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Dialogue of Cultures
Interview with
Pianist Andras Schiff

"The beauty of Bach is the freedom he gives us!"

This interview is reprinted from the Winter 2001-Spring 2002 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.

For related articles, scroll down or click here.

Andras Schiff gave a piano recital in Hamburg, Germany, on April 25, 2001, which aroused such a storm of enthusiasm in the audience, that, following the artist's content-rich, as well as extraordinarily technically-demanding concert, they called for three encores. Schiff had deliberately provoked his audience with the program: Bach's art of composition ran through the entire concert like a "red thread." The principles of Classical composition could be heard clearly, not only from Beethoven and Schumann (of course), but in the "modern" works by Janácek and Bartók (both of whom were composing at the beginning of the last century). And, Schiff manifests this self-same courage—to use deliberate intellectual challenges to surprise and to educate his audience—even beyond the concert hall.

For example, his fight against the absurdly high "Karajan-tuning," which he broadened with a new battle on the sidelines of the last Salzburg Festival. Because of his invitation, members of the Berlin and Vienna Philaharmonics (both of which orchestras play at extremely high pitch, even above A=445 Hz) ,as well as opera singers, and even conductors, discussed Schiff's proposal, "to at least agree on 440 Hz as the least common denominator." Immediately, Hildegard Behrens, representating the interest of singers, argued for Schiff's proposal; given that, certainly none of the participants was startled when, after some hesitation, the Berlin, as well as the Vienna Philharmonic musicians, supported the proposal. Yet, even this small "consensus" was not possible, because, unfortunately, the influential conductor Pierre Boulez buried the discussion, with nothing resulting at the end.

Manfred Thomas

For me, Bach is a very religious man, in the best sense of the word: a man who considers the composing of music as a mission, as a duty.

On the day after the Hamburg concert, Ortrun and Hartmut Kramer had an opportunity to conduct an extensive conversation with Andras Schiff about his views. The interview appeared originally in the Third Quarter 2001 issue of Ibykus, the German-language sister publication of Fidelio, and was translated from the German by Cloret Ferguson.


Fidelio: We were very inspired by your concert last evening, and it can serve as a good starting point for our conversation. Above all, we noticed, of course—and that fits well into a discussion about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—that you began with an early piece by Bach—"Capriccio über die Abreise des geliebten Bruders"[1] ["Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother"], and then covered a very large musical time-span, up to Janácek and Bartók, and then, interestingly, ended ultimately with Bach again, as an encore. Naturally, that prompts the question: Where do you place Bach's music?

Andras Schiff: Of course, the "framing" with Bach was no accident—I wanted to close a circle. And Bach's value? That's not easy to put into words. Bach's music is very important for me; it is the most important for my life. The entire music literature following Bach—all music intrigues and interests me, and everything I treasure in music comes from Bach. If a composer has no relationship to Bach, then, it doesn't really interest me at all. Bach is an entire musical, yet human, worldview. Here, the musical must be spiritual, not physical. It can make me happy, and sustain me, but it is much more. It is the content of Bach's music that intrigues me so.

Above all, Bach's lack of egotism—the incredible devotion and modesty. With Bach, we don't have the "image of genius" that certainly so strongly characterizes Mozart. But, people must be for sure very clear about Bach's enormous gift, his uniqueness. For me, Bach is a very religious man, in the best sense of the word: a man who considers the composing of music as a mission, as a duty. The quality that comes forth in his work is truly astounding; he writes his compositions day-in and day-out, and yet, they don't seem labored. Bach's music radiates this purity: purity in the polyphony, as well as clarity and transparency of the entire composition, whereby, each voice, each note is important. In Bach, nothing is subordinate.

This is otherwise an aesthetical principle in art for me. I'm mainly thinking here about economy—that one not write as many notes as possible. In this respect, composers such as Liszt and Berlioz fail completely: because, first of all, they have nothing to do with Bach; and second, they lack the modesty, as well as the economy and discipline. I could remove half of a gloss by Liszt and the piece wouldn't suffer. You can't remove one note from a Bach fugue!

