Pianist performs on Yale’s historical instruments

Celebrated French pianist Yves Henry played selections from Chopin and Debussy on two historical pianos in a sold-out Sunday exhibition.
Celebrated French pianist Yves Henry played selections from Chopin and Debussy on two historical pianos in a sold-out Sunday exhibition. Photo by Joyce Xi.

On Sunday afternoon, a sold-out audience at Yale’s Collection of Musical Instruments was treated to a glimpse of 19th century France.

Yves Henry, a celebrated French pianist and teacher at the Conservatoire de Paris, played pieces by his 19th century compatriot Claude Debussy and Polish Frédéric Chopin on a Pleyel piano built in 1842 and an Érard piano built in 1881. Both pianos, which permanently reside in Yale’s collection, are rare: fewer than 10 of each model in North America today remain in playable condition, said Nicholas Renouf, the curator of the Collection of Musical Instruments. Henry explained that performing on pianos from the time period of a given composition can lend a performer further insight into the composer’s thought process.

Edson Scheid MUS ’11, a member of the Yale Baroque Ensemble who plays a historical violin, emphasized the importance of instruments in understanding and evaluating a composer’s works. It’s difficult, he explained, to fully appreciate Bach while playing a modern Steinway rather than an instrument for which Bach’s music was intended.

“It helps you understand [composers’] genius and how they pushed the limits of their instrument,” Scheid said. “It’s about understanding what ideas the composer had. You are dealing with what they were dealing with.”

While historic pianos are often similar to their modern counterparts in appearance, their inner materials and structures may vary, said Paul Nemeth MUS ’12, a bass player who intends on specializing in historical performance. Contemporary pianos, for instance, have felt covering their inner hammers, while older pianos instead use leather or feathers. This difference results in modern pianos’ loud volume, a dynamic that changes interpretations of older music.

Henry said the study of historical instruments is especially important for understanding Chopin, the only composer of his generation to write exclusively for piano. While many of Chopin’s contemporaries did not write specific “innuendos” into their scores to allow each musician flexibility in interpretation, Chopin was extremely focused on details, which modern musicians can only understand through studying the instruments available to him at the time.

Nemeth attributed the scarcity of concerts using older instruments to the increased difficulty of playing them. He related the concert to his own experience playing a late 18th century baroque bass as an undergraduate at Juilliard, explaining that many techniques learned for modern bass do not transition well to historic instruments.

“It was really interesting because everything I worked on with my modern bass went away … I sounded so bad,” Nemeth said. “You had to relearn how to do things and it was so much more difficult.”

Miki Sawada MUS ’14, a pianist who attended Sunday’s performance, explained that historical performance is simply different rather than more difficult, adding that practice on an older instrument can help a performer acclimate to older music.

Henry’s master class originally scheduled for today has been cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy.

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