It’s always a shock to hear a favorite composer take on a new identity. François Couperin (1668-1733) seemed limited to being folksy, melodic, subtle with his enigmatic titles.
A French master musician, Laurence Boulay (1925-2007) understands his ornaments the way people conceive single notes. It’s in her blood! She was often on Radio France and busy in Baroque chamber ensembles, teaching.
Erato had recorded 12 hours of her playing Couperin’s four books of harpsichord works and some pieces by his uncle Louis Couperin (1626-1661). Following her through the suites we hear a deft composer aware of proportion in his early works as embellishments increase a role that rivals melodic and rhythmic notes to take on a new dimension that adds a layer of accents, usually on structural tones, to further expose a complex depth residing the deceptive simple appearance of his pieces. No wonder he and Bach corresponded! By the Fifth Ordre we find chromatic explorations that amaze, given their being studded with ornaments. The first allemande heard here is La Logivère, perhaps named after someone in that family.
Before Couperin, Francisco Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654), a Spanish composer wrote polyphony with striking
solo passages, something that turned up amongst the English composers (Bull, Byrd, Farnaby, etc.), taken to jazzy extremes. Odile Bailleux often played
his organ works on old instruments. Radio France again featured her performances and she often participated in travelogues to remote towns and cities with antique instruments, describing and illustrating in detail their components. Listeners throughout France had the chance to hear each stop-over on the antique organ caravan with master musicians playing works that resonate from their vintage. Here is a pre-fugal Tiento, a proto-ricercare on an organ in Santanyi, Majorca:
How many elements from Arauxo, Grigny, and Couperin went into Bach’s bloodstream? Bach and Couperin both wrote keyboard Rondeaus. Laurence Boulay plays one from Couperin’s 8th ordre:
Bach had an example that impresses as though certain patterns were linked to the dance in the way Flamenco proliferates traditional themes from unknown originators. Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) understood Bach (1685-1750) in a way that few reached. We published a CD taken from concerts in Italy and elsewhere.
Here is the Rondeau from Bach’s Partita no.2 in C minor:
A musician continuing Bailleux’s art is Aude Heurtematte
who recorded the young Couperin’s two organ masses at the Parisian church of Ste. Gervais, where Couperin had been organist. In his Messe pour les Paroisses is the Fugue sur les jeux d’Anches:
I wonder if it influenced Ravel’s fugue in Tombeau de Couperin, played here by Madeleine de Valmalète (1899-1999). I was for one sole night in Marseilles to visit Mme. Francescatti in La Ciotat, wondering if de Valmalète would be alive at age 99. On my return I learned that she had gone swimming that day at Cassis’ beach, eternally kicking myself in regret for having missed her. Again a CD had to be published with her artistry, as she was the first to record the Ravel in Berlin at age 29 in 1928.
Unless they happen upon this post, listeners and musicians in the US were and are still deprived of such musicians and composers as their physical presence only manifests through the alleged savvy of promoters and the press. So listen and defy these mysterious cultural barricades.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) visited Russia a few times and helped their new music scene’s innovators get exposure abroad. One of their local instigators and gurus was Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824-1906) who aimed to further Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cui, and others. Pithy writings and access to rare books as a state librarian allowed him to obtain works that went into their pipeline, resulting in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Borodin’s central Asian exploits.
Left: Maxim Gorki, Vladimir Stasov, Ilya Repin and Natalia Nordman in Kuokkala 1904.
Stasov brought to light a letter of Liszt’s that offers a creator’s perspective on Beethoven. Before media brought music into people’s lives one had to attend a concert or try your luck at home with sheet music. Liszt could not resist transcribing Beethoven’s nine symphonies and making a second arrangement for two pianos to capture the chorus and more in the last work:
Liszt often played the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata (Op. 106) to astonished guests. Bear this in mind when reading what Stasov shared with his circle and how Liszt’s letter liberates his current entombment as a mere piano jockey:
For us musicians the work of Beethoven is like the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites through the desert. Had I to classify the different periods of this great musician’s thought, as expressed in his sonatas, symphonies and quartets, I would not stop at dividing them into three styles, a procedure adopted by almost everyone nowadays, but, bearing in mind the questions raised thus far, I would weigh candidly the great question around which all musical criticism and aesthetics revolves at this point to which Beethoven has led us: namely, to what extent does traditional or conventional form determine the thought process.
The answer to this question, implicit in Beethoven’s works themselves, would lead me to divide them not into three styles or periods (these terms are only vague and confusing) but into two categories: the first, that in which traditional and conventional form constricts and governs the composer’s thought; and the second, that in which the thought expands, breaks, recreates and forges the form and style to fit its needs and inspirations. To be sure, we thus come face to face with the eternal problems of authority and freedom. But why should they frighten us? In the realm of the liberal arts, they, fortunately, entail none of the dangers or disasters which occur as consequences of changes in the social and political world.
Another post to reveal Debussy up-close and from within as part of our CD tribute Arbiter 166 Debussy’s Traces:
EVERYONE loves to point out how Debussy quoted Wagner in his Golliwog’s Cakewalk. After Gabriel Fauré and his pupil André Messager survived Wagner they paid tribute by composing a four-hand set of quadrilles Souvenirs de Bayreuth around 1888
but did not risk publishing it. Debussy was acquainted with them and nearly all on the music scene so it’s no wonder he looked back and did his own jazzier take
Some observe Debussy’s not only having been influenced by Asian music, an exploration we will dwell on in a subsequent post, but claimed Russian composers inspired him. Setting aside books or essays, we dive in naked into the historic reservoir of sound to bring ashore a few catches. One case of a composer finding himself in a singer’s throat is when Bartók set down his Improvisations, based on similar folk melodies:
About twenty years earlier (1907) he had captured a singer through his Edison recording machine preserving her unique voice onto a cylinder, one among thousands that he collected. Note how his performance retains her phrasing and tone and how he built a language around it:
complete photo of Bartók in action: nearly all images have cropped the German shepherd and two shy village girls peering over the fence at some potential risk going on for the first time in their lives
For Debussy, it was the arrival of Rimsky-Korsakov in 1889 and later to introduce Russian music. Rimsky’s Sheherazade opens thus:
It must have meant something to Debussy for we can hear it shaking inside a Prelude in Pour le Piano:
With Mussorgsky there was a deeper impact. Rather than quote with a rhythmic stutter he now seizes an unusual harmonization found in Boris Godunov that appeared in his late Sonata for Cello and Piano:
Debussy’s Cello Sonata:
Are we giving away recipes, spoiling his secrets? So many ponder on how composers must hermetically seal themselves off to prevent any outside influences from interfering with alleged divine inspiration, actually a tormenting labor to make something that struck them into their own.