Fidelio: You said something very important at the beginning: That all great composers arise out of Bach, that you hear him poking out from inside the music, since among other things, you consciously work out the reference to Bach. Even in the Janácek and Bartók—as well as the Beethoven and Schumann—Bach was heard inside the music.

Schiff: That's natural, since I'm very influenced by Bach, and haven't played, and don't play, any other composer as frequently as Bach. I do it every day. I play other composers very frequently, too. Some also every day, some not. But I play Bach every day.

Fidelio: So, you do exactly what Pablo Casals did? He also played Bach every day.

Schiff: Yes, I've indirectly learned, or ascribe that to Casals. To be sure, you have to have an urge for it, too. A spiritual, but above all an intellectual—yes, even a physical urge. I do it instead of pianistic exercises and scales, which bore me to death.

Fidelio: Bach thought so too.

Schiff: Surely. I'm very much against it, when people drum into a young musician's head, to play études. Most young musicians exercise incorrectly, and stupidly—and hence, lose a lot of time. Moreover, it's not efficient when people sit for ten to twelve hours at an instrument. That must not be, and is lost time. If we work daily, say, three, four hours, very concentrated and intelligently, then people achieve much more! Never permit a person to exercise mechanically! Mechanization of musicians is unworthy of human beings! When you walk through the corridors of music schools, you very often hear how people will play a passage taken from a piano piece mechanically, fifty times in succession, rapidly and loudly—it's frightful to witness how idiotically people practice.

Fidelio: How did you handle that in your development? Did the study of Bach's music play a very great role?

Schiff: Yes, its influence was very great. In Hungary, I had the good fortune to get a very good education; but concerning Bach, studying with George Malcom—which happened entirely fortuitously—had the greatest influence on me. Because, the art of fostering Baroque music and style did not generally exist in Hungary then. Of course, Bach was part of our study—that's the case everywhere; but in almost every music school in the world, one is taught, today, just as one was a hundred years ago. Almost nothing has changed there. And that's bad, because it has petrified a bit. Even in Hungary it was so, even though I had great teachers there, especially György Kurtág.

From Kurtág, and my other teachers Pál Kadosa and Professor Ferenc Rados, I learned a great deal about Bach, too. As well, I benefitted from the fact that that Kadosa and Kurtág were, first of all, composers. My development was shaped more by composers, than by pianists. That's why I have—even though, unfortunately, I'm no composer, for this I have no talent—an "antenna" to think musically as a composer. At least, that's my goal.

Next to Bach, I have occupied myself very intensively with Bartók, and have even studied his recordings as a pianist. I know them very well, and very much esteem them.

Fidelio: You mean the recordings that Bartók made as a pianist?

Schiff: Yes. Indeed, whether Bartók was playing his own music, or playing piano works of Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin—and thank God these documents provide it—there is simply a much more elevated kind of music-making, than that which "interpreters-only" do. It's difficult to explain why that is so, but composers "see behind the notes"—they recognize the coherence, the structure.

In certain measure, a composition is a primeval forest; one can easily go astray. An interpreter is the equivalent of a scout, but they don't all know the way! Another comparison would be to a mountain guide, with whom one makes a grand tour of the Himalayas. A composer knows how to get through in a case like this; it's incredible, but because of this knowledge, he is able to realize tremendous freedom.

To exhibit music like that, would be my chief aim; and that has all to do with Bach.

Fidelio: Did Béla Bartók also hold Bach's music in high esteem?

Schiff: Above all else! It's especially interesting, because Bartók was, of course a Twentieth-century Classical master—although it shouldn't be forgotten that his roots still lie strongly in the Nineteenth century. He was born during the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and for a while Liszt was his ideal. Among others, he studied with Liszt's pupil Thoman, and therefore his way of thinking was initially influenced by Liszt; and also by late Romanticism, for example Richard Strauss—Bartók wrote a piano reduction of Zarathustra. But then he drew far away from this direction—I believe, because he occupied himself very intensively with Bach. He even prepared an entire edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier; indeed a very interestingly one. Although I don't play it, because Bartók changes the order of the pieces ...

