Compositions for Fortepiano

The Viennese fortepiano has been in my musical life for many years, and my love for this early type of piano has only grown deeper over the years. After graduating at the Antwerp Royal Conservatory with Jos Van Immerseel as my harpsichord teacher, I played more than 100 concerts for “Jeugd en Muziek” in the Vleeshuis museum in Antwerp, where I performed on the original Dulcken harpsichord and the Graf fortepiano for groups of teenagers. Later, I played copies of Viennese pianos in Mozart operas in Luxembourg and Aix-en-Provence, and learned to understand and control the specific qualities and possibilities of these instruments.

Meanwhile, the Bruges Concertgebouw had asked if I was willing to write a composition based on sketches by Mozart, and I immediately asked if I could write for a period piano quartet (which they allowed, and so I wrote my “PiaMozartet”). In 2009, de Bijloke in Ghent commissioned a piece for fortepiano – the “Variations on l’Homme Armé”, which Ronald Brautigam performed in between Beethoven Sonatas op. 101 and 106 (“Hammerklavier”).

When in 2013, I decided to step back as artistic leader of baroque orchestra B’Rock, my plan was to have more time and opportunities to compose for the Viennese fortepiano. And, as it sometimes happens in life: when you are ready and open for something, it just comes to you. In my case that means: when I was looking for an instrument to work on, I heard that my friend and pianist Alexei Lubimov planned to sell his original Schantz dating from 1828, beautifully restored by Edwin Beunk. Alexei had made two Schubert CDs on this instrument, and although at first I was looking for an older type of piano, once I had seen and played the Schantz, I was completely knocked down.

This instrument proved to be the motor of inspiration for my set of new compositions: between May and October 2013, I composed many pieces for it, as well as two flute pieces, a cello solo piece, some graphic scores, and songs for tenor and fortepiano! Thanks to a grant from the Flemish Government, I had the opportunity to concentrate completely on my new challenge.

In these compositions, 3 different directions of research areas overlap:

1. The specific sound qualities and possibilities of the Viennese fortepiano, with its very direct action and tone control, and (in the case of my instrument) the extra “options”: Janitsar percussion, bassoon stop and moderato stop. Many pianists nowadays perform on the Viennese fortepiano, but most of them always play the same Mozarts, Haydns, Beethovens, Schuberts … Nothing against those masterpieces – on the contrary – but the instrument has such a special character that modern composers can be inspired to write for it too …

2. Indeterminacy: I am the kind of musician who responds intuitively to what I hear around me, something I developed during the hundreds of concerts I played as a continuo harpsichordist. Well, I wanted to implement this aspect of freedom for the performer in my scores, and give him or her the responsibility and task to be even more inventive than in traditional score playing. After all, I feel more related to the Satie-Cage-Feldman tradition than to the Western European avant-garde.

3. I rediscovered the poetics of the handwritten manuscript, instead of the uninspiring Finale or Sibelius scores. That gave me the possibility to experiment with the graphic layout of the score: to what extend will the performer be influenced by the layout? One extreme experiment is the “Aria” for cello solo (not on this CD), where I give the cellist 3 different scores, containing the same notes, but in different graphic environments. Of course, this is linked to my previous point: I expect more input and creativity from the performer than in ordinary performances.

The first compositions were quite literal, I mean: departing from an existing image (a painting, a picture of a piece of furniture) and “transposed” into a score. Several pieces from the set “The Ear Sees” were composed in that way: “Parcours”, “Van Tongerloo”, “Hoffmann”. 

