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Aesthetics In Piano Music From Romanticsm To Modernism Music Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

‘Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty’ (Aesthetics, 2010, Online). It is also a study of relationship between human and reality in an aesthetical investigation. Arts is the main object of investigation particularly, where its essence of beauty, ugly, sublime and other aesthetical aspects are examined. ‘It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory which is also called the judgements of sentiment and taste’ (Aesthetics, 2010, Online).

The study of aesthetics is very diverse. It can be a speculative approach to philosophical ideas; it can also be drawn on current research methods through other related disciplines such as psychological analysis, anthropological and sociological methods, linguistics and culture learning methods, description of experience and so on.

The perception of beauty is very subjective as it is basically based on our personal feeling and own experience. Different people have different feelings towards an aesthetical object thus often arguments are speculative and changed along with time and experience. Therefore, aesthetics is an independent discipline where the essence of beauty and its significance are examined.

In this essay, the aesthetic of piano music in both Romanticism and Modernism will be discussed. As we know, these two neighbouring periods showed a tremendous different contrast in social development and movements, hence music as well had been morphed into a new aspect. Moreover, the style of piano playing was also changed due to the aesthetical values of composers and pianists were also affected.

1. Piano Music in Romanticism

1.1 Romantic Characteristics

‘The term “romantic” derived from the medieval romance which has several meanings. A romance was a poem or tale about heroic events or persons, or it could also connote something distant, legendary, and fantastic. Basically, it suggested something imaginary, far away from reality.

In the nineteenth century, the term was applied to literature, music, and art. The term contrasted with “classic” poetry, which was objectively beautiful. Thus, “romantic” poetry, which was not bound by rules and limits, focused more on the individuality of expression’ (Burkholder, 2010a, Online).

Instrumental music was regarded as an ideal art in Romanticism as it started to grow more importance compared to vocal music. It is because of the genre was free from words, images, characterised costumes, props and others. However, composers’ imagination often led them to explore new sounds although they still kept their works in a Classical framework. Besides, many romantics composers were also writers or had friends who were writers, such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and others. They always linked the intrumental pieces to literary works so as to draw out the inner meanings of the text through the music. At times, the use of literatures and descriptive titles were also added after the work was created (Burkholder, 2010a, Online). Hence, distinctions were made between types of instrumental music – absolute music and programmatic music, which later indirectly led to arguments between these two camps.

‘Romantic views of music have been influential. Composers created music to express their own ideas and feelings rather than to suit the tastes of their patrons or audiences’ (Burkholder, 2010a, Online). Originality was hence importance for composers and tradition was balanced with their own individuality and creativity.

1.2 The Aesthetic of Romanticism – Musical Expression and Emotion

In the Romanticism, music had reached the peak of emotionalism which was shaped by the lyrical melodies, daring harmonies, colourful instrumentation, and the strong contrast of form. Musical expression and emotion had been such a powerful force to influence the composers. ‘The most crucial figure in the nineteenth century culture would be Richard Wagner. He was also one of the most influential musicians of all times. He brought German Romantic opera to a new height, created the music drama, as well as his rich chromatic idiom influenced later composers’ (A History of European Music, 2010, Online).

Not only in composing great music, Wagner also wrote a number of essays regarding music and aesthetics, causing huge arguments among scholars at that time including the famous German philosopher and music critic Eduard Hanslick. In a series of essays, Wagner argued that music should serve dramatic expression. He felt that Beethoven had exhausted instrumental music because in his opinion the Ninth Symphony showed the path to the future with its union of music and words. He saw himself as the true successor to Beethoven. He therefore created Gesmatkunstwerk (total or collective artwork) as he felt that poetry, scenic design, staging, action, and music should work together. In other words, the words or texts related the events and situations, while the orchestra conveyed the inner drama (Burkholder, 2010b, Online).

Although Wagner and his contemporaries such as Liszt saw the legacy of Beethoven pointing toward new genres and musical approaches, Johannes Brahms on the other hand matured himself as a composer in the Classical repertory. He combined Classicism with Romantic sensibility. He composed in Classical traditions but he also added new elements in order to appeal to contemporary audiences. Overall, he has been viewed as conservative, but he was a trailblazer. He was among the first to draw upon both the music of the past and present, a process or method that has been repeated by numerous composers of the twentieth century (Burkholder, 2010b, Online).

