Interview by Tim Janof
Cellist Dimitry Markevitch’s interests cover a variety of areas, including musicology, research into stylistic traditions, and teaching. He is a member of the American Musicological Society and the Société Française de Musicologie. He founded the Institut de Hautes Etudes Musicales (IHEM) in Switzerland. He discovered the Westphal and Kellner manuscripts of the Bach Suites, which had eluded musicologists for decades. He published his own edition of the Bach Suites (in its 3rd edition), which incorporates these manuscripts as well as the Magdalena. In 1964 he presented his edition in recital in Carnegie Hall in New York, playing all six suites in a single concert. He discovered two unknown works by Ludwig van Beethoven: the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, Opus 64, and the Kreutzer Sonata, transcribed for cello by Czerny. He has also worked on editions of works by Mussorgsky, De Falla, Stravinsky, and Shostakovitch. Dimitry Markevitch is the author of “Cello Story” (which he is now updating), a book on the cello, its history, repertoire and famous players. He was a pioneer in the rediscovery of “authentic” instrumental techniques, performing works composed prior to the 19th century on a baroque cello. He has particularly explored the works for the unaccompanied cello and wrote a book on the subject, “The Solo Cello,” which he is also updating. He was the first to record the complete Kodály Opus 8 Solo Cello Sonata as well as two sonatas for cello and piano by Louis Abbiate with Bernard Ringeissen. In 1992 he recorded the Bach Cello Suites and made the first recording of the Seven Sonatas for Cello and Piano by Beethoven (the usual five plus the Opus 17, in its original version for cello, and the Opus 64). He has an extensive cello library that includes over 3,000 scores, for which a catalog has been published.
TJ: You studied with Maurice Eisenberg, author of “Cello Playing of Today” and one of Pablo Casals’ protégés. How was he as a teacher?
DM: He was marvelous. Thanks to him I have a very solid technique to this day. I began my studies with him when I was 7 years old at the Ecole Normale in Paris and graduated at age 14 with what they call the “Licence de Concert.” Eisenberg was a wonderful cellist. As a child, he started on the violin and then switched to the cello. He had studied with Julius Klengel and Hugo Becker in Germany, Alexanian in Paris, and finally Casals. During the time he taught me, before World War II, he concertized quite a bit. When he was on tour, Alexanian would take over his class at the École Normale. Later, Eisenberg taught at the Longy School and Juilliard. He was a very progressive cellist, playing first performances of many contemporary works. Through Eisenberg, I had the opportunity to meet Pablo Casals when I was 8 years old or so. Eisenberg introduced me to Casals, saying, “Here is a young man who would like to play like you one day.” Casals had a very intelligent reply, saying, “I hope he will play like himself.”After Eisenberg, I went to Piatigorsky. I had the benefit of two schools– first the Casals school through Eisenberg and then the Russian school through Piatigorsky. I was very fortunate.
TJ: When I listen to discussions of the great cellists of the early 20th Century, I usually hear two names: Casals and Feuermann. Piatigorsky doesn’t seem to be mentioned as much.
DM: This is a pity because, for me, he’s the greatest of all! If you haven’t heard Piatigorsky perform live you don’t know what the cello can sound like. Today we have Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma, but I still have in my ear Piatigorsky’s sound, which was very warm, generous, and powerful. He also had a fantastic technique, which nobody has matched to this day. As an example, nobody can do flying staccato the way he did. He could do it up and down bow with no difficulty at all. He showed me how to do it when I was 12 or 13 years old and I can still do it today thanks to him. Rostropovich can’t do it, which I find interesting, since it means that the Russian school has somehow lost this facility. If you listen to some of Piatigorsky’s old records you will hear his phenomenal technique. He was a very gifted and instinctive player and always played from his heart, but he was also very interested in finding original editions and manuscripts. He strove to play in an “authentic” manner, way before it became fashionable. Thanks to Piatigorsky and his desire to go back to original editions and manuscripts, the historian, Yves Gérard, thoroughly researched Boccherini and his music and wrote a large volume on the composer, just as Köchel did for Mozart. People forget Piatigorsky’s deep commitment to trying to understand the composers’ original intentions.
