Category Archives: Composers

The Perfect Clara Haskil .


First published by Clavier® Volume 39, No. 7, September 2000, p. 25 f. (C) 2011 – Alle Rechte vorbehalten. The Perfect Clara Haskil

© by Peter Feuchtwanger.

As Clara sat down “the music materialized as if from nowhere. Her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without preparation, just as a flat stone skims across the water. This was so typical of her playing; nothing seemed to start or end, and everything became timeless.”

Clara Haskil

Admiration and international fame came late in life for Clara Haskil, in a career beset by poor health and the adversities of a world war. Dinu Lipatti described her playing as “the sum of perfection on earth,” Wilhelm Backhaus called it “the most beautiful in the world,” Tatyana Nikoleyeva burst into tears when she first heard Haskil, and Rudolf Serkin nicknamed her “the perfect Clara.” Haskil’s close friend, Nikita Magaloff wrote, “I had the great privilege of hearing her, at her home and mine, thumbing through fingering, deciphering and running over the most diverse works, and that is why the Chromatic Study by Debussy, the Etude Tableau in E flat minor by Rachmaninoff, a passage from the Totentanz of Liszt or a Rondo of Chopin rest engraved in my memory as played so inimitably by her. Never, even amongst my most illustrious colleagues, have I met with that incredible and disconcerting facility and pianistic ease, which a spontaneous, uncalculated, natural flow of the music. That which others achieve by work, research, and reflection, seems to come to Clara from heaven without problems.” (The Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, July-October, 1976)

I first heard Clara Haskil’s name mentioned by Dinu Lipatti after a recital he gave in Switzerland. When I congratulated him on his Mozart playing, Lipatti said, “In two weeks’ time you must hear Clara play Mozart. Then you will realize how far the rest of us are from the truth.” I was young at the time, but the name stuck in my mind. Who was this mysterious Clara? Five years later during another visit to Switzerland, the mystery was solved. At a concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich on September 7, 1952, Clara Haskil was the soloist in Mozart’s Concerto in E flat, K. 271.

The concert was well-nigh sold out, and the only tickets available were for the cheapest seats in the annex. Mine was behind a pillar, where I could hear well but not see. The concerto begins with a question from the orchestra that is answered by the soloist in the second bar. The question repeats, prompting the soloist to emphasize the answer. Haskil’s response aroused my curiosity and made me listen. Nothing, though, prepared me for what was to com. After the ensuing tutti, the B flat trill suddenly materialized, and I heard something akin to Mary Garden’s description of Nellie Melba’s top C at the end of the fist act of La Bohème.
The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden: it left Melba’s throat, it left Melba’s Body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever. It just rolled over the hall of Covent Garden. My God, how beautiful it was! Since then I always wait for that note when I hear the first act of La Bohème. (Mary Garden’s Story, Michael Joseph)

Likewise, I now wait for that B flat trill whenever I hear this concerto. Haskil recorded K. 271, but no recording can capture the consummate musical expression or magic of a great artist, which is something ineffable. Haskil’s performances in the concert hall were often miracles, and miracles simply cannot be reproduced. Her performance that night was greeted with stormy applause, so I seized the opportunity to look around the pillar to see who was responsible for such divine sounds. Grasping the conductor’s hand as if for reassurance and with a look of disbelief on her face, Clara Haskil acknowledged the audience’s enthusiasm.

I glimpsed at the pianist who one London critic described as playing “Mozart for the Gods.” In years to come I heard her many times, both publicly and privately. For theses experiences I remain eternally grateful. As I left the hall, a friend who knew Haskil offered to take me backstage. She seemed inconsolable and unhappy, excusing her poor performance to anyone who congratulated her. When introduced, I mumbled my admiration, and she asked whether I was a pianist. After hearing such playing, I did not want to talk about my own and said I was a composer. A few weeks later I saw Clara waiting at a tram stop, looking forlorn. “Ah, the young composer,” she exclaimed, and that’s how our friendship started.

Born in Bucharest on January 7, 1895 of Sephardic Jewish parents, Haskil’s musical talent was evident in early childhood. At the age of three she could pick out any tune that an older sister played on the piano. She was not yet five when a professor at the Bucharest Academy visited her parent’s home and played a Mozart sonata. When he finished she repeated the sonata perfectly, while simultaneously transposing it into another key, all without having had any musical instruction. After her father’s death, the girl’s uncle brought her to the attention of Anton Door, a celebrated piano teacher in Vienna who had known Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Joseph Joachim.

Door described meeting the girl in the Neue Freie Presse in April 1902: Recently a doctor from Romania came to me, leading by the hand a little girl barely seven years of age. The child, whose mother is a widow, is unique. She has never had any music lessons beyond being shown the value and names of the notes. More did not seem necessary, for every piece of music that is played to her and which she can manage with her small hands she repeats by ear without mistake and in any key one asks. An easy movement from a Beethoven Sonata that I gave her she played at sight without difficulty. One is baffled, for this early maturity of a human brain strikes one as uncanny.

In 1903 Haskil began piano studies with Richard Robert, whose pupils included Rudolf Serkin and George Szell. He took a special interest in the young artist, and soon she created a stir in musical Vienna with a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in A Major, K. 488. Two years later at age ten, she gave her fist solo recital. In 1905 she entered the Paris Conservatoire, impressing the director, Gabriel Fauré, with her musical gifts. Joining Alfred Cortot’s class in 1907, she graduated at age 15 with the Premier Prix. Extensive concert tours to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Bucharest followed. In Switzerland Ferrucio Busoni, then at the height of his career, heard Haskil play his transcription of Bach’s D minor Chaconne and invited her to study with him in Berlin.

Clara’s mother declined the offer on the grounds that her daughter was too young. Instead, further concert tours were organized until the first of many severe physical setbacks brought Haskil’s concert career to an abrupt halt in 1913. In an attempt to delay the onset of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), she spent the next four years in a plaster cast. Though acclaimed in the later years as the foremost Mozart pianist of her generation, it was in such works as Islamey, The Great Gate of Kiev, Feux Follets, and the Brahms B flat Concerto – learned in two days – that she excelled in playing in those early years.