Fidelio: ... based on what criterion?

Schiff: Based on degree of difficulty. He regarded these works literally as "teaching pieces," and began with two-part fugues, and then continued to three- and four-, up to the five-part fugues, which he put at the end, because they are naturally the most difficult in the collection. In addition, he supplied Bach's score with dynamical markings, articulation, etc., as was the custom in the Nineteenth century among publishers. That is legitimate as interpretation of these works; however it influences us—especially as it is in print—negatively, unfortuantely,. Of course, this isn't an issue any more; such editions aren't used now, only the original text—although, as we know, even there gigantic differences exist.

Fidelio: Still: If one considers the question of differing editions, in light of what you previously mentioned—the key word was "guide"—then it's certainly interesting to pursue this; whether one follows every step, or even imitates, is a completely different matter.

Schiff: It's very interesting today, to know how such giants as Bartók, Busoni, or Francis Tovey very intensively—or, very intimately—interpreted such a gigantic musician as Bach. One would simply like to know their opinion. That's why the study of such editions is important. But each interpreter must decide for himself how he's going to play Bach. The beauty of Bach is the freedom he gives us. That never again existed after him. A Bach score is a quasi "tabula rasa"—yet full of spirit. Bach gives nearly no instructions; he specifies nothing regarding tempo, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, accentuation. Only the notes are there—but how we get them to ring, there we have endless possibilities. Although, within a certain framework.

Glenn Gould, for example, whom I otherwise much admire, because he is a brilliant interpreter, is very often outside this framework, in my opinion, because he considers Bach to be abstract material. In my opinion, Bach is not abstract, but an historical figure. He hails from a certain time and a relatively strictly defined, geographical region—Germany, or rather, Thuringia and Saxony—and he is very Protestant. For that reason, people can't say, Bach could be independent of religion. That's nonsense. Anyone who doesn't engage himself with Protestant church music, can't do much with Bach: with his chorale melodies, the cantatas—indeed, even the German language plays a great role for Bach. It's very easy for an English-speaker to say, "This has nothing to do with his music." It's a good excuse, since these people don't speak a word of German! So, the matter isn't settled there.

I've clearly witnessed this, when I had the good fortune to be able to conduct the St. Matthew Passion.

Fidelio: Where?

Schiff: First, in Winterthur, then in London; three times altogether. It was certainly always a dream of mine, and now it's happened. It was a key experience for me, illuminating everything. For example, it confirmed my belief, how important the language, or the general culture is, for music. In preparing, I found endlessly many interesting things: Quotations in the great choral settings from Bach's instrumental works; for example, in the Second Part of the Passion, a "turba" chorus,[2]"Sein Blut komme über uns" ["His blood be on us"]. I detected this really innocuous "Echo" there, from the "French Overture," where it's called "Echo," and people play it as such: merry and joyful. But, when one adds the cited text, it makes the blood boil! Interestingly, it's even in the self-same key—B minor.

Previously, I had no idea of this coherence. And that's only one example of how connected and intertwined Bach's sacred and secular music are. There also exist in the Well-Tempered Clavier, Part I, a Prelude in E-flat minor, and a Prelude in B minor, which could be part of the St. Matthew Passion. By the same token, we find minuets, bourrées, gavottes, gigues, also dance settings, in the Passions and religious cantatas; everything goes hand in hand. That's why Bach's music is no abstraction, but something very concrete.

Fidelio: Furtwängler had a fitting reply to the "eternal" controversy of the music historians, over whether people should be permitted to perform Bach only in church, or also in the concert halls. Furtwängler's terse reply was: "What's that? Wherever Bach is, is church!"

Schiff: Magnificent!

Fidelio: So, for that reason, with Bach, it doesn't matter, whether one, for example, goes to church every Sunday, because his music is accompanied by an entire worldview.

Schiff: Yes, people say that God is everywhere; and so also in Bach's music throughout. His music is something divine. A manifestation of divinity.

