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Both Sides Now: Bringing Back the Pianist-Composer

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What became of the true composer-pianist after World War II? The Mozarts, the Chopins, the Liszts and Rachmaninoffs—where were they? Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland were among the few whose pianism even remotely approached that of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Bartok. Piano giants like Glenn Gould and Edward Steuermann were quite serious about composition, but never really acknowledged as composers and are remembered as great pianists. What changed as the 20th century unfolded that made it so hard for a composer to keep performing, or for a performer to compose? Many musical and societal factors came into play, but just as we begin to understand them, the situation seems to be changing in the 21st century, with prominent composers as diverse as Thomas Adès, Derek Bermel, David Del Tredici, Philip Glass, Lowell Liebermann, Tobias Picker, André Previn, Ned Rorem, and Frederik Rzewski all embracing instrumental performance as a critical aspect of their musical life. A growing number of Juilliard students, faculty, and alumni take a keen interest in this topic, and I was able to get some of their perspectives on these questions.

Current doctoral candidate in composition and performing pianist Noam Sivan.

(Photo by Kevin Wick)

Alumnus Philip Glass

(Photo by John Bentham)

Faculty member (and alumnus) Philip Lasser.

(Photo by Mark Liberman)

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While Jerome Lowenthal, a pianist and Juilliard piano faculty member, does not himself compose, he agrees that there is indeed a resurgence in the role of the composer-performer today, and he encourages his students’ compositional interests. Juilliard faculty member Philip Lasser—a composer who performs both his own music and that of others—teaches the popular course Composition for Non-Majors, which he hopes brings a deeper sensitivity and understanding to his students’ performing and helps bridge the gap between composition and performance as specialties. Lasser, whose students will perform their works on May 12 in a concert titled "Double Vision VI," says that they are “members of a new group of people in the composition realm … who have performer perspectives on music, and discuss the real, live issues of music making.” And Noam Sivan—a doctoral candidate in composition at Juilliard, as well as a performing pianist—teaches a course on improvisation for performers at the Mannes College of Music, where he is on the faculty. Sivan believes that performance and composition are two sides of the same expression, and hopes that his teaching will be a part of a trend toward reuniting the two.

Prior to the 20th century, performance, improvisation, and composition were integrated facets of an individual’s musicianship. In Bach’s time, organists not only played for masses and performed great works of the repertoire, but were expected to compose new large-ensemble works and improvise with complex techniques like canon and fugue. Bach himself—known to us as one of the most astoundingly prolific composers in history—was known more widely in his day as the greatest living organist. Mozart, in addition to his compositional fertility, also played both violin and piano at a virtuoso level, and would often respond to his frequent financial crises by writing and performing new piano concertos for self-arranged benefit concerts. Beethoven’s aura originated with his playing, and composers like Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt were at first regarded as virtuoso pianists who composed.

But over the course of the 19th century a new mystique grew around the domain of composition as the composer-intellectual became the proponent of revolutionary ideas. Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner all soon came to be lauded for their innovative compositional thinking, which they expounded upon in numerous articles and treatises (and Wagner was an outright philosopher).

Sivan argues that, in the 20th century, the idea itself became the focus of composition: “Many composers were more innovators than practical musicians,” he says. The stereotype of the romantic pianist-composer gushing forth his bliss and torment to evoke the swoons and hollers of the bourgeoisie began to seem grotesque to the sophisticated, modernist artistic class. Emotion and the physicality of performing were increasingly rejected by the arbiters of high art as compositional impulses and—as Juilliard faculty member Michael Griffel, a professor of music history, describes it—the increasing complexity of ideas meant “the new music was about the ‘virtuoso’ composer.”

Pianist, writer, broadcaster, and Juilliard faculty member David Dubal cites the burgeoning middle class as another factor. The traditional tastes of this new audience obligated performers to devote much time to mastering centuries of repertoire and, especially as recordings increased the technical expectations upon performing, the creative aspects were forced out. As performance of music of the past grew, new music became something set apart, in keeping with a general societal trend toward specialization.

