The agony of recording. Artur Schnabel disliked the idea and the reality was even worse when he began to sit before a microphone to document all of Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas. After the first session he writes to his wife Therese Behr Schnabel:
“London, March 26, 1932
My dearest, a brief and necessary reprieve from work. This week was one long ordeal, sheer torture. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” says Nietzsche. That’s hopefully (probably) true. But I didn’t imagine that making records would be as monstrous an undertaking as it turned out. Like slave drivers, they ordered me to work for six hours every day. I had to play pieces that we hadn’t agreed upon and with no time to prepare them. They thought I’d be capable of playing all of Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos at the drop of a hat. Instead of saying no to anything that wasn’t agreed, I let myself be talked into what they wanted, as I usually do, and now we’ve done 8 sonatas and 2 concertos. It’s insane. This amount of work is impossible. What’s more, I had a cracked nail and had to use a cap on my finger, which was a great hindrance. For 20 years I refused to be involved in “destruction through preservation”. (What cannot die has never lived.) I repeatedly justified this refusal with my own inadequacy and was always laughed at or thought of as fishing for compliments. I was right to trust my inner voice! Now I know that I cannot play well enough to remain on one spot. But I also know that I don’t want to play that well; I want to have something in front of me, not just behind me. Man’s constantly changing nature cannot be reconciled with the eternally unfeeling machine. (Human beings need their ingenuity for self-destruction and are their own worst enemies.) This idolized “technology”, by the way, is highly pitiful. The imperfection of the machine that man has created is chiefly responsible for the injustice it does him. For example, you can only play for 4 minutes. In those 4 minutes, you sometimes have to strike around 2000 keys or more. If 2 (two) of them are unsatisfactory, you have to repeat all 2000. And when you do that, the original mistakes are corrected but you make another two, so then it’s another 2000 to do over. This goes on ten times, always with a sword of Damocles hanging over your head. Finally, you give up and now leave in 20 mistakes. I’m both physically and mentally too weak for this ordeal. I was close to collapse, and began to sob when I was by myself on the street. Never before had I felt more alone. My conscience tormented me. A surrender to evil, a betrayal of life, objectification of the lifeblood, a marriage with death. It is absolutely nonsensical, absolutely unnatural. Debasement. It’s done onlybecause it’s possible. You use it because it is there. Somewhere up in the clouds and untouchable, know-nothings sit in front of fireproof safes and pocket whatever this nonsense, this artifice, this battlefield, transforms into money. The exploited, the poor victims, the slaves, and the slave drivers never set eyes on their true masters, the know-nothings. How did I become part of this fall of humankind? Why? For whom? How do I get out? I feel ashamed. And even if I had not left anything to posterity and had not lived on in the minds and consciousness of others, future generations, from now on I shall rightly and constantly be condemned because I took it upon myself to declare something finished that wasn’t, because I released something to be used that was not fit for purpose, which means I lied. Because I released as definitive something that is essentially always unfinished as long as it breathes, which means I lied. How deeply upsetting it is when almost everyone responds, as it were, to such expressions of discomfort with a wink, accompanied by a pat on the pants pocket. I was disgusted by myself. But I did not do it for the money. I know that for certain. I thought I could give it a try. I failed. –
We’ve made over 40 records. The company is thrilled. One of its representatives will arrive in Berlin with all these splendors in two weeks and spend a day playing this danse macabre for us. Until our heads are numb. I asked a music and record enthusiast (a peculiar talent) whether it bothered him if a musician makes small or even big mistakes in a concert. He replied with a smile, “No, not in the least, that doesn’t bother me at all.” What about if it happens on a recording, I asked. “Yes,” he admitted, “I’m quite strict about that and won’t accept any blunders, I’m critical in a different way.” The human being, the original, is forgotten. The mechanism of reproduction has erased him and sets its own conditions. How can you escape this nonsense?
I’m going to the country now. Need some comfort. . . .
Schnabel lived with the music and it was a transformative experience to reinterpret works as life progressed. After a 1951 recital he mentioned to his son Karl Ulrich that the Beethoven Sonata Op.90 he had played was the first time he understood it! New recordings were planned but with failing health, it became his last public performance. Equally important is the context in which Schnabel mastered Beethoven’s slow movements, their lyricism bearing a vocal art of phrasing and awareness of how the work coheres is in great part due to the advice Therese perpetually offered to her husband and son.
The legacy of the sonatas began as shellacs, usually noisy, so when vinyl technology appeared they were game for his label and a hefty box appeared. The quiet surfaces lacked any noise generated by the shellac and the material it was pressed from and also thanks to engineers who suppressed the grit but damaged Schnabel’s tone, projection, leaving one to hypothesize on obscured details. A painful listening experience that lasts unto this day, As an example of how poor restoration can effect perception of a performance we find a conversation with the pianist Murray Perahia focusing on the Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106)’s slow movement. In all likelihood, their comments are the result of heavy filtering:
Perahia later mentions how this movement is a unique appearance of F-sharp minor among the sonatas, observing that Mozart too reserved it for his profound slow movement in his Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K. 488. To get an idea of what they and everyone else hears as Schnabel’s performance we have the opening minute of the Beethoven played by Schnabel on the official release:
Having had access to a decent copy, we can hear what was lost when the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as absent room tone eliminates the projection into whatever space Schnabel interacted with:
So, according to the musician eager to bring the work to life and his savvy detached interlocutor, Schnabel’s performance seemed to have taken 25 minutes! I’d say that to hear the poor sound on the commercial excerpt would seem like a day in jail or listening under torture.
No wonder historic recordings were long despised: you had to wrack your brains to reconstruct what was lost and in real time! Academia is shy about historic recordings favoring written data about performances of the past and using mechanical piano rolls that allegedly attest to how someone, otherwise unrecorded on disc, actually played. I often tell students to pretend we are studying Art History. Handing our black and white photocopies bearing numbers that are explained by an inset (#1-green, #2-red, etc.) is all that’s necessary and don’t bother to see the orighinals in museums: this is all you need! They find it an odd way to teach Art but I mention that most students are discouraged from hearing older performances, as they vary in sound and, with some composers, contradict their scores.
So after having heard Schnabel play the slow movement in 18’08”, how much time does Perahia need?
16’21”! So do the math: 18’08 – 16’21” = / or 25′ -16’21 =
Just saying that it’s time to bring back the dead, who were more alive than most of the living, removed from sonics that impress as having been recorded in abandoned underground subway stations or cramped bathrooms, engulfed by the best of intentions, and set listeners on fire with musicianship that perennially exists outside of any chronological jail. Quiet vinyl sound + shellac origins = Cultural Death.
” Musically, Debussy felt himself to be a kind of auditory ‘sensitive’. He not only heard sounds that no other ear was able to register, but he found a way of expressing things that are not customarily said. He had an almost fanatical conviction that a musical score does not begin with the composer, but that it emerges out of space, through centuries of time, passes before him, and goes on, fading into the distance (as it came) with no sense of finality.” – George Copeland
Like so many other composers who create new sounds and pieces that form themselves, entropy sets in to control their creations’ legacies. From the initial shock comes a scramble to idolize, protect, followed by deconstruction and then a generation or two on, wondering how it all began.
Debussy, a victim of such incomprehension even during his lifetime, has been dragged into an inoffensive respectability that he loathed. Once at the home of a distinguished, refined, cultural socialite, we learn from Percy Grainger how he “met there Grieg and [Richard] Strauss and Debussy at the Speyers, And Debussy was like a little spitting wild animal. Lady Speyer invited some friends to tea and he said “Tea! I won’t be in the same room with anybody. Bring me in my tea here, where I can drink it alone.”
Can this be the delicate composer referred to during a master class given by Artur Rubinstein? One that shouldn’t ever have loud sounds in his music, just smoothed-out plateaus?
