[PIANO PLAYING] MALCOLM BILSON: I've always been passionately interested in performance. What do the greatest performers have that can really get to us? They seem to be able to take ordinary musical gestures and find their subtlest aspects, but such subtle aspects are really refinements on top of more basic concepts. These basic concepts are what are transmitted to us in the form of, more or less, precise musical notation by composers. Today almost everyone plays from so-called urtext editions. The best ones endeavor to show us as clearly as possible just what the composer wrote with no emendations or additions, but do we still know how to read these as they intended them to be read? In a few moments, in one of the large rehearsal rooms in our beautiful newly renovated music building on the Cornell University campus, I will be speaking to a group of friends, students, piano, and voice teachers about some interpretive subjects that are not generally treated in music schools or conservatories around the world.
The title of this presentation is "Knowing the Score." Do we know how to read urtext editions, and this is what we have to start with. What we have to start with, what anybody starts with in any conservatory, or anybody who's learning a piece, a song on the violin, whatever it is-- you start with reading the score, and you start with seeing what it is. And from that, if you're any good and if you're talented, you develop some sort of artistic overlay.
Now, the key word, it seems to me, is interpretation. I say to my students very, very often that if you come to my concert and you don't like the way I play, that's OK. If you don't know how I feel about the music, it's not OK. That is my job. I hear the music. I feel the music, and through one of these machines, because that's what pianos all are-- they're machines-- or through violin, or through singing, or whatever it is, then I get this across. This is my art.
Now, that means that if somebody comes to speak to me in Turkish, I do not know Turkish and I need an interpreter. So I get somebody who knows Turkish, but as you know. There can be different ways to interpret the same text. Many years ago, before I came here-- and I don't even know who it was-- before I came here to Cornell University, there was somebody applying for a job and was supposed to have a letter of recommendation from Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic at that time. And it didn't come, and it didn't come, and it didn't come. And finally, Mitropoulos was asked to send a telegram, and he sent the following telegram. I don't know what the man's name was-- Mr. Jones-- it's all right. I cannot recommend Mr. Jones too highly. So as you see, one can interpret different ways.
Now, when I was a student in Vienna many years ago, I was in a piano trio, and we were playing the Beethoven "C Minor Trio."
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "C MINOR TRIO."
And whenever we got to that point, the professor stopped us and told us that we were playing the dotted rhythm incorrectly-- that we had to-- dot, dot, dot, dot, dum, dum, but when you have a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note, it must be exact because this is what Beethoven wrote.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "C MINOR TRIO"]
So we started playing like that, which is of course quite horrible. If I were a student in the Vienna Academy today, I would say, but Herr Professor, we know from Leopold Mozart, and from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and others of the time that you're not supposed to play a dotted eighth and a sixteenth exactly. The normal way to play it is to slightly lengthen the long note and slightly shorten the-- which is what we were doing naturally anyway.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "C MINOR TRIO"]
So if I were a student in the Vienna Academy today, I could be expelled for insubordination. So this is what I have tried to do for you. Now, this is the first Beethoven "Sonata in F minor." It's a little bit hard to see, but there's no dot on that first note. There are only staccato dots on the notes that follow.
A very famous pianist-- I will not mention his name-- here at Cornell many years ago we were having a discussion, and he suddenly asked me why is there no dot on the upbeat to this piece. Well, I was pretty surprised that anybody could ask such a question. An upbeat is always short and light, and therefore is in no need of any kind of special mark. You see here? That's a fingering, not a dot. Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, be, da, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, be, da. Mozart doesn't put a dot there either. Even if, though, there are dots on the following notes, you don't put a special mark on what is, in effect, something like an article in speech. It's the piano. It's not the piano.
Well, I went to the library here, and I got out a lot of recordings. I was totally astounded in what people play. You hear people playing this note.
--for which you need a slur. That of course, is--
That's, of course, the Mozart "G minor Symphony." That's not this piece. This is an unmarked upbeat. The only performance I could find that was absolutely natural and normal was Schnabel's-- Artur Schnabel. Artur Schnabel made an addition. I looked up the addition. He put a dot there. He probably thought that it was omitted. This is the first edition. We have no autograph.
That got me started thinking, do we know how to read these? If people can play something as-- and I don't hesitate to say it-- as idiotic as playing an upbeat longer than the beats that follow, I said, do we really know how to read these editions? Now, I would like to quote Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who was the son of Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote a tutor [SPEAKING GERMAN] essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments-- klavier translate as keyboard instruments-- in 1753.
Here's what he says about performance, [SPEAKING GERMAN]. "What comprises good performance? The ability through singing or playing to make the ear conscious of the true content and effect of a composition. Any passage can be so radically changed by modifying its performance that it will be scarcely recognizable." Johann Joachim Quantz on playing the flute says, "the orator and the musician have at the bottom the same aim, namely to make themselves masters of the hearts the listeners, to arouse or still their passions, and to transport them now to this sentiment, now to that." Now that sounds fine.
How many performances have you heard recently where the performer was transporting us from one passion to another? One doesn't hear so many, I think. To go back to Philipp Emanuel Bach, "the subject matter of performance is the loudness and softness of tones, legato and staccato execution, vibrato, arpeggiation, holding of tones, retard, and accelerando. Lack of these elements or inept use of them makes a poor performance. That's all we've got. We can play loud. We can play soft. We can play connected or disconnected. We can slide the voice of the violin. We can vibrate. That's all we've got. All the painter has, no matter how inspired he is, he's got his various brushes. He's got his colors, and he's got a strokes. That's it. That's all we've got, and as Philipp Emanuel Bach would say, "lack of these elements or inept use of them makes for a poor performance."
So how do we get to these deeper, passionate performances? I travel around the world a lot, and people come and play master classes, and some of them have good additions, and some of them have bad additions, and some of them bring in a very good addition that is completely clean, and I know that that's not what they worked from, but they think that I'm some sort of person who wants a good addition, and they've got to give me this good addition.
Recently, a young woman came and played for me the beginning of "Opus 111" of Beethoven, which she said she was going into a contest with, and she played it beginning the following way.
[MUSIC - "OPUS 111"]
With two hands. Now, what Beethoven wrote, of course, is--
[MUSIC - "OPUS 111"]
With one hand. When I said, why aren't you playing what's in the score? She brought me this score, which is Leo Weiner from Budapest. So she doesn't even know what Beethoven wrote. Now, in my opinion, if we look, for instance, at this, it is a very dangerous leap. Once pianist with whom I was discussing this, a very good pianist, said, yes, yes, but I do it this way. I do it with two hands like this.
[MUSIC - "OPUS 111"]
Because I don't want to go out on the stage and be nervous that I'm going to mess it up. I say go out on the stage and be plenty nervous, because it's dangerous, and because that's what Beethoven wrote. He wrote something that is potentially dangerous, and you can mess it up, and that's part of the excitement. Beethoven doesn't write a thing like that for a string quartet. He writes it for a piano because in the piano it's difficult. To me, the leap is the subject matter. As Philipp Emanuel Bach would say, the notes are almost secondary.
