"At the heart of romantic pianism remains the idea that the performer, not the composer, is the center of interest."
I’ve always been attracted to music that very few people play. In my undergrad, I discovered the concert music Erich Wolfgang Korngold, better known for his later film scores, but a virtuoso pianist himself. I played his Don Quixote suite on my senior recital, a work from his youth which betrayed an incredible amount of narrative and compositional ingenuity.
I was fascinated to discover Beethoven’s published Fantasy, or Polonaise; Chopin’s Bolero or Allegro de Concert; Brahms’s Scherzo. Rarely heard works by famous excited me and although the repertoire I played then remained fairly standard, I was constantly looking for the next rare find.
Initially, I may have been aiming to hide flaws in my playing. As I spoke of my undergraduate years inthe first blog in this series, my facility lagged behind my enthusiasm for the piano for several years of advanced study. Playing “standard” but rarely heard repertoire masked my flaws by its novelty.
But as my technique improved, I realized another draw to this music: I didn’t like how many people played the standard repertoire. And if my own musical ideas weren’t widely accepted, I could at least more easily let my imagination run freely where few people knew the music.
I had the good fortune during my masters degree to study classical performance practice at the modern piano. Experimenting with the fortepiano, even playing for the legendary Malcolm Bilson in a masterclass, opened my eyes to the fact that not all of our presumed traditions today are in fact what was intended by the composer.
But it was Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age which truly opened my ears to a sound world, a style of playing, which truly felt natural for my own intellect and tastes.
How do we know what a piece of music is supposed to sound like? Interpreting a piece of music requires a lot of assumptions, interpretational ideas that we take for granted. After the Golden Age challenges a lot of those assumptions.
We often speak today of the “Golden Age of piano playing”, but when it comes down to it, we’re often not sure what that actually means. We fail to acknowledge that pianists of the time—say the mid nineteenth century into the early twentieth century—had practices and authorities that we don’t recognize today:
- The serious solo recital only gradually came into existence during this time, and the silent, attentive audience even later;
- Pianists of this time were themselves composers and improvisors and they applied those skills even in the role of performer of someone else’s text;
- They regularly utilized performance techniques, forms of rubato, and un-notated forms of expression, at their individual whim and taste.
The character and legendary stature of Liszt, the performer and composer, looms large throughout the book. Hamilton’s goal isn’t to allow unfettered recompositional license when interpreting works of the past, but we shouldn’t dismiss unfamiliar performance traditions—those heard in plenty on the earliest recordings of pianists who were trained in the nineteenth century—as scandalous: Referring to the editor in lavish performance editions:
"Nowadays we need not try to grasp Beethoven’s meaning while being verbally bullied by Bulow, or Bach’s while being harangued by Busoni. But we could, while not denying the indispensable value of the urtext back-to basics approach, also embrace a tolerant position and treat the later performance history of music as offering viable options to present and future players, rather than simply constituting a sad catalog of corruption.” (pg. 280)
And this book ignited a youthful, and sometimes misguided, passion to be different. So while Hamilton fueled my love for piano music from the nineteenth century, he also pushed me specialize in music from the late twentieth century as well as the modern day.
My primary reason for attending the doctorate in Contemporary Music at Bowling Green State University was not primarily for the love of new music. Though I grew to cherish new music, I first and foremost wanted to develop my artistry in a body of repertoire that did not have an established performance tradition.
The resistance to the traditions illuminated in After the Golden Age taught me to place myself in a position similar to these old piano recordings that I loved. By working with living composers, I could be an active part in the creation of musical masterpieces. In building an authority in this way, I hope to justify my playing upon my return to the traditional repertoire…But more on that in the fall!
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