Saturday, July 24, 2010

Revisiting Hans Rott (1858-1884)

Let’s imagine another time about 130 years ago, 1880, a time full of promise for the future, a time that is called “Romantic” or “Late Romantic” today, neither term adequately fitting explicitly what that period was about, but we’re stuck with them until a broader realization makes it clear that these times were as “modern” or indeed as some academics are quick to assert, “post-modern,” as are any of our own times.  Yet, in 1880 so much was innocent or at least seemed to be compared with what was to follow. In 1880, the world had another three years to see and use the Brooklyn Bridge and nine years to behold the finished Eifel Tower. 

In 1880 in Western music at the time, certain famous people were alive and active:

Richard Wagner, the composer of Tristan und Isolde and The Ring Cycle was 67 years old.  Wagner was probably the most influential composer of the 19th century, just as Igor Stravinsky perhaps was of the 20th, and was at the peak of his fame and had three more years to live. 
Franz Liszt was 69, his daughter became Wagner’s wife.  Liszt, the amazing and hugely charismatic Hungarian virtuoso pianist / composer had six more years to live and was likewise in 1880 at the peak of his career. 
Wagner’s rival, Johannes Brahms was 47 years old.  Brahms wielded amazing critical authority (he could literally make or break careers and often did so), based largely on his precision and definitive musical craftsmanship, which has endured to the present time.  That same year, 1880, Brahms delivered his Academic Festival Overture and had been working on his monumental Second Piano Concerto which was to be released to the world the following year.  Brahms had 17 more years to live. 
And Anton Bruckner, who was 56 years old that year, the same age as Beethoven when he died, had by that time acquired quite a reputation at the Vienna Conservatory and was hugely influential on the students there.  Bruckner had 16 more years to live.

This piece is going to focus on a particular person, these days largely unknown, because after all he lived for all but 25 years and a few months.  His name was Hans Rott (1858-1884) the name pronounced like the English word wrote.  In 1880 at 22 years old, Rott was at the peak of his musical powers and would be dead four years later.  He was a native of the Vienna metro area, was of Jewish descent (his original name Roth) and there’s a considerable probability that he converted to Catholicism in order to functions in the musical milieu of that day which required that one assimilate to the state religion.  Of course, another more fortunate composer had to do the same thing.

The sketchy biography of Rott says that he was orphaned by the time he was 18, was studying at the Vienna Conservatory by his sheer talent alone since he was too poor to pay tuition, so basically on scholarship, where he studied organ with Bruckner, had been to the inaugural Bayreuth Festival where Richard Wagner’s operas are still performed every year, in 1876, the same year Rott’s father died and that he roomed at the Vienna Conservatory briefly with Gustav Mahler.  Mahler would have been two years or so younger than Rott and we know that Mahler also decided to convert to Catholicism in order to have any chance at a career in Catholic Austria.

Now we come to the pivotal point in Rott’s career, his meeting with Brahms who wielded enormous influence outside academe and could get one’s compositions performed or not.  Brahms had an antipathy to anything that rolled around harmonically or was too experimental with regard to form.  This is the man who made the careers of Antonín Dvořák (who was 39 in 1880) and later of Ferruccio Busoni (who was just 14 that year). 
1880 was also the year Hans Rott completed his Symphony in E Major and he of course wanted to get it performed, so he presented it to Brahms.  Well the official accounts say that owning to Bruckner’s influence at the Conservatory (Brahms positively loathed Bruckner’s “snakes of symphonies” as he called them) that Brahms decided that he, Rott, had no talent whatsoever and should give up music.

Now, while we may continue to like, even love, much music that has come down to us from these all too human people, even the young JS Bach reputedly got into fist fights, we can stand back and look at what happened next.

Here is this young man, Hans Rott, who has lost his family, has had to disavow his heritage and his faith, has done well in school (on scholarship) and has just put everything he has into a monumental symphony (links to which I hope work long enough to give one some idea of this work).  He goes before the one man who can make or break him and due to the cultural politics of the day this man decides to break him.  This happens far too often everywhere and in many disciplines, to the great disservice of the human race.

What then happened to Rott next, happens to a lot of very sensitive and talented people whose lives have given them more than enough stress and strain for them to bear; Rott goes mad.  Rott very soon after his eventful meeting with Brahms has his psychotic break, is hospitalized in an insane asylum and dies of tuberculosis (for who really took care of the insane back then?) in 1884 and almost the only person who knew him well enough, and certainly was influenced by his music, Gustav Mahler, had this to say;

“"It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him: His genius soars to such heights even in this first symphony, written at the age of twenty. It makes him - without exaggeration - the founder of the new symphony as I understand it."

