=== photo by Ker-Xavier ===
A Critique of Pure Music
Works by JS Bach, Beethoven and Brahms
By Ivan Ilić
Can an album of piano performances be a critique of the music itself? If not, what else could the word 'critique' mean in this context? And what is ‘pure’ music? As opposed to ‘impure’ music?
The title is meant to evoke several things, some of them indirectly. For some, the title will have a ring of familiarity about it. The reference is to Immanuel Kant’s A Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
It’s a bit subversive to refer to Kant in the title of an instrumental music CD, because he believed music without texts to be trivial. Perhaps this album is one of many possible answers to his claim that instrumental music “is more pleasure than culture”, too abstract because of its lack of explicit content. Then again, maybe I should cut Kant some slack: when he wrote those words, Beethoven was only 11.
Kant was skeptical of David Hume’s assertion that all knowledge is drawn from direct experience. We musicians would probably side with Hume: we largely rely on direct experience (ie, of sound) as a basis for learning. Our natural inclination would be to scorn Kant’s emphasis on a priori knowledge. Together with his dismissal of instrumental music, that makes two reasons for instrumentalists to feel uncomfortable with Kant.
But before I twist myself into philosophical knots, allow me to return to a different, more literal reading of the title, one richer in meaning. What does ‘critique’ mean in this context? What is that word doing in an album title?
Isn’t the job of a performer to defend the works he is presenting, not critique them? Am I, the performer, critiquing not just the music I play, but cornerstones of the classical repertoire, by three untouchable composers, the holy trinity of ‘Three B’s’ (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms)? Isn’t it the music critic’s job to criticize my playing, not my place to criticize the music?
Critiques seem beside the point. In our time, it is tacitly accepted that not only will these composers’ works last forever, but that the works are themselves perfect, the products of something approaching divine intervention. Although few people come out and say it, there is an underlying attitude ubiquitous in classical music: this music is above criticism. Also: the older, the better. JS Bach is seen as a God-like figure, Beethoven as a human who transcends his mortality (much like Jesus), and Brahms is the rightful German heir to this tradition, and therefore sacred by association.
But instead of thinking of performance as a form of musical critique per se, I have found it fruitful to examine criticism as a metaphor for performance. While reading What is Critique? (1978) by Michel Foucault, I was startled by the parallels in the relationships between, on the one hand, criticism and its subject, and on the other, performance and composition.
More specifically: critique is a tool we use to apply to something else, an object. Similarly, in classical music, a performance cannot exist without a pre-existing composition. There is a hierarchy implied in the structure of the relationship. The piece comes first, then the performance.
But this structural imbalance is not the whole story. Performance is a subtle and tremendously rewarding activity, and part of the satisfaction comes from knowing that the composition doesn’t exist until it is performed. The score is a blueprint of very ambiguous instructions. Musical pedagogy is proof of this fact: it is necessary precisely because the score does not provide enough information. Students of music take lessons for years, sometimes decades, to learn to extract music from these technical maps. Without a complementary oral tradition, the printed scores would lose much of their meaning.
How does a critical attitude inform our relationship to music? During the learning of a piece, hundreds of small aesthetic choices are made based on a painstaking examination of the score. These choices are further colored by the information gleaned from teachers, books, recordings, videos, websites, and other media.
Judgments are invariably made during this phase. Not just about what it will take to master the piece, but a qualitative appreciation of the piece. When examined at this micro-level, pieces by Beethoven, for example, are full of awkward solutions to musical and instrumental problems. Some blemishes disappear when the work is played at speed, others remain. But our perspective is colored by our awareness of the imperfections; a general opinion is formed. What place does this opinion of a piece’s quality have in its interpretation?
This approach is part of a general critical attitude. The objective is not so much the criticisms themselves, but the insight that is gained from a skeptical mindset. The decision to critique is in itself virtuous, as is the decision to bring a composition to life by performing it. Further, in the best cases of both performance and criticism, insight is shared with others and the object benefits from a richer, more complete image.
The real subject of Foucault’s aforementioned talk is the relationship between critique and our contemporary idea of the Enlightenment. As always, he is interested in power structures and hierarchies, especially those that seem innocuous. Their ubiquity and subtlety allow them to go unremarked. As a result, they succeed in making us more docile and accepting of our own disenfranchisement.
This raises interesting questions in a musical context, such as: why is it that in classical music the hierarchy of composer-performer-audience goes unchallenged, and even undiscussed? Why is the vast majority of our time and energy spent on the major historical figures and their best-known works, the tip of the musical iceberg? And in what ways is our understanding of these masterpieces limited, and colored, by this imbalanced perspective?
On a related topic, why is the music of our generation perceived, even by specialists, to be necessarily inferior to the music of the past? To use another Foucauldian phrase, what are the “mechanisms of coercion” that influence us to accept this framework, en masse, and even endorse its rules by following them without examination?
The Enlightenment encouraged the use of reason and the development of individualism as tools. Keeping this in mind, perhaps the works of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, (each in different ways products of the Enlightenment), are not so much unblemished masterpieces as models of process, of critical minds at work.
