Tuesday, 4 April 2017

A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist Stephen Siek: Book Review

Reference works are funny things. On my desk where I am writing this review, I keep my first port of call for any immediate queries: Eric Blom’s Everyman’s Dictionary of Music, 1975. I know it is hopelessly out of date, but I have been using it since my teens. It is a literary crutch: an old friend, a support in times of need and unlikely to be consigned to the charity shop. Close to my desk, I keep a copy of Percy A. Scholes’s Oxford Companion to Music (1955) the Harvard Dictionary of Music, two editions of Grove (1921 & 1961) which I picked up cheaply, as well as other musical reference books which I consult from time to time. Before anyone complains, I can assure them I have access to the latest Grove, Oxford Companion etc. And then there is Wikipedia…
There is still something comforting about a book. I like to dip into my musical (and other) reference books whilst watching telly, or sitting in the sun. I can always learn something new, or rediscover something forgotten.

Stephen Siek is Professor Emeritus of Music at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.  His career has included regular appearances as a recitalist, a chamber musician and a lecturer on music in the United Kingdom and the States. He has contributed many articles to respected journals such as the American Music Teacher, the Piano Quarterly and American Music. Siek has written several entries for the current Grove. He is currently President of the American Matthay Association which is a flourishing organisation. 
A few years ago, (2014) I had the pleasure of reviewing his study England’s Piano Sage - The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay.  Stephen Siek has written the extensive liner notes the splendid series of CDs issued by APR including historic recordings by Harriet Cohen, Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer, Moura Lympany et. al.

The advertising blurb for A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist states that there are ‘nearly four hundred entries covering classical and popular pianists, noted teachers, terminology germane to the piano’s construction, and major manufacturers—both familiar firms and outstanding, independent builders who have risen to the forefront in recent years. Speaking to the needs of the modern performer, it also includes entries on jazz and pop artists, digital pianos, and period instruments.

The structure of the book is straightforward. There is a lengthy preface where the author explains the parameters of his book and its limitations. Clearly, the world of pianism has expanded rapidly in recent years, including new keyboard technologies as well as an increased emphasis on historic instruments and performance practice.  Siek declares that many entries in the present book focus on important pianists and teachers of the past 200 years or so. He believes that ‘music schools rarely seem to address the legacy of artistic piano performance in a systematic fashion.’  Siek concedes that his ‘alphabetical survey’ amounts to little more than a selective overview: otherwise the dictionary would run to several stout volumes. He declares that younger pianists have, to a large extent, been omitted. This is partially for reasons of space but also reflects the fact the ‘by the time pianists reach mid-life, it often becomes easier to evaluate the mark they are likely to leave on their profession.’
Other information not included in this book are details of ‘more general music terminology, as well as several composers who wrote extensively for the piano (and were fine pianists), but are primarily regarded as composers: Brahms, Debussy and Prokofiev. Musicians who maintained a ‘long-standing concert career, such as Liszt and Rachmaninov have been included.
A short note on ‘recordings’ follows which succinctly outlines the progress from early wax cylinders to CDs. A brief mention is made about ‘player’ or ‘reproducing’ pianos which are another kind of recording.

After the main A-Z listing there is an extremely useful appendix of dictionary entries ‘listed by category.’ It makes an interesting list. There are more than 200 entries for classical pianists, 25 for ‘famous teachers’, 40 for jazz and pop pianists, 40 piano manufacturers and a dozen references to international competitions. There are some other categories. So, more than half the book (from of a total of around 400 entries) is given over to ‘classical pianists.’
Other appendices, by several authors, include ‘A Brief Overview of the Acoustic Piano’s Action for the Performer’, ‘Historical Pianos and their relationship to the Standard Repertoire’, ‘Digital Pianos in the Modern Pianists World’ and ‘The Player Piano and the Reproducing Piano.’ The volume concludes with a bibliography,

I tested the breadth of content of this Dictionary by first taking a horizontal slice. I chose the letter ’E’: there are only eight references under this letter. The first is to the great American composer, pianist and band leader Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington (1899-1974).  This is followed by a hero of my teenage years, Keith Emerson (1944-2016) who was instrumental in creating a fusion between rock and classical music. He formed the group Nice in 1967 followed by the legendary Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who issued several important albums including Pictures at an Exhibition and Tarkus. He was a pioneer in the use of the electronic Moog Synthesizer. There is an important entry on the French piano manufacturer Sébastien Érard who was long associated with Chopin, Liszt and Rubenstein. Queen Victoria was a proud owner of one his pianos.  After brief cross references to the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by C.P.E. Bach, the Russian pianist Annette Essipoff, and the Eugene Ysaye Competition (now the Queen Elisabeth Competition), there is an article on the Soviet piano manufacturer Estonia. This company is still going, albeit in private hands: Siek includes a webpage reference.  The final entry for ‘E’ is Bill Evans (1929-80) who was one of the most important jazz pianists of the post-war years. Diversity is certainly the order of the day.

For a vertical slice of the Dictionary’s content, I took Harriet Cohen as the example. The text runs to about 600 words. It gives a good introduction to the pianist which is considerably longer than the rather disappointing two paragraphs in the current Grove. A basic biography is included as well as an assessment of her achievement.
The article includes the obvious cross-references to Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer and Tobias Matthay. It is unfortunate that there is no bibliographical information such as Cohen’s wayward autobiography A Bundle of Time, or her study of interpretation in Music’s Handmaid. The biography by Helen Fry is not cited.  I would have included a reference to the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen published by a dozen leading British composers. Unsurprisingly, mention is made of her relationship with Arnold Bax and the ensuing rift with Myra Hess. Factually, Siek is wrong when he declares that Oliver Twist was Bax’s ‘only film score’: what about Malta GC?  I was delighted to read Siek’s enthusiasm for Cohen’s interpretation of the first nine Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I too am disappointed that she never completed the project: I often listen to them in preference to more modern versions. So, all in all, an excellent overview of Harriet Cohen.

A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist is a well-produced book. The binding is strong and the quality of the paper is excellent. The text is laid out in double columns on each page. The font is readable in all cases. There are several musical examples as well as a few in-text tables and photographs.

Naturally, there will be a demand for this book in university and music-college libraries as well as many county and city reference libraries around the world. The digital version will no doubt be available through several institutions.
Priced at £60 for either e-book or hardback, I do wonder if many ‘general’ listeners will choose to purchase it. Clearly, much of the information presented here is replicated in Grove to a lesser or greater extent, which I guess most music students and scholars will have access to. Grove is also available on-line through many public libraries.

There are three main areas where this book is essential reading. Firstly, reviewers, critics, historians or performers wishing for an immediate ‘heads up’ on a pianist or pianistic matter will turn to this book as an entry point as it is specifically designed for pianists and those interested in the subject. Secondly, Siek has presented more detail about the pianists’ style and technique than standard dictionary entries. And thirdly, it is a fascinating book to ‘dip into’ just like the above-mentioned Percy Scholes Oxford Companion to Music. There is always so much to learn.
I believe that Stephen Siek has provided a wide-ranging and reliable coverage of many facets of the pianistic art.

A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist Stephen Siek
Rowman and Littlefield, 2017
ISBN 978-0-8108-8880-7 e-book; 978-0-8108-8879-1 hardback
£60.00 ($90.00)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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