of a 94-year-old Chamber Music Masterpiece
by Isidor Saslav
(Swans - January 12, 2009) But, you ask, isn't there only one chance for any musical work to get its world première? After that event any further performances are simply repeats. And, if the composer is lucky enough, it's repeat, and repeat, and repeat...especially in the case of the Trio in A Minor by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). For the last 93 years since the work's première there hasn't existed a functioning piano trio ensemble anywhere in the world that has not regularly trotted out that composer's one piano trio, his pièce de resistance of 1914, to show off what their group can do and to mightily please their audiences with that composer's ever-fresh washes of nostalgia, Basque folk charm, and musical seascapes depicting his native Saint Jean de Luz, a small seacoast town in the southwest corner of his home country just across the border from Spain. That is why, no doubt, the illustrious, world-renowned, much recorded, ubiquitously-traveled but now retired Beaux Arts Trio, launched some 50 years ago by pianist Menahem Pressler and friends, chose to include this very work on the new group's very opening concert at Tanglewood in 1957.
Technically you are right. What we heard the other night on November 18 in the Homer Price Rainey Building (otherwise known as "the old music building") of the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) was a world seconde, the actual première having taken place at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on January 28, 1915, some 5 months after the composer had finished the work in that very same small home town in August of the previous summer. But as performer, editor, and lecturer Richard Dowling revealed to his audience, by spoken word, musical example, and the printed page, in a real sense that original première often corresponded very little in many of its details to the manuscript that the composer had left behind with both performers and printer. Left behind?
No sooner had the composer finished his only essay ever in the piano trio genre in August of 1914 than he rushed off to join the French army; for tragically, that world conflict, which was to destroy the lives and talents of so many in the younger generation of much of Europe, had just broken out in the very month in which Ravel was engaged in enriching that same world with another example of his unique genius. Fortunately for us, a health issue prevented Ravel from being allowed to join all those others destined for death over the next four years. Instead, the French army assigned the composer to the life-sparing job of driving an ambulance.
Well, you ask again, what brought pianist, chamber musician, and editor Richard Dowling to the point of having to recreate (and improve) that January 28 event of 93 years before? If you'd been there in Austin, Texas, on November 18, along with perhaps 200 other audience members, you'd have been ready to take in Dowling's exhaustive explanations of his new critical edition of Ravel's Piano Trio followed by his performance of this beloved work. And you too would have come away as amazed and enlightened as I had become concerning the peregrinations and adventures of this staple of the chamber music repertoire. (It reminded me of those old days a few decades ago when I too used to go around the world giving similar lecture-concerts on the Haydn string quartets, showing how their bastardized editions created 200 years ago differed so greatly from what Haydn had actually written.) To be sure I personally had been involved with the production of this new edition. Some weeks before, Richard had visited our home in Overton, Texas, and after the cordialities had been traded we settled down to the business of reading the new edition from start to finish, Richard at the piano and I at the violin to see if all the notes and other markings were as Richard had recreated them without any printing errors. There weren't any.
But of course, no pianist, however talented as is Dowling, would be able to perform Ravel's Piano Trio by himself. For this he would have needed two collaborators. And Dowling was fortunate to be able to draw upon the talents and availability of two of Austin's leading musical lights, Daniel Ching, founder and first violinist of the Miro Quartet, resident at the Butler School of Music of the UTA, a co-sponsor of the event, and Amy Levine Tsang, cellist of the Laurel Trio and likewise an Austin resident. Both of Dowling's collaborators joined him in illustrating excerpts from the trio for the lecture, a lecture presented to the audience by Dowling for an hour and a half in preparation and without an intermission for the actual performance. Both Ching and Tsang performed, as did Dowling himself, with the élan, warmth, brilliance, and fire that the work demands, and, to judge by the enthusiastic reception at the end, no one in the audience seemed untouched by the event.
Well, your further inquiry persists: what was all the fuss all about? What was so important about this particular performance compared to those other thousands the work has enjoyed around the world for nearly a century? And why was this very important performance given in, of all places, Austin, Texas, rather than, say, Paris or New York? If you'd read D. T. Max's profile of the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) of the UTA, featuring its director Thomas Staley, in The New Yorker last June you'd begin to have an inkling. (Fortuitously, the "Harry Ransom Center," re-named after its founder of the 1950s, used to be known as the "Humanities Research Center" of the UTA. Thus no initialed towels or napkins needed to be replaced when the original initials bridged the transition to its new title.)
The explanation of the event was also aided pre-concert by Richard Workman, Associate Librarian at the HRC, an institution famous for decades as being the greatest and largest repository of original source material of English literature and its minutiae to be found anywhere in the world (not to mention much Hollywood film lore). A great deal of research by Dowling had gone into the preparation of his new, scholarly edition of the Trio in the 20 years from and since the time the Trio was the subject of Dowling's DMA dissertation at this very UTA. During his undergraduate days at Yale his mentor and inspiration for this sort of research had been the Beinecke Library's Head Music Librarian, Harold Samuel.