How far can this go on before we get in trouble? Last one, but if anyone out there catches more, kindly share it in the comments section.
Debussy’s Nocturnes for Orchestra: Nuages (opening)
Simpleton’s lament near the end of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
To supplement our recent publication of lost recordings played by masters of Debussy’s music we dive into the first in an ongoing series of posts to encounter him through the perspectives and sounds of others:
Our first offering contains words and writings by two violists who played Debussy’s String Quartet with the composer present whom Allan Evans, Arbiter’s curator, interviewed in the 1980s. The first was in Budapest with Antal Molnar, in his 93rd year, who passed away several months later. When I asked about Debussy he quickly changed the subject. Locating his writings that became accessible in the internet age explains why! Read below and listen to his words.
Egon Kenton had been music librarian at the Mannes College of Music and was known to the faculty, although some did not suspect that he had had contacts with Debussy and Bartók. His words evoke a Debussy unlike anything Molnar offered.
Debussy: String Quartet Op. 10: II: Assez vif et bien rythmé
Léner String Quartet, founded in 1918:
1st violin: Jenö Léner; 2nd violin: Joszef Smilovits
Viola: Sándor Roth; Cello: Imre Hartmann
Recorded in London on 15 III 1928, restored by Arbiter on 24 VI 2018.
This performance took place by significant musicians who were rather young in 1910 (Léner would have been sixteen) and could have been present at the Budapest Debussy evening but knew the members of the quartet. Their playing is the first surviving example of how a Hungarian quartet that knew and possibly heard the Waldbauer-Kerpely ensemble interpreted Debussy. One can only speculate without evidence if any advice from Debussy to the earlier group made its way into the Léner’s recording. Among their recordings are the complete Beethoven String Quartets.
Here are two violists from the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet recalling their contact and views of Debussy.
Egon Kenton (1891-1987)
Excerpts from an interview with Martine Cadieu for Radio France, c.1980.
. . . Hungarian quartet [Waldbauer-Kerpely String Quartet], the old one, the first Hungarian quartet, in September 1911, and it was after they had presented [premiered] Bartok‘s [first string]Quartet, and also after they presented the Debussy quartet, the only Debussy quartet. That … I believe that Vallas related in his biography of Debussy or . . . at least briefly mentioned that Debussy was in Russia, that he was at the residence [estate] of Madame Von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s friend, giving lessons – he had been recommended by Professor Marmontel from the Conservatoire to Mme. von Meck who had come to Paris in search for someone who could teach piano to her two little daughters … hem !, anyway, he was in Russia, and when he came back from Russia the second time he had stayed there, in 1911 and naturally he had very little money to spend, and he had an alleged friend – Theodore Szanto, a Hungarian pianist who lived in Paris, and Szanto had two brothers who had a concert bureau in Budapest, and that pianist asked his brothers to organize (to set up) a concert for Debussy on his way back to Moscow, giving him a fee so that he’d have enough money to continue his journey, and they had sent for Rose Féart,who was singing Debussy’s songs at that time, to bring her to Budapest, and so, the program consisted of some piano pieces played by Debussy, then songs sung by Mme. Rose Féart [accompanied by the composer], and the Quartet, played by the Hungarian Quartet – [loudly:] WITHOUT ME – and Debussy was delighted.
[Debussy wrote to his wife “I had a rehearsal with the young string quartet that will play on Monday. All four are splendid! The final movement that breaks the necks of so many quartets is just a pushover for them.” 3 XII 1910.]
He had thought [until then] that Hungary was a faraway country, inhabited by Scythians who used crossbows and bows, who rode horses and who cooked steaks under their saddles as he had read [the interviewer interrupts: “as the Huns!”], according to what he had read or heard, nomads, nomadic horsemen, so he told them [members of the Hungarian Quartet] “you absolutely must come to Paris to perform my quartet there” and in fact, a few months later, the Quartet – of which I was a member by then, received a letter from Monsieur Dandelot the well-knownmusic manager, offering us a concert at the Salle des Agriculteurs …
Egon Kenton, you played the Debussy quartet in Budapest [sic] and then you got to know Debussy. How did he play the piano ?
His hands were rather small, round and chubby, and … he didn’t lift his fingers uh, the fingers ran like small insects on the keyboard, one could hardly see them move, but with [great] velocity, but (nevertheless) he had strength as well, and when he had to play chords like in the Cathédrale Engloutie, he must have lifted the fingers but I may not have always been attentive to Debussy’s fingers when a heard him play. But it was a playing that was totally compatible to his music… to the Estampes, to the Images, … to that music (that was) primarily harmonic, mainly harmonic. In Debussy there is scarcely a melody, there is (sometimes) a hint of a melody that appears and vanishes. But there is harmony, mainly. [The reporter meows her approval.] Well, it is the same as in painting [the reporter: “as in the painting of his time” . . . Kenton repeats slowly]: in the painting of his time. And it so happens that the day before yesterday, I went to see the Pissaro exhibit at the Grand-Palais and it is exactly, it is exxxactly that, the samein the painting. I stopped for a long time in front of a seascape called The Harbor at Rouen, with the mist slightly tinted in gold by the sun which tried to break through the fog … [dreamy voice] Nuages, by Debussy… [The interviewer, also in a dreamy voice: “Absolutely. The drawing is like the melody line and is lost in the harmonics of the colors…” ]
Exactly. And there was a thing I recall, when I met in October M. Henri Sauguet, he asked me what his (Debussy’s) character was, how remembered him. And I said that he was a man who was mainly a heart, a great heart, and the best possible friend [copain: pal, buddy], who always brought his heart in his hand … Debussy has borrowed money from a few friends and bought the two first rows of seats at the Salle des Agriculteurs where the concert was to take place and dispatched the tickets between his friends, and therefore we [the quartet] played for two rows – there were maybe five or six extra people [elsewhere], but apart from them, there were the two first rows which were full of his friends. There were people I later met again, like Apollinaire, and Jean [Manan?] from the Mercure de France, … many, many others who were also there… But he must have given back that money subsequently one way or another, but . . . we learnt about it, and it was a beautiful gesture. He was always very kind to us… And actually, what is interesting is that what Mr Sauguet told me: “We tend tohave a different image of Debussy, that he used very hard words for his colleagues, that he was very sarcastic, that he was this and that,” I replied that I was sarcastic myself, but it didn’t necessarily mean that I spoke badly of people. It is interesting and valuableto remember these things of Debussy, for they are things he said privately that cannot be found in Monsieur Croche…
But in his correspondence one sees that he liked to use irony, it’s like a game for him, just for the fun of it,he can’t resist the pleasure of a quip . . . but that doesn’t take anything away from his heart …
No, no, it was his nature. For instance, he asked us“Are you going to listen to your compatriot?” – precisely that Hungarian pianist who had helped him – He was a pianist, a musician, of whom one could have easilysaid something nasty. He said “ Really, you never heard him? But he plays very fast and very loud. I myself can’t go tonight unfortunately. I have to go to the Cercle National to listen to my fossil colleague” . . . We looked at him with questioning eyes. He went on: “Camille Saint-Saens.”
