After 9/11 I panicked over having the only known copies of Irén Marik’s 100+ hour archive and began to digitize the tapes that arrived soon after her death in 1986, a bequest that came as an unexpected surprise. With the originals safely filed in a university archive her legacy was protected. Among unlabelled boxes came unidentified pieces, well-known works recorded in concert, numerous practice tapes she had discarded but saved without her knowledge by Evelyn Eaton, the author she met when they taught at Sweet Briar College. My original hunch that she had piano lessons from Béla Bartók was alluded to by her whereas in Budapest, from where she had defected in 1946, news of her being alive in the California desert brought forth more info from close friends of the composer whom I met in 1983.
The lion’s share of having been Bartók’s pianistic heir was hogged by the late Gyorgy Sandor, who never hesitated to show a photo of them together
and boast of his unparalleled grasp of the composer’s style but never offer substantial details about his beloved master.
Sandor playing Bartók’s Romanian Dance No.1
So, according to Sandor he can project the way Bartók conceived it! Sandor’s Prokofievian circus music lacks characteristic sweeping gusts that the composer uses to round out phrases; sufficient for his Juilliard pupils and critical acclaim.
Much fuss over great female Hungarian pianists usually upholds Annie Fischer and Lili Kraus as being top tier artistes. Of the former, she lucked out by marrying Aladar Toth, Hungary’s foremost music critic and king/queen-maker who regrettably resembled the anti-totalitarian Arthur Koestler.
Toth brought off wonders for her career and with his ties to a regime despised by those who fled, such as Etelka Freund and her family, enabled privileged travel throughout the continent. Her high-strung modern-industrial style was entirely personal, having little resemblance to the folk origins and sounds of nature permeating the composer’s inner being. Kraus had a larger career in Europe and the US, backed by numerous recordings, concerts, master classes, a professorship. She too had to modify her musical origins by citing Bartók and Schnabel while avoiding mention of her lessons with Severin Eisenberger, a Leschetizky pupil then based in Vienna who had been taught by two of Czerny’s pupils, making him a close link to Beethoven.
Fragments emerged from her archive. During her mid 70s, Marik prepared to record Beethoven’s Sonata no. 15 Op. 28 in D. The finished results were acceptable but this test has more informal spontaneity than the approved result.
Liszt and Bartók’s music were her native tongue yet Chopin came with a slight distance. In his most audacious works, Chopin provokes Marik to underscore how his intents surpassed his time by arriving into the following century. She exposes interlocking structures with a single dry line of the last movement in Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor:
Schumann was always within reach. A Town Hall debut in 1952 included his Carnaval and a home try-out the Symphonic Etudes appeared on an unmarked box dating from the late 1950s:
One significant reading is of Chopin’s Ballade no. 2 in F, Op. 38. Further investigation may turn up its ending but for now, why not bring it to light?
As some of these comments may disturb or anger, I wish to evoke Brahms by saying that if I’ve failed to offend someone then I sincerely apologize as the only way to keep such music fresh and new is by interfering with the status quo.
I started taking piano lessons with Mrs. Bourkser in 1928 at the Berggrun conservatory on Shawarly Pacha St. no. 5, not far from Kasr el Nil St. It was a small villa with a garden. We took the Berlin [Hochschule für Musik] exams there. Mr. Tiegerman took over in 1932.
At a ceremony on the same premises the German ambassador, a tall, heavy man (Helmut Kohl-size) presented Mr. Tiegerman to us students, parents and the staff. As the ambassador bent low to shake hands with T., he apologized; “Pardon, je suis trop grand” to which Mr. Tiegerman replied in his charming way, “Non, moi je suis trop petit,” amid the laughter. I was sitting in the front row and was so struck by his style, his well-cut clothes and personality. By contrast, I remember Berggrun as an ordinary, ungracious person.
A few months later Mr. Tiegerman presided at a mid-term exam. All of us had to play a page or two from our program. One of Mrs. Lila Levy’s students played a primitive piece with a drum-beat rhythm (nothing to do with our program). We students were very embarrassed. When the girl finished playing, Mr. Tiegerman, who was sitting at a table with the rest of the staff in front of us, turned his head slightly and said in a loud voice, “ça manqué un singe,” this referring to the organ grinder on a Cairo street, always accompanied by his monkey who dances to the tune. We students were all amused but felt in awe of Mr. Tiegerman. I was surprised a year or so later when Mr. T. singled me and Mrs. Bourkser’s daughter as the two students he preferred in a student recital. My piece was Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor.
