Pianist David Owen Norris
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|David Owen Norris, the first winner of
Gilmore Artist Award, has played concertos all over North America and
Australia, and in the BBC Proms. Solo recitals, all over the world,
have particularly featured the music of Brahms, Schubert, Poulenc, Bax
& Elgar. Norris began his career by accompanying such artists as
Dame Janet Baker, Sir Peter Pears & Jean-Pierre Rampal, and has
enjoyed long-standing partnerships with Ernst Kovacic (especially
notable is their broadcast of the Schumann violin sonatas on Clara
Schumann’s own piano), Sir John Tomlinson [recording shown at right], and the
late Philip Langridge.
Norris is Professor of Musical Performance at the University of
Southampton, Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Music and at
the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, a Fellow of the
Society of Antiquaries, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, a
Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, and an Honorary Fellow of
Keble College, Oxford. His unusually varied career has also seen him as
a repetiteur at the Royal Opera House, harpist at the Royal Shakespeare
Company, Artistic Director of the Petworth Festival & the Cardiff
International Festival, Gresham Professor of Music, and Chairman of the
Steans Institute for Singers at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. The
Beethoven 9 app for which Norris wrote the book and the analyses won
the Best Music App Award in April 2014.
-- Brief items
taken from the artist’s website
There are wonderful performers and brilliant intellects, and the best
combine the two in a balanced proportion. A few, though, are at
the very top in both areas, and that small group includes David Owen
Norris. In the early 1990s, he came to the Ravinia Festival for
several summers and was head of the Vocal Institute. It was in
1992 that I had the chance to meet with him in his studio, and we spent
a wonderful hour discussing music in its many forms.
He comments on his British manner of speaking, and I have left many of
these turns of phrase in the text. However I have modified a few
words, such as replacing ‘learnt’
with ‘learned’, and
removing the ‘u’ from favour, etc. Names
which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.
Here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . . . .
Thank you very much for speaking for me today.
David Owen Norris:
No, not at all. Time flies
when you’re working, I’m afraid.
BD: Time flies when
you’re having fun?
DON: No, time
flies when you’re working! [Both laugh] No, I
was having a lot of fun now, but of course a lot of it is more
fun than others.
hopeful] I assume that this interview is something
that comes under the category of lots of fun.
DON: If it
didn’t, it would be a pity, yes. People tend to take educational
more seriously than they take other things,
and that’s a pity because everything’s equally serious
and not serious in a way. Education is important, but it
should be enjoyable; life is important, but it should be
enjoyable. I’m not saying if we
sit down and learn about a serious piece like the ‘Matthew
Passion’ I’m going to laugh about it and
slap our knees, and so on. But we’re going to realize that
the process of learning about a serious piece is an enjoyable process.
BD: Where is
the balance then between the
seriousness and the joy?
obviously all have our balances in
different places. Some people prefer to find seriousness in
everything, and never seem to be happy. I think that’s a
shame. One can be happy about having mastered a
serious matter. I don’t think one needs to be serious about
mastered a serious matter. One can be serious when one is engaged
in one’s art, and one can be happy about the fact that one can be
serious. The balance changes with everybody. There are some
people here who are too serious and there are some people here who
think I’m too flippant, and that’s as it will always be. Thank
goodness because we’re all different, and that’s one of the great
celebratory things about music, of course.
BD: Then do
you try to sway them?
[Hesitantly] I suppose that I hope they will be
swayed by my example. I’m here to some extent to be an
exemplar. I’m on the instructive side of the fence rather than on
the learning side of the
fence, so I hope that people will see from the fact
that I can be straightforward and light hearted about something that
it doesn’t mean that we all need to wear kid gloves about it. But
I respect people’s attitudes. If people find that singing is a
matter that they really have to take as an enormous serious ritual,
then I know from my long experience of singers that there are some who
can only sing if they treat it as an enormously serious
ritual. Then there are some people for whom the idea springing to
their feet and singing is anathema and is not special
enough for them. There are some very great people that feel
like that. Dame Janet Baker is one. She feels that singing
is a very important ritual, and prepares for it as if it were a
religious service. On the other hand I know other great
musicians such as Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flute player, who simply pick
their instruments in their cases and just play. I’m not in
the business of saying that Dame Janet’s right and Jean-Pierre Rampal
is wrong, and I’m not in the business of saying the reverse.
that make someone who has the same kind of philosophy
about music and life as Dame Janet go for serious
parts rather than comic parts in opera, or serious songs rather than
suppose it would, yes. That’s the reason why I slightly
disapprove of it. If you’re
serious, it’s very difficult to look on the lighter side of your music,
whereas if you’re more light-hearted about it, it’s kind of easy.
seems to me to be easy to say, “Okay, we’re
being light-hearted about
this light-hearted music, and now here’s some serious music, and I mean
you have to take this very seriously.” Then
you can allow the
serious music to invade you and to invade your audience. If
you’re saying, “Now come on folks, this is very,
very serious, and
we’re going to have this serious music,” it’s
then very difficult to
say, “Now I’m going to relax,”
because it sounds so awfully stuffy. It
strikes me that it’s more flexible to do it the other way. But I
must confess that we’re spending time talking about this seriously,
taking it as a dichotomy, and it’s not the most
important thing that we’re working at here.
what is the most important thing that you
are working at?
DON: The most
important thing is finding out about
songs. Simply that! Finding out what the song can encourage
us to do. I’ve just been working with a marvelous soprano who has
a wonderful creamy voice, a little bit like
Jessye Norman in some ways.
