Pianist Robert Parris
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Robert Parris (21 May 1924 – 5
December 1999) was a composer and professor of music.
He was born in Philadelphia, attended the University of Pennsylvania,
then the Juilliard School in New York. Among his teachers were Otto
Luening, Aaron Copland, Jacques Ibert, and Peter Mennin (although
always claimed that the effect of these teachers on his own composing
technique was 'minimal'). After a year of study on a Fulbright
Fellowship in Paris (where he was meant to study with Arthur Honegger,
but hardly ever saw him), and a year teaching at the University of
Washington in Seattle, he settled in the Washington, D.C. area in 1952.
Parris joined the faculty of The George Washington University in 1963
where he taught theory and composition.
Parris liked to describe himself as a 'colorist', and therefore
tended to write for small ensembles or a single instrument accompanied
by piano or orchestra. His first international recognition came in 1958
with his Concerto for Five
Kettledrums and Orchestra, premiered by tympanist Fred Begun and
the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, under Howard Mitchell.
Parris was notorious for pushing instruments to the limits of any
player's abilities: his Solo Violin
Sonata is particularly difficult, and the composer-directors of
CRI believed his Trombone Concerto
to be unplayable until they heard a recording of it. But he was also
the most inventive of orchestrators. Parris's Concerto for Kettledrums was always
a crowd-pleaser in performance because it was so surprisingly melodic.
Its last movement is built around a traditional hymn (like Copland's Appalachian Spring) but Parris
gives the initial statements of that hymn — and its dramatic summation
the kettledrums. Begun, the NSO principal tympanist who premiered the
piece, made the original suggestion for the piece, but he later
remarked, "I suggested five drums jestingly."
In the sixties and seventies Parris was a sometime music critic for the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star. In this
period Parris — who taught himself Spanish — also turned to Borges for
inspiration, and produced the Book
Imaginary Beings (Part I) a work for flute (pic), violin, cello,
piano, celeste, and percussion, from 1972. Part II was published in 1983.
A revival of the Concerto for Five
Kettledrums and Orchestra, also in 1983, by the National
Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich, was
such a success that it resulted in new performances of his Concerto for Trombone (first
performed in 1964) by the NSO in 1985 and, then, to Parris's largest
commission. His Symphonic Variations,
performed in 1988 to great acclaim, was the result. A retrospective
concert of his works at The George Washington University in this same
year led Washington Post
music critic Joseph McLellan to refer to Professor Parris as “one of
(Washington’s) major music assets.”
-- Names which are links on
this page refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.
In October of 1988, Parris allowed me to call him on the telephone for
an interview in anticipation of his upcoming 85th birthday.
Portions of our conversation — along with some recordings of
his music — were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in
Chicago on that occasion, and again both five and ten years later.
Only a few of the works by Parris have been commercially recorded, and
those which appeared on LP have been re-issued on a single CD, which is
shown at the bottom of this webpage, along with the notes he wrote
about the pieces.
As usual, I would send my guest a copy of the WNIB Program Guide when
their program(s) ran, and occasionally I would get a letter in
return. The one from Parris is shown below.
It is a pleasure to now be able to present the entire
conversation on this webpage . . . . . . . . .
You’ve been both
composer and teacher, as well as a critic.
Robert Parris: Oh
I was, but you left out a very
important part of my life. I’m a pianist and harpsichordist.
I’ve been living in Washington
since 1952, and there was a time when people
thought of me as a pianist. Then, especially when the National
Symphony began to play my music, they thought of me as a composer, and
they could never really reconcile the two. So I’m either a
pianist or a composer. But if you’re a composer, you can’t be a
very good piano player, and if you’re a piano player,
of course you’re not recognized as a composer.
RP: But I’m
not a tuba player. Somebody, David
I think, said he was going to write a biography for his book, and he
sent me an advance copy which said my first
instrument was the tuba. I played it
for about ten days in junior high school when I was twelve years
old. Where he got that bit of information, I haven’t the vaguest
BD: It sounds
like you’re a presidential candidate,
they’ve gone interviewing all of your teachers back to kindergarten.
mock seriousness] So the tuba is not something that
you’ve gained wide recognition in!
RP: No, but I
still remember the fingering, and when
I’m writing for brass these days, it does occur to me this or that
would be practical or impossible, especially in glissando
BD: Is there
such a thing as a
there’s no slide tuba.
BD: There is
a slide trumpet, of course, and the
RP: There is
a valve trombone, though I haven’t seen
BD: We had
one of those when I was in high
school. Somebody brought it in one day, and we all played on it a
little bit. We decided the valve trombone would be ideal for a
protects the person in front of the
Right! And because of all the movement and swaying, the positions
of the slides are always getting sloppy.
RP: Of course!
BD: So a
valve trombone would be more comfortable that
way. Do you have any knowledge or
speculation as to why the valve trombone never really caught on?
RP: No, I
haven’t the vaguest idea. I’m sure
lots of people know, but I don’t.
back to your career, you’ve been teacher and composer and
keyboardist and critic. How did you divide your time amongst
those many activities?
RP: Well, you
can’t do everything every day. I wrote for the Washington papers
from approximately 1961 — three or four years
for the Washington Post,
and then subsequently for the now defunct Washington Star. That did
not take all day. It was maybe two or three times a week in the
BD: You were
concerts for which they paid me, at
time, something between $15 and $25 a go.
