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The Subspecies Of Pianists, Or, What Jerry Lee Lewis And Beethoven Share

Jerry Lee Lewis, a pianist Isacoff classifies as a 'combustible,' performs at the Rainbow in London in 1972.
Graham Wood
Getty Images
Jerry Lee Lewis, a pianist Isacoff classifies as a 'combustible,' performs at the Rainbow in London in 1972.

The art of the piano is a study in evolution — of both an instrument and of human talent. Among us there have been a rare few whose gifts included the physical dexterity, the innate musicality and the creativity to make the instrument sound brilliant.

Mozart did it first. More recently — as Stuart Isacoff notes in his new book, A Natural History Of The Piano — jazz great Oscar Peterson did. Isacoff spoke to All Things Considered host Robert Siegel about what he means by a "natural history."

"I was searching for connections between different eras, different genres of music," Isacoff says. "Normally, things are viewed in these little segmented boxes. There's classical, and then there's jazz; romantic, and then there's baroque. I find that very dissatisfying. I was trying to find the thread that connects one type of music — one type of musician — to another, and to follow that thread in some kind of natural, evolutionary way."

Isacoff explains his thought process: "In order to come up with these categories, I looked to the sound of the piano itself. You begin with a strike of the hammer against the string and its kind of percusson. That's followed by a soaring, singing-like sound, that's pinched a bit. We have a sound in the piano that tuners refer to as 'beating,' — it's a kind of 'wah-wah-wah.' Combine all this with the great dynamic range of the instrument, and you have the possible combinations of sound in any particular style."

Like any good naturalist, say, a botanist, he has divided the great pianists and composers for piano, the particular styles created by the combinations of sound, into four subspecies. The first one is called the combustibles, which include Beethoven, Beethoven's student's student Franz Liszt and their not entirely obvious classmate, Jerry Lee Lewis.

"With the combustibles," Isacoff says, "there's music that simmers and explodes, and these composers all share that quality."

Next come the people he calls alchemists, between whom the connections are obvious, according to Isacoff. They include the French composer Claude Debussy and jazz pianist Bill Evans.

"They create these sort of elixirs of sound, and their main aspect seems to be transport us to another place," Isacoff says. "Debussy focused on this idea because he was part of a group in Paris that was interested in taking ideas put forward by poets like Baudelaire, for example, that sound and color and fragrance should all mingle together — synesthesia — and this comes through in the music, I think. It takes us to another kind of world."

And then there are the rhythmitizers. These are mostly Jazz and Latin pianists, but probably the greatest among them was Art Tatum, whose jazz piano playing stunned classical pianists.

"I described his playing as an imaginary tennis game on the keyboard between the two hands, where they're firing blistering ground-strokes at each other," Isacoff says. "The technique was phenomenal. He scared every pianist who came into contact with him."

Isacoff says competitive piano-playing was more common than one would think.

"There's a long history of that," he says. "In the jazz world, we know these as 'cutting contests,' but this tradition also exists in the classical world — there are famous battles and almost-battles. For example, poor Louis Marchand, the composer, who challenged Bach to a duel — and these are often improvisation contests. Marchand heard Bach practicing the night before the duel and quickly fled town."

Piano players and composers went for Beethoven, too. "There was the one contest in which Daniel Steibelt, composer famous for creating storms on the piano — that is, these tremolos that imitated the blowing of winds and hurricanes and all — challenged Beethoven. He went first, took a piece of music, tossed it aside. In response, Beethoven picked up that piece of music, placed it upside-down on the piano, and began playing Steibelt's music upside-down — ornamented it, varied it. Steibelt also decided he would never return to Vienna after that."

The fourth group is the melodists. It's a sweeping category that includes Robert Schumann and George Gershwin — a class unto itself.

"I also relate these categories to the foundational elements of the world, that is, air, fire, water and earth," Isacoff says. "The melodists, to me, are the water element, and the flow, the arabesques, the lovely, lilting shapes of notes formed into melodies."

Though these categories aren't hard and fast, pianists who are less than Schumann and Debussy can be categorized too, Isacoff notes.

"I try to make clear that these are useful, but that no great artist can fit into only one category," he says. "They all have a bit of everything in them, and I think the same is probably true even for amateurs. People have certain inclinations — that is, to be very analytical and heady, or very emotive and so on, and that these come out in different ways, depending on the player. The same piece, and even the same piano, can sound very different depending on whose hands are being placed on it."

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