Lecture for the Zhitomir Festival of May 2013

"Phenomenon of contemporary music in the context of world musical culture"

The connection between composer and performer

by Antal Sporck

For me personally music has always been an independent language. I do not see images while listening to music, nor do I see colors or imaginary film sequences. Music for me is a universal and independent means of communication. Music communicates on many different levels. Today I would like to single out one aspect: the communication between composers and performers.

Evgeny Kissin

This is legendary pianist Evgeny Kissin about contemporary music.

question: "What is your opinion about contemporary music?"
EK: "I'm not acquainted with much of contemporary piano music, it seems to me, maybe I'm wrong, that today's composers are not that interested in writing for the piano."

When I saw this interview on the internet this particular remark of Evgeny Kissin made me think very much. Naturally he is aware of composers writing piano music, also today, but apparently his feeling is that today's composers do not write for the piano as much as using the piano. In other words: for Kissin contemporary music is not always fun to play.

As both a composer and a performer this particular problem has fascinated me for a long time. For intellectual reasons I've always been interested in contemporary music and played it a lot when I was a student. But I found that after practicing contemporary music for a while I needed to play some Chopin or Scriabin for that matter. Learning contemporary music is foremost a matter of the brain, while you need well trained fingers to play it. The well trained fingers you do not get from this music, therefor you need the romantics. Why is it that pianists can spend there whole life playing Beethoven without ever wanting anything different, but nobody can live solely on Boulez? Why does a pianist who learns Stockhausen need to go back to Rachmaninov every now and then for feeling a pianist again?

To answer this question I would like to go back in time a little.

Back in 1597 Thomas Morley wrote: "Supper being ended, and Musicke bookes, according to the custome being brought to the table: the mistress of the house presented me with a part, earnestly requesting mee to sing. But when after many excuses, I protested unfainedly that I could not: every one began to wonder. Yea, some whispered to others, demaunding how I was brought up."

Although Morley might have been fiddling a bit with the truth here, this quote does show that in 16th and 17th century England it was custom in better situated circles to play music after dinner. Composers intended their music, crucially, not to impress audiences but to afford enjoyment to performers, such as those who just finished a meal. Much of William Lawes' and John Jenkins' music was written for this kind of occasions.

John Jenkins: Fantasy No. 16

This music is obviously fun to play. It is entertainment, but not merely entertainment. Its voicing is superb, musical games such as imitation are used, the quickly altering sections with different musical ideas make it lively and well constructed at the same time, whilst the virtuoso scales bring enjoyment to the performers.

Over a century later Mozart also was very well aware of his performers. He modeled his opera arias especially to suit the singers, and would even write entirely new arias when different singers would take up a role when an opera was performed in another city. Mozart would be pleased when he succeeded in writing an aria that would both meet his own artistic demands as well as being a showcase for its particular singer. This would certainly be true for the aria 'Non piu andrai' from Le Nozze Di Figaro, which Mozart wrote for the Italian singer Francesco Benucci.

W.A. Mozart: Non Piu Andrai from Le Nozze Di Figaro

Again more than a century later it was still important for a composer to find the equilibrium between cerebral composing and physical fulfillment. Debussy famously declared "I follow only one rule, that of my own pleasure." Debussy himself was a good pianist and knew when as a performer he would be pleased with his own music. As a revolutionary composer he would have had demanding intellectual standards for his music at the same time. This Image for instance contains parallel harmonies and whole-tone scales, two of the famous trademarks of Debussy's music, but it also delivers great fun for a pianist.

Claude Debussy: Mouvement from Images, Book 1

From this moment on composers seem to dissociate themselves more and more from performers. They seem to bother less and less about the consequences of their writing for the musician on stage. This coincides with the fact that the repertoire of today's piano students more or less ends here too. So when Kissin says today's composers don't seem to be interested in writing for the piano, I think he actually means these composers do not seem to be interested in pianists too much. This is certainly true for Stockhausen's Klavierstücke where the equilibrium between physical fulfillment and intellectual demand I referred to before is not to be found.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück 1

Composers in the 1950s should have been aware of a serious problem here. When they stop caring for the musician, the musician will as a result stop caring for the composer. And this is exactly what happened. Over the last decades the musical scene has turned into a museum where old masters are cherished and new composers are avoided. If we want new music to win back the hearts of the audiences we will have to start winning back the hearts of musicians first. I am happy to see that this is happening ever more. Let us hope it is not too late before governments in western Europe dismiss of classical music altogether.

Thomas Adès: First movement from Violin Concerto Op. 24