By asking these questions, not just as performers but as listeners, we immediately shift from passive to active listening, and therefore from passive to active emotions. This is a perceptive distinction which Spinoza draws in his book Ethics. His idea that emotions involving joy are active is consistent with what I believe about how we experience music. When I hear music that resonates deeply, I almost invariably start to move with the music in some way; I become active, my body wants to participate.
This idea of active listening leads to another question: how much do we choose what we feel? And to what extent do we accept what we hear without questioning? Chomsky and others have raised awareness of manipulation by mass media. But how do we apply this thinking to sound? What questions can non-musicians ask about the sounds they hear? How is listening, both by non-musicians and musicians, biased by context? How does accessory information, including text, images, and social cues, affect our experience of sound? The goal of asking these questions is not just increasing our engagement from a purely intellectual perspective, but how much we care about the music on a visceral level. The two are intimately related.
When I recently read a description of Brahms’s Intermezzi as “perfectly measured, proportional, concentrated, indisputable, faultlessly built images” it struck me as typical of a prevailing contemporary complacency. Reading such statements may serve to reassure the listener that they are listening to first-rate music. But isn’t that condescending? It’s like dictating someone’s reaction to the music: this is what you should hear, and by extension feel.
Not only are the words, strictly speaking, meaningless, ("indisputable" music? "faultlessly built images" of sound?) they give the listener permission to turn off their brains. It’s lazy to suspend our critical skills when faced with classical music, something we wouldn’t do with books, film or the visual arts. Doing so keeps the works at a comfortable distance, and it prevents us from developing a balanced, unsentimental attitude towards them and their creators. Let us bask in the music with a critical ear and mind. There is no contradiction in that.
[see the album cover here]
By Ivan Ilić
I met Benoît Maire on 25 June 2010. It’s easy to remember the date: it was the premiere of his film, L’île de la répétition, at the cinema two doors away from my apartment.
A few hours before the screening, I gave Benoît a mini-recital in my living room. I played 3 Chopin Studies by Leopold Godowsky: numbers 5, 13, and 2, on my 1931 Pleyel grand piano. While I played the music I could hear and feel him listening intently. He wasn’t listening and thinking about other things. He was listening and thinking about only one thing.
A few hours later, his film knocked me off my feet. Although I was unaware of it at the time, it was exactly what I had been looking for: an art form that had digested several other fields, including philosophy, literature, conceptual art, and 1960’s film, all in one hour. It was disheveled, impenetrable, but also elegant, thought-provoking, and deeply sincere. I knew we would be friends.
An image from Benoît Maire’s film "l’Île de la répétition" (2010)
Two years later, Benoît asked me to do a workshop at the Geneva University of Art & Design, entitled Silenzio. We had previously discussed the idea of doing promotional videos together. I showed him the videos that most classical musicians consider ‘ground-breaking’. Together, we laughed.
In January 2013, on a rainy Wednesday morning, I performed Satie and Feldman in front of a handful of students in Geneva. They were close to my age, and had budding artistic careers. Benoît introduced me, and I talked about my work. The students asked questions, and we began a dialog. Someone left. A few new people showed up. We talked for well over an hour.
We decided to make one group video, because the different ideas circulating seemed like they could fit well together. Then it was Ştefan Botez’s turn to speak. He told us his idea; it was completely different. We all knew that he would be doing a second video, alone.
While the larger group started to write a script together, Ştefan asked me to lie on the floor. He started filming, using two different cameras. The floor was cold. Not moving was making me sore, irritable. “Just a little longer” he said. The cold started seeping into my skin. “All done” he said, after 20 minutes. He disappeared.
The goal of Benoît’s workshop, Silenzio, was to investigate the role of silence. Only Benoît would think to invite a musician to investigate silence. But he knew that I was six months into a project focused on the music of Morton Feldman. Almost all of Feldman’s music is played at the limit of audibility. The notes trickle into your ears, at unpredictable intervals, and you begin to wonder when, or rather if the piece will stop. Although John Cage is the King of Silence, thanks to his composition 4’33 from 1952, Feldman had written his Variations for piano in 1951. I have never seen a composition with so few notes, before or since:
Excerpt from Morton Feldman's "Variations" for piano (1951)
Ştefan reappeared, 2 days later, just minutes before his video was scheduled to be projected. His video was done, completely done. His solution to the challenge was savvy, and it worked. The room filled with smiles.
As in pop music videos, Ştefan used a 5 minute excerpt of my recording of Feldman’s Palais de Mari (1986) as a soundtrack. Although Feldman’s music is heard throughout the video, there is a kind of ubiquitous visual silence. The images guide our listening: somehow a radiator, a lamppost, a dumpster, and a slamming door all intensify the listening experience. They allow us to make sense of what we hear.
Ştefan is now working on a new video which will couple the entire 23 minute Palais de Mari with video footage taken at the Louvre Museum. The video will be projected onto a cloud of white smoke, an apt metaphor for the experience of listening to Feldman's music.