I believe you went to his house. You even met Chouchou, his little daughter?
Yes, she was nice! She was six or so… we had brought her a doll from Budapest, a doll dressed in a national Hungarian dress. She sat on the floor with that doll. So, we sat on the floor as well, the first violin [Waldbauer] and I, and also Debussy, and we chatted with [her] . . . OH! there is something that I remember just now at this very moment. We were having lunch and she was at the table, she was at the table. I asked her: “Does music interest you ? You certainly hear music in this house…” Sheanswered: “Yes, I hear Daddy play, and I also take piano lessons.” Debussy: [amusingly scolding her] “You have some nerve! It’s onlythe second time I sat down with you at the piano [he goes on addressing himself to the witnesses]… trying to show her how to touch . . .”
And how was Emma, Debussy’s wife ?
Oh, she was nice. Very elegant, a woman of the world.
Our gratitude to Henri Barda for transcribing and translating Kenton’s interview.
– – – – – – –
Antal Molnar (1890-1993)
I have to divide Debussy’s faults into two groups if I want to be fair with him. The first group will contain the features I personally don’t like; the second will contain the undeniable faults. […]
When the novelty of his music had faded in Europe ten years ago, only a few among his fans thought that this kind of music is partly new and partly a fashion item that will not overcome the elusive effect of the passage of time. It is not entirely new because the basics of his technique (pedal point form, motivic editing) came from Richard Wagner, and the sprouts of his moods were delivered by Mussorgsky, which was a French flair and a technical development in a certain direction. He could not have it appear in a new form and still be serious and lasting interest beyond its labelling.
For me, certainly faults are due to a unilateral judgment. Debussy is merely symbolic and literally literary, a literary musician whose moods always tied to a literary concept. I almost complain about his music that he has to write instead of poems that he can never give substance to, the soul itself, as it is always embedded in something subtle, in sublime idiosyncrasies, and then, based on their gentle reflection, must symbolize their basic poetic programmatic mood. In this way, all of his music is flying all the way to the sky and I feel very messed up in the way in which a colored balloon, when stuck on a long straw that, when it comes out of it, breaks out, not having enough power to swim in the aether. To be able to enjoy such music, you have to be able to absorb a realistic, literary title into a basic sound and then indulge it with some light-hearted devotion and endless fidelity to music that is the symbol of that mod’s vibration. It must be acknowledged that on such grounds there is a huge charm in Debussy’s music for those who find a sense of life in these symbolic moods. To cut my particular criticism short, I just hate it when sturdy, vigorous, acerbic Frenchmen play at being irritable, oversensitive creatures with a world view that wraps a mystically flickering universe in a pink veil. Incompetence often resorts to pompous sophistication to make up for a lack of wholesome ideas. Incompetence often resorts to pompous sophistication to make up for a lack of wholesome ideas. One of the tools of talentlessness is that you have a lack of healthy thoughts and is substituted by neck pain.
But let us go through the absolute mistakes that there can be no object of disagreement. Debussy is finicky. His style is rich but identical, always quite the same. His soul has only one cliché and everywhere it is imprinted. His personality is manifested with thousands of masterpieces, with a lot of intensity, but the way he does it is always the same in every work. Always the same beautiful harmonies, always the same pedal points, always the same kind of form, the same, to the same degree of precision. Just as the Rococo figures could move as an old abbot pushes them into their tubular box, Debussy laid out a delicate and discreet precision in the succession. If his par excellence sought out French atavism in the faulty mistakes of Rameau and Couperin’s age, he found it. These old French masters share their true Frenchness (their affection for their spirits and their sparkling sounds), but their great sense of form and thematic representation is not common. Debussy does not build it but hears the form. Two major conditions for construction are missing: 1. A plastic theme, 2. Tone-building. His themes are mostly motif-like fragments or romantic themes (not suitable for thematic work, “equivocal” thoughts), very often in a completely dilettant-like, vernacular setting. His thoughts are immature, stagnant. Debussy’s theories do not go ahead, they stay on a “niveau” and from beginning to end they express the same intensity in different words. The marked effect is greatly enhanced by the complete lack of modulation. Debussy’s harmony is new, delicate, beautiful and effective, so masterful, but his wandering rocks in a beautifully colored lake, does not move, stays in a place yet at times it suddenly strikes a random wave. Debussy cannot modulate, his harmony is completely incomplete and he’s lost here. The basis of his art is the painting of harmony and his formal coherence is also incomplete. His works are sewn with long, tone-patches that do not pass through sounds, but are squashed modulations. There’s a [whole]tone-scale scale that resembles a nod to the nose, and its harmonies are not as central to Debussy as they are to miserable imitators, but they are still present enough to have the effect of making one feel sick . He acts as a shaper, a blurrer, a certain and very characteristic accompaniment of decadent, inexplicable, lustrous and imaginative literature and sometimes even of his strength. But while painting different things so badly and equally, Debussy uses it so that much of it becomes obscure.