[Chuckles] So that really didn’t take much time.
Then, as far as piano playing is concerned, I started out as a pianist,
really. I played all through my teens. I played my way
high school, and I’ve been playing concerts ever
since. I haven’t played solo piano in quite some
time. I’ve given a few harpsichord
recitals, and I play chamber music as much as I can, but I don’t
practice unless... well, it’s not quite true now. I’m getting
in music that I’d missed along the way, and I’m actually practicing for
myself. It’s very strange because it’s not part of the way I’d
been living musically. But mostly what I practice for is
concerts, and when there’s no concerts I don’t practice. I don’t
see any point. It takes me exactly three days to get my technique
back in shape, and when isn’t not going to be consumed, so
to speak, I see no point. I don’t know
why, but I have
gotten involved in pieces that I should have played when I was much
younger and never did, like a couple of the Chopin Nocturnes, the
Éstampes of Debussy,
and so forth.
surprised] You don’t feel that your own listening and
pleasure is enough consumption?
you’re used to an audience for years
and years and years, it’s very, very difficult to do it for
yourself. As a matter of fact, after writing for an audience,
it’s very difficult to
write music when you don’t have a commission and
you have no concert in mind. It’s just to reminiscence of those
bad days in one’s twenties when you wrote and put it away, and the idea
of it being played was only a wild dream. Luckily,
I’ve had some success, as most of my music has been played —
unfortunately, only once, and sometimes not very well that once
— but everybody knows that first performances aren’t all
to come by. It’s the second performances that are
impossible. As a matter of fact, some years back there was an
idea bandied about for a
Society for the Promulgation of Second Performances. I think it’s
a lovely idea, but it seems rather limited, doesn’t
it? As far as teaching is concerned, that’s the way I make a
living at George Washington
University, and here in my house where I teach piano and
harpsichord. I have some budding composers, and some theory
students, but that doesn’t
really take time from writing music, which is what I think of myself as
doing most and best.
come back to your composition in just a moment, but let me ask about
the teaching for
just a brief moment. Is composition something that really can be
taught, or must it be mostly innate within each young composer?
RP: It can be
taught, but not directly. On the part of
the pupil, it is assumed that there is aptitude and ability
there. It’s certainly worth the struggle. There are
composers who didn’t believe in teaching
composition. Dallapiccola didn’t. When I met him, he was
teaching piano in Florence. When Bartók came here, I
believe he was offered a position at the University of
Minnesota, and as poor as he was, he refused because he said it
couldn’t be taught. He taught piano here, but certainly
he made his living that way when he wasn’t doing his musicology in
Hungary. Hindemith taught, but it was mostly his
theoretical system that he taught, and that’s the reason most of
his pupils turned out to be something like ‘little Hindemiths!’
one, to my knowledge, has had any real success. They’re so imbued
with the Hindemith technique that nothing else was gospel
apparently. That’s one of the dangers of being with a very strong
teacher. It’s what I object to, although there’s less
justification to object to in the matter of the so-called
‘Boulangerie’, the host full of Boulanger pupils who were, I think,
unduly stylistically influenced by her.
BD: Then how
do you go about the teaching of
RP: Well, I
tell them first that I can’t teach them,
and that it’s a very subtle process. I’m not going to tell you
that this F# is wrong, and that A might
work. It has nothing to do with that. I could help you with
your orchestration; I can help you with the building of
form; I can tell you when I think you’ve not gone on long enough,
or when it’s going to take more development; I can tell you when
you need to change your color; I can tell you when this
has to happen and when that should happen, but I can’t tell you
the notes and, of course, every time you say, “No,”
or I disagree with
you, the lesson is over. Good-bye! See you next week,
that’s all you have to say. I can’t improve anything. All I
can do is give you the benefit of my experience and my technique, which
I can foist onto you if you’ll let me, but you have to be
receptive. However, mostly it’s a matter of
encouragement, of getting along, and that has to do with personality
pupil. I might ask you to write, let’s say, twenty more bars
for next week, and we’ll take it from there, and we’ll see what
happens. What actually happens in a compositional lesson is
different with every pupil. Mostly it’s a matter of my
looking at it, and trying to find out what the weaknesses are
and the strengths are, and whether if this or that section, or this or
that bar, were dwelt on and pursued. It would be style and, at
what makes him go musically. It takes so long to develop a
musical style — ten years, maybe, or even twenty
years. The way
I think of it since everybody begins by imitating somebody —
maybe not everybody, it’s impossible, but lots of
people — what really happens is that you get all
out. You go through your Stravinsky period, and you go maybe
through your Hindemith period, and you begin at one point writing or
rewriting a moment of Prokofiev. All this comes
out, and you realize it’s nonsense! If you’re lucky, very soon
after it’s done you realize that it isn’t quite you, but there are
parts of the
piece that might be. Anyway, all this stuff goes into a gigantic
colander, a sieve, and everybody else’s music is just washed
away. It goes down the drain, and the little bit of you is left
sitting. If you have enough insight and are perspicacious
enough, and you have a good teacher who will say, “That
is you,” that’s
what you build on, and after a number of years you wind up with
this style that people will recognize. When I say ‘style’,
what I’m saying really is what Hindemith called ‘the crowning glory’ of
technique. With enough technique comes style.
