interview: mark robson

Mark Robson explores the outer limits of an intriguing repertoire. He discusses his program in this interview.

Q. Debussy’s 12 Etudes are considered by many to be his richest legacy for solo piano. How do they distinguish Debussy as a composer?

A. The Etudes connect Debussy to a strong tradition of works that were written as studies but have become art pieces. The tradition began with Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and culminated for Debussy with Chopin’sEtudes which served as a model of technical and artistic mastery for him. The 12 Etudes embrace a variety of technical concerns, an amalgam of styles from the composer’s oeuvre, and an occasional foray into things yet to come. The first set concentrates on intervallic ideas such as 3rds, 4ths and 6ths, and the second set is concerned with textural ideas such as sonority in opposition, repeated notes, and chords. The Etude for Arpeggios, which is the next-to-last, is an abstraction of the idea of the harp in its most ideal sense, using glissandi and arpeggiation which one associates with the harp. Debussy had a particular technical focus for each piece, but if you listen with a broader perspective, you get an evocative tableau of tremendous scope. Debussy wrote his 12 Etudes after a fallow period toward the end of his life. He sought the stimulation of the seaside as his environment for composing and these pieces often suggest water imagery and the atmosphere of a landscape. The Etudes were basically all written at the same time and sum up Debussy’s compositional ideas. Each one stands solidly on its own as a significant movement, but together they have a family resemblance. As a group they are the most physically demanding of his piano pieces. Sustained stamina is required from the pianist; you have to have your wits about you at every moment when you play them.

Q. Debussy and Skryabin were contemporaries, the former from France and the latter from Russia. You are playing two major works of each composer. How are they similar and how are they different?

A. Debussy and Skryabin had traditional roots but belonged to a generation of composers who were constantly re-evaluating their position on harmony, melody and timbre. All of the major composers at this time were searching for ways to handle the broadening pallet of harmonic choices. Debussy and Skryabin were outstanding pianists and mature composers. The piano was their fundamental instrument and even though their language was different, both were concerned with the suspension of harmonic development. Some of Debussy’s writing avoids a sense of finality or resolution. The harmony remains suspended, but suspended in a way different from Skryabin. Both of these composers also sought effects of light and color not imagined by other composers. Later in his career, Skryabin composed using the octatonic scale, which is a symmetrical partitioning of whole steps and half steps in the octave. Debussy differs from mature Skryabin by drawing on many types of scalar structures: modal, major and minor, octatonic. His music still retains a classical shaping of beginning, middle and end and projects a sense of emotional development. The later Skryabin works often seem to hover without development despite the energy of their surface structure. Sonata No. 8, for example, is a very circular piece. The melodic material and set of motifs are so interlinked that the piece feels as if it is constantly spinning rather than evolving.

Q. Messiaen and Skryabin both saw color when hearing sound and both were influenced by nature. How do these elements influence their music?

A. Messiaen was interested in the scientific phenomena of biology, astronomy and botany. He observed the cycles of nature and often organized materials using numbering systems drawn from nature. Quite specifically, his observation of birdsong culminated in a musical language that became a major part of his output. Skryabin was not as precisely oriented to nature but was influenced by natural rhythms and impressions of nature. His philosophical leanings led him to conceive of an ideal world in which mankind and nature formed a harmonious whole, and he believed his music would be a vehicle for attaining this harmony.

Q. You are premiering a new work by Athanasia Tzanou. Tell us about this work.

A. Motto: Nege is inspired by the idea of snow, snowfall and whiteness or clarity. The piece, nonetheless, is quite chromatic and the harmonic structures utilized have an affinity with the language of both Skryabin and Messiaen. The piece is in three main sections that are unified by the use of grace-note groups, textural oppositions of sustained chords and staccato skitterings, sounds produced by reaching into the piano, and certain recurring melodic profiles, whether in chordal presentation or in the form of octave reinforcement.

Q. How did you go about selecting this program?

A. I wanted to present Debussy’s Etudes as the cornerstone of my recital. The remainder of the works were chosen by virtue of their potential to complement that piece. Skryabin, being a contemporary of Debussy, offers interesting comparison at the level of color and harmony. Messiaen, of course, is an avowed admirer of his French predecessor and shows a similar penchant for evoking nature and being stimulated in its presence. Messiaen and Skryabin are also linked by the phenomenon of synaesthesia. And although Tzanou’s work was made known to me through our Piano Spheres website after I began to develop my program idea, her idiom seemed fortuitously to work well with the accompanying repertoire. I suppose the theme throughout the recital is the rigorous exploration and organization of color.

Interviewed by Mary A. Hannon