BD: Quite a
well, I’m not the only one to have said
that. Indeed, people here have said that she’s going to be
better than Jessye Norman. Naturally
enough, she tends to sing opera quite a lot because there’s lots of
wonderful parts for opera, and the songs that she sings tend to
be large, romantic songs by Strauss and by Liszt. She sings
wonderful Liszt songs, and we’ve been looking at some Schubert
songs. It came as a bit of surprise to her that I
might want her to learn some Schubert, but as I said to her,
there’s some songs in the Schubert repertoire that she could do wonders
for, and we could hear them in a different way from how we’ve heard
them before. It’s a mistake to think that song singing is about
having a voice. It’s about having a voice plus other
things. So she and I have been going through the first
volume of Schubert, with all the favorite songs, and finding songs
that would be transformed by her particular voice.
BD: She would
bring something more to these songs?
would bring something different rather than more. She may well
minute flexibility to some things, but she would be able to
bring a much creamier and more sustained line than many people.
We’re trying ‘Ave
example, and what she could do with that is wonderful.
You can do wonderful things with that. We also started to look at
a song called ‘Der
Wanderer’, which is a passionate, dramatic
Schubert. That’s what I hope everybody will be
taking up the opportunity of doing — finding
songs that they might not
have moaned about — audiences too, not just us
chaps doing it, the people who come and listen to the seminars and the
concerts that we do in the evenings before the main concerts out here
in Ravinia. I hope that they will gradually come to realize what
enormously varied repertoire the song repertoire is, and what an
enormously varied gamut of emotions it covers.
BD: Might a
voice just like you’ve been talking about be a
candidate to sing a cycle that is normally done by
males, like ‘Winterreise’,
that only a few females have
DON: With all
deference to those females who
I think it’s kind of unconvincing. It’s
as silly for a woman to sing ‘Winterreise’
as it would be for a man to sing
und Leben’. I don’t know any men who
und Leben’. They’d find it very
difficult to sing the
song about the husband putting his head against her womb
to hear the heartbeat of the child. That would be
difficult for a man to bring off. Although there’s not such a
biological impossibility in ‘Winterreise’,
I still think that there are
certain songs that are men’s song and certain songs that are women’s
songs. The first song is
very sexually specific, definitely a chap saying
good-bye to his lady-love. Even so, the first public performance
of any part of the cycle that is written about was in Vienna around
1830 with a woman singing it. It was just
that one song! So the very first person to sing
in public was a woman, as it happens. I was just thinking of a
song like ‘An
Schwager Kronos’, but in fact that has to
be a man’s song because
he’s sort of eyeing up the barmaids. Even in our liberated
society, I don’t think that the point is that it is a girl eyeing
up the barmaids. The song like ‘Der Wanderer’
about this fellow, clearly it is a fellow as far as Schubert
was concerned because the emotions at first seem to be fairly
masculine. It ends with fate plaguing this unfortunate
person, what fate could say to too many of us men — there
you aren’t, there is happiness. I don’t know if I’m
being very, very sexist about that, but I think men tend to be more
discontented than women. Are you
BD: In some
ways it seems like there’s an
almost even balance of discontent.
women seem much more sensible to me.
But what I’m going to say that will get me out of this
morasses of possible sexism accusations is that there is no reason in
the world of why a
woman shouldn’t sing it. The fact that the poem and the music’s
written by a man
doesn’t say anything about femininity in it. It absolutely does
not preclude a woman from singing it.
wouldn’t have to change a word here and there?
No! Not in the slightest; none of that stuff that you
have to do in Gershwin and Cole Porter. No, you don’t have to
do anything of that nature. Then of course there are songs that
are quite sexless, like ‘The
Trout’. I’m sticking with Schubert
because that’s what I’ve been
doing, but take a song
like ‘Ave Maria’, which keeps
addressing the virgin Mary and saying, “You will
listen to me, I know, because here’s a virgin calling to
you.” The German for virgin is Jungfrau, which is young
lady. So that would be a bit silly on masculine lips, and so too
would be ‘Die
Junge Nonne’. That’d be kind of
difficult. You could turn it into
the young monk, I suppose, but it probably
wouldn’t work at all if it’s done it in a
narrative rather than a personal way?
narrative is easier to change. Take ‘Erl-King’.
Now there’s a
great song which has a narrator, and a little boy who is frightened of
the Erl-King, along with the little boy’s father who tried to reassure
him, and the narrator, as well as narrating has to pretend to be
the all these other voices. Despite the fact that all three
characters are male, that can be sung with great effect
by women. The fact that there’s a narrator in it tends to make it
sort of sexless and once removed as it were.
BD: It’s as
if you’re story-teller.
right. That’s the
beauty. This afternoon we had a seminar which intended, by
presenting a program of twelve different songs, to show what you
might call the narrative voice in song, and the different ways of
narrating. We started with a song which was purely
narration. It was a description of a scene. Then we
move through songs which were part narration and then all of a sudden
introduced a few words in quotation marks, as it were. It was
a song about a boy running across mountains who was looking forward to
meeting his girlfriend. As he ran he said, “Oh,
I am lonely; we could be together.” The
singer all of sudden becomes a different person there.
It’s a bit like in radio. I do a lot of radio work back in
Britain, and when
you’re a hard pressed broadcaster, the easiest thing to do is to set
yourself in front of the microphone, know what you want to say and just
say it. Actually it is far better is to get somebody else with
personal experience to say it. So instead of saying, “This
morning he said that he was going to do something about
it,” it’s far better to say, “Here’s
that person,” and that person is heard to say, “I’m
going to do something about it!”
indeed! What we’ve got in songs is soundbites every
again. Then you can move on to the fully operatic song like ‘Ave
Maria’ which is just a
prayer addressed to the Virgin by a character in a Walter Scott
novel! So it’s pure opera, really, and there’s all this variety
BD: It seems
like singers these days though want
to go more into opera than into song. How do you convince them
to wade into the song literature?