When we moved to Rue Champollion no. 5, there was another students’ recital at the Oriental Hall of AUC [American University, Cairo.] Usually after the exam (now we switched to the Warsaw [Conservatory] exams) we played a piece from the program in the autumn. Mr. Tiegerman selected a few of his students and myself to repeat the recital piece at the Egyptian Broadcasting Station: mine was Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor, op. 3.
I left the conservatory for one year then came back to Mrs. Bourkser, took another Warsaw exam and passed without distinction this time. The next day, Mr. Tiegerman told Mrs. Bourkser that he wanted to teach me the following autumn. October 1938: I started my lessons with Mr. T. Canceling Mrs. Bourkser’s choice, he selected another program for the Warsaw exams: Mendelssohn’s Variations Sèrieueses, a prelude and fugue by Bach, 1st movement of Beethoven’s Concerto no. 3 in C minor, with the Reinecke cadenza, a study and a mazurka by Chopin. We started with the Mendelssohn and Beethoven, one or two pages at a time.
Mr. T. was very particular about the pedal. He spent a lot of time teaching me how to change the pedal after a chord in order to have a clean and sustained sound. “This helps you, also, to keep the rhythm and to memorize.” My hand was small, and I had a bad habit of stiffening my muscles. “Ne crispez pas” he would scream every now and then. . . My technique was the problem. Mendelssohn was my bête noire. In the middle of the year, T. flew into a rage, got up and banged shut the piano. I thought it would break. I was so shattered that I missed a lesson.
A month or so afterwards while playing Mendelssohn he said “ maintenant vous jouez comme une déese” as I looked up in surprise, he repeated the phrase in English, “now you play like a goddess.” During this time there were two Pleyel pianos in the room. He always played on one to correct us, or to show us how to play the phrase better. I loved the sweet sound of the Pleyel, especially when we played the concerto together. I felt secure playing with him.
Before the Warsaw exam in June, I played the study and mazurka by Chopin in a midterm exam. He surprised me when he said in a loud voice in front of everybody, “Vous meritez un médaille polonaise pour Chopin”, repeating in it English when he saw my surprised look. He was very encouraging. On June 24, 1939 I sat for my Warsaw exam which went so well, especially the Beethoven concerto, that Tiegerman remarked the following day [that] maybe I should specialize in Beethoven. Playing with Tiegerman made all the difference. Instead of being nervous, I relaxed and forgot myself. I enjoyed Beethoven so much that I finished well also in Chopin.
Tiegerman’s teaching was so clear and logical that by the time I reached the end of a piece, I almost knew it by heart. After the exam Tiegerman was happy to tell my mother “Elle savait son programme deux mois avant l’examen.” Before the exam (at the beginning of the school year, 1938) Mr. Tiegerman went over the Rhapsody in G minor by Brahms to improve it for the recital. (I had studied it with Mrs. Bourkser). The Bourse Egyptiènne covered the recital and among those selected I was mentioned as an intelligent interpreter of Brahms: the merit goes to Mr. Tiegerman.
During the second year with Mr. Tiegerman I had to study a Prelude and Fugue for organ by Bach-Liszt, the Pastoral Sonata by Beethoven [Op. 28], Papillons by Schumann, Ricordanza by Liszt. In the middle of the year Tiegerman was about to fly into a rage when he stopped suddenly and sat down, murmuring to himself “Maintenant elle aura une crise qui va durer deux mois.” [Now she will have a crisis that will last two months.] He remembered every little detail about us all. Once he told me “you notice the girl who comes after you for the lesson? She has big hands and can do anything with them. But no brains! If we could mix the two of you together we would have a very fine pianist.”
Then, when I started studying the Papillons he said, “Now, this is the sort of music you should play because of your hands, even though you are deep and dramatic.” Actually I fared better with Liszt’s Ricordanza. I played it in a midterm exam and he and the staff liked it. When I finished, he said “Vous n’avez pas un bon moment avec moi.” He was really happy and wanted me to play it at the recital during the coming fall but by that time I had decided to stop taking lessons. I simply could not go on working (teaching) and practicing the way I wanted to.
We became better friends and I continued to see Tiegerman regularly and attend all the recitals and local exams. In the forties (I think in 1945), Tiegerman, Aziza Hassanein, and her two nieces Jaida and Nagli and my family happened to be in Cyprus for summer vacation. I left Kakopetria for a few days and went to see Mr. Tiegerman on Mt. Trodos, staying in a hotel nearby. We used to have tea with Mrs. Hassanein every day while Mr. Tiegerman entertained us about some of his experiences, or talked about music and cooking (for instance how to marinate fowl.) He was always charming and relaxed, with a subtle sense of humor.
