Interview With Susan Kagan
August 27, 2008
Susan Kagan, pianist, musicologist, and Fanfare colleague, has recently embarked on an ambitious project to record the complete piano sonatas of Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838). If you know anything about Ries, it's probably that he studied piano with Beethoven—and, perhaps, that he premiered Beethoven's Third Concerto. But his music is barely known except to connoisseurs. What drew Kagan to this project? How did she get interested in Ries in the first place?
As a musicologist, Kagan is probably best known for her biography of Archduke Rudolph (originating in her 1983 dissertation)—and she first came across Ries's music while doing research for the dissertation in Vienna. "Beethoven wrote a letter to Ries. It was in the collected letters, and he mentions that he and the Archduke Rudolph have been playing Ries's piano work Il sogno ('The Dream') and liked it very much. This was 1816, and the work had recently been published. Of course Ries sent everything that he wrote and published to Beethoven. I was at the piano library and I got a Xerox copy of it. It was a rather strange work, not exactly a sonata, more like a fantasy, but it was listed among his sonatas, so that's the first I knew of his sonatas." Later on, she recorded it for a CD, along with a work by Archduke Rudolph and the Beethoven bagatelles. "That's my beginning with Ries. I thought it was beautiful." Ries reentered her life a few years later when she and her cellist husband played the Clarinet Trio, "thanks to a clarinetist we knew who had the music. We thought it was a lovely piece, and we played it a couple of times with other clarinetists."
None of this, of course, quite explains the sonata project. "So then we fast forward to 2004, when I got an e-mail from a man in the Netherlands who had a record company called Raptus Records. He wrote to ask me if I would be interested in recording for his company. He had the op. 1 of Ferdinand Ries, two piano sonatas which he thought were just fantastically interesting historically and good pieces of music. Would I be interested in recording them? Well, of course I was interested-I couldn't have had a more delightful invitation from anybody. So I got the music-it was at the Library of Congress, and I was able to get copies, first editions. And I started learning them. I took off a semester from teaching so that I could really study them.
"I practiced them, and they were not easy to learn. They showed a debt to Beethoven, but at the same time they were quite individual. His style was not exactly elusive, but it took me a little while to get into it. Anyway, I prepared the two sonatas; I went to the Netherlands that summer, and recorded them for this record person and then discovered after that that he had absolutely no distribution anywhere. There was no promotion for this CD at all, except what I did. And what I did was to send it around to the few people that I thought would be interested in this. And it began and ended with that. And I was most unhappy about it because I thought the music was wonderful and I expended an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm on these two sonatas."
Her interest in Ries had been piqued. "I knew that all the first editions had been cataloged by Cecil Hill. It was a tremendous job cataloging his works, since Ries was enormously prolific and he wrote in every single genre. A lot of chamber music, eight symphonies, piano concertos, and lots and lots of accompanied piano sonatas, like with the flute. The flute was very popular in the first quarter of the 19th century, and he wrote a lot for it, although always with piano. But the genuine piano sonatas—there were 15 of them, as I found out. After going through the Cecil Hill catalog, I discovered where these were: they were all in libraries in Europe. I was a little bit floored by starting to try to get copies of each of the sonatas, but I was prepared to do it, when, lo and behold, in 2006, there was suddenly a modern edition of the complete sonatas put out by a German publisher named Ries and Erler, the Ries part descended from Ferdinand Ries. They're a fairly well-known printing firm, although we don't see many of their exports."
The scores were, in Kagan's words, "enormously expensive"; they were also, unfortunately, "full of mistakes, printing errors galore. They were edited by a German musicologist whom I'd never heard of, Bert Hagels. He's done a lot of editing of music, but the sloppiness of this edition-I'll never understand it. Each of the volumes was $80, there were four volumes, and they were so mistake-ridden that it became a major effort to clarify." So in the end she had to round up the first editions after all, in order "to be able to clarify and correct these errors. That's what I've worked with. So I have the original editions, which also have mistakes in them. They're not Bibles, by any means, because there were a lot of printer's errors and little mistakes, misreading of ledger lines and that kind of thing.
"And that's what happened. I suddenly had all the sonatas in front of me, and I began, of course, looking into them and playing them, and I just fell in love. I fell in love with Ries. I think the music is just wonderful stuff. Not all of it is equally so, but there is so much originality in the sonatas that I just decided that a complete recording was the thing to do."
The next step was to contact Michael Fine, the producer and recording engineer working at the time at Koch (and a colleague at Fanfare as well). "He had engineered my recordings with Josef Suk and a couple of the other things that I did for Koch, including the recording with Ries's The Dream on it. He loves Ries because he plays the clarinet and he thinks the Ries Trio is just a marvelous piece. I called him up and he said, 'Listen, I know that Naxos will be interested. Let me contact Klaus Heymann.' Well, they were very interested in having a complete recording of the sonatas (including the sonatinas). So that was it!"
