May 9, 2010

The Contemporary Piano Music Crisis: Part I

Over the past few years I've grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of interest on the part of pianists in 20th century and contemporary repertoire. Part I of this essay will focus on the reasons I think contemporary music has fallen out of the pianist's repertoire.

At my alma-mater of St. Olaf College there was a general interest in new music. We had a fairly strong composition department, and extremely open access to a music library with thousands of recordings, as well as an impossibly huge online database. The piano faculty regularly played contemporary pieces, and encouraged their students to do the same. I expected upon my acceptance to the University of Illinois that I would hear large amounts of new music, but was rudely surprised by the conservatism found on most piano recital programs.

Being a large state school, the piano department is composed mainly of students seeking their doctoral and masters degrees in piano performance. The requirements for this degree call for a number of recitals, and many candidates give more than the required number of performances in their time here. This abundance of performance opportunities gives pianists an opportunity to perform a wide range of repertoire, and for those that have the ability, they perform a constantly changing catalog of music. Despite the amount of talent and availability of performances here is a typical program:

Bach - Prelude and fugue or a dance suite

Beethoven - Usually an early or middle period sonata. Sometimes a Mozart Mannheim Sonata is substituted.

Chopin - Ballade or Scherzo

Token 20th century piece, usually a late romantic piece. Rachmaninoff preludes or etudes are common, Debussy, rarely something written after 1950.

I have no problem with any of these components individually. All are important parts of the pianist's repertoire, and deserve to be played. Here is my major problem with the above program, and thus the majority of programs not just at the U of I, but in concert halls across the country: with the exception of the last piece, which is basically optional anyways, none of these pieces were written within the last 160 years.

Imagine never reading a book written within the last 160 years or never looking at a painting made after 1850. Even more depressing, imagine authors and visual artists were forced to create works only in the style of works from around 1700 - 1850.Adding another layer of the ridiculous, none of these pieces besides the last one were even written for the actual instrument they're being played on! The modern piano as we know it (essentially the Steinway-Standard) didn't become widespread until the early part of the 20th century, and although Chopin's piano resembled our current one, they are not the same instrument.

The "token contemporary" piece, almost always tacked on to the end is what I look forward to the entire concert. At St. Olaf I could almost always count on this piece being something I had never heard before live and probably wouldn't hear again (although I swear I heard Lieberman's Gargoyles about a dozen times). At University of Illinois, this contemporary piece tends to be something that barely counts as contemporary. Rachmaninoff preludes and etudes are very popular choices, which while sort of counting as 20th century repertoire, are written very much in a Romantic vein, and are still nearly 100 years old.

Musicologist Stewart Gordon, in his book A History of Keyboard Literature paints a depressing but accurate picture of the future of the piano in his final pages. He comments on the declining popularity of the piano as a vehicle for new composition. I believe there are a number of things to place blame on for this problem.

1) Patrons - Audiences like to hear the "classics". This is the reason you can almost bet on a Beethoven symphony being played somewhere on an orchestra's concert season program. Patrons (as in, the people who pay the money) often know quite a bit about classical music. Their are many donors and patrons however, who don't, and know that there is no danger in asking for an orchestra to play Beethoven. The same is true when it comes to piano. A patron can put money down at Krannert (the large performing arts center in Champaign) asking that an important pianist be brought in to play a Mozart concerto. I have never heard of a patron paying money to hear Crumb's Makrokosmos be played on a program. This audience expectation problem creates a huge feedback loop: a limited amount of repertoire is heard (Beethoven Waldstein sonata anyone?) therefore audiences never get exposure to other music and after that only request what they know. In addition, pianists only learn the rep that will be known by audiences. In my experience though, audiences tend to greatly enjoy contemporary piano literature. This sets up a strange condundrum which I'll explore more thoroughly in Part II.

2) Pianists - Pianists have the pleasure as well as the burden of a having an incredible abundance of literature to choose from. Next to singers, we have probably the largest repertoire selection available, and far and away the most solo concert repertoire. The time frame of our literature spans right around 300 years, so it can be difficult to choose pieces. Pianists, however, are timid about choosing contemporary repertoire and effectively cut that 300-year time span down to about 2/3 of its length. This is a shame considering how much has been written for the piano in the last 100 years. I believe it is a pianist's duty to not only please an audience, but to teach them about "new"sounds. It's ridiculous that something composed nearly 100 years ago like Cowell's "The Banshee" is still considered "contemporary" and sounds "new" to an audience. Pianists can help dictate what enters the canon and what stays outside, unfortunately we seem to be doing a better job of the latter and aren't really trying for the former.

3) Recordings - We live in a time where recording technology has completely changed how we listen to music. Now a single performance of a piece, recorded onto a CD, can come to define the work, rather than represent one possible manifestation of the work. Contemporary music has been relegated to the recorded world, while live performance is the realm of those pieces which have entered the canon. This is another problem that can be solved in part by pianists, resolving to bring the recorded to the stage.

4) Competitions - Competitions are a very sticky point amongst many pianists. In some ways, there has always been an element of competition in music, but at its fundamental, music is an artform, and competition takes the focus off of the art and onto the competitor. Competitions have served to elevate certain pieces above others and canonize them above everything else. Pieces such as Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrouchka, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit and the fourth movement of the Barber Piano Sonata have become "competition pieces" and are thus learned and idealized. Competitions narrow the window of acceptable repertoire. Pieces often have to be well known, playing a piece unfamiliar to the judges makes them feel inferior for not knowing it, and so contemporary literature is discouraged. The "token contemporary piece" from before usually takes the form of a commissioned work for the competition, a piece usually learned at the last minute by performers.

5) Teachers - Many teachers are not knowledgeable about 20th century, contemporary, and music outside of the canon. For large numbers of piano teachers, the piano repertoire basically stops at Debussy (again, nearly 100 years ago) and they ignore the rich array of techniques and sounds that exist from the last century. For some it is ignorance, they just don't know what's available to be taught, but for others it is a conscious decision to avoid this music.

You'll notice I did not fault composers at all. Composers continue to write for piano, though understandably not as much as they used to. I believe composers are writing less for piano becuase pianists are playing fewer of their works. New works have been relegated to the sidelines for performances by "new music ensembles" or performers who dedicate their existence to new music such as the Kronos Quartet. These musicians often commission new works which are performed once, recorded, and never heard again. There is also a certain lack of repertoire for the intermediate and early advanced pianist that is frustrating. Big name modern composers tend to write a handful of extremely difficult performance pieces rather than pieces which are more easily learned by the high-school or even early undergraduate pianist. Many modern composers, such as Ross Lee-Finney, have dedicated large sections of their careers to composing for the developing pianist, a topic I will get into more in Parts II and III.

There are a large number of reasons for the downturn in interest in contemporary music for pianists, but the often cited reason of "it's unappealing" is by far the worst excuse. Post-Romantic piano literature takes so many shapes and sounds that to group it all together is absurd. The above are only a few reasons why I think this literature has been neglected.

Part II of this post will cover the value of learning and performing new and lesser-heard works. Part III will be a review of what pianists and teachers can do to remedy the situation.


  1. Very interesting and well written, nice examples too. I've got your back on this one: My "junior" lecture-recital for bassoon was all music written between 1978 and 1981, and my "senior" recital had a piece from 1917 AND one from 1992. Kobe!

  2. I love that this post follows one about Nu-Metal. I also really enjoyed reading this post, I've never thought about music like this.