Arthur Loesser 1894-1969
For Arthur Loesser, who taught the piano, played the piano, wrote about the piano and used it as the anchor of his Cleveland home (which became an intellectual and musical salon), this was no ordinary instrument. He chronicled its evolution in his classic 1954 book, Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (Dover) with the care and concern of a family relation. He heard in its 10,000 pieces of wood, hide, metal and cloth, the compressed cultural history of the last 300 years. Its ability to play soft and loud (which led it to be called by its 18th Century inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori, a clavicembalo col piano e forte) helped it become the perfect instrument to portray the introspective yearnings of the Romantic era. It inspired widespread musical literacy, encouraging listeners to play and not just hear. In 1847, Loesser notes, there were 180 piano makers in Paris along with 60,000 instruments; in England, 300 firms were producing 20,000 instruments a year. The piano became part of the average homes hearth, often providing a locus for the rituals of courtship. The instrument and its music also took on almost a religious character for players and listeners. And in its manufacture, the pianos traditions of old fashioned hand-craftsmanship were gradually placed in service to the ever-more sophisticated techniques of the Industrial Revolution. The instrument represented all the spiritual, social and aesthetic aspirations of the middle class, all its yearnings for artistic mastery and material accomplishment.
Now, over thirty years after Loessers death, it is through his history of the piano that he is best known. But he also devoted his life to the instrument, a life that in its quiet dedication, seemed to reflect the focus and relaxed attention that characterizes his book. Born in 1894, he grew up in a serious household where the high arts were devotedly celebrated. It also must have encouraged artistic exploration: Loessers half brother, Frank Loesser, became the renowned Broadway composer, librettist, and music publisher, best known for The Most Happy Fella and Guys and Dolls. Arthur Loesser may have also passed on his parents' passion for learning and culture to his daughter, Anne Hollander, who is the distinguished critic of the history of art and dress.
Arthur Loesser studied at New Yorks City College. At Columbia University he focused on zoologya field that may have anticipated his interest in the habitats and evolution of his chosen instruments. He also studied at the Institute of Musical Arts in New York, which was later to become the Juilliard School. He made his pianistic debut in Berlin in 1913, his New York debut in 1916 and then toured the United States. In 1926 he joined the piano faculty of the Cleveland Institute where he stayed the rest of his professional life. During the Second World War, he served as an intelligence officer. After the war he was stationed in Japan where, according to the Grove Dictionary of American Music, he lectured in Japanese (!) and performed with the Japanese Symphony Orchestra. After writing a playful book, Humor in American Song, he was working on Men, Women and Pianos when, in 1953, he became the head of the piano department in Cleveland.
He also worked as music critic at the Cleveland Press. This seemed to have encouraged a certain skepticism about the nature of that craft. In 1956, in the New York Times, the music critic Harold C. Schonberg reported that Loesser participated in a three-day music critics workshop in Cleveland, presented by the American Symphony Orchestra League. Forty music critics from large and small American cities attended and considered forming a national association of critics. In a lecture, Schonberg wrote, Loesser severely questioned some eternal verities, such as the Godlike omniscience of the New York musical press, a judgment that caused some New York critics, including Schonberg, to come to a slow boil.
But having seen the profession at work, and having studiously included excerpts from German, French and English music criticism in his history of the piano, he may have had good reason for skepticism. At any rate, his book is a counterexample to his skepticism, a model of broad-minded, expansive music criticism that wears its learning lightly. He combined the insightful sociological observations of Max Weber, a social analysis distantly influenced by Marxism, the scrupulous research of musical scholarship, and the anecdotal richness of popular history, to create a new genre of criticism. It still reads as urgently in the 21st century as it did when it was published.
Indeed, the books conclusions, dating from 1954 have a prophetically melancholic note:
In the family, the piano competes manfully with the washing machine and the station wagon for the installment dollar, and rather more weakly with gardening, photography, and canasta for hobby time. As a source of passive musical enjoyment, it has been all but snuffed out by the phonograph, the radio, and the television set.
Loessers final sentence completes the requiem:
The low plateau has no slope that we can now see. Our tale is told.
Though the hobbies and installment plans purchases may have changed, the requiem is now even more appropriate. In 1909, US piano factories made about 365,000 pianos; in 2001, the number is less than a third of that; the nearly 300 American piano makers of the beginning of last century have been whittled down to a handful at the beginning of this one. And despite the increased importance of Korean and Japanese instruments, the atmosphere has decisively changed. The electronic piano has taken over, transforming the anchor of the hearth and home into a portable instrument with less bourgeois concerns. Passive music consumption has become the rule, even encouraging the revival of player pianos with computer-driven mechanisms. And the classical tradition itself, which gave birth to the instrument and hovered over iteven as the piano became a servant of sentimental song, pop music and jazzhas been worn to a wraith of its former self.
