Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Adolf von Henselt – Piano Music


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) circa 1875
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) circa 1875

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post observed how two beloved concert staples by our great and good friend Pyotr (Peter) Ilych Tchaikovsky – his Piano Concerto No. 1 (of 1874) and his Violin Concerto in D major (of 1878) – were deemed unplayable by their initial dedicatees. Those “dedicatees” were, respectively, the pianist Nicolai Rubinstein and the violinist Leopold Auer. Their poor attitudes lost them the dedications, which were ultimately given to the players who sucked it up, learned to play the concertos, and gave them their premieres (that would be, respectively, the pianist Hans von Bülow, and the violinist Adolf Brodsky).

At the conclusion of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, I provided a short-list of composers who wrote music that was initially deemed to be “unplayable.” That list included Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Mily Balakirev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Samuel Barber, and György Ligeti. To that august list of names we could add tens – if not hundreds – of other composers, composers whose music was, at first, thought unplayable by the musicians initially tasked to perform it.

For now, please permit me to add just two more composers’ names to that list, Adolf von Henselt and yours truly, Robert M. Greenberg.

We’ll get to Herr Henselt (Herr Who?) in a moment.

I Will Be Excused for Making Things Personal

Almost from the beginning of my compositional career, my music – particularly my piano music – has been fairly virtuosic.

For me, this has been a curse. That’s because the easier one’s music is to play, the more performances one receives; the more performances one receives, the more money one makes. The more performances one receives, the more one’s reputation grows and consequently, the more commissions one receives (again, we’re talking $ here).

I’d love to have been on that particular career path. But even when I’ve tried to simplify my writing, I could not – in the end – do so. This is especially true when I write for the piano. I used to tell pianists that I composed for piano the way I wished I could play the piano. They’d take this as a joke, but I was dead serious: if I could comfortably play something Iwrote for the piano, I considered the writing to be too simple, perhaps even insipid.

The truth is, I love the pure athleticism of virtuosity, fast tempi, and music with a high information content: music in which lots of stuff is going on all the time; music that physically excites; music that needs to be heard and reheard in order to notice all its detail and thus to fully comprehend what’s going on.

I was also badly spoiled by two pianists who, early in my professional career in the San Francisco Bay Area, were able to play virtually everything I wrote – almost at sight – without complaint, without pursing their lips, or grimacing.

Aglika Angelova (born 1974)
Aglika Angelova (born 1974)

Those pianists were Aglika Angelova and Earle Shenk. Their career trajectories reflect the polarities experienced by even the best musicians. Aglika has gone on to a high-end performing and teaching career in Hamburg, Germany and Earle packed it all in years ago and works as a realtor in San Leandro, California.

Alas, those glory years of working with Aglika and Earle are long gone. Today, pianists routinely complain that my piano writing is too hard. Some will demand that I “simplify” that writing (to which I reply with something along the lines of, “if you want the gig, you’ll play what I wrote”); or they’ll complain that if they play iy as written they’ll injure themselves (“put on your big boy/girl pants and suck it up”); or they’ll insist that they be paid commensurate with the practice time they’ll require to master a part (this is fair and I will indeed negotiate such a request).

(Nota bene: when a musician other than a pianist “offers suggestions” regarding something I wrote for them, I listen and adjust their part accordingly. My conceit regarding “playability” extends only to the piano. When a violinist or clarinetist or timpanist talks to me about their instrument, I listen and I learn.)

To the point: new music – and in my case, my piano music – is routinely accused of being “too hard,” and sometimes even “impossible” to play. But if history is our teacher (and of course, it is), then we know that as soon as something is deemed as being “unplayable” by one musician, another comes along and plays it note-perfect. This is how and why instrumental technique has developed over the centuries: because composers, in their creative arrogance, make demands that certain performers are willing and able to overcome, thus raising the technical bar that requires other musicians to learn to play the formerly “unplayable” part.

(My use above of the admittedly cliché track-and-field phrase “raising the bar” was quite purposeful. Instrumental technique and athletic performance are both cumulative, in that each successive generation of musicians and athletes is bigger and stronger and builds upon the abilities and accomplishments of the previous generation. On May 18, 1912, the American George Horine set the world high jump record at 6’ 6½” [2 meters]. Slowly and incrementally, the world record high jump bar has been raised, reaching 8’¼” [2.45 meters, the current world record] on July 27, 1993, by the Cuban Javier Sotomayor. In 1912, a high jump of over 8 feet would have been considered unthinkable. Today, it’s the mark that every elite jumper shoots for.)

Let us bring this rather gratuitous, first-person-dominated discussion to its conclusion.

Three paragraphs above, I made what I consider a really important statement:

“When a violinist or clarinetist or timpanist talks to me about their instrument, I listen and I learn.”

I am being neither coy nor modest here; I know the piano, but for all my dabbling, I cannot claim to really “know” any other instrument. In the end, I am dependent on players to tell me what I did right and wrong when composing for their instruments. Only the players of a particular instrument can truly know that instrument.

Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889) circa 1840
Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889) circa 1840

That is why non-pianists have not advanced pianistic technique. It takes a piano player to know what is easy, what is hard, and what will push the very boundaries of technique past “hard.” Those composers who have most expanded piano technique over the last 200-plus years were all themselves outstanding virtuosi: Mozart, Beethoven, Hummel, Czerny, Liszt, Chopin, Alkan, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Busoni, Bartók, and Rzewski.

To that list of pianistic wizards let us now add a name unfamiliar to many: Adolf von Henselt.…

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