Haskil learned Feux Follets by hearing Vlado Perlemuter play the piece at a private function; then she performed the work a few days later and confessed afterwards that she had never seen the score. From early childhood Haskil was fond of the violin, especially the playing of Joseph Joachim, which nearly moved her to tears. Peter Rybar, the Swiss violinist, recalls an occasion in Winterthur in 1944 when she picked up a violin during a rehearsal break and began playing the fist movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Rybar could scarcely believe his ears: the playing was perfect, with impeccable phrasing and intonation, and an exquisite tone. She had hardly three years of violin study and practiced only on the day of her lesson.

Throughout her career Haskil performed with such great string players as Eugène Ysaÿe, Georges Enesco, Pablo Casals, Arthur Grumiaux, Pierre Fournier, Joseph Szigeti, Zino Francescatti, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Henryk Szeryng, and her sister Jeanne.


Note from R.E.  I am extremely grateful to my friend and inveterate collector of important memorabilia, David Waterhouse for unearthing this inspiring article from his library of writings on music.

My introduction to the art of Clara Haskil is related in Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux: The Elegance of Great Art.



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The Perfect Clara Haskil , continued.

First published by Clavier® Volume 39, No. 7, September 2000, p. 25 f. (C) 2011 – Alle Rechte vorbehalten. The Perfect Clara Haskil

© by Peter Feuchtwanger.

Clara Haskil

The outbreak of World War II once again halted Haskil’s career. Caught in occupied Paris, she escaped to the free zone in the south with a group of musicians from the Orchestre National de France, as recounted by the conductor, Désiré Inghelbrecht: We left Paris at night from the Gare Montparnasse, which was plunged into murky darkness, and before dawn we left the train at Angoulême. Our luggage had gone ahead of us, since, as we expected to have to do a lot of walking, we did not want to be heavily laden. In the sinister railway station, cold and dark, we huddled together, speaking in hushed tones; then we met the guide who was to lead us through fields and woods to the free zone.

A taxi drove us to the edge of a forest, where we listened to the scarcely reassuring advice of our guide. He was obviously frightened and told us that the prisons in the neighbourhood were full of people like us who had been caught. One road was especially dangerous; we had to crawl across it for, not very far away, as we could see, was a German police station. It was the end of march. The wind was cold but spring had come; there were violets in the woods and birds were singing, but we were not in a mood to enjoy that particular morning walk. On every signpost was a skull and crossbones and a menacing warning to anyone who ventured into this forbidden zone. Our guide wheeled his bicycle ahead of us and we followed in a single file.

Le Guillard carried his viola and Clara’s suitcase since she, after a night without sleep, was physically and emotionally exhausted. Each of us wore several overcoats and my wife carried our cat in its basket. Our hearts beat wildly; at last we had crossed that terrible road. I remember the exact moment that our cat started miaowing our guide showed us the road we should take to rejoin the railway; he claimed his fee, mounted his bicycle and rode off as fast as he could.

Relieved and reassured at having survived this disagreeable experience we soon found a farm whose hospitable owners were used to groups of people in our situation and gave us something to eat. We slept at Limoges and reached Marseilles the next day. Clara, during the whole of this adventure, showed great courage and reserves of energy, which enabled her to overcome her exhaustion in spite of the precarious state of her health. (The Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, July-October, 1976)

In Marseilles in 1941 Haskil began to suffer from double vision accompanied by severe headaches, which turned out to be a tumour pressing on the optic nerve. A doctor was smuggled out of Paris to perform an operation, which against all odds worked. When news came that the Germans were about to occupy to Switzerland with the help of admirers.

Clara Haskil’s first performance in England took place in 1926 with Sir Hamilton Harty and the Hallé Orchestra. Her next appearance on those shores was 20 years later in 1946 at the Wigmore Hall to great acclaim. Sir Thomas Beecham heard some of her six recitals for the B.B.C. the same year and immediately engaged her to play several Mozart concertos with him. Six years elapsed before she appeared in London again, this time with the London Mozart Players conducted by Harry Blech, followed by many other performances there. Particularly noteworthy were the four concerts she gave with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1958-59 season, conducted by Colin Davis and Carlo Maria Giulini.

In the last ten years of her life Haskil performed the world over with leading conductors at the most prestigious music festivals. At the Casals Prades Festival in 1950 she met Eugene Istomin, a young American pianist, who convinced her to tour the United States. Haskil had already visited America and Canada in the 1920s and 30s, where she played under Leopold Stokowski and took all the Beethoven piano and violin sonatas on tour with Ysaÿe. Her return visit surpassed all expectations. A series of concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch and an appearance at Carnegie Hall created a sensation and were reported in Time magazine. Rudolf Eli wrote in the Boston Herald, “One of those most magical revelations that occurs in music once in a generation … the most beautiful performance of Beethoven’s Third Concerto I have ever heard or expect to hear again.”

Clara made her only appearances at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957, giving one recital and two orchestral concertos under Eugen Jochum and John Barbirolli respectively. Later that year Christopher Grier wrote in Musical Events that“Clara Haskil made other excellent pianists sound like mere beginners.” The French government appointed her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Bemused by all the attention, she would ask, “Why does everyone want to hear me suddenly? I don’t seem to play differently from before.” I could imagine her adding modestly, “In fact, not as well.”

After hearing her at the 1954 Salzburg Festival, Hans Keller wrote: “Haskil played Mozart’s great A major K. 488 without showing off either her virtuosity or her lack of exhibitionism: the rarest of achievements in a solo artist.” When she performed the same concerto in 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Times critic observed that“she simply expunged from the concerto what was eternal.” Those who heard Clara Haskil perform will never forget the audience hush to a silence as she bowed and approached the platform with almost a floating step, then crouched over the keyboard to coax sounds of unearthly beauty from the instrument. It is a miracle that this frail woman, despite so much suffering and so many setbacks, reached the pinnacle that she did.