Lack of formal construction also explains his orchestration, his instrumentation and combinations remain high on the skill of his craftsmanship so that he is always in the foreground, and can be said to be almost artisan. But even here, as in its beautiful harmony colors, there is much to it, so many beautiful things can be learned from it. Taking one out from the whole, or bathing individually in the warm, characteristic, delicate colors of each group, it offers great pleasure to every musically inclined ear but there is only the sequence of patches, without organic growth. Debussy could answer, and rightly so, that he is interested only in the basic mood of his basic mood, and has come to the right, but then –and at the same time I touch the roots of all the troubles–then the basic level is not for development, it does not represent an ideal crescent but merely a picture, something stagnant, an outline, a high-level something that sticks. The sequential colors do not flow from one another, but they are actually aligned with each other. The setting is completely related to painting, the proportion, the contrast, the mutual emphasis on colors, but on a surface that does not move. But it is just a mistake for this moving music in timelessness as it would be wrong for a painting that would be prepared on several surfaces by enhancement.
Debussy has to be a favorite of the great crowds in France, because his esprit is really French and his performance is light and even superficial. But how would this be a climax of French music, that is to say, that we should have a ghost giant here? Anatole France, Manet, Rodin, etc., etc., are far from standing. The great figures of French music, Goudimel, Lully , Grétry, Boieldieu, Bizet, Franck, and the intervening others strongly object to that claim, not to mention how much more Ravel was born from the shadow of Debussy, but on thicker roots and how much better modern French music was written by D’Indy and Dukas. And in the context of Moussorsky, I said that Debussy’s remarkable appearance appears to be only in the setting of a certain, no longer new direction, and he knows this well everyone who can observe how much diluted Bizet, Delibes, Chabrier and Franck who swim in it.
It is said that in the best of his works, the words “Iberia” are accurately reflected. The delectable salon man here gives you three overwhelming pictures: 1. street life, 2. night scents, 3. holiday mornings. In each of these parts there is too much refinement that is hardly enough to touch something to get nervous about it. As the titles indicate, they are all exterior and painting. For people with deep feeling they are all superficial, chattering, and affecting. The shape is composed of the intensity of the parts of the same intensity and of their plateaus. At his long pedalpoints: “now I have enough of it, now comes another”, – this is a ‘shock’ and we are into the next stagnation. And another very important circumstance, all of this over-the-top, unmistakable thought in terms of its musical essence is very common, very banal. In his themes and motifs, a French philosopher like Debussy is saturated with solitary reminiscences that have a very healthy tendency, but his literary aspects are bound to some direction. The subject is talking, laughing, whistling, telling, betraying the minds, trends, and tendencies of the thinking brain. Debussy’s theme–I repeat–in Iberia and everywhere where he has not “edited” but reminded me of an ordinary, salon music from within. Iberia also brings banalities, which, of course, does not exclude the secessionist, bizarre, fashionable setting of the futile lines of banal representations, as can be seen with modern panneau. As in the beginning Debussy (see Danse) was entirely openly “light”. And Debussy is only writing light music at all, unusual, but still easy music, because what else would be a music in which there is no thematic work whose subjects and colors are moving on the surface, which is endlessly captivating, almost intrusive orchestration and hardly necessary pay attention because the parts are loose. Because this is the Eldorado of the great public!
And here I can close the discussion on whether Debussy’s music really was a better kind of salon music. But it is not. Because how do we just listen to his music and then judge if many do not do it? But I really do. And yet are not all the words I told you about true? Here it is. We have a particular problem with the question of Debussy’s essence and magnitude. He was tricked by the big ones when we looked at them from the perspective of their eyes. We do not feel the shyness for salon musicians. To enjoy it, we can appreciate it. What is the point here, what is the source here?
My friend Géza Zagon once asked me if Debussy wanted to write music that was developing. Was she not mindful of what I said to her as a disgraceful one? Indeed this is the root of the issue. We imagine that in a similar situation a painter with a small amount of strength and mood for his drawing-composition is fragmentary but he possesses a great ability for color, making for himself a clean decorative work. Debussy writes good music, has never heard yet pursues a new direction, decorative music is his and he is a decorateur. But just that, and it’s such a great thing. It’s great because it’s perfect from having all the prerequisites of enthusiastic “applied arts” and it lacks all that can be done with real art. His themes describe fragments and sharp, striking lines, so that they are partially traced, and partly understood, and (as in the formal elements of decorations) are well-known. His coloring is masterful and his color harmonies are magnificent. The relationship between the parts is loose and does not detract from any brain work, development, clinging to the essence of the effect, which lies entirely in the exterior, in the harmony of exteriorism. Subject matter, simple and banal, yet for gentle gentlemen, because the way of processing is made for a masterpiece, well-thought-out, fine-handed, modern and literary, it is suitable for pleasant, discreet discussions. So it’s a great salon product. Musical changes are the same and do not take up too much attention. Wherever you start to listen, you will hear beautiful colors everywhere and you will not lose out. Its revolutions are not just manuscripts (angular manners are a good thing, otherwise they might feel honest about what the decorative element is detrimental to), not only stiffness and feelings are stylized to be a skillful template, but the rotations are common as well as decorations so he can not do anything other than be just plainly understandable. Otherwise, it would draw attention again from the essence of color harmony. Iberia also brings banalities, which, of course, does not exclude the secessionist, bizarre, fashionable setting of the futile lines of banal representations, as can be seen with modern panneau. (Such a banal place, for example, is the very characteristic flute motif in Part II, p. 75.)
Debussy’s art is the first perfect and self-sufficient decorative art in music. The genre of opera is too heavy for him, his shoulders are not broad enough for it; Pelleas is good only as applied art, in its small details, otherwise it is not even boring but is nothing at all. As for the questions ‘How does this music resemble the applied arts? How can it be utilized?’ my answer is the following: it can be used in the same way and for the same purpose as the emission of sweet perfumes or the chiming of colorful word-harmonies into rhymes. It has nothing to do with intelligence; it is about the senses. Debussy is not a great artist but a great applied artist.
[A few months later, Molnar writes in Nyugati, 16 I 1916, while Debussy was alive:]
I became aware of the facts that the ‘debussyists’, i.e. those who think of their prophet not without bias but in a fever of excitement caused by a half-extinct flame of fashion, are not happy with my essay.