“The Eye”, recorded in two versions, is dedicated to the art historian and collector Roberto Polo who broadened my knowledge of the visual arts during these couple of months. It consists of 4 layers, and a solo performer would never be capable to perform all of them. So, he has to choose what notes to play, and every performance will be different. The basic layer is a loop: a musical phrase that is constantly repeated, and to which the other layers are added. Therefore, several performers, making it more complex, and surprising, can perform it. If everyone follows the guidelines, it doesn’t matter how many musicians play at the same time…

Soon, I developed more abstract, autonomous layouts, which no longer corresponded to existing graphic material: “Le Penseur mol” was inspired on a painting by Flouquet but the score has a specific layout that doesn’t refer to the painting. In the same way, “Cathédrale” and “Doppelgänger/Bilquin” are both inspired on a painting by the artist Jean Bilquin (Ghent). “Construction” even became a 3D-score!

A close collaboration with Bart Vandevijvere, a painter whom I met through Roberto Polo, resulted in a set of graphic-musical variations on a theme. And it inspired me to compose the object-score “Sanseveria” on a text by D.H. Lawrence and “CeilingMusic”, a score written on the ceiling of my music studio.

Meanwhile I was asked to perform a couple of new compositions in Augsburg, Germany, during the Paul Klee exhibition. I studied the biography of the Swiss painter, and learned many things about his art. Several of his works were taken as a point of departure for my new compositions, e.g. in “dans l’air” for solo flute, and the piece I called “For Paul Klee”, which is inspired by his work “Schwebendes” from 1930. My musical score follows the structure of this painting, and the choice to compose most of the piece in the higher register of the fortepiano, gives the music a “floating” character. Because Klee was a gifted musician who adored the music of J.S. Bach, I based this composition on the theme of “Das Musikalisches Opfer”: I isolated every note and gave it a completely new harmonic context.

In many of these compositions, I experimented with a rhythmical notation which is less strict than our in traditional system: one could say that I limit my notation to three different lengths: short, half long and long. The performer decides how long exactly these values are, and what I expect to hear is a melody which is gently flowing, like Gregorian chant. It gives the performer the freedom to build lines, climaxes and play with the phrasing according to his mood. In “For Paul Klee”, the first part and the coda are written in this manner, whereas the middle section uses traditional note values.

Probably the most extreme and difficult work is my “Four Seasons”, again for fortepiano. The score is mainly graphic: there are only pitches, grouped as harmonies, and the performer has rhythmical freedom. Each of the four seasons explores a specific colour/range of the fortepiano, and in my performance I added the extra pedals which my Schantz possesses. In the last movement (winter), the point of interest is the damping of the Viennese piano, which keeps the sound much longer than the modern piano: after releasing the key, the sound always stays for a while, not as a very clear, but rather as a ghostly, mystic sound … 

During the cycle, one perceives four different states of mind, four different impressions of the seasons: a fresh and subtle spring, a lively summer, a destructive autumn and a static winter. The performer decides autonomously about the length of the movements, depending on whether he or she prefers short or long summers and winters …

This cycle of seasons was also the inspiration for another composition: the “12 Visions Fugitives” (yes, I have always adored Prokofiev’s cycle of short character pieces). The seasons were based on 12 note-groups, 12 harmonies, and for my “Visions Fugitives” I slightly changed these groups and built new (short) compositions on it.

A kind of synthesis of all ideas and colours is found in my “Nano Variations”. I wrote these variations during our summer holidays in Beara, Ireland. I limited myself to the scale of the score I was using: a small notebook with staffs of only 10 cm long … Every piece, the theme plus the 30 variations (and da capo theme), had to fit on a single system! Therefore, some of the variations are very short, some a bit longer, and it gives the whole composition a flow and energy, even in the slower parts. The structure is based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, with every third variation a sort of canon. 

A question I repeatedly get from friends and colleagues is: can we perform your fortepiano pieces on a modern piano? The answer is not yet clear to me: on the one hand: of course it is possible, just as Schubert’s music can be performed on a Steinway. On the other hand: because I explicitly write for the specific sound of the Viennese fortepiano, one loses this aspect when the composition is performed on a modern grand. But, actually, that is also the case for Schubert: the slow movement of his last sonata sounds very different on an instrument from his time (like my Schantz) than on a Steinway. I guess it also depends on the composition: some of my pieces are easy to “transpose” to the modern piano, and for some it will be more difficult. E.g. the “Nano Variations” give no problem, but the “Four Seasons” will ask a lot of creativity from the performer when played on a modern piano.

