A Short Liszt of The Greatest Pianist Who Ever Lived

And today, I start a short series of posts over the man pianists have idolized for the last hundred years or so–Franz Liszt. The hungarian composer and virtuoso who lived from 1811 to 1886 was, without a doubt, the only true and complete master that the piano has ever known.

I’m not kidding.

Rather than bore you with a history lesson that you could easily garner from Wikipedia, I present to you a great example of just how masterful and virtuosic this man actually was.

Any musician will tell you that one of the most difficult skills to develop is the ability to read a piece of music directly at sight. Lizst was not only the greatest pianist to ever play the instrument, but also undoubtedly the greatest sight reader that ever lived. An example of his prowress? Well, in 1870, Liszt met fellow composer and pianist Edvard Greig in Rome. Remember Grieg? He’s the “In the Hall of the Mountain King” guy. Well, when Grieg met Liszt, he presented Liszt with his then manuscript for his piano concerto in A minor for Liszt’s appraisal. Lizst then proceeded to sit at the piano and sight read the entire concerto with no mistakes.

Wow.

Grieg’s reaction to this?

“He was literally over the whole keyboard at once, without missing a note. And how he did play, with grandeur, beauty, genius, and unique comprehension. I think I laughed, laughed like an idiot.”

Friends would later say how Grieg confided in them that after this session, he began to fall into a vicious cycle of serious self doubt, proclaiming that certainly his concerto was “too easy” if someone was able to read it at sight. He would never complete another piano concerto afterwards.

Was it too easy though? Or was Liszt just a “super human?”

Well, I leave it to your appraisal. Here’s the gratuitous YouTube clip of Grieg’s concerto. It certainly doesn’t sound “easy” to my ear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF0WaXEf0xM

Another Relationship Between Music and Law(yer Jokes)

“A lawyer’s relationship to justice and wisdom is on a par with a piano tuner’s relationship to a concert. He neither composes the music, nor interprets it-he merely keeps the machinery running.”

–Lucille Kallen

In my opinion (as a piano tuner), spot on..

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A Little Ragged Around the Edges

And here folks, is the very song that started the craze of the early 1900’s that was known as ‘Ragtime.’ Ragtime is in and of itself a genre with wholly African/African American roots, with it’s playful, heavily syncopated melodies and giant leaping harmonies in the bass.
The undisputed ‘king’ of all of the ragtime composers was Scott Joplin, (1867-1917) whose two most famous compositions “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” still make his name well known across the United States and around the world. The former, “Maple Leaf Rag” was written in 1899 and has served as a major influence for all future rags and ragtime composers. This is from a piano roll cut by Joplin himself in 1916. Sadly, at the time the roll was made, Joplin was suffering from the latter stages of Syphilis, which would claim his life the following year.
“The Maple Leaf Rag” would remain as Joplin’s favorite of all his compositions, and one of his dying requests to his wife was that it be played at his funeral. This never came to fruition, and Joplin’s widow, Belle, would, for the rest of her life, express extreme regret over not honoring her husband’s wish.

Gerswhin Plays Gershwin

A long listen, but well worth it. We’ve all probably heard “cleaner” and more “sophisticated” performances of “Rhapsody in Blue,” but of all of the performances/arrangements out there, this is my favorite: raw, quirky, rambunctious–just like Gershwin wrote it. This is the Colombia Records Jazz band with a cut of the piano roll made by Gershwin himself (orchestra parts played by the piano are cut) super-imposed around the orchestra. The first performance, after all, consisted of orchestration arranged from a scribbled second piano part, while Gershwin improvised on the piano. Enjoy!

Long Live the Player Piano!

Why It’s Important to Keep Your Piano in Tune

ImagePeople see the statement: “Tune your piano twice a year,” and often say to themselves: “why?” Perhaps you had your piano tuned a few years ago, and it still sounds okay. Or perhaps your piano was tuned the last time that it was moved, but you don’t play it much, so it should be just fine, right?

Well…not so much, actually.

There are many outside factors that affect the tuning of a piano, the two most important being how much the instrument is played, and the changes of the weather.

