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13 minutes reading time (2539 words)

Rediscovering the past: Alexander Borovsky


Editor's note: Clavier Companion reviewed these recordings for the May/June 2018 issue. Click here to read it. 

It is a delight to uncover lost gems from the last century such as Alexander Borovsky, a great 20th century pianist and teacher, and his paper entitled "The Bach Specialists of the World." Borovsky was born in Mitau, Latvia, March 8, 1889, and died April 27, 1968, in Waban, Massachusetts. He studied with Anna Essipova at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and, at the same time, received a law degree from the University of St. Petersburg. He was Professor of Piano at the Moscow Conservatory from 1915 to 1920. The Musical Times of London of August 1916 declared him "the finest exponent of Scriabin's music." In the late 1930s and 1940s Borovsky gave several lecture-recitals in Paris, which were published in the Journal de L'Université des Annales. In 1941, he settled in Waban, Massachusetts, and shortly thereafter became an American citizen. In 1956, Borovsky was invited to the piano faculty of Boston University.

During his forty-seven years of concertizing he performed more than 2500 concerts. He recorded for the Duo-Art and Aeolian piano roll companies in New York as well as the Vox, Polydor, and Decca recording companies. Among his recordings were the Bach Inventions and Sinfonias, English and French Suites, and the complete Well-Tempered Clavier. He was one of the first pianists to record all the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Transcendental Etudes. Borovsky devoted much of his life to the music of J. S. Bach, and was one of the very first pianists to perform all-Bach recitals in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936 his recording of Bach's English Suite in G Minor won the Grand Prix Award. In Paris, November 1957, Borovsky was the first pianist to perform all forty-eight Preludes and Fugues on live television.

He wrote several unpublished articles that his former student, William Jones, found in Borovsky's attic boxes. Borovsky wrote his own insert notes for the complete Well-Tempered Clavier. It is thought that "The Bach Specialists of the World" might have been written to be included with this recording. It is a frank discussion, full of insights into musical performance, and shares still controversial thoughts on original instrumentation.

Clavier Companion thanks William Jones for sharing the following excerpt with our readers. For more information on Alexander Borovsky, please visit:

from "The Bach Specialists of the World"

In almost all countries where classical music is taught and played, there are persons who choose a certain field of music and make of it a sort of fetish. They become devotees, "fans," or exponents of a certain composer. There are some so-called specialists among various singers and instrumentalists, whose specialties are known all over the world. They show a high grade of conscience among musicians and they indicate what they prefer in their art, what they seem more gifted for, and more capable of playing. If this choice of special field simply demonstrates their predilection for and special attachment to the composers they have chosen, it does not necessarily mean that these artists are the best in those chosen fields.

I could list several cases where I consider that the musician has not been right in choosing this or that composer for his lifetime study. But here—as in everything pertaining to art—it is a matter of individual taste, and it is useless to present arguments which convince no one. However, because of the strictly individual definition of values and merits in the arts, one's own feelings and opinions are stronger, more ardent, and more passionate than they are about other fields of human activity—where logic and reasoning are accepted more objectively and obligingly. Therefore, any discussion of the good and bad in the arts is based on individual tastes, and no one can successfully defend his opinions. A musician can only hope that his opinion will be the same as the opinion of another person, so that some connection will be established, and the musician will not be so alone in his likes and dislikes. But in this century of mass penetration into the life of the arts, it is possible for the most discriminating spirit to find himself more isolated than in previous epochs, when art was the concern of a few amateurs and the devoted specialists. 

The matter of specialization

Therefore, before venturing into my own evaluation of the subjects connected with my theme—and especially that of interpreting Bach—I must present some general ideas on this matter of specialization. A musician is a specialist in one or another form of the musical repertory if, by his performance, he can persuade me that under the sounds he produces there is the authentic voice of the composer himself. This feeling is difficult to describe, but I remember experiencing several moments in my life when I forgot who was singing or playing, and had the impression that I was penetrating the spirit of the composer.

Such a performer seems to efface himself entirely from the picture, and suddenly we are face-to-face with the composer himself or with the world that the composer imagined when he created this or that work. I can remember hearing Josef Hofmann (1876-1957) play Chopin in the years between 1908 and 1912—the best years of his artistry. When Hofmann played Chopin, it was like a friend talking to you about your secret wishes—wishes that you don't define, but which, all the same, you know you have. Suddenly, there appeared a realm of the graces of the infinitely beautiful young creatures of fine fairy tales, dancing or talking in high voices. Later, I heard Busoni (1866-1924) play the great "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106, by Beethoven. I was sure that it was Beethoven himself who was talking to us through the fingers of Busoni.

You had the picture of a giant opening up his palace of wonders, where everything was enormous and magnificent. Then, much later, I enjoyed Artur Rubinstein's playing of works by Albéniz. I did not know Spain at the time I heard him playing Navarra or Triana, but I felt that I saw the city where many Carmens were dancing, with the passion necessary to achieve great strength. In all these instances, I discovered that artistic incarnation and the process of transfiguration develop a sort of synthesis of all the arts, in which you not only hear the music, but also see the kind of images usually seen by drug addicts or opium smokers. You seem to live with all your senses at once, and you don't realize that the source of this sensation is directed towards only one of your senses—not to all. It is interesting to note in this connection that one of the greatest pianists of all ages, Anton Rubinstein, always said that the pianist must have visions to perform a piece of music. In other words, that art which achieves the miracle of a transfiguration fills the viewer or listener with the impression that he is "hearing" when he sees a picture, and that he is "seeing" when he hears a piece of music. I believe that I have given a clear description of the result of a great performance in any art when I have said that the audience must forget the artist performer and begin to see and hear the author or composer himself.

