English profiles

Utrecht, 1 October 2005

Willem Boone (WB): I was intrigued when I read in an earlier interview with you that you attended conferences of Bela Bartok

Noel Lee (NL): That was in 1943 at Harvard. I was 18 years old and waiting to be called up to the army. I finished my first year and he was doing a conference on Transalvanyan folk music. He was a fine man, very quiet, except when he played exemples at the piano. The chairman wanted to keep him at the Faculty, but Bartok was too proud. The plan was to finish the lectures in 1945. But he fell ill, although he composed some other masterworks like the sonata for violin solo and the concerto for orchestra.

WB: Did you ever hear him play as a pianist?

NL: No, I didn’t, but he was an excellent pianist. In Budapest, he taught piano, not composition. I recorded his Rhapsody opus 1 and was the first pianist in France to record his Sonata, Out of Doors suite and Etudes in 1958. And I gave the first performance in France of his sonata for two pianos and percussion with an American pianist of Armenian descent, Luise Vosgerchian, who eventually became the chairman of Harvard Music Department. She was quite well known in Boston before she went to Paris.  We even had a conductor, Karl Husa, simply because no one knew the work. It had never been played and no one could give us a clue about it. This is something they don’t do any more nowadays. Of course, now everyone knows the work and there are many recordings of it. One of the percussionists was Serge Baudo, who became a conductor.

WB: You played for Strawinsky...

NL: Yes, that was in 1957 in Darlington in the UK. I did the concerto for two solo pianos with Paul Jacobs, Strawinsky was sitting in the audience.
After the concert, the director of the festival invited me to meet the composer afterwards.

WB: What was he like? You always read that he had a nasty character.

NL: He was a nervous, short and boney man. Very energetic too. He must have been around 75 years old by then.

WB: What did he think of your playing? He could be quite dimissive musicians who played his music!

NL: He could be nasty, but one evening around with wodka.. He wasn’t mean to us, he said he was happy, but he said it in a non-committed way. He clearly didn’t want to dwell on the subject.

WB: Earl Wild played in Amsterdam last weekend and was interviewed about his upcoming memoires, in which he also mentioned Strawinsky. He said that the composer was only interested in one thing: dollars...

NL: He had the reputation of being stingy, yes....I studied with Nadia Boulanger, who was a close friend of Strawinsky. She showed us the corrections she had made in his Sérénade en la and sonata. That was around the time I was supposed to record them. And she would analyse his latest pieces in class. She spoke of Mass, the first 12-tone piece he composed. That was hard for her, but she said: “It’s Strawinsky, no matter what style it is written in, it’s still Strawinsky!”

WB: Was he a good pianist?

NL: I never heard him play. His Sérénade en la was recorded though. By the way, I recorded an unpublished work of his, which the violonist Samuel Dushkin gave me, Tango for violin and piano. I recorded it later with Gérard Poulet on an all Strawinsky record.


WB: Were there other composers you have met or known well?

NL: Copland. I met him at Harvard when I was still a student. He was very generous with musicians. I never studied with him. I was the first pianist to record his three main piano works: the Variations, Fantasy and Sonata. He asked me in 1970 to play his concerto in New York for his 70th birthday. It was recorded on the Dutch label Etcetera. Then he had me come to New York later in the year for a concert of his chamber music. The last time I saw him was in 1980, when he conducted the Orchestre de Paris. The musicians said his rehearsals were very disorganised. He was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In 1948, I got a scholarship and I went to Europe. Later, in the 60’s, Copland suggested I might return to the US, but I never did.

WB: One of your teachers was Nadia Boulanger, who taught many musicians. What did she exactly teach?

NL: She taught harmony and counterpoint, but her whole approach was based on making young musicians aware of what they were doing. She was going through the bottom of things. And she surrounded her pupils with an aura of confidence. I remember coming out of her lessons and feeling exhilirated. She was also a very good psycologist; she knew how to get out the best of each person. She didn’t do things superficially.

WB: Did you attend group lessons?

NL: I had private lessons mostly. She even gave lessons on Sundays sometimes! I also attended lessons in the class at the Paris Conservatory and also in the famous Wednesday afternoons at her home, where all her pupils gathered, plus other friends of hers, to read Bach Cantatas or study the latest Strawinsky work.

WB: How long did you stay with her?

NL: About five years.

WB: What was the most important thing she taught you?

NL: She put me on a road. I wasn’t sure of becoming a pianist, I was studying composition with her. I got confidence in myself and took my musical life in my own hands.

WB: Did you manage to keep that confidence in yourself?

NL: Yes, I think I did. Her mother had been very strict with her and used to ask: “Have you done everything that was possible?”. One shouldn’t take the easy way out, she passed that on to me.

WB: Wasn’t her sister Lily a very gifted composer?

NL: Yes, she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome in 1913. Nadia made sure sure Lily’s music was played. She used to compose herself, but after her sister died she felt she had nothing more to say.

WB: She was very complimentary about you calling you “one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever heard”

NL: Ah, she wrote that about a recording of Beethoven sonatas I made in 1956 with the violonist Paul Makanowitzky who had been a student of hers.