What if someone four months younger than Debussy plays him with a forte? Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946), taught by Chopin’s assistant Mikuli and Liszt, friend of Brahms and Charles Rosen’s teacher
recorded Reflets dans l’eau in 1929 on a Bechstein piano:
It operates as a cultural virus. Stops over. Infects imaginations and off it goes, either to Memphis Tennessee or Paris France. A tavern in the Mississippi Delta was such a fertile ground for developing and sharing new music. Robert Wilkins, before he became an ordained minister, sang about one such lost paradise (lower photo: Rev. Wilkins with Nehemiah “Skip” James):
We find Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943)
a newcomer to Paris who was studying along with Ravel and premiered many of Debussy’s works, such as the Poissons d’Or that the composer dedicated to him. Luckily he recorded it and the Soirée dans Grenade in 1930:
Images, Bk. II: Poissons d’Or:
Estampes: Soirée dans Grenade:
Exploring music from a country that he never visited, Debussy wrote Lasérénade interrompue in his Préludes Bk.I. The pianist Janine Weill was a shy too young (1903-1983) [sorry, no photo as of yet!] to have known Debussy but hosted a series on French Radio in the 1950s to offer his complete piano works with commentary. Around 1929 she recorded the sérénade:
Debussy had a great admirer in Berlin. The pianist & composer Eduard Erdmann (1896-1958) acquired a rep for playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (long before Glenn Gould), William Byrd, late Liszt, Schubert sonatas, Schoenberg and more. He married Irene Nolde, daughter of the painter Emil, who left portraits of his son-in-law, whose habit was to arrive for his concerts dressed in tuxedo on bicycle. Husband and wife:
Does #hetoo violate “community” standards by not using a steam-roller to repress loud sounds? Erdmann offered us Ondine, from Debussy’s Préludes Bk. II captured at a Berlin studio in 1928:
Another virus struck Paris when African-American dancers, acrobats and musicians arrived. Debussy often saw these cabaret artists and set them to his music.
The Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
was not immune to their charm and in 1921, recorded Golliwog’s Cakewalk from Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite into a horn (before microphones appeared):
Erdmann’s other Debussy solo lives on the other side of his shellac: Minstrels, the last in Préludes, Bk I:
Meanwhile, Galina Werschenska (1906-1994)
left Petersburg soon after the Revolution to settle in Denmark, where she enjoyed a full career, authored memoirs and translated Turgenev into Danish. One work by Debussy is to be found in her legacy: Snow Is Dancing, from the Children’s Corner Suite:
Her bringing us into an alternate dimension follows a tragectory that initiated in Debussy’s first masterpiece, his String Quartet from 1892-93. The music forms itself throughout, from this moment and up into his final works, despite the formal formalities that academics use to appraise composers’ cultural market value. The Loewenguth String Quartet
was founded by violinist Alfred Loewenguth (1911-1983) when he was 18 (1929) and lasted into the 1970s. We hear in the Third movement an ongoing conversation in which the viola solos with an alto sax timbre (mid 1950s recording). Once in New York they headed over to record Beethoven’s Late Quartets in Rudy van Gelder’s studio. I phoned the late legend and he drily informed that it had been his only classical session: regrettably the sound is distorted and one also wonders why Jimmy Garrison’s bass on van Gelder’s Coltrane sessions is usually inaudible.
These examples are a reminder of how music breathes as long as each work, that was always new music, is offered as an original, organic form, a creation that emerges alive and in need to be kept fit rather than reduced into the standardized faux politeness that reigns as living room status-quo standards.
Debussy’s Canope seems to clash with the other occupants inside his second book of Prèludes, or to obtrude among anything else he composed. Most pianists treat it as a solemn funereal dirge with some peculiar notes, making it in to a string of moments meant for obligatory contemplation of something deep that eludes them and the performer as well by sounding disjointed. A matter of restraint, as if attending a lethally slow religious rite carried out in an unknown language, puzzled by watching others respectfully accept it as a spiritual offering.
On a journey to Cairo I spent time with Hassan Aziz Hassan, a pianist who was close to Ignace Tiegerman, Chopin’s reincarnation on the Nile, and spent time painting when the relatives whom he took in after the 1952 coup weren’t being too aggressive with him. Before leaving Egypt I asked if he would guide me through the Old City, temptingly placed above a distant hill. We set off, Hassan in sunglasses (facing camera) along with the Paris-based Cairene pianist Henri Barda (left).
To my eyes, trying to unscramble the abstract chaos of Mamluk architecture rampant in the old quarter was awkward.
Dizzying details of Qalalun’s mithrab added to disorientational delight:
Hassan blithely put my confusion to rest by indicating how certain patterns spilled into arcs and replicated like ripples over non-figurative surfaces. He was eager for an upcoming publication of his family memoir being published by the American University of Cairo Press, as he was a prince, first cousin of Farouk, the last King of Egypt. His Cairo had people like Edward Said playing tennis and also studying piano with Tiegerman, their local musical divinity. Hassan recalled: “Before the Revolution [in 1952] everyone toured here: Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bachauer, Kempff, we heard everyone, but Tiegerman was superior.”
While the family was of Albanian origins, Hassan’s mother was from Spain and was kept distant from her son for not having been brought up in a palace. Her absence haunted him throughout his life. There were many friends and one could arrange masquerade parties such as this one from the late 1940s where Hassan is second from left with his sister Princess Soraya far right, seated, with her hand clasped by Nahum Jojo, son of Cairo’s chief Rabbi, kneeling at her feet.
On the day of Hassan’s book launch party, news came that he had passed away in the morning.
Others like Hassan appear to open up the architecture, even within sound, as we now turn our attention to and overlooked American pianist whose wealthy Bostonian father had wed a woman from Spain: George Copeland (1882-1971):
Copeland had a few piano teachers in his youth and lived for awhile in Spain but seems to have been so perceptive that life and experiences alone sufficed to sharpen his music more than formal lessons. After many years in Spain he eventually settled in New York. During a 1911 European tour, Copeland was in Paris and left a lengthy memoir about meeting Debussy:
Punctually at eleven, we were shown into M. Debussy’s salon. The room itself constituted my first surprise. It was very long, very formal, and very well kept, whereas I had expected to find myself in an entirely bohemian menage. A moment later the door opened and I received a second shock.
As I have said before, I had entertained a preconceived notion of my host as being thin, nervous, effete, with the unhealthy look of the habitué of Paris night spots – and, most certainly, untidy and careless in matters of dress; in short, a typical denizen of Montmartre. To my amazement, I found myself rising to face a tall, dark, heavily built man, impeccably dressed, who gave the impression of relaxed, almost feline strength, and who had the most penetrating black eyes I have ever encountered – like two pieces of shiny black jet. Señora d’Alvarez [possibly Marguerita “Nina” d’Alvarez, singer] made the introductions: “This, M. Debussy, is M. George Copeland, the pianist, who has introduced your beautiful music to America.” ”Vraiment!” was the laconic reply, and with a brief glance in my direction M. Debussy crossed the long length of the room and seated himself on a stiff green sofa at the far end. Apparently he was as undesirous of meeting me as I had been of meeting him; and although he must have been aware of the fact through J. Durand, his publisher, he appeared completely indifferent as to whether his music was played in America or not.
As conversation at that distance was impossible, I suggested to Señora d’ Alvarez that perhaps we should leave. “Nonsense!” she retorted. “You must play for him.”
“But he hasn’t asked me to play,” I replied angrily. “Perhaps he doesn’t even wish to hear me.”
“Of course he does! Go and ask him,” Nina replied in an impatient whisper.
So I rose and, feeling as awkward as any schoolboy, crossed to where he was sitting bolt upright on the sofa. “Would you like me to play for you, M. Debussy?” I asked cautiously.
The composer eyed me calmly. “Mais oui,” he replied. I waited, but there was no further comment.
“Shall I play you some Spanish music?” I asked, as this was one or the things I specialized in.
“Spanish music!” he exclaimed in surprise. “Mais non! Why should you play me Spanish music! It does not interest me at all.” Then, lowering his voice, as if thinking aloud, he continued: “No, the only music that interests me is Bach’s and my own. Après tout, Bach has said all that there is to say in music – the rest of us only say it in different forms!”
The piano, at the far end of the room, was draped with a silk scarf held in place by a heavy cloisonné vase. I asked permission to movc the vase, so that I might open the piano cover.
“Absolument non!” he replied with obvious annoyance. “Do not touch it! I never permit that anyone should open my piano. As it is, everyone plays my music too loud.” Sensing the futility of argument, I seated myself and played through the shorter piano music – Reflets dans l’eau, La cathédrale engloutie, Suite bergamasque, L’isle joyeuse, Pagodes, Hommage à Rameau, ‘Poissons d’or, Voiles, the Danse de Puck.
