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The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the…

The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present (1963)

by Harold C. Schonberg

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this book is absolutely FANTASTIC. I found it really readable and also incredibly informative. It's full of interesting anecdotes which I'm sure I'll never forget, as well as heaps of background on the development of pianos and piano technique from...well, Mozart to the present.
All pianists should read this! It's so much fun to read, and that really makes everything you read about stick.

When you read about Evgeny Kissin having 'potential' and the 'recent' winners of the Chopin competition not seeming to have much 'promise' you realise how long ago this was written, though! ( )
  dorotheabaker | Dec 11, 2012 |
Harold C. Schonberg

The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present

Simon & Schuster, Paperback, 2006.

8vo. 525 pp. Revised and Updated edition. 122 illustrations.

First published, 1963.
Revised and Updated Edition, 1987.
First Simon & Schuster paperback edition, 2006.


I. In the Beginning [J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach]
II. It Should Flow Like Oil [Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart]
III. Thirds, Sixths, and Octaves [Muzio Clementi]
IV. In Profile and on the Road [Dussek, Cramer, Wölffl, Steibelt]
V. String-Snapper, Hands on High [Ludwig van Beethoven]
VI. In the Interim [Czerny, Weber]
VII. From Ireland to Bohemia [Field, Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles]
VIII. Romanticism and Its Rules
IX. Tubercular, Romantic, Poetic [Frederic Chopin]
X. Thunder, Lightning, Mesmerism, Sex [Franz Liszt]
XI. Old Arpeggio, Other Salonists, and the American Penetration [Thalberg, Herz, de Meyer]
XII. More Salonists, and the Revolutionary in Octaves [Dreyschock]
XIII. Two Sensitive Ones [Alkan, Henselt]
XIV. The First American [Louis Gotschalk]
XV. The Virtuous [Mendelssohn, Halle, Clara Schumann]
XVI. Tyrant and Intellectual [Bülow, Goddard]
XVII. The Children of the Abbe [Tausig, Menter, Adele aus der Ohe, Rive-King, Amy Fay, Sgambatti]
XVIII. Thunder from the East [Anton Rubinstein]
XIX. French Neatness, Precision, Elegance [Saint-Säens, Plante, Pugno, Risler]
XX. The Listztianers and Leschetizkianers Take Over [Leschetizky]
XXI. An Archangel Come Down to Earth [Ignacy Jan Paderewsky]
XXII. The Little Giant, and other Liszt-Made Giants [d'Albert, Rosenthal, Sauer, Joseffy, Stavenhagen, Weiss, Friedheim]
XXIII. Some of the Leschetizky Group [Hambourg, Gabrilowitsch, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman]
XXIV. The Chopinzee, the Buddha, and Others [de Pachmann, Godowsky, Koczalsky, Grainger]
XXV. The Ladies [Essipoff, Carreno, Bloomfield-Zeisler]
XXVI. Composers at the Keyboard [Albeniz, Scriabin, Debussy, Dohnanyi]
XXVII. Dr. Faust at the Keyboard [Ferruccio Busoni]
XXVIII. Perfection Plus [Josef Hofmann]
XXIX. The Puritan [Sergei Rachmaninoff]
XXX. Some Headliners of the Day [Bauer, Lhevinne, Cortot, Novaes]
XXXI. New Philosophies, New Styles [Debussy, Prokofieff, Landowska, Tudor]
XXXII. The Man Who Invented Beethoven [Arthur Schnabel]
XXXIII. Romanticism Still Burns [Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein]
XXXIV. Twentieth-Century Schools [Gieseking, Serkin, Arrau, De Larrocha, Renard, Argerich, Barenboim, Lipatti, Lupu, Kocsis, Pogorelich, Bachauer, Michelangeli]
XXXV. After the Thaw [Gilels, Richter, Ashkenazy, Berman]
XXXVI. Bach a la Mode [Glenn Gould]
XXXVII. Two Cult Figures [Brendel, Pollini]
XXXVIII. Made in America [Kapell, Van Cliburn, Bolet, Wild, Watts, Gutierrez, Perahia]

* In square brackets: the name(s) of the pianist(s) to whom, chiefly if not always entirely, every chapter is dedicated.


This really is an extraordinary book. Despite a number of drawbacks, it fully deserves five stars. Certainly, everybody who has ever been interested in piano playing must read it; I don't know if it is required reading for pianists in music schools and conservatories, but it definitely should be. Harold Schonberg, former senior music critic of the New York Times and one of the most eminent piano specialists of the XX century, has collected in this book of his tremendous amount of information spanning more than two centuries. Only the list of names and the thought of the amount of sources Mr Schonberg obviously knows intimately is enough to make one quite giddy.