TJ: Do you have any idea why Piatigorsky is not mentioned as much as other cellists of his time?
DM: After World War II Piatigorsky performed less and less, which probably has a lot to do with it. Both, he and Jascha Heifetz had toured Europe and received very bad reviews. Finally, they both refused to perform in Europe, which means they lost the entire European market. From then on Piatigorsky became so disgusted that he just played with Heifetz in the famous Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts in Hollywood. After a while, he started playing a lot of chamber music and began concertizing, but not as much as before the war. His career lost a lot of momentum. But I now see that some of his old recordings are being re-released. A recording of the Dvorak and Saint-Saëns concertos just came out on Sony. Your readers should search out his recording of the Schumann concerto, which he did in the early 30’s. It has never been topped. He was only in his 20’s when he recorded it and it is absolutely fabulous. So maybe he will be re-discovered by the younger generations.
TJ: You studied with Nadia Boulanger, who also taught many of the 20th Century’s great composers. What did you study with her?
DM: I studied basic music theory, history, and analysis. My mother took me to her when I was 6 years old. Boulanger said, “It’s too bad you brought him to me so late.” She had started music at 3, so for her 6 was already very old. She was a very strict teacher. She taught from the Théodore Dubois Method, which was a method written in the last century. I remember being terribly bored by the material. Finally, one day I told her that I had had enough, and that I couldn’t go on anymore. She was very shocked by this and said,”Dear boy, you’ve just touched the surface.” She had a fantastic knowledge of music. During the 4 years I studied music history with her, I never saw her with a single sheet of music or piece of paper. She taught everything from memory. Because of her encyclopedic knowledge and her remarkable teaching style, her classes at the Ecole Normale were always packed.
TJ: Did you ever meet some of her other famous students, like Aaron Copland?
DM: I knew Aaron Copland very well, but mostly from my time in the United States. He and I became close when I moved to America in 1940 to follow Piatigorsky. At the time I thought I would soon return to Europe, which was at the beginning of what was then called the “Funny” war. I ended up staying for the duration of the war and I went to Tanglewood, where I played one of Copland’s trios with Leonard Bernstein on the piano and Jacob Krachmalnik on violin. Apparently Copland was very pleased by our performance. I also knew another Boulanger pupil, Virgil Thompson. I used to see him often in New York. He gave me a rave review when I played the Boccherini Concerto with the Little Symphony in Carnegie Hall. At the time I was in the Army, so I played in uniform.
TJ: Let’s talk about Bach. You are known as a historian, so I’m sure that your performance is very historically informed. How did you evolve from your studies with Eisenberg and his Casals influence to your current approach?
DM: I went through several stages. As you said, I started with Eisenberg and therefore with Casals’ principles and precepts on Bach, which resulted in my first “version” of the Bach Suites. Then I went to Piatigorsky and studied Bach with him, so then I had my second version. When I started giving concerts in my late teens and early 20’s, I changed everything again, because I wanted to have my own style which was a kind of a synthesis of my previous teachers, thus making my third version. I was not quite satisfied with my approach, and I had heard that there were manuscripts besides the Anna Magdalena, which is full of mistakes. After some detective work I uncovered the manuscripts by Kellner and Westphal, which had eluded musicologists for many years. They were known in the last century but people had lost trace of them. I found them in a library in Marburg, Germany, where they had been put for safekeeping during the war. So with these manuscripts in hand, I revised my approach again, making my fourth version. This is when I published an edition based on all the known manuscripts, which is one of the most popular editions in the United States now, in its third printing with Theodore Presser. When my edition was published, people told me that I should perform them, so this is when I decided to play all six suites in a single concert in Carnegie Hall in 1964, resulting in my fourth version. This was a fantastic success because many said that I would never fill Carnegie Hall and that I would never be able to play them all in a single concert. Thankfully, I didn’t listen to them. The hall was full and I had to play three encores after I had finished. I also had fantastic reviews. By the way, I would like to point out the fact that I was the first to experiment new avenues such as giving entire solo recitals, performing such programs on a baroque cello or giving concerts alternating between the modern and the baroque cello. A few months ago, when I gave a master class in New York, there were some that came just because they wanted to see the man who had played in Carnegie Hall in 1964. So it was a big event. Cellists like Yo-Yo Ma now do the same thing, but I was the first to do it. After this concert I decided that I would like to play them on the baroque cello, so I studied them again, thus creating my fifth version. I was the first cellist to play the Bach suites on the baroque cello in concert, all six suites in the same concert again. Then I decided that it was time to record the Bach Suites, but I decided to play them on a modern cello because I had come to the point where it didn’t matter on what kind of cello I played. The Bach Suites had become so much a part of me that I felt that I could play them on any type of cello. So this became my sixth version, which I doubt any other cellist can claim to have done. I don’t think there is another cellist out there who knows the Suites better. I have studied them in incredible detail, including all the known manuscripts, many different bowings, and different styles. I think I have arrived at a pretty satisfying version.