In this context, any reminder of Loessers love for the instrument and its music, his sturdy and clear-eyed insight into its possibilities, and his commitment to its grand intellectual and dramatic ambitionsevident in these recordings of Bachare welcome. It is also interesting that these are the first recordings of Loessers pianism released in many decades, for Bach, as Loesser pointed out, was present at one of the pianos most important debuts. Loesser quoted the report of a Berlin newspaper in 1747:
We learn from Potsdam that Mr. Bach, the famous music director of Leipzig, arrived there last Sunday with the intention of enjoying the pleasure of hearing the excellent Royal music. Toward evening...His Highness straightway gave the command to have him come in; upon his entrance [His Majesty] went to the so-called Forte and Piano.
He played the theme of what was to become The Musical Offering and challenged Bach to work it into a fugue. Bach, of course, did much more, and along the way politely praised the new instrumentthough, as Loesser points out, he showed, in his last years, no further interest in it, leaving it to his composer-sons to point the way toward the pianistic future.
That future, as Loesser concludes, has now become more of a past. As foreshadowed in Bachs tentative explorations, the instrument, in its prime, was really an embodiment of a cultures notion of transcendence. But now, even more than when Loesser wrote, and despite the glories it still offers, the piano has so lost its aura, the instrument hardly seems able to transcend its current weakened position. The piano still lives, Loesser insists. But may it rest in peace.
©Edward Rothstein, 2001
Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for the New York Times and author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics. He also wrote the foreword to the Dover reprint of Men, Women and Pianos.
Program Notes by Arthur Loesser
CD 1: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
The Latin words mean: Thus passes the glory of the world. They were spoken, anciently, ceremonially, to emperors and popes at their coronation to remind them of the mortality of their lives and of their achievements. I saw the sentence recently, beautifully inscribed on the lid of a fine Ruckers harpsichord, as a reflection upon the essential evanescence of music.
But the phrase may have still another musical relevance. The works of many composers, highly admired and enjoyed by their own generation and that immediately following, have become neglected or entirely forgotten by later times. The obsolescence is often deserved; but sometimes it is not warranted by the nature of the music itself. To some extent the persistence of past creations produces a crowding, a traffic problem. Worthy, interesting, attractive works must be set aside to make time for new ones that rightfully demand attention. Moreover, fashions, tastes and ideals change with the generations, though not necessarily for the better. Those of us who have lived a good while fancy we may derive wisdom from having seen many things both come and go.
A few composers of the past have been canonized by general consent, are called great, and their works recognized as classics. Their exaltation to sainthood colors all their creations, and we continue to contemplate some of their least thoughts, even their noddings, with respect. But those who have failed to achieve beatification despite their talent, their craft, and the joy they gave to their contemporaries, are not so fortunate. They too have at times brought forth stirring utterances, happy ideas and ingenious constructions, not always inferior to some of those of the great,but, alas, they remain disregarded.
My aim in presenting this program is to afford a glimpse of a few of these unlucky productions, before they inevitably redescend to their damnation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
JAN LADISLAV DUSSEK (1761-1812), Czech born, was recognized as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Contemporary accounts from Paris, London, Prague and Amsterdam agree as to the persuasive brilliance and charm of his playing. His sonatas, too, were much admired. Later he became the special pianist and boon companion of the music-loving Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. After the Princes death Dussek returned to Paris where he ended his career as the house musician of the Prince de Benevento, better known as Talleyrand.
Apart from its innocuous conventional introduction, La Chasse is a gay, lively piece in sonata-allegro form. Like all the numerous hunt pieces it abounds in horn calls and horses hoof-beats. Dussek further affords a small dividend toward the middle, in the shape of some barking dogs. Pardon me: Baying hounds is the ritual expression.
JOHANN NEPOMUK HUMMEL (1778-1837) was born in Bratislava (alias Pozsony, alias Pressburg), now within the borders of Czechoslovakia (sic). As a talented boy he was taken to Vienna where for two years he became a pupil of Mozart, living in Mozarts house. He developed into yet one more of the leading pianists of his time, winning laurels and money in all parts of Europe. His concertos remained standard repertoire pieces for some time after his death. In general his compositions show some Mozart influence, and have a predilection for nimble, graceful, euphonious figuration. His native city of Bratislava has erected a monument to him.