Now, I had a professor of my own who said, no, I'm sorry I can make it sound.
[MUSIC - "OPUS 111"]
I said, you can? And I stood this way, and he played it 10 times-- once one way and once the other way. We're not going to do that today, but it was absolutely obvious which was being played. It was very, very easy to tell the difference, because the-- was gone out of it.
Now, by asking questions when I give master classes such as how long is the first continue note of "Opus 2 No. 1" it turns out that people don't really know how to read music. There are no classes to my knowledge in any conservatory or music school in the world where there's a class on how to read music. How long is an unmarked quarter note? What is the relation of a dotted? All of these things, so I tried to make a sort of Reader's Digest in 10 minutes how to learn what I would call the basic alphabet.
Now, I've written four notes here. Bum, bum, bum, bum. Now here are four unmarked quarter notes. How long are they to be held? Very often when I give a master class, I ask this question, and people look at me somewhat perplexed, and say, well, one beat, but we know from all the sources that any note that has no tenuto, that has no dot, that has no slur, that has no markings of any kind is never ever to be held full length. The average length for it to be held is half. Now, for those of you who are watching this on a video, there will be a bibliography at the end in the extras, but in any case, Leopold Mozart tells us that this is not quite correct because you cannot know how long any note is unless you understand what the after affect is, the character, of the particular passage.
So if these four notes are in an expressive adagio-- tee, ta, ta, ta-- those are fairly long, whereas if it's in a scherzo, they could be bum, bum, bum, bum-- like that. The same notation. So it requires understanding. He who understands the true meaning of the composition will, through his playing, be able to move the listeners.
Now, here's an interesting one. Here are the same notes with a slur over them. What does a slur over four notes mean, somebody? Anybody?
MALCOLM BILSON: I have legato. This is what I usually get. Leopold Mozart says-- fasten your safety belts-- Leopold Mozart says all notes under a slur are diminuendo. They are weaker. The first note of the slur is the strongest one. The last note of the slur is the weakest one and is always short-- tee, da, da, dum.
Now, diminuendo doesn't from fortissimo to pianissimo. It means simply what we would call the tapering. This is probably the most important difference between the way people played then and the way we play now, because now we are told-- I was told by every teacher constantly keep the long line going. Tee, da, da, da. Keep the long line going. Violinists vibrate on every node. They try to keep it going. The last note will be vibrated on just as much as the first note, whereas it should be-- of course, it should evaporate. Tee, da, da, dum.
Now we have this one. This one is pretty much the way it is today, staccato, except that we have the problem of the dot and the wedge. Sometimes it's hard to tell which they are. Quantize says that the wedge is shorter than the dot, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach says the dot is shorter than the wedge, or else the other way around. I don't even remember. The thing is you've got to figure it out, and you've got to figure out what these things mean. If Beethoven writes a wedge, what does it mean as opposed to a dot? This takes interpretation. In conservatories, we are not generally encouraged to interpret. We're encouraged to read the score and be careful.
Finally, we have this. This is slur with dots under it, which is called?
MALCOLM BILSON: Portato. What do I do there?
AUDIENCE: You separate the notes, but keep them a little longer than staccato.
MALCOLM BILSON: That's pretty good. Turk says the notes are as long as possible. So what is the difference between this and this? Well, dee, da, da, da. Tee, ta, ta, ta. It's that difference, but there's really no space in between them.
Now we have the problem of the dotted note, which we talked about before. Dotted rhythms, whether we have a dotted quarter and an eighth, or a dotted eighth and a 1/16, it's pretty clear that one must never ever play three plus one, because it always sounds bad. I had someone come recently to play from a Schubert sonata.
These dotted rhythms, I'm playing them. Of course--
I play the two sixteenth notes differently. Of course I play them differently. Why would I play them the same? Once we understand that this kind of notation-- Western music has this so-called precise notation, but it's not precise. It is very suggestive, and once we understand that, in the dotted rhythm, the big guy is long and the little guy is short, period, then all kinds of things open up. Obviously sometimes this is also a triplet, or it may be a triplet. It can be almost a double dotted, but none of this is double dotted, what I just played.
Now, finally we have something which is very important, which is in all of these tutors it sounds pretty obvious, but you have whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eight notes, sixteenth notes. There are two ways to look at such notes. One is that a half note is faster than the whole note, and a quarter note is faster than a half note, et cetera, but the other way, which is I think much more important, is that a quarter note is lighter than a half note, and an eighth note is lighter than a quarter note. So if a composer writes a piece in 3/2, it's probably going to be a fairly heavy composition. 3/4 will be lighter, and 3/8 will be still lighter. That's very, very important.
And, of course, we have the problem of the time signatures. People don't pay quite enough attention to the time signatures. 4/4, or common time, alla breve, for instance, are really not at all the same. And if you look at how composers operate, for example, the "D major Sonata" of Schubert.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "D MAJOR SONATA"]
That sonata in the autograph is allegro alla breve, and in the first addition-- I presume that Schubert corrected it himself-- it's allegro vivace 4/4. Well, what's the difference if it's--
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "D MAJOR SONATA"]
Would be alla breve, whereas--
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "D MAJOR SONATA"]
I think that speed is the same, but there's more weight on the individual notes if it's allegro vivace and 4/4. Strong beats are to be accented. Weak beats are to be played weaker. We're going to get to that. That sounds-- first time I heard it, I thought it sounded pretty terrible. We bring out high notes. We bring out dissonant notes, and above all, we have to pay attention to the affect. Remember, if this was a scherzo, the notes would be shorter than if it's a serious piece, and that is something which is very important, and all of these things, whether we have heavy or light execution, whether it's a tragedy or a comedy, then we have to say that it aligns differently. We'll talk about that.
Now let's look at an example. Well, now here's a Mozart sonata. What do we know about a slur? Well, we know that a slur means diminuendo. We also know that you're supposed to accent heavy beats. So let's look at this piece. It seems to me it says dee, da, dee, da, dee, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, da, da, dee, bum, bum, bum. That's some good composing.
Well, it turns out it's a very good composer. Let's look at it again. The first thing that we see is two notes under a slur. The first one is longer, but the second one is higher. Dee, dum. It's not at all the same as dee, dum, dee, dum, dee, dum. It is tapering, of course, to the-- it's not dee, da. It's not that. Dee, da. So the second note is released, but it's higher.
Now, in the second bar, it's dee, dum, in addition to which we have added the seventh, which gives a little more drama to it. The third bar-- dee, da-- excuse me. Dee da. I have this big leap, and the fourth bar, instead of dee, dum, or even dee, dum, we have dee, ah, dum.