In the mid – Romanticism, the term “New German School” was coined as Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz were leaders. Although Liszt and Berlioz were not Germans, Beethoven was their model. However, the term helped polarized the division between supporters of Liszt and Wagner, and supporters of Brahms and Hanslick. Among the composers who sided with Wagner and Liszt are Bruckner, Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler. These two camps debated the topics of music and its aesthetics, especially in musical meaning and expression, absolute and program music, tradition and innovation, Classical genres and forms as well as the new ones, and the list goes on.

1.3 Wagner versus Hanslick

Expression was the growing importance as a source of aesthetic value. It pays no heed to the claims of formal convention. Music was viewed as a medium of expression and it has the power to influence listener’s mind. The use of poetic titles was a manifestation of Romanticism, which signifying music’s expressive powers. For instance the post-Beethoven composers especially Liszt, employed poetry to give a clearer expression so as to elevate the art to a powerful metaphysical status. Whatever its subject matter, the status of poetic or programme music was hotly debated in late nineteenth century music criticism and it naturally invoked the related concept of absolute music.

In 1854, Eduard Hanslick wrote his own reflections on the nature of “the beautiful in music” (Vom Musikalisch-Schönen). In his book, he argues about music and “feelings” and disagrees with the exaggerated philosophical and cultural pretensions of the writings by Wagner and Liszt. Hanslick’s convincing arguments quickly brought his book to attention. ‘This indirectly overshadowed Hanslick as the leading critical antagonist of Richard Wagner and the New German School in general. Hanslick opposed their claims that programmatic instrumental music and the symphonically through-composed declaimed ‘music drama’ represented the way of the musical future ‘(Grey, 2010, Online). In other words, he is a typical classical ‘formalist’.

Hanslick was the protagonist of Brahms. ‘They both advocated for the continuity of ‘classical’ tradition and opposed the radical dissolution of melodic and formal convention celebrated by the ‘progressives’ of the day as a means of achieving greater expressive truth or the articulation of an ideal or conceptual content’ (Grey, 2010, Online).

Hanslick writes:

Music is not contingent upon, or in need of, any subject introduced from without, but it consists of sounds artistically combined. The ingenious coordination of intrinsically pleasing sounds, their consonance and contrast, their flight and reapproach, their increasing and diminishing strength this it is, which in free and unimpeded forms, presents itself to our Mental Vision. What is it then that music expresses? The answer is musical ideas. Now, a musical idea, reproduced in its entirety, is not only an object of intrinsic beauty, but also an end in itself and not a means for representing feelings and thoughts. The essence of music is sound in motion (1986, p.64).

Hanslick thinks that the expression or representation of distinct feelings cannot be considered the ‘content’ of music or the basis of its aesthetic value. He describes the content of music as ‘tonally moving forms’. ‘He articulated that instrumental music is not a representational medium, and that representational impulses are likely to distract both composer and listener from music’s true nature as ‘beautiful’ (and freely or abstractly expressive) form’ (Grey, 2010, Online).

The Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwek, however, provoked Hanslick’s never ending opposition. He never agreed the composer’s exaggerated self-promotion and the dramatic and poetic expression. Hanslick thinks that music is purely autonomous while Wagner (who is also an anti-Semitic) ‘portrays the postulate of autonomous musical beauty as a kind of ideological conspiracy to promote the ideals of a ‘Judaized’ musical culture’ (Grey, 2010, Online). For Wagner, the content of music is not only sound but also the connotation of emotion that blended together. He thinks that the study of the aesthetics of music as autonomous restrains the beauty of music.

1.4 Programmatic Piano Music

Piano music in the Romantic period was still expanding the formal structure from the Classical. However, the expansion of form (those elements related to form, key, instrumentation, harmony, and the like) within a typical composition made the pieces more passionate and expressive. So, it became easier to identify an artist based on the work. Piano music basically struggled to increase emotional expression and power to describe these deeper truths, while preserving or even extending the formal structures from the classical period. But are the composers’ aims in the romantic period just to focus in expressing their music? What kind of aesthetic value instilled in the listeners’ mind at that time?