Not too long ago, after many years of wishing and trying to get the fruits of his research into print, Dowling persuaded Mr. Clark McAlister, the editor in chief for the owner of the E. F. Kalmus Music Publishing Company (EFKMPC), Mr. Leon Galison, to have Kalmus publish his critically revised edition of the Ravel Trio. This was on the face of it a highly implausible event. The EFKMPC had long been suspected, perhaps unjustly but seemingly plausibly by us sophisticated musical practitioners, as a reprint house adroitly skirting the copyright laws by inserting obvious and easily correctible "howlers" into its reproductions so as to prove to the musical (and judicial) world that it was not the actual copyrighted works that it was selling to the public. Those howlers served to leave us with the impression that EFKMPC was not entirely to be trusted when it came to accurate texts of great masterpieces.
Well miracle of miracles, Mr. McAlister had been insistent for some time that EFKMPC was about to completely reverse its modus operandus and to attempt to become a rival to the famous European publishers Baerenreiter and Henle (for the which latter I also worked as a co-editor for two decades) in the creation of authentic, Urtext editions of famous works by composers of genius. Dowling, evidently impressed, joined EFKMPC as a project editor, and was assigned to turn out authentic editions, based on original autograph manuscripts, first editions, piano rolls, and recorded sources one after another for EFKMPC's new division, Masters Music Publications (MMP). By 2007 Dowling had issued for MMP other works by Ravel, along with works by Gershwin, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), and Gabriel Faure. But then it became Ravel's Trio's turn to receive the Dowling treatment after all those years of research in Texas and elsewhere. Dowling finally convinced McAlister and Galison for the go-ahead and soon Dowling's long-gestating critical Ravel Trio edition too saw print. This UTA presentation was the first live performance of Dowling's new edition, and in a most appropriate venue given the new edition's history. (EFKMPC/MMP have now remorphed themselves once again into "LudwigMasters Publications," or EFKalmus/LMP.)
So Dowling, once finally having set his sights on a project so dear to his heart must have then surely hied himself off to Paris for the research for his new edition. Where else would one expect to find the autograph manuscript of one of the greatest French works of music ever written? No: Dowling stayed put in Texas, where he had been born and raised (in Houston) and returned to his final alma mater, the UTA. Not in Paris but right there at the HRC is to be found Ravel's actual autograph MS of this great work. (That's why this performance took place under the co-sponsorship of HRC's "Music from the Collections" Series and just a few steps from its doors.) Texas? How did this invaluable sheaf of paperwork get from Paris to Texas? Thanks to Workman's introductory remarks we learned much.
Carlton Lake, many of whose own collections reside at the HRC, an illustrious author, literary detective, and connoisseur of all things French, developed a taste for French music some decades ago and went to France to see what he could find. (Lake's own many adventures are to be found in his autobiographical Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist, 1990.) Once in France Lake heard by secret sleuthing and sniffing that great gobs of authentic original French musical rarities were on the market and up for sale. Numerous works of Faure, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel and others were ready for those with sufficient cash. It didn't take long to figure out that the only possible people with access to such rarities were the heirs of the Durand family publishers, the house that had published all those works in the first place, including Ravel's Trio. But the steep (in those days) asking price, some $3,000,000, made even the HRC with its celebrated deep pockets pause. But Lake figured, and rightly, that if the material was still up for sale no one else must have bid on it either at that price.
So one negotiation led to another and after some months of haggling hundreds of original French musical masterworks made their way across the Atlantic to join their equally famous English literary counterparts at the HRC. I suppose that Ravel's autographed manuscript must have been at the UTA already 20 years ago to enable Dowling to start his DMA project there.
Continuing to answer your hypothetical questions: If Durand had been the publisher of Ravel's work in its first edition why was there a need for a new critical edition? The Durand edition has always been on the market since 1915. You've got a few hours? Richard Dowling will explain it to you, as he did to us audience members a few weeks ago.
It seems that Ravel, having rushed off to the French army in August of 1914, was nowhere around in January 1915 to assist with or be consulted about his new trio either at its premiere performance or for its subsequent publication. And when this particular cat was away did those mice really play! The original three performers, Alfredo Casella, piano, later famous as a leading representative of Italy's interwar composers; Gabriel Willaume violin; and Louis Feuillard, cello, each took it upon himself to improve or simplify what had been handed to them in Ravel's original manuscript. And so, in the absence of the composer, it was not Ravel's autograph manuscript but the performers' version that served as the basis for the Durand Edition of 1915. (From a recent Internet review of some 1903 recordings: "Gabriel Willaume plays with Gallic sensibility -- an essentially vibrato-pure performer without undue mannerisms." From another Web page: "Louis Feuillard (1872-1941) was a dedicated professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and a faithful chamber musician and quartet cellist.")
A similar and equally persistent instance of performer "editorial improvement" occurred in the 19th century when the great Leipzig violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873), famous both for his Concertino for Trombone as well as for his collaboration with Mendelssohn on the latter's E Minor violin concerto, first came face to page with the posthumous manuscript of the Fantasy in C Major for violin and piano by Franz Schubert and was asked to edit and have it published for the first time by the Peters Edition of Leipzig.