BD: Have you
been encouraged by the students
that you have been teaching over the years?
verbally, but a couple of them have done
pretty well in the sense that they are respectable and respected at
least by some other composers. Sure! I’m always amazed that
actually does work; that after I work with a composer for three or four
years, it does show results. You see, it’s so imponderable; it’s
abstract. What is composition technique after all? I
remember Irving Fine (1914-1962), a big composer who
died fairly young, talking with me at Tanglewood
at one point, and he gave me this fairly marvelous compliment. He
said I had a big compositional technique. I looked at him in
the funniest way possible, and he looked back at me funnily because he
didn’t expect my funny look! I didn’t really know what he
was talking about. As a pianist I knew what technique was.
You practice every day, and you get your fingers moving until
you can do what you wanted to with the music. But how do you
practice compositional technique, for heaven’s sakes? Eventually
I came to know that it’s a lot more
subtle. First of all, it’s a matter of saying what you
mean. You have to have a certain amount of ability and be very,
very self-critical. You have to have some insight, and you have
to put yourself in the position of the audience and say, “No,
not going to work. They’re going to be bored by
the time they get to this point. It’s just too long.”
It’s that kind of objective looking at what you’ve done, or
hearing what you’ve done, going back and back and back, and fixing and
fixing and fixing! My wife makes a sort of joke about
it! I’d come out and I’d say, “I just
piece,” and she says, “So
which time?” [Both laugh] Then I’d do
it the next night, and I’d do it the next night. It’s a little
to say a piece is never finished. Of course a piece is finished,
but certainly not the first time. It is just like with a speech
anything else — there is a first draft and second
draft and third draft.
BD: Then how
do you know which draft is
actually the final result? How do you determine when you’ve got
to put the pen down and let
the piece go on it’s own?
RP: One easy
answer is when you can’t stand to
look at it anymore! The other is when you’re satisfied that
this is the best you can do, that’s all. It’s very simple.
BD: Do you
ever hear the piece and then go
back and revise it?
that’s a very thorny subject, especially with orchestra music, because
with so little time available these
days, you’re never — at least I’m never
— really sure whose fault it is,
the conductor’s or mine. I had a piece played by the National
Symphony earlier this year, and
most of it came off quite well. However, there were spots that
fits, and talking to the conductor helps a little bit, but not
enough. I still think it perhaps was a matter of balance, but
I’ll never know unless I hear the piece again. What I did was to
take the next three or four months off, and fix the piece. It
was very frustrating because I kept thinking I don’t have to do
this! It’s not the piece, it was at the performance, but
you can’t be sure, so you do it again. That’s the
way it is.
you’re writing a piece of music
the notes are going down on the page, are you always in control of the
pencil, or are there times when that pencil is really controlling your
RP: [Thinks a
moment] Sometimes I wish that were
possible. I wish it were so easy for the pencil to go like the
apprentice’s broom, [laughs] but it never does
that. The pencil is very hard to push.
It doesn’t go automatically, no.
BD: Are you
ever surprised where the piece takes you, or do
you always know in advance where you’re going to wind up?
RP: I never
knew in advance. I remember reading
that Somerset Maugham
said, “How can I possibly know what I’m thinking
until I write
it?” I feel exactly the same way
there. There are
composers who had the whole piece lined up before they start. My
head simply doesn’t work that way. Hindemith wrote it in that
book that was the Harvard lectures, which he
did in 1960, that a person isn’t a real composer until it can come, so
to speak, full blown out of his head, and all it takes is writing it
down. But he was given to saying things like that.
He was a pretty arrogant man. He said one mustn’t write music
unless you have absolute pitch, and there are all sorts of composers
without it. He also said that you should play every
instrument before you write for it, which I think is perfect
nonsense. You would spend your life learning every instrument,
play them all badly, and there’s not much time left for writing music.
BD: So you
should learn a bit about each instrument,
but you don’t have to become a professional performer on it?
RP: With me
it just works the opposite,
a matter of fact. The less I know, the better because my
imagination is freer.
must be some things you must learn, like you
can’t slide on a tuba...
RP: Oh, sure,
basic technique, but you
don’t have to know fingerings unless you’re going
to write a trill that you suspect might be as impossible. Then
you go to an orchestration book and look it up. That takes
thirty seconds, and it’s no big deal.
BD: Does it
require that you have the sound of
each instrument in your ear, and that you know how to combine those
absolutely. You hope, sure. But
composers these days have little opportunity to
write for orchestra. It’s not like Haydn at the
writing for chamber group, you would need to
know how to mix the various combinations of sounds.
RP: Oh sure,
I don’t think there’s any question
there. Writing for a large orchestra is another story, and each
time it has to be tested.
BD: You said
that you prefer writing on
commission. When you’ve got a commission, how do you decide
accept it or postpone it, or even decline it?
RP: Since I
always need the money, there is never a
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] So if someone came to you and wanted a piece for
tuba and ocarina you would write it???
