The first chapter (in its present, working stage) to Greg's book, titled The Art and Evolution of Piano Recital Programming. It's a comical synopsis of the evolution of the piano recital and programming told the perspective of an innocent, 300-year-old fugue. Footnotes have been removed from this version.
Prelude: The Cat's Fugue
by Greg Anderson
I would like to offer a presumptuously preposterous hypothesis, all in good fun:
Setting: An unoccupied music room in the Royal Spanish Court. In the corner stands a highly ornate harpsichord.
Upon sight of the abandoned harpsichord, the feline’s curiosity escalates to an unbearable magnitude. She looks right, then left to verify her privacy. Gracefully she leaps up and tiptoes across the keyboard. A succession of utterly ugly pitches is heard.
CAT: “Alas! L’Art de toucher le Clavicin! Couperin would be so proud.”
The court composer Domenico Scarlatti, donning a gigantic hairpiece and a horrific expression, makes a dramatic entrance.
SCARLATTI: “What the hell!”
He scares the sensitive beast witless. She races off in search of regained pride, and in doing so, she extends her claws and razes the fine polish on poor Scarlatti’s instrument.
A blast of Inspiration strikes the music room of the Spanish Court that afternoon in 1738. The combination of dissonance and rage, induced by unnecessary destruction and the utterly ugly pitches produced by Miss Pussy’s paw, serve to ignite something truly brilliant within Scarlatti’s mind.
Domenico Scarlatti sits at his recently totaled harpsichord and begins playing. From within the wooden box emanates a masterpiece, thus immortalizing the cat’s stroll: a fugue with her footsteps as the theme.
And so entered The Cat’s Fugue into the keyboard repertoire.
The Cat’s Fugue was heard once, at the very least, by members of the Court (distinguished by Princess Maria Barbara and Prince Ferdinando VI) in one of their lavish palaces in Madrid, La Granja, or Aranjuez. Encouraged by his receptive patrons, he published it among his 30 Essercizi in Italy later that year and prefaced it with these words:
Whether you are a dilettante or a professor, do not expect to find in these compositions any profound intention, but rather an ingenious jesting of the art to prepare you for bold playing on the harpsichord. … Show yourself more human than critical, and thus you will increase your own pleasure. … Live happily!
During the 70 years that followed, Scarlatti’s works remained in demand, and The Cat’s Fugue was reprinted in a handful of the numerous editions of the composer’s works. Professionals utilized the fugue for personal study, and we can assume the amateur keyboardists of the day, usually of the bourgeoisie, took up The Cat’s Fugue for sheer enjoyment. Nevertheless, the closest the Cat ever found itself to a true public performance were those times when a hapless acquaintance drew too near a keyboardist raring to display his or her hard-earned skills. After all, like all keyboard works of the day, this was a cat perfectly content with its domestic life. Grand social displays were absolutely inappropriate for such small and intimate creatures like this fugue - a fugue composed for nothing more than a single harpsichord. The Cat became increasingly shy as the century elapsed; the inventive use of dissonance within her meters certainly had its allure, but her adherence to outdated fugal procedures likely deterred all but the most determined. By the time the fortepiano had replaced the harpsichord, those interested in The Cat’s Fugue and otherworks of such a distant past became a dwindling number. The musical world had evolved.
The cat’s original promenade began to lose its luminous glow of immortality and instead sauntered slowly toward the junkyard of musical waste. Daquin’s Coucou, Couperin’s Voluptuesuse, and Handel’s Blacksmith followed alongside.
Within the dwelling of Abbé Santini, a collector in Rome, a rare copy of the 100-year-old Cat’s Fugue laid waiting to be incinerated by fate. However, something happened the score did not expect. Two lovebirds swept through the city on an infamous rendezvous and caught the cat on her arduous journey to oblivion. Fortune placed her in the hands of the Piano-God himself; Franz Liszt was soon to revive her glow.
Just two months later, Liszt traveled to Vienna and brought his newfound cat along for a ride…and left his beloved Maria D’Agoult behind. In a typical venture of the day, he arranged dates, advertised, and sold tickets for concerts in the Saale der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Very atypically, however, he chose to enlist the services of only one assisting musician; he chose to set the piano at a right angle to the audience; he chose primarily to perform works by composers other than himself; and he performed from memory. On top of it all, one of his concerts featured the inclusion of a hundred-year-old antique: The Cat’s Fugue. To restate: such behavior was viewed as strange and questionable way to generage ticket sales. Liszt’s fame, fortunately, overrode such considerations.
LISZT RECITAL PROGRAM - VIENNA, 1838
Beethoven: Sonata in c sharp minor
Schubert: Das Fischermädchen, Der Kreuzzug, Die Forelle (sung by Herrn B. Radhartinger)
Rössler: Rondo (Andante in A flat)
Handel: Fugue in e minor
Rössler: Octave Etude
Scarlatti: The Cat’s Fugue
Radhartinger: Two songs (sung by Hernn B. Radhartinger)
Hexameron - Bravura Variations on Bellini’s “Puritani March” (Composed by Chopin, Czerny, Herz, Liszt, Pixis, and Thalberg)
Suddenly, our feline friend was at the top of the charts. (Or more realistically, she was on the charts.) Promoted by trendsetter extraordinaire, she became all the rage of the charmed and surprised Viennese public. Other pianists began searching for their own “old masters.” Carl Czerny edited an edition of 200 Scarlatti sonatas after hearing Liszt perform The Cat’s Fugue and acknowledged in the preface, “It was Liszt who gave the first impulse to this undertaking.” Wealthy girls all over Europe were recreating the cat’s original mosey up the keyboard in the sophistication of Scarlatti’s fugue.