M. Debussy had risen shortly after I began playing, and had seated himself close to the piano. When I came to the closing bars of Reflets dans l’eau,he got up from his chair in apparent excitement and, pointing a long finger, exclaimed: “Why did you play the last two bars as you did?”
“I don’t know –” I was puzzled. “Perhaps because that is the way I feel them.” “It’s funny,” he said reflectively, “that’s not the way I feel them.” But when I said, “Then I will interpret them as you intended,” his reply was a definite “No, no! Go on playing them just as you do.” He made no further comment until I had finished and had risen from the piano. Then, with an audible sigh, he said simply, “I never pay compliments. I can only say that I have never dreamed that I would hear my music played like that in my lifetime.” In that brief moment, our relationship had undergone a sharp metamorphosis. Señora d’Alvarez and I left almost immediately, but as I took my leave M. Debussy asked me to come again at eleven the following morning. In a daze I consented, and on reaching my hotel I immediately called the steamship line and cancelled my passage.
I remained in Paris, in close daily association with Claude Debussy, for the next four months.
Every morning I would arrive at the same hour, and we would spend the day together in almost elemental companionship, reading, or playing music – sometimes not exchanging a single word throughout an entire morning. If, in his reading, Debussy happened upon something provocative, or something which he thought would interest me, he would rise from his chair and point to it in silence. It was his belief that conversation was unnecessary unless there was something essential that one wanted to say. I did not miss the conventional chatter.
One of the basic factors in Claude Debussy’s genius was, I think, his ability to eliminate the obvious, the unnecessary, and the trivial, and in this way to conserve much vitality. He was in no wise a misanthrope, for he was deeply attached to his friends, but he was not al all interested in the nature of man. He believed that only a few arrive at any sort of maturity, and he avoided the fool and the common-place. He achieved in his music (with only a few exceptions) an almost complete elimination of personal equations, regarding himself (the musician) as a species of sounding board held up to nature. To this end, he had to keep himself free from interference; and he indubitably heard sounds that other people have never heard.
Debussy’s study was an extremely simple room, containing one or two good pictures and those jade animals and pieces of Chinese pottery that were, apparently, his one personal extravagance, and about the acquisition of which his biographers have told many tales, real or invented. The room had a Pleyel upright piano , at which he worked on manuscripts which he was composing , as well as on those which required further polishing .
I spoke to him of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano – music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally he agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’ après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering , which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed . This has always seemed to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.
Claude Debussy would, not infrequently, inject in to some current discussion his reaction to, or estimation of, other composers. Among his contemporaries, he was most fond of d’Indy, Chausson and Ravel, although he thought the last of these too lush in his orchestrations. He admired César Franck greatly, describing him affectionately as “a man without guile, and full of trustful candour”. Whatever Franck “borrowed from Life”, said Debussy, “he restored to Art with modesty verging on self-effacement.”
Debussy spoke of [Alessandro] Scarlatti as an “inexcusably forgotten composer”, whose Passion of St. John he described as “a little chef-d ‘oeuvre of primitive refinement and beauty, in which the style of the choral music is seemingly of pale gold, like those lovely backgrounds to the profiles of the Virgins in the frescoes o f his period”.
On the other hand, he ridiculed Grieg, whose music he described as “a pink bon-bon stuffed with snow”; and of Saint-Saëns he exclaimed: “I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns!”
Debussy liked Mozart, and he believed that Beethoven had terrifically profound things to say, but that he did not know how to say them, because he was imprisoned in a web of incessant restatement and of German aggressiveness.
He came to hate Wagner as much as he had first admired him, describing his music as “strange, beautiful, seductive, and impure” – remarking of a performance of Das Rheingold, “It took two hours, and one hesitated between a desire to go away and the desire to go to sleep!” Debussy himself wished to write an opera on the theme of Tristan and Isolde, which would be in exact style variance with the Wagnerian version. How much of this he completed, we do not as yet know.
Perhaps the composer whom he most admired, and upon whom, if at all, he most consciously patterned his music, was Rameau, whose genius, compounded of delicacy, charm, and restraint, he regarded as being in the true French tradition. It is probable that Rameau opened for him, if only a crack, the door which led to that other-dimensional music of which Claude Debussy became the high priest, and which he discovered and explored so extensively.
Musically, Debussy felt himself to be a kind of auditory ‘sensitive’. He not only heard sounds that no other ear was able to register, but he found a way of expressing things that are not customarily said. He had an almost fanatical conviction that a musical score does not begin with the composer, but that it emerges out of space, through centuries of time, passes before him, and goes on, fading into the distance (as it came) with no sense of finality.
When I asked him why so few people were able to play his music, Debussy replied, after some reflection: “I think it is because they try to impose themselves upon the music. It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you – to be a vessel through which it passes.”
Debussy, the man I knew.The Atlantic Monthly. January 1955.
At the last piano recital Copeland gave, in May of 1964 at age 82, he played Debussy’s Canope. Until this performance surfaced, the ballpark average tine to deliver this Prelude weighed in at 2:30 with some bordering on 4:00. The first to record it was the Lyon-born Walter Gieseking whose lengthy London sessions after the Second World War had impressionistic microphone placement as the pianist sometimes snorted and this more-than scuro obfuscated any chiaro. Having a producer like Walter Legge allowed the company to squeeze three projects out of him in the time that would yield one for other pianists.
Please rise as we will now hear Herr Gieseking intone the Canope:
Score: WG 2:39/CD 0:00.
Please be seated. His playing lived in the moment, following into the next, anyone still awake?, and had flourishes as well. If its seriousness is not fully appreciated, if it is not a masterpiece but seems dull and desultory, whom shall be blame? Ourselves, for not having undergone rapt attention, the Pianist, for doing all in his power to save a failed piece, or the Composer, who should have had second thoughts about its very birth?
In the steps of Prince Hassan, Copeland steps in to offer an awareness of structure that only materializes when the piece is played at a faster pace. From his last recital:
Score: GC 1:47/ CD 1:47!
At this speed arches appear, reappear, stray notes exist as details within larger gestures, firmly coherent and conceived. Copeland may be the first to bring light to this overlooked treacherous trap that is continually slain through the best of intentions that wish to treat it as a sacred soundtrack to contemplate jars containing organs of the dead. And let’s hear Copeland regail the curious at a pre-concert talk. Much of what he says is in the Debussy memoir seen above. As he was not sitting near a mic one will need to listen carefully (another first publication, folks!):
That same day, Copeland played Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral in a way that corresponds to how Debussy played an enigmatic time change after the opening statement:
Another popular Prelude, La Puerta del Vino, sails into the harbor with a habanera beat. This may inspire many to languor in the wine, basking in sunshine, blue skies and head into a Renoiresque putridity. Copeland prefaces his dive into the lower depths with a warning that this upcoming port was rife with murders, suicides, underworld, pirates, a murky, shadowy, evil place:
Our ongoing exploration of Debussy continues! Although 2018 was the centenary of his death and is now so oh-so yesteryear, we’ll continue to keep him alive and smoldering!
Bartók was a good listener, especially when transcribing with scientifically accuracy thousands of field recordings made during his excursions into the lands where peasants lived. He owned a tekerő, the Hungarian peasants’ version of what is called a hurdy-gurdy.
He and Kodaly had learned of Debussy some time before the Frenchman arrived in 1910 to perform solos, accompany a singer, and hear his String Quartet being introduced in Budapest. It seems that Bartók missed the concert but soon began absorbing Debussy’s music. Soon after Bartók arrived in Paris he was asked by Isidor Philipp if he wanted to meet composers close to this French pianist. Bartók’s colleague André Gertler,
with whom he toured to give sonata recitals. In 1960, Gertler recalled:
The meeting never came about. Perhaps it would have resembled Debussy seen with André Caplet?
We’re not sure if Etelka Freund, Bartók’s older friend who was a direct link to Brahms, had attended the Budapest evening. She was expecting a child but like Bartók, added Debussy’s music to her repertoire. With Dita Pasztory, a pupil who became Bartók’s second wife, he formed a piano duo with her. One work they performed was Colin McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos, an interest that he and Debussy shared for Asian music.
