Don’t Ask

When I was learning William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes, and even preparing to record the first dozen, I did not contact the composer. I didn’t play for him, get advice, or even ask him questions about 2 or 3 notes that puzzled me in the printed music, a reproduction of Duckworth’s handwriting. After the recording was released, I got an email from Bill, “I understand you’ve been playing my music…”

Classical players usually seek out composers for coaching. And I have played for Mr. Glass, or Mr. Cage, or Nico Muhly. Recently though, when Nico wrote a new solo piece for me I didn’t play it for him in advance. He eventually heard several live performance recordings, and hasn’t complained.

At Juilliard, and at New England Conservatory, I’ve helped students prepare music written by George Perle and Gunther Schuller and avoided having the composers hear the playing before public performances. Both Perle and Schuller liked the results, and both expressed the same thought: not being involved in rehearsals (that nonetheless yielded satisfying performances), suggested that their music would be OK without them in the future.

The idea that music can survive a composer’s death is relatively new. (And I sometimes suggest an historic aberration.) If we acknowledge written music as a “text” then we will welcome multiple readings of it. And not privilege the reading of it by its scriptor! If a composer tells you how to play, you’re not really allowing written music to function. A written piece achieves its identity as it is read, and heard variously by many people.

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Comments

  1. says

    This is a fascinating insight into the nature of classical music notation. With the popularity of jazz improvisation and improvised sections in rock concerts, it is sometimes forgotten that classical performances can vary greatly. Some people will even have several recordings of the same classical work. However I believe there are five stages to classical music creation:

    1. Ideas created in the composers head

    2. How the composer notates those ideas for the performer

    3. How the performer then intreprets the composer’s notation

    4. How the performer translates their (the performers’) interpretation into actual sound

    5. How the listener hears the music/sound produced by the performer

    There are so many variables at each stage and I believe the composer should acknowledge that a performer can take her/his composition to a level beyond the imagination of the composer. One of the things I find lacking, when doing electronic music, is that I miss the performer. I personally do not want total control over the entire performance and sounds.
    However there is the other question of tradition. The composers mentioned in the post are 20th century North American composers, which is the tradition I understand you specialise in. It must have been very difficult for European performers who had not heard any American experimental or minimalist music to have performed those works as the composers intended.

  2. says

    There’s a flip side to this question, which is that many younger composers in the post-Glass post-Reich generation are so used to playing their music with their own ensembles or having close friends/colleagues play it, that they come to rely TOO much on the oral “tradition” of their music. I’ve often worked with composers who say something like, “Actually I was kind of thinking that this section should be a little slower here…” or some such, to which I say “Then you should mark it ‘slower’ or ‘poco meno mosso’ so that when we’re all gone players in the future will at least know your original intention.” Of course composers themselves are never the final word on their own music, on that I agree with you. Relating to your Perle/Schuller examples, there’s a story about a group that was playing a big Feldman piece, maybe even a premiere. They tried to coordinate getting together with Feldman beforehand for consultations, but it never worked out logistically. Feldman came to the premiere, congratulated the performers backstage; they were apologetic for not trying harder to meet with him earlier, but Feldman replied, “Nonsense…I’m delighted, because I want to know what my music will sound like when I’m dead.”

  3. says

    As a musician directing opera, I find this to be a particularly interesting discussion. Where instrumentalists may feel more tied to musical notation, and may desire a greater degree of detail to get what a composer may intend, I find that as we need to breathe life into pieces for the stage, there is no way that any composer could provide notational devices sufficient enough to do the work of the singing-actor in fleshing out a character. An artist playing Figaro, for example, may perfectly replicate the articulation and dynamics (where indicated) as it comes off the page of the score – almost in an instrumental way – but won’t really be playing the character until he ads his interpretive vocal coloring, attitude, and nuance. And I submit that this is what Mozart would obviously have wanted, though there is no effective way to notate it. And whether or not we could have met with Mozart to get his take on it seems less the point than having the courage to interpret his, or any composer’s ideas. We need to do this to create for the stage, and I wish more instrumentalists had that courage to create character when they play in concert. We enjoy the aesthetic of the cathedral, marvel at how it was built, and enjoy the interpretive detail, but we don’t have to worship the blueprint, and can appreciate the fact that many changes were made over the basic superstucture by the artisans working on it – most without consulting the architect ….

  4. ariel says

    The responses of Stewart , Phillip and especially Swdberg along with Brubaker and his playing the banality by Curran is a marvelous study of why so called “classic music ” is a dying if not already dead art especially in
    the US . The so called music professors , teachers whatever title they go under have managed to sideline
    themselves by the banal 2nd . rate theories they commend to each other under guise of creative
    thought . How they manage to trap the unwitting !!!