The most successful piano music composers in the romantic period certainly were Chopin and Liszt. They not only sought to fuse the large structure harmonic planning with chromatic innovations, but also brought the piano music to a virtuosic level. ‘They also analogized piano music to poetry and its rhapsodic and narrative structures, while creating a more systematic basis for the composing and performing of concert music’ (Romantic Music, 2010, Online). In other words, they continued using previous practices such as the sonata form but extended them with increasing focus on impressive melodies, emotional harmonies, and themes.

The use of literary inspiration was paramount to the composers. For instance, Chopin famous four ballades were inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s poems; while Liszt’s Sonettos were inspired by Francesco Petrarca’s (Petratch) poems. Liszt also transcribed a huge number of songs from Schubert particularly where the texts came from Goethe, as well as transcribed from operas. Besides poetry and literature, composers also composed piano music through their experience and travel. Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) is a good example when he travelled to Swiss, Italy, and France he wrote the music. This shows his complete mature musical style which ranges from virtuosic fireworks to sincerely moving emotional statements where he gained from his experience of life and travel. Another example will be the piano cycles, Kinderszenen of Robert Schumann which came from the composer’s reminiscences of childhood.

Obviously, audience at that time were fully influenced by the powerful emotion through the aids of text, poetry and literature. They no longer restricted themselves in the frame of stereotyped abstract titles like Sonata in C Major, Rondo in A minor, Prelude and Fugue and so on, but they had more variety of direct programmatic titles such as Romance, La Campanella, Wanderer Fantasy and the like. The music intended to evoke extra-musical ideas and let the audience experience the unique emotions. Generally, composers had more freedom in form and design so that a more intense personal expression of emotion in which fantasy, imagination and a quest for adventure play an important part (Romantic Music, 2010, Online).

1.5 Piano Playing Style in Romanticism

Moreover, the piano performing style in the romantic period was virtuosic and phenomenal. Virtuoso concerts became immensely popular. This phenomenon was actually pioneered by Niccolo Paganini, the famous violin virtuoso, and it was then developed by Liszt on piano. Carl Czerny claimed Liszt was a natural player who played according to feeling, and reviews of his concerts especially praise the brilliance, strength and precision in his playing (Liszt, 2010, online). One of the most detailed descriptions of his playing from this time comes from the winter of 1831/1832, during which he was earning a living primarily as a teacher in Paris. Among his pupils was Valerie Boissier, whose mother Caroline kept a careful diary of the lessons. From her we learn that:

“M. Liszt’s playing contains abandonment, a liberated feeling, but even when it becomes impetuous and energetic in his fortissimo, it is still without harshness and dryness. […] [He] draws from the piano tones that are purer, mellower and stronger than anyone has been able to do; his touch has an indescribable charm. […] He is the enemy of affected, stilted, contorted expressions. Most of all, he wants truth in musical sentiment, and so he makes a psychological study of his emotions to convey them as they are. Thus, a strong expression is often followed by a sense of fatigue and dejection, a kind of coldness, because this is the way nature works.” (Liszt, 2010, online).

From the quotation above, the piano playing style of Liszt is full of emotion. As we know it was the performance practice that every pianist would play the piano with beautiful tone colour, especially what the Chopin had called the Bel Canto playing in shaping lyrical melodies. Moreover Liszt’s facial expression and gestures at the piano would reflect what he played (Liszt, 2010, online). Also noted that the extravagant liberties he took created a dramatic feeling. Hence, pianists started to take tempo rubato for granted with their ancillary body movements so as to communicate with the audience more musically and successfully.

Generally, the aesthetics of piano music in Romanticism were multi-facets. Performers not only swayed their body to make an intimate relationship with music, but also from their movements they conveyed emotional intentions to the audience. They made the piano sings with touching tone colour as well as their virtuosic playing and stage presence made vivid impressions to the ectasied audiences. However, these “beautiful” piano playing styles were then fully rejected in the Modernism by Prokofiev, Schoenberg, and Cage. These will be discussed in the later chapters.