[In his 1974 memoirs, Molnar reflects:]
I was attracted by the unfamiliar, by the incubus of debussyitis and its colorful pimples, the pustules on the epidermis of the epoch. […] In my mind my strict instincts were not compatible with this hypersensitive hypermodernity, […] so I published in the Nyugat a terrible libel against Debussy. […] Naturally Kodaly had a good grip on the situation. “It’s as if you were passing yourself off as his former lover.” That was his comment on the article.
Fazekas, Gergely. ‘Unhealthy’ and ‘Ugly’ Music or a ‘Compass Pointing towards a Purer Art of Superior Quality’? The Early Reception of Debussy in Hungary (1900-1918). Studia Musicologica, Vol. 49, No. 3/4 (Sep., 2008), pp. 321-339
Molnar, Antal. Debussy. Nyugat, 1915, vol. 20.
For more information and a 1983 audio interview with Antal Molnar, see
His thin blond hair cut round in bangs, Soulima Stravinsky stands at medium height, with the identical mustache, hands, and deep bass voice as his father Igor. When he sat, his tense clasped hands at once resemble that famous ink portrait done by Picasso!
A tape of David Simmons’s Five PianoBagatelles was played. Soulima commented on their clarity of expression, variety of touch, and effective idiomatic use of the keyboard in the work. He asked David [a student of Charles Jones at the Mannes College of Music] several questions, pertaining to the extent of the work’s “composing itself.”
A round of discussion began. I referred to an early work of Igor Stravinsky’s, the cantata Zvezdoliki, or King of the Stars. Based on a mystic poem with a vague harvest theme by Balmont, it is an enigmatic work for several reasons. The harmonic idiom use is unique to Stravinsky, an elaboration of earlier ideas, and a vein left unexplored after its completion. Set for male choir and orchestra, this colorful work falls between Petrushka and Le Sacre. Quite a company to be surrounded with! Soulima commented that he had only heard the work once, and this was awhile back. It fell into the category of Stravinsky’s Japanese songs.
Stravinsky: Zvezdoliki conducted by Hans Rosbaud with the South West German Radio Orch. 1957.
Béla Bartók with Hans Rosbaud.
At this time, his father had attended the premiere of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Perhaps, Soulima postulated, this may have had more bearings on the directions of the Cantata. I remarked that the Zvezdoliki had traces of Scriabin in parts. “No!” For Soulima and father, “Scriabin’s works are poison!”
He alluded to Diaghilev, and his prophetic quality in recognizing potential in the young Stravinsky, who approached him with his Scherzo fantastique, an idiosyncratic Russian-styled orchestral work. Diaghilev instinctively felt there were greater ideas to be developed than what he was presented with, and thus Stravinsky was commissioned, resulting in The Firebird. Soulima commented on the nature of opinions, and demonstrated how change may occur. Igor Stravinsky had a loathing of Beethoven’s work in his youth. After studying this music that he despised, and gaining experience, he came to love Beethoven, and considered the Grosse Fuga to be one of the finest compositions ever written.
Soulima then was invited to discuss the new work he had composed. For the piano he had just completed Three Fairytales:Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Sleeping Beauty. Explaining that he had temporarily ceased concertizing, and had not touched the keyboard in six weeks, he sat at the Steinway grand, and narrated the episodes of each tale as he played. As interesting as the music were the motions of his wide chubby hands, his wrists uniquely pivoting the heavy fingers. Visually, his hands appeared to have the same contact with the keys that jazz pianists convey. What seems to be an instinctive untrained touch, with positions accommodating such large fingers, convey the percussive approach to the keyboard expounded by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and others. Yet, watching the notions of his hands, the sensitivity and finesse are very elegant.
Wine was being served downstairs in Charles Jones’s East 58th Street antique townhouse so we took this opportunity to corner him and ask further questions. He expressed satisfaction with Stravinsky’s late serial works, emphasizing that the force of his father’s personality transcended the dodecaphonic idiom. He mentioned Threni, the Movements for Piano and Orchestra as fine works but added that the early ballets will stand as his finest achievements. I asked about a 78 RPM record made in France of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major from Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier here with two Etudes of his father’s on the opposite side. He was surprised to hear of this desk,
Bach Prelude & Fugue in F#, WTC Book I. Soulima Stravinsky, piano. Paris, 1939.
remarking that it was his first record, made before the Second World War [1 May 1939] for a shop in Paris, Boite à Musique. He was engaged to record a series of works for them. The first was issued but the others never started. He does not possess this disc, and was given a tape of it by the New York Public Library a few years ago. He confessed that, although he was young when the recording was made, he was surprised at how good the playing is.
The conversation turned to Poulenc. He and his father attended a piano recital given by Poulenc in which the Mouvements Perpétuels were played. They are extremely close to the Balalaika of Stravinsky’s piano four-hands music (later orchestrated). After hearing this, Igor turned to his son and commented: “This isn’t stealing, it’s kleptomania!” Soulima remarked how Poulenc, in another work, footnoted a passage citing its origins to Stravinsky’s Serenade in A. Soulima, who knows “every note in the Serenade,” found no likeness in this but looked on a far bars and noticed a direct quote from Rachmaninoff, and later, one from a Hindemith piece (the name eludes him.)
Stravinsky Serenade in A. Soulima Stravinsky, piano. rec. c.1950
I asked him if and when he will resume concertising. Pointing to the space between his left thumb and index finger, he mentioned that an occasional arthritic pain occurred. When his left hand would play arpeggios, especially the passages in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude (Op. 10, No. 12), his hand would respond well, but in execution of an ordinary scale, he has felt pain. “I can perform well enough for myself, but for a recital, this would be a little uncomfortable.” Which concerti were in his repertoire? The two of his father’s, eight of Mozart, one each of Beethoven and Brahms, altogether about twenty. He began concertising at age twenty. It did not concern him if he played inaccurately in spots, or had a poor instrument, but Soulima was anxious to give recitals. He had no instruction from his father. The first few piano teachers were of little use. Isidor Phillip, the great French pedagogue, helped him further his artistry. He learned much in technique and style from the great French musician. Of the pianists he’s heard, he admires Horowitz greatly. Having attended the recent orchestral appearance given by Horowitz (“rehearsals. I couldn’t afford $100 for a seat,”) he finds the power in Horowitz’s playing to be magnificent. “You may not care for his approach or for the piece (Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto), which I don’t particularly like, but the man has great power, and at his age!