    • Deborah says

      Banality?
      I heard Bruce Brubaker play Curran’s Hope Street Tunnel Blues in Los Angeles and it was the most remarkable, powerful tidal wave of sound and feeling. It seemed to tell the story of my life.

  5. says

    Ariel, I would be interested in what you found wrong about my ideas. I believe the composer not only has to communicate their ideas through notation to the performer, but also to the listener through the sound of the music. This is the problem I have with much contemporary classical music when the serial or algorithmic techniques are used to justify the piece, yet it is impossible to hear such ideas in the sound. There is some beautiful music written using these procedures but the music must succeed on how it sounds, not how it was constructed.

    • ariel says

      Mr. Stewart , first let us get rid of the word” classical”when discussing the creating of contemporary music , it was by some a period of time in the history of music and only serves many dept. heads in music schools a starting
      point in displaying how far they have travelled in the music world and how far seeing and up to date they are in
      the progress of the art. Music is music -it is either well written or not , inventive or not – the rest is hopefully up to
      the public to accept as an art form for whatever their reasons, When addressing contemporary writing , your
      first four points cannot be contradicted, point five falls flat if recordings enter the equation.If a performer “takes”
      a work beyond the imagination of the composer then the wrong person is writing the work .
      I doubt that european performers would find any American composers difficult -unimaginative perhaps ,yes .
      Consider a european performer familiar with Penderecki, Legeti ,Stockhausen etc. who would be intimidated by the
      likes of Glass or Curran or worse Muhly . Music education in America is about preserving your territory and
      whatever it takes to put bread on the table . It is amusing to note that Mr,Brubaker attached a dreary little
      Glass etude as a reference point – I am positive he plays it well for what it is -often wonder is the word
      minimalist enlisted for lack of creative ability …a certain Italian opera composer used the repetition effect
      with much better artistic results and I dare bet that after Glass is long gone the Italian master will
      still be played . It is a matter of original creativity .

      • says

        So what then would you call the works of Schubert, Chopin, or Liszt if you are using the term “classical” to define merely Mozart or Haydn? I am sorry that I have to disagree with your definition of a “correct” performance as one where the performer sticks to merely the “view” of the composer. If that is the case, then we have been performing Liszt and Chopin and Mozart “wrong” all these years!

        You talk about the death of classical music, I say that we have to do these reimaginings, and expand our definition of “classical” to survive.

        • Ariel says

          Yes we have been performing all the works “wrong ” especially Mozart – in all cases the music is always
          adjusted to suit the temper of the age . The composers mentioned responded to the timbre of the instruments of their time and comparing the sound quality of instruments we use to-day is the difference between the sun and the moon . The 1700s violin was strung with gut strings which results in a tone quite different
          from what we hear to-day – the bow was different – holding the violin was different -all which contribute
          to a certain style of playing and a different concept of brilliance. What sounds Mozart heard when he played the
          violin works no one will ever know , but one thing we do know it was not the violin playing of to-day. To
          pretend that to-day any artist x is bringing us a true or almost true rendition of a Mozart violin concerto is fake and laughable. All one can say is that soloist x performed a violin concerto written by Mozart .
          When you hear an excellent pianist play Chopin on a reconstructed Pleyel is to hear the Chopin not
          imagined as when played on the war horse pianos of to-day .You can go to an art gallery and see the
          “truth” you can’t always hear the “truth ” in a concert hall . Reimagining and expanding definition is
          worse than a pointless exercise what is needed are composers who have something to say . But
          so called music lovers who for the majority do not add up to a hill of beans who do want “new music”
          want new music that sounds like the old that they have tired of -so you get a John Williams and the
          rest write musical theories to each other , endlessly reinventing the music wheel .

          • says

            I agree with many those comments Ariel, however with an art gallery we now have a different visual culture and different eyes. We are looking at master paintings several hundred years old post television, cinema, neon lights colour printing etc. so we are not seeing masters paintings as the artists’ contemporaries did.
            The same with music, the dissonances of the Classical period are not so dissonant now after atonal music, be-bop, Messian, Debussy et al. I do prefer authentic performances for most music however although I have no problem with harpsichord music played on the piano.

  6. says

    For my part, I really like the idea of music as compared to literature. “If we acknowledge written music as a “text” then we will welcome multiple readings of it. And not privilege the reading of it by its scriptor! If a composer tells you how to play, you’re not really allowing written music to function. A written piece achieves its identity as it is read, and heard variously by many people.”

    I have to agree wholeheartedly with this, especially considering both great works of literature and classical music. There are multiple readings of any one poem by Eliot just as there are multiple “readings” and interpretations of any one piece by Liszt.