The miracle of transfiguration

It could be thought that, to achieve this miracle of transfiguration, one must explore the entire heritage of the chosen composer in the most detailed manner, and must spend years struggling with all the obstacles in the way of penetrating another person's soul. But I must state at once that, in this connection, knowledge and the scientific approach as part of reasoning and logic cannot be of any use if the undefinable affinities between the performer and the composer are simply not there. Therefore, anyone undertaking  his tremendous responsibility of trying to represent such a composer in the public eye must test himself for a long period of time before making the decision to dedicate himself to a special field of music. And, I would say that such an achievement takes a lifetime  f effort. If Artur Rubinstein achieved the miracle of transfiguration in the case of Albéniz at a young age, that was probably because the music itself was limited in scope and did not necessitate the endless task of innumerable discoveries on the way to the mountain of achievement.

In the case of the great composers like Beethoven and Mozart—and of course in the case of Bach—the more decades devoted to their study, the better the final results. Nevertheless, neither the time spent, nor the efforts made can replace the undefinable quality of attunement—of the parenthood of the performer's soul and that of the composer. It is possible for a performer to spend his entire life working and struggling, and, at the end, find that his choice has been wrong. I had an experience of this kind in my younger  ears.

After the unexpected death of Scriabin on April 27, 1915, at the age of forty-three, and at the height of his success in Russia, the Russian public was eager to find someone who could carry on Scriabin's message for the musical world. After a series of trial recitals by about half a dozen contenders for the title, I was elected as Scriabin's heir. This victory brought me tremendous popularity, but it did not last long. I discovered that my approach to this music was incomplete, and I got tired of it myself. Subsequent events in Russia—with the colossal Revolution just after Scriabin's death—were not propitious for this kind of ethereal, mystical music of the fin de siècle, and I soon forgot that page of my musical life.

It took me several decades to realize that my real love in music was for a quite different kind of art from that represented by Scriabin, and, that if I continued to dedicate myself to Bach, I could dream of achieving the miracle of transfiguration. Of course, all my life  I have been very much attracted to Liszt, but I do not have these transcendental qualities of technique which would help me to attain miracles in playing Liszt—although I am sure that, so far as the spirit is concerned, he is very dear to me. I always have admired  im, even since I resolved in my innermost self not to try to overcome some handicaps in my technique that make it impossible to achieve a complete transfiguration in playing Liszt. Now I am in the midst of a period of absolute devotion and dedication to the greatest of all—to Johann Sebastian Bach—and the last ten years of my life are an example of complete attachment to a goal, to monolithic work of the same music, the same composer, the same style.  

The pianist's right to play Bach's music

When I was young—that is, during the first fifteen years or so of this century—I knew very little of Bach's works. I played only what was demanded of me by my professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Annette Essipova, the second wife of Leschetizky. I remember that she asked me to learn some arrangements by Liszt of some Bach organ works. The most popular were the Fantasy & Fugue for organ, BWV 542, and the Prelude & Fugue in A Minor ("The Great"), BWV 543. During the duration of my courses at the Conservatory, I hardly learned one Prelude & Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Then the famous Busoni transcriptions of organ works made their way into the classes, and I started to play some Orgel-Choralvorspiele, and the Organ Toccata in C Major,  BWV 564, which I learned around 1920. For the most part, we heard these compositions by Bach at the examinations, and in recitals of the famous pianists.

My personal belief in the pianist's right to play Bach's music was never shaken by all this clamor made by the harpsichordists and their friends, the musicologists. Only a year ago I gave a complete performance of all the 48 Preludes & Fugues in four recitals in Paris (1955) before large and enthusiastic audiences, and not a single review in the press disputed my right to do so. Here are some of the reasons guiding me in this decision. First, Bach already had experience with the first pianofortes, and at his death four of these instruments remained in his house. When we compare the writings of the first volume (when possibly he did not know about this new instrument), and those of the second volume, we hardly find any difference in their structure that would announce a different approach to the instrument. It is only natural, as Bach was in the habit of writing the same music for quite different instruments, such as the Concerto in D Minor, which he wrote for the clavier, then for violin, on the Adagio of his Concerto in F Minor, which is also written for orchestra as a part of a cantata. Some themes of his fugues could be mixed with themes given to singers without causing astonishment. Bach wrote great music and was not particular in the choice of instrument to which to entrust its performance. 

Bach themes, with their dramatic expression and changing patterns of components, demand a certain accent on the longer or higher notes. This accent cannot be given on the harpsichord. Furthermore, when there is counterpoint—when the middle voices of a theme must be emphasized and when all the notes of the theme must be played distinctly—this can only be done by a pianist. This is demonstrated by the many canons of the Goldberg Variations, in which, besides the two voices of the canon, there is a third voice that has no significance whatever in comparison with the voices of the canon. How can a harpsichord attain the true loveliness of these tender, singing, and mellow themes? Only a modern piano allows this—not the ancient harpsichord.

When a pianist plays Bach, he must forget that the composer had another instrument in mind. He must recognize his right to play this music and not be concerned about the opinion held by some musicians that his instrument is not suitable to the music. I believe that if the contemporary musicologists and purists were able to succeed in preventing pianists from playing Bach, the whole musical world would suffer from an enormous loss. If pianists had never been allowed to play Bach, then neither Beethoven, nor Chopin, nor Schumann, nor any other musician who was part of the musical history of the last 200 years would ever have known this music and would have been deprived of a chief source of guidance in their occupation with music and its creation. Once the pianist establishes in his conscience that he is entitled to play this music, he must not examine the technique of the ancient instruments and make decisions limiting the scope of his achievements and placing too narrow limits on the full realization of his possibilities. 

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