2. Piano Music in Modernism

2.1 Modern Characteristics

Modern music must be understood in terms of their own frame of reference and what artists (whether composers or performers) are trying to do. It was dissonant, controversial and shocking as compared to the prevailing Romantic period. Composers tried to achieve disorder rather than order. The art of creating sometimes replaces the importance of the object created.

During that time, the Establishment considered modernism scandalous and an offense to good taste, common sense, and the conventions of polite society. It was also considered rebellious and threatening to the establishment order. However, when the arts of the modernists began to achieve world-wide attention and became more common, acceptance eventually followed. Museums were founded to exhibit modernist works, symphony hall started to promote more modern music, and middle-class society became collectors as modernist paintings rose in commercial value. These indirectly made a new establishment for modernism in art, music, literature, and architecture.

In the era of modernism, lots of movements were created such as expressionism, serialism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, and others. All of these separate movements within modernism combined to produce some distinct characteristics. Modernity has no respect for the past, even its own past. Therefore, it not only entails a ruthless break with any or all preceding historical conditions, but it is characterized by a never-ending process of internal ruptures and fragmentations within itself (Harvey, 1990, pg. 12).

The image of “creative destruction” is very important to understanding modernity. How could new art, music, literature, and architecture be created without destroying much that had gone before? Artist Pablo Picasso and composer Arnold Schoenberg adopt through their individual works that the modernist must destroy in order to create, and the only way to be truly creative is through a process of destruction that is liable in the end to be itself destructive of those creations. (Harvey, 1990, pg. 19).

It is important to note that the modernism that emerged around the first World War was a reaction to the new conditions of production (the machine, the factory, urbanization), circulation (systems of transport and communication), and consumption (rise of mass markets, advertising, mass fashion), as it was a pioneer in the production of such changes. These influenced the trend of music such as Darius Milhaud’s Machine Agricoles (1919) and Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Factory” form Pas de’acier (1927) demonstrate the influence of the “machine age”.

Undeniably, modernism was also an urban phenomenon that emerged with explosive urban growth. Modernism was an art of cities which confirmed how important the urban experience was in shaping the cultural modernist movement (Harvey, 1990, pg. 25). Machines, new transport and communication systems, skyscrapers, and bridges were all influences from which aesthetic modernism drew much of its stimulus.

Finally, modernism in the arts, music, literature, and architecture could not represent the world in a single “language”. It is so diverse that understanding had to be constructed through the exploration of multiple perspectives.

2.2 The Aesthetic of Modernism – Music and Atonality

In the twentieth century, concert halls became museums for musical artworks created over the last two centuries. Living composers at that time found themselves competing with music of the past. Composers sought to continue tradition while offering something new. They needed to make decision about what to preserve and what to change. Hence, individuality took over conventionality causing that some composers abandoned tonality while others redefined it. Moreover, their composition turned to more national styles.

Composers in the early twentieth century faced the challenge of creating works worthy of performance alongside the classics of the past. The music they created had to be of high quality in the tradition of serious art music. The music also had to have lasting value that rewarded performers and listeners through multiple hearings and study. Thus, these gave rise to young composers wanted a more radical break from the past. They reassessed inherited conventions and did not aim to please their listeners on first hearing so as to challenge perceptions and capacities (Burkholder, 2010c, Online).

The major movement in Modernism came from serialism. Serialism is the process of giving a mathematical order to the way one composes music. The techniques used in these kinds of pieces have been termed such as twelve-tone, dodecaphonic, matrixes, tone rows, and others. The serialistic style of composition, most notably employed by Arnold Schoenberg, Alan Berg and Anton Webern, became so influential that these composers are often referred to as the Second Viennese School (1903-1925). This band of composers and their students believed in the idea that the use of mathematical representations could restore order to the composition of music without having to rely on the techniques of the past.

2.3 Schoenberg and Atonality in Piano Music

Schoenberg wrote Six Little Piano Pieces Op. 19 in 1911. This is an example of Schoenberg short refining works, but also represents his early free atonal piano masterpiece. The entire work, a total of six little pieces, each creation embodies its own characteristics. Schoenberg abandoned the traditional tonal harmony and took equal importance of every single notes. He showed a new way of musical organization in 20th century piano music.