Vera Markel
Fidelio: When you study such a work as the St. Matthew Passion—for the first time for yourself, as a conductor, since that is originally not your field—how do you go about it? You'll probably say, you've worked on it your entire life ...

Schiff: Actually, yes, but naturally not concretely, because I only studied this piece during the recent years. I am no conductor—I have not studied conducting, but I have studied music. So, I intensively studied the full score, and played it many times. For this, playing the piano is not a bad thing, because you can play the St. Matthew Passion almost enitrely on the piano alone—which doesn't work on a flute. Moreover, you can analyze the work quite well by playing the full score; but, it's also very important to know what one can not do while studying on the piano. Much has to be done "away from the piano." For example, during a walk in the woods. There a person can develop many thoughts, and also analyze and integrate.

Fidelio: Beethoven and Brahms set the example for that.

Schiff: Yes, that's how a person can really reflect, and that's why I'm most fond of walking. Many thoughts come to me that way. What's most important to me with conducting is homework. Before I go to an orchestra rehearsal, I must prepare, and mark my material very prescisely: bowing, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, accents. I try to make it as precise as possible.

Fidelio: Do you, yourself, even mark the bowing of the strings?

Schiff: Yes, even the bowing of the strings. In this I'm helped—unfortunately, I don't play a string instrument—in that I have often played with excellent string players, and have learned from them. Besides, in this regard, I always show my work to my wife, who is a great violinist. If something is entirely wrong, she warns me. She plays it for me, and then we discuss it. Meantime, I rarely make serious errors; should they happen sometimes, I adhere to the corresponding objections of the first violinist. The main thing is, that a conductor, at the first rehearsal, must come with a clear conception, not only with respect to the sound of the piece, but also, for example, in regard to the bowing.

Fidelio: Formerly, would such careful preparation have been entirely self-evident?

Schiff: I don't know. In former times, I believe that conductors did much better, than today. They brought their material with them—good material. I am astonished that nowadays many conductors come to rehearsal with bad editions—particularly hazardous is that with the Vienna Classical period. In Peters [Editions], there even are voices with wrong notes and incorrect harmony—and those haven't been rectified. I can't understand the conductors, who hold rehearsals, and then only, so to speak, "see and hear what emerges."

Fidelio: To come back again to the piano: What came across in yesterday's concert, above all, was your incredible ability, with the wide range of composers you covered, to shade (color) dynamically. Where did you learn this?

Schiff: I learned that in my development and previous musical experience, but it is also a necessity. Every musician has a "sound-imagination." Some have little of it, some a lot. It is like the richness of color: many people are satisfied with black and white, others use more color, some a whole palette. I always heard richness of color, but couldn't realize it, because I was too young.

People speak so much today of technique: "Such and such pianist has great technique." Mostly, this is misunderstood—the pianist celebrated now by music critics as a "fantastic technician," is mostly the one who plays the fastest and the loudest, and doesn't produce any wrong notes. But, on the contrary, great technique signifies, to me, an infinitely alive "sound-imagination" and " -inventivenes"—and then, to realize this. In this way, the realization of the richness of color is achieved. If a pianist hears only two colors, the realization of those is no great art. To me, in this sense, Alfred Cortot, who played many wrong notes, had the greatest technique. Because he produced an unbelievable richness of color on the piano, millions of colors—like a great painter. That's very important to me. That's why painting and the other arts, to me, are so important.

Recently, I was at a Frans Hals exhibit, and in the descriptions it was stated, that he could depict over thirty shades of black alone. You can see it in his paintings: there is hiding a tremendous technique, of course, but moreover, a corresponding conception. First comes the idea, then the technique. And not reversed!

Today, the concept of technique is continually misunderstood. What now is often described as technique, is actually mere mechanics. Mechanics is something motor-like, machine-like. Technique is much more refined, something humans have evolved.

Fidelio: It's the concrete expression of a creative idea, which has brought forth the technique.

Schiff: Sure.

I have not studied conducting, but I have studied music. To intensively study the full score, playing the piano is not a bad thing,because you can play the St. Matthew Passion almost entirely on the piano alone—whicb doesn't work on a flute. It's also very important to know what one can not do while studing on the piano—for example, during a walk in the woods. There, a person can develop many thoughts, and also analyze and integrate.