Always insightful to hear a composer perform another’s works, Bartók recorded Liszt’s Sursum Corda while staying in Paris in the mid 1930s:
This late work finds Liszt entering into dissonance, whole-tone scales and figuration that may have inspired Bartók at a deeper level.
A devoted admirer of Bartók’s playing, the author Ilona Tanner was the wife of poet Mihaly Babits (seen together in this photo.)
While Babits is recognized, Tanner’s astonishing request that a local record shop make private recordings for her whenever Bartók played on the radio saved a rare musical legacy that amounted to a few hours of concerts. Lacking blank recording discs, the shop owner found that x-ray plates could be used for recording sound. At first he had one machine and had to miss music as the sides could only capture four minutes when changing discs: he soon acquired a second instrument. One of the treasures she saved was the duo’s performance of Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir in April, 1939. Images of chest bones and other body parts did not cause lacunas due to switching discs on the recording table nor create the weak sound that took quite awhile to clear up: new digitization is urgent as playback and restoration techniques have advanced, before the plates decay or managers ordering an engineer at French Radio to trash noisy discs, such as Bartók’s 1939 Paris recital:
Another temporary duo kept the work alive by playing it several times at prominent 1950s new music festivals such as Darmstadt: Yvonne Loriod (coached by her husband Olivier Messiaen) and Pierre Boulez, seen here after a 1956 performance.
Although we have published other posts on Debussy and a CD with the most insightful interpreters to date, more posts will follow so check back now and then!
Other than some snoring, what was going on inside Debussy’s head? At a certain point, change was in the works, a foray into creating something that defied labels he loathed, such as Impressionist. Earlier blog posts examined how Russian music acted on his art but there are unsettling elements in his Etudes, works that Pierre Boulez described as having “burned the mist off Debussy,” not that he felt obligated to destroy any lingering Turneresque quality that many interpreters still desperately seek to impose on his last piano cycle and fail by doing so.
As an example of his new language, the Belgian pianist Marcelle Mercenier (1920-1996: alas no photos of her so far . . .) plays Debussy’s Etude in Fourths in 6’25”:
Many listeners were influenced by critics and authoritative experts that
Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) was the quintessential acme excelsior of Debussy interpreters. Nasal adenoids introduced heavy breathing while the German pianist played so his clever EMI producer Walter Legge had the recording mic impressively placed at an impressionistic distance to camouflage his snorting. The pianist rarely performed Debussy’s Etudes and his rapid traversal clocks in at 4’10”:
Mercenier played works by Messiaen and Boulez: she understood how Debussy’s last piano pieces paved the way into a new language.
Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was another highly regarded Debussy specialist. Among his multifold activities, Cortot managed to write a volume on the composer’s piano music, drawing on picturesque references and occasionally judging the worthiness of his works (photo of the artist at home near his beloved Renoir portrait of Wagner):
“In 1910 appeared a waltz, ‘La plus que lent,’ half a parody, half serious, and beyond question [italics mine] totally insignificant.”
Debussy’s piano roll in no way captured anything remotely resembling his touch and tone but is the Satiesque presence of a ‘ninth’ struck by his left hand’s thumb when the theme gets its final restatement, compositionally insignificant? An earlier experiment lies in Masques, an independent work from 1904. Cortot’s many students cherished the descriptions he offered as a key to each musical work played in his presence, as if he had formulated the most effective description of a work’s mood, background and expression and drew out of it like a catalog. While it could enhance a budding pianist’s grasp that something lurked behind the notes it probably inhibited them from seeking this remote sphere on their own, as his stereotypes were so seductive! (photo: joyous dining with Margarete (Mrs. Albert) Speer at the Hotel Ritz, Paris 1941)
According to Cortot’s meditation on Masques:
Without doubt there lives and moves in “Masques” all the comedy of ltaly, its color and movement: Scaramouche with his fine doings, Cassandra ridiculed, Zerbinette irritating, Pierrot dreaming to the moon and hidden by friendly night, Harlequin at the feet of Colombine. And “l’Isle Joyeuse” spreads the snare of its laughter and easy pleasures before the careless lovers whose light barks draw up on its fortunate shores, under the friendly looks of Watteau, of Verlaine and of Chabrier of whom one must think under the sensual bent of this music. Further, what we may call the pianistic orchestration of these compositions – in the absence of terms which might define more exactly the variety of combination of registers which animate them with their caressing fancy – is literally an enchantment and Debussy has never surpassed the ease and assrance with which he makes the rhythms play with them.
In spite of this, in spite of the flare and ingenuity of these two pieces, their musical attraction and the perfection of their construction, it may be we do not find in them, at least to the extent of our expectation, that rare pleasure whose secret Debussy has taught us, because the subjects he has proposed have sinned by too direct suggestion.
If one listens to the contrast between his Boulezian “mist”, whole-tone scales and Asian modes, one is convinced by the playing of Marius-François Gaillard (1900-1973) published by Arbiter in Debussy’s Traces:
that different masks are imposed by Debussy onto himself as he struggles over which direction to follow: abandoning 19th century music? whole tones? the deep influence of Javanese gamelan? Gaillard shows how the latter as having been a difficult but compelling choice.
Roger Nichols writes “Masques was published in the autumn of 1904, but has never enjoyed the popularity of its companion (L’Isle joyeuse.) True, it doesn’t have the advantage of a big tune, but the many subtleties in it should be enough to keep the most alert listener engaged. Matters may not be helped by the fact that Debussy never spoke about its meaning to anybody—all we have is a note found among his papers after his death by his widow: ‘It is not the comédie italienne, but the tragic expression of existence.’
Au revoir Walter! Au revoir Alfred & Renoir! Let Debussy rest.
Just gave a class to Mannes grad students on Chopin. So much attention focuses on his Parisian existence that his Slavic origins are slighted. Half-French/Half-Polish they say? Which half is Slavic? How do you cut him: vertically or horizontally? Let’s bypass Solomonic butchery to say that he possessed 200%, enriched by both!
Chopin composed Mazurkas throughout his life, a workshop for ideas and connecting with a lost homeland yet most judge them as exotic seasoning sprinkled onto formal salon Waltzes. Do you think that notation shows everything? Mazurkas only appear on paper as waltzes yet bear disruptive chromatic notes. And what does a village ensemble from the mountains outside Sofia have to do with Chopin?
The Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe were pervaded with folk music that identified itself through distinct melodies and rhythms. The Bistritsa Grannies sing antiphonally, replete with stark intervals that came from origins way further East, possibly the Proto-Bulgars from Central Asia.
In 1987 with a group from the National Conservatory that included the budding composer Penka Kouneva
they received us after a day’s farming to offer singing and supper. Changing out of their blue work smocks they regrouped in traditional attire. Afterwards we scooped up local sirine (feta cheese) with bread dipped into chubritsa, a Bulgarian spice blend redolent of fenugreek with other subtle herbs. An LP recorded for Balkanton contains this work and when I met up with them three years later when their dictatorship had been quashed, asked what the meter was in their song Oreovka voda grebe : “Two”.
Two, certainly, but the beats are unequal, with long-short pulsations. This brought to mind the Hungarian accenting in their folk-Gypsy traditions. One daring team of Budapest ethnomusicologists penetrated into Romania’s Transylvanian region to secretly record Hungarian dance music, as their insane dictator did all he could to suppress anything that could heat up any justifiable revanchism. A battery-operated tape recorder had been hidden in their car and here is a treasure from a remote village in the Mezöség region:
So with these rhythms and phrasings circulating in your system, how could Chopin have played his own ‘colorful’ works? The earliest pianist who offers a clue is Vladimir de Pachmann (1848 Odessa – 1933 Rome).
