Beethoven exhausted the string quartet. Thoroughly. It took nearly a century for Bartók to stand up and continue its destiny. In the interim, Brahms burned untold numbers of his manuscripts to allow three to appear, each with characteristic slight-of -hand harmonic gear-shifts yet padded with lumbering rhythms, sounding a bit bloated despite all his efforts. Brahms did far better when he had more than four players to contend with.
Brahms was attracted to Hungary but the Czech composer Dvořák was attracted to Brahms’s music and did wonders with its shape. His Hungary turned out to be the United States, where he resided for about four years in New York and out in a Czech community in Iowa.
Dvořák heard Black music and was smitten by gospel singing and their rhythms, harnessing a bit into his language. One quartet, whose name became sanitized from the Nword into American, was recorded by his son-in-law Josef Suk and the Bohemian String Quartet he founded and led. While Vienna sailed on as the cultural light of the late 19th century, its outsiders were the ones innovating and avoiding being boxed up in the status quo. Here is a taste of the quartet’s 1928 recording:
It sounds episodic, like late Beethoven, and springs out from the Brahmsian three-piece suit to move more freely, flirting with folk music while carrying on the classical principles. The Bohemians are the closest we can get to a composer they championed in concerts throughout non-Czech Europe.
A Scottish-Italian composer and pianist, Giovanni Sgambati, was a Roman pupil of Liszt and was recorded in a movement from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in 1908 (announced by Sgambati: uno…due.) Italian musical life was dominated by the voice so it took a Sgambati to wake them up to Beethoven and German music. He and his band are showing us the gulf of a modern thinker at the keyboard stuck with slippery sliding string players whose practice was soon to end.
As old string playing and its 19th century were moribund and finally put down in World War I, another composer arose: Janacek the Moravian. He transformed speech and content into sound, no longer enslaved by themes and their past as expressive narrative. By endowing pitches into wordless speech, Janacek could evoke states of mind and emotions. Milan Kundera, the son of a pupil, mentions Janacek’s role in his Testaments Betrayed (p. 186):
The permanent coexistence of contradictory emotions gives Janacek’s music its dramatic quality; dramatic in the most literal sense of the term: this music does not evoke a narrator telling a tale, rather, it evokes a stage set on which many different characters are simultaneously present, speaking, confronting each other; the seed of this dramatic space is quite often found within a single melody itself.
Kundera once had to choose between following his creativity into music composition or literature and while we appreciate the outcome, his writings on music elevate his ideas far above scholars and pen-pushers through an insight not only sharpened by an innate understanding of art in relation to socio-aesthetics, but from the presence of a pianist father who had studied with the composer.
When I asked Kundera about his father, he tersely offered that all he had to say was in his Testaments and that he owned no recordings by him. Was he was planning to eventually cover the music of his early life and family, or mounting a defense to keep everyone away? Perhaps some day we will find out and hopefully before it is too late.
After a search, the only known recording of Kundera playing solo piano music was retrieved: a pair of polkas by Smetana, from Prague circa 1949, one year into their Communist puppet regime controlled by Moscow. Kundera’s playing stands apart from prevalent styles through its informed structure, wit, taste, and appreciation of a thorny modernity that would be manipulated by Janacek and others yet to arrive:
Evolving out of Smetana’s segments and articulated themes came Janacek’s argumentative and reacting language. While his music is now broadly accessible, in the late 1940s it was rather a confined local affair. Before their regime worsened, Kundera and Bretislav Bakala, a fellow pupil of Janacek’s, made it into the studio just in time: one of their projects displays the pianist and conductor in Defiance, a late work by Janacek, a capriccio for piano (left hand alone) and chamber ensemble, its first recording:
Their playing projects the ingenuity of Janacek’s microcosm, in part from their direct contact with him at the time it was composed. It reaches beyond our present’s cosiness to peer inside his vast personal music world, one that evokes enigmas like Bartók.
The world awaits more information and sounds from these people. One path that opened at this time led to Hašek’s TheGood Soldier Schweik and Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera, which will take on new dimensions after you experience Janacek. Writers such as Gombrowicz
picked up the thread, leading into Existentialism, the kingdom later claimed by Sartre, who became yet another dull conventional disputant.
After his death months before his 101st birthday in 1993, Bice Horszowski Costa and I looked through the library of her late husband, the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Before his frontal vision vanished through macular degeneration at the age of eighty-nine, he was very welcoming, especially backstage after his Mozart concerti at the Metropolitan Museum. When I attempted to thank him for playing the lesser known opuses, he brushed off all compliments to exult in Mozart: “Not one note can be added or changed to make it better!” Each year after his ninetieth birthday found him miraculously returning to perform a new program prepared with his wife who assisted the memory of what his eyes no longer deciphered. The conductor Frederic Waldman, with whom he gave two cycles, met the pianist soon after his eyesight worsened, hearing him bemoan the worst: that it prevented him from learning new works.
As a teacher, Horszowski rarely commented, preferring to communicate in sound. His rare remarks hit their targets: to a student struggling over Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, he was advised to work on it during a vacation. Upon returning, he listened and after a pregnant pause, offered “It’s VORSE!” Another student imposed overbearing force onto Schubert to be informed that “zere are NO TIGERS in ze VIENNA VOODS!”
In his 97th year, he received me at his Philadelphia home for an interview. I was preparing a CD set with a performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations played when he turned ninety. It would have been absurd, with Horszowski still alive, active, and alert, to dump more ready-made information into the ubiquitous ongoing pageant of names and dates surrounding the music history forced down one’s gullet. These formidable variations were a premonition of Twentieth Century music, virtually bypassing the Nineteenth Century.
Well, how did did he learn them? Slightly arching an eyebrow, he turned aside, commanding his wife to bring several hefty volumes in from his library. All books in position, he began:
“You see, I had an urtext to start with and then found a first edition. I was able to gain access to the autograph. Do you know von Bülow’s edition? [Horszowski held it up to a page that had extensive footnotes, a familiar sense of where to turn as he no longer could see a page’s contents.]