Although she already had her CD with two of the sonatas, she rerecorded them for the new cycle. "It had to be Michael Fine's work, as far as Naxos was concerned. Actually, I listened to both carefully, and I found that I did very little differently in the second recording. I had really learned those two sonatas to a fare-thee-well." Not that the two recordings are in competition: "The Raptus really is not in existence any more. There are some spare copies in the Netherlands, but nobody knows about them."
So what was it in particular that made her fall in love with this music? "Ries has great strengths as a composer. Number one, he has a wonderful sense of architecture. Nearly every movement is an example of it. He is a Classical composer, Classically trained, and his ideas of form are all based on Classical models." Sonata form is prominent. "And he uses theme and variations (not too much), minuet and trio, and rondos-a lot of rondos: the last movements are almost always rondos. So that's one thing that is attractive about his style, it's very, very well constructed." Then, there are what Kagan calls his "wonderful" themes: "He's a very melodically oriented composer, very much in the Schubert mold. There are some of his melodies that are next to Schubert-the quality is superb." Most important, though, is what struck her immediately on first acquaintance: "His first work was published in 1804, and in that first decade, to 1810, he developed a style that was totally his own. It was very forward-looking, it had tremendous Romantic mannerisms- I shouldn't say mannerisms, that's not a nice term. There were earmarks of what was to come just two decades later, in early Mendelssohn, early Chopin, and even Schubert. There are things that he does harmonically, melodically, that are absolutely part of the Romantic language that was not yet present in music: Mendelssohn and Chopin and Schumann were babies at that time.
"This incredible prescience about what was to come is especially pronounced in a group of sonatas he was writing around 1809. He was living in Paris, and he was not very happy. He had had a great career as a piano virtuoso, toured everywhere, toured even in Russia, all through Europe, and he was known as this terrific pianist. But when he decided to storm Paris and settle there and become a famous composer, they rejected him. The French simply were not interested in him or his style. They were interested in operatic music, not piano music, and he could not sell himself as a piano composer. So he was rather bitter.
"While he was there, he wrote this group of sonatas which are the most wonderful, startling, and finished works. One of them has a title; it's called L'infortunée ('The Unfortunate One'), apparently written when he was in Paris, although there's not entirely accurate dating with some of his works. He just poured out his frustration in this sonata, which is a very dramatic work in minor, very Romantic."
That was, according to Kagan, "the peak." She says this as she approaches the last three sonatas, all isolated pieces (prior to that, "he tended to write in groups.") "The last three sonatas he wrote, which date from 1823 and 1827 and 1835, approximately, they are certainly-let me see, how can I…You know William Newman, the sonata man? He called Ries a musician à la mode, particularly the last works. At that time, when the Romantic period was in full swing, Ries sort of pandered to public taste, which means that his music was more overtly Romantic than it had been." Or, at least, Romantic in a different way. "What I consider to be the elements of the Romanticism from his earlier works are these hints of harmonic procedures and things that Schubert was doing. But these later sonatas sound a little bit sentimental sometimes. That's what I would call the pandering element." So in a sense, the earlier pieces are more truly forward-looking than the later ones? "Absolutely. By the time he was writing these last three sonatas, he was much more a person of his time, and that's what the time was. And they're almost all written for and dedicated to wealthy patrons, mostly women."
What was his relationship to the younger crowd, represented by Chopin, Schumann, and their friends? "Whatever little evidence there is—and there isn't a lot-he was apparently quite well thought of by his contemporaries. He praised them and they praised him." She compares Ries to such contemporaries as Moscheles and Kalkbrenner, who "were also writing for piano and they also were involved in forging this new style, the Romantic style. I don't think their quality was as good as Ries's, because for one thing, Ries had Beethoven as a very strong model in his life and in his career. He never studied composition with Beethoven, but he was so close to him for so many years living in Vienna and doing all this work for Beethoven, making transcriptions and selling them to publishers. He really represented Beethoven in the best sense. Out of his heart, not for money.
"There's a complicated relationship with Beethoven that goes back to Bonn, where Ries was born. He was 14 years younger than Beethoven-he was born in 1784. And the Beethoven family was beginning to have fairly serious trouble right after Ries was born. Ries's father, Franz Ries, was also a composer, but was mainly the concertmaster, the kapellmeister of the Bonn orchestra. He and his family were extremely kind to Beethoven, he spent a lot of time at their house, and they tried to help the Beethovens, although it was pretty hopeless. The mother was not well and the father was drinking all the time. It was a sad situation, so they took a great interest in protecting Beethoven. They were good friends to him. And then Ries's father taught Beethoven. He was a violinist and he taught Beethoven both violin and viola, giving him enough lessons so that Beethoven felt competent to write for the instruments. So there was this really close relationship, and a fatherly one.