Fidelio: Back again to the St. Matthew Passion. Your thoughts about it make a very strong impression; to which, one could add as a sort of footnote: The part "Sein Blut komme über uns unsere Kinder" ["His blood be on us and our children"], is today often used to justify calling Bach an "anti-Semite."

Schiff: For God's sake, of course Bach is not that! Really, I am one-thousand percent Jewish! Of course, I know the reproaches: I have often had problems with many of my Jewish friends, who at first refused to go to such a Bach concert. When, in spite of this, they have come anyway, they were grateful. I'm of the opinion that there is not a trace of ant-Semitism in Bach.

All the "active participants" in this piece—even more so in the Gospel of John, as in the entire New Testament— were after all Jews. I believe Jews must learn that there exists another worldview than theirs. Reality isn't "it's the world against us," but rather, the fact that there are human beings who get along with one another, and do not act against one another. This is a question of fellow human beings, and thus of relations among human beings. The people—how easily the people are influenced! It has nothing primarily to do with Jews, Christians, Romans, etc. It is about the mass of the people, who, being so easily influenced, can, indeed, be manipulated.

Besides, how Bach portrays characters like Pilate and Judas is very important. In the St. Matthew Passion, for example, Bach has genuine comprehension of Judas, he is incredibly human. So much so, that he conveys this comprehension of, and pity for, Judas, to the listener, too.

Then the passage, where the Scribes say: "Was gehet uns das an?" ["What is it to us?"]—it is so incredibly real; because, it happens now, everyday, on the street; when we observe or look away. It's an awful mess: "What is it to us?" People kill and get killed; it's war, but nothing troubles us. That's why Bach's music is so important! For heaven's sake! Bach is not anti-Semitic. No, I'm against such an opinion.

Fidelio: Lessing, in his Nathan, has portrayed it so beautifully, in the Parable of the Rings, where he develops that the greatness of the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, exists in that they worship the same God and stand for the idea that each person is in God's image; also, endowed with reason, and can think creatively. To that extent, these religions are universal. In the Parable of the Rings, Lessing shows this in a poetically beautiful way. And it's also the creed of the Schiller Institute—man, each man, in the likeness of God. On this basis, every culture manifests a reflection of it. In fact, no culture could have developed, if the form of image of man which predominates, didn't reflect this creative gift—this likeness of mankind to God. On that account, no culture can say: "We are the sole culture." Instead, one must seek after what is primary: What joins all cultures to one another? It is, so to speak, the highest common principle!

Schiff: Absolutely!

Fidelio: Exactly this interests us in music. You are right, one is able to learn very much from the other art forms, but in the realm of music—if you wish to express it religiously—with really great music, be it Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Schumann, etc., we humans are nearest to God.

Schiff: Yes, I sense that very much also; but, unfortunately, not all people have an antenna for this. The reference to "the Almighty" is always there. One needs only to discover it. For this, one has to educate, or invite a person. Today, unfortunately, the opinion often prevails, that Classical music is for the elite; many, sometimes even whole groups of people feel themselves excluded. They are not excluded, but heartily welcome! Of all things, I find it most wrong when nowadays one "dilutes" Classical music to make it more intelligible, or more popular. Music has to be performed on the highest level, and one hopes that people come and listen; and I believe that it's not that few people. Compared to Pop culture, proportionally, there are naturally fewer, but it has always been like that. Yet, this proportion, compared to the time of Bach or Mozart, has grown tremendously, in my opinion.

Fidelio: Since you just now spoke of education: Of course, in yesterday's concert, you didn't point the familiar "pedagogue's forefinger," but your pedagogical intention was, in spite of it, very intelligible.

Schiff: Yes, I didn't point a "forefinger," but I was definitely active pedagogically. I always do that: above all, because, I think of the young people who come to the concert-hall, and we must show concern for the upcoming generation. It is very worrying that at the concerts—however much I love and value old people—the average age is very high, and this is the case world wide. That's the tendency. Although, with this older audience, I find that a concert must be much more than blatant entertainment.

