Melbourne Conservatorium of Music - Theses

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    The influences of Alfred Cortot on the performance, teaching and research-editing of piano music from the Romantic era
    Coote, Darryl Glen ( 1989)
    Now that Alfred Cortot has been dead for more than a quarter of a century, one may ask: “Wherein lies the justification in studying the work of yet another dead concert pianist?” Many pianists these days dismiss Cortot as having been inaccurate in his later performances, considering him unworthy of serious appraisal in today’s musical climate of so-called ‘technical perfection.’ This dissertation aims to show that Cortot was more than a fine virtuoso pianist who led his audiences into the sublime with his elucidating interpretations. His contributions to music are felt still today, not only within the ‘milieu’ of French piano playing, but widely across the sphere of western music. There is no doubt that people who heard Cortot perform retain special memories of his playing. Those who studied with him retain a great admiration for his work and continue to spread his ideas through their own students. His recordings and publications are still treasured. But what was it that made him so special? We shall, in the course of this dissertation, examine in his piano playing the tonal qualities and colours, the rubato and characteristic rhythmic figurations which singled him out from others. Throughout all his work, however, one of the very significant features was concerned with the balance between intuitive sensitivity and musicality, that is, the emotional content of the art, and a deep intellectual approach not only to the music, but also to the associated cultural, stylistic, historical and technical backgrounds. This was unusual in musicians of his era. These are qualities which are still relevant today. Cortot remained a student all his life, and much of what he discovered is still being passed on. Certainly he is one of the more controversial musicians this century has seen. Revered by some for the uncanny beauty of his piano playing, for his importance as a recording artist, chamber musician, conductor, teacher, collector of music manuscripts, writer of books and articles on music, editor of working editions for piano students, founder of the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and reformer of the French music education system, he has been otherwise held in notoriety for his alleged collaboration with the Nazi regime in occupied France during the last world war, for artistic licence in his pianistic interpretations, these days deemed by some to be excessive or unstylistic, and for the abundance of technical errors in some of the performances from the later part of his life. The wealth of material concerning Cortot (his recordings, his writings, his collecting and editing activities, the numerous articles, books, references in books and radio programmes concerning him, as well as the wide dissemination of his teaching activities and conducting), justifies an examination of him as a major force in music this century, independent of personal opinion. An indication of his stature is reflected in the fact that, upon the occasion of his death in Lausanne on 15 June 1962 (at the age of 84), extensive obituaries appeared in both The Times and The New York Times, as well as minor reports in other publications such as Newsweeek. The object of this dissertation is not to undertake an exhaustive biographical study of Cortot, since this has already been done in varying detail by several writers (notably his late personal friend and biographer, Bernard Gavoty), but rather, to examine in pianistic terms his contribution in three areas: i) as a performer and interpreter; ii) as a teacher; and iii) as a researcher and editor. Nevertheless, it will be expedient to present in the Introduction a brief overview of Cortot’s life and activities, before considering pianistic details.