interview: leonard stein

Leonard Stein travels the maze of Boulez’s Sonata No. 3, a work he premiered in 1962 at the Monday Evening Concerts. Experience the rare opportunity to hear this work from the hands of one of its original performers. Stein will also give the world premiere of two new works and play several small pieces that will challenge and excite the listener. Leonard discusses his program in this interview.

tributeQ. You were one of the first pianists to play Boulez’s Sonata No. 3. How did you obtain the music before it was published?

A. Boulez composed Sonata No. 3 in 1959 and I immediately wrote to the publisher for a copy. It wasn’t published yet but they sent me a photostat of the score in his writing. I set to work to copy it which was quite a task. It turned out to be a twenty page manuscript.

Q. When did you first play it?

A. I went to Europe in ’61 and heard Boulez play it. Later, I looked him up to make corrections to my copy. I premieredSonata No. 3 in 1962 at the Monday Evening Concerts. Boulez was at Harvard University in 1963 and he asked me to playSonata No. 3 on a program of his music. It was then that I got my lesson from him about how it should be played and he was most interested in the sonorities over anything else.

Q. How has literature influenced Sonata No. 3?

A. The literature of Mallarme and Joyce were a big influence. Mallarme’s words “A die cast will never abolish chance” inspired Boulez to lay down musical fragments on the score like a poem on a page. The performer is then given indeterminate choice as to how to play the piece. The consequences of that choice are strictly controlled by the composer and the relations between choice and control are literally part of the musical effect.

Q. How is the work organized?

A. It is divided into formants entitled Antiphonie, Trope and Constellation. Trope and Constellation have been published but I am one of the few people who have Antiphonie because it has never been published.

Q. What indeterminate choices have you made in playing Sonata No. 3?

A. The order I have chosen is to play Antiphonie, followed by Constellation and ending with TropeAntiphonie is a small introduction in a-b form that can be played four different ways. Constellation is the immovable still center of the Sonata and is made up of blocks of sound (chords) printed in red and points of single notes printed in green. One must play red after green or green after red and the choices within the two colors are determined by arrows which give the effect of a labyrinth. You can play them in 1,000 different orders, choosing your way through the music as if you are traveling through a maze. The challenge is how to make continuity out of little fragments. Trope is in circular form with no beginning and end. You can start at any point but I have chosen to play it as Boulez played it. Every note is marked and there are so many effects that you have to think each one out.

Q. Do the other pieces in your program have any relationship to Sonata No 3?

A. The other pieces are smaller and of a different character. They all lead up to Sonata No. 3. I start the program with Schoenberg’s Op. 33a, always a joy to play. The small piece by Anna Rubin, a former student of mine at Cal Arts, was dedicated to me for my 85th birthday. Six Episodes by HK Gruber are tonal but influenced by 12-tone. I have known Gruber for many years and he experimented with 12-tone but found it was unwelcomed in his native Vienna. His music is often influenced by popular culture. In fact, you’ll hear an influence of the Beatles in theSecond Episode.

Q. Your program continues to gain momentum from beginning to end. Tell us about the smaller works in the second half of your program.

A. I begin the second half with Op 33b by Schoenberg. This is followed by a small piece by Luciano Berio, commissioned for the 75th birthday of Boulez. It is a fast, sticky piece with lots of repeated notes. Good technique and good piano action are important when playing this piece. Finally, I’ll be performing the world premiere of Peyman Farzinpour’s Four Vignettes, small pieces that move from slow to fast. These pieces accelerate to the final Sonata No. 3 which is a tribute to my long and valued friendship with Pierre Boulez.

Interviewed by Mary A. Hannon

Stein founded Piano Spheres with four other pianists in 1994. Now in its ninth season, Piano Spheres specializes in the performance of contemporary piano classics. In 2001, the 50th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s death, Leonard Stein performed his piano works at a Piano Spheres recital, as well as a performance and lecture series at the Schoenberg Center in Vienna. We are privileged to have talked with this distinguished pianist, teacher and scholar about his association with Arnold Schoenberg and his thoughts about the piano and modern classical music.

