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Pianist as artist: Samuil Feinberg on the role of the performer


It's not just historically minded pianists who listen to older records. Music lovers of all sorts do. 2015 marked the first year that 'catalogue' albums, defined as any recording made more than eighteen months previous, outsold new music by 4.3 million copies.1

"Records." That's what Thomas Edison called his reproducing wax cylinders in 1888, associating them by name with historical documents. A "record" of a performance, that's originally what they were; but also a "record" in sound of a philosophy, a certain way of thinking about music that reflected the ideas and tastes of the day.

Critic Donald Satz describes his own process of getting acquainted with the Russian pianist, composer, and teacher Samuil Feinberg. 2  

There are a host of Bach enthusiasts who swear by Feinberg's
Bach performances, citing the singing and devotional qualities of his
interpretations…Feinberg tends to take many liberties with tempo and projection
which some might well consider fascinating and highly expressive while others
would call [them]…disruptive to…the natural flow of the music. Prior to
starting the review process, I listened to the Feinberg set while
doing…domestic chores…I frequently left those tasks and zoomed into the living
room as if Feinberg were beckoning me to join him and Bach.

Are Feinberg's interpretive choices marvelous? or excessive? Each of us will of course hear it differently. But before deciding, it's worth taking some time to explore Feinberg's artistic beliefs, the ideas that guided his musical conclusions. I think you'll find Michael Rector's article below, sharing Feinberg's musical philosophy, "fascinating [and] highly expressive," as Mr. Satz said of his performances. Dr. Rector uses Feinberg's words to train a spotlight on issues that still affect piano playing today.

--- Scott McBride Smith 

Memoirs by famous pianists occupy a special shelf in my book collection. One that consistently renews my faith in the genre is neither scholarly treatise nor autobiography, but a sincere and probing attempt to describe the creative process of performing music by one of the twentieth century's most brilliant and poetic pianists, Samuil Feinberg.

Feinberg's name is best known among those music lovers who call the first part of the twentieth century a "Golden Age" of piano playing. Born in Odessa in 1890, his family moved to Moscow in 1894. His piano teacher was Alexander Goldenweiser and he studied composition with Nikolai Zhilyayev. His intelligence and prodigious memory for both poetry and piano repertoire were legendary.3

He frequently performed the complete sonatas of Scriabin, whom he met in his early twenties and for whose music he passionately advocated. Perhaps even closer to Feinberg's artistic mission is the music of J. S. Bach; he offered the Well-Tempered Clavier as part of his graduation examination from the Moscow Conservatory in 1911 and was the first pianist to play the complete forty-eight in recitals in the Soviet Union. His transcriptions of Bach rival the best examples of that art form by Busoni and Liszt. I personally feel that his recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier is the most creative and inspiring performance of those pieces yet preserved and among the most persuasive models for those who think that performance of music written by other people can be not merely recreation, but an act of artistic genius. 

Best known as a pianist, Feinberg's activities as a composer illuminate his interpretive style. Most of his compositions feature a part for piano. They include twelve sonatas and three concertos, in addition to art songs and chamber works. His early works are heavily indebted to Scriabin, but his best works of the 1920s show a probing, creative command of atonal counterpoint and piano texture.4 Feinberg was part of the conservative wing of the Association for Contemporary Music, an avant-garde organization of Russian composers. After 1922 he served as a piano professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

Feinberg's book on piano playing—Pianism as Art, published posthumously in 1965—combines intense analysis of piano teaching, technique, repertoire, and performance. The first complete English translation of Pianism as Art, by Robert Rimm and Anzhela Reno, will be released in May 2017. Though it covers the gamut of piano learning issues, I have selected a number of passages that highlight a central theme of the text, namely that interpreting music is an art form. Feinberg chose his title carefully, and it reflects the seriousness of the task of performing music. The excerpts that follow show wise and sensitive consideration of some of the trickiest philosophical underpinnings of musical performance.

This passage summarizes his ideas about the relationship between composer and performer: 5

A composer relies on a performer—an interpreter whose
creativity can bring his works to completion. The word "performer" does not
convey the essence of the creative process, the means by which interpretation
generates artistic meaning. The more perfect, accomplished and brilliant the
playing of the performer, the more his own creative personality comes to the
fore. He is not the "performer" of another's will. The composer's will must
become his own, merging with the individual features of his talent and creative
personality. In this fusion the performer will find the strength and courage
necessary to realize in sound the ideas and images contained in the work. The
musician-interpreter is aware of both his own creative personality and his
involvement in the composer's design—the important meaning of the author's plan
together with his own role in the realization of that plan.

Feinberg elegantly formulates the difficult notion of a performer as a full-fledged artistic creator while respecting the origin of his materials in the composer's work. The interpreter's freedom is founded on the deep understanding of the composer's will as evidenced in the score. The performer serves, but is never subservient. This thorough grasp of the composer's will is not only a necessary condition for an artistic performance, but also a moral prerequisite for musical interpretation. 6  

However great the capabilities of the performer—pianist,
violinist, singer, conductor—whatever the interpreter's various individual
qualities, temperament and emotionality, whatever significant deviations in his
manner of realizing the composer's plan, any complete and justifiably artistic
performance requires the performer's deep and detailed penetration into the
notational and emotional plan of the composer. The interpreter must present to
his audience the work in full, without distortion. To do this, he must view the
task as a fundamentally creative endeavor.