  7. says

    Regarding terms Ariel, ‘classical’ -with a lower case c – is a perfect way of describing this sort of music I believe. It is also a term in general use. Classical – with an upper case C – can be used to describe the Classical period. There should be absolutely no confusion; after all here as in the U.K. we use ‘Conservative’ to describe the political party and ‘conservative’ when we mean traditional.
    Most terms used to describe classical music are borrowed from the art world anyway, so these are not pure words with a precise meaning. However the word ‘classical’ as a generic term particularly upsets contemporary music academics for some reason.

  8. Roberto Poli says

    “If a composer tells you how to play, you’re not really allowing written music to function.”

    This is a position that composers themselves have professed time and again. Chopin did, for example, in a letter to Delfina Potocka:

    “You know that I tell my pupils to play my own and others’ works as they feel them, and that I dislike it if they imitate me too much, adding nothing of their own in the interpretation.”

    The idea that the score should be reproduced literally to reveal the composer’s intentions is an invention of the 20th century. And it’s getting old. Musicians are gaining a stronger awareness of how damaging this process was in the education of the last two or three generations. We don’t always know how the composers of the past wanted their music to be performed. Their milieu may be too remote to be fully understood and assimilated, and we cannot possibly imagine that our interpretations will always be in any way truthful to their intentions. It’s true that the printed music is in most cases the only point of reference, but the claim that its faithful reproduction is a goal rather than a starting point is frankly puzzling.

    But to remain on topic, I sense that Ariel’s position comes from a place of distrust in regard to everything American. It is a widespread attitude among Europeans – that American art is less authoritative than the one created on European soil; and that Americans are intellectually less evolved. There’s a sense of entitlement in it, as if modern America were artistically still the young country that needs to be looked at with compassion. Sometimes the sense of disdain that pervades such statements is appalling. In our globalized world, such views are old-fashioned and small-minded. it is preposterous to believe that living in Europe makes you a culturally more relevant individual, or that writing music in Europe has any more artistic relevance than writing it on American soil. One might prefer Penderecki, Legeti (sic) and Stockhausen to Curran and Glass, but that’s not quite the point. Rather, it is whether the music manages to communicate, and the composition can be the vehicle of expression as much as the interpreter. By way of example, one of the most meaningful musical experiences of my life was Bruce Brubaker’s live performance of Curran’s “Inner Cities” in a recital last year – a piece which I’m not sure Brubaker actually played for Curran. But I’m sure that Curran would be delighted to know that one of his compositions touched many of the people in attendance, whether Mr. Brubaker was indeed following Curran’s instructions. Again from Chopin’s letter to Delfina Potocka:

    “Music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow. And everyone may admire it for a different reason; one will enjoy the fact that the crystal has been artfully carved, another will like the red color, still another the green, while the fourth will admire the purple. And he who put his soul into the crystal is like one who has poured wine into it.”

  9. Ariel says

    And it is the same Chopin who publicly addressed Liszt “I beg you dear friend when you do me the honour of
    playing my compositions play them as written or else not at all ! Then Chopin played the work as he wanted it played with Liszt responding “Yes my friend you are right. or from diary of Lipinski famous violinist of the time and concert master writing in his diary an exchange between Berlioz and famous soloist in rehearsal – soloist asking
    Berlioz how to interpret the work and Berlioz responding Just play it only as written .” I am not aware of a truly creative
    composer who would subscribe to the first sentence as written by Mr. Poli . It is not a 20th century indulgent
    attitude to follow a composers intention and we can justify any” puzzling thought ” as along as we can spout out
    any nonsense that seemingly suits a theory . As for “remaining on topic ” Mr. Poli is way off track ” and brings in
    his misinterpretation-which points out the fact he did not read the comments with care and so spouts off
    nonsense -if only he had read the “score ” more carefully. There is a telling exchange on the state of the art
    as far back as Rossini when according to Stendhal Rossini wryly complementing a famous soprano coming off
    stage to a cheering house “Madame you were wonderful I even recognized a few notes I wrote . ”
    To-day we have Lang Lang who lets the music function .

  10. Roberto Poli says

    “And it is the same Chopin who publicly addressed Liszt…”.

    Not quite the same, I’m afraid. Mine is actually a quote from a letter; yours is a third-hand account reported by second-rate biographical material. Your story also involves a moth which (coincidentally) extinguishes a lamp as Chopin is about to play what Liszt apparently has just butchered – after which Chopin refuses to have the lamp lit again, and improvises under the moonlight for over an hour. The audience is in tears. I honestly hope you don’t believe it to be real. This is stuff that can only happen in a movie with Cornel Wilde.

