TUDYING MUSICOLOGY in graduate school, I quickly noticed the obsession my teachers had with the word “lacuna.” (The only word they liked better was “dichotomy”…but I digress.) Musicologists were always searching for a lacuna to fill—in other words, an area of study which hadn’t already been researched to death. Sometimes, however, one does come across a genuine lacuna.
A fantastic example would be scholarship on the great pianists; there is practically nothing available. The best books are by Harold C. Schonberg and David Dubal—but just two authors are woefully insufficient to cover such a topic. Those of us interested in the Golden Age of Pianism finished reading all available books twenty years ago, along with everything we could find by the great pianists themselves: Lhévinne, Hofmann, Chasins, and so forth—but such writings were meager. We also devoured whatever could find by less important authors such as Charles W. Rosen, Elyse Mach, and György Sándor—but this, too, was scant. Allan Evans promised a biography on Ignaz Friedman, but ended up producing an utter travesty. The vast majority of his book didn’t even mention Friedman—instead, it consisted of “lesson notes” for a completely different pianist (who once knew Friedman). Evans tried to justify his fraud by saying he had trouble finding information about Friedman… Even the recent release by Ward Marston claiming to contain “secret” interviews about Josef Hofmann contains very little material not available two decades ago. 1
WHY IS IT, THEN, that so little about the great pianists is available? One reason might be that musicians tend to be horrible writers. For instance, online you can find someone who claims to be an “internationally known expert on historical pianism.” I won’t mention his name, because it’s irrelevant. I recently grabbed comments from his page, intentionally limiting myself to comments posted during the last two months. Each comment purports to describe a different pianist! His writing is tedious and meaningless:
…plays with a gorgeous tonal palette, elegant but boldly shaped phrasing, refined dynamic levels, marvellous pacing, and sumptuous timing.
…The playing throughout features wonderfully transparent textures, a steady rhythmic pulse, mindful accenting that never breaks the melodic line, and poised voicing.
…the recording fully reveals the grandeur of her tonal world, the subtlety of her nuancing, the breadth of her dynamic range, and the natural intelligence and heart that she brought to her interpretations.
…What a gorgeous tonal palette, fluidly phrased melodic lines (his subtle pedalling in the opening is incredible), rhythmic bite, and marvellous transparency of texture.
…impeccably balanced voicing, wonderfully defined rhythm, refined dynamic layering, and sumptuous tone – what a gorgeous singing line.
…a gorgeous singing tone, deft articulation, attentive balance of primary and inner voices, transparent textures, and lovely phrasing.
…a glorious touch, a wonderfully burnished singing line, beautiful pedal effects, attentive articulation, and marvellously coordinated voicing.
…lush tonal palette, sumptuous fluid phrasing, beautiful voicing of chords, and transparent textures.
…wonderful tonal colours, beautifully burnished melodic lines, incisive rhythm, and attentive interplay of voices.
…a pure sonority, transparent voicing, wonderfully buoyant and defined rhythm, and beautiful phrasing.
…he plays marvellously, with a soaring melodic line, sumptuous rubato, a sensual interplay between primary and secondary voices, and a gorgeous full-bodied singing sonority.
…plays with remarkable refinement (his dynamic shadings are incredible), rhythmic buoyancy, marvellous voicing, elegant phrasing, and gorgeous tonal colours.
…playing with a gorgeous singing tone, masterful pedal technique, beautiful terracing of voices, and rhythmic vitality.
…a fusion of flawless technical command and musical integrity, with dazzling fingerwork, seamless phrasing, marvellous balance of primary and inner voices, iron-clad rhythmic pulse, and refined dynamic control.
…a gorgeous polished singing sonority, soaring lines that are masterfully shaped, incredible dynamic layering, utterly beguiling pedalling, iron-clad rhythmic precision without any boxiness, and a host of other qualities. Sheer brilliance.
…soaring phrasing, majestic timing, gigantic bass sound, and refined singing line.
…What glowing tone, fluid legato balanced with mindful articulation, masterful pedalling, and rhythmic vitality!
…an absolutely ravishing tone and sensitive nuancing, with incredible dynamic gradations, rhythmic vitality, and musical depth.
…incisive rhythm, fleet fingerwork, crystalline articulation, and impassioned phrasing in lyrical sections.
…gorgeous tonal palette, sumptuous phrasing, rhythmic vitality, and wonderful dynamic layering beautifully captured in hifi sound.
…an exquisitely refined sonority, magnificently shaped phrasing, wonderful clarity of articulation and rhythmic pulse, and judicious pedalling that never obscures the clarity of texture and the line.
…boldly burnished lines, attentive voicing, wonderful pedalling, and some ravishing nuancing.
…clarity of texture, deftly defined articulation, sprightly rhythm, and beautifully burnished tone.
…crystalline tone, disarmingly direct delivery, fluid legato phrasing, and gorgeous nuancing.
Mindless comments like these make a mockery of his audience. He just recycles the same comments over and over, no matter who the pianist is. His page reads like satire…and he’s been posting this garbage daily for many years! Franz Liszt famously said: “It is easy to have musical opinions, but far more difficult to provide a musical justification for those opinions.” Perhaps that is why so few authors write intelligently about the great pianists.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The official biography of Josef Hofmann was announced (by Gregor Benko) thirty years ago but is still “in production.” Many have begun to question whether it ever will appear. In the 1990s, I spent hours in the library reading old newspaper clippings about Hofmann as well as books such as The Amazing Marriage of Marie Eustis and Josef Hofmann. Even now, people seem ignorant of such sources—which is why, for example, they repeat the lie that Hofmann “couldn’t play Rachmaninov’s third concerto because his hands were too small.” His wife gives the true reason in that book.