Pianist  Leonard  Hokanson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Leonard Hokanson (August 13, 1931 – March 21, 2003) was an American pianist who achieved prominence in Europe as a soloist and chamber musician. Born in Vinalhaven, Maine, he attended Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and Bennington College in Vermont, where he received a master of arts degree with a major in music. He made his concert debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of eighteen. Drafted into the U.S. Army after graduate school, he was posted to Augsburg, Germany. He achieved early recognition as a performer in Europe, serving as a soloist with such orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and the Vienna Symphony. He was awarded the Steinway Prize of Boston, and was a prizewinner at the Busoni International Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy. His numerous international music festival appearances included Aldeburgh, Berlin, Echternach, Lucerne, Prague, Ravinia, Salzburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Tanglewood, and Vienna.

One of the last pupils of Artur Schnabel, Hokanson also studied with Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, Claude Frank, and Julian DeGray. He was professor of piano at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts for ten years before taking a position as professor of piano at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington in 1986. He was also a permanent guest professor at the Tokyo College of Music.

He was a founding member of the Odeon Trio [shown below], and as a chamber musician performed with such ensembles as the Vermeer Quartet, the St. Lawrence Quartet, the Ensemble Villa Musica, and the Wind Soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic. He frequently performed duo recitals with the violinist Miriam Fried, the clarinetist James Campbell, and the horn player Hermann Baumann. As a pianist for song recitals, he played with numerous singers, including Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry, Melanie Diener, Edith Mathis, Edda Moser, and Hermann Prey. His collaboration with Prey extended over 25 years. He was also resident pianist with Bay Chamber Concerts in Rockport, Maine.


Hokanson's many recordings include the complete piano works of Walter Piston, Haydn sonatas, Mozart concertos, and Brahms intermezzi, as well as Schubert's complete works for violin and piano with Edith Peinemann, Brahms' sonatas for clarinet and piano with James Campbell, Beethoven's complete songs with Hermann Prey and Pamela Coburn, the complete piano trios of Brahms, Dvořák, and Schubert (Odeon Trio), previously unrecorded early piano works of Schubert, and Norbert Burgmüller's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

In 2001 Hokanson became professor emeritus at Indiana University but continued teaching solo piano, chamber music, and a German art song class at the school until his death in Bloomington, Indiana, from pancreatic cancer on March 21, 2003


Hokanson was in Chicago in mid-November of 2000, and we arranged to meet for a conversation.

Here is what was said at that time . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are both a concert pianist and an accompanist?

Leonard Hokanson:   I’d rather call it collaborator.  I have done a lot of accompanying, as you say, in my lifetime, but I’m trying to raise the status of the accompanist to the collaborator or to the partner level, because, in this country, unfortunately, many times the accompanist is a second-rate pianist.

BD:   He is relegated to second place?

Hokanson:   He is relegated there, yes.  Even in a school like Indiana University, where I’m teaching, if you’re an accompanist you play opera arias, and you play concerto accompaniments, and things like this.  I’ve lived in Europe for Thirty years, and there, there are universities which offer courses in Lieder but have nothing to do with opera or anything else.  This is like a partnership between singer and pianist, and that’s very important.

hokanson BD:   I would assume that on the highest level it’s always been an equal collaboration?

Hokanson:   Of course.  Poor Gerald Moore was the one who, for years, labored under the delusion that he was second-rate.  Then, with Fischer-Dieskau, and Schwarzkopf, and these people, all of the sudden the world realized what a great artist he was, because Fischer-Dieskau realized it, as did Schwarzkopf, and Hans Hotter.  All the singers wanted to work with him, and they always spoke so highly of him.  When you find pianists today, such as Alfred Brendel, Sviatoslav Richter, though he’s not with us anymore, were basically people who loved to play, and did so very successfully.  Daniel Barenboim is as marvelous collaborator.  Think about my teacher, Artur Schnabel.  He started his career as a partner for his wife, Therese Behr.  Then, he moved on to chamber music, and then he did the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in London.  All of sudden he was a soloist.  He went from one genre to another.  It was always his idea that, as a musician, one should do everything.  Today, it’s a little difficult, because if you specialize in one thing, you’re stamped as this or you’re stamped as that, but you can’t be all things to all men.

BD:   So you’re frozen out of other genres?

Hokanson:   Yes.

BD:   You go back and forth, though?

Hokanson:   I do, but I’m old enough to do it.  I worked for one and half years as nothing but a harpsichordist when I was living in Europe, and then I spent a couple of years playing the Hammerklavier, the fortepiano.  Then, all of the sudden, I was discovered.  I jumped in at the last minute to play with Grace Bumbry when she started a Lied tour in Germany after her big successes being the Black Venus in Bayreuth.  She was acclaimed as a Lieder singer in Germany and Austria.  Of course, she had been a student of Lotte Lehmann [laughs], so all of a sudden I was a collaborator, or accompanist.  Then I had to play with Hermann Prey.  At the same time, I was also playing concertos, and I was playing chamber music.  I had a career for twenty-five years, and now all that is talked about is that ‘He’s the one who accompanies Hermann Prey.’  So, I was in that category, but now I do everything that I want to do.  I don’t have to worry about making a career.  I’ve had that, and I do what I want do.  For a young musician today, especially in this country, it’s very difficult if you start your career just appearing with a famous singer.  Then you are stamped.  It’s very, very dangerous, although a young pianist today, in order to make a career, has to do everything.  That’s why I love the idea that Richard Goode does, of Liederabende, or song recitals, with Dawn Upshaw.  He was a chamber music player for years and years, and he plays the most wonderful Beethoven sonatas you can imagine.  Goode is, for me, one of the greatest pianists in the world today.

