I recently spent an afternoon digging through the Nicholas Slonimsky Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC to see if I could find evidence of correspondence between Ernie Stires and his beloved mentor. I was pleased to locate a folder which contained several items. Included with one of Ernie’s letters to Slonimsky was a Middlebury College Music Department program from 1988 presenting Stephanie Rogers, pianist, in recital performing the world premiere of Ernie’s Sonata in C. A more intriguing discovery, however, was found written on the backside of the program:
Although tonight’s artist, Stephanie Rogers, will perform her entire program on a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano, recent gift of recording engineer Sydney Stokes, the three sonatas we are to hear were conceived by their composers for three very different instruments.
Invented in Italy almost three hundred years ago by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the pianoforte was considered at first something of a musical toy. However, unlike its predecessor, the pluck-string harpsichord, a novel and ingenious system of striking hammers, dampers, and controls allowed this new instrument to be played soft (piano) or loud (forte) with infinite gradations in between, and spelled the doom of the two hundred year reign of the former as the premiere keyboard instrument for home and recital hall. It was to be almost seventy years before this new novelty came into general use in Europe but many composers, including J.S. Bach, were intrigued with it, and demand spawned a plethora of piano makers everywhere.
There were problems! Early pianos were built on harpsichord lines whose wooden frames simply could not support the much greater tension of more and larger strings of the new device which frequently warped and even collapsed under the strain, even in performance. Think of the additional strain on the nerves of those poor early pianists!
All manner of wooden and metal braces and reinforcements were tried, and by the time Haydn began writing tonight’s sonata (1789), a rectangular (so-called “square piano”) was in general use, a more-or-less stable instrument of six octaves and sustaining a total tension of several thousand pounds. The design persisted into the period of the Schubert Sonata in A (1828) but improvements were constant, and stronger cases allowed ever more tension with its attendant increased brilliance and resonance.
It is said that the enormous fire and energy of the piano music of Beethoven produced such a strain on pianos of this period that piano makers fell into something of a commercial panic trying to build ever stronger instruments. Cast iron frames were introduced, pedals went to the floor instead of the usual knee levers of earlier instruments, the general harpsichord-like shape returned for larger pianos, and by the time of the early romantic composers like Chopin and Schuman, tension of several tons was possible.
But it was not until the American piano builders, Steinway & Sons of Long Island City introduced their “patent grand” in 1859 that the modern grand piano was born. With seven and a third octaves (the legendary “88″) and supporting a total tension of some thirty tons (!) the Steinway grand became the standard of the world, changing forever the way the piano is written for and played. With minute modifications, this magnificent instrument remains to this day the model for all grand pianos, including the Mason and Hamlin we are hearing this evening. So intricate, varied and complex are its tonal and percussive elements that a piano is by far the most difficult instrument to record, and even the most sophisticated modern “state of the art” electronic synthesizing devices can only crudely approximate its true sound which approaches the orchestral in range of expression.
The Stires piece, Sonata in C (1988), a heavily jazz-oriented work, written on an 1897 Steinway grand, makes extensive use of the capabilities of the modern piano. The piece employs virtually every one of the instrument’s 88 keys from the lowest (A”) to the highest (c”"), and in the final movement depends heavily on the center or sostenuto pedal which permits the “holding” of a note or series of notes while the remaining are played in normal fashion.
Tonight’s program is being recorded by Sydney Stokes for broadcast early next year over the stations of Vermont Public Radio.