Alina M. Tylinski - Hélène de Montgeroult at the piano: Codifying illusion in the Cours complet

Alina M. Tylinski - Hélène de Montgeroult at the piano: Codifying illusion in the Cours complet

Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836) was a pianist, composer, educator, and the first woman awarded a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire in 1795. Of aristocratic origins, she was given keyboard lessons like many well-to-do eighteenth-century women, who mastered the instrument to ease domestic boredom and “charm” potential suitors.[1] However, Montgeroult had an advantage over most. Jérôme Dorival has identified two of her teachers, the Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek and Nicolas-Joseph Hüllmandel. As students of C.P.E. Bach, the two likely acquainted Montgeroult with their mentor’s treatise and particular style of playing, as well as a network of renowned musicians. Montgeroult’s own private salon offered similar networking opportunities.[2] Concert performances for a select audience allowed her to demonstrate her skills for influential composers like Giovanni Battista Viotti and Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, as well as musicians from other social circles. She did not fail to impress: according to the memoirs of the painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, her attention to expressivity in her performances stunned listeners. One awestruck contemporary, recalling a duet with Viotti, referred to Montgeroult as “Euterpe.”

But perhaps her most notable accomplishment was the publication of her Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte-piano (ca. 1820). Comprised of 114 études drafted as early as 1788,[3] the Cours complet was a piano treatise written in light of efforts to codify music education at the Conservatoire. At the turn of the century, the Conservatoire’s founding members took to the task of drafting official methods for voice, instruments, and music theory, beginning with Charles-Simon Catel’s Traité de l’harmonie in 1801.[4] Montgeroult taught piano for two years at the institution before marrying Charles His in 1797, a circumstance which - in addition to her fragile health - prompted her to leave before the method drafting process began. Moreover, as a result of increased restrictions on women’s rights after the French Revolution, Montgeroult’s treatise would never have been considered for official sanction if she had stayed. Instead, the Conservatoire would adopt Louis Adam’s Méthode de piano in 1804.

Although unofficial, Montgeroult’s Cours complet wielded considerable influence over piano pedagogy throughout the nineteenth century. It was reprinted several times and pianists as late as Antoine-François Marmontel studied it.[5] In fact, musicologists have recognized the Cours complet as one of the most innovative efforts to reform performance practice and compensate for the early piano’s limits.[6] Inspired by vocal technique and centered on the application of touch, Montgeroult’s treatise helped performers mask the instrument’s shortcomings through the mastery of pianistic illusion.

Of all the components of the Cours complet, the preface is the most critical to understanding the particularity of Montgeroult’s method. It begins by addressing problems with piano pedagogy, describing current methods as “vicious” and “appalling.” For Montgeroult, these methods failed to consider the particular nature of the piano, having relied too long on violin methods as a model for performance. Coupled with the problem of limited resonance, the sound produced on early nineteenth-century pianos was too percussive for nuanced expression. For this, Montgeroult suggested pianists look to singers for an answer: “The art of singing well is the same for any instrument one applies it to; concessions and sacrifices must not be made to its particular mechanisms by its performer; it is therefore the performer who must change their mechanism in the service of art,” she wrote.[7] Montgeroult worked extensively with singers throughout her lifetime, accompanying them in salon pieces and even setting a few texts by Metastasio.[8] Imitating them, she insisted, would produce an illusion of prolonged sound in the piano. Thinking of the right hand as the singer and the left hand as an accompanying orchestra, the pianist should pay close attention to phrasing, “breathing” in similar places as a singer would. Attention to the space offered by breathing would “augment the volume of the sound,” imitating resonance in the absence of it.

Drawing again from her experience with vocalists, Montgeroult equated piano playing to discourse: “The piano is verbose by nature,” she maintained. Pianists should develop a wide vocabulary of sounds and attacks, both detached and legato, as “the goal, like that of singing, properly speaking, is to express the many emotions of the soul.” Here Montgeroult appears to adopt the terminology of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose famous critique of the recitative from Lully’s Armide[9] stressed the importance of variety and careful attention to the emotional character of a text. However, the pianist should not abuse this diversity of character, Montgeroult warned, for “monotony is born from the excess of variety,” producing uniform sound that “fatigues the ear and torments the soul.”[10] Rather, the pianist should choose wisely from their repertory of sounds, applying a manner of playing suitable to the genre of a piece as a singer would adapt to the character of a particular scene.