BD:   Do you encourage all of your students to do everything?

Hokanson:   No, I see where their strengths lie.  Graham Johnson, who I’m sure you know, was at Indiana University last summer giving a masterclass on Schubert Lieder and French Chansons, and I encouraged all my students who were really interested to take part.  Some of them were so turned on that they decided to go into that field, and I’ve steered a number of people in that direction, because so many people can play a Tchaikovsky concerto quite well, but who can really play Hugo Wolf?  He wrote very beautiful songs, and it is difficult to get the sense of integration of the piano part with the vocal part.  The intelligence of such songs demands that you understand the meaning of the poem, and the meaning Hugo Wolf is trying to do.  So, there are young pianists who I’m training right now, and they really catch on.  I won’t say I am a role model, but they can think for themselves without many interpretations lying over their heads.  It’s like a new territory for them to chart.

If you’re studying a concerto, you’re playing the solo line.  So, is it more difficult to study a song at the piano, because the piano part is still subordinate to the melodic line of the song?

Hokanson:   That’s why I always make my students play Schumann and Hugo Wolf, because it’s so ambiguous who’s on top, especially with Schumann.  Schumann was the first Viennese composer after Schubert who really integrated the piano with the vocal line, so that the vocal line many times is subservient to the piano.  Think of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai [the first song of Dichterliebe], or the postlude to the last song, Die alten, bösen Lieder.  That’s like playing the cadenza from the Schumann Concerto.  You really have to build, and build, and sustain that which the singer has been doing over the whole cycle.

BD:   And yet, when you’re playing it on the piano you’re missing the vocal line.  So, I would think it would be very difficult to learn it by yourself.  You would need to have a singer with you.

Hokanson:   Yes, that’s true.  I agree because you need the text.  You need to know what is in the text.  You need to know what the singer’s doing.  You’re talking about the fact that your whole feeling for dynamics, and everything else, is dependent upon the kind of sound that you’re hearing from the singer.  If you’re working with a dramatic soprano and doing a big song, you’re going to use a large palate of colors, and if you’re working with a light Emma Kirkby-kind of soprano, then you’ve got to really train your fingers to play as though you were playing on a fortepiano.  But that’s all.  I don’t treat playing a song any differently than playing a Schubert sonata.  If I do a Schubert song, I study the piece just as much in detail, for what kind of touch is there, as I would for a solo piece, and that’s very important.

hokanson BD:   Are you working partly as conductor when you are accompanying the singer?

Hokanson:   No, not really.  I’ve worked with Hermann Prey for twenty-five years, and there is such a wonderful give-and-take.  I’m so accustomed to hearing his voice that I just pattered my sound that way.  Working with a baritone is very different than working with a tenor or a soprano, because the sonorities are so different.  The middle register of the piano is basically the same as the baritone, so you’ve got to be very careful that you play lightly around that sound.  With a soprano, who’s much higher than the middle range, you have to give more depth to the support.  It’s really fascinating working on the same cycle with different kinds of singers, for example, if you’re doing Liederkreis of Schumann with a baritone, with a mezzo, or with a soprano, or a tenor.

BD:   It’s very different in your coloration?

Hokanson:   Absolutely, yes.

BD:   Do you ever have to change keys to accommodate singers?

Hokanson:   I’ve had to transpose quite a bit.  At my very first concert with Prey in Stockholm, in 1962, we were doing An Die Ferne Geliebte of Beethoven.  Of course, we’d done all the rehearsals in C major, and all of a sudden, about an hour before the concert, he wanted to do it in C# major.  It was my first concert with him, and I wanted to show him that I could do everything, because Paul Ulanovsky could do anything in any key at any time.  As a matter of fact, Prey told me once that he forgot his music for Dichterliebe when he was doing it in Montreal, and Paul said
Don’t worry about it.  I know it from memory.  So, he just played the whole thing without the music.  But transposition is something you have to learn.  It’s a little difficult because I have perfect pitch, so the note I see is the note I hear, and if you’re always thinking a half-step or whole-step higher, it becomes a little hairy after a while.  You have to sort of close your ears and just use your eyes.

BD:   I would think that moving it up to D major would be a little easier than C# major.

Hokanson:   In C#, all the fingerings change.  All of a sudden you’re working on black keys all over the place, especially in the first song.  Of course, it changes keys in the course of the cycle, but that was wonderful training for me.  So, I train my students to be able to transpose, not only songs but other things.  Rosalyn Turek made all her students play the Bach fugues in all keys, and turn the voices around in addition.  I don’t do that...  [Laughs]

BD:   Do all of these exercises help to make each student a complete musician?

Hokanson:   Yes, absolutely.

BD:   Do you ever sing?

Hokanson:   I’d love to, but I have no voice.  I sing sometimes when I coach, and my singer says I sing better than they do, but I don’t.  I would love to have been a tenor or baritone.  I’d love to have been a Lieder singer, but unfortunately the voice didn’t.

BD:   I assume you do the
chorus in Beethoven’s The Song of the Flea.