We also took walks in the forest. Once he invited me after breakfast to do the grand tour (all around the peak). We started promptly from his hotel (the only one made of wood in Trodos, mine was a camp hotel) in shorts and with walking sticks picked up en route. He always chatted, sometimes about musicians – Backhaus, Heifetz. . .”Of course Backhaus is very popular – he plays all the time” in answer to my question whether he was the Beethoven specialist. After a couple of hours Tiegerman admitted he lost the way back. “I always lose my direction” he said. My heart sank. We became silent. I was getting tired then, thinking I had hit him with my stick (he was leading the way) I said: “Pardon, Mr. Tiegerman!” “Pourquoi?” he asked. “I thought I had hit you with my stick.” “Non,” he answered, “perhaps you wanted to.” I was always charmed by his subtle humor.
Such a delightful person, with a special mind and a great personality, his playing was unique, very logical, sensitive, refined, and passionate, and his beautiful personal touch is unforgettable. Over the years I heard him play in several concerts and recitals. On his arrival in Cairo he played the two Chopin concerti at the Opera House (I was too young to fully appreciate his playing but I remember his touch.)
In the forties, during the war, he played Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto at the Empire Theater Ewad-el-Din which was broadcast. I heard it on the radio and can never forget the opening notes, his sensitive touch and flowing notes, the depth of the slow movement and the rhythm in the third movement. The beauty of the whole concerto was so striking and moving. No one has ever come close to this performance. Later at Ewart Hall (American University Cairo) I heard him play an all Chopin program: Sonata no. 2, Ballade no. 2 (Op. 38), Scherzo no.1 (op. 20), Studies Op. 10/10, 10/12, Nocturne Op. 37/2, Barcarolle. It was the most beautiful recital of Chopin I have ever heard, absolutely breathtaking.
During the war I strayed into Music for All when I saw Tiegerman’s name on a poster announcing a recital. I heard Schumann’s Davidsbündler played in such a way that no one could match the expression, rhythm and charm – absolutely unique. I left without hearing the rest of the program because the place was full of British troops and I felt out of place. (Later in Rome, I bought Arrau’s record and was so disappointed. It sounded like a set of exercises.)
In another recital I heard Tiegerman play the Third and Fourth Ballades, the Study Op. 25/11, always stunningly beautiful. And again I heard him play the sonatas Opp. 28 and 101 by Beethoven. I especially remember the singing style of the first movement. My escort, a British musician, said afterwards that it was the best rendering of this sonata that he had ever heard. In the late forties I heard Tiegerman play the Rachmaninoff concerto no. 2, so melancholy and intense. Later when I bought the record, I realized only Rachmaninoff playing his own music was a little better – no other musician was able to play this concerto so convincingly. I also heard Tiegerman play the Saint-Saëns Concerto no. 2 (not the ‘Egyptian’ and I must confess that it moves me less than Cesar Franck [referring to Tiegerman’s last concert].) His technique and fire were dazzling. We always said he played like a tiger. The last recital I heard Tiegerman play before I left for the U. S. in 1947 included:
Mozart: Rondo in A minor
Chopin: Etude Op. 25/1, Nocturne Op. 9/3,
Mazurka Op. 17/4, Scherzo Op. 54
No words can describe the poetry of this program, his performance and his interpretation.
He also used to accompany the students who sat for diploma exams. On top of staggering programs, each student had to play a whole concerto and Mr. T. played the orchestral part. I attended three of these exams, for they were open to the public. Mr. Tiegerman played the Tchaikovsky [1st], Rachmaninoff, and the Chopin second (orchestral parts). He could also play any solo part from memory, for he always taught us without the score and any orchestra part with the score. Nothing seemed difficult for him. Tiegerman liked to sit in the Groppi garden in the afternoons. Over the years I frequently saw him with Mr. & Mrs. Menasce, members of his staff and friends. He was always with Jicki, his beautiful German shepherd. When he arrived from Helwan and walked briskly into the building, Jicki followed him briskly too: he seemed to have the same gait as his master.
Before I would start my lessons every Saturday, Jicki would come into the room and hop onto the armchair. Tiegerman would caress and play with him for a minute or two. When Tiegerman stood up, Jicki understood it was time to leave the room. Then we would start our lesson. As far as I know, Tiegerman always lived in Helwan but had a couch in the room to the left at the conservatoire near the kitchen where he could spend the night if invited out or if he had to attend a concert. He usually had lunch in this room during the week.
