· By Nicholas Stevens

Revolutionary Etudes: Montgeroult, Brillon & The Rise of Modern Pianism

The latest album of composer Hélène de Montgeroult's music hit the streets on October 7, 2022 - or, as she and fellow pianist-composer Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy might have called it, 15 Vendémiaire, year 231 of the Republic. These brilliant musicians lived through the French Revolution, a time of change not just in the nation's calendar, but also in its music.
In 2021, pianist Nicolas Horvath released recordings of sonatas by both composers on the Grand Piano label, and in 2022, Clare Hammond issued Volume 1 of her own Montgeroult series on BIS. These compositions reflect the evolution of the piano in their composers' lifetimes. We are highlighting these acclaimed albums in celebration of this revival and in partnership with these top independent classical labels.

Heavy Pedal Music

Brillon and Montgeroult, like everyone living in Paris in the 1790s, came into direct and life-changing contact with the Revolution. Born in 1744 (between Haydn and Mozart), Brillon became the leading Salonnière, or private arts organizer, in Paris. Her work went well beyond event planning and networking. She collected keyboard instruments and wrote original music, all for herself and guests to play.

One collaborator, the cellist-composer Luigi Boccherini, dedicated some of his own compositions to Brillon. Her good friend Benjamin Franklin, known primarily as one of the United States' founding revolutionaries, writers, and diplomats, is known to musicians as the inventor of the glass harmonica. However, he gained familiarity with some of Europe's most advanced instruments at Brillon's salons. Among the innovations of the time: new foot pedals for the piano, including but far exceeding those on modern instruments. Reports from the time indicate that Brillon made liberal use of new sustain capabilities in her own performances. In Horvath's recording of her 12th sonata, we can still hear how pedals allow the pianist to connect notes and differentiate distinct parts at will.

Learn more about Brillon de Jouy, and hear more of Horvath's recordings, on the podcast Naxos Classical Spotlight with Raymond Bisha!

Surviving and Thriving

Montgeroult, an aristocrat born in 1764 (between Mozart and Beethoven), faced mortal peril when the Revolution arrived. However, she earned clemency in part because of her renown as one of the realm's greatest pianists. Her legacy hinges on change brought about by revolutionary idealism. In 1795, she joined the first cohort of faculty at the Paris Conservatory, reorganized to serve a nation rather than a social class. The only woman among this illustrious group, she earned the same salary as male peers and taught male students, exceptions to prove an unfortunate rule. (The institution's next great female composer-pianist professor, Louise Farrenc, had to petition for pay parity decades later; the intervening generations had abandoned the enlightened ways of Montgeroult's era.)

Montgeroult's greatest accomplishments came after her tenure as the Republic's first piano professor. A new society meant a new musical economy based more on commerce than patronage. Her piano method, which included over 900 etudes, including those recorded by Hammond, became one of the best-selling instructional books of the era. Her sonatas, many of which had never been recorded before 2020, made waves across Europe. She remained skeptical of some technical innovations on the piano, for instance urging sparing use of pedals, but embraced others.

A contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert who outlived both, Montgeroult, like many peers, wrote harmonies that would have sounded painfully discordant on earlier keyboards. Her sonata in F-sharp minor embraces a key made more pleasant to hear by tuning methods that ensured consistency across all notes and chords.

Even bolder for the time: her Etude in C-sharp Major, involving more black keys on the piano than white.

Today, we can celebrate the technical innovations that Brillon de Jouy and Montgeroult helped bring into the pianistic mainstream. Ultimately, however, we remember these incredible musicians and creative figures for the beauty and power of their music, now more accessible to modern listeners than ever!

Find Nicolas Horvath and Clare Hammond's albums of Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy and Hélène de Montgeroult's piano music on ArkivMusic, the source for classical music and jazz.


Shop Montgeroult: Complete Piano Sonatas by Nicolas Horvath

Shop Montegeroult: Etudes by Clare Hammond

Shop Brillon de Jouy: The Sonatas Rediscovered by Nicolas Horvath

Shop Three Centuries of Female Composers on Grand Piano Records