Notes & Letters
Essays on William Kapell (1922-1953) tend to focus on his unexpected, tragic passing while thorough research on Kapell's music-making and ideas has yet to be done. Through the kind permission and collaboration of Dr. Anna Lou Dehavenon, his widow, we have printed several of his letters. Kapell's eloquent and reflective writing allows us to observe the underlying emotions and intellect guiding his art. Notice the transformation from Kapell's youthful encounter with the harsh realities of the professional music world (letter from Buenos Aires, written a year after the Shostakovich performance) into the courage to defend and champion new music in an atmosphere controlled by reactionary critics and managers (letter to Virgil Thomson). The final letter, written in Australia only weeks before his sudden death, finds the pianist well in control of his fiery temperament and self-doubts, reflecting on music and its challenge with a serene yet full comprehension of his mission as an interpretive artist.
As a preface to Kapell's letters, we begin with Dr. Dehavenon's spontaneous comments, made during her first listening to these performances after remastering. They attest to her extensive musical background: she had studied piano with Sergei Tarnowsky (one of Vladimir Horowitz's teachers) and possesses a sharp, sensitive, analytical ear. Her observations indicate what Kapell considered important and reflect her understanding of his art through the last seven years of his life.
From his initial performances, Kapell's innate musical gifts stirred listeners, attracting a devoted public and the admiration and support of the musical elite. Mieczyslaw Horszowski noted in his diary each Kapell concert he had attended, their few meetings, and his passing. The fervor which Kapell inspired throughout his career moved individuals to record many of his concert performances which otherwise would not have been preserved.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 3:
In his fourteenth year, Kapell performed the second and third movements from Beethoven's Third piano concerto with the National Orchestral Association under Leon Barzin. They are his earliest surviving recordings, made when Kapell was studying with his first teacher, Dorothea Anderson La Follette, a pupil of Josef Lhevinne. Dr. Dehavenon cites her importance as crucial, especially as Kapell once spent a summer vacation at her home in La Jolla, California, enabling her to begin supervising his daily practicing. Second movement: ALD: The essential qualities of his playing are already all in place. Here from the beginning he has remarkable musical poise, a mood he captures with a steady Largo tempo, wonderfully turned phrases and a singing very legato tone. He does everything his teacher told him to do with the dynamics, but in a remarkably musical way. The secure rhythmic sense - already one of the hallmarks of his playing - enables him to take the lead with the orchestra, but, of course, he is still a little boy and therefore rushes the 16th-note passages. Third movement: ALD: His fingers enable him to play fast passages very evenly. The third, fourth, and fifth fingers are almost all the same length and this gave them a natural evenness, but he still worked hard to perfect it. This suggests why Schnabel once mistook one of his Beethoven performances as his own. In the final section, there is again the tendency to rush like mad - with playfulness, excitement and good humor to the end.
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto no.1
Kapell began studies with Olga Samaroff in 1938. Samaroff helped refine Kapell's playing and encouraged him to focus on the Russian repertoire which increasingly attracted him, such as the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Although they later had a falling-out when Kapell regretted not having studied more of Beethoven and Schubert, his affinity for the Russian literature was profound. Shostakovich's concerto, a work Kapell never recorded, entered his repertoire around 1944. If played in a straight-forward manner, this score would seem like an awkward pastiche. Through the warm and genial collaboration of Kapell, Ormandy, and the sarcasm shared with the brilliant trumpet playing of Samuel Krauss, their performance is both ironic and comprehensive. Kapell rehearsed it with the composer Vincent Persichetti playing the orchestral part on the second piano. In a letter, Kapell mentioned having to contend with the work's "annoying entrances." Note how his playing blends with the orchestra's characteristic sound from this period while standing apart from them through a conception which is uncannily timeless. After mastering the score, Kapell termed it "a hilarious piece of nothing." First movement: ALD: Right from the beginning he's playing tongue in cheek. The concerto starts with polyphony but is playful throughout, culminating in those extraordinary exchanges between the piano and trumpet. Here Kapell gives one of his powerhouse virtuoso performances, a hallmark of his early playing of the contemporary Russian repertoire which amazed everyone at that time. Note how creative is his sense of rhythm and how he commands the sudden changes of mood and color in this split-second collaboration with Eugene Ormandy and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. From the beginning, these musicians were especially important to Kapell - both musically and in the evolution of his career. He signed a historic contract to play with them for three years in a row in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. This was unheard of for a musician his age. Ormandy remained a close, life-long friend. At the time, Ormandy was considered one of the finest conductors and the very best orchestral accompanist. Furthermore, the orchestra was at its height and still reflected Stokowski's influence.