This 1987 Revised and Updated edition of the The Great Pianists is a substantial improvement upon the first edition from 1963 that was reprinted several times through the 1960s and the 1970s. The last chapter of the old edition (XXXIV) is expanded here into five different chapters and a good many names of modern pianists are added. Also, the chapter on Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein is significantly augmented. Although I am not fully convinced that eccentric poser like Glenn Gould deserves a separate chapter, even if his Bach is destined for eternity, I cannot but congratulate Mr Schonberg on his total lack of chauvinism when he talks about the American pianism (which certainly deserves a separate chapter). As far as I could notice, the other chapters of the old edition, not unexpectedly, were revised only very slightly or not at all.

By the way, the book is lavishly illustrated with more than 100 portraits of virtually every major pianist that lives between the pages. Interestingly, part of these illustrations are caricatures by Harold Schonberg himself, among them charming portraits of Prokofieff, Rachmaninoff, Schnabel and Rosenthal.

In just 38 chapters and 500 pages, The Great Pianists follows the development of the piano and the accompanying galaxy of pianists from the invention of the instrument in the early XVIII century until the mid-1980s. The accent, of course, is on the pianists rather than on the piano itself, but quite enough background for the latter is provided to make the whole picture coherent. Every chapter is dedicated to one or more pianists and all peculiarities of their performing style, every contribution to the art of piano playing they made, their compositions and/or recordings, even some aspects of their biographies and personalities, are discussed in as much detail as the limited space allows.

Mr Schonberg has used a staggering variety of sources, especially for all great names before the invention of the recording technology: letters, reviews, memoirs, compositions and so on. Combining all this in a very skillful manner, a number of forgotten masters of the keyboard have been brought back to life. Muzio Clementi, the man who challenged to a "piano duel" and probably put to shame Mozart himself; the legendary virtuoso Dreyschock who used to play Chopin's Revolutionary etude with left hand octaves rather than single notes (I should love to hear that!); the first great American pianist, Louis Gottschalk, who was a superstar in the middle of the XIX century and composed a number of enormously popular (at the time) pieces that anticipated jazz with more than half a century; the legendary character and temper of Hans von Bülow as well as the awesome intellectual power of his playing; the shyness of Henselt that bordered on a mental disease; the misanthropy and highly original music of Alkan; the Romantics from XIX and early XX century, with their flamboyant manner of performance and passion for embellishments of the text, and the Modernists who later in the XX century accepted the printed notes as sacred and unchangeable.

These are just a few random examples. The book contains numerous more. Indeed, the number of anecdotes is overwhelming, but Mr Schonberg takes the trouble always to indicate when the story is apocryphal and when it is not, or what are the chances in either direction.

Legendary and justly famous figures like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, and Schnabel have chapters entirely on their own where their approach to the keyboard is analysed from every point of view, their own or the one of their contemporaries. In many cases a great deal of information about the personality behind the artist is also provided and that makes for even more fascinating read. Indeed, Mr Schonberg has a truly miraculous ability to bring to life people who left this world more than a century ago. The XVIII century virtuosos like Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven, Dussek, Cramer and Wöllfl, or early romantic pianists from the first decades of XIX century like Field, Hummel, Kalkbrenner or Moscheles, all come out with extraordinary vividness as masters of the keyboard and all too human beings. Harold Schonberg, using a number of contemporary sources, manages to be very convincing that he has almost been to the concerts of all these artists himself and has known them personally, even intimately. This is a precious gift, to be able to recreate the past vividly and convincingly, yet succinctly and lucidly. The author of The Great Pianists does have it.

In the beginning I have mentioned a number of drawbacks and now I have to explain what I mean by that. First and foremost, Mr Schonberg often gets into far too great technical details about piano playing. Perhaps this is inevitable in book of that sort, but I am under the impression, perhaps a wrong one, that The Great Pianists is designed for as wide a reading public as possible. Mr Schonberg gives brief explanations what is legato or rubato, but he never bothers to say something about the definition of scales, octaves, technique, and colours. At one place he quotes an excerpt from Schindler's biography of Beethoven five pages or so long, concerned entirely with minute details about the interpretation of two sonatas and illustrated with a number of music examples. Now, I am sure this is priceless for pianists, but it makes a tedious reading for the layman who is unable to read music. (Indeed, it makes for no reading at all.)

By the way, extensive quoting from letters, memoirs, reviews and such like is another caveat one should be warned about. More often than not, Mr Schonberg indulges a bit too much in this; and if the excerpts from Gottschalk's book are generally fascinating, the letters between Herz and de Meyer concerning their "war on the stage" are very unremarkable and hardly deserve reprinting. It is also worth noting that sometimes Mr Schonberg can get a trifle too mechanical in his descriptions of style and, being a critic himself, can indulge too much in quoting the florid prose of his colleagues. Such descriptions are purely personal matter and even more pointless than the technical details.