Frank Agsteribbe, November 2013


  • 1. The authenticity myth

An intense commitment to early music – music written more than one generation ago – and to a performance practise of which we know only a small part, confronts a performer with the duality of this subject. On the one hand, we cannot deny, in 2011, the attainments of the historically informed performance practise (HIP); on the other hand, more and more musicians experience the limitations of the movement, which, for a long time, pretended to bring “authentic” performances. 

As Richard Taruskin has shown, HIP is historically linked to Stravinsky’s objectivist modernism. This includes musicological positivism, the avoidance of personal engagement in performance, an interest and belief in theory and science – never witnessed before in history – and a continuous search for innovation. It is expressed through a blind confidence in research, more than in individual imagination, in the fact that a historically “correct” instrument deserves higher credits than the performer’s personal input, and in a servile following of the musical text. This attitude towards history is, strangely enough, a very recent view of things, and parallels, as already shown, developments in the arts of the first half of the 20th century.

Many performers and musicologists consider this too small a space to work in, as a historically incorrect interpretation of the “Werktreue” concept. Not that the public has problems with it; the golden egg of HIP-performances in the exploding CD-market of the eighties and nineties made the listener used to this approach. And let us not forget that thanks to HIP many (semi-) masterpieces of the past centuries were rediscovered, and great works of the classical music canon enjoyed a fresh, light and young makeover.

Then: where is the problem?

Obviously, a performer should do his work with the greatest respect for the composer and his compositions. But, does this automatically exclude every personal input? Girolamo Frescobaldi wrote in the seventeenth century that the real task of a performer is to discover the appropriate “affetto” of each passage, in order to understand the intentions of the composer. 

By the way, even Igor Stravinsky, himself a strong opposite of creative intervention by the performer, didn’t bother to take his own indications all too literally: “The metronome marks I wrote 40 years ago were contemporary 40 years ago. Time is not alone in affecting tempo … circumstances do too. I would be surprised if any of my recent recordings follows the metronome markings.” As if Bach always took the same tempos, always played the same way …

HIP as “new objectivity” strongly believes in uniform performance rules, with clear and measurable, objective criteria: one studies HIP until one “knows” how to do it; by following the historical data severely, automatically the original intentions of the composer become clear, giving one the insight into how a musical composition must have sounded and functionned at the time of its creation. There is an obvious normative, even ethical side to this aspect: who doesn’t obey the official group rules, cannot be part of the group: you “believe” in it, or you don’t. Not long ago, a well-known and respected HIP colleague said about me what a pity that I refused to do what I should do, although I knew very well how it has to be! In his eyes, I am not less than a “sinner”, having excommunicated myself by my wrong behaviour. 

Funny to see how a movemement, reacting to old-fashened traditions, has now become stuck in its own rules and traditions …

To quote Richard Taruskin: “HIP is the sound of now, not then!” Indeed, the way we perform early music nowadays is a 20th-century phenomenon, with mannerisms which have little to do with earlier performance practise. Harnoncourt already explained that pretending to perform “authentic” Bach, or Mozart, or …, is nothing but a fraud; he can only perform authentic Harnoncourt !

What then is the alternative?

First of all, some modesty is certainly expected: we know extremely little about past performance traditions, and anyone working in this field should understand that his or her performance has only a limited historical foundation. The rest is filled by individual personality and subjective taste. To acknowledge this is a first but important step.