What is the shortest note in that bar? De, ah, dum. What's the shortest note? Well, I say it's the quarter note, because what you have here is dee, ah, which would be two quarter notes under a slur, in which case, the second one is short. And you have here a decorated first beat. De, ah, dum. It makes it more expressive than just dee, ah, by itself.
Now, I was talking to a class at a conservatory, and one young woman got very nervous when I said this. And she said, my teacher is not going to allow me to do that. My teacher will insist that this is a quarter note, and it must be held, and this is very much the subject of what we're doing here today to make revolution there. She said, I'm going into a contest. If I play that note short, I'll be eliminated. I said, yep.
I have not judged many contests, but the few contests that I have judged, the really interesting ones get eliminated anyway, and they usually make the best careers, because people hear them.
Now, dee, da, da, dee, da, da. Look at those two bars. He could have dotted the first bar. Dee, da, da, dee, da. That would also be nice. So first of all, you have this thing under one slur. Then you have this thing under the other slur, and then you repeat that, and then you have dee, da, da. We haven't had any measure like that. It goes up in one, and then dee, da, da, da, dum, dee, da, bum, bum. There's not one measure that resembles any other measure, and yet this music sounds so simple and direct.
Let's listen to some recordings. I got all the recordings I could get out of the library. Let's read them-- Claudio Arau, Christoph Eschenbach, Nelson Friere, Andreas Haefliger, Vladimir Horowitz, Wanda Landowska, Lili Kraus, Artur Schnabel, Mitsuko Uchida. So what I would like you to play is any three at your choice between tracks 5 and 13. Let's listen. These are all on the modern piano.
That's enough. Let's have another one.
How about another one?
That's enough. Now, why am I not saying who these people are? I don't think it's a very good idea for one pianist to get up and say here's another pianist who is playing wrong. I don't think that's a good idea. There are no pianists who play anything but what you just heard. Everybody plays legato. There are no exceptions. I have not found any, and I don't know if you can do it on a piano like this, and we're going to get to that. Let me try. Let me play it again here how I think it goes.
Now, at this point, somebody should yell, but you're not doing this very well! I'm not doing it very well. I would like anybody to please come up who wants to try and do this-- is it possible to do this on a piano like that? We're going to get to it in a moment, but before we do, I'd like to look a little bit more at this. At bar 41, there is an eighth note staccato in the right hand, and there is a quarter note in the left hand. Does anybody here believe that the quarter note is longer than the eight note? Nobody does. Most of these recordings do play it longer.
Why would it not be? Isn't a quarter note longer than an eighth note? Well, one of the things that you find out-- first of all, we know that we don't know how long this note is. We don't know how long a quarter note is. If the execution is light, it will be short, right? If the execution is heavy, it won't be long. Well, Mozart has done everything to show you that this is extremely light execution. Brum, bum, bum, be, da, dum. So therefore, it would seem obvious to me that that, of course, is also light and short. There is no reason for him to write it any shorter. It's just a waste of ink.
Now, when we look at this theme here, I say that the left hand and the right hand are of equal lengths, and I would play this--
And then you have the accents. Now, I always get some objection about that. I just had someone recently say, well, why it be--
And it can, of course, be that if this is something that I understand, which I don't. I would not understand Mozart writing music like that. I mean, the fact that you have this bee, da is a sort of accent. Be, da, umpa, umpa, ba, da, umpa, umpa. So let's do it the other way around. I am now Mozart. Forgive the immodesty. This is what I want to write.
How can I do it? Could I write quarter notes in the right hand?
No, because if I wrote quarter notes here, they would be syncopes, and syncopes are always long, so I'd have--
So I would have that. Could I write eighth notes in the left hand? The answer is not only could I, but he does a little bit later. So maybe this proves that I'm wrong here about this one. Well, I would say that what happens here is that these notes, these whole measures are extra light. He's showing me that it's extra light by writing it this way, and when it gets more orchestral, he, again, writes long notes.
Now, I would imagine that these notes here-- these quarter notes are longer than those quarter notes, and so with the same kind of notation one can get a great variety of touch and meaning, I would have to say, if one knows how to read it, but if one has a teacher who says a quarter note must always be held fully, and an eighth note is half that, then there's no hope. There's no hope.
Now, at this point, I think we absolutely have to talk about pianos a little bit. The subject of this video is not pianos, but it has to be brought up, because composers do write for instruments. We know very, very well that Mozart, for one, Verdi for another-- when they got a different singer, they changed the music. Mozart certainly-- my colleague, Neil Zaslaw's, book of Mozart's symphonies-- he got to Salzburg. There was this kind of an orchestra. He got to Mannheim, there was that kind of an orchestra. He wrote for these orchestras.
We have here on the stage unfortunately only two pianos. I am not a fan of the word fortepiano. The piano was invented by a man named Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. He called his invention gravicembalo col piano, e forte-- harpsichord that can play loud and soft-- sorry, soft and loud. The harpsichord, of course, which had been around 300 years-- it was a splendid keyboard instrument, but it plucks the strings, and you cannot play softer by giving too little pressure, because it won't pluck, and you can't play louder by giving more pressure, because it will already have plucked. That's why you see two manuals and things like this. So Cristofori throughout that mechanism and substituted in its place a mechanism where, when you play on a key, a little hammer is flung up at the string, and it's sort of like at the circus that the harder you hit it, the louder-- the harder the thing will go, and the louder the sound.
Now, that's what all pianos are. All pianos fling a hammer at the string. They come up close, and they fall. It's called an escapement. If they came up and stayed there, they would block, and the string would not be able to ring.
So we have here only two. This piano here is a copy of a roughly 1790 Viennese instrument. The builder is Paul McNulty, an American who lives in Czech Republic, and we have over here a copy of an 1870 instrument. This one says Steinway on the front.
Now, it's very important to point this out. The Steinway company, just as Mr. McNulty, is in the process of making replicas. The Steinway-- all pianos in the world, whether they're Borsendorfer, Yamaha, uprights, whatever, they are now all built on the recipe that was established in the United States by the Steinway company 1860s, 1870s. '70s In 1871, Liszt got a Steinway, which is virtually a modern piano with a sustenuto pedal, even.
I read somewhere that this kind of piano is the only thing on the planet that is made as it was in the 19th century. I've been thinking, what about a pencil, a hairpin? Everything is different, but this is the same, and if you have an 1890s Steinway, you can rebuild it with parts off the shelf. Now, what we don't have here is we don't have a broad wood piano from 1800. We don't have an Erard, which was Liszt's piano from 1850. We don't have a Graf, which is what Schubert and late Beethoven-- well, there are lots of pianos that we don't have. We only have two, so we'll have to stick with these, but let's look at these.
Now, let's play a single note here.
This particular kind of a piano has what we call a slow developing tone. If you listen to it--
--it goes up. This-- sorry, it's tuned a little lower--
Now, why would anybody want that? If somebody here likes Steinway pianos and wants me to go with him to pick out a piano, I would pick out the one with the longest tone. Anything else can be fixed, but is that what we want in K332?