A Victor Borge of his time, Pachmann amused audiences through chaotic inappropriate behavior and speaking while playing, probably done to settle his nerves and placate a public that wanted more than music alone, a format then unknown. Critics downgraded him as someone pathetically superficial for having spoken on some of his recordings that had unedited sloppy details whereas the early butchered restorations of his playing (recordings from 1907-1928) were dim and masked any and all of his colorful nuances. As technology improved, a remarkably chaste art emerged, thanks to a discovery I made by finding a path to access the hot-spot in groove walls, where the sound fully opens up, one surpass routine sardine-can transfers that obliterate hear color and touch. On interviewing Aldo Mantia in 1981, a Roman Pachmann pupil, Mantia mentioned that his mother, a singer who knew Liszt, recalled with singer Luisa Tetrazzini how the young Pachmann had lived in Firenze for six months to study with Vera Kologrivoff Rubio, Chopin’s last assistant, an important detail vigorously denounced in a recent puerile biography of the artist.
Note how Pachmann accents and uses short-long beats in Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 50, No.2 in A flat, recorded into a horn in 1911:
No waltzing at all and if accurately transcribed, the writing would be unreadable. Chopin published these pieces early on up until his end. His F-sharp minor Mazurka, op. 59, No. 3 is a hotbed of experimentation. Starting with a straight-forward dance, it returns with a secondary voice under the main theme and then switches into major. What impresses as hackneyed confused playing is a literal representation of something unique in Chopin’s notation: rhythmic displacement of the hands by a mere sixteen note that syncopates them into a duel of phrasing and accents. Pachmann knowingly displays this radical stratagem within the guise of propriety. To dissipate its rhythmic angst, Chopin aligns hands into a pattern that furiously repeats and changes from three beat segments into twos in order to eradicate the previous tension. What next? Canonic imitation, a return, and a finale in a contrasting dance rhythm.
Again we join Pachmann caught by a recording horn inside a Camden, New Jersey studio in 1912:
Going further through Chopin’s backdoor we encounter a master who danced with villagers when his father took the boy along for gigs in remote towns. These experiences, along with a life-long penchant for Mannerism (in art and sound) leads us to Ignaz Friedman (1882 Podgorze/Krakow – 1948 Sydney).
Friedman astonished listeners with his Chopin and fortunately the obtusity of his record company lapsed when they unexpectedly commissioned him to record a set of the dances rather than continuing having him fulill their need for encore pieces. We find him before the microphone in London, 1930. Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 7, No.3 in F mine:
The rhythms are far more extreme and we note the strong presence of folk elements into the otherwise hermetic classical music that sought to keep out such roughage, still unacceptable in today’s puritanical climate in which budding pianists cannot compete by playing with individuality or stray from the moribund status quo’s dictates.
Friedman possessed a remarkable virtuosity that allowed him to laugh away technical difficulties. He tickles Chopin’s 19th Prelude in E flat and calmly navigates the treacherous G# minor Etude, back in 1924:
When Emil Sauer (1862 Hamburg – 1942 Vienna)
met Brahms, they shared their origins as Hamburgers. Inspired by his teachers Nikolai Rubinstein and Liszt, Sauer also composed and brings out the inner life dwelling in the otherwise mechanically played Chopin Etude, Op. 25, No.12 in C minor, recorded when the pianist was 78 years old.
Going beyond virtuosity we can hear poetry in a posthumous but well known work, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op.66. Polish pianist and composer Xaver Scharwenka (1850 Szamotuły, Poland – 1924 Berlin)
plays with a creator’s insight into the music, displaying all elements and in the slower middle section, bar lines melt to allow a commanding melody to bask in a rubato that is subtly camouflaged. A 1910 New York studio recording is restored to the point of displaying his colorful touch and identifies the piano as a Steinway:
Running out of time. Here’s Ferruccio Busoni (1866 Empoli – 1924 Berlin), seen during exile in Zurich with Giotto his San Bernard,
playing a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody (No. 13) with full awareness of the Gypsy phrasing in its final section, recorded on a Beckstein in 1922, London. We’ll get to his way of deconstructing Chopin next time.
For further exploration check out the Pachmann trail on our website
Annie (1895-1997) and the Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972).
Eager to share what went down at our World of Music class comprised of first year students this morning at Mannes / New School University. After exploring African genres last week and how some elements survive in traditional American Blues & Gospel, we went deeper into the regions of Spiritual music.
No photo exists of Sister Cora Hopson, who left but one recording in 1926 of an Antebellum Sermon. The war in question was our own Civil War and as she has an aged voice, Hopson may have well been an ex-slave herself. In once moment she admonishes her listeners not to consider her comments applying to the present time, as her text focuses on Moses seeking freedom for his people, a necessary metaphor that conceals their need to be free and tear down the suppression, something that White overseers would interpret as harmless as it was pertaining to a biblical homily.
Then came the prolific Rev. J. M. Gates (1884-1945),
an early prolifically recorded preacher with congregants join him in singing I’ve Done Crossed the Separating Line, an incredible call to realize that one can transcend mundanity with all its grief and dangers for a higher region of existence that is ever-present.
As recordings spread to document our traditional music in the 1920s, groups that incorporated instruments with song were captured, such as Elders Lonnie MacIntorsh, Edwards, and Sisters Bessie Johnson & Melinda Taylor (no photos or dates, alas!) They cry out in The Latter Rain is Falling:
Their singing and playing reaches an extreme of the Baptist sect yet we find a more exuberant use of Jazz and instruments in the congregation of Rev. D.C. Rice (1888-1973)
who left the Baptists for Pentecostalists in Chicago who defied any music from being proscribed. A phenomenon, it drew the writer Zora Neale Hurston into their orb and I urged our class to explore her writings. There is even a trumpet solo that parallels Louis Armstrong’s rise and how Jazz was aboil in the 1920s:
While well-known hymns appeared in all genres and sects, individual artistry enters the picture through original texts and performances. Anne Graham, of whom we know little, composed for ensembles and once sang on Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) [Leadbelly]’s weekly New York radio show
in the early 1940s. Together they approach the theme of inner life mixed with the Biblical tale of Joshua in What Kind of Soul Hath Man:
Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)
was a sightless evangelical mystic who moaned out Dark Was the Night:
For the Rev. Gary Davis, I prefaced his life with a true tale of his 1970 tour in the U.K. A twenty-something John Dyer had heard a concert and was awestruck. Upon learning that Davis lived in Jamaica he immediately went up from Brighton to their embassy in London. No trace of Davis could be found until someone advised that he lived in Jamaica, Queens. Grabbing a bag and a one-way ticket he arrived at JFK International Airport and was left by a taxi at the Davis’s doorstep. Ringing the bell, Annie asked “Who are you?” to which Dyer replied that he had traveled from England just to study with the Reverend. Annie welcomed him in and John stayed for over half a year as their home was a caravansary for musicians and spreaders of the gospel.
Our class of first year students were amused and then surprised to learn that their teacher (1956-) was Davis’s last pupil,
cutting high school to grab a bus for lessons, worrying that I’d be nabbed as a truant. A stunning example of his artistry for Gospel music is his narration and singing of Crucifixion, a Dantesque mix of perception from Pontius Pilate and his wife’s words, a cut and dried repetition of quotes by disciples and a narrator who gazes onto their actions from a divine perspective.
I also advised them to notice how Davis usually does not sing a direct melody but combines voice and guitar to create the impression of its presence, one of his great musical achievements, not to overlook how the guitar’s subtle syncopations and ornaments are like the piano parts in Schubert’s Lieder.
One individual who used Gospel themes and marches was the saxophonist and composer Albert Ayler (1936-1970). How would the students react to hearing free jazz, from almost half a century ago, accustomed as they are to melody and it’s base for improvisations as composed variation? At one of his last concerts, held at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1970, a photo taken at the concert shows him with bass player Steve Tintweiss who has always been active in music since then and earlier. The entire concert was filmed but remained inaccessible due to uncertain reasons . . .
The Truth is Marching In has a floating opening that leads into the march, flits back into a different space and then is propelled into a spiritual ecstasy:
Some class members stated that the melodic parts were fine with them but the solo was too much! One composer liked it. But how to show that it was quite the contrary to being an excursion away from Gospel traditions? We drew on the Rev. Frank Cotton’s sermon on Lazarus and Christ in The Pool of Siloam. As Ayler cannot be limited to standard pitches and has to transcend his instrument to enter into another dimension we hear it as a continuity of the Rev. Cotton lapsing from song and crescendos into a screaming that goes beyond words!
