The Subspecies Of Pianists, Or, What Jerry Lee Lewis And Beethoven Share

Nov 11, 2011
Originally published on November 11, 2011 3:25 pm

The art of the piano is a study in evolution — of both an instrument and of human talent. Among us there have been a rare few whose gifts included the physical dexterity, the innate musicality and the creativity to make the instrument sound brilliant.

Mozart did it first. More recently — as Stuart Isacoff notes in his new book, A Natural History Of The Piano — jazz great Oscar Peterson did. Isacoff spoke to All Things Considered host Robert Siegel about what he means by a "natural history."

"I was searching for connections between different eras, different genres of music," Isacoff says. "Normally, things are viewed in these little segmented boxes. There's classical, and then there's jazz; romantic, and then there's baroque. I find that very dissatisfying. I was trying to find the thread that connects one type of music — one type of musician — to another, and to follow that thread in some kind of natural, evolutionary way."

Isacoff explains his thought process: "In order to come up with these categories, I looked to the sound of the piano itself. You begin with a strike of the hammer against the string and its kind of percusson. That's followed by a soaring, singing-like sound, that's pinched a bit. We have a sound in the piano that tuners refer to as 'beating,' — it's a kind of 'wah-wah-wah.' Combine all this with the great dynamic range of the instrument, and you have the possible combinations of sound in any particular style."

Like any good naturalist, say, a botanist, he has divided the great pianists and composers for piano, the particular styles created by the combinations of sound, into four subspecies. The first one is called the combustibles, which include Beethoven, Beethoven's student's student Franz Liszt and their not entirely obvious classmate, Jerry Lee Lewis.

"With the combustibles," Isacoff says, "there's music that simmers and explodes, and these composers all share that quality."

Next come the people he calls alchemists, between whom the connections are obvious, according to Isacoff. They include the French composer Claude Debussy and jazz pianist Bill Evans.

"They create these sort of elixirs of sound, and their main aspect seems to be transport us to another place," Isacoff says. "Debussy focused on this idea because he was part of a group in Paris that was interested in taking ideas put forward by poets like Baudelaire, for example, that sound and color and fragrance should all mingle together — synesthesia — and this comes through in the music, I think. It takes us to another kind of world."

And then there are the rhythmitizers. These are mostly Jazz and Latin pianists, but probably the greatest among them was Art Tatum, whose jazz piano playing stunned classical pianists.

"I described his playing as an imaginary tennis game on the keyboard between the two hands, where they're firing blistering ground-strokes at each other," Isacoff says. "The technique was phenomenal. He scared every pianist who came into contact with him."

Isacoff says competitive piano-playing was more common than one would think.

"There's a long history of that," he says. "In the jazz world, we know these as 'cutting contests,' but this tradition also exists in the classical world — there are famous battles and almost-battles. For example, poor Louis Marchand, the composer, who challenged Bach to a duel — and these are often improvisation contests. Marchand heard Bach practicing the night before the duel and quickly fled town."

Piano players and composers went for Beethoven, too. "There was the one contest in which Daniel Steibelt, composer famous for creating storms on the piano — that is, these tremolos that imitated the blowing of winds and hurricanes and all — challenged Beethoven. He went first, took a piece of music, tossed it aside. In response, Beethoven picked up that piece of music, placed it upside-down on the piano, and began playing Steibelt's music upside-down — ornamented it, varied it. Steibelt also decided he would never return to Vienna after that."

The fourth group is the melodists. It's a sweeping category that includes Robert Schumann and George Gershwin — a class unto itself.

"I also relate these categories to the foundational elements of the world, that is, air, fire, water and earth," Isacoff says. "The melodists, to me, are the water element, and the flow, the arabesques, the lovely, lilting shapes of notes formed into melodies."

Though these categories aren't hard and fast, pianists who are less than Schumann and Debussy can be categorized too, Isacoff notes.

"I try to make clear that these are useful, but that no great artist can fit into only one category," he says. "They all have a bit of everything in them, and I think the same is probably true even for amateurs. People have certain inclinations — that is, to be very analytical and heady, or very emotive and so on, and that these come out in different ways, depending on the player. The same piece, and even the same piano, can sound very different depending on whose hands are being placed on it."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The art of the piano is a study in evolution of an instrument and of a human talent. Among us, there have been a rare few whose gifts included the physical dexterity, the innate musicality and the creativity to make the instrument sound brilliant. Mozart did it first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: More recently, as Stuart Isacoff notes in his new book, jazz great Oscar Peterson did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Stuart Isacoff's book is called "A Natural History of the Piano." And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

STUART ISACOFF: Thanks so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: And what do you mean by natural history?

