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The Writings and Letters of Konrad Wolff

The Writings and Letters of Konrad Wolff

by Ruth Gillen (Editor), Russell Sherman (Foreword by), Otto Begus (Translator), Leon Fleisher (Prologue by), Russel Sherman (Foreword by)

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"[Wolff] is a remarkable pianist, an excellent theoretician, a learned teacher, a brilliant thinker and writer." —Artur Schnabel

"This collection of [Wolff’s] writings and letters should bear ample testimony to a musician who happily combined the artist, the teacher, the musicologist, and the charm and integrity of a human being." —Alfred


"[Wolff] is a remarkable pianist, an excellent theoretician, a learned teacher, a brilliant thinker and writer." —Artur Schnabel

"This collection of [Wolff’s] writings and letters should bear ample testimony to a musician who happily combined the artist, the teacher, the musicologist, and the charm and integrity of a human being." —Alfred Brendel

"Konrad Wolff writes about music with the verve and enthusiasm of a great teacher who has never lost his sense of music as an adventure. To read him is to enter into a lively dialogue with a superior musical mind and a buoyant spirit." —Richard Goode

This collection provides elegant and thorough portraits of an important 20th-century performer and lover of music, as well as of his greatest influences.

Editorial Reviews

Presents a selection of the writings of pianist, musical theoretician, teacher, and writer Konrad Wolff for the benefit of students, teachers, musicians, and music lovers. His writings are organized into essays on composers including Frescobaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and others; letters to and from various musical talents and critics; miscellany on such matters as Christmas music, music appreciation, authenticity, and teaching and writing music; and the Brendel-Wolff "debate," which includes an addendum by Alfred Brendel. Includes a prologue by Leon Fleisher and a foreword by Russell Sherman. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Indiana University Press
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.83(d)

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The Writings and Letters of Konrad Wolff

By Ruth Gillen, Otto Begus

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2006 Ruth Gillen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02839-6


FRES COB ALDI (1583–1643)

Girolamo Frescobaldi, Italian organist and composer, is considered by some to be the first great master of organ composition. In the preface of a few of his works, he gives valuable clues to performance practices in his time. After concluding a statement about the necessity of overcoming technical difficulties through practice, he writes: "Should a player find it tedious to play a piece right through he may choose such sections as he pleases, provided only that he ends in the main key." Regarding tempos: "The opening passages should be played slowly so that what follows may appear more animated. The player should broaden the tempo at cadences ...." On trills and expression: "If one hand has a trill, while the other plays a 'passage,' do not play note against note but play the trill rapidly and the other expressively."

Introducing a lecture-recital on Bach in London, c. 1950, Wolff discusses the neglect of "old" composers and extols the genius of Frescobaldi in particular.

At the time when I was a child, the general music-loving public believed that great music, our music, began with Bach and Handel. All earlier masters were of merely historic interest. The names of Palestrina, Schütz, and Corelli were known, but not their works. Those of Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, not to mention Josquin des Prés or William Byrd, were completely unknown even to the professional. It may have been different in England, and I would be anxious to know whether British audiences were as familiar with Byrd and Dowland then as they are now.

Anyway, at the time I am speaking of, around 1910 to 1925, it was frequently said that if Bach was the greatest of all composers it was because he was the first, the originator of it all. But in the meantime we have experienced a general rediscovery of old music and old instruments....

Our knowledge of old music has become so general that at last the former patronizing attitude of the average music lover toward the old masters has disappeared. The beauty of some of their works is enjoyed directly in our day, by which I mean not only by a mental comparison with Bach and Handel: "See how Schütz already anticipates Bach's Passions," and that sort of thing.

I have chosen a Toccata by Frescobaldi, not only because I consider it a great masterwork but also because Frescobaldi was the earliest of the masters who directly influenced Bach. We know for a fact that Bach knew and studied some of his works. Frescobaldi could be called the Franz Liszt of the 17th century. He was organist at St. Peter's and his glamorous improvising was so famous that on solemn occasions many thousands of people assembled outside St. Peter's to hear him play. At the same time, like Liszt, he was intellectual and experimental.

"Toccata," in Frescobaldi's oeuvre, means exactly what it later means in Buxtehude and Bach: a keyboard piece in different short sections following each other without a real pause and unconnected in meter and speed, the whole being held together by the use of a few basic motives. The only difference is that in Frescobaldi, the sections are much shorter and therefore convey an even more improvisational atmosphere. The basic motive, in this instance, is furnished by the very first beginning.