Our course is meant to uncover layers of cultural connections. Next week we will enter the earliest Blues artists and show how they created new music when migrating up from the Delta and Eastern seaboard by plugging in and astonishing with a new music that inspired outsiders to ravage them for their own worthy and exploitative styles.
That’s it. Just sit and pretend nothing’s going on. You’re probably hearing something from a recent opera that you found out about some ten or more years ago and heard it in the flesh. This is who’s at fault! Some Russian who died before the Baroness von Meck brought you over there as a tutor.
Then your opera arrived and all the new experts were saying how much Boris Godunov influenced it, a silly idea that you quashed at once as these damn new fans start deciding your identity. But we’re going inside your head for a little adventure into the ending of your Pelléas et Melisande’s Scene 1:
Look at that expression! Poor photo image but we see what you’re up to!
Someone who knew you wasn’t fooled! D.E. Inghelbrecht had dinners with you and premiered your Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and a short piece. He heard you play piano and talked about you at times on a weekly French radio program given over an eight year period, the last one taking place about a month before his death at age 85 in 1965.
Inghelbrecht often conducted your opera and here’s the finale from Scene 1:
Right away we smell Musorgsky! And Maestro Inghel was the first to perform the original version of Boris in Paris, having gained access to the original in a Soviet Archive in the 1920s.
We land onto the music preceding Pimen’s monologue as he puts the finishing touches onto his manuscript on how Boris murdered the infant heir to the throne in Uglich:
And what happened to our Debussy? Hear what he did!
Later when a striking clock sends Boris into an apoplectic fit that leads to insanity, the music dramatically introduces a new mood:
And right after Debussy’s taking on Pimen’s cowl he leaps into the musical madness but in a subdued fashion:
As if to put people off his train, Debussy thinks of the early coronation scene that begins soon after the police begin to beat the wretched populace with their knouts to fall in line and sing to the Tsar, the bells resonating amidst a delightful harmony considered barbaric by Western critics and the like on first exposure:
That sly Debussy: something so imposing is made light of:
Now that you’re familiar with these three liftings, return to the first example – Scene 1’s ending – and observe Debussy stringing together three disparate moments from Boris that became part of his language.
I dedicate this post to a bygone Schenker pupil who informed me that great composers must be studied exclusively through their own works, not to ever make references to others!
It came as a shock to hear such Debussy. About Marius-François Gaillard all one could instantly find was that he recorded works by Debussy in Paris around 1928-1930. No idea of his age but the pianism went beyond those who confine their entire Debussy into their own prefabricated styles. With Gaillard each piece was a world unto itself, showing how Debussy reinvented the piano and himself in each composition. It came as a relief to hear the music emerge that had been missing when brand-names like Gieseking and Cortot rushed through or neglected to expose Debussy’s ingenuity and subtlety. As a composer, Gaillard understood why each note exists and projects the micro within the larger scale. Later on Gaillard would draw on his travels and contact with traditional world music in his own works.
Gaillard (1900-1973) emerged on the Paris scene when he made a debut at age 16 after winning a prize thanks to refinements by Louis Diémer (1843-1919), an Alsatian master who helped revive the harpsichord already in the late 19th century.
Early Gaillard programs included new French music and Mozart concertos. A review appeared in 1922 by the writer Henry Malherbe (1886-1958) who knew Debussy and elicited these comments from the composer, something that informed his impression of the man who was still playing on occasion:
After the premiere of Debussy’s Saint Sebastian:
I believe indeed in a renaissance of liturgical music. Sacred art flourishes nobly only under persecution. And since wrong is being done to the Church, as it seems [sic], I think that the atmosphere is propitious for religious scores.
For me, sacred music stops at the 16th century. The charming and spring-like souls of those days were the only ones who could express their vehement and disinterested fervor in songs free from all worldly taint. Since then pious musical improvisations have been made more or less for parade. Even the genius of that naif and worthy man, Johann Sebastian Bach, did not save him. He builds edifices of harmony, like a great and devout architect, not like an apostle.
Parsifal is pretty. It is theatrical, which is poison to simplicity. Wagner himself calls his works spectacles. He was too well fortified against humility to celebrate religion. His attitudes are too dramatic for prayer. His proud and factitious theories never leave him.
Who will feel again the grandiose passion of a Palestrina? Who will begin again the poor and fragrant sacrifice of the little jongleur, whose story has come down to us?
Music is a sum of scattered forces, (he said to a personage of his own invention, M. Croche in Entretiens avec M. Croche, in the Revue blanche, 1901) . . .
People make theoretical songs of them! I prefer the few notes from the flute of an Egyptian shepherd: he collaborates with the landscape and hears harmonies unknown to our treatises. Musicians hear only the music written with clever fingers, never that which is written in nature. To see the sunrise is more useful than to hear the Pastoral Symphony. What good is your almost incomprehensible art? Ought you not to suppress these parasitic complications which make music in ingeniousness like the lock of a safe? . . . You boast because you know music only, and you obey barbarian, unknown laws! You are hailed by fine fine epithets and you are only rascals-something between a monkey and a valet!
I was dreaming. Formulate oneself? Finish works? So many question-marks placed by a childish vanity, the need of getting rid at any cost of an idea with which one has lived too long; all this poorly concealing the silly mania of fancying oneself superior to both.
Before a moving sky, (he said to M. Henry Malherbe) contemplating for hours together the magnificent constantly shifting beauty, I feel an incomparable emotion. Vast nature is reflected in my literal, halting soul. Here are trees with branches spreading toward the sky, here are perfumed flowers smiling on the plain, here is the gentle earth carpeted with wild grasses. And, insensibly, the hands take the position of adoration . . . To feel the mighty and disturbing spectacles to which nature invites ephemeral, temporary passers-by . . . . that is what I call prayer.
Who will ever know the secret of musical composition? The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird deposit in us multiple impressions and suddenly without our con- senting the least in the world, one of these memories speaks out of us and is expressed in musical language. It carries its harmony in itself. Try as we will, we cannot find a harmony more just or more sincere. Only in this way, does a heart destined to music make the most beautiful discoveries.
That is why I wish to write my musical dream with the most complete detachment from myself. I wish to sing of the inner landscape with the naive candor of childhood.
This innocent speech will not make its way with stumbling. It will always shock the partisans of artifice and falsehood. I foresee that and rejoice in it. I will do nothing to create adversaries. But I will do nothing to change adversaries into friends. One must force oneself to be a great artist for oneself and not for others. I dare to be myself and to suffer for my truth. Those who feel as I do will love me only the more for it. The others will avoid me, will hate me. I shall do nothing to conciliate them.
In truth, on the distant day– I must hope that it may come later– when I inspire no more quarrels, I shall bitterly reproach myself. In those last works, there will necessarily dominate the detestable hypocrisy which will have permitted me to satisfy everybody.
–Debussy to Malherbe (Excelsior, 11 Feb. 1911)
In May 1910 Claude Debussy said to Prudhomme: “Every artist has his temperament: art is always progressive; it cannot then return to the past, which is definitely dead. Only imbeciles and cowards look backwards. . . In conclusion: Let us work!”
Gaillard was the first to offer Debussy’s then-complete piano works in three evenings.
Malherbe was there each evening and write of his experience:
Debussy interpreted by Marius-François Gaillard
Nothing seemed to me more strange. And, however, nothing was simpler. Under the alternating fires of two spotlights, a very young man, with troubled eyes and flaming hair, was seated before the black mass of a piano. And, alone, confronting a considerable public, delirious or collected, and who filled the vast ship of the room of the Opera of the Champs-Elysees.
This spectacle still besets my memory.
For three nights, Mr. Marius-François Gaillard renewed a feat that remains unique in modern music. He played by heart – never was the expression more circumstantial – the complete piano works of Claude Debussy.
The young and prodigious executioner had, in truth, recourse to his memory. He seemed possessed of some mysterious fervor. His fast hands, endowed with a supernatural frenzy, restored to us, with an infallible accuracy, the Arabesques, Ballade, Reverie, Nocturne. ValseRomantique, the Preludes, Estampes, Images, Etudes, and all the works for piano by the great musician of Pelleas.
For his swarthy complexion, his hair and beard curly and too brown, for his sparkling eyes, black and sunken under the gilded and sovereign forehead, we called Claude Debussy The Prince of Darkness.