DON: The reason
they go into opera is
that opera — Praise be! — is
getting very popular and there’s
money in it. Because people like it, they’ll pay to come
and go to it, and that’s wonderful. The sad thing about the
singing world over the last twenty or thirty years has been that
the audience for the song recital has got smaller. But it hasn’t
gotten as much smaller as the operatic audience has gotten
larger. The two have
been unrelated. I feel the song recital has been dying
for some considerable time, and now, unrelated to that, opera is having
a big ‘up’, and I’m hoping that people, who love voices and who love
opera will be able to have their attention diverted to this other sort
of vocal music — the song — which
is more difficult to appreciate. Precisely because of this
technique that song uses, the audience has to become part of the
drama, and that can be terribly embarrassing, particularly if you
are being sung at in a language which you don’t know. Opera tends
to deal with fairly raw emotions which we can all appreciate.
There are some films on television that you could
watch with the sound turned down, and you can
still understand what happens. I was watching High Noon the
other day, and I lost the sound for some reason for about the last half
hour of it, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit because
you could still see him dashing about. Opera is a little bit
like that in relation to the language problem. If you don’t
understand every word, often it doesn’t matter. It’s like
watching High Noon without
listening to the dialogue. You can see that’s a bad guy this is a
good guy, and they’re
having a tussle. Now in the song, of
course, the language is much more important, and that’s a big
difficulty, so the audience
might be involved, whereas in an opera, the singer is obviously singing
to the audience, but he’s not addressing the audience as
a character in the drama. He’s usually
another character, or he’s engaging
in a dramatic soliloquy, and we feel that we can sit back and let that
wash over us a little bit.
BD: So there
is a little more of a barrier?
right, yes, the proscenium
is there between us and the opera. In the song, the
singer comes right down into the stalls and takes us by the throat and
says, “You listen to me because I’m talking to
can be embarrassing, and I hope that people will find it less
embarrassing as they get more used to it.
BD: Is each
song a little-bitty opera?
depends entirely on its narrative
technique. The song we started with this afternoon is purely
description, not operatic, whereas the song we ended
with is very operatic because it kept saying “me
you”. It was obviously addressing a
character who was
there in terms of somebody else who was there. That
is dramatic technique, which makes a song operatic or not. Now
might ask if it matters if a song is operatic or not, and yes, it
does really because if you try and make a song operatic that isn’t
operatic, then you will run the risk of leading your audience to expect
different things than they will ultimately find in it. If I were
to recite a poem to you, then I’ve recited you a nice little
poem! If I recite it in a tone of voice that
would be suitable for reciting, it’s just a question of tone
of voice compared to content. You need to find the right tone of
voice for what you’ve got to say, and it’s the same with the
songs. Some songs are operatic and they need a certain operatic
emphasis and excitement about putting them across, and certain songs
not necessarily calmer as they can be quite excited, but they don’t
to reach out and clutch the audience by the throat quite somehow.
BD: So you
really need to understand what’s involved
in each song, more than just the text but the feelings?
DON: Yes, I
think so, yes. You need to have a magic. I wanted to call
this seminar this afternoon,
‘Who am I singing to?’ except being British I called it, ‘To whom am I
singing?’ [Both laugh] That’s the
first question, really, that the song-singer needs to ask him or
herself. Not so much, “Who’s this audience?”
but, “Who is the person
in my head that I’m addressing this song to?”
It might even be the
BD: So then
the audience is just eavesdropping?
that’s true. We had several singers say this afternoon they felt
that the audience
should be eavesdropping on particular songs, which is a lovely
thought. Then on
other occasions in very different songs we had singers who felt they
were actually addressing the audience as a character, as a protagonist
in what they had to do. So the singer needs to ask that question,
and only then can the different variety of songs become apparent to the
audience because they will feel themselves more or less involved
according how it goes.
you’re putting together a program do
you try to get a few from each of these categories?
it would be
one of the things you bear in mind. You don’t need try
and represent all the categories because some singers are particularly
good at the less operatic sort of singing — which
requires a more
kaleidoscopic approach to characterization — and
singers are much happier when they can be an operatic character and
sing that sort of song. So no, I don’t think they need to
include all of the varieties, just as one thinks of mood
and tone color and tonality — major and minor
and just placement of pitch. You wouldn’t want to
listen to a whole set of
songs in D major all night!
It’s just as one varies that sort of thing in some sort of convincing
progression, this is important too. In order to be
different, you don’t just do a song in C# minor and a song in Eb major,
and a song in D. It’s nice as well
if you can feel there is some order to the tonality that you’ve got,
just as it’s nice to feel if there is some order to the moods which
each song is going to give the audience so they’re not
randomly and promiscuously excited and then calmed down and then
excited and calmed down. You can build to a
sense of suspense, which is then building to a climax, which can
explode. What am I describing... goodness me! [Both
laugh] That’s how exciting and how visceral a song
recital could be. One of the other things that
can ebb and flow and grow and progress in a song recital would be this
question of how much the audience is personally involved in the song.
are a pianist. How did you get involved in deciding that you wanted to
work with singers?
I was working with singers long before I
would ever have described myself as a pianist. Initially I was
going to make atom bombs.
a lot of very
non-evil men, a lot of men making atom bombs and doing things for the
defense of the free world who cannot be
blamed for anything.
eventually you decided you’d rather construct something nice
instead of destruct something evil?
