A Guitar Lesson From Mozart's Piano

I came across this clip in my wanderings this morning and was struck by something presenter Robert Levin said. We as guitarists often discuss the rationale behind choice of instruments and debate whether more than one instrument is necessary at all. Here is a lucid discussion of why we might want or need more than one kind of instrument on which to write and perform:

At 1:25 he says,

"... One writes for the acoustical and aesthetic properties of the instruments at hand. And one cannot separate the masterworks of music from the forces and the instruments and the vocal training which is associated with these things."

That is to say, whatever instrument is in your hands affects your playing style. He notes that Viennese pianofortes such as Mozart played had a high-velocity action due to their smaller, lighter hammers and that they were wood hammers with leather cushions that emphasized the initial transients. This contrasted them with the English pianofortes with larger, slower hammers that were cushioned with felt as we have now. You can see the difference in his playing technique on this instrument: on a piano with a heavier action you would expect the playing to come more from the shoulders, but this instrument responds quickly and brightly to being played from the elbows and wrists. And Mozart's music plays to the strengths of the instrument.

At 3:47 he says,

"...Every instrument wishes to be played in a certain way. And you either learn that, and you get the instrument to sound the way it wants to sound, and then it will do anything for you, or you fight it. And it you fight it, you will loose the battle."

Well stated. The point being that an instrument has a range of expression available from it. You have to learn to exploit the instruments strengths. From a compositional standpoint, you can feel this when you are working out a new piece and shopped it around to various guitars. You find that different instruments can either fight or enhance performance of a particular piece. To put it another way, it is a two-way street: your playing can either fight or work in sympathy with an instrument. Be it in the stiffness of the strings or the amount of energy required from the right hand to excite the instrument or the length of a particular left-hand stretch, the character of the instrument plays into your interpretation of the music.

It can be thought of as a collaboration: you come to the instrument with a certain style and approach and the instrument itself has its demands. If the two are in harmony, it will be easier to interpret the piece. If the two are at odds, it will be far more difficult. Perhaps this could be demonstrated by trying a piece on a dreadnought and an OM/grand concert. If the piece is a lightly-plucked fingerstyle piece, the comparison might go one way. If it is a more heavy-handed Neil Young sort of flatpicking tune, the comparison might go quite differently.

I've experienced this on an intuitive level, sitting in my guitar room and playing a piece on a handful of instruments and feeling the pressures and responses from the various instruments. That takes the concept down to the immediate and micro level. But looking at a case where a composer such as Mozart has had only one instrument to play over a decade widens out to the larger perspective, to the macro level. Hearing a musicologist such as Levin express it in this way is fascinating to me.