Exploring what’s inside the music, pianist Edmund
Battersby plays an all-Chopin concert on two different
instruments in Richardson Auditorium on Thursday, October
12, at 8 p.m. "It’s not about the instruments," he says in
a telephone interview from his Bloomington, Indiana, home,
"it’s about finding out what the music means, what makes
Battersby opens the concert using a replica of a
fortepiano made by Conrad Graf in Vienna about 1825. The
Graf pianos had wooden frames, leather hammers, and five
pedals. They were known for their warm sound and their
variety of nuance. Although, in their time, they were
relatively powerful instruments, their maximum volume is
noticeably less than the modern grand piano. Chopin used a
Graf piano for his 1829 Vienna debut.
After intermission Battersby turns to Richardson’s
Steinway concert grand with its iron frame, felt hammers,
and three pedals.
"The Graf I’m playing in Princeton is a large instrument,"
Battersby says. "It has a six-octave span. Beethoven
started with a five-octave instrument. At the end of his
life he had a Graf. Between 1810 and 1830 Graf was the
prized piano. Schubert probably couldn’t afford one." The
modern Steinway has a compass of more than seven octaves.
"When you’re playing fortepiano, the priorities are
different for both the player and the listener," Battersby
says. "The sound is lighter and more transparent. It takes
less physical weight to play the instrument. There’s more
intimacy. The period instruments are about finesse and
control. Because you don’t have to practice for endurance,
your mind is free to be more intellectual.
"The period instrument teaches you something about the
music that you couldn’t know if you first confronted the
music on a modern piano. It has changed my aesthetic.
Transparency was part of the music at the time of
Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin. For years people
thought of Schumann as writing lush music. But I recorded
his Kreisleriana for the Musical Heritage Society on a
period instrument, and people were amazed. All the inner
voices were in relief."
Battersby says the Schumann aesthetic has changed not just
because of the instrument. "Many pianists today pride
themselves on playing with transparency. Murray Perahia,
Andras Schiff, and Maurizio Pollini all have priorities of
texture. They’re not so interested in thick, oil colors
all the time." Battersby seems to be documenting an
international movement. Perahia is American, Schiff is
Hungarian, and Pollini is Italian.
Battersby was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a dentist
father and a mother who devoted herself to raising the
pianist, his four brothers, and their sister. At seven, he
attended a piano recital that included music by Schubert
and Rachmaninoff, "I was mesmerized," he says. "I was so
taken, I decided that I wanted to play." With piano
lessons undertaken at age nine, he considers himself to be
a "late starter" at the piano.
He studied in Ann Arbor until finishing high school at age
17, and then moved to New York City to earn both bachelors
and master’ degrees at the Juilliard School.
To gain the maximum benefit from a fortepiano, listeners
need to adjust their expectations, according to Battersby.
"The modern instrument has incredible stamina. It can play
in big halls because its decibel level is greater than the
fortepiano, and it stays in tune better because of the
iron frame. There’s no point in coming to a concert with a
period instrument expecting loudness. You have to accept
the period instrument on its own terms. Then you can very
quickly start to experience something very different."
Battersby has another caution for the audience. "Those of
us who are into period instruments are just approximating
something. We can’t know how the instruments have changed
over time. Modern replicas may not be exact replicas. A
violin or a bottle of wine takes a while to come into its
own. Besides that, our ears today are different from the
ears of people who were alive in 1830. We listen
differently than a person who has not heard a jet plane or
the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or a rock band. Plus, the
rooms in which concerts were played are different.
"The modern piano puts music through a blender. As time
went on, the sound of the modern piano became the ideal
sound. With the Graf, you still have your crunch. It’s
like vegetables that are not overcooked. When these pieces
were written, separate detail was important. You can hear
the detail on the period instruments. And you can see it
in the clothing and architecture of the time."