If you compare this work with Bach's Toccatas or Phantasies, it will strike you how much more domesticated, tame, and regular they seem — although within Bach's own oeuvre they constitute a particularly spontaneous type of composition. ... The reason, of course, is not to be found in any lack of imagination or courage on Bach's side. Nobody was more daring than he and more imaginative. However, Bach could create only in the pursuit of a big musical idea, and every single trait had to be subordinated to this idea, which makes for concessions in the freedom of musical detail. His toccatas, free as they are in rhythm and meter, do not quite measure up to Frescobaldi's diversity of patterns, which one might compare with the language of a poet who historically would stand just on the border line between the medieval and present-day language, using the old grammar and vocabulary in all their wealth alternately with modern simplified word endings, so that the reader of today finds himself at home yet enjoys the embellishments furnished by the older elements.

The toccata you are going to hear, and which was published in 1637, that is, 3 generations before Bach's works in the same form, gives a beautiful sample of his art. To the glamour of the improvisational richness and inventiveness is added a deliberate fusion of different styles, old church modes and modern tonalities, strict counterpoint writing in dissonant intensity — some passages indeed almost sound as if Stravinsky had looked them over. ... The wealth of the texture is enriched by sharp contrasts between flowing passages in even notes, and sharp rhythms, often in complex juxtaposition of duple time and triple time — here, too, an older and a newer style seem to be fused and integrated. Since the piece does not use the pedal of the organ it can be played on the piano exactly the way the composer wrote it, except for the overtone effects through doubling. The tone-colors — which, of course, would be slightly different on the organ — completely bring out the atmosphere of the piece.


BACH (1685–1750)

His Last Work

In 1982, Wolff transcribed Bach's last choral-prelude for 'cello and piano as a gift for musician friends. He added a quotation on this work from Albert Schweitzer's book J. S. Bach (chapter12); Wolff's comments follow. The final bars of the transcription have been combined with Wolff's inscription by the editor (Ex. 2).

[Albert Schweitzer]

It seems that Bach spent his last days totally in a darkened room. When he felt that death was near he dictated to Altnikol a choral Fantasy on the melody "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein" (when we are in ultimate crisis), but asked him to put as a title "Vor deinen Thron tret ich allhier" (here I step before Your throne), which is sung on the same tune. In the script one can still read all points of rest which the patient has to take. Day after day, the ink got more watery, the notes written in the half-dark behind darkened windows are hardly legible.

In the dark room, already surrounded by the shadows of death, the master created this work which, even among his own compositions, is unique. The counterpoint revealed therein is of such perfect art that no description could do it justice. Each segment of the hymn is treated in a fugue in which each time the inversion acts as a counter-subject. Nevertheless the voices flow so naturally that after the second line one is no longer aware of the métier, but is under the spell of the spirit which speaks to us in these G major harmonies. The noises of the world did not longer penetrate through the curtains of these windows. The dying master was surrounded by harmonies of the sphere. For this reason no suffering is included in the music. The quiet eighth-notes move beyond all human passion,- over the whole piece there is the word "transfiguration" in lights.

[Konrad Wolff]

1982 is no longer as flowery as 1907 (the year of my birth and of the genesis of Schweitzer's book), but I do feel very much along these lines, as far as the substance is concerned. The choral prelude is the ultimate condensation of his G major peace music — the Christmas oratorio; the two Preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier books; the Fifth French Suite and the Fifth Partita in their Sarabandes; the Cello Suite, etc., etc. It is also the only piece known to me in which chromaticism appears in the major mode in Bach. The long last note of the hymn, under which all other voices die away, one by one, gently and serenely, is the closest one can come to describe Eternity in music, I think. So you see this scribbler, vintage 1907, is a little flowery himself still in 1982.

[Spirit, Style, and Forms: A Brief Exposition]

Extracted from a rough draft, this lecture-recital was the first of four given at St. Cecilia's House in London for the benefit of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund, year unknown but estimated to be about 1950.

His forms have often been compared to those of nature. There seems to be a natural order and coherence in the works which defy analysis, because the patterns are not totally regular nor calculable and include what G. K. Chesterton once called the "silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything." Of the forty-eight fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, there is not a single one without some irregularity, which one recognizes as such by looking at the other forty-seven fugues. Or take the Brandenburg Concertos. He establishes the type, in these six works, as a concerto in three movements, but the first concerto has four movements, and the third concerto only two. One might say that the only rule of form which he observes without exception is that in every piece there must be an exceptional occurrence proving the rule....

Bach is essentially a composer of series of pieces. He hardly ever composed single compositions. Like a portrait photographer who, in order to give a complete impression of his subject, takes a series of poses, Bach undertook each type of composition in a series of works — the six Brandenburg Concertos, the six violin solo pieces, the six French Suites, the twenty-four Preludes and Fugues of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, etc.

Bach's forms have been very much misunderstood. Some people, for instance, speak of him as a "mathematician," meaning that he is theoretical and schematic in the structure of his pieces. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Bach, in his two-part dances and rondos, etc., uses exact proportions of length, he always avoids mechanical or schematic repetitions. Anything schematic was contrary to his nature. That is why he declared that he did not like to write variations....