That has to be released. If I try to do that here, by the time I get to the second note, the first note has barely got going because this note is swelling. So if I play--
Either it sounds like-- or if I really play it sort, it sounds like the dee, uck, and so nobody does it. This piano-- this is a beautiful piano, by the way. I like it very much. It is designed to do exactly the opposite of what is asked for there-- exactly the opposite. If Yamaha, Borsendorfer, or Steinway produced a piano that decayed that quickly, they would be devastated. It's not what it's supposed to do.
There are one or two other things that have to be said about this. One of the things that Steinway did that had never been done before is that they crossed the strings. There's a full iron frame here. The strings are crossed, and the grain of the wood runs this way. In this piano, plus in the Broadwoods, and the Grafs, and the Erards, and the other pianos, you would have the straight stringing and straight grain. Does anybody have an idea why Steinway crossed the strings?
AUDIENCE: To get greater length?
MALCOLM BILSON: Lots of people say that. I had somebody once from the Steinway factory say that to me. Well, let's look at this. Suppose I removed this string here and brought it over here. It would get shorter. Now, in the 19th century, all of the pianos were more or less eight feet long, and Steinway's first pianos were eight feet long, as long as they were straight. And when they crossed, they went to nine feet, which is now 2.75 meters, which is now the length. No, it can't be for that. We don't know why it is.
One of the things that's really fun about instruments is there isn't any information. You can read Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach how to play the piano and Leopold Mozart how to play the violin, but Mr. Stradivari never wrote a book about how to build a violin. So whenever there's a Stradivari that's apart, everybody goes and looks, and says, why is the wood thin here, and why is it there? It's a lot of fun.
Even though Steinway has existed right up to the present, not everybody knows. Here's what I think. By crossing the strings, and by crowning the soundboard, and running the grain of the wood sideways, you get not just a bigger tone, but you get a very concentrated tone. And one of the things that you can do fantastically on these pianos is bring out voices.
It's a wonderful effect. You can't hear the notes I'm playing in the right hand. You just hear the harmony, but it's very, very difficult to play democratically on such a piano.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "SONATA B MINOR, K33"]
There are two voices here unquestionably it's the left handed that is the good one.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "SONATA B MINOR, K33"]
It's like Johann Christian Bach that has a tune that's just as good as Mozart's, but it starts with an aspire.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "SONATA B MINOR, K33"]
He could have written--
It's fine, but this--
Nobody plays like that. Of course--
--this is what people think Mozart is. This is, to me, completely emasculated, and really robs the music of all of its drama, and if you play dee, da, dee, da, dee, dee, dee, dee-- this is a very nice piano. And it's all smooth, and it's all nice, and it's fine, but I believe that the very soul of this music is in those things, because every note in Mozart counts, and it's full of all this variety. And there it is.
This is the second movement of this sonata.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "SONATA B MINOR, K33"]
So not facile. Beautiful movement, actually.
Very beautiful movement.
Well, here we have it. Look at what Mozart wrote here, and we now know how to read it, right? Dee, da, da, da, da. Its tapering, but you've got a high note. Dee, da, da, da, da would be played differently from dee, da, da, da, da, but then he writes, dee, da, da, dum. That's very expressive. He knows how to write dee, da, dum, and often he does, but dee, da, dum has this little--
--in it, which is so nice. Dee, da, da, da, da, da, dee, da, dum. Well, now this is Sigmund Lebert's.
I think it's 1873. Right at the time, by the way, that these wonderful new pianos were replacing these allows the old ones, as they thought then. In the preface, it says, "the signs of phrasing and articulation, so necessary to correctly indicate the structure of a composition, are carefully amplified in this addition. The utter inadequacy of such notation in the manuscripts of Mozart's time was a deplorable practice of that period. This was undoubtedly do to instrumental limitations. They thought we now have better instruments and we now know how to make Mozart's music sound better than they did.
Now, if you look at this carefully, there's one slur here. It says "cantabile" there. Notice that this is now the right hand is piano, the left hand is pianissimo, because you no longer can play-- no, it's better now. Now you can sing, and you can keep this accompaniment in the background. Although there is an accent on this dee, and so it is to be presumed that you crescendo to it. I mean, it can't be dee, da, da, da, da. Dee, da, da, da, dee, da, da. Dee, da, da, da, dee, da, dum. Notice that Mozart writes dots here. Dee, da, da, bum, bum, be, dum, but that doesn't seem to sound so good anymore. So now we change it to portato so it sings better.
So everything is-- I mean, here it all is. Now, I have to say we have, here at Cornell University, a super library, where we have everything. And when I went looking for this, I was told, oh, well, that's in the basement. Nobody wants this anymore. Everybody now plays from urtexts. I have not brought any recordings over, but I challenge you to get any recording by anybody on a modern piano, and I say you will hear this with no exceptions, because I think it's not just that the modern piano might not be capable of doing something else, but for 125 years, this has been the mentality that has been followed. And that's why people play like this even though now there are seven urtext additions, and I'm sure that no respectable pianist plays from this. They all play from this, but do they know how to read it.
Now, here I've been saying, well, can you play K332 on this piano? And that sounds perhaps a little bit haughty. Am I saying that all of these performances that we heard are worthless? Am I saying that these pianists are all wrong and that nobody knows how to play this except me? That's not what I'm saying at all. This is music. This is not mathematics. It is not cancer research. It is aesthetics. These performances that we heard before, and some we're going to hear now have given lots of people a lot of pleasure, and I'm not saying that they're no good.
What I am going to say, however-- and I'll say it again a little bit later-- is that there is something else that can be rediscovered about this music, and I do believe that the closer we get to what these composers wrote for us and told us to do, I do believe the better off we are. I do believe that. Nevertheless, I do not know anybody who is like myself considered to be in the early music game. You see, we're supposed to be doing performance practice.
What is performance practice, anyway? Well, we know that Brahms' violinist, Joachim, played with almost no vibrato. We know that. We have recordings of his. So if some young violinist wants to learn to do this, and he picks up his violin, and he starts playing without vibrato, this is called performance practice. Well, I think if you play with vibrato on every note that's also performance practice. Everything we do is performance practice. It's just doing things differently.
Nevertheless, I do not know anybody who is doing this sort of early music thing which I'm considered to be doing-- not myself, not Robert Levin, not John Eliot Gardiner, not Roger Norton-- who say, you're not allowed to play Bach on the piano, or you should only play Mozart's symphony with the old bows and over-- I don't know anybody who says that, but we are being attacked very often. Pinchas Zukerman attacks and says things about playing on baroque violins that can't be repeated in mixed company.