Photograph of a bust from the Louvre Museum by Ştefan Botez
The second video was trickier, simply because there were more of us working on it. As I was freezing on the floor to satisfy Ştefan, Benoît and the others were making a list of themes to include in their video. It was to be more of a documentary, but with an experimental edge. I would explain the music at the piano, but this would be mixed with more oblique ways of approaching the subject. Little did I know that this would involve Bugs Bunny. I never would have had the idea, and I certainly never would have imagined that it would work so well.
As I rose from the floor and dusted off my jacket, I saw that everyone was immersed in planning the scenes of the script. It was necessary to work quickly: we only had one day to write and film the script, and a second day for editing.
A voiceover text was necessary, so I volunteered to do that. I stuck in earplugs and wrote out the commentary for each scene, in a fit of concentration. It was one of those moments that Philip Guston mentioned:
"You somehow propel yourself or are propelled into a kind
of open-eyed sleep or a sleep where you are acting"
At one point, I raised my head and glanced around the room. We all seemed to be in that state; I could recognize it in the others.
Two days later, I gave a concert at the school entitled A Dead Audience. The title refers to a quote from Feldman:
“I never fully understood the need for a “live” audience.
My music, because of its extreme quietude, would be
happiest with a dead one.”
I performed works by Satie, Feldman and Godowsky, three classical "outsiders". To everyone’s surprise, the room was packed. In the front row was the director of the school, Jean-Pierre Greff, with his family. The quality of the listening (ie the silence) was outstanding, in particular during Feldman's Palais de Mari. It remains my favorite memory of the piece.
After the concert, the collaborative video was projected. It was a mess. We winced at the problems with the sound, the construction, the editing. It too had a clear connection to the theme of the workshop, Silenzio, but for a different reason: the voiceover was inaudible. We watched in pain as the 17 minutes of images unfolded, with no text or explanation to make sense of what we were seeing. It was frustrating to watch the video and know what it was supposed to be.
But those who had invested the most energy, in particular Pauline Cazorla, but also Camille Tsvetoukhine, Benoît and I, knew that there was something there, something that deserved to be finished. Pauline continued to work on the film, single-handedly took on the task of editing it down to its essence.
The final version of the video, Between Categories (taken from the title of a 1969 composition by Feldman) surprises me: it communicates exactly what I wanted to say about Feldman. Yet the visual treatment of the core text teaches me things about him I didn’t know, and broadens my understanding.
Feldman’s lectures sparkle with brilliance, but they are full of ambiguities that reflect his highly idiosyncratic use of language. Although transcriptions of his lectures are widely disseminated, there are few attempts to make sense of what he was trying to say. There is an intoxicating quality to his speech that tends to render people docile, head-nodding zombies, especially musicians.
The young conceptual artists who made Between Categories deal with circuitous language on a daily basis, so perhaps it is natural that they grasped and digested the information so quickly. And it is thanks to them that I have access to a video format that can bring these ideas to other people.
The number of people who are interested in ideas is far greater than the number of people who are aware of Feldman’s music. Perhaps some of these people may find Feldman’s ideas to be a more accessible way into his music? The only way to find out was by making this video.
Today, as I read and reread Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, I am shocked to find Morton Feldman's words and ideas on every page. Guston only mentions Feldman sporadically, although they were close, dear friends for twenty years. But the ideas are ideas that they shared and developed together. When Guston speaks and writes I recognize the voice and the concerns that I assumed were exclusively Feldman’s. Initially, this is disconcerting. Then, I smile, and I realize that it could only be this way.
Ivan Ilić at the piano; photograph by Ker-Xavier.
Poise and Perseverance:
The Story of Paul Wittgenstein
By Ivan Ilić
"To be poised against fatality, to meet adverse conditions gracefully, is more than simple endurance...
it is a positive triumph."
- Thomas Mann (1875-1955)
It is an irony of music history that Austrian Paul Wittgenstein became one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century. It is ironic because there is little evidence that the one-armed pianist was talented enough to deserve such an illustrious reputation.
The composer Sergei Prokofiev was characteristically merciless. He wrote, "I don't see any special talent in [Paul Wittgenstein's] left hand. It may be that his misfortune has turned out to be a stroke of good luck, for with only his left hand he is unique but maybe with both hands he would not have stood out from a crowd of mediocre pianists."
One thing Paul Wittgenstein did have was a hell of a story, not to mention deep pockets. In fact, it would be difficult to find another pianist whose life involved a comparably dramatic turning point. On the surface, his story was that of a man who overcame tremendous adversity to make his mark in history.
Things certainly began well enough. Paul was born into one of the wealthiest, most prominent families in Vienna. The best of everything was at his fingertips. While he was still a child, his parents invited the most famous musicians in the city, including Brahms, Strauss, and Mahler, to come play for them in their home.
Although all eight Wittgenstein children were musical and they all idolized these distinguished musical visitors, it was Paul who had a burning desire to become a celebrated musician.
Ambition ran in the family: his younger brother Ludwig succeeded in becoming one of the most influential philosophers of his time. While Paul gave his concert debut in 1913 at Vienna's prestigious Grosser
Musikvereinsaal, Ludwig sought out Bertrand Russell in the halls of the University of Cambridge (successfully it turns out; he became a Russell protégé).
When Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, Paul immediately volunteered for duty, in keeping with his family's patriotism and sense of honor. Less than a month later, on August 23rd, he was shot and seriously wounded by the Russians, his right elbow shattered. He woke up in a hospital bed, only to discover that he was a Russian prisoner of war. It gets worse: his right arm had been amputated.
Astonishingly, he made the decision early on to continue his career as a pianist, despite this tremendous new handicap. Perhaps he shrewdly saw an opportunity to distinguish himself from the pack, as Prokofiev
was to remark almost twenty years later. It is true that his career had not been especially brilliant early on -- but what could he play with only one hand?
Paul must have been aware that there was a growing repertoire, over an hour’s worth, in fact, of pieces for the left hand by Leopold Godowsky. Godowsky was well known in Vienna following his triumphant recital début there in 1904 and his appointment as director of piano studies at the Imperial Academy of Music in Vienna in 1909.
Paul was living in Vienna during the period when these pieces were written, from 1904 to 1914, and very well plugged into the music scene. It is likely that he was familiar with Godowsky's transcriptions; Godowsky was making quite a splash with works such as his version of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude for the left hand alone.
During his convalescence in Russia, he tried to figure out how Godowsky managed to play most of the piece with one hand. He gained access to an old upright in Russia and began to practice again. He was convinced that he would make a triumphant return to the piano after the war.
To his credit, he was savvy enough to come up with the perfect publicity to launch his new career. He would hire the most celebrated composers in Europe to write concerti specifically for him. The first composer he contacted was Joseph Labor, a prominent young Viennese composer who was a good friend of his brother Ludwig. Labor was delighted and began immediately.
Over the next several decades, Paul would use his substantial inheritance and family connections to commission works from the most famous composers of the age: Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, Korngold and, of course, Ravel. It was an impressive A-list of composers.
However, there were complications. Paul was conservative in his musical tastes and didn't like most of the pieces he had commissioned. He had told the composers to write however they wished as long as the
resulting piano concerto put him in the spotlight. But harmonically and formally, few of the works were in his beloved 19th century mold. This perplexed and annoyed him. Unfortunately he wasn't very diplomatic about it, either.
He had paid handsomely for his commissions and expected the composers to be accommodating in return. Often he asked for changes that would make the piano passages more showy, or more like something that would have been written 50 years earlier.
Paul also insisted on exclusive performing rights. He went so far as to reject outright a work by a major composer, Paul Hindemith, and yet insisted that no one else be allowed to play it. He succeeded in effectively killing the work: it remained in a drawer until 2003.
Paul had a particularly bad falling out with Ravel, whom he had paid the equivalent of $68,000 in today's money for the composer’s 20-minute Concerto in D for the Left Hand. He made substantial changes to the work before the premiere, to Ravel's horror, and the two never reconciled their differences.
To me, it seems particularly disrespectful for Paul to have made revisions without consulting Ravel. Looking at the score, it is clear that Ravel took great pains to make sure that the solo pianist is heard clearly throughout the work. He was obviously concerned that one hand would have difficulty projecting the sound of the piano above an orchestra, and came up with several pragmatic solutions. Perhaps Ravel was aware that Paul had had major arguments with two other composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Schmidt, regarding this very topic
just a few years earlier.
For more than half of Ravel’s concerto, the soloist and orchestra play separately. This structure makes the most of the pianist’s contribution during two substantial cadenzas, at the beginning and the end of the work. He also lightened the orchestration whenever the piano is present, producing thinned-out, translucent textures that any experienced concerto soloist would appreciate.
In addition, Ravel put a good deal of the melodic material in registers that naturally ring out above the orchestra. And he used the piano’s percussive capabilities to great effect, from a xylophone-like melody at the top of the keyboard, to timpani-like arpeggios below (accompanied and magnified by real timpani rolls).
But the real problem was an esthetic one. Ravel’s new piano concerto was entirely consistent with everything he had written up to that point. If Wittgenstein had been more familiar with Ravel’s compositional style there is no way that he would have been surprised with the result.
One can only conclude that he selected composers according to their prestige, not due to a real love for, or even knowledge of, their works. If that hypothesis is true, it is certainly not surprising that the projects ended in conflict.
But despite the arguments that accompanied the birth of these works, Paul Wittgenstein does deserve some credit. Without him, these unusual, dazzling works would simply not exist. In the end, when he died in 1961 at age 73, he had made his mark, and his persistence and initiative were rewarded by a place in music history.
Ivan Ilić is a Serbian American pianist based in France. His forthcoming album for Paraty Records features 22 Chopin Etudes, transcribed by Leopold Godowsky for the left hand alone.
His interest in left hand repertoire has led him to prepare the Ravel and Prokofiev left-hand concerti for future engagements with orchestra. The video below is of Ilić performing the cadenza from the Ravel Concerto for the left hand (1930). The concerto was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein.
Godowsky and Ecstasy
By Ivan Ilić
Great musical works have multiple layers of meaning and context. These different layers enrich the way we experience the music over time. Either these additional layers materialize and the work begins to occupy a privileged place in the mind, or the one-dimensional image fades, only to evaporate.
