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Presiding at the pianoforte: a brief history of accompanying.

On a wintry morning in February 1860, New Yorkers perusing the Times came across a small item announcing forthcoming "Amusements." (1) Among the advertised events were performances of The Barber of Seville (featuring singing sensation Adelina Patti (2)) and Laura Keene's Theater Company, which planned on presenting "in consequence of ... unabated public desire" the Scottish drama Jeanie Deans: or the Heart of the Mid-Lothian. (3) The second-to-last entertainment on the list offered a "Grand Concert" given by Mrs. Jason H. Barclay; this concert was to feature a solo pianist, a virtuoso cornet player, a tenor, a baritone, and last, "Mr. H.C. Timm, Accompanist." This was the first-ever appearance of the word "accompanist" in the United States' paper of record, a word that would be alternately reviled and adored for the next 150 years. Although attempts have been made to alter or dislodge it ("collaborator," "collaborative pianist"), the moniker has stuck, though the role of accompanist has fluctuated over time. Once the awkward, sickly sibling of the glamorous concert pianist, the accompanist has come into his own; in the past 100 years, accompanying has received increased critical acknowledgement, achieved respectability as a legitimate musical profession and has been firmly established in academia with the creation of hundreds of accompanying programs throughout the United States. Famous solo pianists vie to present lieder evenings and chamber musicales, and thousands of talented youngsters aspire to a life of musical collaboration. The scales have tipped for the time being in favor of accompanying as an art form, but this current state of accomplishment was reached via an arduous process.

Accompanying was not a new development in 1860. The art form existed for several centuries in the hands of talented keyboardists who busily realized figured bass accompaniments for instrumentalists and singers. During the baroque era, the art of accompanying occupied a unique position of privilege; no keyboardist could hope to compete for any sort of position without possessing a high level of accompanying ability. Some commentators have gone so far as to describe the harpsichord as an instrument used primarily for accompanying, having displaced the lute roughly at the same time the modern violin family overtook the viol consort. (4) The importance of accompanying in this era can be seen in the production of hundreds of accompanying treatises written throughout the baroque period. (5) These treatises detail numerous methods for inventive realizations and appropriate support for partners; many gems still applicable to the modern accompanist can be taken from these ancient instructionals. The violinist Francesco Geminiani's treatise of 1755 warns of accompanists who don't pay close attention to their partners. "If an accompanyer thinks of nothing else but satisfying his own Whim and Caprice, he may perhaps be said to play well, but will certainly be said to accompany ill." (6) Geminiani's favorite accompanist was a German emigre living in England, a keyboardist so trusted that Geminiani invited him to accompany a performance before King George I. The accompanist? One Georg Friedrich Handel. (7) Even aristocratic amateurs appreciated a good accompanist; C.P.E. Bach was prized for his inventive accompaniments to the flute stylings of his boss, Frederick the Great. (8)


The story of figured bass's gradual disappearance could fill an article of its own, as could a description of the appearance of new notational methods for songs and sonatas, but suffice to say, by Mozart's prime in the 1790s, methods of notation had reached a stage of development that would hold until the 20th century. Songs were now written on three staves: two for the keyboardist and one for the singer, freeing the keyboardist from the monotony of constant doubling. (9) Sonatas and other instrumental works featured an independent keyboard part fully realized for the keyboardist. Continuing in the tradition of great composer-keyboardists like Bach and Handel, Mozart and Beethoven often accompanied their own works, pieces written with significant keyboard parts suited to the composers' strengths as performers. In fact, many sonatas of this period were written for solo keyboard, with obbligato violin or cello parts added later by the composer himself or others. (10) Mozart came from a musical family that understood the importance of skilled accompanying; his father's treatise on violin playing offers many valuable instructions to would-be accompanists, including advice on pacing when dealing with rhythmically challenged soloists. (11) Mozart himself was often engaged as a free-lance accompanist in Vienna, performing at soirees as soloist and collaborator to the point that he told a friend "I have so much to do that often I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels." (12) Perhaps for temperamental reasons, Beethoven seems not to have been as a regular collaborator as Mozart, though his performing career included some important accompanying appearances. One of the most important concerts of his youth was as accompanist to the cellist Jean-Louis Duport in a command performance of the two Sonatas Op. 5 before the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II. (13) In 1803, Beethoven played the premiere of his own "Kreutzer" Sonata Op. 47, a piece he went so far as to mark "Sonata for piano and violin obbligato," the title emphasizing the primacy of the keyboard part while admitting the essential nature of the violin contribution. (14) In the works of most classical composers, the accompanying keyboard was not merely a harmonic prop for the star soloist. The period of the meek accompanist was yet to come.