“It is very inaccurate but if you have the unedited music you can see what he has changed. But his commentary is very important.” Horszowski then produced Artur Schnabel’s edition:
“It is a forgotten work, never reprinted, and with important comments. I also heard him play the Diabelli four times in one season. I began to study them in 1949 [when he was 57 years old]. I also played for Toscanini and Casals and they made comments. I read Tovey on Beethoven. It’s important to know as many works by a composer as possible”
Horszowski paused to lean back on his chair, inhaling:”Then I meditated on it all.”
Decades of searching the globe for Horszowski’s recorded concerts led to Chopin performances that I’ll finally restore and soon publish. While he played in major American and European cities, Horszowski, a former Milanese resident, delighted on his Italian tours down south in Bari, Pistoia, Perugia, especially drawn to the Tuscan mountain town of Castagno d’Andrea which aroused his passion as an Alpinist who scaled the Matterhorn three times.
Their local priest offered the town’s church for his recitals and recorded them all. Another trip to Gorizia by the border with Slovenia had him playing Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, the only occasion in his last three or so decades, captured by an enraptured listener. The art of rubato heard here edges close to descriptions of the composer’s playing. A 1980 evening in Pistoia channeled Chopin moreso than any other yet to surface.
My own contact with his Chopin developed during his last sixteen years of activity and by listening to his few recordings. Each encounter with his art was one musically and spiritually enlightening, and with it came a gripping intensity of hearing him play like a God, then exiting off the stage to leave in his wake a comet’s tail of gratitude tinged with sorrow that it would, at any moment, be over.
Watching his diminutive body change its language with each composer, he slightly bent forward in Bach, abstaining from pedal. With Chopin his arms had a specific choreography as each composer was to be physically evoked in their unique sound worlds. His Bach arrived as a series of unfolding, overlapping waves, each laid bare for observation while intimating alternative possibilities, piling up into a labyrinth of potential perceptions hovering above their earthbound reality. Behind and within each space and sound came an infinity that arose and vanished inside time’s momentum.
Horszowski’s moderate tone expanded in Chopin to fill an entire space, saturating each cubic centimeter even during soft or chiaroscuro passages. His pedal floated the sound as a force to completely envelop you, flowing from the aether into him and translating itself into the air, guided by his fingers tracing their motions.
With Horszowski’s passing, the unknown steps behind his exploration of Chopin seeming irretrievable, and as he hermetically put a lid on his ideas and thoughts, we were at a loss to decipher the way he came to unlock Chopin’s enigmas. Horszowski’s mother, his first teacher, had studied with Chopin’s assistant Mikuli and there were other pupils at large, such as Moriz Rosenthal and Raoul “von” Koczalski, whose recordings varied from illumination (Rosenthal) to a dim bulb (Koczalski).
While taking time off from performing to attend philosophy lectures by Bergson at the Sorbonne around 1914 and immerse himself in reading, Horszowski obtained a new biography of Chopin by Edouard Ganche. Its binding and paper immediately aroused interest:
A book that never left him, it was his companion from Paris to Milano, during an escape from war torn Europe to Sao Paolo, then New York, and to his long and final residence in Philadelphia. Horszowski began corresponding with the author a decade after the book entered his life. Inside his copy were faint tracings alongside chosen passages. His pencilled clues created a subpath by isolating comments, excerpts from Chopin’s letters, all meekly indicated in the thinnest line of hardly visible pencil.
By doing so, Horszowski became a tacit presence that actively indicated every line that snared him: Chopin’s completion of a work yet to find its name (the Polonaise-Fantasie), a return trip from a hellish holiday in Majorca with George Sand amidst the stench and constant squealing cargo of one hundred swine whose din didn’t abate during Chopin’s strenuous breathing and his coughing up of tubercular blood.
Chopin’s friendship with the artist Delacroix attests to more than a portrait with Sand:
Went with Chopin for his drive at about half-past three. I was glad to be of service to him although I was feeling tired. The Champs-Élysées, l’Arc de l’Étoile, the bottle of quinquina [bitters aperitif], being stopped at the city gate, etc.We talked of music and it seemed to cheer him. I asked him to explain what it is that gives the impression of logic in music. He made me understand the meaning of harmony and counterpoint, how in music, the fugue corresponds to pure logic, and that to be well versed in the fugue is to understand the elements of all reason and development in music. I thought how happy I should have been to study these things, the despair of commonplace musicians. It gave me some idea of the pleasure which true philosophers find in science. The fact of the matter is, that true science is not what we usually mean by that word – not, that is to say, a part of knowledge quite separate from art. No, science, as regarded and demonstrated by a man like Chopin, is art itself, but on the other hand, art is not what the vulgar believe it to be, a vague inspiration coming from nowhere, moving at random and portraying merely the picturesque, external side of things. It is pure reason, embellished by genius, but following a set course and bound by higher laws. And here I come back to the difference between Mozart and Beethoven. As Chopin said to me, ‘Where Beethoven is obscure and appears to be lacking in unity, it is not, as people allege, from a rather wild originality – the quality which they admire in him – it is because he turns his back on eternal principles.’ Mozart never does this. Each part has its own movement which, although it harmonizes with the rest, makes its own song and follows it perfectly. This is what is meant by counterpoint, punto contrapunto. He added that it was usual to learn harmony before counterpoint, that is to say to learn the succession of notes that leads to the harmonies. In Berlioz’s music, the harmonies are set down and he fills in the intervals as best he can. Those men, who are taken up with style that they put in before everything else, prefer to be stupid rather than not to appear serious. Apply this to Ingres and his school.–Eugene Delacroix. Journal entry of 7 April 1849
One of Horszowski’s students kept a trusty device hidden from prying authorities and thus saved a great many concerts. Neglected by the record industry until a late effort arose after his 94th year, such action rescued a great legacy before it vanished. One such moment comes from the final season in his ninety-ninth year: an encore of Chopin’s Valse inC sharp minor comes to life in a 19th century style amidst audience noises that carry you from a state of joy to a sorrowful premonition of impending loss; the Valse was played at what became his penultimate concert.