Two years ago in the summer, two books came out on the Beethoven piano sonatas-- one by Charles Rosen, who I'm sure most of you know, The Beethoven Piano Sonatas a Short Companion-- and another by a young pianist named Robert Taub, who plays all the Beethoven sonatas, and it's called Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Now, in both of these books, the early piano is derided very, very much. Charles Rosen always does it. He thinks-- it isn't so much that he doesn't like how these things sound. He thinks it's not important. The modern piano is fine, and it sounds better, and it fills halls better, and why not use it, but in Robert Taub book, there's a 16-page chapter called "The Myth of the Authentic Pianoforte," and in that chapter, he has quite a lot of information about some of these old pianos. He's seen them. Most of it is. Right some of it isn't, but it doesn't matter. It's not essential, but of course, the end result is that these were all primitive and that this is the best, and this is what Beethoven was dreaming of.
And I have a few quotes here which illustrate this point of view. Several years ago, there was a very, very nice article about Josef Hofmann by the late New York Times critic Harold Schonberg. Very sympathetic. He loved Hoffman. He gets to Hoffman's "Waldstein Sonata," and he says the following. "After all, was it not Beethoven himself, the greatest pianist of his today, who hated the pianos with which he was saddled, who was constantly pleading for a heavier and stronger instrument, whose own poundings at the keyboard were so loud and furious that he was always snapping strings? Beethoven would've adored the sound of the modern Steinway concert grand. It was the sound he had in his imagination as the music well testifies." We're going to look at that.
In a magazine called Piano, a very good English magazine, very often there are articles where he speaks by telephone, I suppose, mostly with a lot of people about a given composer, and then it seems like a roundtable discussion in the magazine. This one was on Mozart and the piano. Vladimir Ashkenazy, "I think if he had today's Steinway, Mozart would have thought, oh my god, how wonderful." And my favorite, Anton Kuerti, "I would rather be operated on by surgical instruments of the 18th century than to have to perform on an 18th century instrument." That's a really nice one.
And I and six of my former students played all the Beethoven sonatas in 1994 in New York and in a few other places on period pianos-- the first time in history, as far as I know, and this was recorded. And we got a lot of reviews, and one of the reviews was also reviewing Andras Schiff and Bernard Haitinks Beethoven concertos, and this was mentioned to Andras Schiff, who said, "the idea is simply ridiculous." So I thought, basta, it's time to do something, and I wrote a rather big article in which I put forth "Opus 26 Sonata." Now, let's look at this. Remember, composers write presumably for a public. They write things that presumably a public will understand, and so we imagine that the average Viennese burger in 1801 or 1802-- I think it's something like that-- took it home and was able to read it.
Now, let's look at it carefully. It seems to be a kind of a minuet, which we see from these two bars here.
Seems to be a minuet, but what's unusual about it is that it's not in 3/4 as usual, but it is rather in 3/8. What's the difference between 3/4 and 3/8? Well, we know that eighth notes are lighter. It is presumably also a little bit faster than it would be if it were in 3/4. Now, let's just read it here. Well we have here dee, da, bum. Well, we know that heavy beats are stressed, but we also know that high beats are, so it's not dee, dum, dum, but rather dee, dum, bum. Dee, da, bum. There's a dot over the third beat, which presumably means that it's lighter than the second beat. I don't know what else it could mean. Then we have--
Why does Beethoven write two slurs in that bar? Well, one of the things that we know from reading the sources-- and we're going to talk about this a little bit more-- is that you must never ever play evenly. If you have a bar that has, let's say, four equal quarter notes in it, you must never ever play those evenly, because it sounds stodgy, and music is supposed to be like speech and must be inflected properly. So rather than--
First we have--
Now, I have not played "Opus 26." That means I've never practiced it and prepared it for a concert. This--
--is quite difficult. Dee, da, dum, is, of course, very different from dee, da, dum.
Then look what you have. Now you have toolbars together legatto. We haven't had any bars together yet legato. Then we have two more, and that's a very subtle thing that Beethoven does. Nobody else does it to my knowledge. There's a crescendo, and then there's a subito piano, but under a slur. Not dee, da, dum, dee, da, but dee, da, da, dee, da. So sort of a finesse, you see? Then, of course-- dee, dum, bum, bum, bum. Now what would that be? Well, if this is released, then I suppose it's--
I suppose it sort of does that and makes it float a little bit. I mean, I can't imagine just dee, da, da, da, da. It certainly couldn't be that. I wouldn't think so. Now, we have here, let's see-- Claudio Arau, Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode, Friedrich Gulda, Wilhelm Kempf, Anton Kuerti, John O'Conor, Maurizio Pollini, Bernard Roberts, Artur Schnabel, Gerard Willems. Could we have any three you like, please?
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]
Almost everybody crescendos there. Let's try another one.
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]
Let's try another one.
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]
This is the fastest of all, but they're all [? similarly ?] legato with the top voice brought out, by the way. Huh?
MALCOLM BILSON: It isn't? Would you play this again? Where do you hear articulation? Play this one again.
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]
AUDIENCE: I hear a difference in articulation within the measure from between the measure. I hear less legato at the [INAUDIBLE], because that's what I'm used to listening for.
MALCOLM BILSON: In my opinion, one of these pianists-- I won't tell you who-- read this article and wrote me an email saying you need to have your ears washed out, because I observe everyone of Beethoven's careful articulations, but of course, I pedal it.
AUDIENCE: This is minuscule, but there is a difference.
MALCOLM BILSON: But there's no silence, and the silence is what makes something expressive. Dee, dum, bum, dee--
AUDIENCE: You're saying--
MALCOLM BILSON: I believe. This is what-- this is my opinion. If you don't have a silence, and as a matter of fact, can you even play the upbeat on a Steinway piano. Dum. Can you play that on a Steinway piano, because if you do, it sounds like that.
AUDIENCE: If you it like that.
MALCOLM BILSON: I would be delighted. Do you mind? Can you play an upbeat on a Steinway piano? Because the damper comes down while the note is developing, and therefore, it cuts the sound off, and it sounds chopped. I am not a friend of Glenn Gould's playing, but that kind of highly articulate playing you couldn't possibly do on an old piano, because it's based on the fact that, da, da, da, da-- that every single note is being chopped off as it develops. You can play wonderfully-- listen to modern piano playing. You can play wonderfully legato and wonderfully staccato, but the language here is based on 50%, 30%, 70%, and this is totally absent there.
Look, the thing is that the finesse-- dee, da, dum-- nobody even reads it. Dee, da, dum. That's the only thing you can hear. You cannot hear anything else. Now, what I would like to ask is, at what point is the essence of this piece lost? Are these still "Opus 26?"
now I tried to find an example-- this is fun. I tried to find an example of something where everybody knows what it is, and that's the Viennese waltz.
This is not a Viennese waltz. This is unacceptable, right? You have the dee, dum, dum, dee, dum, something like that, right? Dum, dee, dum, dum, dee, dum.
That's a Viennese waltz. Well, let's take the same piece and do this to it.