ISACOFF: I was searching for connections between different eras, different genres of music. Normally, things are viewed in these little segmented boxes. There's classical, and then there's jazz, romantic, and then there's baroque and so on. And I find that very dissatisfying. So I was trying to find the thread that connects one type of music, one type of musician to another and to follow that thread in some kind of a natural, evolutionary way.

SIEGEL: So like a good naturalist, as any botanist might do, you divided the great composers for piano and great pianists into four subspecies. And I'd like to go over them with you now.

ISACOFF: OK.

SIEGEL: The first one is called the combustibles, who include Beethoven...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: ...Beethoven's student's student, Franz Liszt...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: ...and their not entirely obvious classmate, Jerry Lee Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE")

SIEGEL: Wonderful piano part from...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...from "Great Balls of Fire." So what are these combustibles about? What do they have in common?

ISACOFF: Well, in order to come up with these categories, I looked to the sound of the piano itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE")

ISACOFF: You begin with a strike of the hammer against the string, and it's kind of percussive. That's followed by a soaring, singing-like sound. It's pinched a little bit. We have a sound in the piano that tuners refer to as beating. It's a kind of a wah-wah-wah. Combine all of this with the great dynamic range of the instrument, and you have the possible combinations of sound in any particular style. And so with the combustibles, there's music that simmers and explodes, and these composers all share that quality.

SIEGEL: Next come the people you call alchemists, and there are pretty obvious connections here. They include the jazz pianist Bill Evans. This is his song "Waltz for Debbie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALTZ FOR DEBBIE")

SIEGEL: And the French composer Claude Debussy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Why alchemists?

ISACOFF: Well, because they create these sort of elixirs of sound, and their main aspect seems to be to transport us to another place. Debussy focused on this idea because he was part of a group in Paris that was interested in taking ideas put forward by poets like Baudelaire, for example, that sound and color and fragrance should all mingle together.

SIEGEL: Synesthesia.

ISACOFF: Synesthesia. And this comes through in the music, I think. It takes us to another kind of world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Next group are the rhythmitizers. These are mostly jazz and Latin pianists, but probably the greatest among them, Art Tatum.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Art Tatum's jazz piano playing stunned classical pianists, as you write about it.

ISACOFF: I described his playing as an imaginary tennis game on the keyboard between the two hands, where they're firing blistering ground strokes at each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISACOFF: The technique was phenomenal. He scared every pianist who came into contact with him.

SIEGEL: There actually are a few incidents that you write about in the course of the history of piano playing when there actually were competitions, when two guys would square off, one would challenge the other to play piano.

ISACOFF: There's a long history of that. In the jazz world, we know these as cutting contests, but this tradition also exists in the classical world. There are famous battles and almost battles. For example, poor Louis Marchand, the composer, who challenged Bach to a duel, and these are often improvisation contests. Marchand heard Bach practicing the night before the duel and quickly fled town.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ISACOFF: There's the one contest in which Daniel Steibelt, composer famous for creating storms on the piano - that is these tremolos that imitated the blowing of winds and hurricanes and all - challenged Beethoven. And he went first, took a piece of his music, tossed it aside. And in response, Beethoven picked up that piece of music, placed it upside-down on the piano and began playing Steibelt's music upside-down, ornamented it, varied it. And Steibelt also decided that he would never return to Vienna after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Now, the fourth group of pianists, whom you write about, and composers for piano is a sweeping category of melodists. This category includes Robert Schumann...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: ...and also, for example, George Gershwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The melodists, they're a class unto themselves?

ISACOFF: You know, not to get too complicated, but I also relate these categories to the foundational elements of the world: that is air, fire, water and earth. The melodists, to me, are the water element, and the flow, the arabesques, the lovely, lilting shapes of notes formed into melodies. They represent a category all their own, really.

SIEGEL: Stuart Isacoff, you play piano?

ISACOFF: Yes, I do.

SIEGEL: Can pianists who are less than Schumann and Debussy, can you have a category? Could you think of yourself as a combustible or a melodist, or is that something that only the greats warrant?

ISACOFF: Well, even the greats don't really warrant these categories, I'm sorry to say. But I try to make clear that these are useful, but that no great artist can fit into only one category. They all have a bit of everything in them. And I think the same is probably true even for amateurs. People have certain inclinations - that is, to be very analytical and heady or very emotive and so on, and that these come out in different ways, depending on the player, so that the same piece and even the same piano can sound very different depending on whose hands are being placed on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Well, Stuart Isacoff, thanks a lot for talking with us about your book. It was great fun.

ISACOFF: Robert, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: The book is called "A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, The Music, The Musicians - From Mozart to Modern Jazz, and Everything in Between." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.