Clara Haskil never taught and often insisted that she would not know how. In the few times she heard me, I learned more from her than from any other teacher before or since. On one occasion I had difficulty starting the Mozart G Major Concerto K. 453 and was never satisfied with the Eingang. She impatiently pushed me from the chair, and said, “But it doesn’t start … .” As she sat down the music materialized as if from nowhere. Her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without any preparation, just as a flat stone skims across the water. This was so typical of her playing; nothing seemed to start or end, and everything became timeless.

On another occasion I played the first movement of the Schubert B flat major Sonata, D. 960 for her. Throughout the movement the chord above the bass trill ends in an eighth note, the same value as in the bass. However, five bars from the end Schubert writes a quarter note in the right hand while retaining the eighth in the left. Almost every pianist ignores this subtle change and releases the right hand with the left, but not Clara Haskil. “You played the chord an eighth too short,” she exclaimed. “So” I replied. “After all, it’s only an eighth.” “Ja, aber ein Achtel Ewigkeit …” (“Yes, but an eighth of eternity …”).

Clara’s playing was intriguing to watch. Her very large hands, white as alabaster, skimmed over the keyboard with consummate ease. I have never seen a thumb as long as hers; some of her colleagues nicknamed it “the fastest thumb in the West.” She could easily strike a 13th simultaneously or a 12th with 5-2. On one occasion Dinu Lipatti listened to Clara read through the slow movement of Schubert’s A Minor Sonata, D. 784, which has several large chords, including 13ths, that Schubert asks to be arpeggiated. Lipatti said he couldn’t understand how she arranged the chords so as not to have to spread them. She replied, “But I don’t arrange them. I take all the notes with the left hand,” whereupon Lipatti exclaimed, “Clara, your hand is larger than any man’s.” She was so embarrassed from thereafter she always arpeggiated the chords.

Even though stories of Clara Haskil’s phenomenal memory came from such famous conductors as Hermann Scherchen, Hans Rosbaud, and Herbert von Karajan, I often thought they must be exaggerated. However, a personal experience convinced me that all these stories were true. In the summer of 1957 she was to come to my home in London to practice at 11:00 in the morning. I sat at the piano playing through the first four pages of a new composition of mine, adding a few touches here an there, when a silhouette appeared against the window. It was 10:40, so I thought it could not yet be Clara. However, when I peeped through the lace curtains to see the intruder, it was Clara, looking lost. She apologized for being so early – her hotel was closer to my house than she had realized, and she arrived early.

She had agreed to the visit on the condition that no one else would be in the house except a young artist, Michael Garady, whose drawing of her was her favourite. I’d agreed to her stipulation, although many of my pianist friends would have given anything to stand outside the door and listen to her practice. “What were you playing?” she asked. I told her it was the beginning of a new composition. “It sounds interesting,” she commented. “Show it to me when it’s finished.”

She came to my house two years later and asked, “By the way, whatever happened to the piece you were composing a few years back?” With that she sat down and performed those first four pages with every detail and nuance as I had played it, not knowing, of course, of the few changes I had made since. I couldn’t believe my ears. Later, other pianists took months to learn this complex piece in an Eastern idiom. Clara could not have seen the music because I had removed it from the piano before the first visit. The piece was completed and published only after the second visit.

Haskil traveled to Brussels with her sister, Lili, in December 1960 to begin a concert tour with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, arriving a few days after a triumphant concert with him in Paris. She lost her grip and tumbled down a steep concrete stairway at the railway station. Rushed to the Clinique Longchamps, Clara was unconscious.

Doctors fought to save her life; she came around briefly and spoke to Lili and her younger sister, Jeanne, who had been quickly summoned from Paris. She asked them to tell Grumiaux how sorry she was not to be able to play with him the next day. Holding up her hands weakly, she whispered with smile, “At least I didn’t damage these.” In the early hours of December 7, 1960, exactly one month before her 66th birthday, Clara Haskil died.


Note from R.E. I am extremely grateful to my friend  and inveterate collector of important memorabilia, David Waterhouse for unearthing this inspiring article from his library of writings on music.

My introduction to the art of Clara Haskil is related in Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux: The Elegance of Great Art.



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Stephen-Foster, 1826-64.

Stephen Foster, 1826-64.

Note: The article below is reprinted from the New Yorker, 12 March, 2014.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” Stephen Foster’s last song, was published posthumously a hundred and fifty years ago this month. On March 4, 1864, the Confederacy adopted the Stars and Bars as its official flag, and Sherman began planning his March to the Sea. Foster had died two months earlier, on January 13th, in New York City. Penniless, sick, and alone, having sold even the clothes off his back for liquor, he fell while shaving in a flophouse on the Bowery, gouged his head, and died days later, in Bellevue Hospital. He was thirty-eight years old.

His songs, wildly popular in the antebellum U.S., and, remarkably, wildly popular still, gave us some of the most powerful iconography of the South: “Way down upon the Swanee River,” from the song “Old Folks at Home” (1851); “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853); “I’ve come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee,” from the song “Oh, Susanna” (1846); and on and on. Foster never saw Kentucky or the Suwannee River or Alabama, and had been south of the Mason-Dixon Line only once, for his honeymoon, on a steamboat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Which is to say that Southern nostalgia was, in part, invented by a Yankee who spent almost no time in the South, long before the South was even something to be nostalgic about. Alabama and Florida were still very young states; slavery and plantations had replaced Native American territories only about forty years before the Civil War.

Foster was also America’s first professional songwriter. He was born in 1826 to a well-to-do family in Western Pennsylvania, (Lawrenceville near Pittsburgh) near the racetrack where his song “Camptown Races,” of “doo-da, doo-da” fame, is set. (An informal survey shows that everyone, Northerner or Southerner or otherwise, thinks that the Camptown Races must be in the South.) Foster learned his craft from two very different men: Henry Kleber, a classical musician who was his music teacher, and Dan Rice, the famed comic and blackface performer, from whom Foster learned the art of the minstrel song. (Last month, Richard Brody wrote about the use of minstrel shows in “I Dream of Jeanie,” a rarely seen bio-pic of Foster directed by Allan Dwan.)