But all this simply pales in comparison with Harold Schonberg's writing style. Apart from the enormous amount of fascinating historical information, this is what chiefly makes The Great Pianists a great book. Because it is such a fun to read! Mr Schonberg never tires of being witty, amusing and funny. He knows perfectly well when to introduce a hilarious anecdote or a pianist who is quite a character. And his pen is always very much to the point and with sharp irony that doesn't miss a single detail. Neither does Mr Schonberg make any bones about criticizing in a devastating way recordings and personalities, but he invariably does so with his tongue in cheek. When he comes to Gottschalk's compositions he has no hesitation in calling them ''embarrassingly sentimental''. Steibelt is accurately described as ''the real charlatan of the late-eighteen-century pianists'', and he composed ''a good deal of impossible junk.''

When the character allows it, Mr Schonberg is positively malicious, but still delicious, and can well bring tears to your eyes - from laughing. Perhaps the most suitable example here is Vladimir de Pachmann ''who dressed in a horrid, smelly, old dressing gown would receive visitors. ''It belonged to Chopin'', he would explain. When it wore out, another, always owned by Chopin, would take its place.'' Mr Schonberg also points out that de Pachmann wore gloves, socks and possibly underclothes that had been owned by Chopin; the stories about his numerous eccentricities are tremendously hilarious and one doesn't wonder at all why pianists on stage sweated more than usual when they noticed de Pachmann in the audience.

The gift of Mr Schonberg for funny description or spicy epithet cannot be neglected, either. So Rachmaninoff always looked like ''convict on loose'' or Teresa Carreno was ''cyclonic''. But few things really can beat the conversation between Jonh Field on his deathbed and the priest:

''Are you a Protestant?''
''Perhaps you are a Catholic?''
''Never mind''
''Then you are a Calvinist.''
''No, I am not a Calvinist. I am Clavecinist.''

But when he has to, Mr Schonberg can be quite serious and his obviously genuine admiration and affection for the pianists and characters he writes about is one of the greatest delights of the book. He is pretty much impressed, for example, by the extraordinary childhood of the famous Spanish pianist and composer Isaac Albeniz. Mr Schonberg rightly marvels how the Spaniard survived travelling half the world, constantly giving concerts and living on the edge of poverty - when he was 12 years old and entirely on his own. He is also awed by Camille Saint-Säens' wealth of genius; a brilliant pianist although he never was a concert virtuoso and a remarkable if not exactly great composer, Saint-Säens was one of the most gifted prodigies in the history of music. He was also deeply interested in science and he was a fabulous sight reader. Mr Schonberg mentions a story told by Hans von Bülow which is really hard to believe. Apparently, once Sain-Säens played brilliantly on the piano Wagner's opera Siegfried from the manuscript and entirely on prima vista! According to Bülow, such a feat was impossible to be achieved by any other musician at the time in whole Europe, himself included.

Mr Schonberg almost always expresses his own opinion without mincing words. So he says bluntly that Clara Schumann's dislike of Liszt was almost pathological and her disparaging stories about the Hungarian genius should be taken with caution. When he comes to Bülow's extraordinarily idiotic ''programs'' for any of Chopin's 24 preludes, the eminent critic is devastating and merciless - and rightly so. He quotes several of these descriptions and finishes with the ''surrealistic'' one about the Ninth prelude which claims that Chopin hits his head with a hammer?! It is simply dumbfounding that such ''programs'' were taken seriously and really were thought to represent faithfully composer's intentions and feelings. Chopin, by the way, was fiercely against any such programs about any of his works; but by the time when Bülow's sick fancy got the better (or the worse) of him, he was long since dead. Mr Schonberg rightly says that such ''inanity could have come from what was conceded to be the sharpest musical mind of the time passes belief.''

The list of enchanting anecdotes, strange personalities and unbelievable stories is quite endless but handled masterfully by Mr Schonberg. He never looses the rhythm and his rubato is always under control, to put it into something like a pianistic language.

Some people might object that sometimes the author dismisses certain pianists of importance with just one paragraph, even only a few lines occasionally. They may have something of a point here. But Mr Schonberg says in his excellent preface that modern pianism requires a book of its own and it is to be expected that some names, especially from the second part of the XX century, will be missing, or dealt with in a somewhat perfunctory way. Still, in this Revised and Updated edition, considering the very limited space indeed, Mr Schonberg manages to cover a great deal of the world piano scene after the Second World War. He rarely mentions specific recordings since in modern times huge discographies are common and their discussion far exceeds the scope of a single book, let alone a few paragraphs of one chapter.