JOHN FIELD (1782-1837) was born in Ireland, studied with Clementi in London and then was taken on a long tour by his master. When the pair were in St. Petersburg, the local music lovers became so enamored of the young Field that he decided to stay, and indeed made Russia his home for most of the rest of his life.
Field had a wonderfully sensitive touch on the keys, and there were many tales of feminine swoonings at his concerts. He composed a number of lyrical pieces of a dreamy nature which he called Nocturnes, some years before Chopin adopted the same title for some of his. They were much enjoyed for a long while; and the great virtuoso Anton Rubinstein played a Field Nocturne in a London recital as late as 1876, almost 40 years after the composers death.
MUZIO CLEMENTI (1752-1832), pianist, composer, piano manufacturer, and finally, English gentleman, was four years older than Mozart and survived Beethoven by five years. He was one of the greatest musicians of his age, and Beethoven in his earlier Vienna years was known to have studied his sonatas assiduously and profited from them. His great work Gradus ad Parnassum suffered a most humiliating blow at the hands of an unconcerned posterity. The work consisted of 100 compositions of all sorts, including sonata-allegros, slow movements, fugues, canons, rondos, etc. An insensitive musician of the 19th century proceeded to discard most of these, to keep 30 exercises and republish the fragment as Gradus ad Parnassumas if that were all there was to it. Mayhem plus slander! There is a renewed interest in Clementi today, promoted by a few enthusiasts.
The present Sonata in B-Flat Major, when first published many years after its composition, bore the following footnote: This sonata was performed by the composer before the Emperor Joseph II (of Austria) in 1781, at which occasion Mozart was present. The implication of course was, that Mozart had stolen its first theme when he came to compose his Overture to The Magic Flute in 1790 or thereabouts. Later generations have felt that the theft, if it was one, had been put to very good use indeed. Modern scholars, moreover, tend to think that the pattern of this theme was already a cliché, a bit of public domain, during the end of the 18th century, and was utilized by numbers of composers.
ADOLF JENSEN (1837-1879) came from what used to be called Koenigsberg in what used to be Prussia. A fine lyrical talent of German romanticist coloration, his charming songs for solo voice with piano graced many a vocal recital, and enlivened many a domestic gathering during the previous century. His piano pieces are numerous, mostly short, sweet and undifficult.
But Erotikon is a more ambitious pianistic enterprise. It is a series of seven pieces of larger scope, each entitled with the name of a legendary ancient Greek character: Electra, Adonis, Galatea, etc. With each title goes a short quotation from a Greek poet. Eros has the following motto from Theokritos: Yes, now I know Eros, he is a terrible godhe must have sucked the breasts of a lioness. The impassioned sweep of this piece might make one think of the early works of Richard Strauss.
After the retirement of Franz Liszt in 1847 ANTON RUBINSTEIN was by common consent regarded as the worlds foremost piano virtuoso. He was also held in the highest esteem as a serious composer, many music lovers preferring his symphonies, chamber music and concertos to those of Brahms. His piano concerto in D Minor was regularly heard in symphony concerts well into the 1910s. A couple of melodious trifles are all that now remain of his former glory.
The present Prelude and Fugue is one of a set of six. It is clearly the work of a skilled musical craftsman. The 3-voice texture is strictly maintained throughout the fugue, almost to the very end, even though some of the counterpoint consists of broken-chord intervals. Possibly some bright young thinkers may feel that the pieces romanticist tone of voice is unsuited to a fugal design. But that notion may be a triumph of habit over reason.
JOACHIM RAFF (1822-1882) was a very competent German musician whose work had been praised by Mendelssohn, Liszt and Bülow. Ambitious as well as poor and industrious, he turned out four operas, eleven symphonies, besides large quantities of vocal, chamber and piano music, including numbers of pot-boilers. One single violin piece, possibly also one piano piece is all that anyone now knows. Incidentally, among his pupils may be mentioned the American composer Edward MacDowell.
The Rigaudon is a cheerful tune, catchy but not vulgar, garnished with quite a lot of unsophisticated twiddlety-bits.
IGNACE JAN PADEREWSKI (1860-1941) was the one who, among all others, achieved the widest fame of any pianist that ever appeared in the United States. He was indeed a great performer and a still greater personality; but only a few musicians ever found out that he was an estimable composer. A single insignificant ditty was all that most of his eager admirers ever knew he had written. Actually he has an opera, a symphony, two concertos, a very substantial sonata, as well as a fine set of variations to his credit.
