Piano accompaniment is one of those skills which, the more brilliantly it is executed, the less one is aware of quite what is being done. The sense of exposure I generally feel when about to start a recital from memory is lessened by the knowledge that behind me there is an amazing person, apparently with several brains and more than just two hands, who is seemingly able to read my mind.
At the end of an incredibly busy week, during which we had both workshopped and performed The Ubiquitous Woman, I joined pianist Libby Burgess in Hull. The University Music Department was hosting a weekend symposium with Malcolm Martineau, titled Piano Accompaniment in Practice. A range of sessions covered academic and practical aspects of accompanying both singers and instrumentalists.
In her paper, Libby addressed the question of how the accompanist “plays” the text. Malcolm had referred during the previous day’s masterclass to the range of functions the piano can serve, including “carpet” and “wallpaper” and the composer may also direct a pianist towards a much more specific characterisation in the story of the song. This is such rich territory that I would happily have spent the whole afternoon talking around the issues raised by the five songs we performed – Gebet (Wolf); Die Forelle (Schubert); Silent Noon (Vaughan Williams); Sleep (Gurney) and Love’s Philosophy (Quilter).
Our live experiment was to perform Silent Noon without ever having rehearsed it. Of course it’s a song we both know well, so this was a way to show in action the mechanisms which Libby had been describing, by which the accompanist pays attention to the singer and the text. Despite only scratching the surface of the subject, I have come away with some new ideas about how to return the compliment of the accompanist’s care.
I also have a copy of a magnificent chart (above, right) compiled by one of the other speakers. Proof, if it were needed, that accompanists have nine brains.