This was in an age of total confusion when it comes to music publishing and copyright and fair use. Apart from sacred, patriotic, and “classical” music, published popular songs were written either by gentleman amateurs in the English tradition (the first American pop song is, by legend, Francis Hopkinson’s unmemorable song of 1788, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free”) or by performers in need of material, like Rice and countless others. The money came from performances, and so there was no tradition or legal precedent for how royalties from songwriting alone would be made. ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, was not formed until nearly fifty years after Foster died, prompted in part by the legend of his struggle and his death, with only a few cents in his pocket.

Foster worked heroically to turn songwriting into a profession, but he never made much money from his songs, even after he moved to New York, in 1860, and the Civil War had brought patriotic tunes to the height of popularity. A letter that Foster wrote to the manager of Christy’s Minstrels, in 1851, shows the efforts he made:

Dear Sir:

I have just received a letter from Messrs. Firth, Pond & Co., stating that they have copyrighted a new song of mine, but will not be able to issue it yet, owing to other engagements. This will give me time to send you the manuscript and allow you the privilege of singing it at least two weeks and probably a month before it is issued. If you will send me $10.00 immediately, I pledge myself as a gentleman of the old school to give you the manuscript. This song is certain to become popular as I have taken great pains with it. If you accept my proposition, I will make it a point to notify you hereafter whenever I have a new song and send the manuscript to you on the same terms, reserving to myself in all cases the exclusive privilege of publishing. I make this proposition to you because I am sure of the song’s popularity.

“This song is certain to become popular as I have taken great pains with it.” Foster’s assurance (at age twenty-four) is extraordinary, but possibly deserved. Historians now credit him with having pretty much invented the American pop song in its purest form: the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music. If the goal of folk traditions is authenticity, then this music is deeply, even proudly, inauthentic. His first hit, “Oh, Susanna,” has a military melody reminiscent of “Yankee Doodle”; a rhythmic profile that owes everything to the polka, which immigrants brought from Central Europe in the eighteen-forties, and which swept the country; and a lyric that is still astonishing in its combination of catchy nonsense and unabashed racism.

“Oh, Susanna” is sung from the point of view of an African-American man, apparently free and wandering with a banjo from Alabama to Louisiana (in 1846!). He sings in a thick dialect that is Foster’s own invention, and the second verse, which is never sung today, contains the unforgettable line:

I jump’d aboard the Telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber
De lectrie fluid magnified and kill’d five hundred Nigger.

The song was premièred, like so many of Foster’s songs, by white singers in blackface. In Pittsburgh, Christy’s Minstrels were a popular Northern white blackface minstrel troupe, performing “Ethiopian” melodies that, as Edwin Pearce Christy put it, delineated the “ludicrous popular negro character.” In spite of—or, probably, because of—these potent and problematic elements, “Oh, Susanna” was a shattering hit, in part because of steam. The Telegraph in Foster’s lyric is a steamboat, and the steamboat, the steam-engine railroad, and the steam-powered rotary printing press all allowed music to be disseminated farther and in far larger quantities than ever before. And the national turmoil about race, slavery, and the future of the Union made songs like “Oh, Susanna” simultaneously provocative (it is sung by a black man) and comforting to whites (it is written by a white man, and the man in the song is not trying to escape or rebel). Also, the tune is terrific, thanks to Foster’s gift for tune-making, or tune-reworking. (There is some controversy about the origin of the song.)

In any case, no American song had previously sold more than five thousand copies. “Oh, Susanna” sold more than a hundred thousand copies within a year. The forty-niners brought the song west along the new Oregon Trail, where it became, inexplicably, the anthem of the California gold rush. All over the country, in the North and the South, people bought the sheet music, a nascent form of the mass popular culture that blossomed in the United States after the Civil War. Since then, Foster’s songs have become part of America’s cultural bedrock. “My Old Kentucky Home,” a very beautiful parlor melody with a lyric about a slave’s nostalgia for the plantation he can never leave, is the state song of Kentucky. Here is the former Governor A. B. (Happy) Chandler singing “My Old Kentucky Home” at a University of Kentucky Basketball game:

There is an interesting parallel between Foster and Dan Emmet. Concurrently they both composed for minstrel shows, Emmett for Bryant’s Minstrels in New Yrfk City. Emmett was of partial North American Indian ancestry and a famous minstrel musician and actor. He played violin, mandolin, banjo and drums and was called out of retirement to help write the first U.S. Army approved self-instructor for drums and fifes in modern notation. In 1859 Dan Emmett is believed to have composed “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land” “ (“Dixie Land”)

See however, Sacks, Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks; “Way UP North in Dixie”, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1993. The Sacks present compelling evidence against Emmett’s authorship of Dixie. They suggest a family of black musicians living near Emmett, and with whom he made music, composed the work and taught it to him. Ay any rate, Emmett, like Foster, died in poverty.


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Junge Deutsche Philharmonie

So, I listened to the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie ‘live’ on my Smart TV and the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. Britain’s Stefan Asbury Conducted. It was 3:00 PM here in Toronto and 5 hours later in Berlin.

Junge Deutsche Philharmonie are students from Music Academies in Germany. They get together three times a year for intensive rehearsals and then give concerts. They have appeared a number of times in the Berlin Philharmonic hall.

The programme began with an overture to an opera in late Romantic style by Franz Schreker
, Die Gezeichneten, then the Schuman Violin Concerto in D major. The soloist Renaud Capuçon was terrific, but now I understand why I’d never before heard the work. I couldn’t get with it. Maybe another time.

Following intermission they played the Symphony No.4 in C minor by Shostakovitch, also a work I’d not heard, unfortunately. Better late than never. This  piece highlighted every section of the orchestra and every principal player. Nary a glitch.

A very long first movement with a vivace in the first violins and stretto like, carried on by all the string sections excepting the contra basses whose notes, though slightly reduced in number, were enough. The tempo was alarmingly fast, the music played accurately and with excitement. There were also those mysterious Shostakovitch passages with low bass rhythms underpinning an extremely high, slow moving violin or piccolo melody.