The accompanist we think of today was born with the rise of the public recital and the appearance of the virtuoso. Part of our understanding of the accompanist's role comes from the evolving concert scene of the 1800s, which only reached the "solo recital" as we know it by the end of that century. For many audience-goers of the early 19th century, a "concert" meant a motley assortment of music presented over the course of a long evening, featuring a wide variety of instrumentalists, singers and others. This potpourri recital grew out of a long tradition of "benefit concerts" in which a musician would present himself and favored colleagues in a concert designed to display his prominence in musical society, helping him to find wealthy students. (15) When high-powered virtuosi like Paganini and Liszt began to tread the boards, their presentations needed no accompanist at the keyboard (Paganini and his instrumentalist/singer brethren played with orchestra, while Liszt played by himself), but their supporting artists at times required musical assistance. For example, a breathless handbill announcing an 1840 Liszt recital in Stamford (Southern Lincolnshire, U.K.) informed the public that Liszt would share the stage with Mr. Mori, Mr. Richardson ("a celebrated flautist"), Mademoiselle De Varnay ("Prima Donna of La Scala"), Miss Louisa Bassano and Mr. J. Parry. On the handbill, the name of the accompanist appears in tiny type, with that most elegant of Victorian phrases informing the public that one Mr. Lavenu "will preside at the pianoforte." (16) The accompanist, as experienced by the audience at this time, was thus a third-tier figure; the crowds attended to see the virtuoso, and while waiting for his contributions, they settled for the lesser lights, who were in turn discreetly supported by the accompanist.

For most concert artists, the accompanist's job was to churn out the accompaniment for any given short piece with which he could be trusted. This was partly a function of the musical taste of the time, which did not embrace the more profound side of the musical spectrum. Given the nature of the works commonly presented to the public, it's no wonder that the accompanist's stature suffered. An 1872 concert given by Adelina Patti and the tenor Mario (a single-named singing sensation much like our "Madonna" or "Prince") with supporting artists Teresa Carreno and Emil Sauret featured a variety of arias and parlor ballads (Eckert's "Laughing Song," excerpts from Les Huguenots & Il Barbiere di Siviglia, "Raggio d'amor," and so on), transcriptions for violin including a medley of tunes from Rossini's Otello) and piano solos. According to the review, nearly every work was encored, so the program must have been of horrific length. (17) The accompanist was a Signor Marzo, whose only mention in the Times review was a phrase still beloved of unimaginative critics: "Signor Marzo was the accompanist." The modern reader will notice the heavy number of orchestral reductions, both in transcriptions and arias; for the majority of the 19th century, the idea of a sonata or lieder evening was foreign to even the most serious-minded concertgoer. Important instrumental works like the "Kreutzer" Sonata were trotted out by violinists only to prove their well-roundedness, and these "serious" pieces were often performed with well-known solo pianists rather than a regular accompanist. (18)

When the violinist Henri Marteau appeared in New York with the famous Vladimir DePachmann, they performed a Mozart Sonata together, followed by some solo Chopin and Schumann offered by the pianist. When it was his turn to offer solo works, Marteau called his accompanist Isidore Luckstone to the stage for pieces by Wieniawski and Sjogren. Once the short works had been dispensed with, the miserable Luckstone was banished to allow DePachmann to interpret the "Kreutzer" with Marteau. (19) This sort of pianist shell trick was common in the 1800s--and even well into the 1900s. In the early part of his career, Mischa Elman would perform sonatas with his sister Liza Elman, and his accompanist would appear for the short pieces (20) On the one hand, it's understandable that two great artists would appear in recital together (for financial as well as musical reasons), but was it inconceivable that DePachmann might lower himself to perform the accompaniments to those violin pieces?

