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The complete musician: A conversation with Robert Levin

The complete musician: A conversation with Robert Levin

Robert Levin is a master keyboard artist who performs on the harpsichord, fortepiano, and modern concert grand. He is also a conductor, theorist, musicologist, author, and professor, and his career has taken him all over the world. He is especially known for improvising embellishments and cadenzas in Classical repertoire, and he has recorded for premier international labels. His completions of Mozart fragments are published by Bärenreiter, Breitkopf & Härtel, Carus, Peters, and Wiener Urtext. He is the President of the International J.S. Bach Competition, the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Music Festival, and has held teaching positions at the Curtis Institute of Music, SUNY Purchase, the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, and Harvard University. He is presently a visiting professor at the Juilliard School.

I have had the privilege of knowing Robert Levin since I was fifteen, and I recently interviewed Mr. Levin at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Early experiences in music

Robert Levin's family played a decisive role in his musical training. Although neither of his parents was a professional musician, his father was an avid music lover with a special affinity for Mozart. Their home was filled with classical, jazz, and folk music. He recalls, "I was subjected to a great deal of music in the most pleasant kind of way." Levin's uncle was a professional musician and Juil-liard graduate. Upon learning of Levin's interest in music, he began to instruct the budding musician in the fundamentals of piano playing and ear training. He also nurtured Levin's musical curiosity by purchasing scores, recordings, and a subscription

to the New Bach Edition. At that time, finding Bach scores was quite difficult, but Levin remembers that a subscription to the new critical edition of J.S. Bach meant that, "anywhere from three to five times a year, a package would come from Europe with Bach's coat of arms stamped in gold on the front, and for me that was like Christmas Day!"

Levin went through a succession of teachers, ending up at the Chatham Square Music School in lower Manhattan. He remembers, "Every Saturday I went to the lower east side of Manhattan, and for fifteen dollars I got a private piano lesson, an ear-training class, and a composition/theory class, which was quite a remarkable thing." At age twelve, his ear-training teacher told him that if he was to make significant progress, he should go to Fontainebleau to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, which he did. 

Studies with Nadia Boulanger

In Levin's words, "Working with Nadia Boulanger was an extraordinary experience in terms of music, philosophy, theology, and spirituality." From ages twelve through sixteen, Levin studied harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and composition with Nadia Boulanger. In addition, he brought piano pieces to play for her and studied organ with her during his final summer in Fontainebleau.

When asked to describe the most essential role of a mentor, Levin recalls Mlle. Boulanger stating that it was "to encourage the imagination and the fantasy of a young musician, and beyond that to be utterly ruthless in matters of discipline." She kept a picture of the poet and philosopher Paul Valéry on her piano, dedicated to her. It read, "To Nadia Boulanger, who ordains enthusiasm and discipline." Levin adds, "It is precisely this combination that is so important" in being a teacher. 

Mlle. Boulanger would insist that harmonic exercises be written out in four staves instead of on a traditional piano score. "Every line had to be phrased, everything had to be analyzed, and if the results were merely correct, as opposed to being sensitive to matters of spacing and shaping, she would not leave the hapless student in peace. One had to do more versions and more versions. The mere absence of mistakes was not sufficient." In one particular case, Levin was asked to do fifteen versions of an assignment before she was satisfied. She would place an X in a particular spot, then he would cut out a piece of paper that spanned those bars and stick it above the original, on which he would write his revision. This way, Levin remembers, "you could present the revision, but you could lift the tab and see what was there before, and therefore be able to trace your own progress and understand what it was that occasioned her dissatisfaction.

"Throughout his education in Fontainebleau, Levin studied a vast amount of repertoire, ranging from Bach cantatas to Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio; from Monteverdi madrigals to Bartók violin concertos. "She chose pieces that were 'horizon expanders.' Every week in the harmony class, we examined a prelude from The Well Tempered Clavier. We discussed harmonic progressions, linear aspects, architectural considerations, and so on."

