While we – contemporary pianists – believe to be wildly innovative and imaginative, we seem to be destined to imitate and recombine pre-existing interpretation traditions. Searching for new expressions in an interpretation of historical piano music (older than 90 years) by referencing contemporary culture doesn’t enrich any longer. And it seems that we permit CD recording quality, institutional competition parameters, and the emerging showmanship and branding of the second half of the 20th century as main examples to imitate in the 21st. And yet – no new paradigm setting or changing pianistic idea was contributed in the past 50 years. We are cloning from a small genetic pool. We are playing from a card deck that has no faces any longer. Why not at least make our selection for imitation more inclusive, add a few trump cards to the deck?
There is an established but compromised academic interpretation tradition today: we play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and many others in a quasi-romantic late 20th century tradition while trying to follow note and symbol Urtext editions. Why? We are in a castle with many ghosts and few spirits. If we are shackled in front of a cave wall, why not add a few of the old shadow-casters to behold? Short of trailblazing innovative and parameter setting interpretation approaches in the way of Gould, it should be, and actually is, our choice to interpret baroque, classical, and romantic music by imitating a multitude of traditions.
Why not interpret Schubert in the way of Liszt or Bach in the way of Busoni; or - for that matter - Liszt in the way of Busoni? How do we know their ways? We know their editions and commentary. Are they Urtext? No. Should we use Urtext? Yes. But why not - instead of to just blindly trying to obey scores - heed the insight and input of the great masters from the past and extrapolate their interpretation principles?
Classical music at the turn of the 20th century, before the great schism, was, amongst many other things, a comprehensive reflection of the culture of its day. The older generation was personally connected with the musical traditions of the imminent past and the younger generation was raised and educated in those traditions. Then the world witnessed a seemingly irreconcilable loss of ideals, of vision, and of innocence. After the Great War the old seemed to represent something so undesirable, that the younger generation went another way: dismissing the traditions of the past, searching for new expressions.
The youth felt separated, sought to distance themselves from their parents; elders stood for a world that appeared distant, alien, and abominable. Rebellion without cause was the mind of the young, dissociation from the old and crusty world ~ rock 'n' roll; flower power; sex, drugs, and the former; parents listening to Beethoven - children listening to Beatles ... and the gap widened. At that point, when Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were mentioned, they seemed to belong to the ominous past, while the future promised fun, freedom, and peace. While parents knew someone who knew Brahms personally, children got high on Elvis, Hendrix, Stones, and the Wiccan of Woodstock. Seduced by Hyperopia - understandable. And making a point in presenting classical music as relevant and valuable was scoffed at ... "look what it brought us, your old world," "Mozart is boring," and "we don't need no education." Misled by Myopia - questionable.
This of course is a substantially simplified narrative, but, and this appears to me as crucial: Today we are basically as far away from the three Bs as our children's generation; it's in the distant past for all of us. And so I believe that today the claim for the importance and relevance of classical music and art can be made on merit alone, without having to refer to tradition, as none is alive; its pursuit by education and cultivation is an exploratory experience for all of us from now on. We do have the obligation and mandate to, in the words of Thomas Mann "assist the new without sacrificing the old."
But I believe practicing for performance to be more important. There are period instruments today but there are no period performers. Tradition must be studied and the knowledge applied, no doubt, but we are children of the future as much as of the past and we must carry the torch of classical music with competence, dignity, and devotion.
"Um die erforderliche Bindung zu erzielen, hebt sich der Finger nicht eher von der ersten Note jeder Gruppe, bis die vierte Note anzuschlagen ist."
"In order to achieve the necessary connection, the finger shall not lift off the first note of each group until the fourth note is to be played."
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Gould erred in his prediction about the demise of live performances though he was right about the advent and domination of the recorded media. He did not foresee MTV and MP3, though, alas his predictions would perhaps have been less enthusiastic; and if he knew about the best-laid schemes of John Q. Walker's Zenph Studios, he might have - flattered - reconsidered.
The Oral Tradition, the ancient art of transmitting historical and mythological information in spoken word with a corporal presence in front of a crowd, is the foundation of the continuous desire for live performances. Art is a multifaceted phenomenon and a metaphysical need of individuals and civilizations. The Epic and the Tragedy are but some of the manifestations of high art; Drama, Sculpture, Painting, and Music from Orpheus to Orff and from Marsyas to Messiaen are others; they all have a systemic imperative of material manifestation, a physical performance.
"Aus dem Geiste schaffe sich die Technik, nicht aus der Mechanik.
Wir beten die Götter der Musik an am Altar der Tastatur."
"Technique shall be created from the spirit, not from mechanics.
We worship the gods of music at the altar of the keyboard."
Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
"Practice is the great magician, who makes the apparent impossible not only performable, but also easy. Industry and practice are the Creators and Founders of all that is great, good, and beautiful on earth. Genius and talent are merely the raw marble: Industry and practice are the hammer and chisel, lead by expert hand, enabling the creation of the beautiful statue from the that marble."
"Übung ist der grosse Zauberer, der das Unmöglichscheinende nicht nur ausführbar, sondern auch leicht macht. Fleiss und Übung sind die Schöpfer und Urheber alles Grossen, Guten und Schönen auf der Erde, Genie und Talent ist nur der rohe Marmor: Fleiss und Übung aber ist der, von kundiger Hand geführte Meissel, welcher aus diesem Marmor erst die schöne Bildsäule erschaffet."
Carl Czerny (1791 – 1857)
See: 258 • Time in water
The reciting profession – the Epic – as well as the collective experience – the Tragedy – were very important to ancient society, to the people of Hellenistic Greece. To remind of the heritage of culture, to remember who we are as a people, to reiterate truth about the human condition. These priceless traditions were in existence for centuries. They are now lost, forgotten.
If we collectively forget Beethoven, we will become another people. Do we want to become those other people?
"Die Bildung des Ohres ist wichtiger, als die der Hand."
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
"Ars longa, vita brevis - no, life is long and art is short as art grants a moment's worth visit with the gods!"
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)