The more I do this, the more I like it.
I love it. I try to put all my piano playing skills into it. Is this acceptable as that waltz or not? I leave you with that, and at this point, I would like to go into something else which has nothing to do with pianos at all. Now, this is a Prokofiev gavotte. Now, why are we going to look at this? Well, we're interested in reading music, right? And if we want to know how to read music of Mozart, and Beethoven, even Chopin, we have to go back and read these treatises to find out, but in the case of a composer like Prokofiev, he recorded this piece.
Now, a lot of people might say, OK, let's see how Prokofiev plays this piece. That's not the idea. We're going to hear the recording of Prokofiev played it, and the question is how did he write it down. That's a much more interesting question. Did Prokofiev use the same rules for writing down that Philipp Emanuel Bach and Leopold Mozart advised in the 18th century, and the answer-- he does absolutely. Now, let me just play this.
Prokofiev, of course, plays it something like this. You can hear him play.
He plays it sort of like that. Let's listen to it. It is a piece written in 1920, recording in 1935.
[MUSIC - SERGEY PROKOFIEV]
Retard. That's enough. The retard is not there. I claim every other thing that he does is very, very clearly on this page. Now, let's have a look at it again. What do we know about it? Well, this is a gavotte. A gavotte starts on three, and we know from the sources that therefore you have to hesitate before one, or it'll be-- you can't play--
Otherwise we don't know that it's a gavotte. What you have, that's very interesting. That is a groupetto, and the sources say that when you have a groupetto you should always play it slightly faster than written, just like you should play all little notes slightly faster and big notes slightly longer. So that's what he does.
He's got an accent. He plays the accent. Noticed that this--
--is all under one slur so that you don't hear the downbeat that time, so it's not--
He does it exactly. It's all here. It's all here if we know how to read it. If we start from the premise that, of course, you don't ever play evenly-- now, of course, this is perhaps the most important thing that can be said to any piano teacher, or a conservatory student, or anything-- never ever play evenly, and try to find out how the composer helps you to understand this through his notation.
Now, I have to say that this example was given to me by the musicologist, my friend Richard Taruskin. Taruskin at age 14 was playing this piece and stumbled across this recording of Prokofiev playing it. And he went into his piano lesson and started playing it like that, and the teacher said, what are you doing? And he said, I'm playing it the way Prokofiev plays it. And the teacher said-- and this is the good part-- don't play what Prokofiev plays. You play what's in the score.
Now, what would that say about a piece like this?
Well, I play it something like this.
That may not be right. That may not be right, but the other one is certainly not right, and that I have to try and familiarize myself enough with Schubert that I understand these things that I could play something as they always ask for it characteristically. Now, Bartok is almost more interesting than Prokofiev. Here is this piece, "Evening in the Country." It says at the beginning this is one of those pieces that is a folk song that he made up. It's not really a folk song.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "EVENING IN THE COUNTRY"]
And it says rubato. We're going to hear Bartok play it. I have to admit that I would not have played with quite the rubato that he uses. Some of his eighth notes are longer than some of this quarter notes, but what's much more interesting is the second line vivo, non rubato non rubato. He still follows exactly the same rules. He doesn't play--
--but rather he plays-- he does it better than I do.
So the groupetti are still played faster. The dotted rhythm, which is, of course, backwards-- he plays the long note longer, the short note shorter, the groupetti faster, and it says non rubato. Can we have it please?
[MUSIC - BELA BARTOK, "EVENING IN THE COUNTRY"]
Hands not together. Non rubato. Listen to the left hand rhythm. That's enough. That's OK. Even non rubato is never ever to be played evenly.
Now, there's something else that has to be brought in here, because Bartok doesn't play his hands together. A lot of the old time pianists didn't play their hands together. I heard a recording recently of Paderewski.
Every single right hand note is after the left hand, and as I look out above you here, I see people laughing at this. I don't see why that's any funnier than violinists who now vibrate on every single note. It's a very expressive thing to play the right hand after the left hand. It is recommended by many authors, including Chopin, but I want to just talk about this, because this is very important. Here's a Chopin nocturne. Now, what we know about Chopin because he had a lot of students was that he insisted on a thing called temp rubato. Tempo rubato means not getting fast and slow as it does today, but it means that the accompaniment has to stay steady and that the right hand, or the voice, or the fluid, or the violin, or whatever it is must not be together with the left hand, and he had his students apparently practice the left hand first with both hands.
Because it had to have shape. It couldn't be mechanical, and when they could do this, then they could add the right hand, and let me play it first as is conventionally done today with all of the notes where they should be.
Now I've just been experimenting with this. I was never taught to play this way. I do not come from a tradition-- I think it's a tradition that's lost and that we have to find again, and each time I play it, it comes out a little bit differently, probably sometimes better than others, but I'll give it a shot anyway.
Now, I didn't totally succeed, because at one point, my left hand went ahead. Your left hand has to stay steady. Now, that's the hard part, and when you try in chamber music to do this kind of thing it's very difficult for the accompanist, because we're all trained to listen to the singer. Then up we go, but you mustn't. You must let the singer go ahead or come back in order to achieve this kind of a thing. This is something which I think should come back, because I think it is wonderful.
Now, who plays like this today. Is there anybody who really does this kind of rubato? Several years ago, I was giving a performance practice class, and somebody brought in the Bach double concerto 1924 Efrem Zimbalist, Fritz Kreisler. This--
Let's play it right. Dee, da, da, dee, da, da, dee, ah, dee. The kind of sliding that nobody would do today, and we all thought this was nice, and so we decided to try-- and we got the score to see if we could notate it and see if there was any sense, but we couldn't find any sense. They just seemed to slide when they wanted to. So I said, well, why don't we look at a song, because songs have text, and so I got this song. And this is a song called "Im Grunen," and you will see that the entire accompaniment is--
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "IM GRUNEN"]
There's but eighth notes in the accompaniment. The singer is Elisabeth Schumann. This is about 1935, and there are two things that she does that nobody does anymore. One is that she sings with absolute true rubato. She is never together with the pianist, and as a result of that, the pianist plays very flexibly. The other thing she does is she slides. (SINGING) Im grunen. Im grunen. And slides just like those guys back-- between dee, da, she can go dee. I mean, she can take an enormous time to do that. Can we listen to a little of that? This is about 1935.
[MUSIC - FRANZ SCHUBERT AND ELISABETH SCHUMANN, "IM GRUNEN"]
We'll listen to it all.
Can you go to the next track? Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Edwin Fisher, 1960.