Let's be honest: To the 19th century public, accompanying was a squalid activity, the province of musical hacks. Due to the high level of interest in music and an abundance of enthusiastic amateurs, accompanists abounded, but true devotees of the art were lacking. A columnist for Dwight's Music Journal quotes a well-known singer as saying that in the entire city of New York there were less than a dozen capable practitioners of the accompanying art. (21) One Oscar Comettant bemoans the lack of decent accompanists in Paris: "Piano accompanyist! Everybody fancies he is one, for the mildest amateur accompanies in a pinch. [...] Paris does not contain more than seven or eight real accompanyists out of the twenty thousand pianists who adorn that harmonious capitol and exist on the profits derived from semi-quavers." (22) To give some idea of the position occupied by accompanists in the musical firmament, one needs only to look to the piano class of New York pedagogue Robert Goldbeck, who separated his students into three groups, allegedly in the style of the Paris Conservatoire. At the top were the true virtuosi who were invited to play Chopin and Liszt at the final class recital; next were the mediocre pianists who might become serviceable teachers and soloists; finally there were the worst of the lot, ham-fisted dilettantes, who were allowed to perform with singers at the annual recital. (23) A critic reviewing a 1900 vocal recital remarked that a composer accompanying his own songs had created "musicianly things all through, but beyond the technical reach of most accompanists. There is no sense in writing such complicated passage work, chromatics, passages which in less expert hands might have overwhelmed the singer." (24) This critic wrote with an attitude no doubt cultivated by his presence at numerous musical Waterloos suffered at the hands of a bungling accompanist. The spectacle of an incompetent accompanist ruining a musicale is not difficult to find in the surviving annals of music criticism; a New York Times critic commenting on a mixed vocal program in 1874 declared with some relish that two of the singers "were afforded every provocation to slay their accompanist on the spot." (25) The serious side effect of this "accompanist as clown" narrative was the reluctance of many skilled pianists to work in the accompanying field. If to be an accompanist was to be a third-rate pianist, who could blame them? One Adolf Glose placed a classified ad in the Musical Courier of 1888; it read "ADOLF GLOSE, Pianist, Accompanist and Teacher. Accompanying in Private." (26)

By the early 20th century, the situation had not greatly improved. Although there were many excellent accompanists before the public (Coenraad V. Bos, Andre Benoist, Marcel van Gool, Josef Bonime and so on), the reputation of the accompanist was still that of a distant supporter whose goal was total abnegation. The Everywoman's Encyclopaedia of 1912 cited accompanying as an acceptable "accomplishment" (any small talent designed to attract suitors) for women, saying:
      The accompaniment of a song or instrumental
   number is, after all, a secondary
   thing; but it needs perfection in its execution
   or it becomes unbearable. The perfect
   accompanist ... is an artist who gains little
   credit from any save those who know. For
   her art lies in the utter subjection of herself
   to her principal. A good accompanist is soon
   discovered, especially if she has that wonderful
   feeling of sympathy and self-obliteration ... (27)

Even a professional like Coenraad V. Bos was subject to scurrilous comments from his collaborators: after a successful recital, Bos was told by the singer "You must have played well tonight, for I did not notice you." (28) The pianist Brooks Smith remembered with a shudder, "In the old days, some of the biggest names treated their accompanists like servants. The accompanist used to be considered someone who picked up the bags rather than as a fellow artist." (29) Suffering from critical neglect and chronic disrespect, how did the accompanist go from musical baggage handler to equal partner? Part of the shift in attitudes may have been related to repertoire; no longer was a program comprised solely of encore bonbons acceptable, but a healthy balance of serious and light programming was demanded. Alongside Balfe's "Come into the Garden, Maud" appeared Schubert and Brahms lieder; next to "Wieniawski" were placed the names "Bach" and "Beethoven." An accompanist now had respectable repertoire to sink his teeth into, displaying his musical and technical abilities to a public not accustomed to the assertive accompanist. One of the first accompanists to reap the benefits of this balanced programming was to become the patron saint of accompanying, a witty and urbane Englishman, Gerald Moore.