But Harold Schonberg has something fascinating to say almost about everybody in ''Who's Who'' of the modern piano interpretation - and he says it with succinctness and lucidity which are very agreeable. So he deals with Horowitz and Rubinstein in one chapter and manages to do pretty exhaustive analysis of their romantic styles in a largely unromantic times. So he deals with a titan like Jorge Bolet in just one page and a half, but manages to give you a vivid impression of a grand romantic master with ''stupendous technique'' and ''fabulous gifts'' who could ''out-thunder Horowitz'' if he wanted to but didn't since it was not his style. Marta Argerich has only one paragraph of her own but Mr Schonberg describes her playing in a most excellent way in just one sentence, namely that it can be undisciplined but it is always of interest.

Mr Schonberg's analyses of Alfred Brendel and Maurizio Pollini, the greatest exponents of the modern piano tradition, note-to-note perfection and prevalence of precision over emotion, are very perceptive. One wonders, having described Pollini's style as ''computer-like total control'', if Mr Schonberg is not sarcastic when he says that for many young pianists Maurizio Pollini is ''by far the greatest living pianist.'' Finally, Harold Schonberg makes an astonishingly prophetic remark (in 1987!) for the swarms of Asian pianists, fabulous technicians but indifferent musicians, that invaded Europe and the USA in the late XX century. Some 20 years later, it is just amazing what a fine prophet Mr Schonberg was!

On the whole, his comments are always sensible and balanced, rooted in huge knowledge and decades of experience. Even when I completely disagree with them, I cannot very well ignore them.

In conclusion, The Great Pianists is a fascinating journey through two and a half centuries of piano playing and the eccentric but always compelling personalities of numerous great masters of the keyboard. The book is just priceless as a wealth of information about the keyboard approach of virtually every significant pianist since the invention of the piano. It is true that sometimes Mr Schonberg might delve a trifle too deep into technical details or lose his head a little in gushing (Hofmann and Rachmaninoff being two notable examples), but it's not a big deal. In general, he is cool and detached, his judgment is sound and worth considering, and his ability to make the history of piano playing a journey of endless fascination is just about unmatched. The whole book is spiced with highly amusing anecdotes and shrewd observations about the character and the performing style of great many masters of the keyboard. It is hugely readable and extremely entertaining. It makes you laugh your head off and it makes you think about myriad of things, some of them not altogether unimportant.

As a special bonus, you may learn a great deal of interesting and not so widely known facts from the history of piano music. Did you know, for example, that the notoriously misunderstood and ill-used term rubato, namely tempo fluctuations in a performance, comes from the Italian verb rubare (to steal) and is by no means a child of the XIX century Romanticism as a great many people think? Actually, not only did Mozart, a true classical classicist, write a good deal about it in the second half of the XVIII century, but Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach discussed it in great detail in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen as early as 1753... ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Dec 25, 2009 |
Another indispensable work by Schonberg. Really gives you some idea of how the great pianists of the past (and a few of the present) approached their work and what the pre-recording era ones probably sounded like. This was especially interesting to me since my daughter is studying the piano, and though not a musician myself, I was fascinated by Schonberg's narrative, which includes lots of memorable anecdotes. Doesn't require a music degree to appreciate, and anyone with a hankering for some fine writing needs to discover Schonberg. ( )
2 vote datrappert | Jun 27, 2009 |
I found this book fascinating. It doesn't concentrate on biographical details of the great pianists, but rather on their personalities, idiosyncracies and their piano playing style as described by those who heard (and saw) them.

There's some delightful titbits in there, such as the fact that Liszt was a handsome man with long hair, who would throw his hands around, and toss his hair over his face, make dramatic gestures and fierce grimaces while playing. Ladies would swoon and scream and throw their jewellery on the stage while he played. The first rock star?

As well as anecdotes like that, the book is also a history of piano playing, from the piano's invention in Bach's day, until the time of writing, which was the 1980s. It gives a clear picture of the changes from baroque to classical to romantic to modernist. As a piano player, I found some fascinating insights there too, such as that it's a relatively new idea that the performer should slavishly adhere to what's written on the score - it was the norm for over a century to embellish and enforce one's own personality onto the music.

My only complaint is that the book finishes too soon - reading it now, I feel like I'm missing out on the rest of the story - it was written squarely in the modernist period, which I'm sure is over now. What are we at now? Post-modernist? Neo-romantic? Eclectic? I'd love someone to tell me. ( )
3 vote ChocolateMuse | Jun 14, 2009 |
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Dieses Buch handelt vom Klavierspiel, und die Geschichte des Klavierspiels beginnt mit Mozart und Clementi.
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