DON: It was
that sort of thing, but actually it
was as simple as the fact that the part of Britain where I lived was
very far away from anywhere; seventy miles from London, which in
Britain is a very long
way. You just don’t go seventy miles. That’s out of the
BD: Here it’s
just a suburb!
Yes! It’s a big shot coming over
here. Anyway, I never met a professional musician. For
that matter I don’t think I’d met a professional atom bomb scientist
either, but nonetheless it was in the news and it was a
subject at school. I was good at physics and math and all that
stuff, whereas music was fun. It wasn’t the sort of thing you
earned your living with. Good God, that would be immoral!
It would be like being a professional stud! [Both laugh] It
never occurred to me that would be what I did. So all of a sudden
somebody said, “Look, you find this music fun,
but you’re quite good at it. Why don’t you do it?”
So I became an organist in the first
instance. I used to love playing the organ and I’m quite
good at that. Then when I left Oxford, where I was an organ
scholar, I started to discover there wasn’t very much money in organ
playing. The other thing you come across if you’re an
organist is voices and choirs. So I’ve worked with
singers that way, and I also had the luck to have an apartment next
to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and singers used to pass and
hear me practicing,
and ring the doorbell. One day I remember Jon Vickers did
that. He came in and ran something through, and it was
great. So I
eventually became a repetiteur at the Opera House, Covent Garden, and I
also used to play for a lot of singing lessons, which gave me
experience of the song repertoire as opposed to the operatic
And you also learned then how the voice actually
DON: Oh, yes,
it was invaluable experience. There’s no way to learn how the
voice works other than to sit there listening
to people experimenting with it, and in order to be a
vocal accompanist, you really do need to either to be a repetiteur
— not necessarily an official repetiteur, but you need to
through things with singers, and you need to listen to singing
BD: Did you
take some voice lessons yourself to feel
how the apparatus works?
DON: I never
did take any voice lessons myself, but I do sing a lot and people tell
me that I’ve picked up a lot, and what a shame it is that I haven’t got
a voice [laughs] which I couldn’t agree more!
My God, if I had a decent tenor voice, I wouldn’t be messing about
doing this piano playing!
BD: Would you
be singing songs or Siegfried?
DON: It would
depend on what my voice was
like, wouldn’t it? I suppose if I could sing Siegfried, I’d
worry! Siegfried wouldn’t quite be my bag, as I
believe the jargon is! But only later did I
become much more identified as a pianist as I moved along. My
early professional life was spent entirely with singers, and in a way
doing this institute here is taking me back to my real musical
roots. From that point of view it’s an immensely enriching
experience for me.
BD: How long
were you a repetiteur at Covent Garden?
DON: I was
there for about three years, and then I was with a thing called the
English Music Theatre, which
unfortunately went bust. After that I went to the
theater. I used to be Musical Director at the Royal Shakespeare
Company, which was another interesting insight into the dramatic side
back to Covent Garden, you
had the whole orchestra in your hands. Is that a satisfying
experience or a frustrating experience?
DON: It’s very
satisfying for the pianist,
and awfully frustrating for the singer. I try never
to do operatic repetiteuring these days because I found it was
very tedious in the end, in particular you were
working with the same voices again and again. ‘Repetiteur’
is what it implies — you do it, and you do it,
and you do it, and you
do it until they’ve learned it, and while it’s fascinating to
explore a new voice doing something, you usually have to spend a month
on one aria with one person who may be still finding it difficult at
end. I’ve come across people like that. Speaking from a
musicianship point of view, a lot of
very good singers particularly are coming in increasing numbers into
the profession, but one of the things that is important is that you
can’t really sight-read when you’re singing. Some
singers can sight-read of course, but they don’t sing so well
while they are sight-reading. It’s a particularly noticeable
problem in singing. You need to know exactly where you’ve got
to throw the voice and where you’ve got to poise the larynx, where
you’ve got to go, and so on, and get that all so smoothly
working right at the beginning of a breath. We’ve got to look
ahead and predict your breath and
everything. But vocal sight-reading is fraught with
pitfalls. Compared to the real world, in the opera houses
especially where there always
seems to be masses of time to learn things at somebody else’s expense,
and that’s what really peeves me. Singers get paid for rehearsals
in opera houses, but I don’t get paid for
rehearsals. I’m supposed to know it! But anyway, the
sight-reading becomes very much at the bottom of their professional
priorities, and let’s face it, it needs to be second nature for
them. So this idea somebody could spend a month learning an aria
and still get it wrong at the end of it, is just showing how thorough
they’re being! [Laughs] God, it’s dull!
BD: Are they
trying to mine something that’s not there?
well I suppose some are a bit slow but I think they’re waiting until
absolutely second nature to their body before they fix it.
BD: So it’s
really more in the throat
than in the mind?
it, so it’s just
automatic and can’t go wrong. There’s an old saying
which applies to all of us I suppose — the
amateur is somebody who
practices until it goes right, and a professional is somebody who
practices until it can’t go wrong!
there ever be an operatic performance when
nothing goes wrong?
[Laughs] I buy those wretched books
that are written for people to keep in their bathrooms. [Both
laugh] There’s got to be an operatic performance since time began
didn’t have some dreadful thing go wrong with it, but I can’t think
so. There are wonderful stories, but everybody’s heard them
before. I don’t suppose
we’ll come up with a new one, except I have one new one... It was
at the new production of The Ring
at Covent Garden
where two things went wrong really. In Rheingold, the giants
were building up the wall of gold...