The Légende is a relatively early work, dating from about 1886.
EMMANUEL CHABRIER (1841-1894). This talented Frenchmans productions oscillated between the commonplace and the humorous. The latter quality was, of course, what endeared him to his juniors, notably Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel.
The Bourrée Fantasque is full of clever drollery. Its principal theme, announced at the beginning, seems to be a brisk little dance rhythmbut toward the end it reappears in doubled note values, i.e. slowed by half, and becomes revealed as a rowdy song of Parisian-proletarian flavor, perhaps with unprintable words.
The gloria transits in the present century as fast as, or even faster than, in the previous one
LEOPOLD GODOWSKY (1870-1938) was in the front rank of pianists throughout the first third of the 20th century, and much sought and esteemed as a teacher in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago and New York. His transcriptions of Chopin Etudes and metamorphoses of Strauss waltzes provoked astonished admiration from other pianists, though only a few could succeed in playing them. He wrote a comparatively small number of original works, all smooth, intricate, agreeable, and involving a marvelous mastery of pianistic idiom.
The Gardens of Buitenzorg is one unit of a large work called Java Suite, inspired by a concert tour that Godowsky had made of what used to be called the Dutch East Indies. Buiten Zorg is Dutch for what the French call Sans Souci, meaning without care. It was the name given to the residence of the governor of the Colony, and it afforded a magnificent botanical garden, with every plant carefully set and labeled. The composer, however, not so botanically inclined, seemed to think of it rather as a feast of nostalgic perfumes.
In Germany at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, the Wagnerian ultra-romanticist tone-painters, Richard Strauss at their head, were in full sway. Toward them MAX REGER (1873-1916) represented a counter-current. He championed the older German tradition, based greatly on Bach, became a notable fashioner of organ works, cantatas, sonatas, variations and fugues. Yet he was not a mere antiquarian. Adhering in principle to our ancestral tonal system, still he indulged in a restless craving for continual fleeting modulation. Thus in many cases, though his music always ends in the key in which it ostensibly begins, for much of its progress it is hard to say in just what key it is sojourning at the moment. In a way he achieved a kind of atonality through traditional procedures.
From My Diary is a collection of short but quite characteristic pieces.
ALFREDO CASELLA (1883-1947) was a conspicuous musical figure during the 1910s and 1920s, a brave avant-gardist, besides also being a keen thinker about music in general.
The first of the Two Contrasts, the Grazioso, is subtitled Hommage à Chopin, for evident reasons. The harsh dissonances of the Anti-grazioso were hot stuff in 1908but they have cooled quite a bit since then.
FERRUCCIO BUSONI (1866-1924), half Italian, half German, was one of the most remarkable pianists that ever lived, unforgettable in his mastery of the keyboard and in his eccentricities of musical interpretation. His transcriptions of the works of Bach and of other classics are still extant; but his own compositions, far out in their day despite the logic of their conception, have never got off the ground. All their originality, their individuality, all the adulation of the composers many disciples, friends, and admirers of his playing have not succeeded in building any affection for them. True, his large stage and orchestral works are difficult to put on. And it is only fair to note that, very recently, there seems to be a movement to bring some of them to life.
As for the present Sonatina, a reputable critic has described it as futuristic. Not an inappropriate epithet, seeing that, fifty-five years after its appearance, its future has still not arrived.
MORITZ MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925) settled in Paris during the last 25 years of his life. If you think that is more important than his German-Polish-Jewish background and ancestry, you can call him Maurice M. if you like. He brought forth a large amount of slick, lively, easily digestible music, revealing a high degree of mastery of pianistic idiom. Glib and melodious, it had a wide vogue without losing the respect of the serious musicians. Moszkowskis waltz and mazurka rhythms were especially fetching.
It might be psychologically healthful for listeners to the Waltz, op. 34 if they yielded to any sinful stirrings of pleasure that they might feel at hearing its unproblematic strainsrather than that they activated their aesthetic bristles with indignation at being subjected to such stale trash, coming from an august serious concert platform, at that. This and similar pieces gave delight to millions of our grandparents, all from good families. But of course it may be that all grandparents are necessarily simpletons, mental sluggards and barbariansand of course never were young. (N.B. I am a grandparent.)
Sic Transit... ... ..Et Semper Transibit
CD 2: Cleveland Institute of Music, 11 January 1967
Haydn: Sonata No. 42 in D
This little sonata dates from Haydns mature period, from the later years of his active directorship of the Esterházy musical establishment. Indeed, it is dedicated to Princess Marie Esterházy herself. The first movement is full of graceful witticism; the second has lively virile charm.