RP: I think
there are limits! No, I wouldn’t
write for ocarina though I would write for tuba and flute. I
would write for all kinds of things, but I will not write for the
accordion, and I will not probably write any more for the guitar.
armchair impressario] But our local orchestra has a virtuoso
player, and we want a new piece for him!
what I’ll do is write for a piccolo and let
him transcribe it. How’s that? [Both laugh]
BD: Did your
music criticism on a regular basis influence your work as a
RP: I don’t
think so, except at that point when I was writing, I did get to hear
music than I have since. It was very little that I didn’t know,
were pieces here and there, and I suppose those new pieces add to your
repertoire of knowledge. So one way or another, there’s a trickle
down which can affect your writing, but not appreciably and
certainly not concretely. No, that wouldn’t bother me.
As a matter of fact, nothing bothers my writing, nor my playing, nor
teaching. There are some people who say that if they have to
teach beginners, if they have to teach elementary theory, if they have
to teach this or that they simply cannot bring themselves to be
themselves later in the evening or whenever they write their
I don’t have any trouble with that at all. There’s a very
definite dichotomy, a real break between what I teach during the day
and what I write.
doesn’t make you schizophrenic in any way?
no. As a matter of fact, I love teach,
and I like to teach beginners if they’re interested. I have a
for writing notes and manipulating tones. Sure, it’s fun.
BD: Then let
me turn the question around. Did your being a composer influence
the way you wrote music criticism?
RP: Oh yes,
that’s quite a different story because
composer has to deliver his style, and if he’s not awfully careful, he
will depreciate other styles. That’s a real danger. Being a
composer has made me aware of what a good piece is — at
least technically — without so many hearings as
I would have needed
otherwise. I can tell when I’m hearing a good piece for
the first time or a second time without knowing all about the
piece. I can’t qualify it; I can’t judge it, except good or
bad; I cannot talk about degrees. All I can do is say
that there is a real composer at work when it’s perfectly
obvious. One of the pieces in that regard which gave me real fits
this week was the opera Nixon in
China, the John Adams piece. At
first I hated it. I thought it was nonsense. I don’t really
approve of this minimalism ideal. But I heard it in
rehearsal, I heard a performance, and then I heard a tape, and I
changed my mind about it. The piece is extremely problematical,
but being a composer made me aware that the man has an enormous
personality, and that there is a lot there. There’s a lot I don’t
really like. I don’t like the style in general, but the man’s a
terrific talent and there’s a lot in it that’s memorable. So it’s
mixed bag as far as I’m concerned. But being a composer
certainly helped me evaluate it. An awful lot of people
hated the piece because they weren’t quite aware of the imagination
involved, and you have to do it to appreciate it.
the ordinary public
that goes to concerts and opera be aware of all the technical
difficulties and the compositional problems that you are
aware of working in the business day after day?
absolutely not. It’s not to be
and they can’t be. That’s the composer’s business. All that
matters to an audience is whether they’re moved by the piece or
not. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people don’t expect to be
moved by modern music, or by contemporary music. It’s a
pity, because if they were more open they would be moved by at least
But it’s also a mistake for most people to go a contemporary
music concert and be surprised if they don’t like the piece.
Let’s take houses, clothes,
cooking, cars... how many are first class? And with the
exception of cars, how many were first class back in 1800, and in
1700? Why should anybody expect, especially if they hear one
piece every six months, that it should be a masterpiece? Most of
everything you hear and do and buy isn’t any good, and that’s
perfectly normal. How can everybody be great talent? An
awful lot of people write music who are talented. Some are better
talent, some are good talent, and there are probably some great talents
around. But why should you expect to hear this great talent when
you go to an occasional concert? It would not be normal if it
BD: Is the
management of the symphony orchestra
and the opera house making a mistake by basically only playing,
night after night, year after year, the acknowledged masterpieces?
RP: Yes, they
are making a mistake
because the only way that the cream will have a chance to rise is for
it to get played. I
know it’s appreciated, but the fact is that it does rise. I don’t
have any idea what the dynamics of this process
are. It’s absolutely incredible. But if you look back on
the efforts of musicology in the past seventy-five years or so, one of
the morals that you can derive from
this academic activity is that barrels’ bottoms should probably be left
unscraped. There’s very little there. It’s odd. One
of the necessary things involved is
for music to be played, and of course it’s a mistake to leave
new music unplayed. On the other hand, you mustn’t expect every
piece to be a masterpiece, nor does every piece deserve to be
played simply because it’s a new piece of music. You have to look
at it, you have to examine it, and you have to have good reasons to
play it — namely, you have to like it and you
have to respect it.
BD: Let me
ask the great philosophical question
then. What is the purpose of music in society?
RP: I have no
idea. [Both laugh] I think
it’s a luxury. People have said they can’t live without
music, but you know what? I think I could live without
I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to live without chocolate
cake. I wouldn’t want to live without tobacco, but I could
survive very well without all of those things. I think it’s a
wrong-headed idea that you can’t live without this or that. Music
not a basic need. I know that sounds almost heretical from a
composer. It sounds almost sinful, but I think I am being
is the word that comes to my mind,
RP: Good, I’m
glad. I’m glad you
might agree with me. I feel a bit heretical.
BD: In the
music that you write, or in music in
general, where is the balance between any artistic achievement and
depends by what you mean by
you think of rock music as entertainment, if
you think Jerome Kern is entertainment, if you think of Johann Strauss
as entertainment, what does that mean? Going away from the hall
singing a tune? Are your spirits lifted? Do you want to
dance? What is
entertainment? I’m not quite sure. People go to concerts
of ‘art music’, or ‘concert music’
or what we could call
‘uncommercial’ music because nobody makes any money from it.