Hokanson:   Yes.  It adds sense to the whole procedure!

BD:   On an electronic keyboard, is it cheating where you can just turn a dial and the pitch goes up, rather than actually have to transpose?

Hokanson:   I think it is.  I don’t have any truck with all that.  I never could work on silent keyboards, because for me the tone production is so important.  The way you produce the sound always tells you how much weight to use, and to produce a certain tone you transfer from one finger to another.  But if you have no tone coming out, it becomes a mechanical exercise.  It may be good to keep the finger in shape, but I don’t think that’s what music-making is all about.  I don’t think that’s what technique is all about.  Technique is the matter of control of sound through your ear and finger and intelligence, those three things.  If you cut out one, say the tone production, you’re working intellectually perhaps, and you can imagine what you’re hearing, but you’re not doing your hands or your arms any good because you’re not really training them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s move over to your concert career where you were the soloist.  You were the main event of the evening, or at least of that piece.  Do you play both solo and concertos?

Hokanson:   Yes.

BD:   From the huge array of piano literature, how do you decide to play this, or no, you’ll let that go?

hokanson Hokanson:   Having been a student of Schnabel and the whole Schnabel school, I’ve basically limited my solo repertoire to the Viennese classicsBach, Mozart, Haydn, and then Beethoven and Schubert.  I’ve done many more Schubert sonatas than Beethoven sonatas, because until the advent of Andras Schiff and Alfred Brendel back in the 60s, not too many people were playing Schubert sonatas, besides Schnabel, of course, and Claude Frank.  So, I’ve been selective in my repertoire.  I do some contemporary things, and as far as concertos are concerned, I really emphasize the Mozart concertos, of which I play about fifteen, and all the Beethoven concertos, and the romantics.  Then there are some contemporary things when I’ve been asked, and will do of it’s interesting for melike Oiseaux Exotiques of Messiaen.  I played that about ten years ago a number of times in Germany with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Horst Stein.  That was great fun.

BD:   You say you’ll play it if it’s interesting to you.  What about it makes it interesting to you?

Hokanson:   If it is something I’ve never done before.  I loved the idea of the Messiaen.  The whole piece sounds like an aviary.  It’s a collection of bird cries that he’s collected.  Messiaen collected them from all over the world, and he put together this piece with the tonal possibilities of trying to emulate these bird cries.  All the different kinds of bird cries come together, and how to produce these sounds is really a challenge for one’s tonal palette, and one’s technique.  The end effect, with the winds and the percussion instruments, is really like being in an aviary in the zoo.  It’s really incredible, all these sounds, and that’s what interested me.  I thought about it quite a bit.  If someone had asked me if I wanted to play the Busoni Piano Concerto, I would have said,
“No, thank you.  I don’t want to sit there and probably play a lot of big chords.  It is interesting music, but for an hour and fifteen minutes, with the chorus joining you at the end, that’s what I think.  On the other hand, there are certain things that enjoy.  I love Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto in D Minor, which nobody plays.  Murray Perahia does, but most people play the First Concerto in G Minor, because it’s more brilliant.  I find the D Minor to be a very interesting piece, and maybe because it was like an underdog that I decided to play it.  [Both laugh]  I do those things that interest me, like the Liszt version of the Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra.  That interests me also because I play the original Schubert Wanderer Fantasy.

BD:   Is it especially interesting to play Liszt’s transcriptions of songs you’ve worked on with singers?

Hokanson:   Absolutely, yes.

BD:   Did Liszt get it right?

Hokanson:   It’s a very interesting thing.  The Schubert Wanderer Fantasy is the most difficult piece that’s written for the piano because it’s damn unpianistic.  It just doesn’t fit, and there are octave passages he couldn’t play.  He’s the one that said,
“Let the devil take it.  There are about three places that are prohibitively difficult, like the octaves in the first movement, and the very dreadful last movement.  In the Liszt transcription, he gives those difficult places to the orchestra, and lets the pianist move around in arpeggios, which are the simplest kind of piano technique.  It sounds much more difficult than what had been written originally for the solo piano.  I like that very much.

BD:   How much do you delve into the composer’s life to get the insight into how to interpret the music?

Hokanson:   I’ve studied music history, and read biographies of the composers.  Schnabel always made the point of saying that if you have wide range of culture, you have done a lot of study.  I won’t say you need intense study, but you should know the period, the literature, to show the painting of the words.  Then, when you get to the composition, say, of Haydn or Mozart, you know all of that in your subconscious.  The way you interpret the work all depends on what’s in the music.  If you play the Haydn F Minor Variations, you shouldn’t have to know that when he wrote the coda, that his mistress had just died.  It’s nice to know, and it was very, very sad, but you should be able to get that out of the music and know that something incredible has happened, because all of a sudden he’s working with chromatic passages that basically don’t appear again until the Romantic period.  All of a sudden you see that this piece is looking forward to what’s coming.  The work is a set of double variations.  There is one set in minor, and one set in major.  The minor is always the chromatic, looking forward to the next period, the Romantic period, and the major is light-hearted, right in the middle of the Rococo, with all its little furbelows [fancy trimmings] and frills, and he pitches one against the other.  The minor set of variations gets more and more dramatic, while the major sections get lighter and more frivolous.  Finally, at the end of the last variation, he starts and repeats the beginning all over again, and develops this into an incredible coda which is almost cadenza-like, and very dramatic and chromatic.  He then ends the thing with an F Major chord, only to negate it, and then have the open Fs at the end, so it’s ambiguous.  Where are we?  Are we in the Romantic period or are we still going to stay in the Classical period?  That all comes out of the music.  It’s really fascinating, and then when you find out what was going on in Haydn’s life, that’s fine.  Schnabel used to talk about how people would ask about Beethoven’s style in the sonatas.  Schnabel would say,
There’s no style.  Each sonata has its own style.  That’s a very intelligent thing to say, because each piece is so different.