As you listen to Hans Rott’s Symphony, you may certainly hear Wagner and Bruckner and even a little Brahms, especially in the last movement, but you will also hear early Mahler.  Here then we have one of the missing links in orchestral music of that time, Hans Rott was a link between Wagner and Bruckner and Mahler.

I also note that one person who was instrumental in getting Rott’s symphony performed was Gerhard Samuel (1925-2008), someone I knew in my youth as the conductor of the Oakland (California) Symphony Orchestra and associated with the Junior Bach festival. 
So here it is on You Tube, Hans Rott’s Symphony in E Major from 1880:

1st movement: Alla breve
2nd movement: Sehr langsam (Very slow)
3rd movement: Scherzo: Frisch und lebhaft (Fresh and vivid)
4th movement: Sehr langsam / Belebt (Very slow/ Brisk)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Third Interview – On Pianism

Well, here we are again, and this time you have given me a word for the focus of our discussion; pianism. I wasn’t sure there really was such a word so I looked it up and came up with “a noun being either, the artistry and technique of a pianist, or the performance by a pianist as in an evening of first-rate pianism.”
It kind of goes around in circles doesn’t it?
Do you mean anything different?
Trying to be consistent and less ambiguous, I define pianism as the practice and study of the piano and its music.
OK, but why the “ism”?
Well it can carry at least two distinct connotations; either it’s something like a physical or medical condition …
Don’t laugh, after I get through with this, a lot of people are perhaps going to conclude that indeed having an avid interest -almost an obsession- with pianos and piano music is a kind of abnormal mental condition. But the second connotation of “ism” is that it is something almost ideological, bordering on a religion, not necessarily identifiable with the “worship of God” or even “communing with transcendental forces,” but definitely something that sets one apart from others who do not share the same …
Let’s just say that anyone who, whether they realize it or not, has made a serious commitment to the piano and its music, has just opened a door to a realm that only those others who have opened the same door could really understand.
So it sets them apart?
Well, we are so often told in so many subliminal ways, that we are all to accept a kind of evolving definition of “normal” in our lives, so that we are able to accept various kinds of imposed “equality” as perhaps Thomas Jefferson might have intended it.
Be careful. Watch it!
I know.
It’s just this, and I mean it for each of us as individual people; we may get to know other people, even get to know them very well over many years, but that does not entitle us to assume that we actually “know” them or have access to all the deepest recesses of their mind. We are usually most unaware of the limitations of our knowledge of others when it comes to those closest to us; our wives or husbands or our children. It’s incredible how many assumptions we make all the time, which have no bearing on reality and do not reflect the reality of our essential isolation and inevitable loneliness. In fact, our distinctness is also inextricably bound up with our freedom; we cannot have one without the other.
Sounds like a pretty deep concept, how do you relate that to pianism?
The piano allows us a means of extending our own individuality, even discovering it, and simultaneously of connecting ourselves to others who have done the same down through the comparatively short time of the last few hundred years. The ancients did not have pianos and as I was keen to try and point out in our last interview, all the music we would really like to play on the piano is of relatively recent origin, therefore we should just consider it all “modern” rather than shoving it into dust-gathering bins with names on them like “baroque”, “classical” or “romantic” that will accomplish only the regrettable and even tragic relegation of most of the greatest musical treasures human beings have so far created, to neglect or oblivion. The other day, my daughter who considers “classical music" boring, in order to suit her old dad while we were having dinner, turned the radio to a station playing classical music at which I pointed out that the said radio station was playing boring music that happened to be classical (per usual) and I offered to put on something that was classical but not boring to demonstrate the difference.
But your daughter is right about classical mostly being boring and anyway that neglect has already mostly happened anyway, so what’s your point?
My first point is that the message of what pianism is and means is only relevant to those who have committed themselves to follow it as a life path, almost like a religion. This means a regular assignment of time and money to the process. Those who are not able or willing to attempt a commitment to the piano and its music are therefore logically excused from this conversation as until they discover that they must make such a personal commitment, anything anyone might say on the matter is not relevant to their lives.
Sounds exclusive to me.