After three years of absence I returned from the U. S beginning of October 1950 to spend a month with my family. Wynn [Wilton Wynn, journalist, Leila’s husband] came with me to meet Tiegerman for the first time. We had a wonderful visit and Tiegerman invited us for lunch at a hotel in Helwan, not far from his house (I only saw his house when you [Said] drove us to Helwan after dining with you, to accompany Tiegerman back home).
We were about to leave for the Sudan in a week (as Wynn had planned to do some freelancing in East Africa) and we discussed the Sudan with Tiegerman that day.
During the war in 1942 when Rommel had reached Egypt, Tiegerman and other foreigners fled to Khartoum and remained there, I think, one year, until Rommel was defeated. He lived in the Pension St. James, remembering its lovely terrace and rudimentary sanitary facilities that consisted of a communal bucket. He described the city as little more than paved strips surrounded by dust and prey to dust storms. Khartoum had sleazy cabarets where worn-out Hungarian blondes found rich Sudanese husbands. When we mentioned our upcoming visit to the Sudan, Tiegerman shook his head: “Mr. Wynn, I pity you!”
After a long trip in East Africa (Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Aden, and Yemen) we spent a few years in Beirut and returned to Cairo in 1955. I walked into the conservatory while a monthly exam was taking place and sat at the end of the hall to listen to some students play. As usual, Tiegerman would turn around and pick one, calling the name aloud. All of a sudden I heard “Birbari Leila.” He had spotted me and was looking my way with a mischievous expression. “Shall I play the Mendelssohn Variations, or Liszt?” He turned to the teacher sitting next to him, “Vous voyez comme elle a répondu vite!” It was his way of welcoming me back. During one of his visits for tea (at the Wahba building) he delighted us with an experience he once had in Spain, where he was invited to ride in a small plane. “As we were taxiing down the runway, I saw people frantically pointing at us. I looked down and saw a wheel rolling away. So I got up and tapped the pilot on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me, you have lost a wheel!’ The pilot put on his brakes and managed to stop the plane without a serious accident.” It was the first and last time Tiegerman attempted to fly. At a dinner in our house with the Canadian ambassador and his wife, the archaeologist Ahmad Fakhry and his blonde wife, Tiegerman charmed us by playing César Franck, then accompanying Mrs. Fakhry in German songs. The next day he telephoned to tell us how much he enjoyed the evening and added, “Mais le plus charment, c’était votre mari.” Once again he came for tea after having read Wynn’s book on Nasser (Wilton Wynn. Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity. Cambridge, Mass., 1959): “Your book is very interesting, Mr. Wynn. C’est passionant. But in Europe, Nasser has a very bad press.”
In July 1956 Wynn and I went to Italy for a holiday. When Tiegerman knew we were going to Venice he gave us an appointment in piazza San Marco at 11 a.m. on a specific day. We walked around the square and found Tiegerman waiting for us in a café, sitting near a band. We had our cappuccino listening to the several bands playing at the same time around the square, then spent all day talking, walking around, sitting down for lunch at the Fenice Restaurant and later that evening, standing like Italians at a rosticceria, eating grilled mozzarella and drinking wine. Tiegerman loved Venice. He always stopped here on the way to and from Kitzbühel, staying at the Hotel Principe near the station. He knew so much about the rest of Italy. When he found out I was suffering from anemia he said, “Venice is wonderful for a few days, but you need mountain air for your health. Go to Merano in Alto Adige for a couple of weeks. You can take the train from here.” We did and I immediately felt better. He also could discuss the cathedrals in Italy. The one he liked best was the Duomo in Florence. He enjoyed being among Italians: “They are very spontaneous, not like the Austrians.” Once when we were standing up to eat and having wine near a young lady carrying a child, Tiegerman started giving the child some wine from his glass. The mother turned around and chatted with Tiegerman as if they were old friends. He loved Cortina d’ Ampezzo in Alto Adige: “It is one of the most beautiful spots in the world.”
After the Arab-Israeli war of 1956, thousands of Jews were forced to leave the country.Some of Tiegerman’s friends advised him to move to the U. S. At that time a lot of people were discussing a film featuring the American pianist Liberace, which Tiegerman had not seen, so I invited him to come with, since I too was curious. After Liberace played a few bars of classical music, he then got up to do a tap dance before going back to the keyboard. Tiegerman turned to me and said “I must learn to do this if I go to the United States.” Sometime in the late fifties, I heard one more student recital at Ewart Hall in which you too, Edward, had participated. You played the Chromatic Fantasie by Bach so beautifully and so professionally that Tiegerman got into trouble with his staff: he told me the day after that they were mad at him for letting you play. “Can you reproach a pianist for being too good?” Tiegerman hoped you would make a career in music. He admired you and was fond of you. In later years he always asked about you and mentioned you in his letters to me after I moved to Italy.