BD:   There’s not even a group of two and three which are similar?

Hokanson:   No, no, no, no.  You’d be surprised how, for example, the very first piano sonata, in F minor, looks forward to the Appassionata.  It’s not that developed, but all the seeds are there.  Then the second one, in A major, is completely different, virtuosic, like an overly difficult Haydn sonata.  There’s a lot of Haydn in there.  The third one is a real virtuoso piece.  When we come to Opus 7, which is an early sonata, if you played it and gave it a late opus number, everybody would believe you because the slow movement even sounds like the beginning of Opus 110.  So, each sonata has its own secrets, and you can’t say, 
It was written at that point in his life, therefore it has to sound this way.  Schnabel was always so angry about people who poured style over pieces, like salad dressing.  You play the piece, then you get the style.  He was completely opposed to the style dictating how you play the piece.  The piece should dictate the style.

hokanson BD:   The capabilities of the instrument as it developed didn’t dictate the style at all?

Hokanson:   Beethoven wrote impossible things.  If you play a fortepiano, then you realize it even more.  He was so frustrated with his instrument, that he would write sforzandos, loud crashing accents on the highest notes of the fortepiano, which has no sound at all.  I have played enough original fortepianos to know that your core of sound is in the middle register, and the higher up you go, the sound will disappear.  There’s nothing up there at all, and he was just so angry that he would put these crashing chords.  No wonder pianos fell at his feet when he played.  [Laughs]  He was famous for destroying many an instrument.

BD:   But now on a modern Steinway, it’ll sound all right?

Hokanson:   Of course.  That’s why I always think of that when people say you should play ‘period instruments’.  Beethoven was the last person to play a period instrument, because he hated the instrument that he was using.  It wasn’t progressive enough for him.  Mozart was a real opportunist.  He liked the instrument that he had, and he wrote for that instrument, and everything sounds wonderful on that piano
not that it doesn’t sound like that on a Steinwaybut one thing that a fortepiano had that a modern piano doesn’t have, are two knee pedals.  One would pedal anything from the Middle C down, and the other would pedal everything up.  So you could pedal both the accompaniment figures, or just the cantilena.  That’s far more progressive than what a Steinway has.  You have one pedal that’s going to cover you from top to bottom.  I’m very surprised that even Bösendorfer didn’t take over this notion of two knee pedals, because it’s a very smart thing.  The only thing we have on a contemporary piano is the middle pedal, which will sustain a long chord.  Over that you can play changes of harmony, and whatever you hold on the middle peddle will sustain.  This comes in very handy many times when you’re playing Schumann, or Debussy, or Ravel, where, if you have a long pedal-point that you don’t want to have disappear into the wishy-washy colors going on.  But this idea of two pedals is really fascinating, and you can see what kind of sonorities they had in mind.  You don’t see any pedal markings in Mozart, but you can’t believe that he didn’t use the pedals, because when he was given the fortepiano with the pedals, he just automatically used them.  Haydn writes pedal markings, so he’s different.  Beethoven always gets the credit for using the sustaining pedalin the Tempest Sonata (No. 17, Opus 31, No 2) for example.  Over a long recitative, he’s changing harmonies, and he wants the pedal down.  He also does that a number of times in the piano concertos, but Haydn did it first.  He did it when he was given that Broadwood fortepiano in London.  All of a sudden, after writing all his life from a clavichord and a harpsichord, he had this incredible instrument where he could actually write crescendos, and subito pianos, and all this sort of thing he used in sonatas that he wrote after getting this piano.  They’re so full of dynamic markings and pedal markings that it’s really fascinating.  Another thing people will say is that he was the happy-go-lucky ‘Papa Haydn’ that we always talk about, but it’s not true at all.  There’s a lot more in Haydn because he was also a frustrated opera composer, like Schubert.  The two of them wanted to be opera composers more than anything else, and both of them had the worst, most undramatic librettos.  I saw Fierrabras of Schubert in Germany, which is one of his best pieces.  The music is glorious, but all the action takes place behind the stage.  Someone on the stage narrates to you that the warriors are feuding backstage, and it’s lovely to hear, but nothing happens!

BD:   When I spoke with tenor Alfredo Kraus, and asked him about one of the roles he had dropped from his repertoire, he quaintly said,
Its a lot of nothing happen.”  [Both laugh]

Hokanson:    [Quietly musing]  A lot of nothing happen.  [Resuming]  They were dramatic composers, and Haydn is far more dramatic than he is given credit for.  His sonatas slowly are being discovered, because people have played three or four of them...

BD:   But then you get someone like John McCabe who has recorded all of them.

Hokanson:   Absolutely.  As a matter of fact, Christa Landon was the editor of the Universal Edition of all the Haydn sonatas, and while she editing them I happened to be in Vienna.