BD: To cover
their sight of Freia?
right, and the lumps of gold fitted
together with little bits of Velcro. The stage was on a hinge
that rose up, and as it
rose up there were steps on the stage like a Venetian blind into
which they were supposed to start opening so that they stayed
level. So a flat stage raised itself up and turned into a set of
steps, and they should have built the wall on one step, but
they built it across three. So the first problem was that the
wall fell over
and bounced gaily down to the bottom in a way that gold doesn’t really
bounce. Then several of the singers sort of carried it back
with apparent effort and held it up in the right place as best they
may. Then the time came for the giants to dismantle the wall and
take it away, and you could hear [makes the zipping noise
of Velcro] as the Velcro unstitched.
BD: Was this
was during performance or rehearsal?
DON: No, no,
this was during the performance
alright! Then there was the first
performance of a Henze
opera at Covent Garden called We
Come to the
River, where Raymund Herincx was supposed to be assassinated by
Tear with a pistol. He was walking out through the
auditorium, so it was all very exciting because Robert Tear was
pointing a pistol into the auditorium at the retreating back of Raymond
Herrincx. The pistol failed to fire so Ray walked on and
completely ruined the plot, but as he was getting to the back of the
house he turned round and said, “Ha, missed!”
[Both have a huge laugh] But it was that
sort of opera, I’m afraid.
BD: You made
this recording of the reduction of the Elgar First Symphony.
suppose that’s a repetiteur’s dream, isn’t it, to be able to play
BD: Is it a
dream or a nightmare?
DON: It’s a
dream. It’s a wonderful thing to be
able to do. It is an enormous orchestral score written by an
orchestral master, and beautifully orchestrated. It’s been
reduced for piano solo, two hands, and occasional help from knee or the
nose, or whatever you need to get down on the keyboard to get the extra
notes by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, who was quite a composer himself. It
gives the pianist the opportunity to see if he can really make
the range of sounds that the orchestra can make, and if he can
really cover the huge sweep of emotion that you find in the
symphony. A moment ago we were talking about songs on the one
opera on the other, and opera dealing with larger emotions and so
on. There’s a parallel out of that between the piano sonata and
the orchestral symphony. You’ve got the piano sonata which
answers to the song. There are big sonatas, but most are a little
private and directly addresses the audience. However, there are
piano sonatas that are so grandiose and enormous as Mahler Three, or
Elgar One, for example.
So to have the chance of playing Elgar
One is a chance to grapple
with these emotions as a single individual. Normally you don’t
get the opportunity to
grapple alone. It normally has to be left to a lot of people, and
wonderful. There is an exhilaration that one feels when it comes
off. It doesn’t always!
BD: Have you
also played the Liszt transcriptions of
the Beethoven symphonies?
DON: Not in
public, but of course I know those because
they’re just so fascinating to look at. Everything that Liszt
ever did is worth just sitting down and looking at for much longer
than it took Liszt to do it.
BD: Is there
a parallel between this Elgar
reduction and the Liszt reductions of the Beethoven?
DON: Yes, I
think so. They were very
similar circumstances. Liszt transcribed the Beethoven symphonies
much less for demoniac display as to get them about a bit. I know
they have elements of display in them, but they are the most
virtuosic of Liszt’s transcriptions, paradoxically enough, and
they seem to me to be much more concerned than some of Liszt’s
transcriptions are with simply putting the music across to people who
couldn’t get to an orchestra. The same is true of the Karg-Elert
transcription of Elgar. Now there are one or two places where it
can’t be played by two hands...
BD: So what
do you do?
DON: There I
fake! I’m a repetiteur, remember! [Laughs] I can fake
with the best of them. If you were following the score, I don’t
think you’d have to
have very keen ears to notice what I’m not playing and what I’m putting
instead. In general, I find that where there’s too much to play
it’s important to put something else in as well. Now that
may sound stupid, but instead of trying and failing to play what
Karg-Elert has written, you play more than Karg-Elert has written and
allow what he really did write to be lost.
shocked] So it’s really just a sham then???
[Smiles] Well, isn’t music just all a confidence trick?
We’re listening to these pitches, and for some
reason they convey things to us, and they can only convey things to us
as if we want them to convey things to us. That’s one of the
other things that we’re working on here at Ravinia’s Steans Institute
Singers, which is the performing manner that makes an
audience want to listen to what we’ve got to say. That’s
that’s very important.
kind of dancing around this, so let
me ask the very big question. What is the purpose of music?
a moment to ponder] I’m with Oscar Wilde on
this one. He said that all art is entirely useless. I
went on to say it’s art, but I don’t know if I agree with the
second part. Music doesn’t have a purpose; music
is! I used to worry about the purpose of music, and if I’ve spent
forty years not getting an answer to what is the
purpose of music, then perhaps it’s time I stopped thinking about it.