One senses Kapell's careful comprehension of each phrase. This carefulness also prevented him from making a large number of commercial records. He had to feel that he had completely exhausted and incorporated the meaning of a work in his performance before he would knowingly reproduce it. He loved the Steinway piano and here one can hear the power of its great bass. While few pianists pay attention to this concerto any more, Willy's and Ormandy's performance endows it with glitter and appeal. Second movement: ALD: The unhurried tempo of the concerto's second movement leaves plenty of time for poetry. By comparison with this one, many of today's slow movement performances seems rushed . This movement's somberness rescues the work for the listener and it somehow feels more significant than it otherwise would have been. Fourth movement: ALD: By contrast, the fourth movement is a musical circus with a stunning example of Kapell's musical wit in the piano-trumpet exchanges towards the very end. Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition: Three separate versions exist of Kapell playing the Mussorgsky set. The Pictures published here derives from a private recording made in 1951 of a recital given at Connecticut College. While the sound quality is poor, we were compelled to rescue it on account of its musical significance, being the most expansive and convincing of the three extant performances. The Pictures and Bach chorale were recorded onto lacquer discs. Due to improper storage in the college's archives, these fragile discs experienced water damage. When Joe Salerno, a dedicated researcher of Kapell's art, discovered the discs, he wisely made a preservation tape. By the time Seth Winner examined them during his restoration work, most were not playable, as their lacquer coating was peeling and crumbling off from the surfaces. At least ten hours were spent by Winner to salvage two excerpts from the original discs [tracks 14-17; 23] and combine them with the extant tape, making one grateful that Salerno had the foresight to copy them before their disintegration. ALD: Kapell almost always took one of his own pianos with him. We can be grateful to him for this, particularly in the Mussorgsky performance. Steinway gave him his choice of several concert grands which they put aside for his use only, but he paid to move them on four continents. Kapell insisted on always having one of his own instruments to be able to count on them - even in a recital in a small college town before a student audience. Promenade: Immediately we start to walk and don't stop until we get to the first picture. Throughout the entire Pictures at an Exhibition, Kapell's interpretation of the promenade prepares you for the subject and mood of each picture. Gnomus: Note particularly how each of the notes is fully present in his chord-playing. The Old Castle shows his affinity for Russian music. Bydlo: All the practicing that he was famous for among his colleagues stood him in good stead. He worked very hard to realize his musical vision. The Mussorgsky performance is even more solid and masterful than the Shostakovich concerto which he played before he developed the muscular strength in his back and shoulders that is visible in all the pictures taken at the later date. He knew very well what was required of him to play up to his own musical standards. Note his sensitivity to the national and folk characteristics of some of these pieces. Simple, popular elements moved and excited him, particularly as they were interpreted by the various masters from whom he learned to play them, for example, Iturbi, Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, and Copland. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle: This segment meant a lot to him: He saw the heel of the rich powerful Jew pushing down the neck of the poor, begging Schnorrer to the ground. Here is a perfect example of the poignant, sad-clown element in his playing. Unequivocally, he identified personally with Schmuyle, the poor, imploring Jew. The Marketplace at Limoges: Once again he has passed beyond his fiery youth and become the master. The Catacombs: With foreboding, Kapell invests this piece - and some others in this collection - with more substance than they have. He makes small masterpieces of them. Con mortuis: A closure, a preparation for the big deal to come. . . The Great Gate of Kiev: Here his left hand is the absolute, equal partner of the right. Throughout this performance, he is again in love with the great Steinway. He creates a great blur with the pedal while the beloved Horowitz leans warily across his shoulder. Bach/Busoni - Nun komm der Heiden Heiland: Although Kapell agonized during the opening ten minutes of his solo recitals, this chorale prelude was the first work played at Connecticut College and finds him at one with the music (see the final letter below). ALD: The very epitome of piety - the piece and the playing.
From Kapell's letters:
When I have a few days to prepare a recital I feel fine on stage. When I play two days after a recital I cannot but feel shaky and nervous because even my conscientiousness doesn't help then because of the time element, which is darned important. The really outstanding concerts were the ones where I had a week between to rest and study. The Brahms Sonata, Op. 5 went like a dream, but the Schubert, which was new anyway, and came two days later, was like a bad dream.