The sounds created were not ever heard before, but many times were not well received by audiences. However, he was championed for what he had invented and his influence spread. “The emancipation of the dissonance” was Schoenberg’s concept of freeing dissonance from its need to resolve to a consonance. This indirectly creates a distinctive musical language of Schoenberg which reflects the composer’s deep inner spiritual meaning – that is the aesthetics of expressionism.

Schoenberg’s new music not only breaks the stereotyped tonality which had ruled the music for more than thousand years, but also after breaking, he re-established atonal music to a new order – the “twelve-tone system”. Hence the new aesthetics value in Modernism was created.

There is no more tonal centre in his music which providing the core. There is also no functional relationship between notes to notes, chords to chords. Tonal harmony is avoided absolutely at it best. Thus as compared to the piano music in Romanticism, the melody in Schoenberg’s music is no more impressive and not as “beautiful” as before, the melody cannot be even easily sung in the mind. Hence, the aesthetics towards Schoenberg’s atonal music is ambiguous; it can be beautiful, sublime, or even the other sides. There are no more clear boundaries in appreciating the music.

In Schoenberg’s early tonal period (before 1908), the composer was greatly influenced by Brahms and Wagner especially in the late works of German Romantic music. They were full of flavour, and the chromaticism which Wagner had developed had reached the limit. Hence in order to express the music more meaningfully, Schoenberg had to destroy all the tonality systems and began to explore new expressive musical style. He was inspired by the Marxism and Expressionism movements at his time and the atonal works were then created. For instance, the performance of his famous melodrama Pierrot lunaire Op. 21 (1912) shows the work as despair, fear, tension, pain and other pathological mental status, while the emotional musical language is also exaggerated, distorted, and weird.

In the first decade of 20th Century, Schoenberg successfully established a new concept of musical arts, and thus set another standard for the aesthetic values which are subject to a strong challenge at that time. The aesthetic concepts were changed partly because of the tremendous changes in social thinking. From a social point of view, the extreme fear, agitation, depression, and twisted soul were embodied in Schoenberg’s atonal music. These actually were influenced by the serious economic crisis in Europe at that time, social conflicts, and disasters caused by the World War I. From the cultural point of view, the performance of this “non-rational” atonal music reflected the artist’s humanistic ideas where serious imbalance of sense and sensibility occurred in the Europe at that time. These let Schoenberg to open the door of his inner creative power. Where tonality had reached its extreme limit, his creation of atonality frees the spirit and essence of expressionism, which contains a profound social content and psychological motivation in that anxious time.

The Six Little Piano Pieces although are small and insignificant, it definitely reflects the creative thinking of Schoenberg – the new Expressionist aesthetics. Hence in order to understand Schoenberg’s atonal music, one should escape and avoid from any musical representation, but from the “spiritual essence” to feel him, learn from him.

2.4 New Piano Playing Style in Modernism – Prokofiev

In the composition arena, Schoenberg particularly had made the emancipation of dissonnance. However, besides the changes in compositional techniques, how is the piano playing technique like in Modernism? Do pianists still equip the traditional technique or playing way to interpret the more radical modern piano music? Or perhaps any new playing way formed?

As the Romantic pianisism were striving for making incredible beautiful singing line on the piano, Prokofiev however developed new kind of piano playing style which is more percussive and ear sore on the first heard. This new type of piano playing not only expressive but also it carries some sorts of hidden messages – the elements of irony and mockery. Hence, Prokofiev again wrote new aesthetics elements on piano playing in the Modernism.

“Debussy wanted to suggest a piano without hammers. Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith had the opposite view. Nonsense, they said in effect. The piano is a percussive instrument, and there’s no use trying to disguise the fact. So let’s face up to it and treat the piano as a percussive instrument.” (Schonberg, 1964, p.389-90)

From this quotation, Prokofiev together with his contemporaries were trying to argue that the piano could not be a “singing” instrument with superbly legato, as it is the nature of piano to have hammer effects which cause the piano to be percussive. Certainly, they all were bored with the beautiful, heavily wet – sustained sounds from the piano pedal effect that went far beyond anything Chopin had dreamed of. They looked for another kind of new sound for which the piano can produce. So, they had to accept the fact that piano is a percussive instrument, the tones produced cannot be cheated or covered by the sustaining pedal. Harold Schonberg, a music critic of the New York Times, said about the playing of Prokofiev in a recital:

“Young Serge Prokofieff, the pianist of steel, came raging out of Russia, playing his own music and startling the West with his vigor, his exuberance, his wild rhythm, his disdain for the trappings of romanticism. The anti-romanticism age was under way […] Prokofieff at the piano attacked the music with a controlled fury, blasting out savage and complicated rhythms, giving or asking no mercy. He went about it almost without pedal, and with a percussive, metallic-sounding tone.” (Schonberg, 1964, p. 390)

Noted that the anti-romanticism is also a key of Prokofiev’s piano playing style. Remember, in his time, the early 20th century piano performance practice, pianists especially like Alfred Cortot, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, and others play expressively with great liberty. They took tempo rubato for granted and more aware of bel canto playing on the piano. This performance tradition was actually passed down from the time of Chopin and Liszt. The famous Russian pedagogue, Heinrich Neuhaus, who is the teacher of great pianist Sviatoslav Richter, said about Prokofiev’s piano playing:

“Energy, confidence, indomitable will, steel rhythm, powerful tone (sometimes even hard to bear in a small room), a peculiar ‘epic quality’ that scrupulously avoided any suggestion of over-refinement or intimacy, yet with a remarkable ability to convey true lyricism, poetry, sadness, reflection, an extraordinary human warmth, and feeling for nature…” (Shlifstein,1968, p.233)

Although the views are subjective, these quotations give us clearer views of Prokofiev’s piano playing. Basically, Prokofiev’s tone on the piano was somewhat dry, but he still played with amazing assurance and freedom. Beneath his fingers the piano does not sing or vibrate. Hence, this evoked contradictory on the piano playing style – should the pianist’s tone be deliberately violent or ugly, or should he strive for musical beauty? Definitely, Prokofiev had made a revolution on the aesthetics of piano playing to the “violently, ugly” playing style on the piano. This playing style is obvious in his later piano sonatas, especially in the three War Sonatas.

The Pianist’s Responsibilities

No matter how the aesthetics of piano music changed, the relationships among composer, pianist, and listener are always inter-related. Pianist, as a medium between the creator and the beneficiary, carries an important role in a performance.

For me, regardless of playing the pieces from which period or time to the “hardly understandable” extreme contemporary piano music, a piano performance is not just a musical performance, it contains rich and valuable aesthetics thinking. From the aesthetic view of Hanslick, he states that music only contains its sound movement and its musical form and structure. If that case, they should be the only essence of piano music without incorporating the personal feeling and emotion into it. However personally, as a pianist, I am more in favour to have music can express emotion and meaning other than just mere sound so as to communicate with the audience as well as to convey the composer’s messages and intentions.

A piano music score is just a carrier of written material, it does not make sense from a hearing point of view. However, if the score is being played by the pianist, it can express meaningful significance. So in a piano performance where the music is accepted and played, it creates a social consciousness relationship with its audience. It thus gives impact to the audience whether auditory, visually or emotionally. At the end, the pianist translates all the static musical symbols on the scores and liberates them into reality so as to make it into life.

The aesthetic of piano playing is always based on the individuality of performers as well as the commonality of playing facts. The provisions of piano playing is not absolutely clear, we can never play the music “authentically”. Hence it is the tendency that every pianists will show their understanding of the music based on their own aesthetical point of views. Together with their unique personality, different pianists play the same “stories” with different “resonance”. Their own unique playing style are irreplaceable and cannot be represented by other pianists because their characters of playing were accumulated continuously from the past creative performances. Their innovations always grow with their experience of playing.

The commonality of piano playing however restricts and limits performers’ playing style. It is the style of composers, and the style of playing of that period, that merged into a common playing style. Pianists still have to follow the conventions. Hence pianist’s individuality cannot exceed the basic style restriction or the commonality of a work in other words. For instance, each performers show different characters of playing on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata with their own treatment, but they still restrict themselves in a framework of “typical Beethoven” style, which is the general spirit and characteristics of Beethoven. In short, before playing the music with our own individuality and feeling, we must first respect to the composer’s


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