Liner Notes

Carl Friedberg:
Artist and Teacher

Carl Friedberg (1872-1955) is remembered today as one of the great pianists of the last century, perhaps the most significant of that group of Schumann and Brahms pupils who left a substantial legacy of recordings. Less well remembered is that he was also one of the outstanding pedagogues and supreme musicians of his time. It was my rare privilege to study under his masterful guidance for more than ten years.

Friedberg was born in Bingen, Germany on September 18, 1872. He began giving private lessons at the age of 16, shortly after meeting and playing for Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Within two years he was supporting himself through his lessons and accompanying jobs while still a student at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Shortly after his orchestral debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1892 (with Gustav Mahler conducting), he joined the faculty of the Hoch Conservatory. In 1904 he became the principal piano teacher at the Cologne Conservatory, all the while pursuing an international career with both solo and chamber music repertoire.

He made his American debut at Carnegie Hall in November 1914. The onset of the First World War obliged him stay in the United States, where he then taught privately and toured as pianist. He returned to Germany in 1918, replacing Artur Schnabel in the Schnabel/Flesch/Becker Trio. A year later Frank Damrosch recruited Friedberg to teach advanced piano students at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (1905-1933), a conservatory that gradually merged with the Juilliard School of Music (from 1934 to the present). When I came to him in 1940 as a graduate student, age 19, he had been teaching at the Institute and at Juilliard for 24 years.

I began piano lessons at the Institute in 1929, first with Elizabeth Fontaine Harris, then with Lonny Epstein (1885-1965). Miss Epstein had long been associated with Mr. Friedberg, first as pupil, then as teaching assistant. She had studied also with Ferruccio Busoni and Max Reger, and she later became a noted interpreter of Mozart’s piano music, recording and playing on her copy of Mozart’s own piano. Eagerly anticipating future study with Friedberg (on Epstein’s recommendation), I was dismayed when there were rumors that he wasn’t well, and that he might not live long enough for me to study with him. Happily, these were false rumors, for in spite of his frail appearance he was in fact physically and emotionally strong, summoning real power at the piano when necessary. He was, by choice, a vegetarian!

For me it was a seamless transition from Epstein to Friedberg. A familiar challenge from Mr. Friedberg was “Talent Oblige!” adapted from the French “Noblesse Oblige.” The onus was strongest upon fellowship-holders at the Juilliard Graduate School who might not be living up to their expected potential. After all, we were granted free tuition and those with varying gifts were challenged to use them. Friedberg did not focus on technique as such; we were expected to maintain it on our own, so that together with him we could explore only the music. That is not to say he didn’t have wonderful solutions to finger problems, and his specialty: how to sing on the piano.

In 1940, preparing for the Graduate School, I played the Schumann Concerto, which Friedberg was to play a few weeks later with the same orchestra (the Institute’s, with Willem Willeke conducting). In a superb gesture of support, he and Epstein (I was still her pupil) attended the last rehearsal, giving me the benefit of their experience in projecting out to the audience. When we had finished, they met me backstage, one on either side of me, Friedberg saying “You are our spiritual child.”

In an interview for Musical America in 1954, Friedberg declared his belief that when musical ideas became complete and exciting during a performance, the music should be dominant even if a few notes might go astray. In other words, an obsession with accuracy should not impede the artistic flow and the big line. Above all, one had to pay attention to tone production—a tone made beautiful by pressing weight rather than hitting the keys, and with the arms and elbows floating unrestrictedly.

While still a teenager, Friedberg played almost all the major repertory of the period (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Schumann) to Clara Schumann, who suggested the principle of studying the music away from the piano. Since music is often conceived aesthetically by the composer before being written down, and since some keyboard instruments limit the imagination, one can silently “orchestrate” a composition on a larger scale: for instance, imagining a singer’s breath (phrasing), the legato of string playing, punctuation of brass instruments, clarity of woodwinds, etc., transferred to the piano which can often be more percussive than a drum.

When Friedberg met Brahms at the Schumann household, frequently playing the composer’s works to him, an additional dimension entered his intuitive understanding, enhancing his natural romantic feeling. Brahms felt his music was too often played with vulgar force, and he wanted a more subtle depth and breadth of tone. Friedberg once told me that Brahms disliked most women pianists’ performances (excluding Clara Schumann’s, of course) because “they banged too much.”

Among Friedberg’s many pupils, the one considered most likely to carry on his performance and teaching traditions was the highly gifted William Masselos—a star pupil from the age of nine. His Brahms and Schumann repertory and his championing of contemporary piano music earned him great acclaim. Other prominent Friedberg pupils included Maro Ajemian, Malcolm Frager, Jeanne Therrien, Jane Carlson, Bruce Hungerford, Percy Grainger, Ethel Leginska, Yaltah Menuhin, Elly Ney, Erwin Schulhoff and Jascha Zayde.