As an alternative to the modernist approach, I adhere to a postmodern vision, one that departs from the unease about modernism, without denying it, but by integrating it as part of our history. There is no claim to know the “truth”, as there are many truths in art. Historical knowledge no longer prohibits freedom in performance. Pluralism is the keyword, or diversity. In contrast to the modernist utopia, postmodernism emphasizes the presence of multiple layers; it functions in a flexible network of styles, which influence each other in every possible direction. As Mozart has influenced Cage, Cage on his turn has influenced Mozart – or rather: the way we experience Mozart. We live in another era than Mozart: “Now we can hear Aida on the patio and the St Matthew Passion in the shower.” (Richard Taruskin) A postmodernist is an omnivore …

This vision is perfectly translated in the programmation, the philosophy, and the performances of baroque orchestra B’Rock, which I have founded in 2005 together with some friends.  The points of departure are the attainments of HIP, combined with a very direct and lively musical experience, a sense for adventure and inconventional combinations (as e.g. Vivaldi plus Cage) – realised by a group of  players with strong personalities.

  • 2. The problem of musical notation

A composer has a fundamentally different approach to musical notation than a mere performer, and maybe even more so, than a HIP-performer. A lot of research in HIP is done in order to come to a final, definitive version of a score (the “Urtext”), and consequently, the notation is followed as faithfully as possible. But every time, the composer experiences a struggle with the limitations of musical notation. What finally gets into the score is only a fraction of what the composer has in mind. It’s nothing more than a musical shorthand notation. The impossibility to translate his imagination into notation is one of the biggest frustrations for a composer. He has to accept to leave a lot of interpretational details to the performer. It is striking to read about this in writings of so many composers of all centuries, but still, it is largely denied by many HIP-performers. Therefore, collaborating with living composers is of such an importance to every performer.

My composition teacher, Frederic Rzewski, always stressed the need to be both performer and composer: to know what it is to be on a stage will keep you out of the “ivory tower” trap of composition, and, by composing, you learn to estimate the importance of subjective interpretation to fill the gaps of musical notation. 

In my own experience, with already more than 80 compositions, works have their own life in the hands of interesting and truly fine performers. There is no definite performance, but, in good hands, there are many fine performances, some of which I would never have imagined as a composer. As Brahms replied to two arguing performers of his music: “You are both right”!

Back to HIP: our modernist reflex to render a score as exact as possible, without personal interpretation, should not be projected on early music. If it can be ascribed to a certain music, then maybe only to the modernist tendency between 1920 and 1960, though also there many examples that can be found of composers that didn’t follow their own instructions (Bartok, Stravinsky and even Boulez as striking examples !)

  • 3. New music vs. Early music

The question whether music is old or new, is not as relevant as we sometimes pretend. The only important question is whether the music is of current interest, whether it can move us, tell us something, make us think, … In that sense, for many listeners, Bach is more relevant than Stockhausen, and therefore of more current interest. It is typical for our time that we have access to an incredible amount of music, art, and information. In his impressive novel “Das Glassperlenspiel” from 1943, Hermann Hesse describes a future world in 2200 where every art, science and knowledge which has ever been produced, is at one’s disposal. Who could have guessed that in our internet time, this is actually what is going on? Borders between past and present are fading away, and the enormous popularity of early music in the 21st century is a clear proof of that. That is unique in our history.

Our generation of performers has to take all this into consideration, and find the correct link to our past, start dialogue with history, and make it into a convincing story.

  • 4. Conclusion: diversity

I am a composer, a keyboard player, a conductor, a theorist, and a music teacher. Our modernist way of thinking has problems with such a diversity; it strives to make clear distinctions, to label everything, to make people chose what they want to specialise in. But in the 18th century, diversity was a requirement: many musicians combined all these activities, and did so without hesitation. Why should we accept the modernist claim for specialisation, which is only one possible option (and sometimes a very limited one)?

In my “music making”, composing has a strong influence on my performance and vice versa; my research and theory influence both my composing and performing, and vice versa. And all of this influences my teaching, and vice versa. Diversity makes us more complete personalities.

Frank Agsteribbe, March 2011