Performance | Rise of the Virtuoso | Early Romantic | Classical

One of the most startling developments in instrumental music during the first half of the nineteenth century was the rise of the virtuoso performer, particularly the composer-performer who wrote very difficult works to demonstrate his own flamboyant skills.

Virtuoso performers were nothing new, of course – Mozart and Clementi were both dazzling pianists who wrote works for their own use, and J. S. Bach’s powers as a performer are evident from his organ works – but during the 1820s and 30s a whole group of players emerged who pushed the boundaries of instrumental technique and development at an unprecedented pace.

A Thing of Beauty

Beethoven (e.g. ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata) and Schubert (e.g. ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy) had each stretched the limits of instrumental capability in works of enduring power and depth, where the technical considerations are subordinated to the musical argument. But these ‘modernist’ works took many years to reap their full musical consequences. The virtuosos that subsequently flourished retreated to a more facile, brilliant showmanship, where the musical argument is often subordinated to the requirements of technical display. Pianists such as Thalberg, Kalkbrenner, Herz and Pixis were hardly great composers, yet they wrote works of impressive pianistic effect. However, the full importance of this new virtuosity was in works of genuine musical substance. Liszt’s fusion of musical and technical exploration was ground-breaking, and his contribution to piano technique was unique. The works of the Russian Romantics Modest Mussorgsky (1839–82) and Anton Rubinstein (1829–94), the French Impressionists Debussy and Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), and the great pianist-composers Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) and Rachmaninov are all unthinkable without the realization by both Liszt and Paganini that virtuosity can be elevated to the status of great art. As Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) later remarked: ‘A difficulty overcome is a thing of beauty.

Performance | Serge Diaghilev | Modern Era | Classical


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