Before our move in 1961, Tiegerman invited us to the Conservatoire for a lunch that he himself had prepared, a chicken dish with a mushroom sauce. He was happy when I recognized the sauce’s base. It was so delicately flavored and tasty, I was so surprised at his ability to cook. [Tiegerman received a cordon-bleu in Berlin].
In August 1963, I went to Kitzbühel to see Tiegerman and spent five days in the house where he stayed, renting a room with an upright piano on the top floor.
At the last minute, Wynn had to do a cover story and could not come. Tiegerman was waiting for me at the station with a taxi that evening when my train arrived from Innsbruck. I used to go down to his room for breakfast. Before we went for a walk, Tiegerman practiced the Schumann concerto for one hour, a work he knew, mentioning that he was trying out new fingering. He worked on it for an hour in the afternoon. We spent the rest of the day walking, sometimes in the country, once in town and he took me up in the funivia to see the Grossglockner, the highest point in the Austrian Alps. He also showed me his cottage, which was empty at the time and said that anytime Wynn and I chose to come to Kitzbühel he would be happy if we would stay in his cottage as his guests. Once we were invited to hear music in the home of some friends, all Austrians. We used to have lunch in a nearby hotel and buy a light supper of cheese and honey from a shop to eat in my room, which had a table and a small balcony.
One morning Tiegerman invited me to his room while he practiced. He went through the whole book of Chopin’s Preludes (with the score). Every one was a gem, every note, every accent had meaning. I saw the preludes in a new light, the beauty and ideas behind them so uplifting. No pianist can come close to Mr. Tiegerman for the depth and interpretation of these preludes. When he finished, he closed the piano and said “Vous ferez une bonne femme pour un musicien?”
In 1965, Mr. Tiegerman sent me a card announcing his trip to Milan in late summer. He was supposed to record music. An ex-student Linette Tamim also came from Switzerland for the same purpose and we spend a delightful evening together. Next morning he came to see me off at the station and remarked “Je n’arrive pas à me calmer.” He was so touched that two former students would travel to see him for such a short time. Wynn and I kept inviting him to Rome and he seemed happy to accept but something happened each time that spoiled his plans. The last trip was cancelled because of the 1967 war. I telephoned him and he was very upset about not being able to get a return visa [Tiegerman had Polish citizenship].
In late summer of 1968, I accompanied Wynn to Cairo. I went right away to the Conservatoire to greet Tiegerman and found the place all sealed up. The bowwab (doorman) informed me that Mr. Tiegerman had died in May and the government was awaiting his niece to settle his affairs and pay taxes in arrears. [According to Tiegerman’s niece Hedwika Rivalova, the accounting secretary ‘neglected’ to pay the school’s tax]. I was shocked and the bowwab sent me to speak with Mrs. Menasce around the corner. It was hard to accept his death.
Wynn and I returned to Cairo and sometime in the summer of 1974 and I went to the Jewish cemetery to search for Tiegerman’s tomb. Wynn let me have the Time [magazine’s staff] car and driver and one of my cousins accompanied me. The old section of the cemetery was all broken up and had been defiled (I was told) by mobs after the defeat of the Egyptian army in the ’67 war. After a long search I found Tiegerman’s tomb intact, in the new section,
It was a very barren and dull part of the cemetery with only slabs of stone, level to the ground, all alike, side by side, no vegetation, no variety, no soul. It was sad to see a person like Tiegerman, who was so sensitive to beauty and who had a very warm and rich personality, buried in a barren, lonely, and soulless plot. The inscription read:
Ici repose un grand pianiste
directeur du Conservatoire de Musique au Caire
1893 – 1968
*Dedication to Edward Said,
piano pupil of Leila Birbari Wynn before he studied with Tiegerman. Our gratitude to Leila Wynn and Maryam Said for providing the manuscript.
For those who have read this far we posted this memoir in expectation of a newly discovered folder containing a photo of Tiegerman with Jiki, a German shepherd given to him by King Farouk as well as, ahem, unknown manuscripts of his own compositions. Stay tuned and don’t forget we’ve published his recordings.
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!