Did he know Manuel de Falla? He had met him on several occasions and “studied the excellent Harpsichord Concerto. First I practiced on a harpsichord, then switched to piano – the score sanctions this –to do it justice.” Soulima likes Falla’s works.
Emphasizing a melody that recurs in his Jack and the Beanstalk, (someone pointed this out to him) he emphasized the importance of letting the music carry out its intentions, and not for the composer to worry about deliberate linking and forming.
Igor and Soulima Stravinsky play Mozart: Fugue in c, K.426.
When a grandiose culture encounters a “lesser” one in its midst, the potential for something remarkable arises. One instance is when a man of the Hungarian minority within the Austro-Hungarian Empire journeyed beyond societal borders into villages in Transylvania. Béla Bartók lugged an Edison cylinder recorder and blank wax rolls to capture sound. Among the Romanians of the zone were Germans, Hungarians, Jews, Gypsies, Huzuls, Greeks, Turks, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians and others living in harmony foe centuries until World War II split them and forced all to become chattel for insane dictatorships,
On a trek around 1910, Bartók strayed onto a flutist and a few fiddlers. We hear five cylinders among the thousands recoded after he gained the confidence of people who had no idea that such technology existed and relented to sing and play into a mysterious horn without losing their souls.
One single LP of a few cylinder came to the light when UNESCO funded Hungarian ethnomusicologists to preserve and publish their heritage, an action no longer a part of the UN’s agenda. Their editions of regional folk music extended into central Asia, covering Mongols and ethnic groups thriving along the Western route taken by the Magyars some one thousand years ago. Bartók’s research dried up when funding was no longer forthcoming and after a 1936 field trip to Turkey for which he prepared by studying their language, his expeditions ended with exile in New York.
When Bartók’s machine was at home with him, a few waxes were made of his son and relatives.
In 1915 he played the Romanian Folk Dances, composed after having heard the cylinders streaming above that document the first moment when he encountered these dances. The first contains its opening dance upon which a recording is superimposed, perhaps from an earlier trip to Biskra, Algeria. Although it seems like an accident, the pitches and their shapes oddly resemble his Romanian field recording: a serendipitous collage or perhaps an intention aside on stylistic propagation?
(an A440 pitch blown by Bartók at the end was his way of making sure the cylinders would be played back at the correct speed).
The remaining dances of a second cylinder are damaged by gaps in the wax, something now capable of being restored through a digital scanning of the original cylinder. It and many others will languish until the forces that possess such expensive technology awaken to what’s at stake and intervene to preserve all possible before time erodes them further.
Irén Marik (1905 Szölnök-1986 Independence California) had studied with Bartók for some six months, as she explained to me. After she played some of his works to the composer, he commented: “I see you understand it so we’ll work on other composers.”
Friends of Bartók’s that I had located in Budapest in 1984 implied that they had worked together for a good two years. Marik often made practice tapes at home on a 9-foot Steinway grand located in her one-bedroom house off the desert in California’s East Sierras. Her neighbor and companion, the writer Evelyn Eaton, once pulled me aside to hand over a large bag. “Irén throws them out but I always put them aside. Here you are, and make good use of them!” One was an unpublished performance of the Romanian Dances, undated but made c.1974 she was 71 years old. It may be of interest to compare the chain of how Bartók set the tunes like precious jewels and maintained the integrity of the music he captured, and how Marik grasps elements in his own playing.
The Romanian Folk Dances were further devoured when Bartók would perform them as a transcription for violin and piano, recording it with violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1929.
Classical music grows especially when cultures mix. Keeping it reined in creates atrophy and we can witness that when the languages of Bartók and others developed in this way, they end up keeping Western Classical music alive and healthy.
Back in late July of 1983, Janos Sebestyén the harpsichordist thumbed through his little black book and suggested I call an old scholar who had been a violist in the ancient Waldbauer-Kerpely String Quartet. Eager to ask him about Irén Marik and Etelka lurryreund he received me at home and spoke a greeting to Nicholas Milroy, Etelka’s son who had fled from Hungary around 1940:
After asking him about Ignaz Friedman, whom he heard and knew somewhat, my burning curiosity was if he could recall Debussy’s one visit and concert with Molnar’s quartet on 1 December 1910 in Budapest. They played Debussy’s String Quartet and Rose Féart, who had taken the role of Melisande the previous year in London, sang the Fêtes galantes and Pensées lyrics with the composer at the piano. Debussy played his Children’s Corner Suite and pieces from his Images and Estampes: Pagodes, Hommages à Rameau, and Jardins sous la pluie.
My inadequate German aside, he eagerly recalled the event, mentioning how pleased Debussy was with their performance of his quartet and comments on how he played his solos :
and her older step-brother Robert, a close associate of Liszt and Brahms, there was more to cover:
Molnar told of numerous rehearsals for Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 which they premiered, saying that by the end they knew the work from memory. Putting Debussy and the classics aside he motioned me over to a bookshelf. Having no idea what awaited me, I turned off the cassette recorder and followed him to a shelf of red hardbound volumes. Eyeing a few, he reached out for one, flipped to a page and began singing a folk song he had collected before World War I, as he was then accompanying Bartók and Kodaly on their field work and was moved to share this treasure he encountered in a remote village in what is now Romania.
A few days ago while researching Debussy’s trip to Budapest, translations of Molnar’s published comments were contained in a tasty article by Gergely Fazekas entitled “Unhealthy” and “Ugly” Music or a ‘Compass Pointing towards a Purer Art of Superior Quality’? published in 2008. To put it mildly, Molnar was not thrilled with Debussy’s music, as his close relationships to Kodaly and Bartók had a greater impact on his understanding of new musical directions.
On Debussy coaching the quartet, Molnar writes:
He agreed with everything, remarked only two things in the Andante. At the end of the climax (in the middle section) he found the little crescendo of the phrases not expressive enough. He sang the melody and made all the phrase endings pass into forte, then at the beginning of the next wave sank back into being piano. At another place he said: ‘I would like you to play it more purple.’