Christa Landon (born Christa Fuhrmann September 23, 1921 in Berlin, died November 19, 1977 in a plane crash near Madeira) was an Austrian musician and music researcher.

Landon studied piano, organ, harpsichord and theory at the Vienna Music Academy .

In 1949 she married the American musicologist HC Robbins Landon and was then employed by the Haydn Society, which her husband founded, until 1958. From 1959 she was a freelance editor and from 1964 to 1977 research associate for the New Schubert Edition. In this role she discovered around 50 Schubert autographs in the archive of the Vienna Men's Singing Association. 

She specialized in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Above all, her edition of the Haydn piano sonatas is recognized in musicology.

In 1975 she was awarded an honorary professorship by the City of Vienna.  

We were good friends, and she would show me all the manuscripts.  I was sort of a guinea pig.  I would try them out on a fortepiano, and see what’s possible because there are so many ambiguities, such as things with [indicates a caret or circumflex] accents.  Then there are other weighted sounds, and then there’s the Keil, or wedge, and the dot, which means something different than a wedge.  How short is short, an how long is long?  All these things were fascinating, and you see it when you look at the manuscript, and how detailed all that writing is.

BD:   Can you incorporate all of these details into any single performance?

hokanson Hokanson:   I try, I really do!  In the Haydn I’m playing tomorrow night, I probably do everything I see in the score, and I try to translate that into something that’s not just cerebral.  But when a composer writes an accent, I always ask myself why that accent is there.  I can make an accent.  We can all make accents, but there has to be some reason why, at that point, the accent’s there.  I give that a lot of thought.  Is that a harmonic change?  Is that a note he really wants to have stand out?  Does he want to stop the flow of the line?  I ask myself all these questions.  In the Haydn Variations, I think I’ve discovered at least eighty per cent of what’s in there.  I hope that by the time I play, maybe I’ll discover more.  It’s not as difficult as trying to play the Piano Variations of Webern, where he writes a different dynamic marking over every note.  That is really Utopian.  How do you deal with piano, double piano, triple piano, and then a mezzo-forte?  It’s like many times Schubert will write ziemlich geschwind [relatively fast], nicht zu geschwind [not too fast], geschwind [fast], or nicht zu langsam [not too slow], ziemlich langsam [relatively slow].  What does ziemlich mean
relatively from what?  Those things are difficult to figure out.  You have to find out what’s geschwind, what’s fast, and then you work backwards, or you work forwards from sehr geschwind [very fast]...

BD:   Everything is relative within the speed you take the work itself?

Hokanson:   Absolutely.  A cycle like Winterreise is difficult because you’ve got twenty-four songs, and many songs have the very same tempo marking.  You always had the Wanderer rhythm, as like the first one, and that’s moderato.  Then, later on in the text there is another one with the same, moderato, and a third one.  So, basically to unify the cycle, that’s going to be the same tempo.  That’s when he’s walking normally, or getting out of town quick.  But that happens many times, and it’s very important.  These are the things you have to look for.

BD:   Is there ever such a thing as a perfect performance?

Hokanson:   No!  Schnabel used to say that one should always play music that is better than you can never perform it.  There are certain pieces that don’t demand too much, which you could probably play better than the music is.  I’m not mentioning any names...

BD:   ...no, no, of course not.

Hokanson:   ...but there are a couple of things.  [Pauses a moment]  Khachaturian
s Toccata, probably, or something like that.  [Laughs]

BD:   Maybe some teaching pieces?

Hokanson:   Yes, although you start with a Schumann, like Album for the Young, or Scenes from Childhood, but they get more and more difficult.  You’re always striving, you’re always changing, and you’re always trying this or that out.  I don’t think it’s possible to know what the composer really wanted.  You listen many times to the composer playing his own pieces, and you wonder,
“My God!  The old piano rolls of Ravel and Debussy are pretty shocking.  So many things he wrote in the score are not to be heard, as far as tempi or holding rhythm in their playing.  So, you wonder how much the piano roll is at fault, or how much is their piano technique, or their ability to perform.

BD:   Does that give you a little more leeway when you want to insert your own interpretation into it?

Hokanson:   Yes.  It’s like Bartók.  You probably know the story, that Bartók wrote metronome markings every second bar of the string quartets, and when the New Hungarian Quartet played the first them for him, he said,
Where did you come up with those tempi???”  They said, “You’ve written them down.  He replied, “Oh, forget it!  That’s not what I wanted.  [Both laugh]  That was how he felt that day.  So, if you take that into consideration, maybe our slavish adherence to traditional markings isn’t so healthy after all.

BD:   Do the composers assume that you will put some of your own heart into each piece?

Hokanson:   I’m not so sure.  [Laughs]  Stravinsky sure didn’t.  No, but I presume they did.  Let’s face it, many composers just wanted to get their music performed.  Look what Schubert went through when he wrote Die Schöne Müllerin.  He had this vain singer, Vogl, who sang all of his Lieder, and decided to add embellishments and scales.  I’ve heard this version when it was given in 92nd Street Y.  John Aler sang it, and it was incredible.  It sounded like bel canto, Bellini set to music by Schubert, and it was amazing.  We asked ourselves why would Schubert allow that?  It was probably for the simple reason that he wanted the songs sung, and if he didn’t let Vogl do it, the songs would never have gotten sung.


Johann Michael Vogl
(August 10, 1768 – November 19, 1840), was an Austrian baritone singer and composer. Though famous in his day, he is remembered mainly for his close professional relationship and friendship with composer Franz Schubert.