TJ: You mentioned that the Anna Magdalena manuscript is full of mistakes. Anner Bylsma is toying with the idea that this manuscript does not have as many mistakes as people might think, particularly in the bowings. He thinks to discount this manuscript as full of mistakes is too easy.
DM: The manuscript is full of many obvious mistakes, I counted 117 of them, including measures with missing beats or too many beats. I also view the slurs as inserted in a completely haphazard manner. It doesn’t make sense to assume that she was perfect in one aspect of the music (the slurs), but not in other ways. Carelessness doesn’t tend to be selective. The other manuscripts correct most of Anna Magdalena’s errors; errors that I knew were errors before finding the Kellner and Westphal manuscripts. I like Bylsma very much, and I think he does a lot of good, but I don’t agree with his latest approach. Of course maybe one day we’ll find the original manuscript, which of course would be best.
TJ: Bylsma, when discussing the Kellner and Westphal manuscripts, disagrees with the slurs indicated. He believes these manuscripts use a more French approach, which is to play a down bow on the first beat of every measure, and to bow sequences with the same bowing. Based on his study of the Magdalena manuscript, he believes that Bach may have been thinking of more of an Italian approach when he composed the Suites, which is to “bow as it comes.”
DM: Who can be sure of what Bach may have wanted and if he wanted them played in the Italian or French style? I believe he wanted the French style of bowing because everything is written in French. These are French suites, so naturally they should be played in the French way, if we must assign a nationality to this music. All movements are titled in French, and, except for the preludes, are derived from French dances, like courantes and allemandes. I simply don’t agree with him.
TJ: In your edition of the Bach Suites, you include a version that incorporates the lute version of the Fifth Suite, which adds many ornaments and double stops to the cello version. Bylsma believes that this may go against the task that Bach gave himself, which was to see what he could do with a minimal amount of notes. By playing from the lute version, you are adding back notes that Bach may have deliberately taken out.
DM: This is the opposite of what actually happened. The lute version was written AFTER the cello version. As with many of his compositions, Bach would add many elements to his own music as he tinkered with it. You will find this in many of his arrangements of his own or other composers’ works; there are always many more notes, many more chords, and many more ornaments. His compositions always go from a simple piece to a more elaborate piece, not the other way around. I’d like to see even one example of Bach simplifying his music. He was such a creative composer that he always had new ideas to incorporate. The fugue of the Fifth Suite suddenly makes much more sense when you play the lute version because you can see more clearly where the different voices are. I wouldn’t want to force Mr. Bylsma to play the lute version, but he does so many other things that are not terribly orthodox that I think he should be a little bit less insistent about this point. The lute version doesn’t take away from Bach, it clarifies his ideas. In my CD I play the cello version first and the lute version on the repeats.
TJ: I have a few questions about your edition of the Bach Suites. You start the D Major Prelude with an up-bow. Why do you do this?
DM: The melody is the third note of each three-note group — D, F#, A, D. By starting up-bow the melodic note is played on a down-bow. When you start this Prelude with a down-bow you automatically start with an accent, which I think is misplaced since the emphasis should be on the melody. The repeated D’s are more of a drone so they don’t need to be emphasized.
TJ: So you are emphasizing the third note of each beat, while the beat is actually on the first note. Isn’t it a fundamental principle of music that beats are stronger than off beats, generally speaking anyway? The Suites are based on dances after all.