The written score, a musician’s road map, is the source of first impressions. What a musician hears during the initial stages of study is what the audience will hear first too, the surface layer of the music. Thus it is important to temper one’s judgment with caution and humility, accepting the immediacy of the first layer, while keeping one’s ears perked for the rest.
This usually implies practice sessions in slow motion, as one patiently awaits for further layers to emerge. This careful approach has three advantages: it helps one to evaluate the difficulty of a piece, especially an unfamiliar one. It also helps to avoid building bad habits. Finally, there is no better way to assess the worth of a piece than by examining it under a microscope.
When I approached Leopold Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Etudes, which are renowned for their difficulty as well as their controversy, I was even more circumspect than usual. Despite this, as I sight-read one of the studies with as much care and sangfroid as I could muster, I quickly reached an impasse. Despite a serviceable technique that had given me access to very demanding works in the repertoire, I was ill-equipped for Godowsky. Frankly, I felt like a beginner again for the first time in a long time.
The work, a study played with the left hand alone, gave me an unsettling view of my musical and pianistic shortcomings. Among the challenges, I counted the need for:
- a smooth legato throughout, which is best suited to the discourse, but terribly awkward
- the articulation of elaborate polyphonic voice-leading
- the agility to negotiate rapid jumps in a thick, Brahms-like texture
All of this was found in a slow study, number 5, presumably more approachable than the others! It was intimidating, but also intriguing. As my progress on study number 5 followed its course, I began work on two other left hand studies. The immediate emotional pleasure I experienced and the intricate architecture I observed were consistent in all three. In fact, upon examination this high standard of craft was found throughout the 120 pages of left hand studies. But the difficulty was consistent throughout as well. It was obvious that there were not going to be any shortcuts.
Thus I began to invest an inordinate amount of time bringing a few of the studies, then more, up to a concert standard. Under the duress of various impending deadlines, I confess that I have spent more hours working on Godowsky’s studies than I have spent on any other music in my entire life. Certainly more than I would care to admit.
Living with the works day in and day out, I came to appreciate them more and more. The additional layers I alluded to earlier bloomed and intensified my relationship to Godowsky’s language. I marveled at the richness of the music.
I realized that the disparaging commentary leveled at the studies was due to an inability to hear the very subtlety that, ultimately, makes them worthwhile. It is one thing to dislike them, another to flippantly dismiss them as badly written or shallow, which is fatuous. It is easy to be condescending towards artists who take the works of others as a point of departure. But make no mistake: Godowsky was no cover band.
A better way to understand Godowsky’s studies is to see them as ingenious commentary on Chopin’s initial text. The point of the new text is not to replace the old, but to increase our understanding of it by building upon the latter’s rock solid foundation. Godowsky explicitly says this in his copious correspondence and in his admirably candid preface to the studies.
In addition, the studies prove that the mastery of classic texts does not necessarily lead to creative paralysis. Older works can and should be a source of inspiration for contemporary creativity. To believe that great works of art must materialize sui generis is to willfully ignore the history of art, especially that of music.
Leaving these esthetic concerns aside, the 22 studies for the left hand are a monumental contribution to piano technique. The first studies were written 30 years before Ravel’s gorgeous Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, considered by many to be the pinnacle of left hand piano writing.
But looking at the scores side by side, the studies surpass the concerto in the polyphonic sophistication and their ability to generate a full sound with five fingers. Contrary to what others have written, there is little evidence in Ravel’s score that he knew Godowsky’s work. Without taking away anything from Ravel’s dazzling concerto, one can only imagine what he would have written had he been fully aware of the technical possibilities explored by his Polish colleague.
Godowsky’s transformation of piano technique is a feat few composers for the piano have managed since Chopin himself. Interestingly, this was considered common knowledge in Godowsky’s lifetime, and was openly admitted by Rachmaninoff and Busoni, no slouches at the piano.
Because of the transcendental nature of the studies, the rewards reserved for performers who choose to tackle them are myriad. But most importantly, it is only when confronting works sufficiently beyond one’s capabilities that one makes leaps and bounds of progress. Working on these studies, I approached the limits of my agility, then surpassed them. With ever-increasing fortitude, I finally approached the diabolical numbers that Godowsky suggests for tempi. The result was a musical epiphany.
The meticulousness I developed greatly heightened my powers of musical perception. But there was another more physical aspect of this development, something more difficult to put into words. As the gestures took root more deeply in my body, I started to draw upon the strength and mobility of my back and legs. Parts of the body engaged that are not often called upon in other repertoire; parts that support and pivot and drive the energy to the necessary places.
As I got closer to the musical gestures that Godowsky intended, a cognitive dissonance emerged. My mind was aware of its inability to process so much intricate information in so little time. Yet I simultaneously experienced the exaltation felt in the body, which is directly related to this same saturation of information. When performing these works at their intended speed, a cocktail of hormones kicks in, and the result is the closest that I have come to experiencing ecstasy.