Vogl was born in Steyr. As a young man he enrolled at the Gymnasium at Kremsmünster, where he studied languages, philosophy, and sang in several musical productions by his friend Franz Süßmayr (the man who completed Mozart's Requiem). In 1786 Vogl went to Vienna to study, and later to practice law. In 1795 he debuted at the Vienna Hofoper, and quickly attracted a following for both his acting capability and the beauty of his voice.

In 1813, Franz Schubert attended a performance of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride in which Vogl sang the role of Orestes. Schubert never forgot the experience and determined to write for Vogl. The following year, when Vogl sang the role of Pizarro at the premiere of the final version of Beethoven's Fidelio, it is said that the 17-year-old Schubert actually sold his schoolbooks in order to afford a ticket.

When composer and singer finally met, in 1817, Vogl was as impressed with the quality of Schubert's music as Schubert was with Vogl's singing. Schubert wrote many of his subsequent songs with Vogl in mind. One of their early successes was an 1821 performance of Der Erlkönig, prior to its publication and significant popular acclaim.

Rarely in music history has the relationship of a composer and a specific singer been so musically productive. Vogl continued to sing Schubert's music after the death of his friend in 1828, famously singing a complete performance of Winterreise accompanied by the pianist Emanuel Mikschik shortly before his own death in Vienna on the twelfth anniversary of the death of his friend.

hokanson BD:   Do you put some of your own heart into all of the pieces that you play, and if so, is this instinctive or is it purposeful?

Hokanson:   Yes, and it is instinctive if there’s a dramatic crescendo, or something is very emotionally involved.  You practice these things, but what does the composer mean there?  Am I going too far?  I remember Schnabel said one of the best qualities any musician can have is good taste, and that taste is to know how far to go.  He also said you should never practice cerebrally.  When you’re practicing, feel the inspiration of the moment.  Sometimes you have more inspiration than others, but when you know you’re really on top of it, and you feel this inspiration, you should memorize what you just did during that period, so that when you play it later on, that will still be heard, even though you may not sense or feel the same thing three days later, or in the concert.  He said that you have to practice things like simplicity.  Try practicing simplicity sometime.  That’s pretty hard to do, because things really have to sound natural.  But practice this incredible sound when you feel on top of it, and this music comes through.  
You know that’s how you felt that day, and that’s what you did, and somehow you memorize these gestures.  That’s as far as I’ll got in saying to add your own ideas.  I would never go out of my way, and I will never change anything.  Bach is the easiest to perform, as there are no instructions.  Glenn Gould probably used that as a license because he did what he wanted.  It’s fantastic digitally, although musically you wonder sometimes where it came from.  Otherwise, the composers have set down more or less what they want you to do, and the parameters are narrow.  But within these parameters, there are so many possibilities, and that’s what makes it music.  It’s like a game.  How far can you go?  That’s why I’m always amazed...  When you hear performance of the Appassionata played by young students, or played by professionals, one sounds like a photocopy, a Xerox copy of the other.  You wonder how can that be, because if you look at that score, there are so many possibilities.  How come ten people come up with the very same choices?

BD:   Because they heard it on the same record.

Hokanson:   Yes, I’m afraid you’re right.  But there are so many things that you can do with timing, and a pianissimo that could be ravishingly soft rather than just soft.  All these things are possible.  Schnabel said that it’s fascinating.  You have laws that govern what you do, and you don’t go beyond a certain boundary.  But within those laws, there’s so much that is possible, and that’s where his genius was
in the interpretation of finding music that nobody else seemed to be able to find, or still don’t.

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the really easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Hokanson:   Oh!  [Laughs]  This is a difficult question.  [Thinks a moment]  To elevate the spirit of the listener.  This is for something without a text, instrumental or abstract music where each listener can somehow imagine what’s going on, and be elevated through it.

BD:   Does it change when you impose a text?

Hokanson:   That gives the listener something to hold onto.  It’s not abstract anymore [laughs] unless he doesn’t understand the language.  [Both laugh]  But if you hear the text of An Die Musik, or something like that, you’re bound to feel the nostalgia with the text.  But you can feel that without the text in some pieces, because many times the great composers capture the essence of the text.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You travel the world, and you’re given a different instrument almost every night.  How long before that instrument is yours?

Hokanson:   Usually, I try to spend at least three hours in the morning on the day of a concert getting my fingers into the piano, and that usually stays with me all afternoon.  Then, maybe ten minutes before the concert I will have remembered.  I will not go to practice on another piano during that day, so I don’t forget the feel of the piano.  Many times you don’t have opportunity, and you have to jump right in with maybe with an hour of rehearsal time before the concert.  Many times you feel that during the course of the concert you’re getting used to the piano.  I usually like to start a recital with something like I’m doing tomorrow night
the Bartók, Hungarian Peasant Songs and Danceswhere the opening can use your complete weight.  You can really be testing out your fingers and your arms.  I would never start with a Mozart sonata.  They are the most sensitive things.  On a wonderful piano that you know, it’s difficult enough, but not on a piano that’s cold, and you don’t know exactly how it’s going to react.  You learn how the dip of certain keys move for a pianissimo, and how it’s going to react, as well as how the pedals are going to react.  You might have to go all the way down to the floor with your foot, or you can use your big toe and balance a little.  You have to know all these things.  Usually, in the course of a big contemporary work, or something which has a lot of variety going from fortissimo to piano, and which is not completely sensitive, that’s the kind of thing where I can really try out the piano if I haven’t had a chance before.  Then I find out, so when I get to the Haydn Variations, I know what’s possible.  It’s very dangerous to start with a classical sonata, especially Haydn or Mozart.  It’s also not a good thing to begin with a Mozart sonata, because if you play something very romantic afterwards, no one remembers how the Mozart sonatas sounded.  I will never forget a series of string quartet concerts I heard in Munich, when the Végh Quartet, one of my favorite string quartets played.  It was a program of six concerts, each beginning with a late Beethoven, continuing with one of the Bartóks, then intermission, and then Mozart.

