"I THINK of the piano as a monster with 88 teeth," an eminent classical pianist once said. Those 88 teeth have devoured more than one aspiring young talent, and countless new victims are marching regularly into the pianos' maw -- 40 young contestants, for example, this week at the University of Maryland's lucky 13th annual International Piano Festival and Competition.
For two centuries the piano has been the king of the instrumental jungle. But there are signs -- almost microscopic symptoms -- that the monster may be in the early stages of tooth decay.
Aside from the contestants, approximately 200 other pianists will be attending Maryland's piano festival -- for discussions, master classes, workshops and concerts. Usually one pianist is quite enough, though you can use two for the odd concerto by Mozart or march by Schubert. In larger numbers, they tend to get in one another's way.
This week, attention will focus particularly on 40 members of the subspecies of BYP (brilliant young pianists), with which the music world is grossly overpopulated. As participants in a competition, they will certainly be getting in one another's way. They will also be engaged in the salutary process of eliminating one another. By midnight Saturday, one BYP will stand bloody but unbowed, the winner of this year's competition, showered with money, concert and recording engagements, momentary glory and a glittering line for the resume. A few others will pick up smaller prizes and presumably the other 30-odd will go into teaching careers, producing the next generation's oversupply of BYP's.
One subject to be discussed at this year's festival is alternate careers for pianists who do not make a living in concert work. It's about time.
A piano competition is a classic example of survival of the fittest -- or perhaps the loudest and fastest. So, for that matter, is the history of the piano, a keyboard instrument that in its ruthless drive for power trod underfoot a host of other worthy keyboard instruments -- pushed aside the virginal, plucked the harpsichord from its rightful status and turned the forte-piano around.
With only two possible choices, the music community guessed wrong a couple of centuries ago when the time came to pick a nickname for the pianoforte. The word (which means "soft-loud" in Italian) could be cut down to "piano" (soft) or "forte" (loud). Obviously, the instrument should have been called a forte.
There is a keyboard instrument that could be called the "piano." The clavichord has a superbly delicate sound that can hardly be heard from 20 feet away, and it is capable of a variety of subtle effects -- "bending" a note, for example, the way a blues guitarist does. The clavichord is now a museum piece; you can hear it occasionally on records, but it doesn't really work in a concert hall much larger than a telephone booth. The piano can play for audiences of thousands, the clavichord for audiences of tens. Out goes the clavichord, and with it a unique kind of delicacy.
The piano is an absurdly easy instrument to play, although in compensation composers have developed for it the most difficult of all solo repertoires. Any fool can plunk a key or two and produce a nondisgusting sound with an ease that is unthinkable for the violin or flute. This is probably why it is the instrument of choice for most precocious brats, the vehicle of their fantasies of glory (most of which, fortunately, come to naught). The piano has broken more young hearts and soured more adult eardrums than any other instrument.
It has also fostered more delusions of grandeur, not only can any fool make a musical sound with it, any fool with a modicum of muscle can make an ungodly roar. The piano is an excellent illustration of Lord Acton's axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Once upon a time, when Mozart and Haydn were around, the piano was really a piano -- a modest, refined, soft-spoken sort of instrument satisfied with a range of about five octaves. It could share the stage with a flute or violin and balance the sounds easily and naturally without making the pianist feel he was walking on eggshells. Today, the piano is a raging beast, eager to beat 100-piece orchestras into submission and able to do it when the music is right and the conductor keeps his players under control.
What happened was the Romantic movement -- first Beethoven, then Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Bartok. In their hands, the piano simply got out of control; it grew bigger and louder and its music became more and more feverish until finally some composers began to treat it as a percussion instrument. Other keyboard instruments simply faded away, overwhelmed by such raw, raging power and will to dominate.
Some victims of the piano's 19th-century power play have been making a comeback. The harpsichord has even had some first-class music composed for it in the 20th century, and the fortepiano (the smaller, more delicate instrument familiar to Haydn and Mozart) has been heard in recent seasons at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. The clavichord may have its grand return if anyone ever notices that it is the ideal instrument for a city apartment with paper-thin walls.
For its sins, the piano has suffered in our time. Composers are no longer content to write for it in unadulterated form as Chopin and Brahms did. Beginning with Henry Cowell, they began to make the pianist lean into the guts of the instrument, strum it, pluck it, alter its tone by laying pieces of paper or chains on its strings.
John Cage devised the idea of the "prepared piano," which is altered by the insertion of nuts and bolts, paper clips, thumbtacks and god-knows-what between the strings to make it sound like a one-man pecussion orchestra. Cage and others have inserted microphones into the piano as though it weren't loud enough already. It has reached the stage where a new piano composition that uses nothing but a straight keyboard puts avant-garde audiences to sleep. Perhaps the punishment fits the crime; by its early death, the virginal has been spared at least these indignities.
Power generates counterpower. The piano is now looking anxiously over its shoulder at a new generation of competing instruments; the synthesizer, for example, which can simulate not only a piano, organ or harpsichord but (with a bit of tinkering) an atomic explosion. Or simpler electronic pianos, which the purists decry but which are developing a sound more and more like the original.
It has already reached the stage where some rock devotees, in the interest of clarity, talk about "accoustic piano," an expression that is something like "meat sausage." Ultimately, as the technology becomes more refined and the cost comes down, a keyboard you can hold in your lap, wired to a tone generator, may become the normal way of playing piano music, and the wooden piano may join the clavichord in the glass cases of museums.
There are certain competitive disadvantages, after all, for a musical instrument that costs as much as a Mercedes and needs three strong men to bring it on stage.