Jerome Lowenthal

polyphonic pedagogy


Jerome Lowenthal

Jerome Lowenthal

It seemed to me that whatever the complications of a score, there was one fundamental idea to communicate to a student: the obligation of a performer to bring into acoustic reality the intentions of the composer.
— Jerome Lowenthal

Jerome Lowenthal is among the most respected interpreters of our time, receiving critical acclaim for a wide range of repertoire that includes works for piano solo, piano chamber music, duo piano and sixty-three different concerti. He has given premieres of Ned Rorem’s Piano Concerto in Six Movements and Franz Liszt’s rediscovered Piano Concerto No. 3 with the New York Philharmonic. He appears with leading orchestras in the United States and Europe including the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony. Lowenthal’s career began with studies from Olga Samaroff, William Kapell and Alfred Cortot in Paris, on a Fulbright Grant, and he subsequently proceeded to win prizes at international competitions in Brussels and Bolzano. He is on the faculty of The Juilliard School and Music Academy of the West (Santa Barbara, California), and gives master classes at prestigious universities and music festivals worldwide. His extensive discography includes the RCA, Columbia, Pro Piano Records labels and is highlighted by Liszt’s complete Annees de Pelerinage (Bridge Records), Tchaikovsky: The Music For Piano & Orchestra (ArkivMusic) and Winging It, works of John Corigliano with pianist Ursula Oppens, that received a Grammy nomination (Cedille Records). He is a frequent juror of international competitions including this year’s Cleveland International Piano Competition. Lowenthal explores the symbiotic relationship between performer and composer.


A few weeks ago I found myself at the Beijing airport, prepared for a long wait with a suitably long novel. Unfortunately, an eye infection prevented me from reading and almost obliged me to look inward. What I saw was startling in its messy multiplicity: in the foreground, musical memories of diverse piano festivals in exotic locations, highlighted by the performances of immensely gifted young musicians - and mingling with those memories were touristic impressions of delight as well as discomfort. On other levels and planes there were expectations, hopes, and forebodings jostling promiscuously against each other. Mentally I turned away from this confusion and tried to focus on the simplicities of teaching music. It seemed to me that whatever the complications of a score, there was one fundamental idea to communicate to a student: the obligation of a performer to bring into acoustic reality the intentions of the composer. Then I started to think about what the student must due to in order to fulfill that obligation.

The first note of a work of piano music, whether it is a Chopin question or an Elliot Carter assertion, is like the moment after birth of an infant. It seems to be all potential and yet the course it will take is influenced by myriad quasi-genetic factors such as the historical development of the instrument and the system of equal temperament, not to mention the dialogue between a composer and his or her predecessors. With the second note come the complexities of melodic line and harmonic process, both of them subject to the seductions of pulse. Even passagework is bent, like Einsteinian light, by the subtleties of harmony and counterpoint.

As the music continues, phrases shaped by melody, harmony and rhythm, create waves of symmetry or spikes of angularity. Sequences, changes of register, imitations, inversions, and most of all, modulations, shape the music into an abstract form to which theoreticians attach a name. The student must internalize all this, paying particular attention to the composer’s expressive indications. For this, he or she must learn the rudiments of several languages. It is not enough, however, to learn the meaning of a term like andante – the student must grapple with the question of what the German Brahms might mean by molto andante. The student must distinguish between sostenuto and soutenu, and between poco forte and mezzo forte. The titles of works sometimes require even more sophisticated knowledge. What exactly does Schumann mean by Papillons, and can one answer that question without having read the last chapter of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre? What does Aria mean to Bach? Does the rit. at the beginning of the Finale of Shostakovichs’ Piano Quintet mean ritardando or ritenuto?

All these complexities are only aggravated by the fact that composers often seem to contradict themselves. Poulenc writes everywhere tres sec, but in a letter he writes: “Why do pianists use so little pedal in my music? Are they on a diet?” 

Chopin stated that his left hand always remained rhythmically firm but a rigorous metronome found him playing a mazurka in 2/4 time. Chopin said that his left hand always kept exact time, but two contemporaries – Meyerbeer and Sir Charles Halle - used a metronome to prove to him that he was playing a mazurka in 2/4 time.

Still, we, think, if only we had a recording of Mozart playing his music. With a sigh, we acknowledge the limits of technology. However, we do have recordings of many composer-pianist performances: Rachmaninoff, Prokofieff, Shostakovich, Rzewski, Debussy, Bartok and Ravel, to name a few. We may say that the technology was inadequate for some of these, and that others – like Shostakovich and Ravel – were not highly skilled performers. That leaves the question of the recordings of great pianists like Rachmaninoff and Prokofieff. If the goal of our study is to play composers’ music as the composers wished, why do we ignore Rachmaninoff’s phrasing and Prokofieff’s tempo changes. In order to justify ourselves, we must make a crucial distinction between the composer’s intention and the meaning of the music itself. We must say that from the moment the composer puts notes on paper, his relationship to the music becomes parental, while the music takes on a life of its own. The most obvious change in the meaning of the music is caused by time, itself. When we admire the surprising harmonic progressions in Haydn’s sonatas, we are expressing aesthetic appreciation rather than surprise. As performers of works from the past, we are caught in the dilemma that the more we reproduce the authentic historical sound, the more we distance ourselves from the music. Scholarship, itself, can create problems. We are told that the slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 31 No. 1 was intended as a satire of excessive ornamentation. Do we try to convey that in our performance? Do we try to express the grievances of silk workers or cotton mill workers in Liszt’s Lyon or Rzewski’s Cotton Mill Blues? Is Chopin’s Opus 10 No. 3 etude, after thousands of sentimental arrangements, the same piece as the one Chopin wrote? In that case, the composer himself changed the tempo marking from Vivace to Lento.

Jorge Luis Borges tells us that every great artist creates his predecessors. If that is true, we must consider Beethoven’s music as modified by Schubert’s perception, and Mozart’s, as it speaks through the works of Beethoven. Could Beethoven have imagined his music as it sounded to later composers? Was he aware of the jazz implications of the third variation in the slow movement of Opus 111? Or of the Finale of the Kreutzer Sonata? When we play the skipping third-intervals of Opus 22, should we think of Beethoven as a student of Haydn or as the future composer of Opus 106? When we play Brahms’ transcription of his sextet variations, should we relate it to the Andante of Mozart’s violin sonata, K. 377? Or should we be influenced by the use that Louis Malle made of Brahms’ music, in the erotic film Les Amants? Even errors have a way of changing music. So many pianists have misunderstood or ignored Rachmaninoff’s Tempo precedente in the fifth variation of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, that the music has acquired an altered identity.

The book about a novelistic disquisition on the consciousness of fish, still lay on my lap. My plane would soon be boarding and it was necessary for me to reach some conclusions about my responsibilities as a pedagog. Clearly, the performer’s obligation to respect the composer’s intention was still paramount. Therefore, the teacher, using knowledge about harmony and counterpoint, languages and cultural history, must clear the way for the student. At the same time, the teacher cannot ignore the inadequacies of this respect the text criterion. On the contrary, the student must be made aware of the enormous number of interpretive decisions necessary for playing the simplest piece of music. Finally, the decisions which the student makes define him or her as an artist. And the teacher must be able to define and clarify these decisions and choices. Such is the nature of polyphonic pedagogy.