BD:   It feels like it’s standing on its head.

Hokanson:   Absolutely, and the Mozart every time was a revelation, because you’d gone through quite a bit with Opus 131, and the Bartók Sixth Quartet, and then coming back.  All of a sudden, the Mozart was great... not that the other pieces weren’t, but the greatness of the Mozart was highlighted because of the difference from what had gone on before.

hokanson BD:   So rather than adding complexity over the night, they cleared it away.

Hokanson:   Yes, absolutely.  I loved the idea, and it really worked.  Of course you had to be on the ball, starting with late Beethoven.  You had to be right there from the start.  I don’t like the idea of using a piece to play yourself in, or to get the audience seated.  I think that’s a dreadful thing.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience?

Hokanson:   I like to think that they had done their homework, that they don’t come to be entertained.  If they’re going to hear a program of Bartók, Haydn, Bach, and Schubert, that they more or less know at least what periods of music these people are coming from.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask, I really don’t.  Of course, we’re spoiled because we live in the university atmosphere.  If I give a recital in Bloomington, they almost know too much.  [Much laughter]  Well, they think they do!  But I found audiences in Europe are most knowledgeable.  I have not played so many piano recitals in this country.  I lived in Europe for so long that my career basically still takes place over there.  I do a lot of playing there.  I do some playing here, but not all that much.  I did a lot of concerts with Prey, and I was always amazed at university concerts. We used to do Winterreise, and Hermann would say,
We’re going down to Macon, Georgia, to do Winterreise.  How are they going to react at twenty-four somber songs?  We got there at five o’clock in the afternoon, and they had a pre-concert lecture.  There, these people were sitting with their scores.  It was almost like Japan.  In Japan, it’s also incredible.  The people come and sit with their scores, and little kids will come backstage afterwards and sing An Die Musik or Heidenröslein in perfect phonetic German.  They are so involved.

BD:   Is that too involved?

Hokanson:   I don’t think so.  It’s not tooooo involved.  It’s kind of a gimmick, but whether the little children know what they’re doing, is something else.  But the gesture is great.  The young generation in Japan has changed a lot.  I teach there every year at Tokyo College, and I’ve seen the westernization of the generation coming up now.  There’s no more of this copycat picture.  In the beginning, the musical personalities were not strong.  They were more of less copying the Western tradition.  Now, the younger generation is developing really strong personalities, like Mitsuko Uchida.  She’s a strong person, a strong musical thinker.  I have a couple of Japanese students that I brought with me from Tokyo, and I
m amazed at and how much they know, and how much they feel.  That’s the whole pointto have something to say, which is something new.  Getting back to this country, I found that the university audiences where Prey and I appeared were really great, because they were well-prepared.  But you expect it of a university audience.  People used to say that about Germany.  In the old days, you played in Munich and Hamburg and Berlin, but you didn’t think about playing in Trossingen and Leverkusen and places like that.  But now the biggest names in the business play in these places because there’s just as much of an audience as there is anywhere else.  I remember growing up, when my mother, who was not a professional musician and not musically educated, knew I was very musical.  So, our ritual was every Saturday afternoon to listen to the Metropolitan Opera, and then at seven o’clock the NBC Symphony with Toscanini.  Then, every Monday afternoon was the New York Philharmonic, and Monday night it was the Firestone Hour, and the Bell Telephone Hour.  This was education, and this was going all over the country.  People who were interested heard this, and it sure made a big impression.  Thank God, the Met is still on.  Everything else has gone the way of all flesh.

BD:   You are now in your seventieth year.  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Hokanson:   Yes, I am.  I’m very pleased that I am retiring at the end of this year... not because I’m old and senile, but I just want to have more time.  That means less time for committees, and things involved in the university outside of teaching.  I also want to do more playing, but not a great deal of playing.  It’s a little late in life for me to, all of a sudden, want to start a big career, but I have many things that I’d like to do.  I like giving masterclasses, which I’m doing a lot in Europe now at a various Hochschulen, and also in this country.  In December I am in Minneapolis, then Skidmore College in March, then the University of Iowa.  Things are looking very nice.  I like going in and playing a concert, and then giving masterclasses.  This is what’s interesting.  I usually pick a composer
Schubert or Brahmsand then do piano music, chamber music, and Lieder.

BD:   So, they get everything.

Hokanson:   I combine the three.  Here, I’ll be coaching a string quartet, which is going to be rather interesting.  But, I’ve done it before, and why shouldn’t a musician be able to coach a string quartet?

BD:   That’s right.  You are a complete musician.