Five years later and greater familiarity with Debussy’s music, another Molnar article appeared:
I have to divide Debussy’s faults into two groups if I want to be fair with him. The first group will contain the features I personally didn’t like; the second will contain the undeniable faults.
. . . to cut my particular criticism short, I just hate it when sturdy, vigorous Frenchmen play at being irritable, oversensitive creatures with a world view that wraps a mystically flickering universe in a pink veil. Incompetence often resorts to pompous sophistication to make up for a lack of wholesome ideas.
When a flurry arose, Molnar retracted: “I became aware that the ‘debussysts’, i.e. those who think of their prophet not without bias but in a fever of excitement caused by a half extinct theme of fashion, were not happy with my essay.”
Soon after he was approached by Kodaly: “It’s as if you were passing yourself off as his former lover.”
No wonder Molnar was eager to move over to the folk song anthologies! Four months after this visit, Molnar was gone.
While the Waldbauer-Kerpely were never recorded, the first evidence of how a Hungarian string quartet approached Debussy’s masterpiece comes through the Lener Quartet, captured in London on 15 March 1928.
Their first violinist Jeno Lener was born in 1894 and may have attended the Debussy event but certainly the older group’s members were teaching and available to advise the Leners.
In 1949 Mieczyslaw Horszowski spent time in Sao Paolo to give concerts and visit a recording studio. Some fifty years later, unknown lost test lacquers were salvaged and brought over to New York by the Brazilian pianists Ciro Dias and Joao-Antonio Parizoto-Filho who handled them like the treasures they are. While many of the discs were playable, a missing set of the Chopin Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58 wasn’t retrieved until a few years later.
Horszowski played the work throughout his life and recordings survive from performances given in his nineties but to opportunity to hear him at the youthful age 57 would prove fascinating. Thanks to new audio software, three movements escaped the fate of the first movement, with the chipping of its sonic surface leaving gaps that rendered it unplayable:
Too late and too bad, but at least we can hear the other movements. It’s important to rescue these artifacts and save them before the elements and space-saving actions of negligence destroy culture.
Before arrivals came from all corners of the earth, our Native Americans had ongoing traditions that others were – and still are – unaware of. One of the first to explore their culture was Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875-1921),
a pioneering musicologist who went West in her twenty-eighth year to record and document the singing and ceremonies of our primary residents. Her astonishing work is preserved on a website.
While Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
was based in New York, he often met with Curtis. According to her website,
The Indian themes Curtis published caught the attention of other musicians and composers interested in folk music, including Percy Grainger, Kurt Schindler, and Ferruccio Busoni. Grainger and Curtis became good friends, and Grainger continued to use Curtis’s arrangements in his concerts and lectures throughout his career. In Europe as a teenager, Curtis had studied briefly with Busoni, and he had continued to follow her work. In 1911, Busoni asked Curtis to send him a selection of Indian melodies that might serve as suitable themes for an experimental composition. He used the melodies she sent as themes for his Indian Fantasy [and Indian Diary for solo piano].
A Cheyenne war song from her book on American Indian music was used by Busoni as his Indian Diary’s second piece, performed by his pupil Edward Weiss (1892-1984) in 1952:
Busoni channeled the outlines of the rhythms and war cries into a modernist setting, an example that paralleled the way Bartók was then expanding his musical language. Note at 0:57 – 1:02 how Busoni quotes a phrase from his own Piano Concerto, a surrogate self-insertion into the narrative.
Another European who temporarily resided in the United States was the composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904).
His patron Brahms had offered to will him his life savings if he and his family would relocate to Vienna from Prague but the Czech composer turned down Brahms’s offer for lifetime support, preferring his homeland and not to exist in the Austro-Hungarian capitol as a second-class citizen. Such a sensitivity occurred on a daily basis as his people were under German-speaking rulers and when he discovered music of the African-Americans, it transformed his music. Informing Brahms of his composing a symphony using themes from their Spirituals, Brahms implored him to send the music his way to be proofread by himself and offered to a better publisher. Dvořák’s presence in the United States as a teacher led to his advising budding African-American composers such as Will Marion Cook, the future mentor of Duke Ellington. Right after hearing this new music, he spoke to a reporter: In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.
When the Kneisel String Quartet premiered Dvořák’s American Quartet at Carnegie Hall in 1894, it deeply influenced a young African-Canadian composition student Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)
who followed Dvořák’s developing his art through African-Americans’ sacred music. As a university-trained composer he used European practices such as modulations and structures to infuse his rhythmic syncopations. Jett’s Juba Dance was seized by the Australian Percy Grainger, who fortunately recorded it in 1922, heard here in a new restoration that extinguishes the notion that pre mic recordings (into horns) mask colors and details. It mirrors developments in the emerging Jazz genre and opened a path that led Dett to compose an oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, a bridge covering disparate realms.
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) learned to speak Norwegian and Danish while collecting folk music in Scandinavia and was an early exponent of mixing Nordic and Asian music into an otherwise restrictive Classical sphere. Their examples were noted by Henry Cowell (1897-1965),
a composer who grew up in a San Francisco replete with friends of Chinese, Irish, and Italian backgrounds, sharing their traditional music from such an early age that it became his as well. His astute observation on the pitfalls of co-opting traditions into a more palatable and commercial venture initiate a well-defined 1946 essay co-authored with his wife Sidney Robertson Cowell on the use of folk music.
How WILL vou TAKE your folk music: longhair, Broadway or straight? The first two are easy to find on records, and the last, the real mountain music, was fairly well represented during the days when the talking-machine companies wanted to build up their market in rural America. But such music is the rarest of colllectors’ items today. For a good many years the record companies have been playing it safe, assuming that city people are too frail to stand the shock of hearing the real thing in the old mountain style. So we have been carefully spoon-fed on diluted versions, mixed with as many elements of familiar popular or symphonic music as possible, so that folk music won’t prove too hard on our nerves. It is hard for those of us who are familiar with American music outside of the big cities to understand why such careful translation into urbanese has so long been considered necessary. The wonderful things in the old Bluebird and Brunswick catalogs, for example have all been allowed to go out of pririt. Yet the few that turned up in the drives to gather old records during the war were grabbed instantly by city collectors, and dealers’ lives were made miserable by demands for more of them. The result is that today you can get Roy Harris’ “Folksong Symphony” and Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” both of which use American tunes in serious symphonic composition, without any pretense that the result has anything to do with folk tradition, except rather indirectly and incidentally. You can also get a lot of pieces which use titles implying some connection with folk music, although that connection is usually so remote as to be more hopeful than real.