It is fitting that so many accompanists look up to Moore; he was greatly respected by critics and the public, but more importantly, by the artists with whom he worked. Moore's list of collaborators is a veritable who's who of the musical world from 1920 to 1970: Elena Gerhardt, John McCormack, Victoria de Los Angeles, Janet Baker, Jacqueline du Pre, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and hundreds of others. Moore details his meteoric career in a delightful autobiography Am I Too Loud?, recounting his numerous adventures with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. Beginning his career as a freelancer in 1920s Great Britain, Moore was encouraged to become an accompanist by the conductor and composer Landon Ronald, himself an accompanist of note. The secret to Moore's success was perhaps his recognition that accompanying "is not easy." (30)

Throughout his life, Moore bestowed upon the simplest Schubert song the same concentration he gave to the most complex of sonatas; matters of tone, balance, phrasing and textual understanding were of paramount importance to him, and it showed. His accompanying was sensitive, and conveyed an irrepressible love for music, for the collaborator, for performing. Fischer-Dieskau said of Moore that "there is no more of that pale shadow at the keyboard, he is always an equal with his partner. It is quite apparent how new and unique the type of accompanist is which he represents." (31) Moore's work on behalf of accompanying was not limited to performance; for years he proselytized for the art, giving a lecture titled "The Unashamed Accompanist," a performance that was recorded and is currently available on CD. (32) Audiences around the globe heard Moore describe all of the work that goes into a successful collaboration, with detailed discussions of balance, transposition, translation, texture and many other facets of the accompanist's art. The curtain was drawn back for the first time, and laymen became aware of the musicians laboring at the keyboard behind the "star" of the show.

Moore's role as ambassador of accompanying no doubt helped to raise the profile of accompanists with audiences and musicians, but respectability was ultimately conferred beginning with the creation of an accompanying program at the University of Southern California in 1947. Gwendolyn Koldofsky, a diminutive Canadian pianist who had studied in London with Tobias Matthay, was attending a cocktail party at USC when the Dean of the Music School tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would be interested in creating an accompanying program. (33) An accompanist who worked with Lotte Lehmann, Herta Glaz and others, Koldofsky was shocked. No collaborative piano program existed in the United States in 1947; Koldofsky was forging a path into the world of academia, a path that would later be followed by other schools including Juilliard, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, the Eastman School and hundreds of others. The USC program first conferred a bachelor's in accompanying and later added graduate degrees including a doctorate in 1972. (34) During her decades-long tenure at USC, Koldofsky and her later colleague Brooks Smith turned out numerous collaborative pianists who would later become teachers themselves, including Timothy Bach, Jean Barr, John Greer, Martin Katz and others. As performers, her students carried forth the banner of good accompanying, demolishing the stereotype of the bumbling amateur; as teachers, they have demanded the same level of excellence that Koldofsky herself demanded. Accompanists who participated in the building of collaborative programs across the U.S. include Barr, Katz, Anne Epperson, Margo Garrett, Sam Sanders and numerous others, all of whom helped to raise the bar for accompanists nationwide.


The effect of introducing accompanying into academia was seismic. Rather than falling into accompanying by accident, a pianist could now choose accompanying as a career path, studying all the associated arts that good accompanying entails: diction/languages, coaching, a special class for sonata study, a class for songs and so on. The possibility of a degree gave accompanying the respectability of specialization it had previously lacked. Even more importantly, degree programs were able to create more and better-trained accompanists for a burgeoning American musical landscape desperate for fresh talent. A class of pianists who had the time, energy and commitment to delve into accompanying as an art form were able to raise the overall level of performance throughout the United States, proving that accompanying could be the province of skilled musicians who truly wanted to work as collaborative artists.