Hokanson:   Half the time, I tell I tell my piano students they’re not playing piano music.  This is string quartet writing in this movement of a Schubert sonata, or this is a song with piano accompaniment, except you have to accompany yourself.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you hear coming out of the fingers of your students?

Hokanson:   I am, and I’m very happy with my class.  It’s a very international class that I have, but I have too many students.  I have twenty, including four Orientals.  Today, there are so many Korean and Japanese students everywhere.  I’ve got nothing against that, except I like to keep a nice variety.  So, I have students from Israel, and Portugal, and Spain, and Chile, and Switzerland, and Germany, and it is wonderful.  They are wonderful kids.  I really have a great class, and they’re so supportive of one another, which is great.  There’s none of that competitive spirit within the class, so it’s really a great pleasure.  Most of them are also involved in my Lied class.  Every week I give a class in German Lied, and that’s become very popular, because Indiana University is famous as an opera university, with concerts of Lieder, and things like this.  Art Song has always been sort of out to lunch.  It’s not taken all that seriously, but there are many singers there who have beautiful voices which aren’t made for opera.  So, they come to love this Lied class, and really develop personally and musically in this mini-drama which is called the Lied, and it’s been wonderful.  My pianists don’t want to do a Schubert Lied, or a Brahms Lied, and then you give them a song like Rattenfänger of Hugo Wolf, and some of these more difficult songs.  That is when they find out they’re as difficult as anything in the piano repertoire, especially when you consider you have to play them with the singers, so you just can’t play them any old way dynamically, or volume-wise.  So, I’m really happy, and I’ve been very happy at IU.  I taught for ten years at the University of Frankfurt before I came here, and I’ve been here now since 1986.  Though it’s fourteen years, I must say I love being here because of the colleagues... not only the piano colleagues, but the string colleagues, like Miriam Fried and Janos Starker, also Jim Campbell, the clarinetist, and soprano Martina Arroyo.  All these people on campus are wonderful to have, and they’re wonderful to work with, and there’s no jealousy.  This is something I came up against in Europe.  If you’re on a faculty, you have about six pianists, and if you’re the only one that was active concert-wise, there was a lot of jealousy and lot of back-biting.

hokanson BD:   Others wonder why you’re getting all the concerts?

Hokanson:   Yes, or why he’s gone again, and they report this to the Dean.  At IU, everybody’s so busy doing their thing.  They’re always asking how was this, and how was that.  There’s none of this jealousy.

BD:   You’re all expected to perform?

Hokanson:   You certain are.  That was one of the reasons we like coming here, because we are supposed to be going out and recruiting through our performances, which is wonderful.

BD:   One last question.  Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

Hokanson:   [Thinks a moment, then sighs]  Well...  [Laughs]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  We will note the hesitancy.

Hokanson:   There is a note of hesitancy.  I get a little worried.  John O’Connor, the Irish pianist, was just at IU.  A former student of his is there, and said that he would be available to talk to the students, and give a masterclass because he played in Indianapolis two nights before.  He’s great guy.  I’ve been on juries with him in Munich, and in Hamamatsu [Japan].  He gave a talk to all the pianists who were interested, and they wanted to know how to build careers today.  He was very happy to reply to all their questions, and one of the things he said was that things have changed a lot in the last twenty years.  There are no more recitals, or very few solo recitals.  The way to go is try to find a conductor, because there are still orchestras, and we all hope that these orchestras will be able to hold up financially.  Not all have disappeared, but there are fewer and fewer.  But he said there is still plenty of chamber music to do, as well as teaching, but the main thing is to be happy doing what you’re doing, which is a very nice idea.  It’s a little naïve, but it’s the only way to look at it.  I love teaching, but if you teach students and there’s nothing for them to do, why do it?  There are only so many teaching jobs, and you’re teaching more young students to do something that there probably are no openings for.  It gets a little hairy there.  I tell most of my students they should find good cellists, good violinists, and good singers who have a future ahead as far as their potential is concerned, and team up to form a chamber music group
a piano trio, or a piano quartet or quintetand try some competitions with them, rather than the piano competitions.  Now, every time you turn the corner, there’s a piano competition some place.  I don’t know what the future of piano music is.  I don’t know what’s going to happen to works like the piano sonata.  Is there any room for a piano sonata the way we think of the piano sonata?  There’s going to be no more Hammerklavier sonatas, or Charles Ives sonatas.  There is Samuel Barber’s Sonata, which isn’t all that great because it’s sort of a mammoth of styles, but it’s interesting. What is the future of piano?  Is it John Cage?  Is it the neo-romanticism wave which is going to take over?  That’s only possible in this country, because in Germany, Stockhausen and Henze still have their influence.  There are contemporary composers like Wolfgang Rhim who are really avant-garde, and here you have people like John Harbison writing an opera like The Great Gatsby, which is very pleasant, but is that the way music is going to go?

BD:   Music seems to be going in a lot of directions.  Is that a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a thing?

Hokanson:   I’m just wondering if we’re waiting for the coming of the next great composer.  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing going in all directions, if you can haul in an audience.  The only thing I don’t like is ‘crossover’.  I think this is dreadful.  This is not the way to go, because you’re alienating the people who are interested in a serious music, and yet you’re not really pulling in the people from the other side.

BD:   No matter what the future holds, your legacy of performances, teaching, and recordings will continue to inspire.

Hokanson:   Thank you so very much.

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© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 13, 2000.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB five weeks later.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.