Often concerts are superficial, and the listeners leave the hall without thoughts and new ideas. A concert is an important undertaking for me. In the first place, I must devise a program that speaks for itself. As pianists, we have many, endless possibilities, of course—violinists and 'cellists, for instance, or even wind-players, have far fewer choices. But the solo repertoire for piano has enormous treasures, which need to be cultivated; especially the great Bach works. One can perform a wonderful cycle: The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas, "English" and "French Suites," the "Italian Concerto," the "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue," as well as the "Goldberg Variations." Those are nearly all the important piano works by Bach. One can then continue with Mozart sonatas, as well as Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, with Schumann, and so on.

But, with regard to content, you can also make a mixed program coherent. Like yesterday, where each piece was allied with the other. In the first place, referencing the common Bach source. I consciously placed the very unfamiliar Bach piece at the beginning, his "Capriccio über die Abreise des geliebten Bruders"; perhaps, in these parts, it's not so unfamiliar, but I played that program two days ago in Warsaw, and practically no one had ever heard this "Capriccio." They were all astonished, and I said: "Indeed, there are such Bach pieces, too." Not only the "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue," or the "Italian Concerto." This is a quite younger Bach; you can see a young man hiding behind it. Incidentally, it also is one of the first examples of "program music."

Fidelio: Merely the words alone of Bach are charming, where among other things, it says: "Cajoling of friends, to hinder him from the journey" ...

Schiff: ...Yes, "Cajoling," and "Various calamaties" that could happen to him, or "General Lamento of friends." ... Naturally, Bach's model was Kuhnaus's Biblical History in Six Sonatas [3]; he learned that from him.

I recently played this "Capriccio" in a program that bore the title: "Les Adieux." Naturally, in the concert, I also played the "Les Adieux" sonata by Beethoven. I am entirely certain that Beethoven was acquainted with this "Capriccio" of Bach. Otherwise, he wouldn't have composed "Les Adieux" like this. For example, the bugle-call—the coherence with Bach's "Aria del postiglione" and subsequent fugue on the postilion bugle-call, is evident. And, many of these sorts of connections exist in this sonata. Incidently, in this connection, I intentionally play one of the lesser known Beethoven sonatas. What I particularly value in the Opus 27, No. 1, is the uniqueness of its form. This sonata is a "Sonata quasi una Fantasia"; entirely thorough-composed. And, because the form of this sonata is unique—"quasi una Fantasia"—it fits well with the Schumann "Fantasie," which again is nothing else but a camouflaged sonata.

From the history of the origin of this Schumann "Fantasie," we know, in the first place, that it was thought of as a "memorial" to Beethoven. Of course, it is also a love poem, generally, the first love poem in piano music. At the time Robert Schumann wrote the "Fantasie," he was separated from Clara. The "Fantasie" is an "outcry," in an apparently hopeless period; but also, a memorial to Beethoven—Schumann quotes Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte" at the end of the "Fantasie."

Fidelio: That was heard distinctly.

Schiff: And, only because I discovered—quite by chance—a few years ago, the original, Schumann-composed ending of the "Fantasie." At the suggestion of the musicologist Charles Rosen, I went to the Library of Budapest, where there is an old transcription of the Schumann "Fantasie," showing an entirely different concluding section, than is played customarily. This transcription, with remarks by Robert Schumann, has, in the meantime, been published by Henle as the original text; however, people played the Schumann "Fantasie" with the "conventional" ending for practically one hundred years. The original, Schumann-composed ending, quotes the theme from Beethoven's "An die fernen Geliebte." So, therefore, here too a circle closes itself, like Bach's Goldberg Variations, where the first and third sets end alike.

I believe such a program fulfills its aim, namely, that the intelligent, sensible listener, should leave the hall filled with new ideas. That would be my desire.

Fidelio: Entirely in the sense of Schiller, who, in his "Theater as a Moral Institution," demanded that the onlooker leave the theater, or the concert-hall, a better person than he had entered.