Nadia Boulanger possessed an uncanny ability to absorb the compositional language of each individual student. Levin recalls: "She would point to a particular note and say, 'that F-sharp, are you sure you don't want to hold that an extra beat? Or do you think maybe it ought to be an F-natural?'" The student would then examine the suggested alteration. "Sometimes it would make the passage infinitely more expressive. Other times that change was the equivalent of sticking your finger into the bottom of a house of cards. It would cause the entire edifice to crumble because, when you looked at that, you realized that the whole thing was no good. She knew perfectly well what she was doing."

The influence these years had on Levin would continue to reveal itself over the course of his life. Levin notes, "She gave me the keys to the castle. Essentially what one got if one had the courage, strength, and stubbornness, was a toolkit that contained everything and anything one would need to be a musician for the rest of one's life, no matter the direction."

Journey towards classical improvisation

Robert Levin's introduction to classical improvisation came during the summer of 1966. While studying conducting in France, his teacher, Hans Swarowsky, told him that a proper performance of Mozart Piano Concertos entailed improvising. Levin reflects, "I had never heard of that, and I was quite shocked." Swarowsky recommended that Levin purchase a recording of two concertos Swarowsky made with Friedrich Gulda, listen to it, and imitate it. "I bought it in a shop in France. I went back to New York, put the record on, and was absolutely floored. I had never heard anything as radical as that, and I thought 'I want to do this!'" Using the tools that he had learned in Fontainebleau, he began to train himself. "All the figured bass she made me learn, all the ways I had to create flexible and imaginative lines on the basis of a harmonic sketch.... I had the tools. All I needed to do was sit down, work hard, and develop something that flowed directly from what she had given me."

There are additional resources available to those wishing to learn these skills. For example, Mozart's sister, Nannerl, was a fine pianist, but she was not trained to improvise. As a result, Mozart wrote pseudo-improvisations for her to, in Levin's words, "memorize and foist on the audience, pretending that she was making them up." These examples can be found within the second volume of piano pieces in Series IX of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe online.1 Their content is derived from the final chapter of C.P.E. Bach's Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, where Bach discusses the free fantasy and improvisation. "The steps that he gives there, which he illustrates with a figured bass, followed by a quite brilliant fantasy based on that figured bass, show exactly what Mozart was trying to teach Nannerl to do. We can still teach ourselves that way. It works as well now as it did then." 

Mlle. Boulanger stressed that Levin should receive a well-rounded education both within and outside of music. As a result, he chose to attend Harvard University. While studying French at Harvard, Levin was asked by a classmate to play the organ in a performance of Mozart's Requiem. Knowing that Levin was particularly excited about Mozart, he was told that there was a sketch of a fugue Mozart was unable to complete before he passed away. If Levin were to finish the fugue, they would perform it. Levin realized, "that improvisation is to composition as running is to walking. If I wanted to improvise in the style of Mozart, I would first have to learn how to compose in the style of Mozart. So, I accepted his challenge." This project sparked Levin's interest in the other unfinished works by Mozart. He soon transferred to the music department and wrote a thesis on this subject, "all the time thinking that this would somehow be a way that would help me become gradually comfortable enough to improvise."

Improvising cadenzas in concert

When Levin first began improvising cadenzas in public, he would work out a basic template in his mind just before the concert (without practicing or notating it). Soon, however, he began to rely more on the spontaneity of the moment. In fact, the mental plan Levin created in his hotel room before the concert would often distract him in performance. Levin explains, "I'd start to play and then I wouldn't do what I was supposed to do. My fingers would head in another direction...Instead of thinking about what I should do next, I was thinking about what I should have been doing in another place." He realized that a premeditated template was more of a hindrance than an aid. "I was going to have to be in this extraordinary foot race between the speed of my brain and the speed of my fingers and hope that neither got too far ahead nor too far behind the other." 

While Levin has grown more comfortable improvising through the years, he admits that it still remains a fairly terrifying endeavor. Performing a Mozart cadenza that sounds as if it could have been improvised by Mozart himself requires the performer to have an encyclopedic knowledge of his compositional language.