    Lipinski’s account is more credible, coming from his diary. But the Stendhal/Rossini story sounds apocryphal to me. My impression, though, is that you are misunderstanding two fundamental aspects of what “playing what’s written” actually means in these contexts: a) the literal reproduction of the text, which no composer of the past ever expected; and b) the usual practice of embellishing the original text, which singers and string players did profusely well until the second half of the 19th century. There is plenty of well-documented performance praxes, both in singing and in string playing. Manuel Garcia writes extensively about them in his singing treatise of 1847. Pasta, Cinti-Damoreau, Viardot – all singers Chopin admired – freely embellished the text. Quite a few singers of the 19th century left written versions of their embellished arias and recitativi. Cinti-Damoreau wrote down an embellished version for an aria from “Robert le diable” as late as 1859. Similarly, in string playing it was common to hear melodic lines being embellished, and Tartini talks about it in 1754 in his treatise. I am quite certain that both accounts – Lipinski’s and Stendhal’s – were referring to this practice, not to the notion that music should be reproduced literally to be truthful to the composer’s intentions. Berlioz asked Lipinski not to embellish; and Rossini was put off by over-embellishing. (The habit of embellishing must have been all-encompassing, from playing music to reporting facts.)

    I suggest you read an important book, “Stolen Time” by Richard Hudson, which beautifully documents early practices and demonstrates how we are light years from the “correct” reading of the score.

  11. Ariel says

    Not to contradict the authority of Mr. Poli – the moth incident supposedly took place during the summer of1843 at
    Nohant and is commented upon by some of those that were invited ,unfortunately there is no mention of
    Cornel Wilde, perhaps he was attending a concert by Moscheles the very same who commented first hand on
    exactly what Mr. Poli refers to in the Chopin letter to Potocka. Yes he did say” play as you feel” but from from
    what Moscheles observed and Chopins’ students recollected , the phrase was used only when up against a
    student who drew a blank on how to approach a work – he would use the phrase to “jump start ” the lesson
    to get things going so to speak . But all commented that Chopin went over and over every phrase of a work until
    you got it the way he wanted it and if the “jump start ” didn’t work he sat down and played the work the way
    he wanted it to be played and then the lesson stretched into hours with Chopin showing how all the works
    should be played .\, and this not from some 3rd. rate account or 2nd. rate material , but his famous students who
    considered him a marvelous teacher .
    In presenting a new work for concert hall or broadcast I was always observant of how the composer was as
    nervous as a cat that the work be performed” correctly “- that whoever was performing would
    bring the work to life as the composer perceived it . As for Lipinski and Stendhal Mr. Poli knows very well I
    am not referring to embellishments however he would like to steer the subject to suit his theory of
    free for all interpretation and ignoring composers instructions as confining and nonfunctional.

  12. says

    It seems in this debate there are two things mentioned: the total sacredness of a text vs. a total free for all. However, I disagree that Mr. Poli is advocating a free for all but pointing out the practical problems in performance and interpretation with viewing a text as something that should be played exactly as how the composer intended it to play, especially when we have composers that are long dead, and because we don’t have exact documentation of how exactly they wanted us to play it (after all, written instructions, tempos, dynamics, etc only go so far!). I think there are problems with this, and I think the “free for all” attitude can prove problematic as well in certain instances. It can sometimes seems like laziness and disrespect on the part of the performer in sticking totally to a “free-for-all” (and of course I do not mean to say that Mr. Brubaker is doing that in his performances. He is obviously a very well educated person. It takes someone who knows the rules to break them successfully).

    But what surprises me is the considerable vitriol on the part of Ariel in advocating one viewpoint as the “right” viewpoint and the “best” viewpoint. One side is “baloney.” In one sense, I do like this kind of debate because to me it proves that there is still something “alive” in our reaction to classical music. But at the same time, this kind of attitude frightens me a little because it seems to be to be terribly confining, and ultimately impossible.

  13. Roberto Poli says

    “Not to contradict the authority of Mr. Poli – the moth incident supposedly took place during the summer of1843 at Nohant and is commented upon by some of those that were invited”

    I’m afraid Liszt was never at Nohant in the summer of 1843. And François Rollinat, author of “Souvenir de Nohant”, is responsible for the account (apocryphal, as even Frederick Niecks, who reports it in his biography of Chopin, suspects).

    “,unfortunately there is no mention of Cornel Wilde,”

    You might have missed my sarcastic reference to the delightfully anachronistic 1945 movie “A song to remember”, in which Liszt and Chopin switch places at the piano during a staged “black-out”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SP_kAfQZtRQ (the candelabra scene begins at 5:00)

    “perhaps he was attending a concert by Moscheles the very same who commented first hand on exactly what Mr. Poli refers to in the Chopin letter to Potocka.