Schiff: Excellent! Schiller can say this, but I can't! And yet, one hopes that at some time, one will also achieve this. It must become so, for we are living in a terrible world, in regard to the education level of the general population.

Fidelio: Since you have presented the relationship between Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann so beautifully, how did you, in this connection, come up with the pieces of both Janácek and Bartók?

Schiff: First, because, I wished to show how music itself always develops further. One could proceed chronologically, even further—in the above-mentioned program, "Les Adieux," I also played pieces of the underrated contemporary composer Kurtág. Kurtág wrote small miniatures for piano; completely wonderful, small poetical pieces. One was named "Les Adieux in—Janácek's Manier [Style]," and, content-wise, it fit so fantastically in the "Les Adieux" program, that I included it.

As to the program of yesterday's concert: Janácek and Bartók are composers who were born in the Nineteenth century, but were masters of the Twentieth century—their compositions date from the Twentieth century. Of all Twentieth-century composers, these two are the closest to me, by far. That is, I have enormous difficulties with the "Second Vienna School"; difficulties I can't resolve—or will not resolve. Also, when I said before that all great music derives from Bach, so too has the music of Schönberg much to do with Bach. However, something about it irritates my nervous system. Actually, there are pieces of Schönberg which sound indescribably hideous, for example, his last piano piece, Opus 33, or the "Horn Quintet"—nothing exits in the world that irritates me more. And, then, this equalization of the twelve tones; I can't think that way, it is against my nature.

Fidelio: It's against nature in general ...

Schiff: Yes, I agree; even if one actually wishes to avoid such remarks ex cathedra. However, with few exceptions, apart from—and those concern Alban Berg, who sometimes didn't break so radically with the Classical tradition, like Schönberg or Weber, for example—that is, what the "Second Vienna School" produced, is not real music.

In contrast to Schönberg, Berg, and Weber, an entirely different line is represented by Janácek and Bartók; not decadent, but extremely sound. The roots of their music rest in language and folklore—both have cultivated the treasure of folklore and their own language. Both are of completely different natures, but they are yet related. Their music grabs me, it is so direct. Janácek has no inhibitions, overall; he's simply not ashamed. It's so unbelievably honest, and he opens his heart and his soul. His few pieces for piano are really worth gold: the set of two sonatas 1.X.1905, and the "Im Nebel" piece played yesterday. That's almost all. I just recorded them on CD; I play these pieces again and again, since, in the first place, they are unknown—even still today—and also, because this music radiates so much force and warmth.

Moreover, I was stimulated by the paradox, that in the program there are three completely great German masters, Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. Janácek, of course, had nothing against German culture, but was a great opponent of the then-ruling monarchy, which dominated and captured all German music for itself. In those days, this region of Europe was practically all German. Understandingly, an opposition arose against it—in Russia, and also in Czechia, i.e., Smetana and Dvorák. I would count Chopin in it too. Janácek also belonged to this important opposition movement in Europe, which wasn't directed against German culture, but the protagonists wished to fulfill themselves, to show that they had their own cultural way, too. I find that very valuable.

Fidelio: These artists had their own cultural direction, which, nevertheless, corresponded to a constant, universal principle.

Schiff: Right! And Bartók went a similar way, according to which I find that Bartók consciously and unconsciously, was more traditional than Janácek. Bartók's education was Classical. Janácek was otherwise self-taught; a savage, a wild lunatic. In spite of this, these minatures are unconsciously very Schuman-esque. In my opinion, Schumann detected something very self-contained in piano music: the poetry, also the form. He doesn't write strong sonata-forms or song-forms, but rather—like Papillons or Carneval, to name some pieces—miniatures; chameleon pieces, with a lot of character, but which whisk by in twenty seconds. They actually whisk past. That's Schumann's invention. Janácek must have either known that conception, or have been influenced unconsciously by it.

With Bartók everything is much clearer: what stems from Bach, and what from Beethoven; these two masters, in particular, shaped him. The polphony, also the voice-leading, and the musical structures, come very directly from Bach, especially, Bartók's piano sonata; just as the piano concertos and his string quartets were influenced by Beethoven. Incidently, he said that explicitly, too.