We continue searching and publishing in gratitude for what Horszowski offered us.
I cannot resist leaking parts from sounds too good to hide before publication and tweak your antennae. One musician-enigma is Oskar Fried, the Berlin conductor seen above who trained dogs and circus animals before arriving at the Berlin Philharmonic in 1905 without previous experience. Mahler was then on the scene as an opera conductor whose own works attracted devotees. Fried sought Mahler in his guise as director of the Vienna Philharmonic to complain about how one of his works was being mauled by another Viennese conductor. Before much else was said, Mahler informed Fried that he was a conductor, whether he knew it or not. “It’s not written on my face” Fried snapped back, to which Mahler stated, “I know my own people.” In 1924, Fried somehow crammed the Berlin State Opera Orchestra into a studio and became the first musician to record a Mahler symphony, the Second, and in its entirety, but into a horn, as the microphone was yet to arrive.
Fried became very close to Mahler (as seen in this early photo), a disciple to his prophet, and his sonics open a view onto the composer’s own art. The dreadful sounds inhabiting his restricted dim acoustic recording stirred me up to try another approach and liberate his sounds. Here is how the opening now plays:
While Mahler was brewing I revisited home recordings of Rev. Gary Davis, made in a courtyard semi-shack he inhabited stuck behind a Bronx tenement in 1951, the first tapes made of Davis, absent from the pressure of a format setting. He sings a gospel tune with his wife Annie (seen together here about fifteen years later):
An early sermon also survives, finding his thorough reading of the sacred books leading him to preach and reach great intensities that also dwelled in his singing and projection through his alter ego, the guitar:
An energy touches these musicians who vibrate as conduits for a force that projects through their singing and playing. Indian music has a sarod master, Buddhadev Das Gupta who recently appeared here in New York.
The raga Zila Kafi has a deliciously cloying melody in its final phase, capturing a sultry rapture. Das Gupta worked as an engineer and thus avoided the politics and limits of commericalized musical styles, keeping his tradition pure:
Energy caught on wax, as Brahms himself cut a cylinder for an agent of Thomas Edison’s who conducted a whirlwind blitz throughout Europe in 1889 to capture celebrities’ voices.
Luckily Brahms did more than just announce his name as he left behind two excerpts, one well known (for being inaudible) Hungarian Dance of his own and a second work: you’ll be rewarded after enduring the first seconds of harsh noise with Josef Strauss’ Die Libelle.Polka-Mazur fur das Piano Forte,op.204. I heard it in Vienna in 1984 and was dismayed at how inaudible it was, taking their word that the buried pianist was the composer himself. As the recording surfaced on the internet, it was time to probe and here we are.
Soak up his own touch, his insistent Harlem-like rhythm and encounter a vivid slice of time projecting his life while he was alive and reactive with a playing that escapes living-room niceties by offering vision and style.
Recent running throughout Europe in situ and sitting pretty at a safe distance across the ocean brings up recent encounters. High velocity rail redefines a continent yet misses the grounded rhythmic chugging in Booker T. Washington White’s narration behind Napoleon Hairiston’s calling out of The New Frisco Train:
Up in Norway folk music taps into their depths and manifests within art music. Grieg was coerced into a new studio in the Paris of 1903 where he was ordered to sit down and play through nine of his compositions. One fiddle tune gets reshaped into his Norwegian Bridal Procession. A sesquicentennialcelebration of his birth was celebrated here in New York and its organizers saw no reason whatsoever to include any of Grieg’s own playing during the festivities. Grieg composed this work some forty years earlier and hasn’t lost any of its enraptured momentum. Seen at his side is Nina, wife and muse who sang the lieder he created for her:
Get your ears set for my new attempt at coaxing sounds out his primitively transmitted horn recordings on what seems to have been an upright piano belonging to the Gramophone & Typewriter studio:
Down to Genova for lunch prepared by Bice Horszowski Costa, whose traditional spaghetti al pesto adds fagiolini (string beans) and potatoes to the pasta pot, upping its starch and greener tinge.
Our mission was to save a performance by her late husband Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Hanging by a thread, his playing Chopin’s improvisatory Polonaise Fantasie is the finest we have yet to hear, one that survived on a clandestine recording made by a devoted pupil who braved nearby throat-clearers. Their output was enough to undermine a yoga master’s powers to obliterate noise and remove squeaky chairs from the mind:
After lunch we examined a book that Horszowski read in the 1910s while based in Paris and attending Bergson’s lectures at the Sorbonne. Edouard Ganche’s Chopin biography was one of the few volumes in which the pianist left annotations in the margins. It stood out as if he was with us to eagerly point out every meaningful detail, which prompted Mrs. Horszowski to uncover correspondence between Horszowski and Ganche in the 1920s, lasting for over a decade, touching on new finds and Ganche’s preparation of a scholarly edition of the piano music. This furthered our uncovering of Horszowski’s links to Chopin.
Amidst these displacements of time, Oskar Fried’s specter is never far.
A 1929 London performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was captured under his baton with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Fried covered most traces of an art that inspires research and to a re-listening that brought up a language empowered by a spirit of dance and extreme unions of instruments into a striking identity not found anywhere else. Fried grasps this better than most baton-wielders:
Russia is full of writers and composers who challenge and shake up any order, creating paradoxes whenever serenity encroaches. The Apollonian musician Galina Werschenska fled Petersburg after the Bolshevik Revolution to safety in Denmark, where she lived for many years and carried with her an untroubled approach. This photo remains as rare as her surviving sounds:
Neglect may be due to gender, yet her profound Russianness conveys a grounded language that Tchaikovsky emanated. A Chopin nocturne, one of her lost Copenhagen discs, exposes an inner world that the blaring of her attention-seeking rivals lacked the patience to explore.