Cowell later noted that whenever sagging, tedium, or saturation started to impede innovation in Classical music, traditional music came to the rescue, as seen in Brahms’s attraction to Hungarian and Czech music, Debussy and Ravel’s being enamored with primal Russian elements and the Javanese gamelan, and how Bartók found himself by in situ contact with remote musics in Transylvania and North Africa, a search that led him to a far greater destiny than the lesser life of enduring the limits of a pianist’s career on his composing, as he placed second to Wilhelm Backhaus in the Anton Rubinstein competition held in Paris, 1905.
Meanwhile back in America, an insurance executive was quietly experimenting with dissonance before it gradually became tolerated on the music scene. Charles Ives (1874-1954)
had the good fortune to belong to a time when small towns had marching bands that blared out popular rhythms and melodies, and an unanticipated concurrence of two oncoming ensembles playing diverse pieces delighted his curiosity and fathered his explorations. Composers often convey the excitement of their creations when recordings exist of their own performances, such as Ives playing and singing his patriotic They Are There:
Another example is the performance of a forgotten work by the Russian-born American composer Leo Ornstein (1895-2002)
who took themes and rhythms from Tatars dwelling relatively undisturbed in pre-Soviet Russia. A piece derived from this contact was lost. In the words of his son Severo:
This piece was written sometime during the 1920s or 1930s but was never published. Sometime in the late 1940s Ornstein received a request for a copy, but he was unable to locate the manuscript. Recalling that he had taught the piece to a former student, Andrew Imbrie, he wrote asking Imbrie for a copy. But Imbrie was likewise unable to find the score so instead he made and sent Ornstein a tape recording of the piece. Ornstein then made an abortive effort to remember the piece, but quickly gave it up. What is presented here is the recording Imbrie made, followed by a snatch of the brief effort Ornstein made to recall it.
Force and impulsion explode in the composer’s own struggle to resurrect it, a reminder of the way of the frenzy experienced by the creator is usually reduced in the hands of others.
At a New York party around 1930, the upcoming Canadian virtuoso pianist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964)
heard 78rpm shellacs recorded some two years earlier in Bali that were brought back by anthropologists. McPhee’s reaction was such that he decided to abandon Western music at that moment and soon moved with his philanthropic wife Jane Below to the isle, living there for many years, documenting the music. Here is one of the discs that inspired him to exit from the West, retrieved from a collection that contains McPhee’s own discs, some of which exist in one known exemplar, saving lost music that had been out of reach to the Balinese themselves and the rest of the planet, the case of a world music trek that led to an unforseen and fortuitous repatriation.
When hostilities in the air, McPhee returned to New York with music he had transcribed from the gender wayang, their shadow puppet theater genre, published as Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos. His colleague Benjamin Britten was in the States and the two headed into a studio to record Gambangan.
And with Asian music being played on Western instruments with equal temperament tuning came Minimalism, a dreadful label meant to cover vastly differing music that uses evolving repetitive patterns. It fortunately helped bury the rotting academic dissonant style of overly structured music so much better seen than heard, considered an intellectual highbrow experience, by injecting new life into the culture’s bloodstream. It even meant that the piano would be replaced, by electricity, and sonically sculpted. One of America’s greatest composers, Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), began her musical life by wearing a cowboy hat and playing in accordion bands at Texas rodeos. Her interest in electronics opened a path of innovation and lifelong discoveries.
Until now, America’s newness as a continent, its unique mix of people from all over the planet, made it a hotbed for the musical and cultural innovation that occurs when contact is made between forces meeting for the first time and blending their experience without the pressure of the commercialization that Busoni despised. May their works continue!
How lucky can one get? New things appear on the path as sound archaeology mixes and messes with varied eruptions so let’s hang out here and check what’s turned up.
The oracular backwards percussion that inhabits Strawberry Fields Forever was a bare inkling of what lay ahead for a curious boy on the threshold of becoming a teenager.
David Lynch later shared some good news in a dream sequence.
Twenty-five years after it reappeared with something new added as a plethora of a tasty language also summoned forth Brooklyn’s Au Revoir Simone:
Their joy in using analog synthesizers syncs into new graphic representations of David Borden’s The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.
Six parts that thrive with a vocal line that has its section busily bombinating within a modular tail chasing that clairvoyantly implies what may follow as inevitable or a drop down into a sudden revelation, accumulating a psychic interplay as these pieces proceed in time.
Trumpets with electronics have gone further. Grasshopper, from Brooklyn, brings in the right kind of modal terror:
Nate Wooley began mixing his brass with electronics much earlier and has a new large scale work in The Complete Syllables Music, of which this is an excerpt:
Overstimulation continues with Arbiter projects soon to appear that will divine pagan, wanna-be Westerner, and occult fairy tale in the origins of Russian music, the sage pianist Mieczylaw Horszowski will be heard
fathoming two bottomless Beethoven works that resonate in a foundation given to him by his teacher, whose own master had been Beethoven’s assistant, and two linked cellists Tibor de Machula with his teacher Felix Salmond astonish by revealing what has been hidden inside their otherwise well-known instrument,
and Veena Dhanammal, whose grandson T. Viswanathan (skip ahead to 2:38 for his performance)
was preparing liner notes but suddenly died three days after we began to reawaken her.
Dhanammal was a blind veena master who was recorded in the 1930s and was grandmother of the dancer Balasaraswathi:
New books appear and one came quite close. Alex Shoumatoff stopped in on the last day of his 69th year with more good news (in front of Beatrice Muzi’s recent sculpture):
An indefatigable explorer and environmental activist, Shoumatoff’s latest book has arrived to shake up any and every user of the insidious palm oil that lurks where you least suspect it and must lead to saving the deforestation of the planet’s lungs:
Busy time with nature and music on everyone’s mind. Let’s not allow culture and our Earth to spiral into a Totentanz.