Did we live the other night in a hallucination? The Prince of Darkness was there, alongside his masterly performer. Did Gaillard so miraculously play only because he received from him that ineffable presence? Of this hard percussion instrument, which seems to be made, especially, for dry compositions, geometric, colored by points, juxtaposed spots (something like, in another field, the paintings of Cross or Signac) M. Marius-François Gaillard offered a melted, voluptuous music, a dripping poetry, deep shades, muted, airy subtlety, vibrant freshness, melancholic graces and admirable enveloping orchestral effects.
I seek to characterize, with some certainty, a kind of genius that burns in this young and great artist, when he plays the works of his favorite master. Today I’m desperate to reproduce my thought. The words come like crowds into my mind, in the tumult of feelings that agitate me. I can not choose. In these hastily sketched lines I no longer propose to present to you the study which I wish to publish on Gaillard, Debussy’s interpreter. To make these impressions lasting and to judge them with strength demands a long effort.
So I express, at least, the convictions that leave us these three unforgettable evenings where Marins-François Gaillard played, by heart, all the piano works by Claude Debussy:
l.) Debussy, as in the theater and the symphony, has brought into pianistic music an absolutely new style.
2.) Debussy has pulled from the piano a fabulous and unsuspected wealth and the work he leaves. for this instrument, is perhaps the most important of all pianistic literature.
3.) Among the illustrious interpreters of this incomparable musician, Marius-Francois Gaillard has proved to be the most truthful, the most inspired, the one whose action is most striking to an audience.
In a future article, I will try to develop these findings carefully.
Choses de théâtre, cahiers mensuels de notes, d’études v.1, 1921:Oct.-1922:July –1923.
The original, for our French readers:
Debussy interprété par Marius-François Gaillard.
Rien ne me parut plus étrange. Et, cependant, rien n’était plus simple. Sous les feux alternés de deux projecteurs, un tout jeune homme, le regard trouble, la chevelure en ﬂammes, était assis devant la masse noire d’un piano. Et, seul, affrontant un public considérable, délirant ou recueilli et qui remplissait le vaste vaisseau de la salle de l’Opéra des Champs-Elysées.
Ce spectacle assiège encore mon souvenir.
Pendant trois soirs, M. Marius-François Gaillard a renouvelé un exploit qui demeure unique dans la musique moderne. ll a joué par cœur, — jamais l’expression ne fut plus circonstancielle, —- tout l’œuvre pianistique de Claude Debussy.
Le jeune et prodigieux exécutant avait-il, en vérité, recours à sa mémoire. Il semblait possédé de je ne sais quelle ferveur mystérieuse. Ses mains rapides, douées d’une frénésie surnaturelle, nous restituaient, avec une justesse infaillible, les Arabcsques, la Ballade, la Rêverie, le Nocturne. la Valseromantique, les Préludes, les Estampes, les Images, les Études, et tous les ouvrages pour piano du génial musicien de Pellëas.
Pour son teint basané, ses cheveux et sa barbe frisés et trop bruns, pour ses yeux étincelants, noirs et enfoncés sous le front doré et souverain, nous appelions Claude Debussy Le Prince des Ténèbres.
Vivions-nous, l’autre soir, dans l’hallucination? Le Prince des Ténèbres était là, aux côtés de son magistral interprète. Gaillard n’a-t-il si miraculeusement joué que parce qu’il entait, auprès de lui, cçtte présence inelfable? De ce dur instrument à percussion qui parait fait, surtout, pour des compositions sèches, géométriques, colorées par des points, des taches juxtaposées (quelque chose comme, dans un autre domaine, les tableaux de Cross ou Signac) M. Marius-François Gaillard obtient un fondu, des êtirances voluptueuses, une poésie ruisselante, des teintes profondes, amorties, une subtilité aérienne, des fraîcheur rieuses, des grâces mélancoliques et l’admirables effets enveloppants d’orchestre.
Je cherche à caractériser, avec quelque certitude, une sorte de génie qui brûle en ce jeune et grand artiste, lorsqu’il joue les œuvres de son maître préféré. Je désespère de reproduire, aujourd’hui. ma pensée. Les mots viennent en foule à mon esprit, dans le tumulte des sentiments qui m’agitent. Je ne saurais choisir. En ces lignes, hâtivement tracées, je ne me propose plus de vous présenter l’étude que je voudrais publier sur Gaillard, interprète de Debussy. Pour rendre ces impressions durables et les juger avec force, il faut un long effort.
Que j’exprime, pour le moins, les convictions que nous laissent ces trois soirées inoubliables où Marins-François Gaillard joue, par cœur, tout l’œuvre pour piano de Claude Debussy:
l.) Debussy, comme au théâtre et à la symphonie, a apporté dans la musique pianistique, un style absolument nouveau.
2.) Debussy a tiré du piano des richesses fabuleuses et insoupçonnées et l’oeuvre qu’il laisse. pour cet instrument, est peut-être la plus importante de toute la littérature pianistique.
3.) Parmi les illustres interprètes de ce musicien incomparable, Marius- François Gaillard s’est révélé le plus véridique, le plus inspiré, celui dont l’action frappe le plus vivement un public.
Dans un prochain article, j’essaierai de développer soigneusement ces constatations.
Choses de théâtre, cahiers mensuels de notes, d’études v.1, 1921:Oct.-1922:July –1923.
Unlike Cortot, Gaillard was not in favor of the Nazis and their French puppets. One academic claimed that Gaillard’s post-War career was dampened by possible associations with the regime. An account by a hero of the Underground dispels this speculative fallacy to show how Gaillard was active in the opposition:
Here is living testimony from Paul Steiner, national president of the “Resistance” Movement, member of the Friends of the Resistance.
I was born in Paris in April 1922 and I quit studying at the Condorcet at the end of the second class in July 1938 in order to exclusively dedicate myself to my violin studies that began at age seven.
I was a student of Marcel Darrieu, solo violinist at the Colonne Orchestra’s concerts.
Eager to move into a string quartet at the end of 1938 I became a pupil of Gabriel Bouillon, professor at the Paris Conservatory who led a noted string quartet. His brother Jo Bouillon married Josephine Baker after the war. In the summer of 1939 I received a First Prize and was engaged as first violin with the Colonne Orchestra.
When the war broke out the Germans demanded that the concerts would be called the Gabriel Pierné Concerts because Édouard Colonne was Jewish.
At the end of 1940 I was also engaged as first violinist by Marius-François Gaillard and his orchestra of forty musicians. Gaillard, born in 1900, was Claude Debussy’s favorite pupil of whose almost complete works comprised a 1922 world tour to New York, Tokyo, etc. [This is not entirely accurate.] He was a perfectionist and his [orchestral] concerts were primarily comprised of works by Mozart and Schubert were notable. German soliders and officals came in great numbers and the orchestra often played on Radio Paris. Already by September 1942 I knew Jacques Destrée, who had just become one of the founders of Resistance, a secret newspaper. He had great confidence in me and I was hired as a secretary and part-time assistant.
I had in hand a hundred or so copies the 21 October 1942 issue, just released, of Resistance, number 1. Marius-François Gaillard was electrified when I gave him several copies to bring over to musical, literary, and artistic circles. The amount rapidly grew from 100 to 200 copies.
Meanwhile I took a course in chamber music given by Henri Benoit at the Ecole Normale de Musique, who, between the wars was a violinist in the famous Capet Quartet before joining Gabriel Bouillon’s quartet (my violin teacher.)
I noticed that in this course an elderly lady came for her own pleasure She lived in Dreux, had been a nurse in 1914-1918 and was highly decorated. Her anti-German sentiments were not in doubt and already in October of 1942 she distributed copies of Resistance. By the end of December 1942, I gave her, I believe, al least 50 newspapers and asked if she would consider the idea of creating a group in Dreux. Soon after, there came to me in Paris a M. Maranges, owner of the Peugeot garage in Dreux. This notable man had founded the very large group that organized sabotage in the region without a single arrest, and spoke at length of his efficacy at the moment of Liberation.