There is a heightened feeling of awareness, and I experience my own movements as if being pulled by outside forces. I feel an unusually low center of gravity and a subtle inward mobility. This mobility is the sum of hundreds of small adjustments in the body working towards a larger gesture. It is rare indeed to find repertoire that gives such visceral pleasure while also providing nourishment for the brain. This nourishment comes from the refinement of detail apparent in every measure of Godowsky’s writing: it is his signature.
Over time I have become particularly sensitive to Godowsky’s musical craftsmanship. Even when I am aware that certain fine details are inaudible to those listening, the fact that they are there for me to enjoy adds a touch of nobility to the enterprise. Perhaps I also see this refinement as evidence of the composer’s underlying integrity, a pride of workmanship with which I identify deeply.
The journey has been tremendously rewarding for me. It gives me great joy to share these studies in recitals, and now via this recording. Like my previous record of Debussy’s 24 Préludes, this album is in mosaic form, and the order of the works is analogous to the placement of tiles. The juxtapositions are meant to heighten each work’s individual beauty, while a cogent, coherent, and compelling narrative builds over the course of the disc. It is an edifice that I have patiently and lovingly constructed to celebrate Godowsky’s wholly unique sound world.
A Tenacious Man and the Rebirth of His Legacy
By Ivan Ilić
At the turn of the 20th century, the musical landscape was transformed by an outstanding generation of pianist-composers; among these, Leopold Godowsky was one of the most brilliant. It was a golden age for the piano: concert platforms were graced by the likes of Rubinstein, Paderewski, Hofmann, Leschetizky, Friedman, Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, and Busoni. Godowsky was unique among these giants in that he garnered unanimous praise among his peers, who nicknamed him ‘the Buddha of the piano’. Artur Rubinstein once said that “it would take him 500 years” to acquire Godowsky’s technique.
Numbering over 400, his compositions reflect a profound understanding of the piano’s possibilities, unmatched even by Rachmaninoff. The Russian composer once wrote that “Godowsky is the only musician of this age who has given a real, lasting contribution to the development of the piano”. Godowsky produced a treasure of compositions and transcriptions - while pursuing a busy life of teaching and performing - despite periodic setbacks and disasters that might have curtailed the output of a lesser man.
Godowsky was born near present-day Vilnius in February 1870. The area was part of the Russian Empire at the time, and most of its inhabitants were either Jewish or Polish; Godowsky was both. His father, a doctor, died 18 months after Leopold’s birth while treating cholera victims. Shortly afterwards, Leopold and his mother moved in with Louis and Minna Passinock, friends of the family who had no children of their own. Louis Passinock ran a second-hand piano store.
A Child Prodigy
The early years of Godowsky’s life greatly influenced the artist to come. From the age of three, he studied the violin with Louis Passinock and taught himself the piano, in addition to rudimentary theory lessons from Minna Passinock. He was absorbed with music to an astonishing degree, and seems to have laid the groundwork for his formidable technique well before he could read or write. He also played chamber music with Louis Passinock on a daily basis, becoming a cultivated and well-rounded musician at an age when most musicians are taking their first lessons.
As is often the case with child prodigies, his precocious talent led others to exploit him: ‘Uncle Louis’ booked concert tours for him when he was only nine years old. But his gift also attracted attention from several wealthy, altruistic patrons who would offer him access to the best music schools in Europe. Through two such sponsors, he was offered scholarships to the Petrograd Conservatory and the Berlin Hochschule. Passinock prevented him from accepting the Petrograd offer, however, and Godowsky left Berlin after four months at age 13 when he realized that he played better than his professor.
In 1884 he sailed to America and began to perform regularly in the same venues as well established pianists twice his age. A new wealthy patron, an American named Leon Saxe, took an interest in Godowsky and encouraged him to work on his credentials. The two set off for Weimar so the young man could study with Franz Liszt, but during their journey Liszt passed away. Undaunted, Godowsky and Saxe set their sights on Paris instead, the home of the second most famous composer and virtuoso of the day, Camille Saint-Saëns.
Saint-Saëns took an immediate liking to the boy, and the two met every Sunday for five years to play for one another and discuss music. It was not a conventional student-mentor relationship, however. Saint-Saëns, who had also been an exceptionally gifted prodigy, treated Godowsky as an equal. With the distinguished French composer’s support, Godowsky was introduced to the most important musicians in Paris and made successful debuts in Paris and London. At one point Saint-Saëns offered to adopt him, but Godowsky refused, not wanting to change his name. It is titillating to imagine how his performance career and compositional style would have developed had he accepted the offer and settled permanently in Paris.
It was not to be: Godowsky’s American patron Saxe died in 1890, and without financial support he returned to America. Soon after his return, Godowsky married Saxe’s daughter Frieda and the young couple lived in New York City. While his concert career developed slowly but surely, Godowsky gave piano lessons in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago to make ends meet. It was during this period that he began to compose his awe-inspiring Studies on Chopin’s Etudes.