DM: Not necessarily. I think this is an overly scholastic approach. Bach has a kind of inner rhythm of his own. These pieces are always dancing, even when one doesn’t make any accents. The music almost dances by itself, which is part of the magic of Bach, and is part of what separates him from some of his contemporaries. Bach always has a natural inner rhythm.
TJ: Do you also make a little accent on the melodic notes?
DM: I don’t, since the accent comes naturally when you play them on a down-bow. If you listen to my records you’ll see how well it comes out. In other movements I sometimes do the opposite; I play some upbeats with a down-bow. For instance, in the Courante of the First Suite I play the opening upbeat with a down-bow since it gives the piece an added swing.
TJ: Why do you start the E-flat Prelude on an up bow?
DM: I do this for technical reasons. It’s much more natural, cellistically-speaking, to approach the upper strings with a down bow from the C string. The wrist easily rolls the bow towards the upper strings on a down bow. Also, the low notes are like a pedal, so they don’t need any special emphasis.
TJ: I still struggle with the idea that this bowing, if not treated carefully, tends to place an emphasis on the off-beats of the piece, instead of the beats.
DM: Remember that this movement isn’t a dance, it’s a prelude. You might think of it more as an organ toccata. This may relax your need to emphasize the beats. I find that my bowings make sense musically and also technically.
TJ: Why do you start the Sarabande of the Fourth Suite on a downbow?
DM: I do this because I want to arrive on a downbow when I reach the second beat of the second measure. This is the climax of these two measures.
TJ: Why do you start the Sarabande of the C minor Suite on an upbow, and then play the third beat on a down-bow?
DM: Albert Schweitzer demonstrated that certain melodic figures have a special meaning, which you will find throughout his work, especially in the cantatas. In the case of the C Minor Sarabande, the melody is depicting someone going to the grave. The “resting place” is the quarter note on the third beat of each measure.
TJ: But, by landing down bow on the quarter note, there is a tendency to emphasize the third beat, instead of the first or the second beat, which is a common attribute of sarabandes.
DM: Remember that we are talking about art, not craft. If music only followed such rigid rules, the art of music making would be greatly diminished. If your readers listen to my recordings, they will see that my bowings work.
TJ: Your approach is quite unique.
DM: I am happy to hear that. This reminds me of a story about Rostropovich. When he left Russia he came directly to see me here in Switzerland. He left his two children with me and he wanted his cellist daughter, Olga, to study with me. He left her with me for a whole year because he wanted her to study all of the major repertoire with me, which meant the Bach Suites of course. I warned him, “If I teach her Bach, I will teach it with my edition.” He was happy to hear this since he agreed with my approach. I asked him why he didn’t change his own playing to be along the lines of my edition. He said something like, “I don’t have time to start all over again.” Twenty five or so years later, when I listened to him play the E-Flat Prelude in his recent recording of the Bach Suites, I thought I recognized it from somewhere. So I went through my library, which includes 55 editions of the Bach Suites. I went directly to a 1947 edition which was published in Soviet Russia by Kosolupov, Rostropovich’s teacher, and I found that Rostropovich was playing in the 1990’s like Kosolupov did in 1947. This means that he has not evolved since his student days, which I find very puzzling. He just goes on playing the same way he has always played, and he doesn’t seem to have questioned himself and seems content to play like his teacher, who was a product of the 19th century. Of course, Rostropovich is a great cellist and has done incredible things for the cello in this century. I just think it’s too bad that somebody like him approaches music like this. The problem is that young cellists will want to imitate Rostropovich, but I think his way of playing Bach is old-fashioned. Most of the Soviet editions of that era are in very bad taste and were done with lots of slurs and very exaggerated dynamics. So when you tell me that my approach is unique, I am very pleased to hear it. I have done a tremendous amount of research and study of the Bach Suites, and I have greatly evolved over the years. I am proud of the process that I have gone through to reach the point I’m at now, and I hope to continue to learn.
TJ: Can you describe how cello technique has changed in, say, the last 100 years?