BD: And just
DON: And just
do it, which I do. Some of the most glorious
performances are the ones that might be very thoughtful in terms of
but needn’t necessarily be the performances that take themselves
most seriously... and here we are right back at the beginning of our
BD: So we’ve
come full circle on that!
afraid we have, yes, but that’s an
unintended neatness. No, it would be easy to say here I
am playing this chord and it’s got to mean this and it’s
got to mean that. In fact you could play another
chord and it could mean the same thing to the audience, if you made it
BD: Or this
same chord would mean something different?
quite! Let me put my finger on it because I have found an answer
this, and the answer is to say that the question is
wrong, [laughs] as so many answers are. But if you take my
answer, then you don’t need a question. My answer to it is
that music not an object but an activity, and the sound of the music is
merely the proof that somewhere there is some music going on, and the
music is the activity of doing it. Now obviously this is a means
at looking at music that occurs naturally to a chamber music player and
such as a I am, much more than to a solo
pianist, which I also am. In my solo piano playing, I try to make
the activity of my mind engage with the marks on a page by
somebody long dead. That is the point of what we’re listening
to, not the actual sounds that I come out with, which might be
different every time and should be different every time. Your
great composer, Charles Ives, said that. He said one of the
greatest simplicities about music. He said that if you’ve been
potatoes, play it like you’ve been digging potatoes. If
you’ve been reading a great novel, play it like you’ve been reading a
great novel. He thought what you were doing and what you were
should affect the way that you related to his music in order to produce
BD: Is this
what makes some pieces of music greater
than others — that they can be played
differently each time?
that’s a very interesting point. I’ve never thought sufficiently
hard about it in relation to the
greatness of a piece of music. I’ve got as far along that line of
thinking that an important attribute of art in general is ambiguity,
relation to operas. I’ve obviously spent a lot of my working life
thinking about operatic characters, and the more ambiguous they
are, the better the opera in my experience.
BD: And yet
the composers spend so much time trying
to delineate those characters carefully.
DON: Yes, but
to delineate rather than to
delimit, shall we say. Some characters can seem cardboard
When the old Monk suddenly reappears at the end
of Don Carlos, he sorts
everything out. Now you can either do him as a stock
old man bass, or he can be the culmination of
everything and have immense potential.
BD: This monk
appears at the beginning,
and then he rounds it out at the end.
DON: Yes, but
can do him as, “Here I am! I’m
regal.” Full stop! Then he just comes
in as your stock regal
figure. At the end of all good
Robin Hood stories, who comes
along but King Richard the Lionheart! A standard Richard the
Lionheart could say, “Oh well, jolly good, yes,
terrific, yes, fine!”
you for saving the country!”
rather as it does at the end of the Disney
cartoon. Now with Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood:Prince of Thieves, King
Richard is played by Sean Connery, and he absolutely steals the
film. That’s what I mean by not limiting
the character. He’s kingly, but he’s kingly with immense
potential. That’s the wonderful thing about art — it
have a definite mood, but the precision of the mood doesn’t have to be
created. Just how sad is sad? That’s what I mean.
That’s why I’m so interested in your remark that an attribute of
great music maybe that the number of different interpretations which it
is able to bear.
coming up to your fortieth birthday!
BD: Are you
at the place of your career now where you
expect to be or want to be at this age?
a moment] I never expect
anything! I don’t plan very
much, and until now I go where fate takes me, wherever it prods me on
up until the moment where I’ve been. But now I’m getting
to the stage where I can’t do that anymore.
him about the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award from the old Rowan and Martin’s
Laugh-In program.] Is this because there
are too many demands?
DON: Yes, and
my life is at a bit of a watershed at the moment. I’ve got a lot
of potentialities and
possibilities that are open to me, which is wonderful, and for
the first time in life I can’t follow them all. I’ve never
really had to make a choice before. I’ve always said yes, and by
always saying yes I’ve been an operatic repetiteur; I’ve been
a Master of the Music at the Shakespeare Company; in England I’ve been
organist of all sorts of churches; I’ve been a professor at the Royal
Academy of Music; I’ve been a broadcaster a lot, and now I’m over
I’m doing a lot of this, that, and the other, and all of sudden I’ve
to decide if I like doing all these things. I don’t want to say, “No
I don’t want to do that!”
BD: What are
major options from which you have to decide?
DON: It’s a
question of balancing the
work. What I’ve got at the moment is lots and lots of solo
work. It is lovely and I like that, but it means a lot of
understand you won this award which you didn’t know you
were in competition for?
|The Gilmore Artist Award is
awarded every four years to a concert pianist. The award was
established in 1989 by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation of Kalamazoo,
Michigan. In contrast with other music awards, nominees are not aware
that they are under consideration, but are assessed discreetly over a
period of time through live performances and recordings. The prize
money is $300,000, of which $50,000 to be spent as the winner desires
and $250,000 to be used for career development. David Owen Norris
was the first recipient of this award in 1991. Subsequent
recipients included Ralf
Gothóni (1994), Leif Ove Andsnes
(1998), and Piotr Anderszewski (2002).
DON: That’s it, the secret. That was a
Flying Fickle Finger of Fate, that one! That comes and gets you
the [leaves the word unsaid and smiles]. So there’s lots of solo
work. At the same
time, I love accompanying singers as this institute is reminding
me. I don’t do enough of that at the moment. I love
that and I’d like to do more of that. I’m also getting
more into chamber music as I meet more and more wonderful
players. At the same time I like doing the sort of thing that
I’m doing here, being chairman of a faculty and helping make
something run. I’m good at running things. I run a
couple of festivals back in Britain, and I’m the artistic director of
the Cardiff Festival in Wales and of the Petworth Festival in the
south of England.
BD: Do you do
No! I once conducted something and I
realized that I was not a conductor. So I don’t do that at
all. I don’t have that problem. But I teach as well.
I love teaching, and I don’t have time to teach at the
BD: I would think
that you would be a wonderful
conductor of at least one piece – the Elgar First?
no, no, no, no! You would have to sweep
aside the idea that a conductor might need a technique.
protesting] But I would think you could at least
communicate what you found in the piano reduction, and you understand
the full orchestral score. You should be able to communicate that
to an orchestra in a relatively short period!
