The Sound of the Past

Christina Kobb has sparked the interest of the entire world with her reconstruction of the piano technique of Vienna from the 1820s.

“Some people are very sceptical, while others think it’s exciting. Both reactions are equally natural, in my view.”

Pianist Christina Kobb (38) explains the piano technique to which she has devoted her doctoral studies. Using works such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s pedagogical treatise “Ausführliche theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-Forte-Spiel” (“A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte”) from 1827 as a point of departure, she has reconstructed the way the piano was played in Vienna in the 1820s.

“There was widespread disagreement about many musical concepts at that time, but I still find general agreement about how the pianist was supposed to sit and move when playing piano.”

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With a straight back and elbows held firmly against the body, the playing style is dramatically different from the way most pianists approach piano technique today. Kobb, who has been playing piano since she was a child in the small village of Flesberg, west of Oslo, has spent quite a bit of time retraining her body and muscles. After seven years of study, the technique – nearly 200 years old – has clearly become an integral part of her body, even without a piano being nearby. With the same curved finger position as Hummel and his colleagues prescribed, Kobb brushes a lock of hair aside that was displaced by the breeze in Frogner Park. She drapes a shawl over her shoulders, and finds a comfortable position on the park bench.

“Modern piano technique is quite varied, but in the 1820s it was the fortepiano that was being played, and a technique was developed that was adapted to that instrument. The ideal is to avoid all unnecessary movement – and nearly everything, apart from moving the fingertips, is regarded as unnecessary! Many people find it ridiculous to limit one’s movement, and I understand that point of view. But I wasn’t especially satisfied with the way I was playing before, and felt that I had nothing to lose by trying something different. When I developed a conscious attitude to the technique I began to practise much more effectively and acquired a clearer picture of the kind of sound I wanted to produce.”

Sound, body and piano

Kobb was the first person in Scandinavia to earn a master’s degree in fortepiano performance when she graduated from the Norwegian Academy of Music in 2007. She followed up with yet another master’s degree in the same instrument from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague before studying for a year with Malcolm Bilson at Cornell University in New York. During the course of her studies, nobody had told her how to sit at a fortepiano in a historically correct position. But did that make any difference? As she gradually began to put the florid Gothic sentences of the old treatises into practice, she quickly realised that the 19th-century instructions suited the fortepiano better than modern piano technique did.

“When the technique changes, a different tone emerges. The overtones change when you only move the outermost joints of your fingers instead of using lots of physical strength. You can still play powerfully, but you use different muscles and movements in order to do so. You can achieve impressive speed with this technique, but you can also easily lose control, so it sounds sloppy. Quite simply, you have to find a completely different way of controlling your fingers.”

Out into the world

Kobb does not know of anyone else who has begun to use the old piano technique, and previously assumed that her audience was limited in size. A few years ago, however, The New York Times published an article about her research. The attention this attracted brought her to the USA, where she has presented concerts and has lectured at Harvard University among other places. Through a contact on LinkedIn she was also encouraged to make her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

The journal New York Arts wrote that Kobb’s performance in February showed “impressive musical and emotional maturity”, while the New York Concert Review summarised the concert as “a thought-provoking evening, both intellectually and musically”. Kobb had to find a sponsor, apply for grants and resign from her job as Head of Theory at Barratt Due Institute of Music in order to fulfil her dream of playing at Carnegie Hall, but finds it important to convey to students and other classical performers that it is possible to think big.

“My concert at Carnegie Hall was given four reviews. This must mean that there are actually people out there who are interested in what we’re doing.”

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Christina Kobb has begun to explore how her reconstructed technique from the 1800s suits Chopin’s etudes. Here [SN1] is an attempt to play Op. 10, No. 5 (G# major, “the Black Key Étude”) on the Norwegian Academy of Music’s Viennese piano, built by Alois Graff in 1825.

Her own piano salon

There is a considerable distance between Carnegie Hall and Kobb’s home in Filtvet, a small village on the Oslo Fjord, where she has equipped the living room with five pianos from the 1800s. She has opened a piano salon here, where she presents monthly concerts featuring classical and Romantic music. The salon allows her to develop ideas that she transfers to larger stages, and this autumn, for instance, she will give a concert and deliver lectures at the University of Glasgow. A solo concert at the Oslo Early festival in October is also on her schedule.

Kobb finds that the audiences at the piano salons appreciate the close dialogue between listener and performer. She is interested in giving the audience an emotional intimacy with the music, and often tells stories during the programme she is presenting about, for instance, the significance of the piano for women in the 1800s or the love story of Clara and Robert Schumann.

“It is just as demanding to convey the emotion of a piece as it is to master it technically. The emotional content means that the music of the 1800s can still be relevant today, and I think that we classical musicians are not communicating this efficiently. If we can manage to get the audience to feel what the music is about, I think we can make it relevant for the next generation of listeners. Often verbal hints can help to inspire the audience’s imagination. At the same time, I make an effort to imbue my playing with a powerful expression without using large gestures.”

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Technique versus expression

Although the touch on a modern piano is heavier than on a fortepiano, the technique of the 1800s is well suited to both instruments. But it is the repertoire that determines how faithful one can be to the older style of playing, according to Kobb.

“It’s an advantage to play the classical and early Romantic repertoire on modern pianos using the technique of the 1800s, because you can hear each voice more clearly. But you have to know what you’re doing, so the small finger movements don’t precipitate tendinitis. I play some newer music, but if I want to broaden my repertoire to include Prokofiev, Messiaen and contemporary composers then I will have to expand my sound palette.”

Has changing her style of playing had an impact on her relationship to the music?

“I hear the music differently now, but that doesn’t have to do only with technique. I have also studied the music theory concepts of the 1800s: metre, keys, tuning, the rules of composition, theories for building phrases – everything that affects the phrasing, which I have worked on in parallel with the technique.”

Although Kobb swears by keeping a straight back at the piano, she respects pianists who choose other paths into their music – Glenn Gould, for instance, who defied tradition with his hunched sitting position and low chair in order to produce his own distinctive tonal imagery. All the same, she believes that is it useful for students to acquire a conscious attitude towards technique.

“Today many teachers leave it to the students to figure out technique by themselves. They mean well, and it has to do with respecting the individual’s own style. But it implies a shift away from the craftsmanship aspect that was emphasised in the 1800s. When I visit universities and colleges I see that the students are pleased that someone focuses on technique and makes them aware of what is going on from a purely physical point of view. They don’t necessarily go home and try to play like me, but they begin to think about what the best position is for their elbows when they’re playing with large leaps in the bass, for instance. You know, when you have played for such a long time you don’t actually think about how to press a key down. The piano as an instrument has developed a great deal in the past 200 years. My Ph. D. study shows that playing technique has changed at least as much.

Last updated: 28. August 2017