Battersby has already anticipated that "people with some
background will ask why I’m playing Chopin on an
instrument that predated his compositions." Chopin, who
lived from 1810 to 1849, was only 15 when the original
version of Battersby’s fortepiano was built. "Chopin
developed his style in Vienna on a Graf instrument,"
Battersby says. "When he went to Paris in 1831, he
detested the popular Erard pianos, and preferred Pleyel
instruments because they reminded him of his Viennese Graf
instrument." He considered the Erard instruments "too
Physically weak, Chopin did not have the strength to play
loudly on any instrument, even had it been capable of a
big sound. Eyewitnesses report that, in order to marshal
his physical resources, he used minimal movement. From
Vienna in 1829 Chopin wrote, "It is being said everywhere
that I played too softly, or, rather, too delicately for
people used to the piano pounding of the artists here." In
France, his nuanced performances, often for audiences of
no more than 150, drew admiration for their
expressiveness. Both as composer and performer Chopin grew
a reputation as a master of the keyboard.
In programming Chopin selections for his October 12
performance, either on the fortepiano in the earlier part
of his Princeton program or on the modern Steinway in the
later part, Battersby is guided by the sound of the
instrument he uses. "To a certain extent I’m using the
period instrument for pieces that are illuminated by it,"
he says. "In the first half a lot is revealed that you
won’t hear on a modern instrument. In the second half of
the program I’m playing pieces that work on a modern
piano; I would never say that they work better on a modern
Another major consideration in Battersby’s programming is
whether a particular piece can be pegged as pianistic, or
whether it has a less specific musical existence.
Battersby uses the term "instrumental" for the more
pianistic works and "universal" or "abstract" for the less
pianistic works. The pianistic first half of his program
consists of the F minor Ballade – "It’s from Chopin’s last
period, but it sounds unbelievably beautiful on the
fortepiano; Chopin said that he always had the Viennese
piano in his mind" – an early Nocturne, Impromptus, and
Waltzes, which, Battersby says, "totally come to life."
The less pianistic second half of the program consists of
the E-flat Nocturne, Op. 55 ("It works on a modern piano,
but it works better if the performer has some sense of the
period instrument," says Battersby), Mazurkas ("In
choosing the program, I felt that the Waltzes are more
instrumental, and the Mazurkas are more universal; they’re
such pure music. Most listeners think of Chopin as totally
pianistic but the Mazurkas don’t lose out if they’re
considered abstract") and "the big" – Battersby’s word –
In the end, Battersby concludes that fine music transcends
the medium that delivers it. "If you’re playing great
music," he says, "the music is greater than the
instrument." The fortepiano, in his opinion, is simply a
device for communicating the music to an audience.
"Playing fortepiano is a peripheral thing for me, not a
full time affair."
Battersby’s career has been both as a performer and as an
academic. As a faculty member at New Jersey’s Montclair
State University he started an early piano festival in
1986. In 1992 Montclair commissioned the fortepiano that
he will play in Princeton. The maker is Rodney Regier of
Freeport, Maine. Battersby took both the festival and the
piano with him when he moved to Indiana University in
Among Battersby’s New Jersey gigs are playing George
Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" and his "Concerto in F" with
the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He also performed at
the now-defunct Rutgers SummerFest.
His discography includes a 1986 recording of music by
Chopin and Schumann for Musical Heritage Society on a Graf
piano replica, and a 2005 two-disc recording of
Beethoven’s "Diabelli Variations" on both period and
modern instruments for Naxos.
Battersby lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and has an
apartment in New York City, as well as what he calls "a
little house on the coast of Maine" located several hours
from the shop of Regier, who built the Graf replica.
Regier’s fortepiano replica is now kept at the University
Battersby’s two grown children have strong musical
interests that follow a direction different from their
father’s. Son Julian plays drums in rock band but that’s
not his day job. "He’s into reggae," his father says.
Daughter Justine sometimes manages rock concerts, likewise
not a day job.
In his forays into the world of the fortepiano Battersby
himself enjoys being liberated from enslavement to the
grand piano. "I’m starting not to be the only one," he
says. "Emanuel Ax has played fortepiano at Tanglewood.
Peter Serkin has used it. Some pianists are feeling the
benefits of knowing the instrument that the music was
written for. In Europe there’s less separation between
players of period instruments and players of modern
For Battersby, Vienna-born pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who
began to perform on period instruments in the 1950s, is a
model. "I wouldn’t say Badura-Skoda is a fortepianist,"
Battersby comments. "He’s a pianist. That’s how I want to
Edmund Battersby, Thursday, October 12, 8 p.m., Princeton
University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Piano recital
of works by Chopin. $20 to $40. 609-258-5000.