Sitting in a hot Adriatic Italian town with roosters and hunting dogs making their presence known out the window, a time of capturing a closed neighboring country’s music came to mind. The heat obliges me to ask In a gentlemanly way if you believe that classical music is more important or substantial than all other formats for content and expression. And if you feel so and snub what’s usually served up as Ethnic or World music, you might be right in some way but certainly not here so if this isn’t in your interest, your exit is but a click away
Unbeknownst to most classical musicians, a parallel universe exists by its side, inspiring and denoting profound historic and stylistic shifts, and if you play with them, they will tell you things that no goddamn printed page can ever hope to imply.
So. . . just how far back in time can we reach via sound? There is the onion of Albanian music. Their dictatorship froze an isolated group of cultures after the 1940s that are identical to the earliest recordings from the 1920s.
Obsessively glued to a radio in Italy’s Marche region, I intercepted Radio Tirana’s local programming beamed across the Adriatic. With a cassette ever ready throughout the 1980s, some hypnotic moments wafted over:
Unlike the even steadiness next door, Albanians shape their rhythm into a wild Balkan structure that sounds disjointed, yet is remarkably precise, elusive and unsettling to anyone lackng a rock-solid sense of beat.
An unexpected visit from Chinese and Mongols still echoes a thousand years or so onward in a dance requiring at least three legs as four beats morph into a group of nine, then ten before hugging onto a prominent four beat pattern:
We have no sonic evidence of how Greek tragedy choruses were chanted out but this may bring us up ever so close as their neighbors use prosody and multiple voices in a far earlier practice than the pile-up of sounds we recently peeled through.
But within hearing range is an example by the master-mind Bartók, who aside from having been one of our greatest composers and pianists, also invented the deep science of Ethnomusicology. One of his rare discs was released by the Hungarians, a performance of excerpts from his Hungarian Peasant Dances for solo piano. My recent discovery of the original recording brought forth sounds that the dull dubs accessed by the Budapest scholars failed to reveal. An excerpt, recorded on a Pleyel piano by Bartók himself in Paris, 1936:
Bartók crossed class lines to live, eat, breathe, and record the folk, the happiest days of his life, he always said. City dwellers wouldn’t dare venture beyond a trade of money for peasants’ goods at a market, whereas Bartók’s frightening entrance into their remote villages, a city dweller probably out to collect taxes or make their lives worse, soon evaporated as he set up an Edison cylinder recorder and cajoled them into offering their song. Note the shy ones peering over the fence:
Ligeti, a fellow Transylvanian, loved to admit how he composed elements from African music into his piano etudes, daring anyone to find them. Bartók left a smoking gun in the case of a section in his Improvisations for piano. Here we have a unique performance he gave after a radio program that was preserved, a work otherwise unrecorded by its composer:
One inadvertently eavesdrops on conversations, eyes discarded leaflets, witnesses unexpected scenes. A pile-up of transitory collisions somehow etch themselves to reside within you, shaping one’s destiny. Some people manage to ignore it all. I hold on, to everything possible – written out, placed in a notebook. With time’s scalpel, here is a sliced cross-section of what the breezes blew by.
Chapter One: Richman and Louie, employees at Newsweek Magazine
This conversation took place at a time when Philip Glass and Steve Reich actively began composing what became known as Minimalist Music.
scene one: men’s room, during urination:
R: Yessir, [in a sermonizing tone] Old Man Mahood’s gone! He found somethin’ better. He’s goin’. Yessir.
L: Hey Richman, Andy’s leaving too!
R: Yah, Old Man Mahood’s leavin; for good. Been a long time, he mus’ave found somethin’ better, real good.
L: Andy’s leaving too.
R: Yessir, Old Man Mahood’s going. Found something better.
[anonymous voice from a stall]: How can you get any better than this?
scene two: a discussion that occurred two-to-four times weekly:
[Louis often brought in generous quantities of lunch to share.]
R: Yessir, I use to have thirty-nine cars. . . I’m sixty eight years old. . .Um-hmm! Use’ to cook for Gen’l Patton. I cooked right out of his helmet. . .Yah (leaning to Andy), you’ young ‘n’ hansom, you get to sing and you get all the women, like Pavarotty, he sings real good. Bel Canto don’t come overnight. It takes years. . .Uh-humm.
R: Yessir, , , I see GHOSTS!
R: I see SPIRITS!!
L: You’re a LIAR! You see you’ GOD! You see the Devil. You don’ see nothin’. Shut up, I hate you! I don’ believe in you’ God!
R: I’m seventy-two-years old. Yessir.
Chapter Two: Graffiti and words of wisdom caught on the run.
December 1981, First Avenue @ 14th Street, L train eastbound platform:
is fuckin late
The fuckin food
is fuckin old
are Fuckin cold
Chapter Three: New York’s ethnic diversity in 1986. A Polish craftsman opines:
Ach, I love the Irish! Jimmy, vy don’t you sink? The Irish they love singink. I remember a fellow Mike used to verk heeah. He vould be singink all the time. Ach vat a man he was, a real man! He loved all the ladies and the ladies loved him! And his vife would somehow find aht vere he vas and give it to him on the head on his vay aht of a voman’s apahtment! I remember the parade, you know viz everyting and he was densing! How he could dense!!
Mike’s destiny recalled a passage in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a rare moment wafting out of this otherwise swamp of sentimentality that seemed to hint at a karmic retribution on its way, :
About a year after Johnny’s marriage, Frankie, whom many thought even handsomer than Andy, wavered home after a drinking party one night and stumbled over some taut wire that a bucolic Brooklynite had strung around a square foot of grass before his home stoop. The wire was held up by three sharp little sticks. As Frankie stumbled, one of the sticks pierced his stomach. He got up somehow and went home. He died during the night.
a few weeks later:
Rush hour on the F train. Seated nearby, a 30-ish man held a tattered briefcase littered with decals, bearing in large letters: Duke Rotnac. He began singing aloud
After four repetitions of this hymn to his alter-ego, he pulled out from his briefcase a tome of Heine’s poetry and lectured to all within hearing that “Heine was too insecure to be an atheist, unlike Spinoza. . .”