Levin notes, "It doesn't give me very much room. I'm constantly in a struggle to stay on the 'straight and narrow' without doing things that are too formulaic, because if they are, it sounds like a stock solution and it doesn't excite people. C.P.E. Bach said 'the audience will not be enthusiastic if the performer isn't,' and that still remains an awfully good piece of advice. 

The importance of understanding historical instruments

Robert Levin's extensive experience performing and recording on harpsichord, fortepiano, and pipe organ has greatly influenced how he plays the modern piano. "There were many things about the way that Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, or Chopin wrote for the piano that were related to the mechanical, acoustical, and sound color properties of their particular instruments," Levin describes. Thus, with an understanding of how each instrument reacts, one's touch, pedaling, texture, articulation, etc. can be altered when playing the modern Steinway. "You'll never get an exactly identical result, but that's not necessarily desirable. But I do think it's important to understand some of the advantages and disadvantages of each instrument."

Levin explains that, for example, the tone of a modern Steinway sustains a great deal longer than that of an earlier piano. This is due to the extraordinary amount of tension on the strings. As a result, the Steinway has a greater sense of power. The actual decibel level will not differ greatly from that of a Graf piano, for instance, but due to the thinner strings and lesser tension placed on those strings (approximately 11,000 pounds verses more than 40,000), the overtone spectrum, influencing how much the sound will sustain and its sense of power and focus, is significantly different. 

Levin explains, "Composers write for the acoustical properties of the instrument at hand. If Beethoven had known the Steinway, and had preferred it, the music he would have written would be quite different from what he did write. It would be fascinating to experience the kind of music Beethoven would have written for a nine-foot Steinway. One has to understand that there is always a relationship between the medium and the message."

The responsibility of a performer

In the early 1990s, Robert Levin left his post as Professor of Piano at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany, and accepted a position at Harvard University. In this new role, he would primarily teach large lecture courses for non-musicians. "This gave me a chance to try to save the culture. There are a lot of people training the future performers, but if no one trains the future audience, then for whom will those people perform?"

Levin deeply believes that an individual who walks on stage to perform is not unlike the officiant of a religious ceremony. "When you give a sermon, people let their defenses down." They make themselves vulnerable to the message they are hearing. "Likewise, the message that Chopin, or Rachmaninoff, or Bach conveys to us is one of potentially shattering intensity. It has a transformative power. It holds a mirror up to us and shows us things about our own behavior, our own desires, our own fears, our loves, and our hates, that have the capacity to transform how we view ourselves, everyone around us, and life itself. Therefore, for me, performance of music is a moral act because it means that why you do something, and to what end you do something, is more important than what you do and how you do it."

As Robert Levin stated in his 2009 commencement address at the Curtis Institute of Music:

Your job—and it's not a job, it's a sacred calling—is to keep people up at night. You go to a movie, you go out of the movie theater, and the plot is whirling in your head, and you think, "If only he had walked into the apartment three seconds before that, when she called him on the phone but he wasn't there. And then she got into the car with the gun." Right? You do that when you see a movie. Don't tell me that Schubert or Verdi is less exciting than that. There are a lot of people who don't know it. You've got to reach them. You have to reveal to them the truth of why music by women and men, dead and alive, is essential to their survival. It's not merely entertaining, although it can be. It's not merely melancholy, although it can be. It is, in its delirious jubilation and in its shattering tragedy, overwhelming for one reason above all others. That is the reason that has to animate you when you throw your incandescence out to that audience: because it's about them!... You have to tell other people things about themselves that you found out, with a glow in your eye and a belly on fire, that will make them live a new life, starting the moment that you stop singing or stop playing.2

As our meeting came to an end, Levin concluded, "In order for us to communicate our artistic message with fervor, it has to come from selflessness, honesty, and from a deep look inside ourselves. We have to see these things for ourselves before we can make a sacred gift of it to our fellow human beings."

Editor's note: To view videos of Robert Levin lecturing on and demonstrating improvisation in the style of Mozart, please visit our digital edition at


2 Levin, R. (2009). "Pianist and Scholar Robert Levin speaks at Curtis Commencement on May 16, 2009." Instant Encore. Retrieved from

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