[Both have a huge laugh] Yes, that’s really the best way to talk
about the two
kinds of music as ‘commercial’
Do people go to hear
Beethoven to be entertained? I think so. There’s no more
entertaining composer in this world, as far as I’m concerned, than
Mozart. For years and years, when
people asked me who my favorite composer was, I wouldn’t say. It
was a tough question because you take the best
from everybody. But right now I don’t think there’s
anybody like Mozart. He entertains me, and he moves me, and he
makes me laugh, and I admire his wit.
BD: All in
the same piece, or in different pieces?
RP: If you
take a piece like the C Major Piano
Concerto, K. 503, yes, all in the same piece. If you take
like The Marriage of Figaro,
absolutely. If you take some of the
piano sonatas, no because they were written probably in a half-hour one
morning before breakfast. They’re different. Mozart has his
days, too, you know, so it’s quite different. But Mozart was
entertainment. How do you talk about the Strausses? There
are some people who say that Richard Strauss is just as much
entertainment music as the other Strauss. I don’t think there’s
any line between different kinds of music. I don’t know quite
suggesting — that there is a difference between
music and edifying music?
RP: I’m not
even sure the line is even fluid. I think it becomes superimposed.
BD: So where
does the music of Robert Parris fit
all of this discussion?
RP: You have
to ask the audience. I have no
idea. [Laughs] The maker is sort of out of the discussion
because what he thinks has very little to do with what other
people think, and the way it’s received. As far as my own music
concerned, I write to entertain, but in the best sense. Bach
dedicated his Goldberg Variations
to, “Connoisseurs for the refreshment of their spirits.”
My take is that amateurs will be
entertained, and connoisseurs will be edified.
And you hope for this in your music?
RP: Oh, I
don’t expect anything of it. I
hope for this, though. I’ve written some funny music, some very
There’s a piece you have on a record, which is No. 6 from The Book of Imaginary Beings is
called The Double. When
wrote that piece, I read the superscription that is appended to it, and
it’s actually one of the fables of Borges in his
book of the same name, and apparently animals, just as people, have two
themselves. [Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges KBE (24 August
1899 – 14 June 1986), was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist,
poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish-language
literature.] The Double
represents the opposite nature from this obvious self. Whether
it’s your true self or not, no one knows. The first thing I
of was how could I do this in music, and I thought of the silly Swan of
Camille Saints-Saëns, and how this blithe
creature sits practically motionless on the water, but is so
idyllic. But the
fact is everybody knows that
there’s a lot of aggression to that animal. It’s really a mean
beast, so don’t tangle with any swans. So I put together my idea
of the ferocity of the swan, and I simply
copied over, note for note, the original Saints-Saëns,
not abrogating nor breaking any copyright laws, I
assume. Actually it wasn’t quite
the original because he wrote it for two pianos, and I have it played
by one. I can’t hear it today without laughing. It’s
one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life. So yes, I
hope my music is
sometimes funny, and sometimes entertaining in the light sense, and
lots of times otherwise.
BD: Since you
brought up one of the recordings,
let me ask if you are you basically pleased with all of the ones which
have been issued.
pleased with the Percussion Concerto
Book of Imaginary Beings, and mostly with the Trombone Concerto. It was
recorded in Poland, and I wasn’t
invited to be there. I probably wouldn’t have gone, anyway.
I did not
know the trombonist. I hadn’t worked with him, so there was no
coaching from me. I had absolutely nothing to do say about it,
and most of it came off incredibly well. But they didn’t
have much idea of balance, especially the piano
part. In the first movement it came out sounding like a
dinner bell more often than not. There are other problems where
can’t hear what you’re supposed to hear, but mostly it’s
a matter of mic placement.
BD: So you
give it a grade of B+?
like that, yes. Rostropovich did it with the National Symphony in
1983. I have a tape of that, and it came off a lot better.
Recordings are so expensive to make, but the others are marvelous
performances, and they’re
very well recorded.
BD: Tell me
more about The Book of Imaginary
RP: Well, that’s a
little difficult. I tend to
forget pieces the day after I write them.
BD: OK... Is
it something that must be played always
complete, or can we play a few of them?
RP: I don’t
see why you couldn’t play a few of
them. I’ve never heard it done like that, but there’s
certainly nothing in the way. The last movement, Amphisbaena Retroversa, is the
first movement absolutely backwards — with a
couple of tiny
exceptions because it simply couldn’t be arranged like that. That
was symbolic because the Amphisbaena is this animal who not exactly
has two heads, but it has teeth in its head and its tail. It was
a kind of living and
breathing palindrome, you might say, so that was symbolic. It
would eat you up with either end, so it should be able to
go backwards and forwards. What surprised me, at least in this
performance, the running it through backwards was slightly
more successful than the original. I
don’t know why that should be. It may have been after something
like seven or eight hours of recording time,
everybody was so happy to get it out of the way, so they simply
played it better and said, “Come on, let’s go
out for dinner.” [Laughs] I remember
this was a long, long session we had at the
University of Maryland, but the players were just marvelous, and
they wanted to do it over and over and over again to get things exactly
right, which they did.