At the end of 1942 I was also engaged as violinist with Fernand Oubradous’ wind orchestra that permitted me in the beginning of 1943 to go with the Vichy Orchestra. The concert was organized at the Vichy Theater, I don’t know when, but it was in the presence of Marshall Petain and other high dignitaries from the French regime. With my luggage I brought along 100 copies of Resistance and during the first rehearsal for an hour or two I went to put my newspapers being very careful to place them in the loges, balcony seats and on the floor. I must say that I don’t recall all the seats. Fernand Oubradous had a problem because the police, in fact, that had to have been one of the 35 or 40 members of the orchestra that had “brought over these papers from Paris.” But as it was in the minds of the collaborators I had much to do with this opportunity. When I got back to Paris I was telling Jacques Destrée about my personal initiative, at first he laughed but right after he dug into me but also with affection for having undertaken such a risk, given my position with him.
When in the beginning of 1943 there was the problem of STO (Service for Obligatory Work, deporation by the Nazis to work as forced laborers in Germany) for the class of ’42 I had easily registered under a false name with the Colonna (Gabriel Pierné) Orchestra. With Marius-François Gaillard it was normal to hide me under a fake name because we were very good friends. I gave fake documents to other musicians in his orchestra.
Published in http://lesamitiesdelaresistance.fr/journaux.php
and for our dear French readers:
Voici un témoignage vécu de Paul Steiner, président national du Mouvement “Résistance”, membre des
Amitiés de la Résistance.
Je suis né à Paris en avril 1922, et j’ai arrêté mes études à Condorcet à la fin de la classe de seconde en juillet
1938 pour me consacrer exclusivement à mes études de violoniste commencées à l’âge de sept ans. J’étais élève de Marcel Darrieux, violon solo de l’orchestre des concerts Colonne.
Désirant m’orienter vers le quatuor à cordes, je devins, fin 1938, élève de Gabriel Bouillon, professeur au conservatoire de Paris que dirigeait un remarquable quatuor à cordes. Son frère, Jo Bouillon devint après la guerre le mari de Joséphine Baker.
À l’été 1939, je fus reçu premier au concours d’entrée à l’orchestre Colonne et enregistré comme premier violon.
La guerre éclata et les allemands exigèrent que les concerts Colonne s’appellent concerts Gabriel Pierné, car Édouard Colonne était juif.
À la fin de 1940 je fus également engagé comme premier violon par Marius François Gaillard dans son orchestre de chambre de quarante musiciens. Marius François Gaillard, né en 1900, avait été l’élève préféré de Claude Debussy, dont il interpréta vers 1922 la presque intégralité des œuvres pour piano dans une tournée mondiale à New York, Tokyo, etc. C’était un perfectionniste et ses concerts consacrés surtout à Mozart et à Schubert étaient remarquables. Les officiers et soldats allemands y venaient en très grand nombre. L’orchestre jouait souvent à Radio Paris.
Dès septembre 1942 je fis la connaissance de Jacques Destrée qui venait d’être l’un des fondateurs du journal clandestin Résistance. Il eut immédiatement une très grande confiance en moi et me prit comme secrétaire et adjoint à temps partiel.
J’eus aussi en mains dès sa sortie le 21 octobre 1942 une centaine d’exemplaires du n°1 de Résistance. Marius François Gaillard fut enthousiasmé lorsque je lui eu remis plusieurs exemplaires pour toucher les milieux musicaux, littéraires et artistiques. La quantité passa très vite à 100 puis 200 exemplaires.
Entre temps, je suivais les cours de musique de chambre de Henri Benoit à l’École normale de musique, place Malesherbes, qui entre les deux guerres avait été l’altiste du très célèbre quatuor Capet avant de devenir celui du quatuor Gabriel Bouillon (mon professeur de violon).
J’avais remarqué à ce cours une relativement vieille demoiselle qui y venait pour son plaisir. Elle habitait Dreux. Elle avait été infirmière en 14/18 et était très décorée. Ses sentiments anti-allemands ne faisaient aucun doute, et dès octobre 42 je luis remis des exemplaires de Résistance. À fin décembre 1942, je lui remettais, je crois, au moins 50 journaux et lui demandai si elle pouvait envisager de créer un groupe à Dreux. Peu après elle me présenta à Paris, à M. Maranges, propriétaire du garage Peugeot à Dreux. Cet homme remarquable créa un groupe très important qui organisa dans la région des sabotages, sans aucune arrestation, et fit beaucoup parler de son efficacité au moment de la Libération.
Fin 1942, je fus également engagé comme violoniste dans l’orchestre d’instruments à vent, très connu également, de Fernand Oubradous. Cela me permit début 1943 d’aller avec l’orchestre jouer à Vichy. Le concert était organisé au Théâtre de Vichy, je ne sais plus à quelle occasion, mais c’était en présence du maréchal Pétain et de certains hauts dignitaires du régime à la francisque. J’avais emporté dans mes bagages un paquet de 100 Résistance et, pendant la répétition générale précédant le concert d’une heure ou deux, je suis allé poser mes journaux en faisant très attention dans toutes les loges et sur les places du balcon ou du fond de la salle. Je dois dire que je ne me souviens plus très bien de tous les endroits. Fernand Oubradous eut quelques problèmes, car la police avait bien réalisé que ce devait être un des 35 ou 40 musiciens de l’orchestre qui avait “au moins apporté ces journaux depuis Paris”. Mais comme il était très à idées collaborationnistes, j’en avais bien profité. C’était de la folie de ma part, mais tellement tentant d’utiliser cette opportunité. Le concert avait eu beaucoup de succès, mais je pense que Résistance aussi avait dû en avoir pas mal.
Lorsque de retour à Paris je racontais à Jacques Destrée mon initiative personnelle, il éclata d’abord de rire, puis aussitôt après il m’attrapa sérieusement mais aussi affectueusement pour avoir pris un tel risque, compte tenu des fonctions que j’occupais auprès de lui.
Lorsque début 1943 il y eut le problème du STO pour la classe 42, j’ai obtenu très facilement d’être enregistré sous un faux nom à l’orchestre des concerts Colonne (Gabriel Pierné). Avec Marius François Gaillard, ce fut pour lui normal de me cacher sous un faux nom, car nous étions très liés d’amitié. J’ai procuré des faux papiers à deux autres musiciens de son orchestre.
Je pus ainsi tout en m’occupant énormément auprès de Jacques Destrée gagner ma vie en jouant dans les orchestres jusqu’en mars/avril 1943. Jacques Destrée avait besoin de moi à plein temps, car entre temps il m’avait confié la distribution du journal Résistance dès la sortie de l’imprimerie, puis très vite aussi la réalisation technique de l’impression. Au printemps 43 nous tirions toutes les trois ou quatre semaines Résistance sur quatre pages imprimées à 90 000 ou 100 000 exemplaires, soit environ 1 500 kilos en paquets de 100 ou 200 journaux. Ce n’était pas de tout repos de les sortir de l’imprimerie puis en organiser la répartition. C’est ainsi que prit fin ma carrière de violoniste pour me consacrer nuits et jours à l’action clandestine. Au début je dois dire que ce fut très difficile d’abandonner la musique, mais j’étais tellement occupé avec Jacques Destrée que je n’avais pas le temps d’y penser.
Meaningless speculation over a diminished career do not stand up to Gaillard’s great passion for the new media of cinema, becoming early on a composer for music to be coordinated with silent film. Gaillard wrote on the necessity to develop a new art form combining both and while it did not materialize in the way Man Ray and Hans Richter’s creations, he had a busy career composing film soundtracks and occasionally conducting his own music, symphonies, and chamber music.
Gaillard’s concertizing as a pianist gave way to his passion for conducting new orchestral music, introducing Varese’s revised Offrandes in 1929. A decade after recording Debussy’s piano works he recorded a Schubert Symphony and Mozart’s #36 with his eponymous orchestra. Here is the Mozart conducted by Gaillard in 1941:
It took over a year to locate and restore each and every Debussy recording left to us by Gaillard and add others who knew Debussy, including the composer himself of course, and musicians who had him in their blood.
After it’s publication in June, 2018 we discovered a portion of Gaillard playing part of the Hommage à Rameau played in the late 1950s and wish to offer it as Gaillard again reveals insight into this masterpiece:
Debussy (1862-1918) kindly invites you to explore his music and our previous blogs that involve violists who knew him and what went inside his ear:
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.