DON: It is
fascinating that you should think
so, but conducting is a very particular and rare skill
which is not to be found in every great name that we think of as the
conductor. I have this particular image of conducting.
First of all, conducting is inimical to me because a conductor
really does have to stand up and say, “I
am a good deal more important
than all these other musicians! They’re going to
do what I say!” That is not my style,
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You’re not an autocrat at all?
DON: I’m not
an autocrat, no. I usually get my own way,
but I don’t get it autocratically. Those of us who get our own
way are not
autocratic. We become song accompanists. There are very few
song accompanists out there who are doing anything
other than what they want to do, but nobody would dream that they were
imposing upon their soloists from time to time. There are
subtler ways of doing this, and I feel that I know my own
personality. It’s difficult to know oneself, but I know
that I’m not autocratic.
BD: Would you
be happy being the next Gerald
DON: No, no,
I’m not an admirer of Gerald Moore. I wouldn’t want to
limit myself to just accompanying singers. That’s how I
feel. We won’t disappear into a discussion as to why I
don’t agree with what you’re saying about Gerald Moore because that
would get us into a lot of personalities. To be a vocal
accompanist is something
that I enjoy doing but I would not like to limit myself to, and
this is my big problem. I enjoy
making my radio programs for the BBC back home. I’ve got to make
one or two as soon as I get back from Chicago, but I wouldn’t like to
spend the whole of the fall making radio
programs. Then I’ve got to
come back here and do some more piano concertos, and I’ve got to go and
play at the Toronto Festival, and I’ve got to go and do 101
terrific things. What I’m finding is that my head is starting to
come apart because I’m having to do all these different things
under a fairly severe scrutiny. I can’t, at the present
stage of my career, go around doing things badly, so I’m
starting to find that a bit of a strain — not
that I was in the habit
of doing things badly, but I wasn’t in the habit of having to do so
many things quite so often.
BD: In a way
I’m kind of glad that you’re coming upon
this crisis because every singer faces this crisis. One of my
favorite questions for singers is asking how difficult is it to say
no, and you are now finally being forced to
to say no, quite, but to what? If I could decide that I was only
going to play
piano concertos in the future — which is the
last thing that I would
decide incidentally — then that would be easy
because anything that
wasn’t a piano concerto I would say no. But I’ve got to try and
define a life-style for myself.
BD: Would you
do 366 concerts a year?
[Laughs] I’d really go mad, wouldn’t I!
Really go quite mad!
BD: Then no
matter what, you’re having to say no at least sometimes.
DON: That’s true,
yes. The thing about me being a piano
concerto pianist is that there are so many other wonderful piano
pianists. You need to be realistic about this. There are
some piano concertos that I can bring something new to, and
there are many I know I can’t, and I’d much rather leave those to
pianists who find them new and fresh. That’s one
reason why I wouldn’t make myself into a piano concerto pianist.
BD: So if you
felt there was a concerto
that you could bring something better than everyone else, that’s what
you would select to do?
are the concertos that I would play,
yes. I don’t know if it would be the better, it would be
different. I might think that it was more
sincere to me in the context of that particular performance because the
music only comes into existence during the performance. It
doesn’t have an existence apart from the performance.
BD: Do you
always have to bring something new, even if
someone else has said something that you feel is exactly right?
DON: It might
have been right for that performance. Because somebody does a
piece of music in a particular way and it was exactly right for that
performance, that absolutely doesn’t mean that it would be the right
way to do
it. There will be so many details different on the way.
It’s chaos theory, really. The
popular image about chaos theory — which does
sum it up rather well — is
that the reason there have been thunderstorms in Chicago lately is
because three months ago a particular butterfly flapped its wings
somewhere in the tropics. That’s a pretty
fair approximation of the chaos theory — that a
tiny act can end up in unknowable results.
music fit into this because music is
vibration of air?
music fits into this because music is
an art in time. So what happens is that if you make the slightest
alteration in the timing of a note or in the first two notes, this will
unimaginable effects on the recapitulation — or
at least it will if the player
is able to keep control of events and remember how he did it. It
would become unchaotic and predictable if he couldn’t remember
because he’d just do it the same!
I was thinking more physically because if the butterfly flaps its wings
and moves the air a little bit, especially at an
outdoor concert here in Ravinia, a good cymbal crash or a bass drum
thud like in the Verdi Requiem
is going to affect things, and will have
a little thunderstorm some place.
you might well be right, though you
might be pushing this idea to its limits at that point, but there you
are! [Both have a hearty laugh]
BD: Okay, so
now what? You’re in the midst of
thinking of how you’re going to organize your life. You want to
accompany singers; you want to do some concerto playing; I assume you
want to do chamber music; you do a lot of teaching... that’s
four things right there.
DON: When I
talk about that, I call it writing music
as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not autocratic. There are all
these things you see, and it’s very difficult.
BD: How are
you going to do it?
DON: I don’t
know. As we speak, my
marriage is breaking up. You can broadcast that if you want
to. My wife and I have had very difficult telephone
conversations this week.
BD: I’m very
sorry about that.
DON: I’m not
too pleased about it, and neither is
she of course. It’ll probably all turn out
alright, but that’s the state I’m in with all this
work at the moment. That’s another thing
that I want — I do want my personal life to
Mine never does.
DON: OK, so
why should I worry! [Both laugh] But these are difficult
BD: How does
the break up affect you when you play your next concert?
DON: Not in
the slightest degree.
BD: You put
it out of your mind completely?
BD: And out
of your emotions? You aren’t still a
little more tense or a little more unhappy or a little more vigorous
a little more sad?