Also typical of Shostakovitch were long and lovely solos for bassoon, contra bassoon, clarinets – Bb and Eb, flute and piccolo. And then the terrifying horn solos, each note rising ever higher than the preceding one. Interlocking timpani parts for two players and another magical touch, a wood block, castagnette and snare drum solo ending the second movement, similar to the materials ending his 14th symphony, but with a tremolo string melody instead of celeste accompaniment. And of course, brilliant brass and snare drum parts and some very nice xylophone and glockenspiel licks during which the player stood militarily erect.

He was not the only player whose posture attracted my attention. The concerto soloist moved towards and away from the conductor and audience, never once lifting his heels or toes. Legs almost straight, he slid flat footed back and forth over the stage floor.

The 4th symphony provided the concert’s entire second half. The Cleveland Orchestra is the only orchestra near Toronto that could match this group of amateurs in music making.


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Reflections on the Nature of Marimba Music.



After the defeat of China’s army by the British in the first Opium War, (1839-42) Japan, concerned with the possibility of a foreign invasion, adopted Dutch military music for fifes, drums and trumpets to discipline and train their Samurai warriors in western infantry tactics. This was the first western music sanctioned by Japan since the expulsion of foreigners in 1640. In 1875, Japan’s government introduced a nation wide public school music program based on an American model.  By 1965, only 90 years after this official embrace of western music, the influence of Japanese composers began to be felt in western avant-garde art music circles [1.].

The Marimba in Japan:

The programme above is from Ryan Scott’s first DMA recital, played in Toronto, Ontario on 22 January, 2014. Ryan’s DMA thesis will probe Japanese art music for marimba. His work on this project has been facilitated in part by New York City resident and former Keiko Abe student Alan Zimmerman. Alan gave Ryan access to his encyclopedic knowledge and massive library of Japanese compositions for marimba, dating from its inception as art music in the 1960s, to the present.

Ryan anounced from the stage that prior to 1965, Japanese marimbists played arrangements of traditional folk songs and western classical music. Marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe (b.1937) convinced prominent Japanese composers to write art music for marimba and manufacturers to upgrade the quality of their instruments.[2.] Between 1965 and1985, more than 500 works of art music were written for marimba by Japanese composers and many of them are still performed today.

I had thought to write a critique of Ryan’s performance, but instead,found myself musing over his announcement regarding Keiko Abe and Japanese composers. I began thinking about the marimba in North America. What follows is almost entirely anecdotal, but during a lengthy telephone conversation, Ruth Cahn, who has been in the middle of most things percussive for many years, confirmed most of my remembrances. Thank you Ruth. Nevertheless, I take responsibility for all errors and the opinions expressed.

The Marimba in America:

Clair Omar Musser, (1901-98) a marimba virtuoso, composer, arranger and conductor, organized concerts for marimba orchestras. One of the first of such groups was a 25 piece, all-girl marimba ensemble for a Paramount Pictures event in Chicago. In 1933, Musser presented a concert with 100 marimbas and in 1950, a concert with 500 players for a  Chicago railroad fair. His repertoire consisted mainly of arrangements of popular classics along with compositions of his own. Musser was also an engineer. The marimbas he designed for the J.C. Deagan Company are considered today the finest of their kind ever made. [3.]

The Percussive Arts Society:

Founded in 1961, the Percussive Arts Society (PAS) today has a membership that includes percussionists from almost every university, college and conservatory in North America. Administered primarily by and for university percussionists, the PAS acts as a nexus for students, teachers, composers, performers and manufacturers, providing them access to school programs, pedagogic trends, new instruments and music.

Leigh Howard Stevens:

By 1980, a nascent group of educators and performers began to champion the marimba as a solo instrument and the popularity of marimba playing grew exponentially. Arguably the most influential marimbists was Leigh Howard Stevens (b. 1953). Stevens studied with Vida Chenoweth [4.] and later created an entire system for marimba playing. He devised a new grip, new mallets and a new marimba design, all complimensts to his vision. Stevens also wrote hundreds of etudes, and a vade mecum to disseminate his ideas. His work has influenced marimba composition and performance and has been adopted and adapted by marimba players throughout the world.

 Marimbas in the United States:

A marimba provides melodic and harmonic components often lacking in all but a few percussion programmes of the past. In most major music schools, marimba studies have become the backbone of  its percussion department. Importantly, this helps validate percussion studies within academia. Post graduate degrees, often unavailable to percussionists  prior to the marimba’s ascendency, are today, the norm, even for students who eschew traditional instruments and specialize in solo marimba performance.

Marimba Music in the United States:

Two major concertos for marimba were written before 1960: Paul Creston,1940 and Robert Kurka,1956. From 1969 forward, most concertos were being written by foreign composers. [5.] In 1987, John Serry completed a marimba concerto commissioned by Leigh Howard Stevens and other marimba soloists followed suit with commissions of their own. Unlike Japan however, only a small amount of solo music for marimba has been written by America’s art music composers. One of these, by Jacob Druckman (1928-96), is Reflections on the Nature of Water (1986) a masterwork, now almost thirty years old. Aside from the Druckman work, practically all pedagogic, ensemble and solo recital music has been and is being written by percussionists. A recent national marimba competition provided applicants a repertoire containing 15 compositionds, 13 of them written by percussion teachers.

Their music has failed to make an impact on audiences outside percussion circles. It is commonly based on classical forms and structures and is heavily influenced by basic marimba technique or the latest fad. Their music also demonstrates the American percussionist’s preference for loud, fast, continuous and repetitious music. [6.] For example, soon after the appearance of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, in 1973, percussion students and teachers began writing pattern music and continue doing so. In the words of a professional musician and friend, “Most composers are arrangers”.