    It is actually Karasowski who quoted Chopin as saying “put all your soul into it, play as you feel”, not Moscheles (speaking of “reading the ‘score’ more carefully”!). Karasowski also reports the moth accident mentioned by Rollinat, but takes it seriously. (By the way, it is notorious that Karasowski’s biographical account, published in 1879, is greatly embellished.)

    “Yes he did say” play as you feel” but from from what Moscheles observed and Chopins’ students recollected , the phrase was used only when up against a student who drew a blank on how to approach a work – he would use the phrase to “jump start ” the lesson to get things going so to speak .”

    I personally believe that Karasowski’s account is apocryphal. But even if it were true, you might be misconstruing what Chopin meant in his letter to Delfina Potocka with the words “I tell my pupils to play my own and others’ works as they feel them.” He may have referred to deliberate “interpretive” freedom, which is confirmed by the second part of the same sentence – “…I dislike it if they imitate me too much, adding nothing of their own in the interpretation.”

    “But all commented that Chopin went over and over every phrase of a work until you got it the way he wanted it”

    That’s more or less what all piano teachers do. That is no proof that Chopin expected his students to play exactly the way he did. In fact, according to his own words to Potocka, apparently he didn’t.

    “and if the “jump start ” didn’t work he sat down and played the work the way he wanted it to be played and then the lesson stretched into hours with Chopin showing how all the works should be played .\, and this not from some 3rd. rate account or 2nd. rate material , but his famous students who considered him a marvelous teacher .”

    This is also not quite accurate: it is indeed reported that Chopin sometimes sat down and played his composition at the end of a lesson; but no one advanced that it was done to show how they SHOULD be played. He just played his compositions and other pieces (14 selection from the Well-tempered Clavier for Friedericke von Mueller, for instance) for his students if they had time at the end of a lesson. Some teachers do that. I do that for my students.

    “In presenting a new work for concert hall or broadcast I was always observant of how the composer was as nervous as a cat that the work be performed” correctly “- that whoever was performing would bring the work to life as the composer perceived it .”

    I’m not sure why your experience, as valid as I’m sure it was in your own musical life, should become a paradigm for all of us.

    “As for Lipinski and Stendhal Mr. Poli knows very well I am not referring to embellishments”

    I’m well aware you are not, since you were clearly referring to something else. But how can you be sure THEY were not? Historically speaking, it is actually very likely that that is precisely what they both may have been referring to.

    “however he would like to steer the subject to suit his theory of free for all interpretation and ignoring composers instructions as confining and nonfunctional.”

    I never tried to steer the subject to suit a theory of mine. I was simply reasoning on the meaning of the two quotes, one of which may be apocryphal. And what I gathered from them, giving the interpretive freedom that most composers accepted, is that they simply reacted to the common practice of embellishing. That’s something I can only infer, of course. But it seems to be a historically viable answer more so than the claim of “authenticity”, which is an invention of the second half of the 20th century. Again, I urge you to read “Stolen Time” by Richard Hudson. Your (musical) life will change forever. :) — As for your claim that I support a free for all approach and intend to disregard the composers’ instructions, I do believe that it’s important to read what the composers wrote. But it’s also important to understand that we don’t know most of what informed the thoughts that went into the creation of a piece of music. Since we mentioned Chopin so much, let’s take him as an example: We can agree that his milieu is too remote to be fully understood and assimilated; or that the notion of what could have inspired him to write a piece in a specific way is indefinable; that our own perception of what makes a piece unique and artistically valid is bound to mutate over time, and be subject to our changing moods and disposition; that Chopin’s rubato was inimitable and, today, a lost art; and that he kept revising his music, not only at the printing stage, but even during the lessons with his pupils. Considering all this, how can I possibly imagine that my interpretation of his music, whose meaning I can only approximate in my imagination by reading a printed score, be in any way truthful to his intentions? There’s an equally puzzling paradox: if a modern interpretation avails itself of an instrument whose sound and dynamic range were completely foreign to Chopin, an instrument played in performance spaces that did not correspond to the intimate settings in which his works normally generated, how can I expect that one of his mazurkas, performed on a nine-foot Steinway in Carnegie Hall, would correspond to what he desired to hear?

    • Francois Schimanger says

      “I’m not sure why your experience, as valid as I’m sure it was in your own musical life, should become a paradigm for all of us.” Bravo roberto.
      Maybe it’s not only about “total sacredness of a text vs. a total free for all” but also about “old school” vs “new ways”…
      That is if we don’t want to keep playing the RPG referred to as “classical music”…

      • says

        @Francois exactly.

