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Fingering choices for musical gain in eighteenth-century piano performance

The proper use of fingering to perform accurately is of concern to all instrumentalists.  However, there is a dangerous pitfall awaiting keyboard players that does not exist for other instrumentalists.  Simply put, for non-keyboardists, wrong fingering usually equals wrong note. But for the pianist, we can stumble along, playing the right pitches, while all the while making a complete mess of the musical message because of inept fingering.  As C. P. E. Bach cautions: “Today, much more than in the past, no one can hope to play well who does not use his fingers correctly.”  Therefore, it is not surprising that C. P. E. Bach devotes 37 pages to proper scale fingerings of all stripes and colors for good execution in chapter 1 of Versuch, and Türk devotes 60 pages to the same in Klavierstücke.

What is distinctive to eighteenth-century performance practice is the acknowledgment of the important role fingering plays in musicality; how it is completely interconnected.  It is inseparable from interpretation.  It serves a vital musical function so much so that Bach believed the musical function of fingering was more important than its technical role.

Clementi puts it succinctly: “To produce the best effect, by the easiest means, is the great basis of the art of fingering.”  The best fingering is achieved by the easiest means, which is not always a 1-2-3-4-5 legato approach. Instead, this suggests choosing fingering that supports a hand shape and execution which will facilitate a reliable technical and musical outcome. Türk demonstrates the concept well in Klavierstücke.  As suggested in Discoveries from the Fortepiano (2015, OUP), try the excerpt below using consecutive fingering (1-2, 2-3, 3-4…) while at the same time following the slur indications.  Now, play it with Türk’s suggestions which require one gesture, one muscle movement, gliding up and down the keyboard – the best effect by the easiest means.

 

Gunn.OUPBlog.Turk Example
Türk, Klavierstücke. 158.[3]

Oftentimes today, scores are interpreted with a fully-connected, legato execution. The Mozart example below is a case in point. The fingering choice suggested by the editor in the right hand on beat one of measure 33 is 2-1-2-4-5. This proposed fingering implies connecting the line through the slur which contradicts the articulation subtleties Mozart notated. If we are to play the score as directed by Mozart, this “easiest” fingering approach, in reality, becomes more difficult to execute musically and the following interpretation usually results.

Gunn.OUPBlog.Mozart Music Example
Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/II, mm. 33-36 (Henle)

Instead, using 1-2-4-5-3 on beat one of measure 33 produces Mozart’s notated articulation by using the natural inclination of the fingers: starting with a heavier gesture with naturally heavier fingers, breaking the legato after finger 5, and landing with a rich, thick finger 3.  A natural gesture followed by a newly articulated stroke. The best effect by the easiest means. Listen to the difference that is demonstrated on the fortepiano:

By following these principles on the modern piano the same nuanced interpretation is readily achieved:

The conscious employment of this technical approach provides rational solutions to the perceived “problems” of executing eighteenth-century repertoire. The added bonus? A style that is easier to execute, that offers a variety of articulation, that contains new palettes of color, and that provides unimagined sound energy through intentionally executed technical paths.

 

Featured image: “Playing piano” by Nayuki. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Sandy Holland

    Choice of fingering can make the difference between being able to play a piece and not being able to play it. Useful to have the accompanying sound files too.

  2. Bobby Keshler

    Hey Donna, Bobby here. After reading this article It reminded me of what it was like for me starting out. Piano really doesn’t have to be so intimidating. I find that the younger people start learning this skill the easier it is for them. The method you describe reminds me of something I came across last year. It’s not exactly the same method but it helps in similar areas. I’d love some feedback on what you think. Here’s a link http://bit.ly/Easykeys

  3. Linda Hyland

    Thank you for the deeper look behind fingering choices. :)

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