Introducing “The Piano Files” — An Introduction to Historical Piano Recordings

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Cite this article as:

Mark Ainley. (April 1, 2021). Introducing “The Piano Files” — An Introduction to Historical Piano Recordings. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 25, 2024.

Historical piano recordings can be an important source of education and inspiration for today’s listeners and performers.

Imagine if you could hear Mozart, Beethoven, or Chopin play their compositions — wouldn’t that be amazing? While most of us have an image in our minds of scratchy old records and wind-up cylinders being amplified through giant horns, exactly when this technology began is something that’s overlooked by the majority of music fans. Did the three composers mentioned above make recordings? Which artists and composers did record, and when? How have performance styles changed since the most famous classical music was written — and why?

Just like old black-and-white movies capture the artistry of unique personalities who cannot be replaced or even imitated by modern actors, these old piano recordings give us an opportunity to hear a remarkable array of musicians who perform in styles that are different than the norms of today. When we hear students of Liszt or grand-pupils of Chopin playing, or the composer Rachmaninoff, or pianists who worked with famous composers like Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Debussy, we are traveling back in time to experience first-hand the playing of pianists with a direct connection to those who created the music that we still enjoy to hear and play today.

This introduction to historical piano recordings is a brief but informative exploration of some of the reasons why it is so important to listen to the playing of the past. If we wish to do justice to the composer’s intentions but they played differently in their time, should we play it as they expected, according to all the conventions of the time? Should the printed score be sacrosanct, or can we bring our own perspectives to a score? These are some of the topics touched upon in this presentation.

This video includes some samples of some great pianists playing in a style that is very different from what we generally hear today, some of them artists closely connected to famous composers themselves. Hopefully, this introduction will encourage you to explore the rich array of recorded performances easily accessible today.


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