        “I’m not sure why your experience, as valid as I’m sure it was in your own musical life, should become a paradigm for all of us.” Well put.

  14. Ariel says

    It is difficult to exchange thoughts with Mr. Poli as he tends to use embellishment and apocryphal as his response
    to contradictory observations . If that doesn’t work then there is ” misunderstanding .” The reference to Cornel
    Wilde was totally missed (as in not reading the score with insight ) that the point was lost . But no matter ….”..Chopin preferred pupils to follow the score carefully rather than always play from memory and he would
    mark the score as it lay on the music stand and would tirelessly point out each error made – often the lesson
    passed with the pupil having played a few bars “- by..” Mikuli who was a well known student of Chopins’, other
    comments were that Chopin could get quite nasty (breaking a chair etc. ) if the score wasn’t followed , then
    Chopin would simmer down and be his kindly self . Now if Mr. Poli wishes to contradict Mikuli then well and
    good there is nothing more to be said . I am positive that Mr. Poli as a teacher would point out to a student
    that a note marked pp was played ff and that made it an incorrect interpretation without feeling he is squelching
    functional freedom of the performer . The performer must always try to bring a work to” life” within the boundries
    set by the composer – that marks the quality of the performing artist . To perform a work as the
    performer sees fit ends up with the yowling “stars” one hears ” singing” the national anthem at football games -the execrable yowling is passed off as patriotic fervor.It would be pleasant to hear what Key
    rather wrote . Your last
    6 lines were addressed to Abby a while back who wants to expand definitions of what she calls classical music .

  15. Roberto Poli says

    “It is difficult to exchange thoughts with Mr. Poli as he tends to use embellishment and apocryphal as his response to contradictory observations . If that doesn’t work then there is ” misunderstanding .” ”

    I don’t think it is particularly difficult. Perhaps it is my musicological instinct, but I’m just hard pressed to take seriously someone who uses an urban legend to corroborate his position – that’s all. Sorry, but an apocryphal story is an apocryphal story, whether or not you like that I’m using the fact to refute your position. As for the word “embellishment”, you seem in the dark about fundamental performance practices of the 18th and 19th century. Or in denial. I just thought that such information would allow you to gain insight into the quotes you used (some of which are apocryphal, by the way). That is why I insist in using it. I hope you don’t find anything wrong with my supporting a position by providing evidence.

    “The reference to Cornel Wilde was totally missed (as in not reading the score with insight ) that the point was lost . But no matter ….”..Chopin preferred pupils to follow the score carefully rather than always play from memory and he would mark the score as it lay on the music stand and would tirelessly point out each error made – often the lesson passed with the pupil having played a few bars “-

    Again, an accurate reading of the score is something that most piano teachers would encourage. It is in the notation that we can discover details that will enrich our interpretations. Yet it still is no proof that that is why Chopin’s music should be executed literally. We can imagine that if a student is missing certain details in the score, it is the responsibility of a conscientious teacher to point them out. That can require a great deal of time, and spending 45 minutes (the usual duration of a lesson with Chopin) on a few bars can happen quite easily. That still doesn’t prove that Chopin expected a literal execution of his music, since we will never know what it is that he precisely told his students about those few bars during those fleeting 45-minute lessons.

    by..” Mikuli who was a well known student of Chopins’, other comments were that Chopin could get quite nasty (breaking a chair etc. ) if the score wasn’t followed , then Chopin would simmer down and be his kindly self .

    Surely Chopin at times could be irritable, according to witnesses. Wouldn’t you if you had terrible coughing fits, spat blood, had horrible migraines, and had some terrible students who butchered everything they played? Sorry to have to bother you with the use of the word “apocryphal” again, but you are here caught quoting another apocryphal story by Karasowski – the breaking of chairs. As Friederick Niecks pointed out, “Whether he ever went the length of throwing the music from the desk and breaking chairs, as Karasowski says, I do not know and have not heard confirmed by any pupil.” Whether it’s true or not, it’s actually irrelevant. But what is relevant is that you keep referring to unreliable information to support your theses.

    Mikuli may be considered a reliable source, but what you quote from his accounts still doesn’t tell me that Chopin expected his pupils to execute the score literally. For example, he “preferred pupils to follow the score carefully rather than always play from memory.” That is normal during a lesson, since it’s easier for the student to refer to the score in order to correct a mistake, see the details of the text, and take notes about them. “and he would mark the score as it lay on the music stand and would tirelessly point out each error made” Again, only to be expected from a teacher to mark the score and point out mistakes. Not much is telling me in these words that Chopin wanted his students to play exactly as he did.

    “Now if Mr. Poli wishes to contradict Mikuli then well and good there is nothing more to be said .”

