Indianapolis is the place to be this week if you love music and have romance in your soul. It's a little hard to believe but this year will bring the Tenth Romantic Festival to the campus of Butler University in the Indiana Capital. Why hard to believe?
Well, because in the 10 years since Frank Cooper, who is the head of the piano department at Butler, started these festivals, their influence has swept across not only our concert stages but into recording studios around the world.
Have you heard the remarkable piano music of Henri Alkan in recent years? That is because Raymond Lewenthal found, after his success with this music at Butler, that there were those who wanted to hear it in recitals and on records. To complete the image of the ultra-Romantic pianist, Lewenthal had the lights turned down in halls where he played, and came onstage in a long black cape, under which he wore a black frock coat and ruffled shirt of the kind some pianists wore a century ago.
You might wonder what the connection is between romance and music. There are many people, and I am among them, who think the connection is one of the oldest in the whole story of music. But with our tendency to give labels to the various major periods of musical history and development, it was the 19th century that came to be known as "The Romantic Century" in music, just as it was in literature and painting and architecture.
It was a time when individualism came flooding out of composers and poets, painters and novelists. It saw the great tide of what we call art songs and songs cycles. It brought out tone poems, sometimes called symphonic poems, and always bigger and bigger orchestras, longer and longer symphonies. It was the first grand era for the piano, if a time that buried the harpsichord for a while, as it did the baroque concerto grosso. Emotions ran more fiercely and openly in music in that century than they had for many decades. If it was a time when music got louder and longer, it was also the time when a Chopin prelude and a Wolf song could be performed in less than a minute.
Sentiment that sometimes became sentimental marked that Romantic Century. Sinding wrote "Rustles of Spring" and Liszt four pieces called "Liebestraum," to say nothing of four other pieces about the devil. Symphonies were called "The Ocean" and "The Woods" or "The Desert" and "The River." Nationalism was rising too, in music as in geopolitics. From Brahms came Hungarian Dances, from Dvorak the Slavonic Dances, and from Grieg the Norwegian Dances, while Liszt added his Hungarian Rhapsodies in versions for both piano and orchestra.
A very special brand of razzle-dazzle playing created what were the shrieking fan clubs of the 19th century, as the followers of Liszt, Moszkowski and Anton Rubinstein outdid themselves and their rivals in screaming their idols' names, or doing their best to tear their clothing off their backs.
Pablo Sarasate and Henri Vieuxtempts kept alive the demonic traditions in playing that Paganini had laid out before them, as he transformed the violin into a means for what was clearly nothing less than sorcery. Audiences loved the rapturous tone that filled the concert halls of that time, and often seemed much more willing to show it than our audiences today.
Then, for some reason that is not quite clear, this music and these traditions of performance began to disappear. Perhaps they went under, buried by the weight of the greatness of Beethoven and Brahms, Berlioz and Wagner. In place of such grandeur, these lesser men offered charm, a quality that often seems completely lacking from concerts today.
The men who had been giants of the Romantic Century may have offered less profundity, but they certainly demonstrated the beauties of exquisite textures and gossamer performances. Some say that audiences tired of bravura and pure virtuosity, though that is hard to believe in the light of what happens today when a true virtuoso appears. Others say that the styles of the 19th century became as outmoded as the bustles and hoopskirts, the ruffled shirts and elegant vests that women and men wore while listening to the music.
Well, perhaps today when ruffled shirts if not bustles are making a strong comeback and women's styles are straight out of closets that have not been opened for 50 years, we may be in for a happy change in our concert fare.
Frank Cooper thought the time was at hand for such a change 10 years ago, and his knowledge of the subject is based on what may be the most comprehensive collection of 19th-century scores of all kinds in the possession of any one musician in the country today. Moreover, Cooper's conviction was shared by thousands of people once they got a chance to hear what they had been missing, which was some of the best of this older music that had been so long neglected.
Pianists like Gunnar Johansen and Raymond Lewenthal did not need to resurrect anything from their repertoires - they had always played the grand works of Liszt and his lesser-known contemporaries. But now a new vogue began to appear. And much of it surfaced in Indianapolis where Cooper was determined to give today's audiences chances to hear some of the beautiful music that orchestral conductors, chamber music ensembles, and solo performers had so long neglected.
In large measure it is due to his efforts and the programming of the Romantic Festivals in Indianapolis that recent performances have been played and recorded that have brought back such masterpieces as the Busoni Piano Concerto, Leopold Godowsky's Passacaglia on a theme from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and the Piano Quintet by Amy Beach. Concertos by Palmgren and Arensky, Scharwenka and Moszkowski are available that generations could not hear, as is the great bulk of the fascinating piano music of Henri Alkan.
Furthermore the idea of the Romantic Festival, glorying in this music of fragrant beauty, has spread. Newport, R.I., has enjoyed such a fest each year now for nearly a decade.
For this year's festival, Cooper is bringing to Indianapolis pianists Johansen and Victor Borge, who also conducts with great skill; conductor Igor Buketoff, violinist Aaron Rosand, who has no superior in this music, and cellist Jascha Silberstein, organist Marilyn Mason, together with choruses and orchestras plus a full-length ballet, something he has included in every festival.
There will be a feast of Glazounov, Czerny, Palmgren, Dohnanyi, Svendsen, Sinding, Ries and many more. The performances are given in Butler's excellent Clowes Hall, home of the Indianapolis Symphony, where there will be chamber music, solo recitals, and concerts of the largest works.
A footnote to all this is of importance in Washington. Two weeks ago this column carried some words suggesting that the concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra in the coming season were not all that they might be. For some reason many readers presumed that those words were a call for more contemporary music. Not at all. Nothing would please me more than to have some of the music that has been heard in Romantic Festivals in Indianapolis find its way onto programs of the National Symphony. And I have the feeling that symphony subscribers would be as delighted and pleased as I.
Meanwhile the feast in Indianapolis will run nightly from April 26 through May 1. See you there.