What Did They Play?: The Changing Repertoire of the Piano Recital from the Beginnings to 1980

By Gould, John | Musical Times, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

What Did They Play?: The Changing Repertoire of the Piano Recital from the Beginnings to 1980


Gould, John, Musical Times


THE STORY OF THE EMERGENCE of the piano recital from the almost circus-like environment of early 19th-century musical entertainments and its transformation into one of the most serious and uniquely personal types of musical experience is well known.' What has been less explored is the structure and content of the recital. What have the recitalists played; what types of solo piano works; how many and which composers; in what sort of overall structure? What changes in such features have there been over time?

This article addresses such questions by analysing a small sample of the nearly 15,000 recital repertoires compiled by George Kehler in his book The piano in concert, published in 1982.2 For each entry Kehler records the name of the performer, the date and venue, and the repertoire played. Entries are arranged under the names of the pianists in alphabetical order, and for each pianist in chronological order of the recitals. They are sequentially numbered from 1 to 14,708, though there are in fact slightly more than that number since in a few cases a series of two or more recitals (such as a Beethoven sonata cycle) has been grouped together under one entry number.

The sample analysed here comprises only 280 of Kehler's collection, rather less than two per cent of the total. The findings are presented for five chronological periods, from the beginning to 1860, and then in four periods each of 30 years from 1861-90 to 1951-80. For the first period, where entries are fewer, 40 recitals were chosen, and for each of the other four periods, 60. The sample was chosen by taking for each period a number of pianists judged to be, for the most part, amongst the leading performers of their time. For the first two periods, where entries are fewer, this criterion had to be somewhat relaxed. For those pianists with an appreciable number of entries in Kehler, who constitute the majority, there has been further individual sampling. For example, in the extreme case of Hans von Bulow, of whose programmes Kehler had been able to locate as many as 177, every tenth recital in chronological order was studied. The pianists and the number of their recitals used are listed, period by period, in fig.1.

Exception might be taken to the method of sampling; it cannot be claimed to have produced a random sample of Kehler's nearly 15,000 programmes. This hardly seems to matter, however, since Kehler's entries are themselves not a random sample of the recitals actually played; they depend on what historical records chance to have survived, and how many of them Kehler has been able to find. That his near 15,000 grossly understate the number of recitals actually played is surely obvious; 15,000 concerts over a period of even 150 years is an average of less than two per week.

Only a small fraction of the early concerts was devoted to solo piano music. Even Chopin, in his first public appearance in Vienna in 1829, had to share the billing with an orchestra, a singer, and a ballet. Nevertheless, these early entertainments have been sampled by the same technique as the rest, partly to establish the proportions of what it is convenient to call 'solo' and 'mixed' recitals, and partly to discover what music pianists were able to present in the limited opportunity which the mixed recital afforded them. In analysing the data, however, only the solo works played by the pianist have been counted.

Fig. 2 shows the numbers of mixed and solo recitals for each of the five periods, both in absolute figures and as percentages of the total. In the first period the mixed form naturally predominated, but by the beginning of the third period in 1891 it had all but completely disappeared. In the second period ten of the 60 recitals were of the mixed form. But of these ten, six were played in the first decade (1861-70), two were played in the USA, which was some 30 years behind Western Europe in the development of public music making in the mid-19th century, and in the remaining two the recitalist was Clara Schumann, who of all the great pianists of the day remained, for reasons not entirely clear, the most wedded to the mixed format. …

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