Though too many years have gone by since I last crossed paths with Robert K. Wallace, that doesn’t mean I have forgotten that gifted and accomplished man. I remember him well from sites and scenes in graduate school at Columbia University; from his environment in northern Kentucky and at the old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, where Danny Jackson was pitching; and from an American academic conclave in Europe. That was the man in person and that was much—but the author in print is an imposing presence as well.
Before he took up the subject of Melville and the visual arts and then other aspects of the writer I heard him refer to as “Herman,” and before he wrote a book about a girls’ basketball team (Thirteen Women Strong: The Making of a Team, 2008), Wallace had already put forth three more than remarkable books about music. In reverse order, Emily Brontë and Beethoven (1986) and Jane Austen and Mozart (1983) are probably the best books ever written about the analogues between literature and music. The relationship of one mode to another is both appealing to imagine and impossible to articulate coherently, or rather it was so until Wallace did it. In an age of critical affectation, obscurity, and fanaticism, Wallace was all persuasion, demonstration, and performance. He who has ears, let him hear, and her also.
But Robert K. Wallace had even before those accomplishments already demonstrated his powers of articulation in a double biography which, among other things, showed a shrewd understanding not only of musical education and talent, but also of the female sensibility. Even in his young days, Wallace was a writer of singular accomplishment and resource. Of all the books on performing musicians I have ever read, only Alan Walker’s first volume on Franz Liszt and his book on Hans von Bülow come near to the comprehensive strength of A Century of Music-Making: The Lives of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne (1976).
The story or stories of the Lhevinnes have or had deep roots in Czarist Russia and the Moscow Conservatory, as did Anton Rubinstein. Now in my previous column, I made some assertions about Josef Hofmann, who was Rubinstein’s only private student ever. But Josef Lhevinne is the other candidate for the position of the heir of Rubinstein, as was suggested by Rubinstein himself. Whether or not that is true, Josef Lhevinne was remarkably different, in method, personality, and in impact, from Hofmann. I would go so far as to say that Josef Lhevinne was remarkably reticent as a performer, and point to his few recordings as a quite small though not inconsiderable basis for a big reputation. And then there is the remarkable story of Rosina (Bessie) Lhevinne, quite opposite to him, though she was honored with a Gold Medal from the Moscow Conservatory in 1898 as he had been in 1892, along with Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Maximov.
Josef Lhevinne had been raised in such a disciplined approach to the keyboard that he took delight in hearing Rubinstein’s scales, as distinct from repertoire. He did not flinch from the daunting business of technique. But he also thought that Anton Rubinstein had “the most wonderful personality” of any man he ever met. The inspiration and focus of that contact sealed his devotion to the piano, but even with success and recognition, the establishment of his career was difficult. The problem seems to have been a matter of the wrong place and the wrong time.
Yet the musical vision that Anton Rubinstein had instilled in Lhevinne was central to his career, and not unrelated to those others who also were so affected by Rubinstein: Josef Hofmann and Sergei Rachmaninoff were two of the most famous, and in his way, Josef Lhevinne belonged in that company—and he proved that he did, through his performances and his precious few recordings.
There are some impressive stories that show how far removed we are today from the assumptions of the 19th century. Anton Rubinstein himself recommended to the young Josef Lhevinne a free and even presumptuous treatment of the text of Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44—it’s hard or even impossible to imagine such indulgent subjectivity later on, when Lhevinne was teaching at Juilliard.
In all the editions, a certain passage was written forte, but Rubinstein said to play it two pianissimo (pp) because it should sound like a battalion approaching from far off and should be so faint you can barely hear it. Then gradually it increases until it becomes two forte (ff) and is interrupted again by the mazurka section. The battalion then begins two forte again and marches off into pianissimo. All the editions marked it the other way, but Rubinstein insisted that this was the most effective way to play it.
This provocative but convincing recreation of an abandoned attitude can hardly fail to remind us of another presentation of the creative authority of the performer in a major Chopin composition: that of the B-flat minor sonata, Op. 35, and its famous third movement, Funeral March, as recorded by Rachmaninoff in 1929. The dynamics are similarly altered to suggest the approach and then departure of the procession. The performance, one of the greatest of all piano recordings, is firmly in the tradition of Anton Rubinstein and confirms the authenticity of Lhevinne’s claims.
But to resume: Whatever the problems were, they did not come from Rosina. Josef and Rosina had met years before, when she was 9 and he was 14. She adored him from the get-go, but the degree to which she subordinated her talent to his was extraordinary, and it may very well also have been shrewd. Though her gift never left her, she knew better than to compete with her own husband. She often did appear on stage with him to perform music for two pianos, but was more than content to let him be what he had already been when she met him: a master of the piano.
Meanwhile, there was a lot of living—and even surviving—to do. The couple’s experience during the Great War goes a long way in explaining why these musicians came to America. The Lhevinnes found themselves in a situation of multiple ruin. They were identified and interned as enemy aliens by the German government. As such they were exposed to the effects of the blockade of the German economy and nearly starved to death. They put in a lot of work growing their own food. At the same time, their bank accounts in Germany were confiscated. After the Revolution in Russia, their savings in Russia were also confiscated. They had been stripped of their prosperity altogether, and it is remarkable that they survived. The next step was to put their lives back together and rebuild in New York. There Josef Lhevinne found teaching at Juilliard to be more interesting than touring and concertizing, but, of course, he never left performing behind altogether. After all, it was during one concert outdoors at night that he discovered a new star! Such was his level of consciousness.
During that period we now refer to as “the Golden Age of Pianism,” Josef Lhevinne was a member in high standing, one to be compared and ranked with Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Moriz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman, and some others.
His few recordings are precise, beautifully sonorous, and even “perfect”: the few Chopin études and preludes, the one polonaise, the Schumann Toccata, the Schulz-Evler paraphrase of the Blue Danube Waltz, the Schumann-Liszt Frühlingsnacht. Perhaps we can say of them, “If I could play like that, I could also, at the same time, scan the sky for stars!”
Josef Lhevinne was 69 years old when he died in 1944. His widow was surprised that she was asked to take over his teaching duties at Juilliard—she had been coaching young aspirants to prepare for his instruction, so the administrators knew what they were doing. And they were justified when she excelled as the midwife of pianistic careers. And not only that—she went from strength to strength as a performer, performing with success concerti of Mozart and Chopin, as can be easily accessed to this day. She made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 82.
As a professor of the piano, she had a certain advantage, which was the shrewdness of her approach to the individual. She always adjusted what she said to the one to whom it was addressed. One size did not fit all. The end came after her retirement, at age 93, in 1976. At what she did, she was the best. But the what has sometimes been neglected and subordinated to the how. The most revealing account of her method, if she could be said to have one, was related by John Browning (I refer to the formidable pianist, and not to John M. Browning, the designer of the Browning Automatic Rifle, the Colt Model 1911 pistol, and so on). The video Basic Principles in Piano Playing as Taught by Josef & Rosina Lhevinne, Explained by John Browning, is readily accessible on YouTube, and is highly informative and even surprising.
But even so, the remarkable comprehensiveness and sheer competence of execution in Robert K. Wallace’s double biography means that though it is out of print, it is not altogether out of reach. And it is unquestionably a superior and even necessary volume of its kind. And the superb recordings of the Lhevinnes are indispensable as well—they made two of them together (the Mozart Sonata in D major and the Ravel transcription of Debussy’s Fêtes), and a sumptuous few apart. And like Wallace’s book, they still ring true.