Note: The works on Scott’s program above by Yoshio Hachimura, particularly Ahania II, and Tokuhide Niimi, differed in substantive ways from many American compositions for marimba. They were mesmerizing, rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous and occasionally weightless. Remarkable too were their sudden, surprising silences and absence of expectation. [7.] The latter, best described by John Cage who said of his close friend, “I love Takemitsu’s music because it doesn’t lead me anywhere”.1

I was impressed by Ryan’s lack of histrionics, all too common among players today, and the concentration of his mature artistry which allowed the music’s unique qualities to appear without his intervention. Michio Kiazume’s Side by Side is a congenial and equally virtuosic substitute for Xenakis’ Rebonds and was played with clarity and panache. I was delighted.

Ryan is commissioning a select group of composers. One being a marimba concerto by Erik Ross (2007). On the program above, the work by Oesterle for marimba and koto is a welcomed addition to the repertoire.

Ryan Scott has two more recitals and as rumour has it, he plans to present both by May of this year. I look forward to hearing another half dozen works from Japan, all new to me and I thank Ryan for instigating these ruminations.(Ryan’s last two recitals will now be played in the Fall of 2014.)

Foot Notes:

[1.] See Burt, Peter: The Music of Toru Takemitsu, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[2.] Many percussionists including myself, were familiar with the works of  Keiko Abe before her first visit to North America in November,1977. Though impossible to quantify, her presence inspired many students to play modern music and encouraged marimba soloists to write their own original compositions.

A detailed comparison of the grips, mallets and styles of Abe and Stevens and their effects on marimba performance would make interesting reading and a beneficial companion to Scott’s thesis.

[3.] If one wishes to hear a large marimba orchestra playing typical Musser repertoire, one can purtchase the CD The Marimba Festival Orchestra conducted by Frederick Fennell and recorded in the Eisenhower Theater of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. The orchestra was assembled by Lee Howard Stevens and featured soloists Gordon Stout and Bob Becker. Resonator Records by Marimba Productions, Inc. 1999.

[4.] The importance of Vida Chenoweth and her teacher, Clair Omar Musser, are worthy of attention.

Vida Chenoweth ( b.1929), one of Musser’s students at Northwestern, played her first solo recital in Chicago in 1956. She performed concerts world wide until an accident prevented her from playing at her former level. She is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

[5.] See: Conklin, M. Christine: An Annotated Catalog of Marimba Concertos Published in the United States Between 1940 – 2000. Marimba Concertos listed, chrinologically, alphabetically by composer, with orchestration, marimba size, date of composition, an interview and reviews, DMA thesis, University of Oklahoma, Norman, 2004. UM number 3134393.

[6.] I sent trombonist/composer Vinko Globokar an ensemble improvisation recording. His reply, paraphrased, was, ” This is typical of American music. Continuous, repititious. For the trio improvisations, our percussionist brings only two or three small instruments. Our idea is to never repeat. Always search for new ways to make sound”.

[7.] See Takemitsu, Toru: Confronting Silence, Fallen Leaf Press, Berkeley, California, 1995. Pgs. 51-57 contain Takemitsu’s thoughts on his use of silence and the concept of Ma.


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Scene I, 15 December 2013.

The televised concert specials from New York City are predictable. They feature everyone I’ve heard before and didn’t want to hear again. Over and over, the same pastiche of music hall tripe, broadway warbles and symphonic war horses featuring the only pianist, cellist and singer in the world.

On the Toronto home front, creators of concerts besides being more modest, have considerably fewer formulaic thoughts and produce resoundingly successful entertainments of high artistic merit without Big Apple budgets, celebrity hype and hyperbole.

Case in point, the recent Array Music Benefit, 15 December My ticket to ride included dinner! All delicious and all prepared by Array Music supporters and staff. The best chicken wings I’ve tasted in this hockey, wing and beer society and that’s saying a lot. Array space was set up cabaret style with tall round tables and scattered seating. The entertainment was in three short, but riveting parts, each followed by ample time for drinks, eats and schmoozing.

Though Marie Joseé Chartier is known for her choreography, dancing and leading her own dance company,, she is also no mean chanteuse. Marie Joseé sang two a cappella songs. The first one, during which she flirted with me, was by Rogers and Hart, Everything I’ve Got, made famous by Blossom Dearie. The second was La Vie en Rose, the Edith Piaf hallmark. Moving with ease through and around her audience in a wispy white floor length dress, Ms Chartier made both songs memorable with enchanting, unaffected performances.

Patricia O’Callaghan,, sang Zu-Potsdam Unter Den Eichen by Kurt Weill and Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs by John Cage. Reading Wikipedia I learned O’Callaghan was an exchange student in Mexico when she decided that rather than becoming “either a rockstar or a nun” she would combine both these ambitions by becoming an opera singer. This non sequitur in and of itself endeared her to me. She studied opera singing at the University of Toronto and became infatuated with cabaret music. I think her voice is lovely and she is a fine musician. Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs was the best of many I’ve heard over the years- true to the score with no vibrato and rendered in time, the closed piano accompaniment played clearly and with delicate authority by percussionist David Schotzko. A beautiful taste of Cage and an example of impeccable ensemble performance. Schotzko also played drumkit on the Weill and Gregory Oh played piano normally.

In the midst of the evening Array Music Artistic Director, percussionist and composer Rick Sacks sang his Rap styled song I Does Art , written in response to a long forgotten uproar over some art censorship in Toronto during the early 1980s. Rick continues to surprise me. I love this song and its performance was reality itself, both poignant and humorous. I learned he had at least three more songs in his oeuvre and if they are anywhere near as good as I Does Art, he needs to record them.

Three delightful songs by Allen Cole were next: Falling in Love with You and the Clam Song, both from an Array Music commission titledThe Wrong Son; and The Girl in the Picture from The Girl in the Picture, another Array Music commission. Patricia O’Callaghan sang Falling in Love with You and The Girl in the Picture  accompanied by Greg Oh at the piano. The Clam Song was sung by Rick Sacks with accompanyment by David Schotzko on bongos and wood block.

The entire evening was a culinary, social and musical success.  Sacks has plans for the Array Music space infrastructure, including among other things, HD audio and visual recordings of concerts and an elevator. Array Music is just three blocks from my home so it is taxi and TTC free. A boon by any standard. It is becoming the venue of choice for some of Toronto’s most interesting and talented performers.

