17 January 2013

Comeback Kid Clayderman


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.


  1. The greatest musical mediocrity of ALL time, without a doubt.

  2. Dear Dr Marc,
    Your comment on "the greatest pianist in the world" caught my attention.

    Maybe this is a nice example of how urban legends spread as "memes".
    Wiki, your source, said he is "noted by the Guinness Book of World Records as being 'the most successful pianist in the world' " (or at least it did when I look today, but maybe it was recently edited). Success may not be quite the same thing as greatness, but it also a dubious claim. The ref quoted by Wiki is the Taipei Times in 2006 (yup, your concern of Wiki's provenance does seem justified). This expression appears as far back as 1987 as a comment in Stereo Review, that "if the sales figures claimed by Columbia are true, he is probably the most successful pianist in the world today", (that was 25 years ago), but no mention of Guinness.

    A quick look at Guinness World Records (they seem to have dropped the "book" bit these days) has no entry for Clayderman, nor for successful pianists, nor for great pianists. Mind you, their web site and search engine are so clunky that I found it hard to locate anything useful at all. Perhaps in 2006 they had more to say.

    Clayderman's own website makes no mention of a world record, though it repeats an intriguing claim (by a German journalist) that "he has arguably done more to popularise the piano around the world than anyone since Beethoven".

    So rather inconclusive.

    Why this line of enquiry ? Ok, I admit it, I am just browsing because I cannot get to sleep. But the worst bit is that the wretched theme of "Ballade pour Adeline" keeps running through my head.

    A final thought.... Clayderman seems to attract the same sort of distain, criticism and even venom as Katherine Jenkins, Kenny G, and (at one time) Vanessa Mae. Sure, they are at the easy listening end of the spectrum, and have found fame and money in a way that others with far better technique and musicality have not. (But so have Bankers...) However, do they not give many people a lot of enjoyment and happiness, and bring them a few steps closer to enjoying "real" classical music. I would not buy much of their music myself, but I am happy that others do.

    To me, they seem to be a doorway, rather than a barrier. If there are young students who are eager to learn Clayderman's music, the question is, what is this eagerness displacing ? If it draws them away from equally vapid arrangements of Disney themes, film or musical scores or popular songs, then what's the problem ? If it takes them away from playing computer games, then wonderful ! I would suggest that there are very few who ask to learn Clayderman, but without his pernicious presence would have been drawn to (arrangements of) Bach, Scarlatti or Mozart.

    Yours Dr Peter

    1. I stand corrected on the "most successful" quote. I was so anxious to escape the appalling content of Wikipedia that I did not even dwell on it long enough to check my quotes!

      There are very good reasons why Kenny G, Richard Clayderman and others inspire wrath from musicians which we cannot put into the public domain; suffice it to say that what you see is not always what you get.

      There is, also, no evidence at all that these performers act as "door openers". In fact, the evidence points to the complete opposite and that those who fall under their spell investigate no further, regarding their music as the ultimate.

      My argument with Clayderman is primarily based on the fact that what he plays is vapidly inconsequential while simple versions of Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart invariably lead the player to explore further once the initial interest wears thin.

      And if that doesn't send you to sleep[, nothing will!

  3. Dear Dr Marc,

    I am interested in your observation that people, once under the spell of Clayderman-esque music, tend to investigate no further. My opinion is purely anecdotal, from my own experiences, and observations of family and friends. And I readily accept that this may not be representative of most normal people.

    Though I have often heard discussions of this topic, I have never read of any real research. Might you be able to address this on your blog some time ? Who has researched into it, how did they do it, what did they find, and what did they conclude from it ? I should be fascinated to read more.
    (Even just some references would be welcome).

    This would be good for more sleepless nights (I mean, creating rather than treating them).

    Yours, Dr Peter

  4. It seems that Mr. Clayderman has found a new venue -- the zoo. From what you've written about his music, however, I fear he will not arouse the amorous passion of the tortoises but will simply put them to sleep!