Reflections on Mr. Lowenthal’s Lecture

Avery Gagliano, Artemisia Fellow


Mr. Lowenthal gave an extremely interesting lecture that covered a wide range of topics. He started off by asking us about who some of the major French composers were, including Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Saint Saens, and Fauré, whom he described as being a French Beethoven. Lowenthal mentioned that Fauré loved harmonic progressions and modulations. For this reason, if I ever play Fauré’s music in the future, I will know to pay close attention to cadences and how Fauré uses unique harmonies to build the music. I learned about how Saint-Saëns detested the music of Ravel and Fauré, even though he was Fauré’s teacher. I also learned about Les Six, whose members were Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre. For me, it was especially interesting that he mentioned Les Six because I had just learned about and discussed it for the first time with a friend the previous night.

During his lecture, Mr. Lowenthal talked a lot about jokes in music. He gave several examples, including the reference to Wagner’s Tristan in the middle section of Golliwog’s Cakewalk, which is part of Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. In addition, Mr. Lowenthal discussed specific ‘name’ references in music — how letters correspond to musical notes, and how these notes were shaped into the melodies of great music. Mr. Lowenthal also talked about Alfred Cortot, who he studied with (mind blowing!). I learned that Cortot actually considered himself a Beethoven specialist, which is ironic because he is widely considered one of the great interpreters of Chopin’s music. There were a couple of times when Mr. Lowenthal demonstrated Cortot’s style of playing; to me, these were the most magical moments of the lecture. I felt as if I had been transported into the 20th century. The sound Mr. Lowenthal produced on the piano, along with the “Cortot-style” of playing, gave the effect of listening to an old record.

Toward the end of the lecture, Mr. Lowenthal gave a general comparison of Debussy and Ravel. He explained how Ravel was a formalist — he liked to start with a formal idea, and then find themes to fit the form. For this reason, Ravel disliked Debussy’s music, which he felt lacked clarity of form. Unlike Ravel, Debussy disliked development. He was “for the moment,” and preferred a style that was improvisatory-like. As Mr. Lowenthal described, Ravel preferred “form before content,” whereas Debussy preferred “content before form.”

I’m very grateful to have met Mr. Lowenthal and to have been able to experience even the smallest bits of his vast knowledge. I learned so much just from the three hours we spent with him, and he has opened my eyes to the whole new dimension of ‘history’ in relation to playing.