From WILL - Classic Mornings -

One Can Play at This

I had to look twice at the announcement.

Graham Chapman, a member of the Monty Python troupe, was going to present a free campus lecture. I’m sure the thought crossed my mind that it would be something “completely different.”  If anything, it was completely different to see a line of students wrapped around the outdoor perimeter of a university auditorium with hopes of getting a seat for a lecture. I was one of the lucky ones.

Indeed, the lecture was not what everyone expected – at the outset anyway. Graham Chapman talked at length about the adventures of the Dangerous Sports Club including bungee jumping, which was relatively new at the time. At one point, he described the club’s unique skiing events at which those participating were required to have something between them and the skis such as a bathtub or a piano. I remember wondering where his stories were headed and whether there was a punchline coming at any moment. To my surprise he had the house lights dimmed and proceeded to show film clips of the adventures he had been recounting.

The lecture came to mind when a new recording arrived in the Friends of WILL Library – a recording I had selected.  I had no idea what was in store for me and for listeners. I soon learned that this CD of music for piano and orchestra by the 19th Century French composer Charles Gounod featured music written for pedal piano. When I began to familiarize myself with the history of pedal pianos, just the thought of how I would explain this to listeners made me think of the Dangerous Sports Club. I wondered if listeners would think it was a hoax.

A pedal piano looks something like a piano mounted above and slightly behind another piano. The lower piano rests on shorter legs close to the floor. A player sits at the keyboard of the upper piano and has a second keyboard underneath that may be played at the same time with the feet. OK, to be more precise there are pedals that enable one to play the keyboard of the lower piano – like organ pedals. If fact, it’s said that pedal pianos were built originally to enable organists to practice outside of churches. It turns out that there are several varieties of pedal pianos - including upright versions with somewhat concealed lower keyboard mechanics - and a number of pianists and composers who had them and wrote music for them. Mozart had one. It’s been suggested he wrote his Piano Concerto #20 originally for pedal piano. Robert Schumann wrote pieces for the instrument as did Charles Gounod.

Italian pianist Roberto Prosseda is featured on the recording of Gounod’s complete works for pedal piano and orchestra (Hyperion 67975), which was released just last year. Even though Prosseda got hold of a 1908 pedal piano for the purpose of getting to know the instrument, the recording makes use of a recently devised system that creates a sort of pedal piano using 2 grand pianos. It turns out to be an introduction both to music for pedal piano and pianist Roberto Prosseda. Pianist/conductor Howard Shelley is on hand, leading the Orchestra of Italian Switzerland (Orchestra della Svizzera italiana ). Howard Shelley has been so adventurous over the years. He would seem to be the kind of musician who would have tackled the pedal piano. Perhaps he has, but not on this recording.

If you know in advance that the music is for pedal piano, you can appreciate the sound of the 2 pianos and imagine one being operated by pedals.  This would be something to see on stage. Perhaps Roberto Prosseda will tour as a part of a campus lecture series. I’ll be in line! After all the excitement over the years with music for 2 pianos and piano duet (2 players at one keyboard – also known as piano four hands), the pedal piano is a “completely different” approach.  It too has been around for centuries with the attraction that “one can play at this,” you might say.

One American brass ensemble played with the idea years ago of performing John Philip Sousa’s famous march The Liberty Bell with the Liberty Bell – actually a replica. There are a number of such replicas that have survived over the years. One was brought to Dallas – all 2 tons of it - and hoisted on stage, only to “fail” the audition. It doesn’t really work, musically. Jerry Junkin, the Artistic Director of the Dallas Wind Symphony, explains in the recording notes that the pitch of the bell came nowhere near the pitch required by the music. The members of the Dallas Wind Symphony were good enough sports to share the audition with listeners – and to present the march with the appropriate percussion on the CD as well (Reference Recordings 94). 

I have featured that “audition” performance on Classic Mornings a number of times over the years, most recently on July 3rd. The march came to mind when I heard a story just days before on the BBC about the onstage reunion of the Monty Python troupe in London (which included a tribute to Graham Chapman, who died in 1989).  Of course the Monty Python theme tune – The Liberty Bell -  was played during the radio feature. I did a little research on the march only to learn that originally Sousa wrote it for a stage work that never materialized. Funny that it ended up back on stage years later with the English comedy troupe.

I’m guessing that a tour by the Dallas Wind Symphony with the replica bell would be out of the question. But then, even the Monty Python troupe had said for years that it wouldn’t reunite.

You’ll join us for Classic Mornings, won’t you? Please do, Monday through Friday from 9-noon with the Classic Morning Prelude just before at 8:50 on FM 90.9 and streaming live at will.illinois.edu.