I’m sure it will sound that way to most, because we live in a day and age where nothing is ever supposed to be set apart, there are never supposed to be any differences between us, etc. I could go into that from a number of angles, but it would really get us far off the track pretty quick and I mean to come back to a wider range of topics directly related to pianism. But let me give you just one example. Everyone has seen pictures of the Eifel Tower, so much so that it is what they call these days an “iconic” image. There’s even a replica of it in Las Vegas now. But seeing a picture of it is one thing, actually experiencing it is another. When one has actually been to the real Eifel Tower, one has a sense of its size for one thing and if one has been either to the restaurant or the observation deck, and looked out at the city of Paris spread out below, one has had that distinct experience of knowing what the Eifel Tower is really like. These experiences mark each of us, whether we like it or not, and unless we totally forget about them, which is certainly possible, they will form part of who we are.
So the difference between seeing pictures of a place and actually going there to experience it ourselves; you are suggesting a parallel to a level of commitment to the piano?
I am, yes. It’s going to be relatively difficult to explain this to anyone who just has not acquired the experience. Lots of things are like that in my life; for which I simply do not have the experience, driving a car for one. I have been on road trips, have been with very good drivers and ridden in very fine automobiles and experienced the fine art of good driving, but I will never be able to experience what it's like to drive myself because I simply can’t see well enough to drive, and never will.
And for music …
Likewise there are some who I have actually met who claim they have a love of music but who cannot sing on key to save their lives. I can’t explain this as they can hear and understand the basic components of the music they are listening to, but can’t reproduce it themselves with their own voices. We call such people tone deaf. There appears to be a few natural barriers to entry into musicianship. If you don’t think so, then honestly listen to a really good jazz, rock n roll, blues or even rap ensemble. The level of precision required for one thing, regardless of style, makes the difference between a convincing performance and one that is frankly rather “unprofessional.”
So you’re saying that pianism requires a commitment to a level of musical performance that is …
Well, at least better than just dinking around on a musical instrument with about the same level of awareness as … doing anything unconsciously, maybe like sleeping. There is to my knowledge no real way of sleeping consciously; one is asleep and one is pretty much unaware of oneself while sleeping.  We don’t know where we go when we’re asleep. Doing something like playing the piano is best done with some level of conscious awareness. That’s actually even simplistic the way I’m saying it because something else, a kind of super-awareness takes over when you play something that you know really well.
Ah, I’m not sure …
Look, let’s say that someone offers to prepare you a simple snack; maybe a grilled cheese sandwich. But they just throw it together out of mediocre ingredients and you might just gulp it down. The snack is of no conscious value to you and it isn’t even worthwhile asking whether you enjoyed it. A lot of our normal lives, these days, is being presented to us as if it’s all unconscious; nothing much really matters. That’s a subliminal message from the commercial world all around us that we’re receiving all the time. If people really want to get to the root of why everything is dull, dumbed down, boring, etc. then this is it. All one needs do is begin functioning as if whatever is getting done requires at least a little conscious awareness. Doing this regularly begins to change oneself and the immediate area around oneself and generates more meaning. We call this discipline. Ever notice how little discipline is practiced these days?
Best not to go there.
Yeah I know, but again, it’s at the root of so much.
So pianism accomplishes what exactly?
Well practiced over a number of years, it produces pianists. Now I’m not suggesting that what the world needs, or certainly even wants, are millions of more piano virtuosi by the usual definition. That takes a great degree of natural talent and commitment of time to do nothing else for many years. The best of them are in some sense “idiot savants” who might find doing everyday tasks rather difficult. But what I am suggesting is that millions of pianists nevertheless would make a more interesting world to live in than it currently is.
You and I previously discussed what you had in mind for these millions of new committed pianists. This seems like the place to bring it in.
I’m getting there. But you see that a commitment to the piano and its music could have real significance to some people where there might be simply nowhere else they can find it. I was terrifically affected, I think that’s the best way of describing my reaction, when Perri Knize said in her book Grand Obsession, that the piano had saved some people’s lives; people who without it might have committed suicide. Imagine, there really are people out there who have been able to accomplish everything the world assumes is success; they have made a lot of money, they have married a “trophy” spouse and might have a few “gifted” children …
Now don’t get too cynical on me …
… but they have found their lives empty. Now this is why I consider pianism a valid kind of religion; there are people who claim to have “found” God, in whatever meaning they can ascribe to the experience and they are so excited with their discovery that they want to “convert” others to their religion.  Finding the piano and its music can be like that, or at least can be, on an emotional level.  I think ascribing to it words like “spiritual”, “psychic”, “transcendental” or “ecstatic” are freighting it with more to try and describe something that’s probably ineffable.
