finding a solution.
Liszt biographer Alan Walker called these piano transcriptions “art that conceals art“.
And the dialogue between the voice and the piano? Well, songs have always inspired piano music, and that is the theme of our concert on 22nd April! Come and listen and enjoy the journey we will take you on: we are only able to do a little of Mozart, Schubert and Liszt this time round.
“How melodies take breaths”: We learned from “The Music Instinct” that phrasing is closely linked to the rhythmic patterns of music and that the average length of a musical bar in hymns is 3.4 seconds, close to the average line length in poetry of 2.7 seconds!
How can you make the piano “sing”? A major focus for those doing deliberative practice.