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!