Interview (in english)

Bruno Saint-Germain did it again!

In the late 80s, he already co-founded the Dante production company with an ambitious goal: to allow fans around the world to discover or rediscover the best of “the golden age of piano”, thus contributing to a work of archaeology and spadework alongside the best music producers.

Indeed, Dante produced some records significant in history of piano, as the first complete Godowsky Studies after Chopin but also countless reissues of “historical” (in every sense of the word) recordings.

Then came, unfortunately, the crisis in the record industry, which sent Bruno to his second passion: IT. Moreover, it is the combination of this second passion with his first one (the piano, still today…) that resulted in this somewhat crazy project: establish the first map of the great “filiations” in piano history.

After several years of relentless work, the result is the following: a poster at the same time impressive, gossamer, dense and yet already essential for anyone with a love for the keyboard.

In the era of rampant globalization and failing an impossible geopolitical taste, here it is, in preview, a genealogy of the technical and artistic “great tradition”.

A magnificent mapping of influence.

 

You’ve just completed a colossal work…

Yes, you can see it that way… I had already considered this project twenty years ago.  At the time, I had started gathering a lot of documentation. Luckily, there is an incredible number of books on piano, biographies and musicology researches of all kind. Strangely enough however, a systematic approach such as the one that interested me, i.e. an almost comprehensive approach, had never been attempted or even contemplated. Although with conventional techniques, it was almost unfeasible…

Fortunately, thanks to technology, what was impossible yesterday is possible today.

Three years ago, at my brother’s insistence, I started the job and developed specific tools to manipulate and model the considerable amount of data that I had collected over the years.

The poster that you have in your hands is the result of over fifty years of passion and three years of work…

When I discovered this, I thought of a sort of map of the sky on which we try to show all the stars. As for the sky moreover, the result is almost…unreadable!

(Laughs) I love the image and there is something to it: the sky of music and the stars of piano… I have to admit that it is not easy to understand. However, it is not that dramatic. It seems to me that the important thing is to lose oneself, to travel among names, times, evocations which do not fail to emerge with every line, every date, every image…

I have to add that this poster is just the first brick of a more ambitious project: I am currently working at a website and a dedicated app that will become, I hope, “the” reference as regard to piano and pianists.

Meanwhile, it is true that I savor this first step. For the first time, it is possible to view, at a single glance, all the great pianistic filiations since the 16th century (top part of the chart) through baroque, classical, romantic, until the ” golden age “of piano and the first half of the 21st century (bottom part of the graph).

What do you mean exactly by “filiation”?

Filiation, for me, is just a kind of “social fact” as sociologists would say. To clarify, it is when you speak of someone and you say: “he is the student of…”

You will notice that it is often the words used by journalists to introduce pianists, but it is also true for pianists among themselves: they first identify themselves through this relationship. And their “school” of course…

What’s the difference between “school” and “filiation”?

A school is something different. Similarly as there are schools of wisdom in spirituality, or schools of thought in philosophy, it is commonly accepted that there are “schools” of instruments or musicians.

So there are “piano schools” as there are violin or guitar schools.

A “school”, if you like, is primarily the result of the geographical concentration of artists who were able to regroup and organize to transmit and become leaders their time.

Spontaneously, I am thinking for example of the Russian school and the emergence of the Tchaikovsky conservatory in Moscow or the Rimsky-Korsakov one in Saint Petersburg. In the 1860s, the arrival of the Rubinstein brothers, who left to be trained in Berlin before returning to settle in Russia, contributed to the emergence of a new generation of “musicians-pianists-composers”. And the presence alongside them of great piano pedagogues as Theodor Leschetisky or Alexander Ziloti probably allowed if not the outbreak, at least the development and prestige of talents as huge and diverse as Scriabin, Rachmaninov or Prokofiev.

Beyond this geographical concentration, when we speak of “school,” we must not forget that many students had with their teacher a very deep relationship, sometimes daily and that often lasted a lifetime, even when the student had in turn become a master.

This is where we get closer to the concept of “filiation” that approximates the beautiful concept of “guild”. Indeed, if all these great teachers first transmitted the knowledge, the love of the repertoire and the approaches of its interpretation, many went further by recommending to their students to listen to singers, readings which did not confine to the piano, in order for them to develop an intellectual, emotional and artistic wealth, with roots in all arts.

