Making the Piano Sing
Kate Romano in conversation with Ian Buckle
‘Listen to this… see what she does here…’ says pianist Ian Buckle, as he sits playing the Steinway in the Stapleford Granary concert hall late one November evening. So I listen. From warm, velvety arpeggios, a melodic line grows... then suddenly, the music takes a magical turn and an intimate conversation emerges… two voices, one in the treble, one in the bass… they could be tragic lovers from a Bellini or Donizetti opera and the miniature musical world becomes an alchemic interplay of fantasy and story-telling.
We’re exploring the music of Hélène de Montgeroult. Or, more specifically, Ian is recording it and I’m getting to know it. Hélène de Montgeroult was a pianist, composer and teacher, born in 1764. She lived in Paris during the violent and bloody French Revolution when music took the form of patriotic revolutionary songs and battle-cry military marches and then found its way back into the living rooms of well-to-do Parisians once peace returned. Montgeroult was the first professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire when it opened in 1795, a role she held for two years.
Hélène de Montgeroult wrote no symphonies or concerti, no operas or string quartets. Her output is modest; Baroque-inspired canons and fugues, a set of variations on themes by Handel, at least nine Sonatas (one with violin accompaniment) and a set of 6 Nocturnes for voice and piano. But those warm arpeggios and impassioned conversations that were tugging at my heartstrings are not from the Sonatas or Nocturnes; they are, incredibly, embedded in teaching material. This was ‘Study No. 62 in E flat’. It comes from Hélène de Montgeroult’s magnum opus; a weighty teaching method of 972 exercises and 114 studies. It has an equally formidable title: Cours complet pour l’enseignement du Forté Piano conduisant progressivement des premiere éléments aus plus grandes difficulties (more commonly referred to as the Cours Complet). ‘I think it’s her finest work’ says Ian. ‘It seems to me it's where she feels most free to express herself… and where she is at her most adventurous’.
And it is here, in this three-volume pedagogical treatise that Hélène de Montgeroult sets out what makes her so remarkably different to her contemporaries. ‘She had radical ideas about how the piano should be played’ Ian says. ‘She didn’t want to write crowd-pleasers or flashy virtuosic show-pieces… she wanted to make the piano sing’.
It’s an extraordinary idea. The percussive piano of Montgeroult’s time is not an instrument associated with a vocal line. During her life, Montgeroult experienced the transition of keyboard manufacture from harpsichord to fortepiano. She commissioned an early fortepiano from the manufacturer Erard with multiple pedals which allowed her to explore a wider range of expressive sounds. ‘These pianos were all pretty jangly by today’s standards’ says Ian. ‘They were smaller instruments and they didn’t have the projecting qualities of modern ones. They were incapable of sustaining sound. But that’s exactly what Hélène de Montgeroult wanted to do, so she layers the textures and puts the melodic line in a singing register which helps it to project… it gives the illusion of legato. I think she had a view of the piano as being as expressive as the human voice. As she says in the preface of her method… ‘de faire chanter le piano’… her mission is to make the piano sing’.
So we made this short film at Stapleford Granary which you can watch on our YouTube channel. We wanted to show how Montgeroult makes the piano sing through six of her exquisitely balanced, perfectly formed miniatures. ‘They never, ever stop being fantastic studies’ observed Ian... ‘they cut to the heart to the matter straightaway, musically and technically…. they don’t outstay their welcome. She focuses on a particular technique, but then she writes a piece that is so much better than it needs to be for a technical exercise.’
In my imagination, Hélène de Montgeroult sits at her multi-pedalled piano, experimenting with textures, shapes and phrases, perhaps quietly singing along, as she resolutely coaxes sustained vocal lines from an instrument technically incapable of this function. She has an unswerving, unshakable belief in the hidden qualities and potential of the piano, perhaps even an intuitive sense of the future of piano playing and manufacture beyond her time. Whether or not Hélène de Montergoult played out operatic scenes in her head as she composed, I don’t know, but through these little studies, she invented an expressive, visionary way of playing that became the stylistic hallmark of 19th century Romantic piano repertoire and performance - the ability to make the piano sing.
Want to know more...?
WATCH: Making the Piano Sing; a short film by Ian Buckle, David Lefeber and Kate Romano
LISTEN: Edna Stern: Hélène de Montgeroult (Orchid Classics ORC100063) – a very attractive album containing the Piano Sonata No.9, Fugue No. 1 and 12 Etudes from the Complete Course, recorded on a Pleyel 1860 Concert Grand from the collection of the Museum of the Cité de la Musique in Paris.
LISTEN: Sophie Rosa & Ian Buckle: Montgeroult Violin Sonata (Rubicon RCD1056) Release date 26th February 2021 - a beautifully curated album which programmes the world premiere recording of Hélène de Montgeroult’s violin sonata alongside her duo partner Giovanni Battista Viotti’s 10th sonata.