Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Getting" Gottschalk

In order to play any composer's music well, you have to have some understanding about what makes them tick musically. Any clues you have to their artistic personality are of help. I say this, well aware that some people are under the impression that all the appropriate marks are on the page and all you need to do is to follow them. I have no problem with the marks on the page, but they are incomplete. This is often because a composer just assumed people would follow the standard practice of their time and place and thus constantly reminding people to do something they were going to do anyhow seemed unnecessary. But marks can also lead you down the wrong path. I remember preparing to play a Sonata by William Albright back in graduate school. There were so many instructions in English--almost every note had some kind of adjective under it in some spots--that I assumed he was going to be really detail-oriented and a perfectionist, and maybe even somewhat of a control freak. Then I met him and he coached me on how to play his piece. Basically, he told me to just go for it. This was the complete opposite of what I had been expecting.

Pianists should have this kind of problem every day. If the attack on Mozart's instrument was much cleaner and decayed much faster than our modern Steinway, is a detached articulation appropriate for any place in the piece that doesn't say otherwise? And just what did Schubert mean when he used a wedge instead of a dot. Or was he even sure himself?

The reason I bring this up is because I'm giving a concert on Sunday of the works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and I've been dealing with this sort of thing all month. Now, let's be honest, Mr. Gottschalk's compositions aren't on the level with Mozart and Schubert, but they are quite original, and rather interesting. They are not quite as difficult to play as they sound, but they do give you quite a workout. And, although Gottschalk himself was rather anxious about making sure people played his works the way he thought of them, some understanding of what he was going for--some imagination--is required to bring them about.

For instance, Gottschalk is often striving for effect. What sort of effects? Well, try this one on for size. It is a spot from "Union: Paraphrase on National Airs." Now, the score looks like this:

And if somebody didn't understand that he was trying to imitate the sound of marching soldiers on the piano they might play it like this:


When in fact, the passage, played correctly, goes something like this:


How do I know this? The score has the instruction "pianissimo"--good, we know to play it soft. But how cleanly should I articulate the notes? There isn't anything to indicate that. No staccato, no legato, no slur, nothing.

In fact, the score does indicate "drums" but what kind? Snares? Extremely articulate. What about muffled bass type drums? just the opposite. Choose the wrong kind and you spoil the effect.

I've always thought that the effect was really one of a regiment of soldiers marching. The minute you think of that, you realize that you should not have a precise, clean sound, but an indefinite cluster. The notes should cease to sound like notes and become more of a noise. Get it right and the effect makes your hair stand up. Oddly, the way the notes look in the score puts us off the trail in this case. But then, how else could a 19th century composer notate such an effect?

Gottschalk's music is full of things of this nature. Those of the trumpet call, or the plucking of the banjo, or some kind of whistling sound up on the high end of the piano (Gottschalk's favorite register) are just a few. And he clearly loves the ticklish sound of rapid, delicate passagework. I mean, what else is the following passage doing sandwiched between variations on one of the tunes from his piece "Bamboula" where the action just stops dead for a few moments and we get this little pianistic figure that goes nowhere?


He just repeats the gesture a few times, enchanted with the sound, and then afterward dives right back in where we left off! Compositionally it is of no use whatever--I'm sure Brahms would have chopped it right out. But it is pretty--if you want it to be. If you dispatch it like the structural waste of time it is, that is exactly what it will sound like. We have here a paradox--and an opportunity to stop and smell the pianistic roses.

One of the comments that Gottschalk often got was that the piano didn't sound like a piano when Gottschalk played it. Instead, it seemed to transcend its limitations as a percussive box with levers. It didn't just sing like the European Romantics--it gave rise to a variety of interesting effects. That has to be clear. Someone who is just there to play the notes and follow the instructions would never get all the "poesy" as he called it; the inspiration, the rhapsodic fantasy would be gone.

Still, Gottschalk did worry about his instructions being ignored. One of the pieces I'm playing on Sunday, the shortest and simplest, comes with a prologue from the author in which he warns about "substituting [one's] own thoughts for those of the composer." These, he warns, will "inevitably interfere with the general effect." He must insist, therefore, that the rhythms on the page be followed precisely.

And that is really the point. Not to substitute ideas in place of instructions given, but to understand what is behind them, and then to be able to really make the piece sound like intended, following the spirit, not just the letter, of the musical law.

In conclusion...

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