My wife and I joined two friends for an early dinner at Boland’s Open Kitchen on  New Year’s Eve. Our easy patter lighted upon art galleries in Toronto and I admitted to being an infrequent visitor, knowing little about today’s artists and their output. One of our dining companions, Joanne Tod, is a well established and successful Canadian artist presently specializing in portraiture though during her long career, she has created work in many mediums. Joanne is a regular art gallery visitor, but opined that many young artists latch onto the latest fad and stay there, unable or unwilling to take risks. Assuming the role of  music critic, I offered pretty much the same opinions about some keyboard percussion music.

Scene II, 9 December, 2013.

The concert  given in Array Music by Dan Morphy, his duet partner Ed Squires and TorQ colleague Adam Canpbell, began with  Eric Richards’ The Unravelling of the Field arranged by Dan Morphy for two vibraphones from the original score for one pianist playing from two grand staves in four simultaneous, but different tempi. This work has been performed with many combinations of resonant percussion instruments, all, including Morphy’s rendition, engaging and musically satisfying in every respect.

Following the Eric Richards work were the four keyboard percussion pieces that prompted my comments to Joanne Tod, . For the most part, they were based on patterns as if influenced by the music of Steve Reich. Reich himself was influenced by percussion music and percussion technique, so the composers of these works, all trained percussionists, are condemned to comparison with the more famous works of Reich, whether or not he had any influence at all upon them.

It’s the patterns that plug my ears. Pattern music is aggravating because of their forms, usually A-B-A with no attempt at transitioning. The rhythms, though sometimes complex, are laid out like dictionary entries, one riff after another, often without any discernable relationship and interminably long. The harmonies are simplistic, without any frisson to tweak one’s ears.  No more than a measure goes by before I sigh, slide a bit in my seat, get comfortable and wait for the end. A sort of trans Pacific flight mentality.

There is a sub text to the foregoing. Years ago I visited the emminent percussionist John Beck in his studio at the Eastman School of Music. John was working on a Henry Cowell trio I had recently played that contained a prominent xylophone part. John said the part was difficult to learn because it contained no patterns. I held my tongue because its lack of patterns was precicely why I had found it easy to learn. I had the same experience with the xylophone part in Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. Seiji Ozawa once turned to me and asked, “Is the xylophone part to Oiseaux exotiques difficult?”  I knew he had scheduled the work for his orchestra on an up coming concert and knowing patterns to be every drummer’s raison d’etre, I had to hesitate before answering “No”.

After intermission came the music of Ken Shorley Ken Shorley, a percussionist and composer new to me, is a former student of Trichy Sankaran, a master of Karnatik music who teaches at York University in Toronto. As Shorley announced, his compositions are influenced by the classical music of South India. He incorporates the vamps or brief motifes used by mridagam players in extended solos, but only as starting points. His works are not arrangements. They are fresh, inventive creations which to a great degree, conceal their heritage. There were moments of surprise, delightful quirks. I never had the sense that Shorley was padding his music. This was clean and lean music trimmed of fat and artifice. And they were all played from memory by Shorley, Adam Campnell and Dan Morphy.

Music of Ken Shorley:

About Time (tambourine trio) – 2011
Helix (darabuka, frame drum, caxixi/tala bells) – 2012
Three Into Five (frame drum trio) – 2002 (rev. 2012)
Cobra (gongs, bells, frame drum) – 2012
Sarvalaghu (solkattu, jawharp) – 2011
Root Cellar (wastebasket, triangles, tin cans, shakers) – 2011
The Bright Side (darabuka, riq, cajon/caxixi) – 2010
Monk’s Drum (darabuka trio) – 2011


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Cage Encounters

Variations III, No. 14, a 1992 print by Cage from a series of 57.

Variations III, No. 14, a 1992 print by Cage from a series of 57.

Long before I met John Cage, there was a wash of popular scuttlebutt clinging  to him. He was one of the 20th centuries’ most talked about musicians. Cage was a man whose name my teacher refused to speak. During my first year of college I suggested performing one of Cage’s percussion works and his response was a withering look that shivered my timbers.

That was in 1958. I had not seen a photograph of Cage nor heard any of his music. My ignorance was rectified somewhat in 1960 when I saw Cage on the television show I’ve Got a Secret. Cage’s secret was “I am going to perform one of my musical compositions. And he did. It was Water Walk (1959) and the performance can be seen on You Tube. [1.]  My teacher had certainly known about the infamous “silent piece”, 4’33” .(1952) His objection to Cage, though never voiced, made some sense considering his academic rectitude,.

Set-up for Water Walk.

Set-up for Water Walk.

As time passes, a chronology of life’s events can become skewed. I cannot remember how or when I first met Cage, but I do recall an after concert reception in someone’s Toronto home where most of us, including Cage, were seated on the floor. Nexus had just released a recording and I offered a copy to John who said, “I don’t like recorded music, but I’ll donate this to the University of Chicago Library.” On another occasion, a casual hello may have passed between us during a Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (1984) I remember Cage having a meal with Percussion Group Cincinnati, which may not have been their name at the time. As they left the restaurant, a greeting might well have passed between us.

I know I met and spoke with him at length during a Celtic Festival in Toronto when he performed ROARATORIO (1979) with a wonderful group of Irish musicians including Paedre Mercier and his son Mel playing Bodhran.[2.]

John Cage, Paeder Mercier and R.E. during a Celtic Festival party in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 198?

John Cage, Paeder Mercier and R.E. during a Celtic Festival party in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1982.

Convocation Hall on the campus of the University of Toronto was the venue for ROARATORIO, January 29 and 31, 1982, and as a warm-up, members of Nexus played Third Construction  (1941) while John and Merce Cunningham sat first row center. As might be expected, it was a very special performance. Afterwards we congregated backstage to share the moment. Merce was crying. “I have not heard this since I played the first performance. This is the part I played” he said to me, referring to my Lion’s roar, ratchet and maracas etc. Cage said, “I didn’t think the piece was so clear”.[3.]