Yes, probably so.
And as I say, not everyone can experience it, so it is limited perhaps even in its appeal, which is why probably music needs to be presented separately to people outside of public schools.  We think of music as it is today, as background sounds that fill the silences in our lives with excessive chatter and beating noise that we are supposed to endure to make shopping or other routine activities run smoother, or something.  But the number of people that took music seriously was always relatively small and the idealism of trying to make of it into a mass cultural phenomenon was certainly bound to fail, because it is simply not that realistic; those who are interested will apply, while those who aren’t will pass it by.
Anyone ever tell you that you were a hard-hearted sounding sort of person?
No, no one has ever said that, but I really loathe idealism of all kinds, I consider it the root of most ideological evils; the attempt to reorder the world from the way it is into someone’s perfect vision of what it should be, etc. Idealism ultimately hurts people, often the very people it was intended to help. Besides which, I have from personal experience found that a great deal of idealism covers real contempt for any that oppose the vision the idealism projects.
So they don’t really believe it?
They are intending to use the idealism for not very nice purposes.  Let's just say that and leave it that way.
OK, but for those who really want to learn the piano, what do you suggest?
Well, there are many roads to take. And there are many kinds of musical talent. The kind I was exposed to from an early age was the main highway which has now become a largely deserted side street.
You think more people would benefit from rediscovering this …
Yes, but the “establishment” is not really doing a very good job of helping people find it, I’m afraid.
So what do you propose?
Many years ago now, more than I’d frankly like to admit, I suggested that what the music world needed most was a way for the less than musically gifted virtuosi to perform before others and the non pianist public.
A series of regular recitals open to amateurs?
Yes, both a formal and an informal network of such opportunities, at localities across the globe, with recordings actually made that can be placed on the internet. You know You Tube is a fantastic medium for this. We have a ready means of transmitting and preserving all kinds of performance art that simply was not available a few years ago.
Yes, the internet makes a lot of things possible. I think what you’re describing already takes place to some extent.
Yes it does, to some extent, but there could always be more of it, if anything as a means for more people to get more out of life than watching the endless stream from the mass media, etc. And I want particularly to interest adults in pianism as really the best is often wasted on children. The internet can be a great resource. One of those things it can foster is social organization. Look, it will come perhaps by fits and starts, but the fact is those who resonate to a particular interest or activity need to know that there are others out there who … feel it too, in the same way. The internet is making this possible.
You of course have huge overarching ideas concerning this inter-connectedness.
Of course. Let me suggest a few. The really good piano stores are beginning to discover the relationship, which has always been there, between the instruments they sell and performance venues for music. Piano manufacturers in the past recognized this so I'm not surprised to see its resurgence.  This is a trend that should be encouraged to develop and grow and the internet should help integrate it. Besides music that was produced along the main old highway that we habitually refer to as “classical music,” there are other genres of music that have been created and are being created, that are either written down or partially improvised, that deserve a good hearing and venues for hearing them. Some examples might be music by Asian composers and by those of what’s been called the “African Diaspora.”  This music uses the piano in different ways, but in as musical as the differences between say Chopin or Prokofief.
But as you were telling me before the interview, there are still some ground rules for “musical” performances of these alternative genres of music.
Oh yes there certainly are, and it turns back to the idea of becoming more conscious of whatever you’re doing to produce the best result.
You think you might be onto something?
Well, I don’t know yet. I have to see whether there are any opportunities to meet with certain people and convince them of the merits of deliberate organization to achieve the desired results.
So you would like to see more concert venues where amateur or near professional people can play and you’d like the majority of these performers to be adults?
Yes, that’s right.
What by the way is a “professional” to you?
What’s it to you? Am I paying you to interview me?
So are you a “professional” interviewer?
No. Laugh
And you haven’t interviewed anyone else for money, have you?
No. More laughs
OK then, that’s what I mean by professional. A certain level of value is expected for the value exchanged; you expect a competent professional pianist to know the music well enough that more than not they are not making any mistakes that you can notice during their performance.
Yes, I guess so.