Candidate in piano Quentin Kim—a doctoral pianist who also studies composition with Lasser—cites the nature of mid-20th-century music itself as a factor. “Bach was the most intellectual of all composers, but regardless of complex structures, his music is also the height of pleasure, both for the ear and hands,” he says. Kim believes that pleasure was lost in art, both in listening and performing—and that physicality is not only acceptable in music, but a vital part of its richness and humanity. “If one doesn’t appreciate the physical aspects [of music]—both the tactile and aural pleasure—then it may be glorified nonsense.”

But Griffel cautions against generalizing that complex or systematized music is necessarily unidiomatic for the performer. “Serialism,” he says, “is just a different way of organizing the pitches, but then you throw in the same feeling and structuring, the same care about being idiomatic, just as you would in music that came before it.” Though Lowenthal agrees, he points out that “the 12-tone system offered no quality of improvisation,” contributing to the withering of the creative performer.

Lowenthal’s own teacher at Juilliard was Edward Steuermann, a pianist who championed composers Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg. Though Steuermann thought of himself as a composer, recalls Lowenthal, he was secretive about it; when you studied with Schoenberg, Lowenthal points out, there was an unspoken rule that only Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg were worthy of the title.

This attitude of exclusivity pervaded much of the world of composition throughout the rest of the 20th century and lingers a bit today, according to Blair McMillen, a pianist who received his master’s degree from Juilliard in 1996 and is known for performing a broad spectrum of contemporary repertoire. Though he is immersed in the world of new music, McMillen has been shy about his own compositional impulses. “Though the wall between composing and performing seems to be coming down, I’m one of the ones still mostly behind that wall,” he says. But he believes the situation has changed a great deal in the last decade. “Part of it,” he says, “is that young musicians graduating from conservatories today are more open to different types of music, and generally more relaxed.” Rising young composers Mason Bates, Mark Dancigers, David Fulmer, Lance Horne, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, and Tristan Perich all regularly perform both their own and others’ music. And accomplished young performers such as Kim, Yves Dharamraj, Ariana Kim, Edvinas Minkstimas, and Vasileios Varvaresos are more freely making forays into composition.

The model of the “rock-star” 19th-century pianist reappeared in the 20th century in other musical idioms, points out Lasser; electric guitarists, jazz saxophonists, and others are often virtuoso musicians in touch with the creative aspects of their art. Bernstein, Previn, and Harbison all came to composition through the more improvisatory genres of musical theater and jazz, and it is no surprise that they are now inspiring a new generation. Juilliard undergraduate Michael Brown—a double major in piano and composition—is both a winner of this year’s Bachauer Piano Competition and the upcoming composer-in-residence for this year’s Pianofest in the Hamptons. Brown names Mozart and Billy Joel as two of his earliest idols. Aside from Bernstein, Copland, and Britten, his other mid-20th century inspirations came from jazz and pop—Ellington in particular.

But British composer-performer Thomas Adès writes music that is complex and rarely tonally centered, yet he is highly regarded, by both critics and audiences, for his engaging and compelling structures and colors. Though his compositional career is flourishing, Adès performs and records not only his own music, but 19th-century works as well, to critical enthusiasm.

Dubal contends that pianists with creative abilities will never be satisfied unless they compose as well. This is good for the music world overall, he believes, for, like the instrumentalist who yearns to compose, “this world desires to be epic again, to be fulfilled.”

In fact, the mutual benefits of composition and performance are many, independent of  individual styles. For all their different levels and approaches, says Lasser, his students bring the performer’s critical sense of timing to their composing. Varvaresos explains that, simply by virtue of the fact that he has composed, he often has moments while playing the Chopin Second Concerto when he feels as if he’d written the piece himself. This energizes his performance, and awakens his sense that a performer—whether composing or interpreting—is a true creative soul.

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