BD: Is there
any chance that by doing it over and
over, and being able to take pieces here and pieces there, and assemble
a performance, that it becomes a fraud?
RP: There is
always that, but since these pieces were
so comparatively short, there were very few composite takes of each one
piece. It was mostly a matter of running through each of them as
many times as they wanted to, but not to use any pieces within
BD: But still
you’ve assembled the best eight out of so many takes.
RP: Well, in
terms of performance you might call it
fraud, but from my point of view it’s just the
opposite. It was as good as possible, and it’s exactly what I
wanted, so there’s nothing fraudulent there.
BD: Is there
any possibility that a stage performance could equal or even surpass
possible. I’m now quite sure
how. I have never heard another performance of it,
actually. It was done once to my knowledge in Kansas City, but
it’s so difficult, and I just don’t know who would spend that many
hours getting it together. It’s a very, very difficult piece to
do, and the days have passed when people would devote twenty or thirty
rehearsals on one piece as they did in Schoenberg’s day.
BD: You say
those days are passed to be able to spend so much rehearsal time.
Is it really necessary or
desirable to rehearse a piece so very, very much?
RP: I actually
think that a piece shouldn’t be
all that hard that it takes that it takes that much time. A
reasonable number of hours... let’s say four
or five rehearsals of three or four hours each with professional
musicians. More should not be necessary, but I suppose there
could be exceptions. I remember that
Schoenberg demanded it and got it for some of his later works. It
could have been Pierrot Lunaire
that I’m thinking of. [There
were forty rehearsals for that work.] They went
over it and over it and over it and over it.
BD: It is
mentioned in the note to the
Trombone Concerto that, when
looking at the piece, they didn’t understand
how anyone could play it. But then they heard a tape and realized
that it could be done. [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with George Rochberg and Charles Wuorinen.]
RP: It isn’t
all that tough when the trombonist
knows his part. It’s mostly that. The rhythms are tricky,
but after The Rite of Spring,
I don’t think any rhythms are that tricky
anymore. There’s lots of 5s and 7s, and changes and so
forth, but the real virtuosity is on the part of the trombonist.
BD: Did you
write it to be tricky?
RP: Oh no.
just the way it had to come out?
RP: It always
has to come out the way it does. I never write anything to be
tricky, but I must say I do have
a sense of drama when writing for solo instruments. I had a
teacher who imbued me with that when I was very early on.
I was playing piano concertos long before I should have been, and
there’s a built-in drama that is not found in purely
orchestral music. Seeing a nine-foot Steinway
sitting up there with the lid open in front of an orchestra,
the audience has just hushed itself and everybody’s expectantly waiting
for the pianist as hero to march out and say, “Here
I am!” That’s a very, very exciting and
dramatic moment. When I write for solo instruments in an
orchestra, I don’t have it in
mind, but I have it in body if you follow it through. The soloist
is a kind of hero, and Mozart
knew that. When the pianist enters, especially in the late
piano concertos, most of the concertos have solo parts that begin with
a tune that sometimes is never
heard after. I am not quite sure that’s true with Mozart, but I
think it’s true of the Beethoven First
Piano Concerto. But those
composers were very, very aware that they were writing something almost
comparable to the operatic idea, and that soloist was the hero.
He was the protagonist, and they took advantage of this drama.
BD: Now is
the hero really the performer, or is the
hero supposed to be the composer?
exaggerating here, but back in the old days, there didn’t seem to be
very much difference what
Liszt did to other people’s music. That’s the way he thought
about it. It’s
changed a lot now, and I don’t think that performers think of
themselves as composers... although I read in The New York Times that Horovitz
said that there isn’t a first-class performing artist who
doesn’t really have a bit of inferiority complex, because what he
wants to be is a composer. After all, his work might or might not
live, but what happens to the notes a piano player plays, they are here
BD: Have we
changed that a little bit by the
idea of recordings; that the pianist’s interpretation is now embedded
RP: Yes and
no. Plastic doesn’t represent
a concert. As you implied before, in a sense it’s a bit of a
because nobody plays like that. People did play like that before
tape recordings. I remember some Rubenstein recordings
that I grew up which were so faulty as to be funny, but you really
heard what people sounded like then. I am sure you’ve heard this
anecdote... I heard it in terms of Reiner
and a pianist. The two of them were sitting, listening to
a tape after a recording session, and the pianist said, “I
know I played that well,” and Reiner said, “You
don’t.” [Both have a huge laugh] I
don’t know whether there’s any comparison there with interpretation in
plastic, and what
the composer does.
BD: Of course
there are broadcast tapes which
will exist for years, and occasionally some will be dug out and
granted to listen to them or broadcast them again.
RP: Yes, but
I’m thinking of
myself, too, when I say this, so I’m not being really pejorative
I do play the piano, and I like the applause, and I love to do it, and
it’s a lot of fun, and though I might not look it, I feel like a hero
on the stage. But the fact is that a performer is a performer,
he’s recreating. He’s not creating. Thinking of the history
of performance, it goes back to the first actor, to the first juggler,
to first dancer. There really isn’t much difference. It’s
doing a thing for people, and wanting the
approbation, and so forth. But in the end, there is no permanent
record and an awful lot of people don’t feel the need for
played both side of
the fence now.
BD: As a
composer, how much interpretive
leeway do you expect or desire on the part of that interpreter?
