The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Chopin and Debussy are naturals for playing on 19th century period pianos, says Trevor Stephenson who will perform them this Saturday night

August 4, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, Aug. 6, at 7:30 p.m. Madison’s versatile historic keyboard player Trevor Stephenson (below) – who plays harpsichord, fortepiano and period pianos – and his wife Rose will host another of their “house music” concerts at his home at 5729 Forsythia Place in Madison west side. 

This time he will perform a solo recital focusing on works by Chopin and Debussy. He will also explain rebuilding period pianos, using historical tuning and temperament, and playing the repertoire of these two composers.

Space is limited to 35 seats. The tickets are $35 and include refreshments and light snacks at intermission. The setting (below) is wonderful, the music and pre-performance introductions first-rate and the atmosphere cordial. But reservations are required. Contact or call (608) 238-6092.

I asked Trevor to write something brief about his program and about the Chopin-Debussy combination.

Here is his reply:

By Trevor Stephenson

I chose Chopin and Debussy for this concert because they were the two composers who listened the hardest to their instrument. And I’ll play the concert on these two wonderful 19th-century pianos because they help me find the both the nuances and the pacing that I believe Chopin (below top) and Debussy (below bottom) cultivated on a daily basis.  

The circa 1840 upright (below, nicknamed “Fred”) is entirely wooden in its frame — no metal plate — it is double-strung (single-strung in the baritone and bass), its hammers are actually hollow rings covered with leather, and it sings like a guitar and a harp and a sitar all at once. We know that Chopin had one like this in his studio and, according to his pupils, he would play it at great length for them.

I’ll play the B-flat minor and the E-flat major Nocturnes from Op. 9, the C-sharp minor and the D-flat major (“Minute”) waltzes from Op. 64, the G minor Mazurka from Op. 24, and C-sharp minor and B-flat major Mazurkas from Op. 7, and the “Fantasie Impromptu,” Op. 66 (posthumous).

Though Chopin probably began the Fantasie Impromptu around the age of 20, and he may have revised it several times over the next 19 years or so, he never published it, and there is a reliable account that from his death-bed he requested a friend to destroy it, but the friend, thankfully, just never “got around to it.” My guess is that Chopin found the form of the piece — with its tempestuous A section, lyrically nostalgic B section, return to A, and then a hint of B’s theme in the bass at the end — just a bit of a forced synthesis. But I like the fact that it doesn’t work out perfectly. Chopin was a genuinely conflicted man, and this is his “Day in the Life.”

The English Parlor grand (below) that I’ll play Debussy on was made by the Collard and Collard Co. around 1850. It is also double-strung, but with somewhat heavier wire than the upright. The Parlor Grand’s hammers are covered with historically accurate 19th-century hammer felt (made in 1995 in Paris by the Des Fougeres company); 19th-century felt had no resins or hardeners in it and the tone is simply elegant, clear, and rounded like great British diction. We also know that Debussy adored English pianos.

I’ll play from Book II of the Preludes, the “Portal of Wine” and “Heather”; “Suite Bergamasque” (which includes the famous “Clair de Lune”), and from the “Children’s Corner Suite” (“Snowflakes are Dancing,” “The Little Shepherd” and “Golliwog’s Cake-Walk.”)

A few of the pieces I’ll play on both instruments to show how the voice and direction of a piece can change significantly depending on the possibilities that the color of the sound makes available.

“You and I are like the E string of a violin, stretched across the double-bass of this world,” Frederic Chopin wrote in a letter to a friend.

Here is a link to an article I wrote recently for Clavier Companion (with a YouTube link in the article) about the relationship between tuning, temperament, and expression in the 18th and 19th century.

Posted in Classical music

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