That is why it is so important to have this specific vision, to see the bigger picture, both historical and geographical, but at the same time, so important not to stop there and go beyond all the clichés that are usually given about these famous piano “schools”, like boxes with labels, such clichés according to which Germans would foremost be profound, Russians foremost virtuosos, French foremost sensitive…

…And it is not true?

It is in fact much more complex. Belonging to a school first and foremost means which tradition and geographical memory you are carrying. This is a first level of understanding, and it is symbolized on my chart, with a choice of colors: there are as many colors as schools.

But most importantly in my opinion, is a second level of understanding, which was also my first approach to the work when I compiled all the data, i.e. the “filiation”.

Again, let us not forget that within a given school, there were multiple “movements”, if you will, often crystallized around extraordinary personalities before branching out in time and in space. It is this level of understanding, which is, to me, essential, and I symbolized it with the multiple links that connect each other. These are the “filiations”.

Here I spontaneously think of Liszt, the greatest pedagogue of his time and who trained, from Weimar, several generations of pianists such as Hans von Bülow, who became Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, to name only one. But also of Theodor Leschetisky in Vienna and St. Petersburg who, at the invitation of Anton Rubinstein, was appointed head of the piano department of the new conservatory.

I also think of other of Liszt’s pupils, such as Istvan Thoman at the Royal Academy of Budapest, who will be so influential for the Hungarian piano, or Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninov’s cousin, who will teach in Russia and then the United States, at the Juilliard School in New York.

I obviously think of the incredible prestige of Busoni from Berlin, probably the greatest “post-Liszt” figure, who was the teacher of Sibelius, Varese and many others. I also think of Josef Hofmann who created the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

And here, in France, of the importance of Alfred Cortot and the international prestige, until today, of the Paris “Ecole Normale” of music.

To emphasize even more on differences between “schools” and “filiation”, I therefore stress the need, in the history of music in general and of piano in particular, not to limit the understanding to geography, or even nationality: for example, we can’t say that Glenn Gould, who is solitary among the solitaries and unclassifiable among the unclassifiables, represents any “Canadian school”! He is simply a pianist and Canadian. Another example, Claudio Arrau, no more represents a Chilean school. He is indeed a pianist and Chilean but uprooted very young, he received a German education, guided by Martin Krause, one of the last pupils of Liszt (which gives him, in my opinion, a real legitimacy in his interpretation of Bach, Beethoven or Schumann, for example).

Bottom line, the truth of what I most wanted to materialize through this poster is the simple and very natural link, which exists between these personalities. We could call it a story of men. And women of course, although they are much fewer of them at that time (here also, things have changed…). You will notice that there are however a few on this poster, starting with Anna Yesipova, who was admired by Liszt and Tchaikovsky (no less!). She was, among others, Prokofiev’s piano teacher. So you see, in the history of piano, there is not just Clara Schumann…

You have rather worked on performers? On composers? On teachers?

It was one of the major difficulties of this work. History, alas, has often only remembered these most visible performers or composers. It has often forgotten those who have had the misfortune of being “only” teachers. Even though if often it is the latter who have contributed to transmit and modernize the art of keyboard…

On my chart, each musician is positioned vertically approximately on his/her date of birth, which allows viewing his/her contemporaries at a simple horizontal glance. Lines that go from a musician to another visualize the direct filiation in the color of the nationality of his/her teacher.

Some musicians, however, are not pianists and are represented here only to materialize a link (Salieri for example, connects Liszt to Gassmann or to Padre Martini), but as a general rule, we can still classify musicians in three important musical families.

The first are the “pure pianists”: they are concert performers, they do not (or very little) compose, and they do not (or very little) teach, but they were trained.

The second are the “pure pedagogues”: they do not (or very little) give recitals. They were not necessarily the best pianists but they have sometimes influenced generations of pianists.

The third, probably the most fascinating, are the “pianists-pedagogues-composers” or at least “pianists-composers.”

Which ones?

Chopin, of course. And perhaps even more Liszt and just after him, Busoni. Their prestige, their influence was unimaginable. We have absolutely no idea today of their prestige throughout Europe and beyond. They embodied the best in composition, the best in instrument and in teaching, but also a complete overarching vision and life. They were idealized and unavoidable.