On meeting a famous pianist in Buenos Aires, 1946:
It seems to be the fashion here among the high-society to go to *'s concerts, so all of the bottom half of the hall is packed with tall flowery hats and white gloves.
Mrs. * cultivates this to the best of her ability, which is plenty. She knows almost every countess of South America. I say almost because there must be one she doesn't know. She rightly knows the value of these people in relation to her husband's concerts, and she exploits her charm to the fullest. All of this is fair enough, as ** is famous for the same sort of thing all over the world, as are many others, *** included. I mean when she was at her heights as ****'s wife. Maybe all this is necessary in the long run, maybe not. I think not. But be that as it may, the *'s are very 'social' people. This is not what disappoints me in him, as this is a legitimate way of handling one's career.
What is far worse is the fact that he is content to rest on his reputation here, and on the infallibility of his drawing power, to the extent that he doesn't bother to feel the tremendous responsibility involved, to his own conscience, and to his public, to those people that believe in him to an extraordinary extent. He doesn't practice enough to keep the C major scale in tack for two days running. Neither does Rubinstein many times, but he is a man with genius, and * is not. In order for him to be in first class condition he has to work, hard. And with such a following, he should. But what amazes me is that nothing seems to bother him. He is capable of playing quite badly, but doesn't feel depressed and angry with himself afterwards. I know, because I have been with them so much. They are always charming to me, and say that I worry too much about music, and advise me to try anything on the stage. His philosophy is practice on the stage. He says that he experiments. That is true, but the experimentations are often a little trying to those [who] came to see the finished product.
To Virgil Thomson:
As it is shaping up in my mind at present, I will play works by yourself, Sessions, Copland, Ives, and possibly Ruggles. Too, there will be represented a member of my generation; who it shall be I don't know yet. I shall go through quite a bit of music before making a decision on that point.
I want it to be an important representation of our music, and, unfortunately, some famous names will not be on the program, simply because I have no sympathy for their piano works. However, it would be impossible, and not a little undiscriminating to play works by everybody. In any case, when I return to N.Y. we can discuss this at greater length. I plan to play one work which is purely "virtuoso," but have not found many, aside from some of your Etudes.
It seems to me a crying shame that some of the fine pieces in our native literature are not played more often. If we allow the present and lamentable accent on commerce and sensationalism to combine, our whole musical culture will be threatened. The situation today appears very serious, and no little bit tragic. The powers that control this noble profession are making nit-wits out of the large public. A public not interested in active participation at a concert, but a dull, complacent, and uncultivated mass of grey. I, for one, am sick and tired of going along in any way with the public "taste." Many artists do not realize that by doing so they are slowly dying, creatively; and when artists die, so does art. (Sept. 17, 1953)
From a letter to a friend, written on his final tour :
Your plight with your work is sad, but I believe it is one of the penalties of having sensitivities and fire for an art. It seems to me that on the highest levels of achievement, even with those who represent those levels on stage, that there is inherent in those achievements a kind of agony that results from an inability to cope successfully with the material. That is a defiance against bondage to the means, that helps to make an artist great. Technically, fluency and ease is given to people who want to say moderate, fairly easy things. There is no pain, or fighting one's way out of a net of harassment necessary to them. Serkin has one hell of a time with his "means," so Schnabel, so Horowitz, so Paderewski, so Koussevitsky. So many others, including your correspondent. . . Butthese basic problems are never conquered, and the sooner you realize it, the happier you will be, and the easier it will be for you to enjoy your playing at times. You should work incessantly, and with complete concentration, and when it doesn't go, realize that later it will, but probably never as you want it. Practice the [Chopin] B minor Scherzo, but then turn around and play Schubert Impromptus. And play them knowing that you have worked on the other and that it has done you no conceivable harm. With this knowledge you will approach the music you really love the deepest with a confidence you might not have had otherwise. Your means will grow a little from year to year. That is important. How much it grows is not as vital, as that it does grow, and that you can play the music that you perform now with every ounce of spirit and beauty you can bring to it. A craftsman is not an artist, but an artist wants always to be a craftsman. The craftsman will never be an artist, but an artist can always be something of a craftsman. If you ever develop enough finger velocity and strength to play the B minor Scherzo with the passion it demands as a piece of music, you will find that what you are doing is not a technical thing. And you will also find that the piece cannot be played ideally under those conditions! And so where are you? Off to the next problem. And he that can play a work like the B minor Scherzo easily can't play it at all! I have not, to this day, enough technique to play it evenly, but I have enough to play it with my insides. And while I am still a little out of patience with my silly hands, I realize that I have attained enough strength to give the work my feeling for it. What else can I do? And what care I for the glib fellow who can "toss it off" - this raging storm! If we say that I can play faster than you, then there is he that plays faster than I can, and so on, till we arrive at that moronic tribe of etude-players. And so what?. . . know that one day you'll be able to play the B minor Scherzo from the heart, with almost all the notes, but then the Paganini-Liszt Etudes will stare you in the face. Let it, it's good for you, but don't face it pessimistically. Consider each challenge soberly, and then, step by step, meet it, in your own way. That's what I try to do. Sometimes my fingers work, sometimes not, - the hell with them! I want to sing anyway. And my heart seldom doesn't work. So don't brood over technique too much. Remember that you are a musician.