RP: I expect
a lot of interpretation after I get
finished saying my peace, and I think that’s what Beethoven would have
expected too. Pianist Olga Samaroff (1880-1948) was married to
one point, and she used to say, “Exhaust the
page and then add what you have to add.”
words, what the composer didn’t put down, you’re free to deal with, but
you have to do as much as you can with what you’ve got in order to see
everything that’s there, and you have to know very much.
|Olga Samaroff (August 8, 1880 –
May 17, 1948) was born Lucy Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper in San
Antonio, Texas, and grew up in Galveston, where her family owned a
business later wiped out in the 1900 Galveston hurricane. After her
talent for the piano was discovered, she was sent to Europe to study,
since at that time there were no great piano teachers in the United
States. She first studied with Antoine François Marmontel at the
Conservatoire de Paris and later with Ernst Jedliczka in Berlin. While
in Berlin, she was very briefly married to Russian engineer Boris
After her divorce from Loutzky and the disaster which claimed her
family's business, she returned to the United States and tried to carve
out a career as a pianist. However, she soon discovered she was
hampered both by her awkward name and her American origins. Her agent
suggested a professional name change, which was taken from a remote
As Olga Samaroff, she self-produced her New York debut at Carnegie Hall
in 1905 (the first woman ever to do so). She hired the hall, the
orchestra, and conductor Walter Damrosch, and made an overwhelming
impression with her performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. She played
extensively in the United States and Europe thereafter.
Samaroff discovered Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) when he was church
organist at St. Bartholemew's in New York and later conductor of the
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 under
Stokowski's direction when he made his official conducting debut in
Paris with the Colonne Orchestra on May 12, 1909.
She married Stokowski in 1911, and their daughter Sonya was born in
1921. At that time, Samaroff was much more famous than her husband and
was able to lobby her contacts to get Stokowski appointed in 1912 to
the vacant conductor's post at the Philadelphia Orchestra, launching
his international career. Samaroff made a number of recordings in the
early 1920s for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Samaroff was the
second pianist in history, after Hans von Bulow, to perform all 32
Beethoven piano sonatas in public, preceding Artur Schnabel (who did
the series first in 1927) by several years.
In 1923, Samaroff and Stokowski divorced; the reasons included
Stokowski's infidelity, from which she never recovered. She took refuge
in her friends, among whom were George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Dorothy
Parker, and Cary Grant. In 1925, Samaroff fell in her New York
apartment and suffered an injury to her shoulder. The injury forced her
to retire from performing. So from that point on, she worked primarily
as a critic and teacher. She also wrote for the New York Evening Post
until 1928, and she gave guest lectures throughout the 1930s.
Samaroff developed a course of music study for laymen and was the first
music teacher to be broadcast on NBC television. She taught at the
Philadelphia Conservatory and in 1924, was invited to join the faculty
of the newly formed Juilliard School in New York. She taught at both
schools for the rest of her life. Called "Madam" by her students, she
was an advocate for them. She supplied many of her Depression-era
charges with concert clothes and food. She also pressed officials at
Juilliard to build a dormitory – a project that was not realized until
after her death decades later. Her most famous pupil was concert
pianist William Kapell, who was killed in a 1953 plane crash at age 31.
She herself said that the best pianist she ever taught was the New
Zealander Richard Farrell, who also died at age 31, in a motor vehicle
accident in England in 1958.
Samaroff published an autobiography, An
American Musician's Story, in 1939. She died of a heart attack
at her home in New York on the evening of May 17, 1948, after giving
several lessons that day.
Chopin phrased a certain way, or when he wrote this or that pedaling,
examine and see whether it’s possible on a modern piano or not; whether
metronome mark is diametrically opposed to what people expect, and what
The metronome marks are wildly fast. Nobody ever goes along with
Chopin’s metronome marks. So you have to do what you
can, and then you add. With my music I feel exactly the same
way. Stay with my tempos, stay with my dynamics, stay with my
phrasing, stay as much as possible with my string bowings, and then
it’s all yours.
music going today?
asked me that as a graduation question when
was at the Juilliard School. I made up something,
but I was uncomfortable because clearly nobody can know. I
don’t know what to do with questions about the future. Obviously,
I don’t know.
where does it appear to be heading? I’m
not asking you to look at the end of the tunnel, but to look at the
next few feet along the path.
you’re right in the middle of it, it always looks the same. It
probably looked the same way a
hundred years ago, that there are all these threads, and they’re all
pulling in different directions. Now there’s tape music, and
there’s minimalist music, and there’s maximalist music, and there’s a
so-called neo-romanticism, and people are discovering flats and sharps
in key signatures, and some people are going along the
way they have been. I doubt
very much if they will all come together, but looking back fifty years
from now, these
things will come together, and you will be able to see the highlights,
and this music we think of now as quite disparate,
really has much in common. I don’t know what people are
going to call our age. That’s perhaps another way of
answering your question. What will 1990 look like in 2025?
I hope it won’t look like a period of deadly reaction, but it seems to
be going that way because in the past fifteen years or so, composers
have seemed to simply run out of revolutionary
energy. It’s odd, but all the shocking music of
the ’50s and ’60s, and
even part of the ’70s is something that’s
not with us anymore.
music always be shocking?
But the fermentation defining the
activity always means energy. It’s a sign of energy.