In contrast, many “pure” composers and some “pure” pianists have unjustly been forgotten, or are still ignored…

This is not new. History, even ancient, is full of musicians that we rediscover long after their death.

It is Liszt for example, who released Schubert from oblivion by transcribing his “lieder” for piano.

Closer to home, I spontaneously think of Nicolaï Medtner, for which I have a real fascination. To be honest, I am even an absolute fan (laughs). You just have to listen to his recordings to be convinced. Medtner, incidentally, was among those few composers such as Scriabin, who mostly only played their own compositions (quite the opposite of Schumann, for example, forced to give up his career as a virtuoso…). For a long time, alas, Medtner was forgotten in the programs of major contemporary concert performers. It is only recently that we were able to discover a recorded version of his complete twelve sonatas by Marc-André Hamelin. A masterpiece! I must say that the sonata was so Medtner’s favorite form that, at the conservatory, he was nicknamed “M. Sonata”!

Among pianists, thanks to the research and recordings gathered by my friend Allan Evans (an American musicologist, publisher and writer), I recently discovered Ignaz Tiegerman, a pupil of Ignaz Friedman, himself a pupil of Leschetisky. He was said to be the only rival Horowitz was concerned about!

Another outrageous case: I also always wondered why the Korean pianist Kun-Woo Paik, even though he is known and admired around the world, is still partly ignored in France, where however he chose to live. For specialists, he is however one of the greatest “institutions” still alive (alive and kicking, even if he is getting close to 70…)! He was trained, among others, at the Juilliard School in New York with Rosina Lhevinne then in London with Ilona Kabos. He also worked with Wilhelm Kempff in Italy. And he won, among others, the famous Busoni prize. Suffice to say that he is closely linked to this famous “golden age of piano”.

Is technique taught the same way as before?

Yes and no. It is true that the evolution of teaching, as you can imagine, is closely linked to the evolution of the instrument itself, and hence the gradual adaptation of the repertoire to the new possibilities of the instrument.

The violin, for example, we can say that the instrument itself has changed very little since its invention.

The modern piano, by contrast, is a distant cousin of the pianoforte. A priori, the pianoforte technique might seem relatively distant from that of the modern piano. But in fact, it is not that much. And indeed, soon enough in history, let’s say from Mozart, modern technique was able to stabilize and then settle on solid foundations, and grow from there.

Already at the time of Liszt, in the second half of the 19th century, we can consider that the concert piano, as an instrument, was technically at its peak. It has hardly changed since then.

May I remind you that, in the history of music, there are a few key compositions that have explored, each in its own way, the evolution, over time, of the instrument’s huge possibilities [and their evolution].

There is of course the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, with its incredible use of the good “temperament” that is to say the chord system that divides the octave into twelve equal chromatic intervals.

Later, Chopin or Liszt’s Etudes that represent one of the heights of the romantic piano of the 19th century. But also the great compositions of Debussy and Ravel, which embody a typically French impressionism.

I have also in mind the way Prokofiev exploited the rhythmic or percussive possibility of the instrument. Or closer to us, the instrument’s polyphonic capacities made excessive by Sorabji, again one of the greatest piano composers, also unjustly forgotten while he has probably contributed to expand its spectrum of expression to levels never reached before him.

One must understand that over time all these compositions were added to the repertoire that tomorrow’s pianist will potentially have to embrace. Therefore the teaching will have to take this into account and help the young pianist to find his own way by proposing the study of different styles but also different techniques.

Today it seems natural that a student presents a program that includes a Baroque composition (Scarlatti or Bach), a romantic piece (Chopin or Schumann) and a “modern” composition (Debussy or Ravel).

Naturally, the more we go back in the past the more limited that choice was!

Concretely, what did these great teachers of the past teach their students?

First they passed on and taught pure technique.

A teacher worthy of being one would indeed, very concretely, offer “solutions” to his students: what touch for this chord? How was Chopin playing this mazurka? Did he follow to the letter the published score? Which edition of the composition should be trusted?

To answer these questions, there is little alternative but to listen to the testimony of those who knew the composer in question. It was often his pupils but not only.

