“We are still in the thralls of Liszt's pianism,” writes musicologist J. Mackenzie Pierce in a recent issue of Current Musicology. But what about piano works that do not seek, with high-virtuosic displays, to subjugate the listener and to hold her or him in thrall?
The topic is potentially large and multifaceted. For reasons of space, I restrict myself in the present chapter to introducing a newish and rarely used term, “anti-virtuosity,” discuss its possible applications, and then focus on three short pieces, one each by three renowned pianist-composers: Liszt, Debussy, and Marie Jaëll. Jaëll was a major recitalist and pedagogue in her day and published her works with leading publishers (notably Heugel). Her music has recently been rediscovered, performed again by major artists, and recorded. (More on her in a separate section below.)
The three pieces discussed here exemplify the sort of anti-virtuosity that I have in mind: each is enterprising in its musical substance—even experimentally inclined—yet entirely avoids such virtuosic techniques as long passages of rapid finger work or impressive double-octaves. The three pieces bear a family resemblance to one another that I find suggestive of parallel concerns or compatible aesthetic values. Not least, each of the pieces allows us to wonder whether non-virtuosic piano writing may allow or even encourage a special kind of communication, or even communion, between player and composer.
I am not claiming any relation of influence among these three pieces. But I do not want to exclude that possibility. More basically, I do not mean to deny the possibility of a general influence from one composer to another. As we shall see, Jaëll knew Liszt and his music well (including some experimental late pieces, such as the near-baffling Third Mephisto Waltz [S. 216 / LW A325, 1883], which he dedicated to her); she showed him several of her major works for comment—or played them for him—when they were still in manuscript; and Liszt hailed the unconventional elements in her compositional style. Similarly, Liszt's works may find belated echo in more pieces by Debussy than has been generally noted. (Debussy had heard Liszt play and had played for him, as we shall see.) Jaëll's pieces, as well, may have been models for Debussy. At the least, he admired and praised her writings on piano instruction and performance.