With energy is something in the making. That doesn’t
mean the first is best, but it could produce something eventually which
be quite special. I don’t see that now at all. I see people
going back and writing pretty music, a lot of it without much
substance. But composers who write a bad kind of music of
any style probably always wrote a bad kind of music. It doesn’t
surprise me very much. There’s one composer, who shall be
nameless, who started out as a
tonal composer and wasn’t much good at that. He became a
twelve-tone composer, and he didn’t like that either, nor did anybody
else. Now he’s writing tonal music again, and rather simple
stuff that sounds almost like Eric Satie, and that’s not terribly good
either. What’s the difference? Does a style
matter all that much if a composer’s a good one or a bad one?
That’s the way it goes.
you threw around a few
of the labels that are going about these days. Is there any nice
little label that can applied to some or all of your music?
are very nice and general
because they’re confining, and almost do not admit of
interpretation. I have no idea where I am, except I’m none of
those things. I am ‘None of the Above’.
[Bursts out laughing]
BD: As you
approach your 65th birthday, what is
perhaps the most interesting or surprising thing that you have noted in
music over that time?
RP: I suppose
the advent of the tape machine.
certainly did change things a lot.
BD: For the
better or for the worse, or just change?
RP: I think
it is just change. I don’t think in
terms of better or worse. If it’s there, it’s there. You
cannot talk historically about things like that because there are
always super-talents who will deal very, very beautifully with
whatever performing media are around. At one time I put forward
the idea of beating up a piano in a way. Maybe that’s not an
accurate expression, but I mean opening the lid and
leaning into a piano with drumsticks in your hand, and beating the
strings as if you were a misplaced percussionist. It was very
foolish. If you wanted to make that kind of sound, you
should buy yourself a specific or an appropriate instrument, and play
on the keys of a piano because that’s what they’re there for. On
the other hand, I realize now that probably is a very limited way of
thinking. But I still think somebody in white tie and tail
coat, with the bench out of the way and his rear end sticking up in
the air with a drumstick in his hand beating a low C string on the
piano is one of the funniest sights in the world.
Still, if it makes a sound that cannot be produced in any other way,
and it works to the good effect of the music, why not? It
probably could be done …
BD: But who
is to decide if it’s a good effect?
RP: As I
said, the cream rises, and we will
see. I’m thinking of the sound effects, especially the
music of George Crumb
where he is taking a poor innocent
gong and sticking it in bucket of water, whacking it, and dipping it in
and out as it makes sounds. The sounds that come out can be
very seductive, and probably the sound can be made in other ways.
His music is extremely pleasant to listen to. It’s very,
very pretty. There’s something perverse about the way he
goes about making his sounds, but that’s personal and, as
I say, I tend to be unduly influenced with my sense of humor,
which sometimes gets in the way. A performance of a typical
Crumb piece always looks like something out the Hoffnung cartoons of
musical instruments. I think it’s a kind of
perversity. On the other hand, there’s no denying his creative
instincts and talent. They’re absolutely terrific and probably
quite limited, but what he says there he does extremely
well. So I don’t think it’s a matter of good or bad.
As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t heard any tape music that I could
really love, but maybe I will. Maybe it hasn’t been written
yet? I don’t think all that
matters. That is one of the advantages of reaching a certain
age. I have no idea whether this 65 is old or not. God
don’t feel any different from when I was 35.
good! Age is relative. If
you feel old, you are old, but if you feel still young, there’s
nothing you cannot do.
what they keep telling me. But
people don’t keep coming up and asking me, “How
do you feel? 30?
45?” What they see
is the 65. In any case, one of the
things that seems to have settled and made me feel more comfortable is
that an awful lot that doesn’t matter... like the tam-tam going into
water bucket, or tape music versus live music, or F major versus
twelve-tone writing, or
whatever. Does this style matter all that much? First of
all, history is going to take care of it very well for all of us, thank
you. We don’t have to really worry about it. You do what
you can, and you write you can with the material that you think is best
suited to what you have to say, and really everything comes out very
well in the long run. The big guys are going to be
there, and the bad guys will disappear. It’s always been that
so it will be that way, and so what else is new? Nature has a
way, and history is part of nature
anyhow, in one sense. I don’t really worry about details like
that. I don’t really worry about my style very much. I’ve
trying to develop it, and not write the same piece again, and again, as
some people do. At the same time, I don’t really want to write
counting to twelve, though I have for kicks just on very, very, very
occasions. I doubt if anybody would ever recognize that
Neither do I want to write with a key signature, but I want to
develop and change slowly from piece to piece, so that my late works
be different from my earlier works, and so forth. But I don’t
really worry about it. I just try.
probably the best way to look at it.
RP: I think
that’s the only sensible way to
at it, for otherwise you waste so much time worrying, and you don’t
write any music.
appreciate speaking with you today on the phone. I’ve
learned a great deal about you, and about your music.
RP: Oh, thank
you very much. I certainly have been
going on. I see that it really is an hour. I had no idea
talking that long. I didn’t give you much of a chance, did I?
Oh... The best interviews are the ones where I put in a
nickel and let my guest talk. [Both have a huge laugh]
That’s the kind that I like, and that works out the best
on the radio.
that’s wonderful. I think you did fine.
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on October 22,
1988. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1994 and 1999.
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
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.