From the school‘s library I checked out again the copy of Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The Blackbird) that I used last fall when I played the piece with Paula Robison. Since then, many markings were made in the piano part. I don’t mark anything in the scores I use, but when I opened the music again there were all the things pianists write: dark circles drawn around printed dynamic markings, fingering, penciled-in lines showing correspondences between rhythmic details in the flute part and the music for piano…
In the coda, several notes in piano part had been “redistributed” — scratched out of the music written for the left hand and added to the right-hand part, and vice versa. Some pianists redistribute habitually, to make things easier, or take a note with their right hand if a wide left-hand stretch is unreachable without breaking. There may be questions about how specifically composers intend, or notate, piano music for one hand or the other (or how much we may want to grant them such authority)?
Certain difficulties in Beethoven’s piano sonatas cause long discussion: the opening diminished-seventh octaves in Opus 111, the first treacherous left-hand jump in the “Hammerklavier.” Jacob Lateiner insists that the notation of passages like the hilarious dive into the lower register in the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 54 (measure 38) shows the composer’s awareness and authorial command regarding which hand is to play which notes. (The right-hand notes are all written with stems going up in this passage in Opus 54.)
Some piano composers care. Others may care less. And some pianists redistribute a lot, others resist. Alfred Cortot apparently played Ravel’s Left-hand Concerto with two hands! Abbey Simon finds intricate redistributive solutions. Some players will redistribute a C-Major scale.
Before a performance of the “Hammerklavier”, Lee Luvisi was struck with fear contemplating Rudolf Serkin’s presence in the audience. He says: “In all my previous performances of the sonata I’d played the opening with two hands… I hadn’t wanted to make a mess of it at the very beginning. Moments before going onstage I had a fit of conscience. ‘My god, Serkin’s sitting there, if he sees me play that with two hands, he’ll never forgive me. He won’t speak to me the rest of my life.’ I had never even practiced it with one hand. But, I knew, it had to be all or nothing.”
I asked Milton Babbitt about difficult-to-play jumps in register that occur in his piano music. It doesn’t matter which hand is used, he said. The continuing question: Is musical notation a set of instructions or a map of what is to be heard? Of course, it’s both, in varying and shifting proportions. For Babbitt, it seems it’s the result that matters, not the means. (Or, that the result would not be affected by the means.) In other pieces, the route is critical.
In Messiaen’s Merle noir, in the coda, the piano part is hard. If all the notes written on the upper staff are played with the right hand and all the lower-staff notes played with the left hand, then there’s constant hand-crossing and overlapping. I practiced it. The result is not absolute tonal equality. Some notes protrude, others are subdued. It’s a constantly shifting avian chiaroscuro of sound.