DON: No, I
don’t think so, no, no! You couldn’t have told that Mozart was
terribly worried and
poor in some of last works that he did.
that’s over time. I’m talking
about things like stubbing your toe as you walk onto the stage.
that not going to affect something in the performance?
No. No, no, it really doesn’t. That’s not how I
view it. You’re not listening to how I feel, you’re listening
to my head and heart react. Over the years, as
I absorb whatever, one’s life impinges on how one
thinks about music; it must do so.
BD: You talk
about your head and your heart. Are
they not going to be affected by stubbing your toe?
not immediately. Forget stubbing toes. There can be more
important things. For example, my
father-in-law died last week on my wife’s birthday.
BD: Oh, I’m
so very sorry.
DON: That was
not very helpful, particularly in the
present circumstance. Now when I’ve had time to drink in some of
these realities that are happening to me, then they will do something
to my emotional sympathies. They will deepen them and broaden
them. They will make me capable of appreciating certain depths
that I haven’t known about until now, but at the moment, no. That
will take time, and will work on my whole emotional response
slowly over a matter of years probably. This emotional
capacity that I have is what I bring to bear on the
music. It’s precisely that, it is not an emotion.
said that art is an emotion recollected in tranquility. So
because I feel sad
doesn’t mean that I’m going to play sad music any sadder; it doesn’t
mean I’m going to play happy music any less happy at the moment.
What it does mean is that over the years, as I adopt these attitudes
that are being forced on me, I hope that they will inform the way I
think about feelings, and gradually it will deepen what I do. But
it won’t change things tomorrow because I’m feeling unhappy tonight.
BD: It seeps
into the very fibers of your being?
because it is your being that’s reacting
with the music, not how you feel today. But they are difficult
things to talk about; very difficult to say exactly what it
means. I could say I’m finding
music is a means as something that I can think about at the moment.
BD: And is
this is always changing and growing as you
change and grow?
indeed, but at the moment music is nice to
sort of lose myself in because at least I know what I’m really going to
think about for the next hour. I’m not going to worry about my
father-in-law’s funeral, and whether I ought to go back for it.
BD: Does that
DON: I’ve got
out of the habit of being
surprised these days, and this is one of the things that
worries me. I feel very alienated from life. I don’t really
feel I’ve got much control over it, and so if you don’t feel you’ve got
any control over what’s happening to you, then nothing surprises
you. Anything could happen, and the real problem in my life is
that it usually is.
back to singers for a little bit, do
you have some general advice for young singers coming along?
languages. That’s the most important to any
singer, and certainly the most proper advice coming from me partly
because I don’t know languages well
enough myself. It’s a big problem, especially for those of us
whose native tongue is English. We
tend not to speak enough other languages. The other thing would
be to explore what is nice to sing. Just listen to a lot
of music that isn’t vocal.
quartets and piano music?
DON: Yes, but
then again my advice to a pianist would
be listen to a lot of songs.
BD: So for
all musicians, then, you say to broaden your
horizons in other kinds of music?
because you don’t find many composers who
only wrote on sort of music. Chopin is the example, and I can’t
bring myself to share the common adulation
of Chopin. I regard the fact that Chopin only wrote piano music
as pretty indicative of the little problem about Chopin. He wrote
marvelous piano music, but when all is said and
done, it was piano music that wasn’t informed by anything else at all.
Beethoven’s only opera is
better because of the symphonies and the string quartets, and the
string quartets are better because of his opera?
You have to have picked up what I think is Beethoven’s most appalling
work! [Both laugh] I would walk a
long way to miss it.
[Sadly] Really??? I like Fidelio.
DON: Do you
like it? It’s got marvelous things
in it, but to see it as an opera, I just don’t like
it. You look at Don
Giovanni and you look at Fidelio,
and you think the one man knows what he’s doing and the other man is an
The fact that he tried to write operatic music must have helped with
the Ninth Symphony.
let’s change it a little bit. What
about Verdi, who wrote almost exclusively operas. There’s one
lonely string quartet and a few songs, but it’s basically just operatic
very true, and the same is true of a lot
of operatic composers in the nineteenth century — Wagner
lesser extent, and Donizetti and Bellini and Rossini.
was changing music, and he was writing polemics, too.
DON: He was
productive person. You kind of get me with Verdi
because I’m a great admirer, certainly of his later operas from
about 1870 on.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You’re not panting for Alzira?
[Laughs] I’m not even panting for Traviata, I
have to say. I am happy by the time they do
Don Carlos and Otello. Otello is certainly my favorite
Italian opera, but the later Verdi operas are really wonderful.
say that Verdi would have been a much better composer if only he
had written piano sonatas. That would be absurd.
BD: Are there
more recordings of your artistry coming along?
there will be a
music of whom?
Everybody! A piano anthology. Music from about 1590 to
sometime next year,
BD: All on
modern pianos or on different instruments?
DON: All on a
modern piano, yes, probably
Bösendorfer. There will
be German harpsichord music, Italian harpsichord music, English
BD: All on
the modern piano?
DON: All on
the modern piano — music for the
early fortepiano, music for the modern piano, modern for the super
modern piano, all on the modern piano.
ahead] And music that should be on the synthesiser still on the
old modern piano?
Probably, yes! [Much laughter]
BD: Thank you
for spending this time with me today.
DON: Not at
all, not at all. Thank you.
--- --- --- --- ---
© 1992 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at the Ravinia Festival in
Highland Park, Illinois, on August 10, 1992. Portions were
broadcast on WNIB in 1998.
This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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with comments, questions and suggestions.