Humidity and temperature change rapidly with the change of seasons (summer and winter) and the change in conditions in the atmosphere, (especially when you use central heating/air conditioning,) wreak havoc on your piano.

With the changes in conditions, the tension on the 200+ strings changes slightly, with even more severe changes the longer they are allowed to remain at the mercy of the weather. Over time, even though the piano may still be in tune with itself, the tension on the strings may be considerably less than is ideal.

A piano that is roughly 1/2 step out of tune or greater is what we consider to be an extreme case. These pianos can not simply be “tuned” in the regular manner. When bringing one of these pianos up to snuff, we must perform what is known as a “pitch raise” tuning, meaning several tunings are needed. First, the strings must be brought roughly up to their normal tension, with a more important emphasis on tension than pitch. There is a specific pattern than must be followed to prevent damage.

And oh, how damaging it can be…

Remember our post on how much pressure is exerted on the back plate? Right…around 60,000 lbs or 30 tons. Well, if all of the strings in a piano are 1/2 step out of tune, there is roughly 5,000 less pounds of pressure on the backplate than if the piano was perfectly in tune. This means that when a piano has been allowed to slide and adapt to the new pressure, changes up to pitch put a great deal amount more pressure on the instruments.

This allows for the potential of all sorts of problems, including broken strings, cracked wood within the superstructure, and in the worst case senario: a cracked or broken backplate.

And when this happens, dollar signs abound because major surgery is needed.

This can’t happen to you, right?

Well…if a piano is played every day without regular tuning, after roughly 4 years, it will be what we consider an “extreme case.”

Don’t risk it–tuning a piano is not just a way to keep tuners in business, it may save your piano. Brush and floss twice a day, and have your piano tuned twice a year.

Under Pressure!

Today, we put forth a short post dedicated to just how amazingly engineered the piano is. We all have some sense of how exactly a piano functions–when a key is pressed, it raises a hammer, which strikes a set of 1-3 strings, which produces sound through vibration. That in and of itself is the most rudimentary description I can come up with, however, in future posts, we’ll be getting far more technical. Okay, so this begs an answer to the question: why are pianos so damn heavy? The answer in simple terms: because they have to be.

The piano is made up of over 200 strings–some notes have only one string (the bass notes), some have 2 strings tuned in unison (bass/tenor notes)  and the majority have three strings tuned in unison (the treble notes). The lower bass and tenor strings are made up of steel cores, wound tightly with either brass, or in older pianos, silver. Pianos with silver wound strings are extremely rare, and replacement strings are nearly impossible to come by. The treble notes are made up of the same gauge steel, and pitch is affected by how long or short the string is, as well as tension placed on the string.

Here’s the fun part: with all strings tuned up to their respective pitches, the strings themselves exert anywhere from 18-30 TONS of pressure on the metal plate holding them in place. That’s over 60,000 pounds of pressure, or the weight of 30 elephants, contained in a wooden box.

To put this in perspective–if you were to take the lowest string on a piano (A-0) and string it from the top of the ceiling of your house to the floor, and had a way to adjust the tension, the tension of the string would collapse your house before it were to reach 1/2 of its normal pitch.

Wow.

To compensate for the enormous amount of pressure put on the body of a piano by its strings, pianos are specially outfitted with an [extremely heavy] cast iron plate that takes the brunt of the squeeze. In addition, the strings are wound around steel tuning pegs that are mounted into a piece of wood known as the pin block. The pin block is made up of several pieces of hard wood glued together with alternating grain directions (for extreme strength) and drilled out to accomodate tuning pins. The final result of the construction of the pin block is a piece of wood almost six inches thick, weighing almost 60 lbs.

This is the cast iron backplate for an early 1930's Vose and Sons upright grand piano. Note all of the construction elements mentioned earlier.

Early pianos did not have the luxury of cast iron plates, and so had strings under much less tension, which produced a much weaker sound. Todays powerful concert grands can fill a hall with rich and powerful sound, but do so at the cost of weighing over 800 pounds.

Find out why it’s so important to keep your piano tuned regularly in the next post!