The other, more important misunderstanding arises from a false dramatization of his pieces in performance. Conductors, organists, pianists, etc., very often try to build the compositions up to a final climax, and the end of an organ fugue or an orchestral suite is not infrequently made to sound like the end of the Star Spangled Banner. This attitude, which is furthered by misleading nineteenth century editions of the music, destroys the line of the piece in nearly all cases. Actually the climax in a Bach toccata or fugue, or concerto, hardly ever comes at the end. It generally occurs toward the end of the middle section, and is built like nature builds waterfalls: the stream is condensed into the fall and then continues to flow freely downward. If you remember the cadenza from the first movement of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, you will know what I mean.

[Another example is from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Prelude in C minor (Ex. 3). After repeating this bold pattern for 24 bars,

The dramatization of forms is also contrary to the very spirit of Bach's music. It does not end, like in movies or novels, with marriage and death, respectively. This music, as I said, is certainly not mathematical, abstract or dry ever,- it always is human and warm, and runs the whole gamut of human emotions. Just consider his fugue themes from the Well-Tempered Clavier, as an example in a nutshell [Exs. 4-6].

But it is never colossal or monumental, on the one hand, and never romantic in the sense of emotional, on the other hand. [In the margin, Wolff wrote: "Elaborate."]

It would be interesting to have a confirmation of this in Bach's own words. Unfortunately, he hardly ever expressed himself about his art, and we know very little. Almost the only authentic source of Bach's conception of music consists in a little preface which he gave his pupils as the heading of a textbook on thorough bass.

PRECEPTS AND PRINCIPLES FOR PLAYING THE THOROUGH-BASS OR ACCOMPANYING IN FOUR PARTS by The Royal Court Composer and Kapellmeister as well as Director of Music and Cantor of the Thomas-Schule JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH at Leipzig for his Students in Music. 1738.

This is what he says:

The thorough-bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, so that this results in a full-sounding harmony to the Honour of God and the permissible delectation of the spirit; the ultimate end and final goal, as of all music, so of the thorough-bass, should be none else but the Glory of God and the renewal of the soul. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish bawling and droning. (Teuflisches Geplerr und Geleyer).

As you see, it is an essentially private conception of music, as something that passes directly between each individual and God, and it explains why Bach's works, even the greatest creations like the B minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion, when compared to the Messiah, for instance, lack the truly and intentionally monumental quality which makes masses integrate, the very quality which made Beethoven prefer Handel to Bach and Mozart. The work which I am going to play now, and which I selected because it belongs to Bach's greatest keyboard works and has been unduly neglected in the concert repertoire, is also one in a series. The series here, however, consists of only two compositions: the other one is the Italian Concerto [Ex. 7]. Bach published only very few of his works himself, and the fact that he published the B minor Overture [Ex. 8] together with the Italian concerto indicates how much he must have valued it. What is the reason for the strange, indeed unique, coupling of a concerto with a dance suite? It is that in both pieces Bach attempts to create the illusion of a full orchestra playing. Just as the Italian concerto is meant to suggest a real concerto for piano and orchestra with marked solo and tutti sections, this Overture suggests pieces like the Suite for flute and strings in the same key. It has one thing in common with the flute suite, moreover, and that is that at the end, after the last dance, a light and brilliant final number is added, Badinerie-Echo.

Now that you have heard this music, I want to say just a few words about the French element in it. Bach had the same cosmopolitan attitude which had distinguished the medieval scholars who had taught in France, Italy, England, Flanders, etc., or the Renaissance painters who had traveled from one land to another, without feeling their art particularly associated with the land of their birth. Bach, though prevented from traveling through the unhappy general conditions of his country, thoroughly studied music of all nations, and his boundless imagination made it possible for him to become as French as Couperin in a piece like the one I played, and as Italian as Vivaldi in the Italian Concerto. As a man and as a Lutheran he was German, but as an instrumental composer he did not have — and did not want to have — any fixed nationality. No wonder, then, that his works, when at last they were rediscovered, made the round of the world. Characteristically, the greatest interpreter of Bach in our day is a Catalan musician [Pablo Casals]. Even the French impressionists, so anti-German in their attitude to music, excepted Bach. I believe that it is not an accidental constellation that today, when the long period of nationalism in music, first represented by masters like Mussorgsky, Verdi, Debussy and Bartók, and later by many lesser figures like Reger and Villa-Lobos, is finally on the way out, Bach is more and more heard and much better understood by the general public than 30 years ago.


Excerpted from The Writings and Letters of Konrad Wolff by Ruth Gillen, Otto Begus. Copyright © 2006 Ruth Gillen. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author

Ruth Gillen is a pianist who studied with the duo-pianists Vronsky and Babin, as well as with Konrad Wolff.

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