Chicago and Chopin
During a teaching trip to Chicago in 1893, he visited the World’s Fair. Godowsky was so enamored of the scientific wonders on display that he encouraged his brother-in-law to spend his honeymoon there. The newlyweds traveled to the fair from New York but were killed in a horrific train crash, greatly upsetting the composer; he must have felt partly responsible. As a way of keeping his mind off the accident, he compulsively practiced the most difficult Chopin études, trying to rework his fingerings.
He came up with an ingenious new fingering which he tried to apply to the left-hand. To his surprise the left-hand version was even more natural and effective. Godowsky discovered that the left hand had just as much potential for virtuosity as the right, perhaps even more. A workaholic, he somehow found the time in between his concertizing, teaching, and growing family duties to publish 53 studies over the next 20 years, of which 22 were for the left hand alone, effectively inventing a new style of composition.
Although only 23 when he began work on his studies, Godowsky was already a sympathetic and popular teacher (his students nicknamed him ‘Mr. God’). In 1894 he was offered a prestigious full-time position in Chicago, so he and his wife moved to the American Midwest. In a short time he conquered the hearts and minds of the city’s leading musical figures, including Theodore Thomas, the founder of the recently formed Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A hugely successful series of recitals and concerto appearances followed in Chicago in 1897.
Fame and Fortune
With this boost in his confidence, Godowsky began thinking of a return to Europe, in particular the musical centers of Berlin and Vienna. After a few more seasons consolidating his fame in America, he made his Berlin debut in 1900. The audience, including many well-known pianists and fickle music critics, embraced him wholeheartedly. Godowsky was immediately offered further concerts on excellent terms and a publishing contract for his Chopin studies. His success was so overwhelming that he decided to settle in Berlin.
The Berlin debut, the greatest professional challenge he had faced to date, launched him to international stardom. Godowsky was now considered one of the finest musicians alive. For the rest of his life his home would be an open salon for the most prominent musicians of the age. He knew and befriended everyone: Mahler, Gershwin, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Paderewski...the list goes on and on. For the next 14 years, Godowsky enjoyed the rare success of a musician at the peak of his art.
In 1909 he was appointed Director of Piano at the Vienna Conservatory - a position that was both highly lucrative and highly flexible, which suited him perfectly. His class of elite students included Henrich Neuhaus, who was to become the most famous Russian teacher of the twentieth century (Neuhaus’s students included Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels). Now a musical super-star, he found that ambitious young pianists were beating a path to his door for lessons and advice. One of these was his young compatriot Artur Rubinstein, to whom he offered a teaching job at the conservatory and a seat at his dinner table. Valuing his freedom above all else, Rubinstein turned down the teaching offer. But he continued to be a frequent guest at the Godowsky table where he discussed music with Leopold and flirted with Godowsky’s daughter Dagmar.
War; A New American Beginning
At the height of Godowsky’s success and financial security in 1914, war broke out. He lost his possessions and his teaching position in Vienna almost overnight. Once again, Godowsky set sail for America, where he would make his home for the remaining 24 years of his life. He moved his permanent salon to New York, where many of the great artists of the day were regular visitors, including Stravinsky, Gershwin, Hofmann, Caruso, Heifetz, Casals and Charlie Chaplin.
It was during this period that the last of his Chopin studies was published. In future years he would devote his time to original compositions, notably the enormous Triakontameron and the Java Suite for solo piano and the Twelve Impressions for his close friend, Fritz Kreisler. He also produced various concert arrangements of standard repertoire that were popular among his colleagues.
But Godowsky spent most of the 1920s touring the world, taking in every continent except Africa. Reading his itineraries, especially considering the discomfort of transcontinental travel at the time, is enough to make one seasick. It must have been exhausting, but it was also a glamorous lifestyle that gave him access to the cultural elite of the age. In the spring of each year he would tour Europe; during regular stops in Paris he would meet with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Gide, Matisse, and Ravel, among others.
In the spring of 1929 Godowsky was based in Paris and had a short period of compositional grace. His correspondence from this period is ebullient, coinciding with an outpouring of 17 inspired new compositions for the left hand alone.
Unfortunately, disaster was waiting around the corner. In the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, Godowsky lost everything once again and never recovered financially or psychologically. Seven months later he had a stroke during a recording session in London, paralyzing his right hand and effectively ending his career. In December 1932 his son Gordon committed suicide. His wife died a year later. Godowsky did his best to keep busy, editing his previous works and those of other composers, but the damage to his psyche had been done. He died in November 1938.
Although Godowsky was fascinated by technology and was an early proponent of piano rolls and recordings, neither legacy has helped his posthumous reputation. In fact, he would probably be better-known and more respected today had he abstained from recording altogether. With a handful of notable exceptions, his playing on various recordings was stilted and academic. From his correspondence we know that he found recording to be “the most nerve-wracking thing in the world.”
His was the first generation of musicians judged by the recordings they left behind. Ironically, by recording his playing for posterity he seems to have handicapped his reputation considerably. After all, it is because of their recordings that we consider Rachmaninoff, Horowitz and Rubinstein to be giants of the keyboard. His peers agreed that Godowsky was at his best when playing for friends at home.