[MUSIC - ELISABETH SCHWARZKOPF AND EDWING FISHER, "IM GRUNEN"]
Now, both of these are in my opinion-- all four of them are, in my opinion-- two singers and two pianists are very, very, very fine artists, but I think it is safe to say that these things are so different you could say that they're engaged in totally different activities. Obviously it is my point of view that what Elisabeth Schumann and her pianist-- it's husband, whose name is Karl Alwin-- I believe very strongly that Schubert would recognize that more. Would not understand-- Edwin Fisher was a fantastic pianist, but to play a piece that has so nothing but eighth notes, and no matter how beautifully you play to keep this rhythm going-- and it's a six or seven minute piece-- is, I think, not in the spirit of the thing, but all of you can make up your own minds about these things. At least I would like to put it out.
Now, I think it's only fair to show you a few examples from Beethoven that are heavily pedaled that I would only do on a piano like this, which are impossible on a piano like that. These, I cannot say that they are in the score. I cannot prove that they are right. I don't even ask you to believe that they are right. They are what I have taken from this music and made into my own hopefully somewhat artistic interpretation.
Now, here is the first page of the moonlight sonata.
All of this piece is to be played delicatissimamente, which you can interpret anywhere you want, soft or delicately. A senza sordino-- now senza sordino means with the dampers raised, which on this piano is done with the knee. Now, what does that mean exactly? Well, it could mean one of two things. It could mean this is the first piece anybody's ever written where you're supposed to pedal from beginning to end, but of course, you change it. And it could mean that you put the pedal down and you hold it.
Now, when I recorded this when we were doing the Beethoven sonatas, I played this sonata. I recorded it twice. I recorded it once with the pedal all the way through and once with the pedal changing, but in the set, you'll only find the one with it's all the way through, because everybody said this is so wonderful. You have to have it. It is kind of romanticism which has disappeared.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "MOONLIGHT SONATA"]
I haven't changed it. Now, as I said, maybe that's not right. Czerny wrote a book on how to play Beethoven sonatas with comments on each one in 1842, but of course, the pianos were much bigger then, but Czerny says, as long as the bass doesn't change, you don't have to change the pedal. And in the development section in the middle, which starts here, although the harmonies change a lot, the bass does not. And there's no reason why you cannot hold the pedal even--
Czerny also says Beethoven got quite a bit faster and made a big crescendo here, which I will try to do.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "MOONLIGHT SONATA"]
Hear what I have to change. So you can do that, but there are other places where there is nothing marked. Here is one, and again, this is my interpretation. Now, this is the second movement of the "D major Sonata Opus 10 No. 3." It is rather a peculiar way to write a melody, it seems to me, and it is generally played like this.
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "D MAJOR SONATA OPUS 10 NO. 3]
No, that's not what I think it is. What I think it is is a chord and that the top part is rather incidental, actually.
We have this chord, which, of course, sounds very different on the piano that Beethoven had. This movement ends just with those chords. The question is, if you have a cross strung piano, do you even write chords like that? Generally speaking, one doesn't right chords like that after the piano got its cross stream, but never mind that. So therefore--
--this is what I think this is so that the-- it's all these chords, these dark chords, and again, this is absolutely dependent on the pedal.
Certainly this is pedaled through. To me it's unquestionable that it is, and pedal this through.
But there are some other interesting things here. If we go down to the bottom line here, you he writes these chords that say fortissimo piano. Now, obviously the piano that decays the fastest will do this best. That part is easy. So you have here--
But on the other hand, if you look at the same figure over here, it's just forte. There is no diminuendo, so the piano with the longer sound should do that better, right? Or not? Well, there is no slur here.
This is something which you can absolutely do on a modern piano.
I've never heard anybody do it, but I bet there are recordings of at least somebody who does it, but almost everybody plays--
--which is then the same as this.
And these are the kind of things that one can learn, but more interesting-- this is more of my idea. You have this thing here. Now, we know that Beethoven pedaled a lot. Why are there no pedal markings here if this is right? Anybody know? Well, there aren't any pedal makings yet. Pedal markings come later. There are a lot of things we do for which there are no markings.
For example, in the Schubert songs, there are no indications of where we should slide or how we should do tempo rubato, and for instance, violinists vibrate, but there's no particular. It's not usual in violin music to show where to vibrate or where to slide. You're just supposed to know those things, and Beethoven starts later to write pedal marks, but he doesn't write all that many, but you have here-- where am I here.
MALCOLM BILSON: I really believe that that all has to be pedaled. Otherwise I don't know what it is, and as long as the--
I don't change it as long as the A doesn't change. So you have this sort of gasping thing. Now, one of the things that somebody usually says. Nobody here has said it, is yeah, but how do you project "The Moonlight Sonata" into a big hall? That's a very good question. You should know that piano sonatas in Beethoven's day were haus musik. They were not to be played in big halls. One piano sonata was played in a public concert. "Opus 101" was played by the dedicatee, Dorothea von Ertmann. There is a review in the [INAUDIBLE], but we don't know what the reviewer thought either of the piece or of Dorothea von Ertmann's playing because he was so outraged to pay money, and go to a concert, and have a piano sonata.
Now, if this is hard to understand, we don't want to get a babysitter, drive downtown, and pay a lot of money, go into a movie house, and have a TV program. Many TV programs are better than many movies, but we don't want to-- it's just categories, you see. And of course, so "The Moonlight Sonata" was not made to be played in a big hall. It was made to be played in a salon, and today, of course, most music is not heard in concert halls either. It's heard on CD players, and there's no problem with that. You can play it as soft as you want.
I finally have one last one, and that is the second movement. Again, it's such a movement. These are things that nobody would do on a modern piano, and these are my convictions. This is the second movement of "Opus 22," which again, notice that it's 9/8, and notice that each of the three is-- so you have--
[MUSIC - MALCOLM BILSON, "OPUS 22"]
And even this. I would certainly pedal through those rests, and you can say, why are you pedaling through a rest? Well, as soon as you have pedaled music, as soon as you have signs for battle, they're always through rests, because what they-- Beethoven cannot write a long note there, because then it would be a heavy note, and it isn't. It's just a short note.
Now, in International Piano Magazine, maybe two years ago, there was an article. They have a thing called "Final Note." It's sort of an op-ed page. A Man named Farhan Malik-- I don't know who he is-- has the following to say. "The world has changed enormously over the past 100 years, and piano playing--" substitute violin playing or singing if you like, "with it. It is not a surprise that in a world dominated by technology and efficiency, musical priorities have changed. Out of all of the piano recitals I've attended over the past 15 years, I can count on one hand the times where I have been truly moved. When I say moved, I refer not to the excitement and electricity of a virtuosic reading, but to those rare occasions where one is deeply touched inside. Fidelity to the printed text has taken pride of place over freedom, intellect over imagination, structure over spontaneity, objectivity over emotion, and analysis over intuition. Sometimes I wonder what Beethoven would say if he heard his music interpreted this way. What's the matter? Don't you like my music?"