Mr. Friedberg admired the artistry of the Polish pianist Jan Smeterlin, especially his Chopin interpretations. He also praised the two-piano work of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, although it was a vastly different kind of piano playing from the Beethoven-Schumann-Brahms tradition. He adored Myra Hess’s playing, and she always stopped to play for him when in New York. On one such occasion Dame Myra arrived at the end of one of my lessons. Friedberg invited her to come to my first Town Hall recital in 1947, an all-Russian program. There they were in the Friedberg box: Myra Hess, Carl and Gerda Friedberg, along with Louis and Angela Persinger, Olga Samaroff, Friedberg’s sister Annie (a well-known artists’ manager), James Friskin and Lonny Epstein. What a thrill!

During the 1940s Mr. Friedberg became much impressed with Vladimir Horowitz’s playing—his brusque technique and variety of sound. He said that you could sit in the back row at the top of Carnegie Hall and hear clearly the softest pianissimo as well as a crashing forte. Friedberg liked Rachmaninoff for his creative interpretations, Robert Casadesus for his subtle playing of French music, and the Brazilian, Guiomar Novaes, “because she gets the job done without a big splash”—a covert reference to Eileen Joyce who liked to change to a different fancy dress during the interval of her recitals! Rudolf Serkin was a great favorite of Friedberg’s, who thought he might “inherit my mantle”—until Serkin developed a tendency toward banging, loud humming and heavy pedaling, which “got in the way of the music.” Nevertheless, Friedberg explained that there are always differences among pianists, and that no one interpretation reigns for everyone.

When a new administrative regime took over Juilliard in 1945, there were many changes in the curriculum and faculty. At the end of summer school, a message was sent to Mr. Friedberg’s secretary stating that his services would no longer be required. The dismissal was a topic of conversation for years afterward. Mr. Friedberg’s comment was simply, “They don’t need me anymore.” It was puzzling, since even at the age of 73 he was a masterful, energetic teacher who organized winter master classes in New York, Toledo and Kansas City, summer courses in Nantucket and Maine, and played recitals as well. In Toledo, there was a magnificent performance of the Brahms B-flat concerto when he was 80! Age seemed not to touch him—the youthful romance was still to be heard in his playing.

In 1954 Friedberg returned to Europe for his first visit in 15 years. When asked what prompted this journey, his reply was typical: “To hear the nightingales sing.” The following year Friedberg had planned a late summer course in Munich, to which he was en route when he caught a cold on the boat going over and died shortly after reaching Trieste, just ten days before his 83rd birthday.
©Barbara Holmquest, 2003

Producer’s Note

Carl Friedberg harbored a lifelong antipathy to the recording process. According to his pupil and biographer Julia Smith, Friedberg “was never satisfied with the sound of the piano even at best as it was reproduced on recordings. A far more important reason is that he did not wish to have his conception of a given work forever stamped by one set, or fixed interpretation achieved in a recording session. For him, art existed as the sublime improvisation of an intensive mood which must always remain variable and flexible.” Nonetheless, during the spring of 1953—two years before his death—Friedberg was persuaded to record a few selected works for release by the small Zodiac label. The result was a single 40-minute LP that stayed in the catalog for barely three years and soon became a prime collector’s item. Some additional repertoire was also taped for possible release by Zodiac, but these items remained unedited and were not issued until 1985, when they appeared in an LP album produced by the International Piano Archives at Maryland.

The present pair of CDs contains what is believed to be the complete repertoire from Friedberg’s Zodiac sessions. In all cases the original master tapes were used as source material. Augmenting these studio recordings are live recital performances given by Friedberg at the Juilliard School of Music during the summers of 1949 and 1951. Both programs were broadcast, and lacquer transcription discs—apparently made on a home disc-cutter during the broadcasts—have survived of some, but not all, of their contents. As far as possible, the original lacquers have been transferred for the present release, but in certain instances it was necessary to draw upon existing tape copies. Isolated sonic problems are evident in some of these recordings, such as radio interference during the Chopin Impromptu in G-Flat. However, where feasible every effort has been made to overcome these flaws.

One of the unique aspects of Friedberg’s musicianship was his ability to create short improvisations of remarkable quality and coherence, employing a distinctive musical and pianistic approach in each. Fortunately, several examples of his improvisations were captured by the microphones. These can be found on the second disc of the present collection.

The only remaining documentation of Friedberg’s pianism, apart from a few reproducing piano rolls that he disowned, consists of airchecks of three or four chamber music collaborations dating from around 1940 plus an amateur tape of his 1951 appearance with the Toledo (Ohio) Symphony. A broadcast of the Brahms F Minor Quintet with the Perolé Quartet is believed to feature Friedberg as the pianist, although there are no announcements on the one known copy of the performance. There may also be off-the-air transcriptions in existence of trios by Beethoven and Brahms with the Trio of New York (comprised of Friedberg, violinist Felix Salmond and cellist Daniil Karpilowsky). It is hoped that these performances will see the light of day in the near future.
©Donald Manildi, 2003