This concept is built on a foundation of the performer's and composer's relationship to the musical notation. For Feinberg, the science of deciphering symbols is barely a basic step to the ultimate understanding of notation.7 

Imagine the total path of the musical work, from the composer's conception to its
completion in a live interpretation, as a line leading from the infinite to the
finite elements of musical notation and again to the infinite. Creativity's
infinitely complex initial stimulus, the finite sonic elements, are fixed in
the notation of rhythm and pitch, and the immeasurable possibilities arising
from individual interpretations. The execution depends on innumerable causes
and conditions.

By describing the precise realization of notational details as a midpoint in the interpretive process, Feinberg emphasizes precision in realizing notation as a means to a greater poetic end. He explodes the idea that the variety of possible performances is based on liberties taken by the performer. A complete reckoning of the artistic process necessarily leads to the diversity of performing styles that characterized the best qualities of the early twentieth century's players.

The following passage again examines the notion of performer as both creator and translator: 8

The gradual accumulation of specific properties of sound
that happens during the process of learning a piece brings forth qualitative
changes in the nature of the musical images. Therefore reading notation a
priori—before touching the instrument—is essential, though it
cannot give a full picture of the future interpretation. Realizing the
composer's concept, perceiving it first in the inner ear, the artist gradually
submits it to the practical possibilities of the instrument. Being in the
center of the formative forces of music, he is at the same time a creator and a
medium for those internalized sound-elements.

The piano is not merely a tool to be mastered and put to use, but a kind of partner in the creative process. Perhaps Feinberg's understanding of the compositional process gives rise to this attitude toward notation and the importance of the performer's freedom: 9  

A composer knows that by limiting the will of the performer and his freedom of
interpretation, he interferes with that artist's individual expression. Overly
pedantic adherence to the composer's instructions may deprive the performer of
essential ease and persuasiveness. Everyone knows the importance and almost
extreme accuracy of Beethoven's performance directions, but even they sometimes
impede the natural flow of the player's interpretation. Too frequent changes of
tempo and intensity of sound, fixed in the black and white hues of the printed
score, can disturb the artist's convictions and loyalty to his chosen
interpretive strategy, and deprive his playing of integrity and consistency.
How often the composer softens his instructions with terms like mezzo, poco, non
troppo, so that the performer won't execute the marking like a student saying "here!"
when the teacher calls his name. Yet in practice we can see that the natural
flow of playing is often hindered in those very places in the piece where we
find the composer's or editor's instructions

Feinberg is on dangerous ground here; he seems to suggest a hierarchy in which a composer's indications of pitch and rhythm are not negotiable but his dynamics and expressive markings are. All notation is, as described earlier, a midpoint between the infinities of inspiration and realization. Its meaning in the larger, poetic scheme of the piece must be considered. More recent notions of performance practice and reception might have helped Feinberg—specifically the idea that a score was intended to be read by a particular audience with certain cultural and historical baggage. Markings ought to be thought of in dialogue with the expected audience's likely manner of interpretation rather than with ahistorical objectivity (for which, read: the performer's individual likes and dislikes).

In this next passage, Feinberg even more forcefully lays to rest the notion that a performance is some kind of recreation of a specific set of sounds in the mind of the composer: 10  

Are we always sure that the composer's playing offers the
best example? If recordings of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven playing the
piano existed, they would certainly be interesting to everyone, but would they
serve as the most elevated, unimpeachable ideal? If the gramophone record had
been invented two-hundred years earlier, a modern performer would hardly just
copy those past practices and techniques. Performance practice is less enduring
than the work itself. Each spring brings different blossoms to the flowering
tree, yet the trunk may live for a hundred years. A piece of music on its
journey to full realization in sound, fixed in notation but not yet performed,
is yet incomplete. For this very reason, it is possible that performances fail
to unlock the full potential energy and concept of a wonderful but
unjustifiably unperformed work. But usually great works, having been heard in
so many artistic formulations, fixedly withstand the stylistic diversity of
artistic techniques. Not only do tastes, types of phrasing, and methods of
extracting sound change, the instrument itself, for which the work was written,
improves and evolves. Modern audiences may not be satisfied by the sound of the
harpsichord in the performance of ancient works written for this instrument.
The modern concert piano differs so much from the first keyboard instruments
that the appearance of new stylistic peculiarities based on new sonic and
technical possibilities is only natural. Descriptions of the playing of the
great pianists of the past that have been passed down to us do not always fit
the new aesthetic requirements. And even within a single lifetime a pianist is
often convinced by changing tastes and styles of interpretation.

 Though his attitude towards historical instruments is dated, Feinberg insists that old music has to be made new—a great responsibility for the artist-interpreter.

Throughout these excerpts Feinberg pushes toward that elusive but fundamentally important goal—a healthy and productive attitude toward the practice of interpretation. His deep insight into the creative process is inspiring, providing a philosophical basis for both the meticulous study of notation with respect to the composer's intentions and the creative, artistic nature of the performer's task. Feinberg's example as pianist and writer reminds all of us who play and teach music to strive for the highest ideals of our calling.

1 Pugsley, Adam, "Old music is outselling new music for the first time in history", Chart Attack, January 20, 2016,

2 Satz, Donald, review "Samuel Feinberg's Well Tempered Clavier", Bach Cantatas website, May 18, 2001,

3 Robert Rimm, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 2002), p. 91.

4 Several of his compositions can be found on the IMSLP website,,_Samuil.

5 Samuil Feinberg, Pianizm kak Isskustvo, ed. L. Feinberg and V.A. Natanson, 2nd ed. (Muzika: Moscow, 1969) 33-34. Translations are my own, with assistance from Lydia Frumkin.

6 Ibid., p. 35.

7 Ibid., p. 46.

8 Ibid., p. 77.

9 Ibid., p. 47.

10 Ibid., pp. 56-57. 

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