Now, I as you can imagine, have great sympathy with this, but I think it's wrong, because it says here "fidelity to the printed text has taken pride of place over freedom." I really believe that if we can learn to read these scores properly, it will engender much, much greater freedom than is allowed in any conservatory today. "Intellect over imagination," on the contrary, any good composer-- there are no good composers who don't have a hefty dose of both of those. They don't work separately. You can't have imagination without being able to think. "Structure over spontaneity," it's only if you really get the absolute structure of the composition that you'll really start to be able to play freely and develop your spontaneity. "Objectivity over emotion," well, objectivity I don't like so much, but you've got to have some of that, too. And "analysis over intuition--" analysis means I understand the piece, and intuition is what I need to make it beautiful. This is what I'm trying espouse in this whole thing.
Now, I am finished. Somebody should say at this point, well, this is all fine, but I only have a Yamaha upright at home. What can I do with this? Well, I hope you can do a great deal. First of all, the first thing we talked about was not how to play something, but how to understand it, and I believe that, if we can learn to read this music differently, then regardless of what kind of instruments we play, we can already do a lot. Many of the things that we have said here have nothing to do with instruments-- what Prokofiev and Bartok did, what Elisabeth Schumann did, what Chopin wanted.
Now, I have been thinking about all these things over the past 30 years and have tried to present this as a compendium of the things that I think are the most important. Probably some of what I say-- maybe even a lot of it-- is off the mark. Maybe I'm a little gone too far in some directions, but all I really am looking for in the next generation is pioneers and people who are willing to say maybe there's still stuff to be found in this music that we haven't just got from our teachers in the conservatory, and if that can happen, that will make me happy. Thank you very much.
Are there any questions now? Yeah?
CHARLOTTE GREENSPAN: It seems to me right now you're undoing some kinds of teaching that you see in conservatory students, people who think dotted quarter eight is three to one, or all eighth notes are same length. At what point do you think you could introduce that into teaching? First lesson? First year? That four quarter notes are not the same length, things like that?
MALCOLM BILSON: I think you can introduce it immediately. All you have to do is say, look, there are four notes here, but it's not really very natural to go bing, bing, bing, bing. That's all you have to do. Kids are more natural than you would think. I mean, I think the main part of--
--is that I had never thought about that. My violinist had never thought about it. We were naturally playing what was going, and he stopped us from doing it, teachers stop kids a lot from doing things. Why shouldn't they be naturally musical? Yes?
EDWARD SWENSON: I was particularly fascinated with the examples by Bartok and Prokofiev, because here we have composers who are interpreting their own music and essentially making it sound like improvisations. And certainly in Bartok's case, he heard a lot of improvised folk music, and that even when he was writing something that was an original melody written in the folk style, you still get the impression that there's this improvisatory element involved, and so maybe a lot of what you're saying has to do with that, that one should look at the page as though it's an inspiration to do something other than what's exactly spelled out in black and white on ink and paper.
MALCOLM BILSON: Well, you know I love what you're saying. You know that, but I think the only thing that I might say a little bit differently is maybe it is spelled out in ink and paper. I believe in the Prokofiev example it's there if we know how to read it. And if we know, for example, that Chopin writes one thing, and we understand that he didn't want the students to play these things together, then we just start to look at it, and say, well, look, why is this dotted, then? And why is this short? And then you can start to glean some insight, and of course, imagination helps, but I mean, thanks. That's great. Yes?
TRUDY BORDEN: You made the statement that silence was a very expressive part of music, and in the Mozart examples really observed every slur and space in between every one. Why not in, say, the first two measures of the slow movement of "Opus 10 No. 3?"
MALCOLM BILSON: Because I think that the style is changing, and we know that Beethoven pedaled a lot. So what I see there is not dee, da, da, dee, da, da, dee, da, da. I do see it the Mozart. Dee, da, da, da, dee, da, dum. I think the style is changing a lot, but Brahms apparently complained at the end of his life people aren't observing the slurs. They still mean what they're supposed to mean, and people just playing legato right across them.
TRUDY BORDEN: Well, as someone--
MALCOLM BILSON: I think Read Gainsford was right when he said hears these things.
TRUDY BORDEN: You hear it.
MALCOLM BILSON: He says you hear these things because it's in the musical way, but--
TRUDY BORDEN: The inflection is still different when you're using the pedal.
MALCOLM BILSON: But I have to say that, for me, when I look at that piece, because it's in 3/8-- dum, da, dum, bum, ba, da, dee, da, da, da, da-- and-- dum, dee, dum, dum, dee, da, dee, da, da, da, dee. Those are two different pieces, I think. So it's not just where it's-- I mean, it's not dee, da, da, rump, dum, dum, dum, dee, da, da, rum, dum, dum. It's not that kind of piece, "The Opus 10 No. 3," and again, it comes back to Leopold Mozart saying, you've got to know what the affect of the piece is, or you can't read it. And then it comes back to the Strauss Waltz, which hopefully I played very nicely. I mean, I like to think that I did. I tried. Yes?
READ GAINSFORD: When you mentioned the fact that the modern piano is suited for public performance and Beethoven's sonatas were not designed for public performance, how do we reconcile that? Should they not be played in large halls?
MALCOLM BILSON: Well, the thing is that, first of all, I'm using right now a kind of medium sized voice because I'm talking to you over there. If this were our large Bailey Concert Hall, I would probably be speaking like this, and if we were sitting in my living room, I'd probably be speaking like this. So there is this whole object of projection, but unfortunately I think too many people think in terms of projection right away at the beginning. I had a violinist once who was playing Mozart was using three bows for one of Mozart, and I said, but there's one there. He said, how do I project? And I said, well, first you've got to decide what your projecting. First you've got to decide what the sentence is.
At the University of Illinois, where I used to teach, there was a voice professor who said you should always speak like this, and you would go by his office and hear, well, I can see you Wednesday at 3 o'clock. And I don't think that's the way to learn to speak. I think you should learn. All I'm trying to say is that, to in a big hall, it's a different thing.
READ GAINSFORD: Absolutely.
MALCOLM BILSON: So that's what I'm saying, but it's not so simple. It's not so simple to transpose a lot of these things to something which is so totally foreign. It really is. I mean, it's a totally different period that was making these things, and with totally different-- so that they changed the additions. And I claim that people are still in a sense playing from those additions. Just think about it. That's all.
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Distinguished pianist Malcolm Bilson poses the question, “Do we really know how to read the musical notation of the 18th- and 19th-century masters, and how can a better informed reading lead to more expressive, even passionate performance?”
Bilson has been in the forefront of the period instrument movement for more than thirty years. A member of the Cornell University Music Department since 1968, where he is the Frederick J. Whiton Professor of Music Emeritus, he began his pioneering activity in the early 1970s as a performer of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert on late 18th- and early 19th-century pianos. He has been a key contributor to the restoration of the fortepiano to the concert stage and to fresh recordings of the mainstream repertory.
This lecture is part of a series that includes Knowing the Score, Knowing the Score Vol. 2, and Performing the Score. For more information, visit