. . .at which point my stop arrived and deprived me of his wisdom.
Chapter Four: A close encounter with Enlightenment
At a time when I was interviewing musicians and ever so slowly writing their testimony into a biography on Ignaz Friedman came an encounter that still shakes me by the way it represents a search for the unknown, the lost, the intangible. A trip to Chicago to meet a pupil of Friedman’s was preceded by dinner at an aunt’s home. Their guest. . . a rare species he was! A pre-Soviet Russian who went West after the Revolution. For some reason he had to subvert the ongoing conversation to a memory that suddenly gripped him. As a youth, he lolled about a grandiose, daunting bookshelf kept in order by his father. He randomly reached up and pulled out a volume:
From the first sentence it felt as though I was discovering myself through this author. He seemed to understand me more than anyone else had in my life, even more than my own self and I couldn’t put the book down. I read on and found it was revealing everything I should know. My father unexpectedly entered and saw the book I had found, grabbed it out of my hands and said ‘You are too young to read this.’ I never saw it again, never found any trace of who might have been the author. To this day, I feel that my entire life has been incomplete for not having read it.
Decades later, I reconnected with an older cousin, their son, and asked him about this mysterious being:
His name was Gregory Lotsman, a real character. And, he ran the Soviet bookstore in Chicago for many years. I worked there for him for a while. He ran away from home when he was about 16 years old, so if that incident with the book ever really occurred, it must have been when he was in his early teens. He died around 1995, I think. I remember how he used to recite poetry, play the guitar. He also played a decent game of chess, and I still have an old chess set which he gave me which he said was carved by a prisoner in a tsarist prison. He was a colorful and bombastic character, debonair and a gentleman, though he could be quite abrasive on occasion.
One day at Beate Gordon’s home in New York, she noticed a series of recordings on her shelf while we were examining photos for a new CD of the pianist Leo Sirota, her father.
She asked whether these discs might be of interest.
This unfamiliar set of sixty ten-inch shellac discs seemed to cover the full range of Japan’s traditions, the first volume containing the ancient shamanic court Gagaku music played by the Imperial Household ensemble, and Buddhist chant. While familiar with koto and shamisen music, I had only heard live performances and recent recordings and like the gagaku it sounded so elegant and fragile, as if it could be easily shattered, barely glued together to keep an ancient tradition alive.
How would these older recordings compare, as they claim that their tradition is unbroken?
Right away the presence of fewer musicians and a gripping weight, an idea of permanence leapt out of the old grooves. It sounded as if the players and their culture were part of an ancient ongoing practice that gazed into eternity, before any need to be reassembled from shards after Japan’s defeat. Every other genre, of the Noh theater, Kabuki, koto and shamisen music, folksongs, all carried a comfort and ease, a swaying rhythm hat became stratified after the country’s dismantling. Many of the performers not only represented the pre-War spirit but some were born before and trained by musicians pre-dating 1868, the moment when Japan ceased to be hermetic and foreign visitors and influences entered.
I located an extraordinary scholar, Dr. Naoko Terauchi of Kobe University who had written a comparison between the earliest (1903) gagaku and its present state. She proved to be unique in her field and amongst most ethnomusicologists who prefer writing to listening. Dr. Terauchi discovered that two known complete sets are extant; one in a library, the other Beate Gordon’s.
Beate received the discs on a military mission in Japan during her 22nd year. A fellow officer, Donald Richie, who became a leading authority on Japanese cinema, stumbled upon the set and gave it to her for safe keeping. Beate played a decisive role with the US military as they wrote in secret Japan’s postwar constitution. A native Viennese who grew up in Japan, she demanded that there be a section on women’s rights. Arguing with the military staff, she prevailed but as a young dancer, had little experience in writing a legal document. Procuring an army jeep and driver, she scoured Tokyo in search of libraries that had not been bombed. At each one she borrowed one copy of a foreign constitution along with several popular novels, doing so to avoid suspicion. Beate studied about seven documents, in seven languages, and through her work the women of Japan have a unique legal status, something that the United States and many other countries still lack. Here is Beate describing her mission (filmed in 2011).
Beate lectures on her mission and was the guiding force at the Asia Society’s arts programming for decades. She recently appeared at the Japan Society, wearing a designer dress from c. 1910 that surpassed everyone’s attire, perhaps in the entire metropolis as well that night:
Her indirect rescue of a full cross-section of traditional music, which never saw the light due to the War (possibly their warehouse was bombed), has resulted in three of a five cd series that Dr. Terauchi and I are publishing. Here is a song appearing along with its text, a sultry Geisha ballad recorded in 1940, sung by Kaneko Chieko, accompanied by Tamura Taiko, Sahashi Shôko on their shaminsen which is now in preparation for volume 4: Geisha, theater songs, children’s songs and games.
[I] Wan’t somebody to tell me, answer if you can!
I Want somebody to tell me, just what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, please answer if you can
If anybody surely can tell me, just what is the soul of a man?
I’ve traveled different countries, I’ve traveled in furthest lands
I’ve found nobody could tell me, just what about the soul of a man.
I saw a crowd stand talking, I just came up in time
Was teaching the lawyer, the doctors: well a man ain’t nothing but his mind.
I read the bible often, I tries to read it right
And far as I could understand, [don’t you go to burning light? ]
When Christ sat in on the temple, the people, Lord, stood amazed
Was teaching the lawyers and doctors, how to raise a man from the grave
*n.b. The text provided by the YouTube poster has been corrected here.
