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Robert Hamilton — “Artistry: Pursuing the Mysteries of Music Performance”

During his interview for Piano Magazine, Robert Hamilton talked about his first book, a great inspiration for any young aspiring artist.
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Robert Hamilton piano book

Your most recent project is a fascinating book on musical interpretation, Artistry: Pursuing the Mysteries of Music Performance. How did that come about?

I co-authored it with Robert Demaree. He was a Haydn specialist. He wrote a book on the Haydn Quartets and what is now certainly the definitive book on the Haydn Masses, and has written several textbooks on conducting and so on. About 12 years ago he approached me with an idea that he felt nobody had done yet: a book about performance that not only talked about it but also included recordings as demonstrations of what artistry was all about. I thought that was a great idea. He was very excited about it and wouldn’t take no for an answer! At that time, we were thinking of having a couple of CDs in the book covers until we got close to publication and realized that that’s not the modern way anymore. It’s online. Since his death, I’ve established a website that’s loaded with demonstrated examples of what we’re talking about.

The book came out in June 2021 and started off well. Next it’s going to come out in China. It’s under contract with the Shanghai Music Publishing House, which I believe is the major publisher of music books and scores in China. It’s been in the translation stage for the last two years, delayed because of COVID, but the translation is virtually complete now. A lot of people who are in China are very excited about it and if it takes off I’ll probably be going over there from time to time to make demonstrations and talk about it, which I look forward to.

How would you sum up what your book is about?

When Demaree approached me about co-authoring this book, I had been teaching a lot of students that were taught exclusively to follow the score. I was dealing with that problem a lot: students wouldn’t free themselves to express and the results were sometimes, even with a very talented student, very rigid and mechanical because they had been taught to just follow the score. That was bothering me a lot. That was the part of this book that got me very much interested in it.

As we imply in the book, if a student is handed a piece of music and you say to the student, “Where are you going to find the music?” The immediate answer usually is, “In the score, of course.” I try to point out that no, that’s just a piece of paper. It tells you what notes to play, maybe some general guidelines, but that’s it. If you want to find the music you’ve got to do some other things. You’ve got to study the composer and the music that’s been written. Even more, you’ve got to go inside yourself to try to find, to discover the composer’s thoughts and instincts through your own thoughts and instincts. The only things that are absolutes in the music are the notes and everything else is relative, including the tempo. Even the rhythms! When we read about Chopin and Charles Hallé, who heard him often, saying that one of the most remarkable things was how free Chopin was with his rhythms—so even the rhythm is not necessarily sacred. Certainly, with terms like Allegro or ritard or forte, the first thing that should come to one’s mind is, “How much? What should forte be?” We don’t have the composer here to tell us, and if the composer were at our side, in my experience, the likelihood is that there wouldn’t be a definite response but rather, “I’d like to hear what you like.” Composers, I think, took pride in hearing their music performed in different ways. We know that from statements that a lot of them made, like Beethoven when one of his sonatas was played. When the performance was done, he said, “That’s not exactly how I would have played it, but in some ways I think it’s even better than I would have done.”

So I’ll show examples to students; I’ll say, “Here’s a ritard,” and play the passage and say, “What do you think is right?” and then play it with a lot of ritard, then less ritard, and you have to choose. All of these things have to be chosen. It’s foolish to look at a score and see an f for forte and assume that whatever you play is the best kind of forte or what the composer meant. The book is based on things like the need for experimentation, for exploring, for trying things out before the perfecting starts. Instead, too often, from the very beginning students make these kinds of assumptions from the score and they start trying to perfect it, along with working strongly on their technique. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always lead to artistry.

I find that I have to reinforce with my own students that the music didn’t just spontaneously appear, but that a human being wrote it, a human who is trying to communicate with them from perhaps hundreds of years ago.

They’re assuming that the score came first. They would never say that, of course, but they’re acting as if it did. What came first was the composer’s thoughts and imagination, and the score cannot do much except show the notes to play and then give these guidelines that I mentioned, which are not absolutes. In the book I quote Samuel Barber, who was asked by John Browning, “How do you want this?” His response was, “That doesn’t interest me. I want to know what you, as the performer, see in it.” That would be one of the joys of a composer’s life, to have something that you wrote and see it go in so many directions rather than everybody only being able to see one thing.

We raise the question in the book that if the composer didn’t take his own score literally and follow it, what makes us think that the composer would want us to do that? Why would the composer want that? If you listen to any modern-day pianist/composer with their own music, they don’t follow the score. Some people would say, “Yes, but that’s the composer. How dare we do something different?” I don’t buy that at all. I think that if we don’t use our own imagination and instincts then we’ll end up with something that sounds shallow. I have worked with something like 20 composers, some of them well-known composers, and I’ve never had any one of them say something about the score: “No, I wrote this, I wish you would do it.” But almost every single one of them said, “I wish you’d be freer at expressing your own thoughts and ideas.” If the composer really wanted everyone to play the music in exactly the same way, how is it possible to write that into the score?

I also like to point out that, as one of the performed arts, one of the special natures of music is that there’s so many different ways that it can be. A hundred different performers, all getting the central message that the composer wants, will play a piece a hundred different ways. All of us look at something beautiful and see different things and bring out different aspects of it. That’s one of the treasured things about music.

Website: roberthamiltonpianist.com

Full Interview: “Music Has Always Been My Language. It Speaks to Me More Deeply and Prevalently Than Anything Else”
Named in the pages of International Piano as one of four pianists worldwide championing the performance of pre-Classical repertoire on the modern piano, award-winning pianist David Murray is Professor of Music and Keyboard Area Head at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, USA. Murray has performed extensively throughout the United States, making his New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 2005, a performance described as “first-rate, perfect” in the New York Concert Review. He has three recordings available from Summit Records: Blue: The Complete Cabaret Songs of William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein, The Juliet Letters, and C. P. E. Bach: Württemberg Sonatas 1-3. His latest recording of sonatas by C. P. E. Bach and W. F. Bach is currently available from MSR Classics.

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