The Big Question: the composer Michael Berkeley argues that no other instrument is quite like the piano, which can conjure up sounds from birdsong to a sunken cathedral...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
It’s true that you cannot pack it in your hand luggage as you can a guitar, fiddle or flute. But the piano opens up the whole world of music because, uniquely, it can translate into sound the full range of harmony of orchestral and choral scores. There is no substitute for the visceral quality of a Steinway or Bösendorfer in full flow, with its ability to move instantly from the highly percussive to the warmly lyrical.
Most composers see a piano as the best means of trying out ideas as they commit them to paper. Stravinsky always needed a keyboard so that he had some sound coming back at him. He was not interested in the quality—in fact he put a blanket inside his piano to muffle it. These days, he would have had a Yamaha, a real boon for musicians who are short of space or cash.
There is a more extensive solo repertoire for the piano than for any other instrument. Composers like Messiaen, Debussy and Ravel have shown how it can conjure up birdsong, a mysteriously sunken cathedral or glistening sunlight playing on burbling water. When I am stuck in my work, I play Bach, the perfect marriage of mind and heart, and order is restored.
Then there is the quite staggering compass—eight octaves, to take you from the deep waters inhabited by double basses and contra-bassoons to the stratosphere of piccolos and violin harmonics. A piano is, in essence, a harp in a wooden box, but instead of fingers plucking the strings, hammers hit them. Modern composers often ask the player to lean into the frame of the piano and pluck the strings or strike them with a stick. Putting coins, screwdrivers and paper between or over the strings can give a wonderful metallic or rattling sound. The technique, known as prepared piano, is loathed by piano technicians and tuners, who cannot bear to see their children being violated in this way. But, along with the continued use of the piano in rock and jazz, it shows that this is an instrument that still has the potential to evolve.
Michael Berkeley is a composer and broadcaster. He presents BBC Radio 3's "Private Passions" from his home in London, as he has done for 15 years
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