The Pianist and the Piano
Accord Newsletter #9
In this issue of Accord, we bring to you an interview with Bangladeshi pianist, Tanmoy Rahman, in which he told us about his interest in piano works of the Viennese Classical Era, especially those of W. A. Mozart. This is followed by SASF’s recent video feature in the newspaper The Hindu, as well as recent musical performances by SASO conductor Alvin Arumugam’s Singapore-based organisation - Musicians’ Initiative. Finally, we bring you a brief exploration of the history of one of the most versatile musical instruments - the piano.
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An Interview with Tanmoy Rahman
Tanmoy Rahman is a pianist from Dhaka, Bangladesh. His mother, Ambassador Mashfee Shams, served as the Deputy High Commissioner in the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi from 2009-12, and now serves as the Secretary (East) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. In a conversation a few months ago, Tanmoy told us about his musical journey and his particular areas of interest.
Tanmoy lived in New Delhi, India for the duration of his secondary school education. Through the IGCSE and IB syllabi of his school, he made early contact with music and discovered a strong penchant for it. He also took up music outside of school, studying piano with his teacher, Miss Lothunglo Mozhui, at the Delhi School of Music, Performer’s Collective and Bridge Music Academy. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Keele University in the UK and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in music from the University of Sheffield. At the time of this interview (March 2021), he was back in Dhaka due to the coronavirus pandemic, continuing his studies online.
What is your area of study in your Ph.D. and how are you continuing it at the moment?
Tanmoy: For my Ph.D., I’m focussing on early editions of Mozart’s works, particularly looking at performance practice issues that arise from deviations in various editions of his music. I’m currently working on the performance component of my degree - practising some piano works by Mozart. I’m also having online meetings with my supervisor as I continue working on my thesis.
The composer cannot express everything that he imagines on paper. When music is taken to publishers for publication, editors make modifications and change things as per their interpretation of what they see on the manuscript. Sometimes, they accurately reflect the composer’s intentions. Unfortunately, sometimes, editors deliberately or inadvertently displace the markings (such as dynamic, articulation, and ornamentation indications) by a few millimeters up, down, left or right, or they add or delete markings. This can sometimes significantly change the way the piece sounds. This is an example of one of the things I am investigating in my Ph.D. Another aspect that can have an impact on the music is that some composers deliberately leave certain details out - so it would be up to the performer to interpret the dynamics, articulation, ornamentation, tempo, and other details of the piece. This way, composers encourage that the music be performed in different ways. Mozart used to frequently encourage performers to interpret his music in different ways. With these variations, we get a variety of interpretations and performance practices.
What is it about Mozart’s music that attracts you in particular?
Tanmoy: I’m attracted to logic-based subjects - and that’s why I’m interested in mathematics and music. Mozart’s music, or more generally music from the Viennese Classical Era (late 18th-century Vienna - including composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven) is very well-structured, logical and easy to understand. For example, the musical phrases tend to be symmetrical and end in cadences of particular types. The sonata form, which developed during this time, is similarly very well-layed-out. Sonatas begin in the home key, tend to modulate to the dominant key, and return to the home key at the end. In subsequent musical eras, like the Romantic Era, composers attempted to break away from these rules and sought more freedom in the music. In my opinion, Mozart’s music is very well-planned and that is what I find very attractive.
What are some things to keep in mind while performing Classical music on the piano?
Tanmoy: This music was composed for a rather different instrument than the modern piano. The keyboards were smaller back then. The sound quality they produced was different. The dynamic range was smaller. The pedalling was different as well. It was more difficult to be expressive on these instruments. I participated in a course at my university in which I had the opportunity to see and learn about the different historical keyboard instruments. Listening to Mozart or Bach’s music being played on these instruments gave me an idea about the type of sound that these composers wanted in their compositions. In these older styles of music, dynamic variation was limited so performers would hold back or push the music forward, by slowing down or speeding up, in order to be expressive.
What are your plans after you complete your Ph.D.?
Tanmoy: I haven’t decided fully - performing and teaching could be options. I’ve thought about opening a music school in Bangladesh. Classical music is not popular here, so why not promote it and make it better known. It would encourage people to learn musical notation and understand western classical music genres.