    I don’t wish to contradict Mikuli. It’s that what you quote does not help you in any way to corroborate your position.

    “I am positive that Mr. Poli as a teacher would point out to a student that a note marked pp was played ff and that made it an incorrect interpretation without feeling he is squelching functional freedom of the performer .

    Just today, during his lesson, one of my most gifted students ended the A section of the scherzo from a Beethoven Sonata in pp rather than ff. I thought the way he did it to be a wonderful intuition on his part, and utterly delightful. I was persuaded by his interpretation in that specific instance. It wasn’t necessarily better than Beethoven’s ff, but equally successful for different reasons that had exclusively to do with my student’s vision. I thought it inappropriate to prevent him from following his intuition. Should he eventually realize that Beethoven’s original ff works equally well, or better than his pp, then it will be up to him to form that opinion. And that’s precisely what I told him.

    “The performer must always try to bring a work to” life” within the boundries set by the composer – that marks the quality of the performing artist .”

    This is YOUR opinion, n’est pas? I find it very 1950s. To me, the role of an artist is very different. By the way, how does one determine the boundaries set by the composer to bring the work to “life”?

    “To perform a work as the performer sees fit ends up with the yowling “stars” one hears ” singing” the national anthem at football games -the execrable yowling is passed off as patriotic fervor.It would be pleasant to hear what Key rather wrote . Your last 6 lines were addressed to Abby a while back who wants to expand definitions of what she calls classical music .”

    Actually, if we take Chopin’s own words at heart (not those of pupils or biographers), to perform a work as the performer feels is pretty much at the core of what he expected. Or at least he said so in his letter to Delfina Potocka.

  16. Ariel says

    When I got to the paragraph on your teaching methods I realized further exchange is pointless , your approach
    has little to do with serving the composer as much as it has in indulging oneself under the guise of a creative
    function . In times when the composer was served the response would have been “that’s the way it is instructed
    to be played by the composer of the work and that is what you follow – if you disagree leave it alone or better still write your
    own work .\but in music it seems any fool can rule the roost . There is right now an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci in London
    and the astonishing Lady with Ermine is on display ,can you imagine some dim witted curator deciding that the
    animal should be a piglet instead to fulfill his” curatorial function”, he’d be out in the street by dawn . Unfortunately in music any pathetic second rater can put themselves on equal footing with the composer
    in deciding what the composer wanted , disregarding instructions given by the composer as inhibiting the
    function of the music .

    Your pot shot about the 1950s is sophomoric – something one might expect from
    ignorant teenagers reinventing the wheel as they find their place in the world. For all the faults of
    the 50s it also is being remembered in music as a golden era- the great complaint among music lovers to-day is the sameness of all performers “all from the same cookie cutter ” – and everyone getting standing
    ovations for just showing up , you might learn something if you give a listen to some
    of the best from those days , perhaps not . Talk about what is causing the loss of interest in”classical ” music !!
    It’s staring us in the face .

    • francois schimanger says

      “if you disagree leave it alone or better still write your
      own work .”

      funny,
      I was going to suggest the same thing to you…

      as the saying goes: On n’est jamais mieux servi que par soi-même!!

  17. Roberto Poli says

    “When I got to the paragraph on your teaching methods I realized further exchange is pointless , your approach has little to do with serving the composer as much as it has in indulging oneself under the guise of a creative function .”

    It is disappointing that you would give up so easily. But I see that you are unwilling to have any kind of exchange with those who have different views from yours. To you, further exchanges with me or anyone on this blog are pointless because we are not telling you what you want to hear. You proclaim “truths” with which we might disagree, and as such we are inclined to criticize them. We have the right to do so.

    “In times when the composer was served the response would have been “that’s the way it is instructed to be played by the composer of the work and that is what you follow – if you disagree leave it alone or better still write your own work .\but in music it seems any fool can rule the roost .”

    There was never a time in which a composer was “served” – not until the past few decades. If “serving a composer” means reading the score literally, I disagree with you. Expecting a literal reading of the score was never a relevant aspect of interpretation until the second half of the 20th century. By observing your thinking (and the way you spell to-day), I assume you belong to the generation that grew up in the 1940s and ’50s. And that’s precisely the era in which many things changed in the way music was read and understood. It was an era in which a sense that the composer should be respected, even venerated, and that the score should not be violated, emerged forcefully. It was an era in which emoting through music, as it was done in earlier times, was viewed as inappropriate because it was considered the outcome of the decadence of an era. You were instructed to think a certain way, and you followed orders. My impression is that you just take accepted knowledge for granted, without wondering where your claims come from. But if one looks at the evidence available in early recordings, writings, first-hand accounts, etc., it appears obvious that your mindset finds no grounds in what was considered art-making before the 1950s. Incidentally, at the beginning of the 20th century Georges Mathias, pupil of Chopin, then in his early eighties, said that “Chopin played Mozart and Beethoven in the spirit of Chopin, and it was very beautiful, indeed sublime.” So, even though it was sublime, I guess Chopin didn’t serve the composers either, and was “indulging himself under the guise of a creative function.”