WB: Does that mean anything to you, recognition of fellow musicians or teachers?

NL: Yes, especially at the time. I was a little nervous what she was going to write. She could be very possessive, if she liked you, she wanted you to stay in Paris.

WB: Quite interestingly, you played a few pieces by Gottschalk last night. What is your relationship to his music?

NL: I was asked to play a programme of American music in France in 1976 for the centenary of the American Independance. Gottschalk was the first important American composer in the 19th century. Then I went on to McDowell, Amy Beach, Griffes and Copland. Someone from Erato asked to make an all Gottschalk record. It’s no longer available in Europe, but you can get it in the USA now. The chairman of the Gottschalk association in the Netherlands heard that I would play some of his pieces and said: “I come!”. He brought me copies of all Gottschalk’s songs, harmonically they are quite conventional.

WB:Wasn’t he a contemporary of Chopin who also lived in Paris?

NL: Yes, he went to Paris at age 13. His mother was French, but he was not accepted at the Conservatoire, because he was not French! Théophile Gautier wrote about him. Later, he travelled by train through the USA with his cook, valet and piano...

WB: Would you say that his music is about as difficult as Liszt’s or Rachmaninov’s?

NL: It’s more the Chopin technique. The piece of last night was very Chopinesque. Souvenir de Porto Rico is a good piece, but he often wrote square 8 major phrase, which he repeated. I object to that, but that happens with many composers. Schubert did marvellous things without the conventional length of phrase.

WB: Schubert must be very close to your heart after you played all of his sonatas, included the unfinished ones, which you completed?

NL: Yes, I was the first one who did that. A critic said that completing unfinished works was like putting arms to the Venus de Milo... The original versions of the works still exist, no matter what one does to them. Many musicians have finished the works, the Henle Edition vol III, proposes completions by Paul Badura Skoda (which are not at all in a Schubert style, but more akin to Beethoven, but Badura Skoda is not a composer).  There will certainly be other versions in the future.

WB: Isn’t it difficult to compose in the style of Schubert?

NL: I had never a problem with his music. The base lines and harmonic system are very clear. You absorb his style.

WB: Could you compose in any style?

NL: No, for instance I couldn’t compose in the style of Ravel.

WB: Does it help that you are a pianist when you compose?

NL: All composers have been pianists, except Berlioz and Paganini!

WB: Do you always know why you wrote certain things and how you intended them?

NL: Not necessarily. IN songs you have to follow the text, which gives you a form.

WB: Can you play all of your works unlike Schubert who couldn´t play his own Wanderer Phantasy?

NL: Yes, I could, although I wrote in 1961 an Etude on rythms of Bartok, which I also played last night. I had no problems with this, but now it’s difficult... A firend said my music was diffcult. Maybe I would have a problem with my own concerto from 1973. The most important is to get the idea of the piece across. I might change hands, but the essential point is to have it sound. I don’t play the Ravel Left hand concerto, I love it, but it’s awkward, especially in the upper registers. It would sound better with two hands. I have often wondered whether pianists don’t cheat in recordings....

WB: I noticed in last night’s concert in Schubert’s song “Mirjam’s Siegesgesang”a phrase “Wehen, Murmeln, Dröhnen, Sturm” and you literally changed your playing. Are you aware of all the texts a singer has to sing?

NL: Yes, you must know the text if you play with a singer. The composer was inspired by the text!

WB: You worked with a famous Dutch bariton Bernard Kruysen.

NL: Yes, he was best known in the French repertoire. In 1978, we did a Winterreise in Paris and it was extraordinary. I was so moved... I played from memory, I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it if the singer performs from memory!


WB: Are there any musicians who are dear to you?

NL: Yes, a few. First of all, the violonist Paul Makanowitzky, with whom I formed a duo for ten years. We travelled a lot and played a lot here (= in the Netherlands, WB). He went back to the USA in 1965. In that year, I started teaming up with Bernard Kruysen. Then there is the pianist Christian Ivaldi and the violonist Gérard Poulet.

WB: What kind of relationship do you have with music?

NL: It’s very intense. Ever since I was a child, I knew there was no matter of doing anything else. I knew that I would never have a family and asked my mother how to iron....

WB: Is it a calling for you?

NL: Yes, it is.

WB: Can you live a day without playing the piano?

NL: I always try to practize. There are very few days a year I wouldn’t do that. After I finish practizing, I might read about music or compose.

WB: Last week, Earl Wild played in Amsterdam at almost age 90. What do you think of that?

NL: That’s fantastic!

WB: Would you still like to play at such a high age?

NL: If I were able, I suppose so! Many friends are very nice to me,they probably think: “O why doesn’t he stop?”but they don’t say it. There are a lot of things I could do if I couldn’t play the piano any more. I would orchestrate a few pieces, chamber music or piano music that sound very orchestral.

WB: Do you have any particular things in mind?

NL: Souvenir de Porto Rico by Gottschalk and Debussy songs. The colours are so obvious!

© 2005 Willem Boone