As the recital evolves, so will accompanying. There will be ups and downs in the years to come. Many critics still maintain a stony silence when regarding the work of accompanists; audience members still approach gifted pianists after a song or sonata recital and ask "When are you going to become a soloist?" Many piano teachers still flown upon the idea of their star pupils becoming accompanists, and the pay situation in many cities still is abysmal. Progress has been made, however. Accompanists' names always appear on programs, from Carnegie Hall to the local high school choir concert. Equal billing is given to accompanists on most CD jackets, and no longer is the recording balance skewed toward the "soloist" on song or sonatas discs. Students at conservatories are encouraged to respect their accompanists and work together in song and sonata literature courses, a healthy coexistence that promotes successful collaborative partnerships. Online resources dedicated to the accompanist abound, and there are more and more opportunities at all levels for pianists who wish to devote their life to musical collaboration. The retiring, potted-plant accompanist is a creature of the past; where we will go from here, nobody knows.


(1.) Anonymous, "Amusements," New York Times, February 18, 1860.

(2.) In the Act II lesson scene, Miss Patti planned to interpret "Eckert's popular Echo Song," the Adelina Waltz, and that great Rossinian aria, Comin Thro' the Rye.

(3.) This was the Laura Keene whose comedic performance in Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater occupied Abraham Lincoln's final moments.

(4.) Arthur Loesser, Men, Women and Pianos: a social history (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 309.

(5.) George J. Buelow, Thorough-Bass Accompaniment According to Johann David Heinichen. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), 17-18.

(6.) Arnold Dolmetsch, The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries revealed by contemporary evidence (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press), 354-356.

(7.) Ibid, 356.

(8.) Albert Schweitzer, Johann Sebastian Bach, Vol. L trans. Ernest Newman (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1966), 147.

(9.) The English songs of Haydn were among the first to feature three-stave song notation.

(10.) William S. Newman. The Sonata in the Classical Era (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 98-111.

(11.) Hermann Abert, W.A. Mozart, trans. Stewart Spencer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 16.

(12.) Maynard Solomon, Mozart: a life (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 309.

(13.) Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), 79.

(14.) John Matthews, The Violin Music of Beethoven (New York: C. Scribners, 1902), 38.

(15.) William Weber. "Recital." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 018 (accessed March 22, 2010).


(17.) Anonymous, "Patti-Mario Concerts," New York Times, October 9, 1872, p. 4.

(18.) A fashionable Parisian violinist, one Monsieur Artot, insisted on playing the "Kreutzer" with Sir Charles Halle, who reported that the "elegant" violinist was "entirely out of his element in such music." Charles Halle, Life and Letters of Sir Charles Halle (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1896), 56-7.

(19.) Anonymous, "DePachmann--Marteau Recitals," Musical Courier 40:14 (April 4, 1900), 23.

(20.) Anonymous, "Elman in Recital" The New York Times, Dec. 11, 1922.

(21.) Trovatore, "Musical Correspondence," Dwight's Journal of Music 14:18 (January 29, 1859): 347.

(22.) Oscar Comettant, "The Piano Accompanyist" Dwight's Journal of Music 22:13 (December 27, 1862): 310.

(23.) Trovatore, 347.

(24.) Anonymous, "Clara M. Dorris' Recital" Musical Courier 40:17 (April 25, 1900): 27.

(25.) Anonymous, "Mr. Mills' Concert" New York Times, November 24, 1874.

(26.) "Professional Cards," Musical Courier 17:1 (July 4, 1888): 25.

(27.) Anonymous, "Woman's Work how to become an accompanist" Everywoman's Encyclopaedia, London: 1910-1912. Woman-s-Work-How-To-Become-An-Accompanist.html. Accessed 4/1/10.

(28.) Gerald Moore, Collected Memoirs (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1986), 38.

(29.) Steve Frazier, "Some Piano Players Play Second Fiddle and are Used to It," The Wall Street Journal July 20, 1982.

(30.) Moore, 140.

(31.) Ibid, 140.

(32.) Gerald Moore, The Unashamed Accompanist, Testament CD.

(33.) Jean Barr, Interview with the author, March 30, 2610.

(34.) Jean Barr, interview with the author, March 30, 2010.

Richard Masters is a pianist, opera coach, teacher and writer on staff at the Butler Opera Center, University of Texas, Austin. He currently is working on a biography of the pianist and Debussy specialist George Copeland.
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Title Annotation:Year of COLLABORATIVE MUSIC
Author:Masters, Richard
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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