    “There is right now an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci in London and the astonishing Lady with Ermine is on display ,can you imagine some dim witted curator deciding that the animal should be a piglet instead to fulfill his” curatorial function”, he’d be out in the street by dawn . Unfortunately in music any pathetic second rater can put themselves on equal footing with the composer in deciding what the composer wanted , disregarding instructions given by the composer as inhibiting the function of the music .”

    The parallel you draw between music and the da Vinci painting is weak: following your logic, you would find the mechanical reproduction of a score, such as we might hear in a computerized execution of a midi file, desirable.

    I believe it to be a misconception that teaching should be about imposing. Teaching for me is about guiding. My example about the pp vs. the ff in the Beethoven scherzo was perhaps extreme, but I’m glad that my student (a truly extraordinary young artist) had the audacity to propose something so radical. Paradoxically, it shows that he is considering the printed page by not reproducing it blindly, but by thinking about the implications entailed in changing a dynamic marking. If playing pp instead of ff is a mistake, let him make that mistake. He might eventually recognize that it was inappropriate, or take his choice at heart. But it is precisely by not allowing him to make that choice that he would probably become a cookie-cutter pianist.

    Speaking of notation, there are symbols and signs in the score that I strongly believe may not correspond to how musicians read them in past centuries. I’m referring to some specific interpretive markings – dynamic, agogic and rhythmic – to which we are assigning roles that differ from how they may have been read in the 18th ad 19th centuries. There is also evidence that certain symbols were misinterpreted by the engravers in the original editions (in Haydn, for example, a fz may have become a ff or a f). We then find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: the way we read a marking may have nothing to do with what the composer originally wrote, yet we believe that by reading it the way we have been instructed, with our modern mindset, will reveal the composer’s intentions. Our idea of reading the score faithfully then only becomes an intellectual exercise that doesn’t bring anything relevant to the fore.

    “Your pot shot about the 1950s is sophomoric – something one might expect from ignorant teenagers reinventing the wheel as they find their place in the world. For all the faults of the 50s it also is being remembered in music as a golden era- the great complaint among music lovers to-day is the sameness of all performers “all from the same cookie cutter ” – and everyone getting standing ovations for just showing up , you might learn something if you give a listen to some of the best from those days , perhaps not . Talk about what is causing the loss of interest in”classical ” music !! It’s staring us in the face .”

    My remark is not sophomoric. The 1950s were, interpretively speaking, a damaging period in music history. And it was not the 1950s that were called the “golden era”, but the first half of the 20th century. It is ironic that you should mention the golden era as a point of reference for your thesis, because it was a period in which the way in which musicians read the score greatly deviated from textual faithfulness. It is a fundamental contradiction that I detect in your ideas – that modern performers all come from the same boring cookie cutter, yet what you profess as being artistically sound is precisely what caused it. Modern performers do not have an artistic identity precisely because of the mindset that you recognize as being the only way to art-making – a process that claims that the intromission of one’s individuality is considered not only superfluous, but also undesirable. Yet we are aware that no one in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, or earlier, would have offered a perception of a work of art that was not purely individualistic. In fact, what we call “Romanticism” proposed precisely that – the centrality of the individual in the expression of art. The decision to adhere to the mindset you espouse is obviously your prerogative, and could itself be viewed as a manifestation of subjectivity. I do not have anything against that position. What I find unacceptable is the doctrinary tone with which these ideas are professed – as if they were a system of moral oughts to which all of us should submit.

  18. Theodore Bale says

    When I was a piano major at the Hartt School, I spent several months learning Donald Harris’ Piano Sonata (1958). It is a serial work. Harris was the Dean at that time and I never sought out his advice because I was intimidated by the idea. Then one day I was doing a run-through from memory of the first movement and when I finished, I turned around and realized that he had entered the back of the room and was sitting there listening the entire time. He’d heard me playing in the hallway. “That’s my Sonata! ” he said. It felt like I had somehow been cheating on him. Then he asked me to meet with him the following week. As I played in front of him, he would say things such as, “wait, did I really write that, that can’t be correct,” and then we would break it down and he’d say, “you know what you’re doing, never mind, leave it like that.” I think the performed score is often something different than what the composer intended or desired, but if the performer is well-intentioned, the results can be valid if not delightful.

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