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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 3

The Accompanist: the Unsung Hero?

by Lucie Renaud / November 1, 1999

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"Later I happened to appear next to her on the stage dozens of times, but I was not sure of how to bow, where to look, nor how many steps to walk behind her. I glided, like a shadow, without looking at the audience. I would take my seat keeping my eyes to the ground and then put my hands on the keyboard."

Nina Berberova wrote these sentences in her 1934 novel The Accompanist. Is it still an accurate picture of the accompanist's life, or have attitudes changed towards a better understanding of the pianist's role? An accompanist shares many traits with an anaesthetist. He generally has studied longer than the surgeon and must constantly stay alert to prevent an unpredictable disaster, but when all is said and done, the surgeon (like the soloist) gets all of the credit.

One must first realize that the pianist-accompanist is almost the classical music world's "new kid on the block". Originally, accompaniments were played on the lute. Then, during the baroque period, the harpsichordist became an essential partner, playing the basso continuo. He had to improvise elaborate accompaniments anchored in the composer's harmonic canvas.

The recitatives of 18th-century Italian opera were still sustained by the basso continuo but the accompaniment became more important in the arias. The greater composers of the era created thicker accompaniments, transforming their arias into duets between the voice and a particular instrument. At the end of the 18th century, the piano pushed the harpsichord aside as the instrument for accompaniment and chamber music. The Alberti bass, with its pattern of broken chords, became the most popular accompaniment figure. Slowly, the texture evolved and reached its first pinnacle in Schubert's lieder, where the piano became an equal partner in depicting the scenery or evoking the underlying emotions of the poems. Just think of the spinning-wheel effect achieved by the pianist in "Gretchen am Spinnrade" or the joyous leaping patterns of "Die Forelle".

Schubert and Brahms maintained the importance of the piano in their lieder while staying true to Schubert's model. In the lieder by Liszt, Wolf and Mahler, the accompaniment plays a psychological role: it completes the words' meaning and translates the emotions. In the 20th century, the pianist has become the soloist's essential partner by initiating rhythmic momentum, surrounding the text with subtle harmonies, or creating atmosphere.

At the end of the 19th century, the accompanist's role was subject to disparagement. The audience barely tolerated him, and the soloists, especially singers, regarded him with much disdain. A slow change took place in later years, when some superior accompanists were able to change the audience's prejudices. Among those, one should mention Gerald Moore, who became quite famous accompanying stars such as Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Victoria de Los Angeles, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Pablo Casals and Yehudi Menuhin, and who shed light on the accompanist's role in his memoirs.

To become a good accompanist, it is not enough to possess decent technique or competency at sight-reading. The piano's sound must blend with the soloist's, whether singer or instrumentalist. The dynamics must be carefully calibrated, the breathing controlled but not strained, and the shape of each musical phrase approached with great care. The accompanist must strive to achieve a legato sound that will resemble as much as possible the human voice or a string instrument, while recognizing that, since the piano is a percussion instrument, the result will never be totally satisfactory.

One of the great challenges that awaits the accompanist is that of maintaining balance between the voice or instrument and the piano. The accompanist cannot apply his own standards of dynamics. For example, when the pianist sees piano in a Brahms lied, he shouldn't play it with the same intensity as in a Debussy melody. He must also consider the tessitura of the voice or instrument, the soloist's strong and weak points, the hall's acoustics and the quality of the piano he will be using. Experience here is handy since the sounds an artist perceives on stage are not the same as those heard in the hall.

There is an essential difference between accompanying a singer and an instrumentalist. When working with a singer, the pianist holds most of the responsibility in achieving just the right balance between voice and piano. On the other hand, when performing sonatas, the instruments do not always have to mesh. When the soloist has the melody, the pianist must become discreet, but the converse is true when the pianist has the leading part. (The first edition of Beethoven's Violin sonatas was significantly titled Sonatas for piano and violin and not vice-versa!)

The vocal accompanist's worst nightmare definitely remains transposition. Many singers are famous for suddenly asking the pianist a few hours before the recital to take the whole piece down a step or up a step! For a singer, the difference between singing in one key or another is minimal. For the pianist, though, it is another story. The modulations and the accidentals have to be adapted from one key to another and often a motif that falls especially well under the fingers in the original key (let's not forget that most composers were pianists) becomes unpractical and daring to play in a different key.

Those technical difficulties merely skim the surface of the qualities a skilled accompanist must possess. More than anything else, the accompanist must exhibit a sense of self-sacrifice, strong character, and the flexibility of a master diplomat. Degrees in psychology and pedagogy might also come in handy when making "suggestions" to the soloist. The pianist must learn when to speak and when to take the blame. Soloists' egos are generally very fragile and one needs to use kid gloves to get the message across. Regardless of what happens in rehearsals, the soloist is always right at the concert - the accompanist must then rely on composure and the ability to skip three bars without a blink!

One becomes an accompanist by choice - it is a vocation. The job should never be taken as a last resort - that is, while waiting to be discovered as a soloist. Tremendous rewards await such a pianist on his journey: working with generous artists who recognise his achievements, learning new repertoire all of the time, and, most of all, sharing the energy of performing music. Warren Jones went so far as to call the work between soloist and accompanist a "mystical communion". This non-verbal process of discovering a fellow musician's personality will definitely remain the greatest satisfaction of such a career.

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