It is news likely to turn every piano teacher who was working back in the 1980s into a quivering wreck: Richard Clayderman has decided to make a comeback and, after 20 years of glorious Claydermanlessness, the world is about to suffer his innocuous pianistic ramblings once more. He will be releasing a CD on the Decca label on 4th February. You have been warned; there’s more glutinous mediocrity on the way.
Richard Clayderman – or more particularly his advisers - found a weak point in the sensitivities of susceptible souls and milked it for all it was worth. He did very nicely out of it financially and huge numbers of adoring fans (mostly female) were convinced he enriched their lives; proof of his immense popularity came with an apparent claim made in the Guinness Book of Records that he was “the greatest pianist in the world” (I got that fact from Wikipedia so I imagine it’s wrong). A generation of emerging pianists (mostly female) sat in open-mouthed admiration as he played, awe-struck by his ability to elevate the mediocre and to impress with the minimum of physical or mental effort. Hearing his shallow dribblings over the piano keys and seeing the adoration with which their elders greeted him – not to mention his clean-shaven looks and dewy-eyed romantic film-star image - young pianists wanted, in the nicest possible way, to ape him by playing the piano the same way that he did. With music-making of almost imbecilic banality and a studiedly vacuous image drawing on his Gallic good looks (a bit like a romantic lead in a soft-core porno movie, but with his black tie and white wing-collar shirt always firmly kept in place), he single-handedly redefined the piano. Under his hands it became the musical equivalent of a thick, feather duster, gently caressing the side of the head but never venturing further into the consciousness than a superficial tickling of the outer ear.
His music was harmless, his image refreshingly clean and his persona virtually impossible to dislike. But he exerted a pernicious influence over all those emerging pianists (mostly female) and it is for this reason that any comeback needs to viewed with a certain anxiety by piano teachers, especially those unprepared by his first coming.
Readers of this blog will probably not know the Richard Clayderman sound. For their benefit let me explain in a simple step-by-step manner; much as the Claydermeister might approach the artlessness of playing the piano his way;
1. Take a carefully voiced piano incapable of any sharp edges or sudden sounds, bereft of rattles or action noise and with a seriously restricted dynamic range.
2. Put your right foot (preferably wearing an immaculately polished patent leather shoe) on the sustaining pedal and keep it there throughout steps 3 and 4.
3. With one finger of the right hand gently caress the keys from middle C upwards, probably repeating them several times with gradually increasing rapidity (to rhyme with vapidity) for a maximum of three steps before going back down again.
4. With three fingers from the left hand play a root position triad of C and simply follow the right hand up and down again.
5. Record it in a gently reverberant acoustic, ensuring there is no hint of aggression or angularity about it all and that the sound wave stays as even and level as possible.
6. Finally, release it to the public with a glossy cover including a large, misty image of a gently smiling young man.
As a young piano teacher in the 1980s I thought of Clayderman as a bit of a joke; a failed Paris Conservatoire student who celebrated his inability with piano playing of mind-numbing innocuosity. But then the problems started. Pupils (mostly female) used to turn up and, rather than clutching their latest ABRSM “Graded Piano Pieces” books, came with glossy publications with alarming titles like “Richard Clayderman’s Greatest Hits”. They asked me to teach them how to play the succession of grisly C major inanities in the book. Unlike most books of popular music designed to capitalise on the success of a record, these simple musical arrangements did not so much sound wrong as sound horribly right. In fact, the music we had in these books aimed at the grade 2 or 3 student was, if anything, rather more technically challenging the Clayderman’s originals. I banned these books from the teaching studios, but what was the point of getting students to go through week after week of grinding scales, technical exercises and ghastly morsels from the likes of Clementi and Grieg, when they could witness huge success, both financial and personal, being harvested by a man of limited musical skill.
For a generation, the Clayderman syndrome has lain dormant and students have begun to learn again that playing the piano well requires mental and physical effort. It fills me with dread that Count Claydermanstein appears to have risen again from the grave.