Kapell then considered another pianist's limitations and reflected on his own struggle:
He has no deep-seated fear of inadequacy in the face of sublime thoughts, no frustration at perhaps not having wings to give these heavenly pages flight. If he had such fears of limitation in front of great genius, perhaps then he would be a great artist. Maybe that is the true humility. To feel you can't fulfill the songs and dances of the great, and to be happy as a child when a stroke of lightning hits you, and you find yourself floating on the wing of a butterfly, and find yourself deep in the current of a Schubertian or a Mozartean, or a Chopinesque stream of beauty. To be happy as a child! Because when that hits, that is the reason we ever studied music.
Because when it is there we are blessed, and when it is not there, we only exist as unhappily as [an] artist. . . He doesn't know how to lose himself, because himself is too grand and noble ever to lose sight of, even in the face of the most self-annihilating music. The greatest moments people have are those at which times their identities become involved in someone or something else. The only moments I have when I play, that are worth anything to me, are when I can blissfully ignore the people I'm supposed to be entertaining, and be able to lose all of myself in a slow movement, or a Barcarolle or anything. No me, no silly public to amuse; only the heart and the soul, the world, the birds, storms, dreams, sadness, heavenly serenity. Then am I an artist worthy of the name. And when that is not there even my craft suffers, because nothing makes me more nervous or apprehensive than not being able to lose myself, and play to some little candle-light that has nothing to do at all with the group of individuals seated out there. More and more, it even takes a while during a concert before I can successfully attain this freedom from bondage. Until it happens, or if it doesn't happen, I am miserable. Besides feeling like a paid performer in a dress-suit, and straight-jacket, my hands are cold, and there is no air between the body and the arms. And technical slips can easily happen then, because there is nothing in the spirit in which to lose the blasted and cursed technic. Nothing is more irritating to me than to be conscious of my hands; this only happens when I do not feel full of heart. And this is sometimes caused by a great feeling of awkwardness in front of the public, and a rather profound embarrassment in being there altogether. But when the other thing hits me, it is indescribable, and while it disassociates me from the people, it somehow must involve them, for that is when they are the most affected with the songs I sometimes sing to them. My great sadness is the realization that the first 10 minutes of every concert are lost to me, while I get accustomed all over again to being there. In those 10 or 15 minutes, I suffer agony, because even if it is a heavenly piece of music, I can't feel deeply about it as I am still in the process of getting over my embarrassment and discomfort. When this short but oh so long time has run its miserable course, I am all right, but until then, I must submit meekly to slips of the fingers, and to a heart that beats, but not enough to obliterate me which is what I want.
[He] gets nervous because he is afraid of peoples' opinion of him. I am nervous and apprehensive because I may not "have it" that particular night. Because I feel the piece bigger than me, so big I may never be able to even get through it, let alone be the master. . . I think greatness in art is something you come upon, after only yearning and pain, and a deep sense of being in a dark tunnel. Greatness in art is not something you tell yourself you have. It is the oasis, the greatness, the vision, or whatever you want to call it, after traveling the vast desert of lonely and parched feelings. After this, the oasis. And the older a musician gets who has once seen this oasis, the more he wants to live there all the time, so the more frequent are his attainments of greatness and vision.