The South Asian Symphony Foundation wishes Tanmoy the very best in his musical career!
SASF’s message featured in The Hindu
The newspaper The Hindu published a video and article on 28th August 2021 entitled “A unique, one-of-its-kind symphony Orchestra”. The video captures the uniqueness of The South Asian Symphony Orchestra, along with messages from Founder Ambassador Nirupama Rao, SASO conductor Alvin Arumugam, and principal bass player Saadi Zain. Please click on the link below to view the video.
Watch | A unique, one-of-its-kind symphony Orchestra
Concertan-TEH! by Musicians’ Initiative, Singapore
SASO’s conductor Alvin Arumugam is the Music Director of the organisation Musicians’ Initiative (MI) based in Singapore. MI organised a concert “Concertan-TEH!” at the Esplanade Recital Studio in Singapore on 10th May 2021. They performed Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite for 13 Instruments as well as the world premiere of Alexander Oon’s composition Concertan-TEH! Please enjoy these wonderful performances, under the deft guidance of Alvin’s baton. The links are provided below.
The Appalachian Spring Suite was commissioned for a ballet that premiered in 1945. It depicts the story of a newlywed couple in rural Pennsylvania. Copland’s masterpiece features eight thematic sections which carry the narrative forward. Watch | Appalachian Spring Suite by Musicians' Initiative
Concertan-TEH! features the TEH Trio along with a chamber orchestra in a fun-filled and lively performance. It was commissioned and composed during the Covid-19 pandemic for brass trio and chamber orchestra. There is playful humour, drama, and a thrilling final resolution. Watch | Concertan-TEH! by Musicians' Initiative ft. TEH Trio
The Modern Piano and its Ancestors
The modern grand piano is a marvellous instrument to behold. The finest wood comes together with a frame of cast iron to produce the behemoth that typically weighs anything from 180 to 600 kilograms, depending on the length of the soundboard. Sound is produced by depressing the keys on the keyboard. When pressed down, the internal mechanism causes the hammer to strike the corresponding strings in the soundboard. These strings are made of high carbon steel and copper, and are wound at extremely high tension. They begin to vibrate when struck and we hear the tone that is uniquely that of the piano.
The instrument we know and love today has evolved much since it was first invented around 1700 in Padua, Italy by the instrument-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori. The popular keyboard instrument of the time was the harpsichord, which produced sounds by plucking the strings. Cristofori invented the first keyboard instrument with a hammer-type mechanism and it was called the pianoforte, literally the “soft-loud”, for its ability to produce soft and loud notes. The keyboard was rather smaller than the 8-octave range of the modern piano. It was likely limited by the string tension that could be borne by the frame. The keyboard action of such an instrument would have been much lighter than that of the modern piano.
Further innovations in the design of the pianoforte (which was also sometimes called the fortepiano) took place in Germany with builders like Silbermann and Johann Stein. This was the era of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and other composers who wrote keyboard music. Efforts are made these days to create replicas of this 18th-century instrument, in order to get a better sense of what Mozart’s and his contemporaries’ compositions sounded like in the era they were composed in. Here is a performance of Mozart’s popular theme and variation piece “Ah, vous dirai-je maman” performed on a replica of a 1785 fortepiano.
With the Industrial Revolution, there were enormous strides made in the material used for the frame and strings. Cast iron was used for the frame and it could support much higher string tension. As a result, the range of the keyboard expanded. The method of stringing changed such that three strings were used instead of two for each note (except for the lowest ones), which allowed for a richer and fuller sound. The dynamic range was greater - the instrument could produce loud and powerful tones just as well as light and delicate ones. In 1821, piano-maker Érard invented the double escapement mechanism, which allowed for playing very rapid repeated notes. Composers like Franz Liszt took full advantage of this feature, so much so that it soon became standard on the pianos of the time. By the early twentieth century, these innovations had led to the piano as we know it today. Here is a video of Martha Argerich - arguably one of the most legendary pianists of our time - in 1966, performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.
Written by Aditi Bharatee