Further, Godowsky’s most worthwhile compositions are so intimidating on the page that few pianists attempt to learn them. I once showed the score of one of the studies to a very capable pianist. When I mentioned that it was by Godowsky, he said “That’s by Godowsky? That doesn’t look so difficult." I then told him that the piece was for the left hand alone, and his eyes popped out. As a result of reactions like these, the works have yet to become a part of the mainstream repertoire.
Now that the works of 20th-century tonal composers are making a comeback, perhaps we are approaching a time when Godowsky’s music will experience a renaissance. Time will tell.
Note: For information regarding Leopold Godowsky I am highly indebted to the book ‘Godowsky, The Pianist’s Pianist’, a superb account of the composer’s life and career by Jeremy Nicholas.
A Story For Your Ears
By Ivan Ilić
At my upcoming concert in Dublin, I’ll perform a work called Meditation by Leopold Godowsky. I have been completely under its spell for the past week. What attracts me to ‘Meditation’ is its soothing melodic flow: it feels good to practice it, nice and slowly. As I iron out the wrinkles I imagine my audience’s delight, I imagine the people relaxing in their seats.
But there is another reason why this work intrigues me, and that is the story behind it. Contrary to tradition, I love to tell the story of a piece during my concerts. That’s right: I stand up from the piano and talk about the pieces I am about to play.
It’s intriguing, the extent to which the stories I tell colour the way a person hears a work of music, whether it’s a layman or a professional critic. Even my own listening is influenced by everything I know about a piece, or by what I know about the person playing it. We don’t just absorb the information we receive aurally, un-filtered. And now, the story of ‘Meditation’ returns.
Six months ago I was reading a biography of Leopold Godowsky as I prepared my upcoming CD. Godowsky was a real jet setter, well before the existence of commercial airlines. Along with Rachmaninoff and Horowitz, he was easily among the most famous and respected musicians of his day. In fact, he was so successful and knew so many famous people, (Einstein among them), that I grew bored of his biography about three quarters of the way through.
“I get it, I get it” I thought, as I became impatient with the somewhat monotonous story. He toured America, stayed in fancy hotels, toured Asia, followed by a European tour... Little did I know that the bookmark I placed at the end of chapter 8, which gathered dust for six months, was placed at exactly the point at which the story changes dramatically.
In the first few months of 1929, when Godowsky was 59 years old, he lived in Paris. His wife Frieda was increasingly sick and irritable, and so for a time he stayed in Paris while she left to Vienna to take the cure.
Godowsky had a period of grace: he composed 17 new pieces at the rate of about one per week. Among these works was ‘Meditation’. He was surprised at how easily the works came to him: “It will be a most unique contribution to the piano literature, more so than any other I have made in the past. What pleases me more than any other consideration is the fact that it is real, inspired music.”
The tragic part of the story begins on the very next page: the stock market crashed on Wall Street on October 24, 1929. Godowsky lost everything, including all his savings from decades of concert-giving. His life began to fall apart.
Seven months later, Godowsky was in London recording works by Chopin in a desperate attempt to reverse his financial situation. “I find recording the most nerve-wracking thing in the world,” he wrote. "I am simply exhausted and my nerves are on edge”. On June 17th, just as he was finishing a recording of Chopin’s 4th Scherzo, he had a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body, ending his brilliant career forever. As if this was not enough, his wife and youngest son died soon afterwards.
What interests me about this story is not the tragedy of Godowsky losing everything per se; it’s the fact that he composed the most beautifully natural music of his life just before losing the ability to continue. Knowing this changes the way we hear the music, it makes its beauty all the more poignant. We ask ourselves, “What would’ve happened if the stock market hadn’t crashed?” “What would’ve happened if he had not had a stroke in the recording studio?”
Equally, if he had not had such an outpouring of inspirational works, perhaps we would think “Well, he had a fantastic run while it lasted, but everyone’s luck runs out at some point.” And then there is the irony that he composed 17 works for the left hand alone just before he permanently lost the use of his right hand...
I am no longer naďve enough to believe that knowing these stories makes me play better. I put that belief to rest years ago when judging a competition and listening to adolescents play pieces with tremendous maturity.
These same children were utterly ignorant of the historical context, the structure, and the compositional principles of the pieces they played (I spoke with them afterwards). You cannot infer breadth of knowledge by listening to someone play well; it’s wishful thinking.
However, knowing these stories makes me care about the music even more. I shared this story with you because you don’t have to know anything about music to connect with Leopold Godowsky as a fellow human being.
Recently, neuroscientists have proven something we knew all along: that humans are hardwired for empathy. I have a much better chance of interesting you in this music by telling you a story than by telling you about the structure of the piece, or by telling you why you should recognize this music as ‘great’ music.
So when you come to one of my concerts, don’t expect me to just sit down and play: that’s not my style. The Irish have always been sensitive to narrative, in particular oral narrative. As a result, my approach has allowed me to connect with Irish audiences on a deeper level than with many others. That is why, on June 24, I will give my fifth consecutive recital in Dublin, and I plan to return every year as long as I am fit enough to do so.
I hope that you will join me.
N.B. This essay was originally published on the award-winning Irish culture blug Vulgo.ie leading up to a recital in Dublin.