Meanwhile, around 500 B.C. in China, Confucius and his disciples used a string instrument the gu qin for spiritual purification.
Ideally it was to be played by Taoist amateurs outdoors, in harmony with trees and birds. The left hand’s movement along its silk strings excited a scratchy sound they considered to be the instrument’s breathing. In Chinese society, few ever gained access to this discipline and art. Barely surviving Mao’s cultural revolution, a few practitioners kept the ancient practice alive. One player was aviator Zha Fuxi, who stopped in the United States around 1946, sent over as the head of China’s airforce by Chiang Kai Shek. He carried one on board and was recorded in Washington. When the Revolution came, he sided with Mao and was honored by the red emperor who granted him free pursuit of his great love, the gu qin. Here is an unpublished fragment of his playing:
This snippet offers a work presented in a metrically recited delivery, supported by the instrument’s heavy breathing. It is not different from his other glacially slow half-hour pieces, all elaborated by carefully placing each note into a designated pattern, like an assembly line.
Going back and forth to the twentieth century, a cultural nexus entered and emanated from Teresa Sterne, a child prodigy pianist who guided the life behind hundreds of recordings of early music, the newest of the new, and world music for Nonesuch Records.
Tracey’s erudition was revelatory to our lives and nourished our development. The privilege of knowing her during her final years came to an end when she was devastated by illness. Asked to aid in organizing her massive archive, I espied a 1930s Depression era economic edition of Mark Twain, one that she spoke fondly of as having been a catalyst for cultural development and philosophical investigation, a lifelong companion. The books arrived periodically at her local Boro Park Brooklyn’s newsstand and as she and her family dwelled in what she termed “genteel poverty”, they were attainable treasures. It seemed that their role in her life inspired her to guide a recording company that would offer the same affordability for great music.
One shelf held a dormant pile of desultorily filed audition tapes that she had turned down for publication. Opening one tiny reel-to-reel tape box yielded an intriguing photo of an elegant, refined older gentleman playing the gu qin. Knowing how Chinese classical music encompassed a range of vocalized theatrical cat fights to dull square-peg-into-square-hole meditative music, I was curious how this vigorous man would play the classic Teals descending on the sand:
Tucked into the tiny box was a letter written to Tracey in 1970 by an American who lived in Hong Kong and had become a pupil of this Lo Ka Ping, a seventy-five year old native of Guangdong, China, self taught Taoist priest who taught English in the New Territories inside a house filled with instruments dating back one thousand years. The note requested that she return his photo and recording if the project would not take off. Over thirty years later, I traced Dr. Dale Craig and we published Lost Sounds of the Tao with Craig’s enigmatic photo on the cover. Our rescue of Lo’s art is documented here.
Lo Ka Ping’s playing conveyed a spirit missing in the sterile rote-playing of the scholars, a surprising observation reached after hearing as many other gu qin players as possible, With Lo’s first sounds, Blind Willie Johnson immediately came to mind, with one specific piece connecting them.
In Dark was the night, Johnson transcends his proselytizing framework, as the title and visionary mood suggest a metaphor of blindness illuminating a departure into an inner world of transcendence, as Lo and his forbears would purify themselves with their music.
The silk-stringed zither was remote to generations of an immense Chinese population who still are unaware of its sounds and role in their tradition. The fragments that survived in near isolation never developed beyond its closed circle, although Lo’s discovery and mastery of his ancestral music led him to compose new works for his cherished instrument. Musical spirituality in Blind Willie Johnson’s world was far from being restricted to any circle of philosophers but openly shared as an integrative force in his society’s lives. Its development into jazz and resonances into other genres keep it as a perpetually re-emerging marvel in American music. Behind it all is the act of approaching a sacred human essence, portrayed as divine by organized religions, yet experienced weekly, such as its emergence in the Chicago-based Rev. Amos Waller’s sung sermon on stormy weather:
Everything eventually crosses your path. Last week two momentous events took place, restoring a raw nature of change and transformation that shakes up life’s complacency, movingly depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.
The first stirrings in a chain of events began over thirty years ago, stirred up by a recording of Wanda Landowska playing Bach (1685-1750). This composer is so often understood and played as an entity spouting masterpieces in a cohesive style of endless imaginative explorations. But this Toccata in D major breathed its life as a young composer’s creation, sounding as if it still needed to ripen, unlike his later works that impress as received rather than assembled.
Each of the Toccata’s several parts vividly flit with distinct rhythms and phrasing, a melange that somehow falls into place. The young Bach copied music for his own use, to be close with its art and his. One composer he doted on was Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643),
active a century earlier. Bach owned a copy of his Fiori Musicali for organ, not easily found in Germany in the early 1700’s. Listening to Frescobaldi came as a shock, for it exposed an avant-garde composer who was active in the Renaissance’s move towards the Baroque. In his native Ferrara, the ruling Este family had their Palazzo Schifanoia (“palace for ridding oneself of boredom”) with a chamber of frescoes depicting zodiacal and alchemic symbols:
The Este family could have invited the young townsman into this space to relieve their tedium. We are not certain of their contact, but this fresco’s spirit and adventurous nature guided his musical creation.
Frescobaldi moved to Rome and was appointed organist at the nearly complete San Pietro church. At that time, its plan and details were carried out by Bernini and his rival architect Borromini. The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona has a figure that Bernini shaped with an outstretched mocking gesture of defiance in order to block the horrid view of a church designed by Borromini: in their action dwells Frescobaldi’s art, as they were contemporaries who might have known one another in passing.
Michelangelo disdained Flemish painting:
this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single one would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application.
Michelangelo introduced the spark of life as a way of burying the Middle Ages’ depersonalized rigidity, and in Frescobaldi this spirit surfaces in sound, a rarity in his time, one leading to Bach and the tradition that followed.