DM: In the latter part of the 19th Century, cellists like Piatti and Servais must have had fantastic technique, which you can see from their very difficult etudes and other compositions. Unlike today, they played with almost no vibrato. They also played with lots of slides, slides up and down, which you can hear in old recordings made in the beginning of this century. The first one who really reacted against what we now consider to be excessive sliding was Pablo Casals. However, even in some of his old recordings you can hear a lot of sliding up and down. Then came cellists like Feuermann who brought a new style of playing that was influenced mostly by Jascha Heifetz, a much cleaner type of playing. Unfortunately, I think some cellists have regressed somewhat back to the old-fashioned sliding. But, our playing is generally much cleaner than 100 years ago. I think slides should be used for definite lyrical purposes and for expression. You should use a slide like a singer who wants to reach a high note. There is a perfectly natural sliding between certain notes that should be encouraged. But you shouldn’t slide just because you shift, which can be particularly irritating in something like ascending broken thirds, “da yeeeah da yeeeah” and so on. That type of sliding makes the remaining hairs on my head stand on end because I think these are completely unmusical mannerisms. Unfortunately, some of the very virtuoso type of playing has been lost, like the flying staccato that I mentioned earlier. Everybody plays the middle variation of Rococo Variations, where there is a 40-note downbow flying staccato passage, with separate bows. I play all the notes in this passage on one bow with no problem. I know a very gifted 14 year old French boy who has a very natural flying staccato. The other day he played some Paganini pieces with a beautiful flying staccato. Now he’s preparing the last movement of the First Davidoff Concerto for an entrance exam for the Paris Conservatoire that uses this bow technique. Unfortunately, the teacher who is preparing him for this exam knows very well that the Paris Conservatoire will insist that he play this movement with separate notes. For some reason, flying staccato is forbidden at the Paris Conservatory, perhaps because the teachers can’t do it themselves.
TJ: Bernard Greenhouse mentioned that more extensions were used in the “old fashioned” technique than we do today.
DM: Yes, but I’m not sure that this is necessarily all for the better. There are many types of extensions that can be quite helpful. For instance, there are times when an extension between the third and fourth fingers may be helpful, like in the opening of the C Major Beethoven Sonata. I think we’ve forgotten how to do healthy extensions, which can be accomplished by allowing the thumb and arm to move as necessary to facilitate the stretch. The thumb should go the same way as the extension and the arm should lead the whole process. If you do this, you won’t feel the extension. I think that this is a lost art too.
TJ: How has the use of vibrato changed during the 20th Century?
DM: Vibrato was used more like an ornament in the last century and in the early part of this century. Recordings with Joachim, for example, show that he used very little vibrato. In our century, old recordings of the Busch family demonstrate that they also played with very little vibrato. I suspect that the use of generous amounts of vibrato may have come from the Russian school. When one listens to players like Heifetz there is a definite change in how vibrato is used. When Heifetz gave his first concert in New York in 1917, he created a revolution because suddenly people were hearing an entirely new kind of violin playing. He influenced a lot of world class musicians, including Piatigorsky. I suspect that this was the birth of the kind of vibrato that we hear today. Our use of continuous vibrato is a relatively modern invention.
TJ: Do you feel that we’ve lost a lot of unique personality in our playing?
DM: Definitely. I see this when I give master classes. Most of the young players play the same way and they don’t seem to want to play differently. What they want is to play more efficiently, not necessarily with deep expression, which I find very sad. When I was a youth there were many different schools of playing, like the Russian School and the French School. Now playing has become more standardized, which is probably due the fact that we now have so many recordings and because players can travel more easily. The good news is that I feel there are cycles in music and that in a few years audiences will become so bored that they will demand somebody with a unique personality. Then new schools will emerge. For the time being, I feel a little sad about this, but maybe this is merely the viewpoint of an old man. We had a big celebration for my 75th birthday here in Switzerland with some of my best students, where we played all the Bach Suites. We finished with the Sixth Suite, playing the Sarabande all together, which was very moving. In the opening of this concert, I mentioned that I was privileged to be sitting on three centuries. I started with Eisenberg, who passed on the precepts of Casals, a product of the 19th century. Then I went to Piatigorsky, who was of this century. And now I am teaching generations of the next century. I feel very privileged to have experienced this vast span of history and I am hopeful for the generations to come.