The sweet magic made of wood and metal

Thesis describes the evolution of the piano and its interpreters since the 19th century

NegreirosThe Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who claimed to be the originator of the solo piano recital in the 19th century, used to say, in imitation of Louis XIV: “Le concert c’est moi” (“I am the concert”). An examination of the changes that have taken place in piano performances since their creation in the 19th century to post-modern period is the subject of the doctoral thesis, The Solo Piano Performer at the End of the Millennium, presented by Sílvio Baroni – today a lecturer at the Campinas State University (Unicamp) – which FAPESP supported.

“In the first part, I cover the genesis of this interpreter, in a historical retrospective from the Baroque to Romanticism, emphasizing on Liszt’s influence. Then, there is an analysis showing the interpreter in the light of technological innovation from the invention of the phonograph to the computer”, he says. Baroni also discusses the place of the interpreter in the cultural industry and the paradigms of the various options in contemporary piano performance. The reason for this plunge into his own professional world came from observing the milieu.

“There are not many opportunities in concert halls and I investigated what had happened, as well as the reason for the phenomena of classical music, such as Pavarotti. Stars like him show that in music, either you earn huge amounts of money, or there is no room or financial return at all”, he observes. To do this, he interviewed various professionals, among whom was the celebrated pianist Martha Argerich. Baroni began his work with a retrospective of the keyboard’s most effervescent period, the Baroque up to the period where the composer became disassociated from the performer in Romanticism.

This was the period of an explosion of piano performances. “The composers were all in France – including Chopin and Liszt – and they did not relate just to musicians, but with all types of artists. Liszt’s work, for example, is highly associated with literature.” According to Baroni, the modern concept of the great musical star begins with this composer. “Liszt played in Europe like a king. In contrast to Chopin, who preferred small audiences, he liked to play before crowds.

Among other things, he established an artistic pattern that he created and that survives up totoday”, he explains. Then, Baroni examines how the instrumentalist, at the turn of the new century handled the advent of recording – records and the phonograph substantially altered the life of musicians, composers and the public, as machines entered people’s houses, replacing the sound they would previously have heardlive. “Suddenly, people could have that sublime performance by a great pianist in their own homes playing Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata.”

Then, he goes on to examine the culture industry. The central point is the question of mass culture versus elite culture, which also exists in classical music. For example, Revel’s Bolero, which thousands of people have a recording of, or Carmina Burana, by Carl Orff. “These are pieces of music that many people buy, but they don’t know properly what they have. The record companies play to the market and everything ends up as part of the mass market. Musical works became clichés”. A better informed public chooses the music it wishes to listen to and the performer playing the music: “‘I want Chopin with Rubinstein or with Guiomar Novaes’, for example. It is a different attitude to culture”, he explains.

Another example is the brand established by the maestro Herbert von Karajan at Deustche Grammophon. “Karajan recorded with whomever and whenever he wanted. Otherwise he would not record with the Berlin Philharmonic, so it is a personal brand allied to that of the recording company”, he says. We must not forget, too, the matter of the cultural value of the technology. “If the CD player and the CD itself used to be expensive, nowadays they are quite cheap, which means that music can be popularized”, he says. Questions like the performer that cannot record or play in large concert halls are other topics in the study.”There are great pianists who have never recorded even a single CD”, he reminds us. A personal choice? Maybe for some, it is, because they don’t want to become part of the culture industry. For others it is a lack of opportunity.

Within this process, many great international competitions make performers celebrities from one moment to the next. These are swift rises that are not always long-lasting, and, sometimes, a pianist who has never taken part in a competition has a more solid career”. Music critics are another element to be examined. They are present in cultural history. They are agents that promote artists and, sometimes, they are associated with the goals of the market”.

All these topics were raised with the artists interviewed. “Martha Argerich said she was impressed because it is always theoreticians that write, never pianists. She has a famous phrase: on a certain occasion, she said she loved to play the piano, but she didn’t like being a pianist. This statement sums up the lives of these artists rather well, because they give concerts, do recordings, travel from one town to another in a day and in the next town someone asks what they are going to play in 2003”.

In the fourth and final part, Baroni deals with the seduction of the performer by everything he has inherited – recitals, recordings, the market, and finally the competition. “Modern recitals have brought all this about. When you go to a recital and listen to Horowitz or Martha Argerich play, this piano performance, this impeccable technique, the style is in contact with the elements that have raised the standards of professionals to a high degree and, at the same time, those of the competition”. But competition has never been a problem for Brazilian pianists, with a tradition going way back.

Every well-brought up young lady was supposed to know how to speak French and play the piano. To reinforce this, the great European masters came here and taught our young people. “Guiomar Novaes, for example, studied with the maestro Luigi Chiafarelli, who did not confine himself to teaching his pupils to play the piano, they needed to know about art, sculpture and painting”, he points out. Not without reason, when Guiomar played, Mário de Andrade saw elves coming out in clouds from her keyboard.

How many keys in a piano?
Although he has spent 42 years on the art of making pianos, Luiz Barão has never heard of Chopin, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, Mendelssohn, or Schumann. This 65-year-old from São Paulo, knows, however, that to play good music a pianist needs the 8,000 components of the instrument to work as accurately and harmoniously as an orchestra. “A piano cannot fail. We work hard to make sure that everything work”, says the joiner, who is part of the team at Brazil’s only piano manufacturer: Fritz Dobbert.

The workman’s lack of familiarity with the history of music is no hurdle to his skillfully carrying out the various stages of manufacturing the instrument: cutting the wood, the cabinet making, making the metal fittings, the keyboard, the mechanism, hammer work, painting, assembly of the mechanical part, revision, tuning and delivery. The process takes 90 days at Fritz Dobbert.The first step in the manufacturing process is taken with buying the wood, the most important part of the piano. The pine arrives at the factory in log form, and it is set out in the sun and dried in ovens. “The quality of the wood is the secret of a good instrument; the material accounts for 80% of the piano”, points out José Ribeiro de Souza Filho, director of Fritz Dobbert.

In his opinion, the procedures used in handling the wood are fundamental to the proper and long-lasting working of the piano. “A piano is made to last a lifetime. It is not like a car that you trade in for a new model”, says Souza Filho. “Our instruments are traditional. We may change the finishing but the structure is always the same”.

After treating the wood, the structural part is joined to a metal sheet and a sounding board. When the three parts have been put together, the steel wire strings covered in copper of different thicknesses are installed. In all, a piano has between 216 and 227 strings, varying according to the model. For the mechanism of each key to work properly and produce the right sound 55 components are required. As each piano has 88 keys, the mechanism alone without the supporting structure has 4,840 components.

The final stages of manufacturing are the finishing and the adjustments. A simulator picks up the adjustments necessary to the instrument, and the pianos are given the tone and tuning required in acoustic cabins. The final tone adjustment follows the international standard based on the note la at a frequency of 440 cycles. After this stage, the piano is ready for assembly, an instrument with strings struck by hammers cover with felt, with a keyboard, pedals, and a sounding box with strings.

The manufacturing process differs slightly for each of the seven models that Fritz Dobbert produces. For the two grand pianos, however, the company imports the mechanism, the damper and the keyboard, which represents around 45% of the cost of the product. The price of a grand piano model ranges from R$ 25,000 to R$ 35,000. The upright model costs between R$ 5,000 and R$ 8,000.Nowadays the company makes 100 pianos a month. In its 51-year lifetime, Fritz Dobbert has sold 85,000 pianos.

The project
The Pianist at the end of the Millennium (nº 95/02247-3); Type Doctoral thesis; Tutor Amílcar Zani Netto – USP; Researcher Sílvio Baroni – USP