As Czerny financially basked in the “Cat’s” success, Liszt continued to set trends. In 1839, he made history by performing the first concert consisting entirely of a single pianist and his piano: “Le concert, c’est moi,” he exclaimed. In 1840, he referred to his “reciting” of each piece at the keyboard, and thus this solo adventure was dubbed “Recitals on the pianoforte.” Before long, the English had cut it down to the singular and “recital” became its lasting name.
By doing so, Liszt revolutionized the musical world. The solo piano recital became a reoccurring phenomenon – a dramatic testimony of the individual and an epitome of romanticism. Pianists appropriated the idea and “recited” across Europe and America. Concert halls and pianos were built for these recitals and audiences flocked to see the pianists who performed them. Frequently, upon these concerts were retellings of our feline tale. By 1900, The Cat’s Fugue was acknowledged as Scarlatti’s “best known and perhaps most splendid composition." And while the fugue enjoyed its enduring blaze, it was the piano, and more significantly the great music of the past, that had truly become popular. Nearly every home had a piano upon which nearly every girl could learn to play, and upon which nearly every cat could stroll.
Setting: The living room of an American suburban home, past midnight. A piano stands dark in the corner. A white-haired grandmother sleeps upstairs while her grandson scours the kitchen.
Enter: New Cat.
Upon sight of the abandoned piano, the playful tabby bounds across the room and shamelessly scampers across the keys. He creates a string of mischievous dissonances.
CAT: “Look at me everybody!”
The grandson, Zez Confrey, holding a glass of milk and a thrilled expression, makes a dramatic entrance.
CONFREY: “Dude, that’s what I’ve been looking for.”
A blast of Inspiration strikes the grandmother’s living room that night in 1921. Zez Confrey sits alongside the elated cat and begins jamming. From within the wood and iron box emanates a masterpiece, thus celebrating the cat’s midnight dance: a rag with her footsteps as the theme.
And so entered Kitten on the Keys into the keyboard repertoire.
This little Kitten captured the hearts of millions. Every sort of piano was subject to his fancy footwork: the grands set upon concert stages, the out-of-tune uprights in dimmly-lit bars, the decorative instruments placed in living rooms, and even the piano sounds heard via the latest technology: the phonograph. The new joke was in: whenever a cat made her way across the keyboard, inevitably someone would say,
SOMEONE: “Aww, she’s playing Kitten on the Keys.”
And like that, The Cat’s Fugue was out. It vanished from the body of keyboard works commonly chosen for public consumption, otherwise referred to as the canon (a concept could not exist until artists such as Liszt routinely performed music of the past). Of the millions of classical piano compositions, only a couple hundred win the popularity contest of sorts and gain admittance into this category of often-performed works. A very peculiar phenomenon, the canon turns over some members as quickly as hairdos, pants, and political leanings go in and out of fashion. So while The Cat’s Fugue was dumped from the elite musical club, Kitten on the Keys played on around the world.
The situation was both an outcome and an emblem of the growing divide between popular and classical music. Ten years before, one was bound to find both a Chopin nocturne and a popular polka on any given music desk. Now the camps were forming strong and the two sides could not both take pleasure in the delights of curious cats upon piano keys. When compelled to choose sides, the greater public naturally chose the popular side, along with Kitten on the Keys. Just like kittens, popular music is entertaining, malleable to its environment, and a little reckless, while the “cat" is old, predictable, and not nearly as cute.
Two years before the entrance of our Kitten, a fight broke out on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 113th Street in New York City. In doing so, the combatants George Gershwin and Abram Chasins (a famous concert pianist of the day) aptly depicted the divide and mindsets of the two camps: the new and popular vs. the learned and refined. Chasins argued that “George was having a love-affair with music; no regular piano practice, no slaving away at theory, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, or form.”
CHASINS: “George, don’t you think it would be a good idea to take some lessons? Nobody can do what you want to do without basic training.”
Gershwin stands still and glares.
GERSWIN: “You’re just the kind of person who is keeping me from doing my great work!”
He stamps off, leaving Chasins alone. The two don’t speak to one another for a year.
Unfortunately for The Cat’s Fugue, it was left in a bizarre and most disagreeable midpoint between the two realms. It was much too mature for one side and too cute for the other, and thus, its former membership in the classical dominion was filled by Scarlatti’s less overt sonatas. Once again, our cat made way for the junkyard of musical waste, sauntering however slowly.
The musical world is different today than when either The Cat’s Fugue or Kitten on the Keys entered the scene. Neither piece is performed with any frequency. Popular music, by nature, has the ability to constantly renovate its inventory, and thus interest in Kitten on the Keys was replaced by the newest thing on the market. Scarlatti’s music, let alone The Cat’s Fugue, is performed by concert pianists less today than any decade since the 1840s after Franz Liszt first introduced it into the concert repertoire. Most notably, the piano itself has lost its dominance within the home and the amateur pianist has become a rarity. The professional classical pianist lives a different life, entering a multitude of competitions but performing a pithy number of solo piano recitals. And more often than not, when a cat of today’s world makes its way across a keyboard, not a sound is heard. The keys depressed were either those of an electric piano turned off, or those of a computer with little letters drawn upon them.
Setting: In my bedroom, at dawn. I’m weary eyed and alone at my keyboard.
Enter: My cat.
She stares at me with wide eyes from the other end of the room. She approaches, jumps atop my desk, and lovingly trots across my computer keys, offering her advice.
CAT: ughnko bnzazccs,m ckdrvp;y56