Reactions to the Record II

Jonathan Bellman

So I’m back from Stanford; this meeting was absolutely superb (the first one in April 2007, which I reported here, was also superb). I have to love the sort of meeting where someone  (Denis Hall, actually) can come up to me at a reception and say, “I need your address, so I can send you that Hungarian Rhapsody I played.”  Now, I don’t believe I even asked for it; he knew I’d want it, probably by noting my reaction when he played it—but these are people who know enough about each other to know what we’re interested in.  A couple of people who liked my musical examples asked me for copies, and I was able to give them copies on the spot. I heard ancient recordings, originally on Edison cylinders, by the likes of August Wilhelmj (1845–1908), Anton Arensky (1801–1906), and Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915), who studied theory with Tchaikovsky and piano with Nikolai Rubinstein, and was
Skrjabin’s teacher. 

 Not bad, eh?

Questioning performance practices orthodoxies—especially ones you yourself held—was a red thread running through several of the papers.  Taking sacralization of the Urtext head-on, George Barth ruminated about what can be learned from the heavily-edited editions of Beethoven piano sonatas—von Bülow, Schnabel—that are still habitually reviled by, well, performance practices types like us.  David Milsom not only talked about Joseph Joachim as an interpreter, he put on his Joachimian hat and interpreted Brahms’s Second Violin Sonata in that mode.  Will Crutchfield and Rebecca Plack did wonderful things with the song repertoire, remind us all how it really ought to work: rhythms and tempo deriving from the poetry and the projection of it.  Jonathan Summers talked about the extent to which students reflect their teachers, and can pass on Great Traditions—variable, of course, which is what makes it interesting.  Sandra Rosenblum talked about a specific case of this, where grand-student Raoul Koczalski was considered to have inherited Chopin’s manner of playing from Karol Mikuli.  I agree with her, but one can easily misapply that information.  I am an inheritor of the J. S. Bach tradition, as follows: I studied at UCSB with Peter Yazbeck (upon whom be praise), he studied with Lubka Kolessa at the Toronto Conservatory, she studied with Nikolai Rubinstein and Franz Liszt, Liszt studied with Carl Czerny, Czerny studied with Beethoven, Beethoven studied with Haydn and Mozart (well, only a lesson or two), Mozart played and studied with Johann Christian Bach, who studied (of course) with his father Johann Sebastian.  Which means that anything I say about Bach is Sinaitic truth.

Or not.  But the extent to which one student can pass on a teacher’s “tradition” is a worthwhile question to ask, in any given case, and particularly when the case is being made with great shrillness.

I—first up, after the welcomes—talked about improvised ornamentation in Chopin’s Nocturnes and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, noting that notated score excerpts and examples from the dawn of the recording era by prominent pianists indicate that it could be either profoundly style-literate or just running fingers—the sort of stuff we look down on.  The problem is that some of the running-fingers stuff was, well, by Chopin himself, and Liszt students.  What do we do about that?  I suggest that we in the performance practices discipline have been guilty of a rather large oversight; “how Liszt played” is never modified by his audience, as if he’d play the exact same way for yokels and cognoscenti.   So how do we factor that in?  My conclusions were that we should become more style-literate—practicing musical style more than individual pieces, in certain cases.  Moreover, practice of pure technique (a long discredited part of piano pedagogy) actually provided people with tools they could use in improvising, so we might consider that, too.  It was very well received; people told me it was the most on-the-edge thing there, they think it should be published, etc.

Imagine a subdiscipline where the holders of orthodoxies are the same ones who are dismantling those orthodoxies and questioning their own recent statements, all the while gleefully listening to new recorded discoveries.  Imagine a field where, at least with a certain number of us, the sheer “isn’t this cool!” aspect trumps most ego considerations, and we’re too happy running forward—pell-mell, falling all over each other—to protect turf, cling to unworkable ideas, etc.  We’re simply figuring it all out as we go.  One could, you know, live like this.

No shortage of really interesting new information, in other words, and great conversation, and performances.  (And I haven’t even mentioned the pianola performances.)  Now it’s back to reality, and other forthcoming events.  Oh, yes, and toasting the Inauguration!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to Reactions to the Record II

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I couldn’t get there (though I’m in San Francisco) but I’m very interested to know more about the presentation on the Brahms 2nd violin sonata. Could you describe it more fully, or is there some of Milsom’s material online that you could point me to? Thanks.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Not much–here’s some commentary from Kumaran Arul:
    This plus the stuff on the Reactions II website. A certain amount is known about Joachim’s intonation (Tovey found it to be in mean tuning, not out of tune but singular to Joachim), and his bowing approach can be heard on the extant recordings. More than that I can’t really say, except that the discussion and performance was offered as a performance practices experiment, not as a thou-shalt-do-likewise; if we can learn from Baroque performance practices, Milsom’s point seemed to be, we can learn from the most proximate violinist in Brahms’s world.

  3. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Jonathan, reading that link makes me want to kick Rosen all over again.
    rootlesscosmo, I owe you mail about the Brahms. On the topic of Rosen, suffice it to say that he was not what I’d call respectful, and what he termed “fetishes” I’d call a normal process of inquiry. I’ve started blogging about the symposium but haven’t gotten to Milsom’s talk yet.

  4. . says:

    Dunno how I ended up here, but, since I’m here, uh, here’s a minor correction on the Kolessa-Liszt connection: Lubka Kolessa studied with Eugen d’Albert and Emil von Sauer, both of whom were students of Liszt. Kolessa never studied directly with Franz Liszt. And yes, Peter Yazbeck is quite a teacher.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Hang it all! Yes, you’re right about Kolessa. I wrote too quickly, and also got vague with the imaginary lineage. Which may illustrate my point. Thanks!

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