Curious about his presence in Bach’s growth, I began listening and playing his works, finding them enticing in their erratic, odd fragmented confusion and surprising rapid-fire salvos. Frescobaldi left instructions on how to play his music. The composer grants you liberty to stop early if needed, even before finishing a work, to impose or shape any mood, tempo, or expression according to your will and good taste. And yet one heard him played smoothly, sounding straight-jacketed. . . until a recording appeared by Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini. The Fifth toccata with and without pedal is played on a 17th century organ at the church of San Bernardino di Carpi in Modena, Italy:
Frescobaldi’s harpsichord works also incorporated popular and folk melodies into dance rhythms, an example noted by Bach. It was a revelation to hear Tagliavini play a recital in Civitanova Alta (Macerata), Italy some twenty-two years ago and last week he returned here to New York after an absence of twenty-five years. His program focused on Frescobaldi and its influence on Bach and beyond, at the Church of the Ascension on it’s newly built organ, freshly in place after arriving from France.
The accuracy of Tagliavini’s playing and conception proved exemplary in illuminating and bringing to life older practices, restoring an audacity and freshness. He is one of the few to have made sense of Frescobaldi and a path leading to Bach. I had to thank him and ask if he would explain the steps and approaches he took in decoding Frescobaldi. He kindly conceded an interview the following Sunday. Tagliavini at once mentioned that discovering the music was aided by playing on antique harpsichords:
. . .yes, in a certain way, because the way modern instruments which we have available at music conservatories aren’t the ideal instruments for Frescobaldi, and instead it was Frescobaldi that I discovered on these old instruments. It’s not only the sound, it’s a laborious way, above all in the works, in the most ingenious works by Frescobaldi, the Toccatas, that are beyond what the music that came after it conditioned us to expect. For example, when we listen to Mozart, not that we know, but we think we might be able to predict how he will continue his discourse, quite often it’s not true because he’s too ingenious as a composer, but what I’d like to say is that the music has this side of predictability, you can predict or imagine. In Frescobaldi, no! you can’t predict it. It’s not a casual improvisation, it’s quite a profound imagination and a structural law which is extremely free.
Tagliavini has extensively examined tablature and manuscripts to further his decoding of touch and ornaments, tempi, all tacit elements embedded within threadbare intimations of notation. For decades he has studied harpsichord construction and amassed a collection of over seventy instruments that have been recently loaned to a museum in Bologna, Italy with the proviso that they are kept in use rather than be displayed in silence:
Research never ends as Taglaivini now prepares his new edition of the Fiori Musicali. His decoding of Frescobaldi by accessing elements from his time based on studies and a remarkable ear and judgment lead the once-unfathomable music into a renewed existence.
As Sunday’s interview morphed into a conversation, violinists were rushing over to Newton outside of Boston as Roman Totenberg lay on his deathbed. In a diary from 1943, Mieczyslaw Horszowski noted a radio performance of Beethoven’s first violin sonata with Totenberg. Checking his name in 2010, his birth year of 1911 was followed only by a dash.
I located a radio program produced by his daughter Nina Totenberg for his 96th birthday:
On the side was a link to a Totenberg recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto. How did Totenberg play? There were no available recordings at this time. Usually this Beethoven is served up grandiose, overblown, a technical tour-de-force underlined with elemental struggle. Totenberg approached it from a height, an Olympian gaze onto its emotional terrain, inner being, all played in an assured resolute calm, as one sensed how in every phrase and tone he was more involved in listening than merely playing an instrument. Nina Totenberg immediately responded and mentioned that her father was still quite busy, teaching, and would be delighted to get a call. I phoned him at once and we began to examine and explore his art and life for the next two years, publishing a CD edition based on remarkable recordings that had lain in the shadows of his basement for nearly a half century.
A stunning abundance of extraordinary recorded performances appeared on each and every bookshelf, in desk drawers, enough repertoire to cover a good dozen essential CDs. We began to finalize a second project, sonatas with Jorg Demus and Philippe Entremont. When mentioning Roman to these pianists, they sighed and expressed gratitude for the rare experience he provided them, retaining vivid epiphanies decades later. In the basement was a broken disc, partially playable, offering a rare glimpse captured in Warsaw around 1928, in his seventeenth year. Novacek’s Perpetuum mobile was a technically daunting virtuosic display, quite evident here, yet the main focus is on an exquisite tone and energetic heat:
We have few traces until 1939, when a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.3 was caught on deteriorating homemade lacquer discs that had peeled, surviving its final playback.
Here is the lead into its first movement’s cadenza, projected with a refined style and warm expression. When playing it for Roman, he didn’t recognize the cadenza, guessing that it was something he improvised on the spot:
One can hear a remarkable development in his art via the third movement of Brahms’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano on the Arbiter CD, its informal poise masking a remarkable precision that makes this tossed-off movement offer profundity and sound definitive in his hands:
After his one hundredth birthday, Roman tended to repeat favored anecdotes, yet when we once switched to French a new trove opened onto unfamiliar episodes emerging from storage within another language vault.
His art made a profound change in my perception of using the violin for music. Aside from him, Huberman, and Erica Morini, many legends and grand names of past and present seemed limited by their superficiality, ego, tonal fetishism, maudlin asides, good moments followed by dubious voids. Totenberg fitted all into a natural balance, illuminating the music. Of the hundreds of students he shaped into artistic maturity, news of his end reached many. The scene developed during his final hours found dear and devoted students rushed over, one driving for six hours, all with violin in hand, to serenade him in the last moments. Hardly able to speak, he beat time with his foot and arm, even whispering corrections:
Bronislaw Huberman heard the eighteen-year old Totenberg in 1929 and provided him a scholarship to leave Warsaw for studies in Berlin. On our last meeting I played Roman a performance by Huberman in Brahms’s violin concerto, captured in New York, 1944. He sat in rapt attention throughout, stunned, nearly speechless afterwards.
