NE OF MY PROFESSORS at the conservatory was Alice Downs. Perhaps I’ll write an article about her someday; she’s difficult to “pigeonhole.” She was a child prodigy and had the opportunity to study with the legendary Alfred Cortot in the 1950s, but instead chose Jacques Février because Cortot often ‘neglected’ his students due to his busy schedule. (To be fair, so did Josef Hofmann and Josef Lhevinne; assistants did most of the teaching.) Alice Downs once told me that she discouraged her male students from pursuing the study of music “unless you can’t live without it.” I remember pondering whether I can “live without” music. I bring this up is because artists tend to be quite passionate. Indeed, pursuit of artistic perfection drove almost all of the greatest artists into miserable lives. For example, Sviatoslav Richter couldn’t function—much less perform—unless he carried around his pink, plastic lobster for comfort. Hofmann (probably the greatest pianist of all time) became an alcoholic. Horowitz lived a very troubled life. So did Ferruccio Busoni (toward the end). Ignaz Friedman was hopelessly addicted to gambling. I could give many more examples.
In the past, I have described my absolute hatred for projects I undertook ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago. I look at what I have done in the past and painfully observe every flaw. I am filled with embarrassment, self-hatred, and self-criticism. I know other artists who experience similar feelings, which are not inconsiderable.
What’s the answer to feelings of self-doubt and self-hatred? Let me share with you my theory. I believe trenchant self-criticism is actually a good thing, because it means the artist is always reaching higher and higher. It sets the artist apart from those who are lazy, those who are apathetic and—worst of all—those who cannot tell what is excellent and what is garbage. The reality is, even the greatest artists produced flawed items at the beginning of their careers (e.g. Chopin’s 1st Piano Sonata). Artists must overcome two challenges:
(1) Paralysis • Artists must resist paralysis; instead, their motto must be: “Live and learn.” There’s always tomorrow. If you made a small error, you’ll be sure to correct it next time.
(2) Rudeness • When somebody praises past work (in which the artist now sees flaws), artists should not reply: “That’s garbage; I hate it.” Instead, follow the advice of Father Valentine Young, who said: “Whenever someone gives you a compliment, just say Thank you and nothing else.” Sage advice.
Furthermore, de gustibus non disputandum est. For example, Robert Schumann is considered a great musician by almost everyone. But when Frédéric Chopin’s student played Schumann’s Op. 9 Carnaval for him, Chopin replied: “I hate such music.”
Nobody Is Perfect
It can be helpful to remind ourselves that even the most fabulous productions have flaws. For example, on page 750 of the (absolutely gorgeous) Gregorian Missal (Solesmes Abbey, 2012), the editors accidentally lapse into French:
After Vatican II, the Breviary was revised. Look at this error they made in the “Vexilla Regis” of Bishop Fortunatus, which erroneously copies the line above:
Achille P. Bragers had a sloppy editor who wrote “Creator of the Starry Night”—but if you look on page 3, it was supposed to be “Creator of the Starry Height.” This was for his 1954 hymnal:
Consider “Mass and Vespers” (Solesmes Abbey, 1957), perhaps the most magnificent book ever produced. We find a major error in the English translation:
As I stated earlier, the Gregorian Missal (Solesmes Abbey, 2012) is an absolute masterpiece—but look at this header:
For that matter, examine at the headers in the Gregorian Missal (Solesmes Abbey, 2012) for Advent:
Can you understand what is horribly wrong with the translation here? Give it a try:
Even the finest books, such as the Nova Organi Harmonia Ad Graduale Juxta Editionem Vaticanam contain wrong notes. In “Mass and Vespers” (Solesmes Abbey, 1957) we see the note on “vinum” is incorrect, and even the Custos shows this:
Some people consider the most beautiful book ever printed to be Fortescue’s 1913 “Hymnal for Saint Hugh” printed by the Roman Catholic printer, Stanley Morison (d. 1967). It’s a gorgeous book, but even that book contains typos. For example, look at the accent on “créduli” (erroneously placed on the penult):
But that error doesn’t spoil Father Fortescue’s book. You can see a sample page of the beautiful typesetting from 1913. Nor does the following typo wreck “Mass and Vespers” (Solesmes Abbey, 1913) even though the word “the” is spelled incorrectly:
The “Offertoriale Triplex” prints “circuítu” for Christmas Day, but the correct accent is “circúitu.” It’s difficult to understand why they allowed this mistake, when the whole emphasis in the Triplex is supposed to be about “the word”—wouldn’t the first step be learning how to pronounce the word circúitu, before trying to reproduce the practices of a certain monastery 1,000+ years ago?
Here is a glaring typo from Mass & Vespers (1957).
The 1965 Missal—which is full of typos—spells Epiphany incorrectly: with three (3) P’s
I’m also confused when organizations publish erroneous reproductions of ancient prayers and attempt to “copyright” those flawed versions. An example would be this one: the correct accent is “índue” not “indúe.” (It is rather disheartening to think of young boys learning the pray that prayer incorrectly.)
Surprises From The Past
Something cool happens sometimes. You hear something or read something you published a long time ago and…it’s better than you remember! I recently came across a recording made about 13 years ago when I was teaching at a Catholic high school. I have no idea how it was recorded or when it was recorded. For that matter, I don’t remember teaching this piece or playing it on the piano. (I had no paid accompanist, so I had to play the piano as accompanist for the children.) If you had taken me into a court of law a few days ago, I would have said I never heard this piece—although I clearly did, because the recording proves it!
Anywhere, here’s a brief excerpt:
I was pleasantly surprised by how this came out! The lesson is this: The artist is usually not objective about his own productions.