Piano sonority and melody c.1800-1835

Rowland, David (2017). Piano sonority and melody c.1800-1835. In: The lyric and the vocal element in instrumental music of the nineteenth century (Stepien-Kutera, Kamila ed.), Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina, Warsaw, pp. 39–61.

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The rapid development of the piano after 1800 is well-established, as are the fundamental differences in piano design that characterised the main types of instrument. As the bass of pianos became more sonorous and the treble more capable of sustaining melodic lines new textures emerged. But these developments were far from uniform across Europe, and different composing and performing styles emerged that became associated with Vienna, Paris and London. In particular, the reliance on the sustaining pedal in accompanying textures became a major feature of music composed for English and French instruments, whereas comparable textures are found more rarely in music by Viennese composers.

The use of certain accompanying textures had a profound effect on the style of melody that composers adopted. The phenomenon is perhaps most prominent in works of the so-called ‘nocturne style’ made popular by Field and others, where the emphasis is on the sonority produced by a spread accompaniment supported by the sustaining pedal, which facilitated the composition of music with a slow rate of harmonic change and vocal, motif-less melody. But as much as some early-nineteenth-century composers revelled in this style, it posed structural questions; in particular, how can a work of any length be based on these characteristics alone? This paper will examine the extent of the use of this style and the solutions to the formal problems that were adopted by a range of composers leading up to Chopin’s early nocturnes.

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