"Then Beethoven went to Vienna in the 1790s to stay, and when Ries was ready to venture out into the world-this was around 1800-his father sent him to Vienna, with a letter to Beethoven. Ries had started composing with great enthusiasm, but Beethoven refused to teach him. As we know, Beethoven would only teach composition to Archduke Rudolph because you could not say 'No' to an Archduke. But he did teach Ries piano. And there are many anecdotes-Ries put together a book with Franz Wegeler, both friends of Beethoven in Bonn in the early years. Beethoven Remembered is the English title, and it's full of anecdotes about Beethoven. Very useful for biography and history. Ries was a scrupulously honest and decent person. He didn't make things up, and was a very good friend to Beethoven in every way. He relates a story about the cadenza to the Third Concerto. Ries played the premiere performance. He prepared a cadenza of his own, but Beethoven chastened him: 'Absolutely not, you can't play that. The public won't understand it.' Ries didn't say anything, the performance came, and he played the cadenza. And afterwards Beethoven hugged him and said, 'It was great. You were right to play it.'"
Of course, even though Beethoven didn't specifically teach Ries composition, as a piano teacher he would have taught him his own sonatas, so Ries would have gotten some compositional influence. "When Ries wrote those two sonatas, op. 1, there's no question in my mind that he showed them to Beethoven and that Beethoven might even have made some comments about them. They're Beethoven-like, in a sense, and yet they are so individual they are so much a different kind of style. Right from the beginning, Ries had something else to say. Of course, nobody who was near Beethoven could help but be influenced by him. It's amazing that any person could develop any kind of individuality, because his presence was overwhelming."
How hard is the music? "It's not virtuosic. There are difficult passages-runs in thirds and things like that. But he tones down these moments of difficulty afterward. But what I have really found difficult is that his style has something about it that is different, so that I've had to develop a feeling for it. It's taken me a while. It doesn't come instantly, although when I play the music I love it. I was immediately drawn to it, every piece that I played. But getting it together was not always easy. Not that any music is easy; certainly Beethoven isn't easy. But Beethoven we've grown up with, we know his style. We've even prepared for the surprises. With Ries-he doesn't have surprises necessarily, but it's just…When I first looked at that op. 1, when the music arrived, I was quite floored. I thought 'Oh, my God, how am I going to play this? This is really hard.' Particularly the first page, the very opening, which has this run in thirds. I have discovered, with Ries-that's what I've been mostly playing now for the last three years-that when something that looks absolutely formidable and immensely difficult, and I think to myself that I'll never get, I practice it and practice it and by golly, I get it."
So far, Kagan has recorded three out of what she expects will be five volumes. "The sonatas are not very long. Their average length is about 20 or 22 minutes, so three of them on a CD are just about right." Even so, she's found it difficult to figure out exactly how to distribute the music over the five CDs. "Sometimes they just don't fit, there isn't enough material. What seems very good on paper doesn't work out. Naxos has a policy that a recording must be 60 minutes or more. I think in rare cases if something is unique, then maybe 58 minutes will do. But basically it's 60 minutes or more." So there's a lot of juggling on economic as opposed to musical grounds? "Oh yes."
I ask about the Ries concertos. According to Kagan, they inhabit "a completely different world. They are public works, and they are flashy, difficult, very virtuosic. These are the works he wrote for himself and he played on tour. And they are demanding. And they're very charming, they're lovely, they have beautiful themes. He was absolutely a first-rate composer."
First-rate and forgotten? There's a paradox here. Little of Ries's music has been recorded (although Naxos and cpo have been reasonably strong advocates); yet Kagan's experience is that the music "sells itself. When the first CD came out, I began getting inquiries from the weirdest places; a lot of people in England wanted the CD. Various collectors around the world-a couple in Japan. I got orders. When I discovered that I was not going to get any distribution here, what I did-and this probably sounds pretty awful, too, but I couldn't bear to let this CD die. I thought it was so good, so worthwhile. So my son, who is in the business, was able to set up a Web site called 'Musical Rarities' that featured this CD. And of course immediately it began getting ordered, because record collectors will leave no stone unturned to find something that they're looking for. So if you just put Ries into your Google search, up came Musical Rarities. It sold out all the copies I had. And then the Naxos connection began, so I just dropped it."
Of course, that only makes the question more pressing: so why was he forgotten? It's surely not that he was unsuccessful during his life. "The proof of that is that there were numerous republications; each one of these sonatas has at least two or three other publications after that, different countries, different publishers. So there was some demand for it. A lot of it was published first in England, in London. Or by Simrock, with the Beethoven connection." In the end, Kagan has two hypotheses. First, there was the "ugly competition" among the "Beethoven aficionados. Everyone wanted to be Beethoven's best friend. It's in that context that we have to read "that one very damaging remark that I think Schindler initiated about how Beethoven said of Ries, 'He imitates me.' That was very damaging to Ries's reputation." Second, though, "after he died, and after that whole Beethoven clone thing, other composers came along. Also, at the end of Ries's life the Romantic period is beginning to be in full swing. It's a new era. Piano sonatas in general waned toward the middle and the end of the century."
Ultimately, though, "it's really unexplainable. Tastes change: that we know. And certainly the Romantic era brought about a big change; there was music that was aimed much more toward pleasing you and entertaining you, instead of requiring you to deal with complicated forms and follow this recapitulation and the themes here and there. People didn't want to do that."
But tastes continue to change, too-and perhaps the time is right to reconsider Ries. Kagan's new series will surely make it easier to do so.
- Peter J. Rabinowitz, Fanfare, September-October 2008 Issue