Q. You worked side-by-side with Arnold Schoenberg when you were his teaching assistant at UCLA. During this time he was developing his 12-tone method of composition. What effect did this have on him as a composer and teacher and on you as a student?

A. Schoenberg rarely talked about his 12-tone compositions. The only time we got into it very deeply was his first lecture on 12-tones, which he gave in 1941 and is in printed form today, and when he showed me his work on the String Trio which he wrote in 1946. We discussed parts of some of his works but he never let me in on how he composed his 12-tone music. He kept it mostly to himself and let others describe it and analyze it. Our class discussions were on Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and practically nothing on Schoenberg.

Q. Schoenberg believed that the idea is the most important element in a work of art and that the idea will never perish. Bach’s idea of counterpoint has proven this true. Has Schoenberg’s idea of composition with 12-tones taken firm root in music history?

A. His approach to non-tonal music was like creating a new world of music. His was music without key references or references to a tonic. He was not concerned with chord progressions that give you a sense of ending or release of tension. This was inevitable because of the accumulation of so many dissonances and chromaticism by late romantic composers such as Wagner, Richard Strauss and Debussy. Schoenberg’s contribution to music has taken its proper place in history as an evolution from the music that preceded it.

Q. What makes Schoenberg’s piano music distinctive?

A. It lacks any of the typical accompaniment figures of the 19th Century; no broken chords and very little use of the pedal. He didn’t want anything to obscure the musical line and he was very interested in the polyphony of the lines. The melody may appear in any voice; upper, middle or lower. In a certain sense he is closer to Bach than to any other composer. I approach his music as I approach the most complex music of Bach.

Q. You took all of Schoenberg’s classes; theory, harmony, counterpoint and composition. What was his approach as a teacher?

A. Schoenberg believed that the weightiest problem in teaching was that young geniuses make discoveries by themselves just by thinking and talented students learn from their education. He tried to find out what each student was capable of. He admitted to me that when he was a young teacher he over-taught. He taught everything he knew and you shouldn’t do that. You should teach pupils what they need to know for their own development.

Q. What approach should a student take in learning a new piece?

A. I prefer the analytical approach, learning the piece as if you were the composer. Study the components of the piece; motifs, periods, sentences. Then begin to see the relationship of one part to another; the creation of a certain order. For example, compare what happens in measure 1 with what happens in measure 57 and understand why things happen as they do. Analyze the masters, Beethoven especially, because Beethoven can be explained more easily than the other masters as to form and harmony.

Q. When changes of style occur in the arts the difference between the old and the new can be confusing to audiences. What should they do to overcome their confusion?

A. The history of music is one continuous line. The latest is derived from what has gone before it. Some people become outraged at a new work because they can’t find the connection with what has preceeded it. The clues are there and it is up to the listener to make the connection to what he/she is familiar with. By reading and listening more, the audience will have additional clues to help them understand. They will have more illumination and fascination with the new because they have connected with the old.

Q. You have had a life-long commitment to bringing new music to audiences. Have you witnessed a more adventuresome public to music of the 20th Century?

A. When I first started playing modern music as early as 1930, there weren’t many people interested in it. I’ve looked back on some of the old programs and I can’t find works by Bartok, Hindemith, Copland or any of those composers we know so well today. Because of recordings I think there’s much more sympathy for new music. The audience is well aware that there will always be something presented that they don’t understand at first. But they are willing to listen and be open to new listening possibilities. Today is different from the past. Music surrounds us all the time because of recordings, radio, television and the internet. We hear more music and we become more identified with it. There are so many kinds of modern music, some of which has direct appeal and some of which it takes two, three or more listenings to understand. Even the critics have decided to encourage rather than discourage modern music. I think these trends speak to a healthy future for music.