As for the opening melodic strain of the first movement: any quick resemblance between it and a so-called Wedding March is quite superficial and accidental. Anyway, Haydn died four years before Wagner was born.
Beethoven: Variations on Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen
Like most composers of his time, Beethoven wrote at least a dozen sets of piano variations on hit tunes from fashionable operas of his day, as well as on other well-known popular and patriotic melodies. They were all pot-boilers: easy-to-take cookies for quick consumption and elimination. His own opinion of them can be understood by the fact that he almost never deigned to give them opus numbers.
Still, genius, like murder, will out. Some, if not most, of these shallow creations of Beethoven reveal strokes of wit and happy little conceits that raise them above the current commonplace patterns to which he often conformed. I suggest that you try to enjoy this unfamiliar piece, whilst still putting it in its proper place.
The opera from which the subject tune is taken was composed by Peter von Winter, a fertile, mediocre, highly successful musician who ultimately succeeded in fabricating about thirty-five other musical stage plays. The title, translated into English, is of a noteworthy clumsiness; it means The Interrupted Sacrificial Ceremony. Hard to believe that this label could ever become commercial. The opera first came out in Vienna in 1796Beethovens variations appeared in 1799. But when young Frédéric Chopin visited Berlin in 1828 he wrote home to his parents that he had just heard this very opera there. Few Broadway musicals get to run for thirty-two years. The words of the little quartet-aria begin: Child, if you want to sleep quietly, dont fall in love.
Prokofiev: Sonata No. 5, op. 38/135
This work was first written in 1923 and published shortly thereafter. Somehow, pianists have not taken it either to their hearts or to their fingers. Could it be because it is not especially brilliant, contains no thundering octaves and very little sizzling figuration?
The work has many attractions: neat, classical melodic outline, a good deal of stimulating peppery dissonance as well as a satisfying thematic logic.
The composer seems to have felt affected by the relatively poor acceptance of this sonata, and so undertook a revision of it late in lifein 1953. It was published in 1955 as op. 135. Copies of the revision are hard to find in this country; but thanks to the devoted, friendly efforts of Mr. Jacques Posell of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Institute of Musicas well as to the kind cooperation of Professor Ginsberg of the Moscow Conservatory of MusicI was able to obtain a copy. In my not too humble estimation, the composers revisive afterthoughts do not, for the most part, constitute improvements on the original, except, however, for the very end, which definitely sounds more satisfactorily finale-like in the later version. Thus what you hear will be op. 38 almost entirely; but the last five pages will be op. 135.
Chopin: Nocturne in B, op. 9, no. 3; Variations Brillantes on a melody from the opera Ludovic, op. 12
This Nocturne is not tragic, like the one in C minor or the one in C sharp minor, nor deeply amorous like the one in D flat major. It is light-hearted, the only one of the nineteen that is superscribed Allegretto, rather than Andante or Lento. It also has the direction: Scherzando. One might think of it as warmly flirtatious.
The Variations op. 12 are an example of the fashionable musical taste of their time. Pianists were adored heroes in the Europe of 1830-1850, almost as much as astronauts are today. But they also felt the need of pleasing the less exquisitely cultivated among their idolaters, and of insuring an easy success by borrowing a little glory from the momentum of a currently raging opera. Fantasies, medleys, and variations on operatic hit tunes of the moment formed a large proportion of the piano music that was being written, performed and sold in those days.
As one might expect, when Chopin played this gameas he did very rarelyhis production rose above the common level of quality of his contemporaries. Shallow as the Variations op. 12 are in content, the piece still represents a high degree of mastery in an elusive element of music intended for concert performance, namely in the management of movementthe maintenance of continued interest through judicious, well-timed, well-manipulated change of pace, of texture, of touch.
Thus the piece begins with a pompous introduction, involving a heavy bang to open with, followed by some inconclusive melodic strains, and some startlingly splashing runs. Suspense accumulates upon a sustained leading chordwhereupon the theme-tune comes forth unadorned, perhaps once upon a time accompanied by some unconscious humming on the part of a Paris audience. This first variation is gently babbling, the second is staccato and jerky, the third cantabile with florid inserts. A tricky cadenza again creates tension leading to the sprightly fourth and final variation. There is a coda, and the whole end is one of high gymnastic hilarity. A potboiler, yesand also a masterpiece in its way.
The parent opera of the tune was composed by L.J.F. Hérold, who died before he had completed it. Finishing touches were administered by J.F.F. Halévy.
I like to call this piece: Follies of 1833.