In 1984, I was one of four conductors in Cage’s Dances for 4 Orchestras. [1982] Convocation Hall is circular with a balcony and the orchestras were positioned in various places with mine on the main floor stage. As conductor of Orchestra 1, it was my duty to begin the piece. I gave a downbeat and almost immediately the hall’s cavernous space was cleaved by a raw edged sarcasm. “Robin, is that what you call piano?”  From a distant balcony, it was Paul Zukovsky in high dudgeon. Cage came to my rescue with his distinctive, mellifluous voice,. “I think it’s soft enough Paul.” [4.]

For a television show, I had recently conducted in full symphonic dress, an orchestra of 25 automobiles performing O Canada in a stadium with their horns. Someone told Cage about seeing a newspaper photograph of this event and Cage asked me for a copy which I gave him during our first rehearsal. He was delighted.

Before leaving Toronto’s Celtc Festival, I must mention the great Celtic harpist, singer and historian, Gráinne Yeats. She was married to Michael Yeats, the son of poet and playwright William Butler Yeats.(1865-1939) I had the honor of improvising music with Gráinne for the W. B. Yeats play Cuchulain. Gráinne explained much to me about the Celtic or Irish harp history. For instance,Irish warriors fought naked and were driven to fighting frenzy by the sound of the harp. She also casually mentioned her father-in-law sitting on his porch composing poetry by humming. This past March, 2013 I phoned Ireland to speak with her but she was too frail for a phone conversation. Gráinne died 18 April, 2013.

Part of the lore surrounding Cage was his tolerance for and acceptance of accidental sounds occuring during performances of his music. It was this “anything works” dictum that I accepted as truth. Nexus members, Bob Becker, Russell Hartenberger and I, played his work Amores (1943) in 4 movements for Prepared piano and 3 percussionists 7 October, 1977. The opening movement for Prepared piano is followed by two movements for percussion trio. Cage was again in the audience and our first , the 2nd movement, was a stunner. The audience spontaneously applauded after the last note. When all had settled down, we were ready for the third movement when the pianist began playing the last. Cage rose from his seat and slowly made his way to the stage. He whispered to the pianist, “the percussionists have another movement to play”. Embarrassed, the pianist stopped playing and when Cage was once again seated, we continued on. So much for urban myths.

I participated in Musicircus, Cage’s 75th anniversary celebrations during the Los Angeles Festival (12 September,1987) and was asked to play in “but what about the noise of crumpling paper etc.” (1982) [5.] I believe John prided himself on his penmanship and clarity of expression. He approached me during the first rehearsal and complained about my not playing the way he had explained in his performance note. He was, for Cage, quite exercized and I was apologetic. I told him I had read his note and was conscientiously playing as I had understood it. He told me what he wanted and that was that. After the evening performance John approached and said,” You were correct. I reread my note and there was a missplaced comma which I have moved to its proper place.” Alas, I never asked him to show me the revision.

Nexus played Branches (1976) for a Cage celebration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.c. (17 November, 1982) We discussed Cage’s performance notes which I understood to mean each of us was to toss the iChing coins to determine how we would interpret our parts. One of our head strong members objected to this reading and insisted we toss the coins just once to arrive at a group interpretation. We tossed one series and played. Cage later said, “Nexus does things their own way. They played  Branches linearly, not the way  I intended.”  Upon reading this, my respect for Cage blossomed and as well, his comment provided me an ah ha, I told you so moment.


During the writing of an article about percussion ensembles in North America, I called John at his home in New York City. After the usual greetings, I asked him if he had invented the percussion ensemble as we in North America knew it. He said he did not. “It was in the air” he said. Continuing, ” I suppose I was the first to have an ensemble that rehearsed regularly. That was to play my music.”

Nexus spent an afternoon in Amsterdam shopping for cactus, an adventure that blew away my mid tour doldrums. Local technicians provided exceptionally sensitive contact mics and a very good sound system. All the prep was for Child of Tree.(1975)  After our evening performance of Child of Tree, an audience member with bravura vocal chords, called out “Bullshit”. After moving to our next set-up, I looked at the audience and said,”Cactusshit”. Next day, that was our concert review headline.

L. to R. roadie, Dave Campion, R.E., John Wyre, 2 technicians, Bob Becker.

L. to R. Our roady,, Dave Campion, R.E., John Wyre, 2 technicians, Bob Becker.

ASLSP, for piano or organ (January 1985). This experience with Cage is related on this site in my article: John Cage Goes As Slow As possible in Halberstadt, Germany.


[2.]  Before Paeder left Toronto, he sold me his Bodhran and gave me a couple of lessons. Years later we were scheduled to meet in Liverpool, but his brother’s death called him home. We never met as Paeder himself died a year or two later. One can hear Paeder’s wonderful playing on early Chieftain recordings.

[3.] Cage limited his critique of our performance to the almglocken used in place of the Cow bell. “I had in mind an old farm cowbell. This sounds too pure.”

[4.] Paul Zukovsky and I remain long distance friends. He now lives in Hong Kong. From my perspective, his major contributions to 20-21st century music are his interpretations of violin music, his conducting and the Musical Observations Inc. CP2 digital recordings which he owns and which demonstrate both his playing and conducting skills. Nexus recorded Jo Kondo’s Under the Umbrella for CP2, each movement recorded in one take, no edits. Paul also conducted and recorded the Cage Sixteen Dances (1982) also available on CP2. Nexus played the latter work with Paul in Toronto, 30 Jamuary, 1982, ( during the Celtic Festival) 15 November, 1982 in Symphony Space, New York City and two days later on the aforementioned Kennedy Center concert, November 17..

The CP2 catalogue consists of 18 splendid CDs  encompassing works from our two most recent centuries. All containing rare musical gems played and produced with the highest professional standards.

[5.] The complete title: But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of “Papiers froissés” or tearing up paper to make “Papiers déchirés?” Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests, for percussion ensemble (August 1985).


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