In short, all this was the concept of yesterday's concert.

Fidelio: In every instance, it was very convincing. The reaction of the public, indeed, showed it.

Schiff: Yes, the listeners were very grateful, and open. And in return, I like to show the audience that I have my confidence in them. You can't take people to be stupid. I find that today, our cultural activity functions completely wrongly, and that is very bad. How is television programming done today? The particular program organizers suppose that they know what the public needs to hear. Yet, we, also, belong to the public—and have never been asked. These program organizers decide autocratically, that they will not have any cultural progams; at least, not at normally broadcast hours—if it's a cultural program, then it's after midnight only. Elsewise, we're given only the complete filth put on television; eighty channels, and hardly anything but muck. Why? Because those responsible know exactly what they are doing.

This conscious degrading of the culture is distinctly observable. One feels it even in so-called "little things." For instance, here in Hamburg, too. Yesterday, as I entered the concert-hall, I saw a poster with my program—but completely confusing, the pieces in the wrong sequence. And I had given so much thought to that program, and gave it to the organizers, one, even two years beforehand. And, in spite of this, these mistakes!

Fidelio: The "trick" is evident: The organizers think nobody will come if Bartók and Janácek are printed on the poster, even when Andras Schiff himself is playing.

Schiff: But, isn't that unbelievable? Janácek died in 1928, that Bartók piece dates from 1926—and one speaks of "modern" music in 2001? That is actually miserable! Besides, the assumption is wrong, for listeners are fascinated with this music.

Fidelio: What you have just touched upon, especially about the kind of programming on televsion, is very significant. You are right—and already in our last interview a few years ago, we had spoken about being forced to accept this politics of culture "from the top." It's as if a cultural war were being led against the reason of the population. Entirely directed, with a great deal of money and sway, the population is indoctrinated and manipulated. Precisely in order that the educational capability you and we value so in the Classics—refinement, aesthetical sentiment, spiritual and intellectual sentiment—should be suppressed as strongly as possible! Classical music is truly the best medium through which to directly foster mental-spiritual development, especially in children. This is destroyed through Rock music or drugs, for instance. Totally consciously producing a cultural sphere, which impedes and even strangles productive human life. If you were young today, and without a strong will, or being nurtured through family home life or appropriate relationships—you'd have practically no chance to develop yourself, or of growing up "fully normal" from adolescence.

Schiff: So it is. The influences in school today, and Rock music—Rock music is a terrible drug—as well as the continuous "spraying out" of music, are negative. Today, you cannot go anywhere, not a restaurant, nor a railcar, where you will not be "sprayed" with insipid music. We are in complete agreement, but we constitute a tiny minority; but, of course—I don't like large crowds.

Fidelio: Mr. Schiff, hearty thanks for this thought-provoking conversation.


1."Capriccio Sopra La Lontananza Del Suo Fratello Dilettissimo" a piece of "incidental" music by J.S. Bach:

"In 1704, Bach's brother Johann Jacob left to become an oboist in the army of Charles XII of Sweden. On that occasion Bach wrote his "Capriccio on the Abscence of His Most Beloved Brother," with programmatic titles for the various movements as given below:

"1) Is a coaxing by his friends to dissuade him from the journey."
"2) Is a picturing of various calamities that might overtake him in foreign parts."
"3) Is a general Lamento of the friends."
"4) Now come the friends, since they see that it cannot be otherwise, and take leave of him."
"5) Air of the Postilion."
"6) Fugue in imitation of the Postilion's horn."— (back)

2. "turba" [L., crowd]. In oratorios, Passions, etc., a choral movement representing Jews or heathens." Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978). (back)

3. Johann Kuhnaus was organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipsig from 1684; music director of Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, and cantor of Thomas Schule from 1701, the position in which J.S. Bach succeeded him. The Bach Reader, rev. edition, ed. by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel; rev. by Christoph Wolfe (New York, W.W. Norton,1998.) (back)

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