Well, I’m taking it at least that far and I’m not suggesting that only those with marked musical talent from an early age are eligible to become proficient pianists. After all, the piano really is among the easiest of musical instruments to play. It’s the playing of it well and competently that’s the real deal.
You wanted to say something more about structuring practice time and repertoire too, didn’t you?
Ah, yes. I don’t care how small one’s first steps might be, let’s say that to begin with, all they want to be able to play is Für Elise. That’s a real meaningful goal. You know that if you really want something bad enough and think about it long and hard enough …
Obsess about it, more likely …
Well, you would need regular access to a piano somewhere, but if you had the music, the piano and someone to show you how to do it, and encourage you, it might take a long time, but eventually persistence is rewarded and …
One would be able to play Für Elise.
Exactly. Maybe they wouldn’t play it as well as some famous pianist, but everyone would know what it was even if they didn’t know it was commonly called Für Elise.
Yeah, I get it.
So an imperative of pianism is to set oneself goals, to decide to maybe read through or look at a lot of music, but probably to focus on learning a select set of pieces, which can be played before an audience.
Is it really necessary to find a piano teacher?
For the majority of people out there intending to do this, it usually is. People are fond of thinking they can do it on their own and after a while maybe they can, but it takes an effort to get started, a while to get a momentum going and the value of a piano teacher, really the core value, is to provide encouragement and guidance as well as functioning as the primary audience for one’s performances.
Does a teacher have to like the music one wants to learn?
It may or may not be that necessary, it usually is though.  For instance if you really want to learn to be a jazz pianist, which is a particular style, one should probably take lessons from a jazz pianist, if you can find one that will be willing to teach you. However there is basic music theory that any competent musician should be able to teach to another person. There was an old saying that if you couldn’t explain it, you probably didn’t know it. That sort of fits here.
So, you have the time required to practice and the piano teacher. How much practice time and how should one spend that time?
When you are starting, it’s more important to get to the piano once a day than to spend a lot of hours each day at the piano. To begin with, a half hour a day max. You never want to wear yourself out at the piano.  That's never a good idea.  When one really gets going, an hour or two a day will seem a short time.  And what one is really going to do is follow a lesson plan, if there is one, or some prescribed assignment to work on a piece or pieces for presentation at one's next lesson.  What one is really doing at the piano during the practice time is being one's own first audience.  If it sounds good to you, it probably will to someone else.  That at least is a beginning.
And lessons from a teacher?
To begin with, a lesson of no more than a half hour each week is a good idea. Later on, for the more advanced players, an hour every two weeks will seem adequate. You know that in some conservatories they have had group piano lessons. This is where maybe as many as sixteen students (though usually more like four to six) sit in a space with a piano and a teacher and have a group lesson following the same lesson plan and taking turns demonstrating under the teacher’s guidance at the piano. This is also a good way to go after one has had a basic grounding in music theory and pianism.
Are you telling me, announcing to the world, that you intend on setting up as a piano teacher?
I may do so very soon if there is any interest. Those who follow this blog will be among the first to know.
OK then, I think it fair to state here that Mr. Burton has had a sporadic career at best as a piano teacher, has mostly taught college kids and children but would really prefer teaching adults. Although he has attended conservatories, he does not have a degree in piano pedagogy from anywhere. You think this is a detriment to your plans?
Actually I think it may be an asset. Look, to be perfectly honest about it, before there were schools of music there were musicians and many of the greatest did not come out of schools, in fact the case can very easily be made that schools do more harm than good, kind of on a par with  organized religion if you get my drift.
Yes, interesting.
Look, if I indeed decide to do this it will be to present myself as an individual person offering to encourage and guide others to attain proficiency at the piano. I would want to inspire individuality in others.  In fact I would hope that they can outplay me in time.
You don’t really want to have much ego in the game.
OK, well there it is. Mr. Burton thinks he might try being a piano teacher sometime soon, would probably prefer taking on adults as students and ultimately wants to organize a network of performance venues that have some kind of regular recognition at least on the internet. Is that a fair assessment of your present intentions?
It is.
How soon do you think you’ll get started?
This fall for teaching with the first scheduled recital in mid winter of 2011..
Is there anything more you’d like to say at this time concerning your objectives?
Um, not at present, no.
OK then, well this has been an interesting interview and I’m sure that if anyone has any questions for Mr. Burton they can find him at …
They can e-mail me at Just put “David Burton’s Blog” in the subject line.
Thank-you David.