The cornerstone of the Cours complet, however, is Montgeroult’s insistence on the application of touch. Dubbed “the pianist who made keys speak” by her friend Vigée Le Brun, Montgeroult wished her students to do the same, focusing on the production of smooth, connected legato sound. To ensure its successful production, Montgeroult proposed a method familiar to pianists: the practice of scales. The difference in her method, however, was the attention to expressivity in the performance of these scales, derived from the force of touch. In the thirteenth suite of exercises (p. 190), Montgeroult created diagrams of the scale degrees, mi, , fa, and sol, to demonstrate how a pianist should apply pressure to the keys. The duration of each scale degree is visualized by a dotted line (e.g., ré ---- e) and the increased intensity of the sound by a crescendo written underneath; the dotted line is divided in half by a vertical line. Here the pianist “should have already touched and pressed the key, but the greatest amount of pressure should be exerted over the letter e which figures here as the last half of the syncopated note, which becomes the first half of the strong meter that follows, and should be the most intensely felt.”[11] According to Montgeroult, this careful study of exerting pressure would offer the piano the “force and smoothness it should have at all times,” concealing the instrument’s limits and training the student to be “guided by sentiment.”

While Montgeroult died in relative obscurity, the unique pedagogic methods of her Cours complet left the testimony of an artist highly knowledgeable of her instrument, keenly aware of its defects and limits but also of its expressive potential. By codifying the fabrication of resonant sound, emphasizing tactile techniques and the imitation of singers, Montgeroult’s treatise opened a new route to mastering the piano in the early nineteenth century.

 

Alina Tylinski is in the process of completing her BA in history with honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A former clarinet student, she is looking to pursue musicology in her graduate studies with a focus on music in eighteenth-century France. She tweets as @AlinaTylinski.

[1] Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson, “French Women Opera Composers and the Aesthetics of Rousseau,” Feminist Studies 26 (2000), 71-72. [2] Cécile Coutin, “Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836): La pianiste qui ‘faisait parler les touches’” (lecture; Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles - Galerie des affaires étrangères, March 30, 2017).
[3] Interview with Jérôme Dorival in the documentary “Hélène de Montgeroult, pianiste, compositrice et pédagogue,” December 2014. See also Hélène de Montgeroult: La Marquise et la Marseillaise, with a preface by Geneviève Fraisse (Paris: Symétrie, 2006).
[4] On the methods drafted for the Conservatoire, see Cynthia Gessele, “The Institutionalization of Music Theory in France: 1764-1802” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1989). [5] Interview with Jérôme Dorival, “Hélène de Montgeroult, pianiste, compositrice et pédagogue.”
[6] See Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden, “Politics, the French Revolution, and Performance: Parisian Musicians as an Emergent Professional Class, 1749-1802” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2015), esp. 210-225, and Jeanne Roudet, “Du modèle vocal à l’illusion pianistique: les techniques du son romantique comme traits stylistiques,” Musurgia 11 (2004), 37-52.
[7] “L’art de bien chanter est le même à quelque instrument qu’on l’applique; il ne doit pas faire de concessions et de sacrifices au mécanisme particulier de son interprète; c’est donc cet interprète qui doit plier son mécanisme aux volontés de l’art.” Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
[8] Cécile Coutin, “Hélène de Montgeroult.”
[9] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre sur la musique française (Paris, 1753).
[10] Similar terms are used in François-Joseph Gossec’s Traité de l’harmonie (1791). He too was a major critic of pedagogical methods, proposing reforms for the teaching of vocal technique as early as 1780. On this subject, see Rudolph Angermüller, “Opernreformen im Lichte der wirtschaftlichen Verhältnisse an der Académie royale de Musique von 1775 bis 1780,” Die Musikforschung 25 (1972), 267-291.
[11] “Dans le milieu où j’ai placé la ligne transversale, le doigt aura déjà touche et pressé la touche; mais son plus grand degré de pression sera sur la lettre e qui figure ici la dernière moitié de la note syncopée, laquelle devient la première moitié du tems fort qui suit, et doit être la plus fortement sentie.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'The Pheasant's Eye': Dancing the Scottish Baroque with Ensemble Hesperi

'The Pheasant's Eye': Dancing the Scottish Baroque with Ensemble Hesperi

Consonant Conversation: An interview with the Consone Quartet

Consonant Conversation: An interview with the Consone Quartet