Most of the violin part though virtuose is finally manageable. But there are two passages in the finale that David must have found too awkward and unplayable to reproduce. So he simply re-wrote the two passages in a more conventional and indeed quite brilliant and playable four-string arpeggio style. And thus have these two passages been performed for the past century and a half by those dependent on the Peters Edition.
But then, lo and behold, along finally comes the Henle Edition of the Fantasy a decade or two ago and we are thus finally able to see the two passages in their original form. And do you know what? David was right: the two passages are awkward and unplayable, pace Franz Peter, and David did well by the piece to make it more accessible to performers. Well, all three performers at that premiere of Ravel's Trio must have harbored similar thoughts about their new work and simply re-wrote quite a bit of it to suit themselves. And just as Peters did in the 19th century so did Durand in the 20th when they permitted the performers rather the composer through his autograph to shape their new edition of Ravel's Trio.
As late as 1916, when Ravel finally returned and was consulting with his colleague, pianist-transcriber Lucien Garban (1877-1959) on the latter's version of the Trio for four hand piano, the composer was still correcting countless mistakes that had found their way into the Durand edition as a result of his absence. This is why Dowling has always felt the need to get Ravel's original manuscript before the public and perform it for them. (A to-remain-nameless but knowledgeable source informed me recently after reading these reports that the late Charles Munch, French conductor of the Boston Symphony in the 1950s and '60s, used to quote Ravel's words when speaking of the Durands as "those f**** SOBs!")
I had a similar experience a few seasons ago when I arranged to study and perform the solo part of the Mendelssohn E Minor Violin Concerto from the composer's original autograph manuscript, available in facsimile. This version too, finished and signed by the composer in December of 1844 some six months before the actual first edition, differs in many substantial details from the finally published work we all now know as "the" Mendelssohn Concerto. In those intervening six months Mendelssohn and the very same Ferdinand David discussed above worked on the concerto together. But, in contrast to Ravel, it was Mendelssohn himself who supervised all the changes.
And speaking of David as we were, the latter could well have written the first movement cadenza himself, since Mendelssohn in his autograph left simply a succession of chords as a skeletonic outline. Or perhaps Mendelssohn used the autograph's skeleton as a basis to finalize his own thoughts on the matter. Not long ago I was astonished to hear on the radio a performance of this work with, after some 150 years of the Mendelssohn/David tradition behind it, an entire newly-composed cadenza to this same work, much as in the 18th century tradition of the performers supplying their own cadenzas. Either Joshua Bell himself or a composer friend had written it. It was quite good, but imagine if someone had furnished a new cadenza to the Tchaikovsky Concerto, likewise, and very successfully, also written by the composer himself! By the 19th century most composers like and after Beethoven were supplying their own cadenzas, fearful no doubt, of what their contemporary and sometimes more naïve performers might supply for the composers' by now much more sophisticated works.
The actual differences between Ravel's manuscript and Durand's edition? Pedaling, slurring, the actual notes and which instrument plays them, rests inserted, etc.: the list goes on and on. The event was actually webcast by the HRC at the address hrc.utexas.edu/webcast. Perhaps to record and circularize this event in a more permanent form would be apropos. In the meanwhile you can visit the webcast and acquire the score to Dowling's own critical edition yourself through Dowling's own new music store, Dowling Music, which he and a partner have just purchased from the former Wadler-Kaplan/Pender firm in Houston.
Dowling seems to be following in the footsteps of Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831), some two hundred years ago. Pleyel had been a pupil of Haydn's and was known as a pianist and composer. Then he decided to acquire a music store in Paris and become a publisher as well. He was the first to collect all of Haydn's string quartets into a single edition. Much of Pleyel's edition found its way into Leipzig's Peters Edition, (including the spurious "Op. 3") backbone edition for professionals and amateurs for two hundred years until superseded in the late 20th century by the Henle Edition of Munich. In my boyhood movie days some 60 years ago I attended an early technicolor version of the Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains. During the film Rains emerges from a music store in Paris and there on the window is to be seen, beside Rains' profile, the name of the store: Pleyel et Desjardins. So Pleyel's music store even made it into a Hollywood movie! (And, I'm told, also into several biopics about Chopin as well.) Perhaps Dowling too can arrange to have an on-location Texas-sponsored film partly produced in his own new establishment.
When Dowling is not editing, recording, touring, getting great reviews, and selling music, he lends his efforts to the Piatigorsky Foundation. This foundation, established by the legendary cellist's grandson, Evan Drachman, also a fine and well-respected cellist, promotes concerts in smaller towns and venues amidst ordinary folk whose normal routines might not take them to chamber music concerts. I first met Richard some seasons ago collaborating with Evan during "a dark and stormy night" in Marshall, Texas. Since then I have had the pleasure of attending many a Drachman/Dowling performance and have much appreciated the work he and Evan are doing to bring our great music to those who might not always get to hear it.
And now, Ravel!
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