While Totenberg’s physical passing leaves us a void, his art remains and so much is awaiting recovery from archives throughout the world, and his legacy lives in pupils who are teaching and performing, passing on his knowledge. Its depth grew out of a grand culture, a century of contacts with great artists, guided by the originality he possessed. When asked about his Bach, if Casals or anyone else had influenced it, he replied “No. I spent a few weeks on it in Rome in the 1930’s and worked it all out.” Bach’s Presto in G minor (1971):
Such a strikingly autochthonous and mysterious American Art music, allegedly risen up from unknown and lost origins, abounding in myths spouted by latter-day aficionados. For many, our earliest exposure to primal Blues came through Robert Johnson.
Until recently there were no images of Johnson, depicted here as a generic rural guitarist. One could only fantasize over his missing features, attire, and character. The stereotype pose foisted onto his sole record-jacket didn’t help clear the fog until a recently discovered photo reveals him to have been dapper, possessing endlessly long, slender fingers that drew out a distinct lonesome sound, moaning, harsh, a repressed violence behind virtuosity too big for a rural genre in which he seemed stuck. Had he lived longer, Johnson would have moved out of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and plugged in but being poisoned at age 27 shifted music’s destiny. Instead he has been represented as an icon that presumably attained musical mastery overnight by having sold his soul to the devil at a cross roads, filling up on supernatural fuel and paying for it with a deadly bargain. This popular myth was the brainchild of Blues fans who failed to acknowledge or grasp how hard work, talent, and musical perception shaped his artistry. Their puerile view deforms a distinct individuality into the role of a puppet in a Faustian encounter viewed from above by gawkers at a circus side-show: although the Johnson-Devil myth mirrors their own limits, it rained gold onto tribute bands such as the Rolling Stones.
Johnson’s art developed from hanging with Son House and copying recordings by other artists. Son House takes us one step back into early Blues and the hard-core gets harder:
Until these recordings were discovered by outsiders, there was a veil drawn over Afro-American society and the technology of shellac discs captured a vast window onto nascent, prevalent, and passing styles, with each protagonist projecting a staggering individuality. Son House veered between alcohol, debauched living, and serving as a preacher, mixing all into a difficult but ferociously expressive art. Johnson copied his singing and extended his playing.
Some were untraceable figures whose entire existence remains in a few minutes of surviving sound and glimpses dwelling in testimony of older Delta denizens who stayed on or turned up in the North. Each musician enters into your hearing through their rhythm, a calling card bearing their identity. One step earlier than Son House is Charley Patton, whose wondrous gaze exists in one surviving photo:
Patton’s rhythm emerged in Son House and Johnson and sounds like their source. The poetics and narrative in Mississippi Boll Weevil were transcribed with much effort. Note how the commentator weaves a flurry of asides and observations while questioning Boll Weevil & wife with a farmer and reporting their conversation as well:
It’s a little boll weevil he’s moving it-a in the [air,] Lordy,
You can plant your cotton and you won’t get a half-a cent, Lordy.
“Boll weevil, boll weevil, where’s your little home?” Lordy,
“A Louisiana raised in Texas is-a where I’s bred and born,” Lordy.
Well I saw the boll weevil Lord-a circle, Lord-a in the air, Lordy.
The next time I seen him Lord he had his family there, Lordy.
Boll weevil left Texas, Lord he bid me “Fare ye well,” Lordy,
Where you going now?
“I’m going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell,” Lordy.
Boll weevil tell the (farmer?), “Think I treat you fair?” Lordy,
How is that, Boy?
“Suck all the blossom and leave your hedges square,” Lordy.
The next time I seen you, you [‘d]-a had your family there, Lordy.
Boll weevil (and his-a) wife “We’ll sit down on the hay,” Lordy,
Boll weevil told the wife “Let’s take this forty a[cres]*,” Lordy.
Boll weevil told his wife, said “I believe I may go North,” Lordy,
Lord I won’t tell nobody,
Let’s a leave-a Louisiana, raise and go to Arkansas, Lordy.
Well I saw the boll weevil Lord-a circle, Lord-a in the air, Lordy.
Next time I seen him Lord he had his family there, Lordy.
Boll weevil told his wife, “Lord I think I treat you fair,” Lordy,
Sucks all the blossom and leaves your hedges square, Lordy.
“Boll weevil, Boll weevil, where’s your little home?” Lordy,
“Most anywhere they’re raisin’ cotton and corn,” Lordy.
“Boll weevil, Boll weevil, thought I [was] treatin’ you fair,” Lordy,
The next time I (n)eed you, you had your family there, Lordy.
*This expression, like many others, had been erroneously transcribed. A new restoration I made helped me retrieve Patton’s reference to the severance pay of forty acres and a mule allotted to ex-slaves during Reconstruction, once a well-known fact but now an obscured memory.
Johnson is confined to personal anguish and busily copies other songsters’ works while House desultorily bombinates between holiness and personal abandon. Inside Patton is a vast panorama like Mark Twain’s world, narrating floods, arrests, agricultural blight, news, estranged lovers, introspection of someone’s (his?) inner life, formal presentation of religion within an entertainer’s guise and a voice unlike anyone heard since. Since drumming was prohibited under Slavery, communicating rhythms were smuggled onto the guitar and Delta musicians embodied a style deriving from African polyrhythms which their DNA reproduced, one they possessed but never directly encountered.
Patton, House, and Johnson created art music heard only in remote socially segregated roadhouses and cafes in the pre-War Delta region. One 1966 film captures a surviving Delta master, Booker T. Washington (Bukka) White placed within a recreated juke-joint ambience singing Baby, you’re killing me.
White knew Patton and House and he fleshes out our picture through another rhythmically distinct African pattern that gets his guitar into communicating a message of seduction, transmitted to a receptive curvaceous dancer who can’t resist. Son House reappears, jumping and inebriated, falling into a glimpse of his earlier life. We find them reinhabiting a lost world that gave birth to the core of Rock music, usually simplified into tributes that led the curious further to come upon America’s earliest living and documented musical treasures.