Let’s take an example. Everyone knows that Liszt dedicated most of his life to the piano. Thus, he developed new solutions to new technical issues. Meanwhile, he was one of the greatest pedagogues of his time and students thronged from around the world. To work with him, of course, but also because they knew that, through him, they would have access to “first-hand” information, on Beethoven’s interpretations for example. Everyone knew in fact that Liszt was a pupil of Czerny, himself a pupil of Beethoven. Beethoven who, incidentally, hated teaching…

Even today, does the teacher play this role with young pianists?

Of course! Today is still the same: young pianists travel around the world in search of filiation. At the same time, things have completely changed. For the first time in history, they also have access to complete testimonies of all those who came before them. Whether through all the films that can be found on the Internet or through the audio recordings that have been collected over time.

However, in my opinion, a real teacher remains for the young musician a guide, an invaluable support, to sort the wheat from the chaff. He represents the first link to the repertoire, and as such, he still plays an essential role in the transmission of music.

So, to answer your question, it is likely that the filiation previously played a much larger role. We travelled then much less.

Nowadays however, musicians go to many master classes around the world. The number of teachers and links with the legacy of the past is much more important than before.

Is there any subjectivity in your choices?

In the historical choices, not really. Important musicians and pianists weren’t in reality that numerous, and it is safe to assume that this is a fairly complete panorama.

However, with the globalization and the current inflation in the number of pianists, it is true that what was already very dense in the past could become more overladen today…

For clarity and due to lack of space and hindsight, I limited myself to pianists born before 1950.

At the same time, it was important for me to highlight 15 or so pianists born after 1950 and who are already remarkable by their personality and influence.

Here comes, of course, subjectivity. But at least all young pianists disappointed for not (yet) being included in this diagram, will find here their teachers, and therefore their filiation!

You have selected Lang Lang…

Yes, because you are allowed not to love him, but he is now such a media phenomenon, almost a freak, that I had at least to ask myself the question at length. It was fun to see that all the friends and experts I consulted had the same opinion as me: they felt it was unfair that he should appear here, and at the same time, they thought it was most unfair that he shouldn’t, if only out of respect of a certain approach, a certain practice of music that comes today from Asia and of which we will not be able to make fun forever! Lang Lang is present, even though it’s a bit because there was no other option. Time will make its selection along with me…

Asia “weighs” more and more on teaching piano!

Of course. Quite honestly, it is a phenomenon that escapes us a bit and that will escape us more and more. I will give you just one figure: there are now officially in China, some 60 million pianists! The equivalent of France’s population.

But it’s not just China. Today, gradually, with the opening of borders, artists becoming more and more marketable, the uniqueness of the different schools has become blunted. All this has melted in a kind of common taste, a kind of globalization “from below” in my opinion… It is likely that the teaching of piano is also becoming standardized at the same time as it democratizes itself like ever before.

 

Does this mean that all pianists tend to play the same way?

No, it’s the opposite. Everywhere we can observe the rise of the individual, his tastes, and his aspirations. And I think it’s because of, or thanks to (it depends) the Internet. Everyone is now free to post his/her performances on YouTube. This is where we often discover new talents. Valentina Lisitsa’s example is symptomatic: there is no doubt that her success comes from a series of videos that she posted herself and where she plays, often beautifully, compositions that had not often been recorded, like Rachmaninov’s first sonata, which is, I think, a major composition in piano literature. This is far from being anecdotal. On the contrary: these videos are viewed today by millions of web users! It is a real phenomenon. And it is therefore natural that Lisitsa is now working with major companies. This is one of the greatest strengths of Internet, precisely to offer today’s public a huge selection without the filter of these majors.

However, with or without Internet, I think we are above all looking for strong, authentic, original and unusual personalities.

This is what makes us still listen today with fascination to Glenn Gould, but also to literally melt for Josef Hofmann’s poetry and inventiveness (I still can not get enough of his Chopin concertos…) or to Vladimir de Pachmann’s tricks.

Does the word “piano school” still make sense today?

I will leave the person who will create, like me, this same poster in a century, answer this question! Today, let’s just try something. When you type “piano school” in a web search engine, you only get an indigestible list of… learning centers! Physical places to learn how to play the piano. So far from what I am interested in…

Does it make you sad?

It is in anyway a good reason to remember that it has not always been the case. And this is the main message of this poster.

(Interview by Aurore Saint-Amour)

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