Music scholar Benedetta Saglietti interviews George Lepauw about the Bach48 Album
Caro George, nice to meet you again, to discuss Bach this time.
Let me recall the whole story a bit: your career is lastingly bound to Beethoven (it all started on March 1, 2009, right?) both as a performer and as a talented music organizer of the International Beethoven Project’s Beethoven Festival in Chicago, started in 2011.
Now, you’ve committed yourself to the “recording studio”.
It all started on March 1, 2009, yes. But before that even, it really began on May 22, 1991, when I gave my first official public concert, in a program of two Beethoven Sonatas (Nr. 2 and Nr. 12)! Beethoven has been my most important musical companion for as long as I can remember, and I feel like I know him well. When I was asked to organize and to give the world premiere of the Piano Trio Hess 47 ten years ago, it was in part because I had already associated myself in my performance career very deeply with Beethoven’s music. And I subsequently founded the International Beethoven Project, the non-profit organization in charge of the trio premiere and of the Beethoven Festival, because I always felt great kinship with Beethoven and I thought I would be able to convey his spirit of courage, creativity and compassion in the various activities of the organization.
I committed myself to the “recording studio” (in fact it was a church) for five days and nights to record J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in August 2017. It took a long time of preparation and organization to get there, and it has taken all this time to finalize the project and get it ready for public release, scheduled for February 14, 2020 on Orchid Classics. But committing myself to this recording is not exclusive to my other responsibilities in life.
Flashes of inspiration? Where did they come from? Or, any difficulties?
This is a tricky question! And there are different answers. I have been playing Bach’s music since I began playing piano at three or four years old, like most students. I probably began opening the score to the Well-Tempered Clavier at seven or eight when my teacher at the time, Elena Varvarova, thought it was time to begin working on some Preludes and Fugues, indeed essential elements of a good musical education. But it was later, when I was about twenty, that I began to make the Well-Tempered Clavier a daily practice, as part of my “warm-up”. I would open the score and play a Prelude and a Fugue, and that way I progressively familiarized myself with this incredible music, which was always a great way to start moving my fingers, but was also spiritually nourishing. In those years I thought it would be nice to be able to play all 48 pairs of Preludes and Fugues in concert or maybe to record them, but it was a vague project.
How long did it take to realize this whole project? Do you have a story to recall connected with this long period of hard study?
In 2014 I decided I wanted to take this initially vague idea seriously, and I also needed to go deep into this music to reconnect with myself after several years of organizing the festival and getting to a point of burnout. I felt Bach could help me. I began first to focus on the preludes, and I performed the entire set of Preludes from Book I in concert several times that year. It was a deeply satisfying experience and I wanted more. In 2015 I presented all the Preludes from Book II, and I began to ready myself to add the fugues…
And so in September 2015, as part of the annual Beethoven UnFestival events, I presented the entire Well-Tempered Clavier for the first time in a single performance (with three intermissions), accompanied by eight dancers from the legendary Chicago modern dance company Hubbard Street Dance, who improvised (with a few rules) during the entire performance. It was an incredible experience, one which gave me access to deeper levels, or higher levels depending on how to look at it, of the music’s power. Playing for so long put me in a trance, and the dancers felt the same way. I think even the audience did! It proved to me that I was capable of climbing this mountain, and the dancers helped me hear things I had never even noticed in the music. Their motion, the things they heard which they moved to, visually outlined secret voices, hidden harmonies, unexpected rhythms… The dancers taught me how to listen to this music, by freeing my ears to hear as if for the first time, without any of the apriori listening habits and expectations we accumulate in a formal music education. This experience helped me hear this music as if for the first time, and play it without the weight of tradition. I threw all that out the window.
From that point on, I began to think seriously about recording this music, but I did not know how to begin the process, where to go, how to get ready, how to fund it, when to find time for it… And these questions were with me for months. Then in June 2016 I decided, similarly to how the dancers had helped me drop my preconceived notions about the Well-Tempered Clavier, that I had to drop all these worries as a pre-condition of success. And I did that, and I made the decision to record this album as soon as I could, and that I would address each obstacle in due time as I actually faced them. I stopped being my own obstacle, which was a major personal lesson, and which, now more than three years later, still seems like a key to any progress in life. I just decided to get out of my own way to move freely in the direction I wanted, no more excuses allowed! And guess what? From that moment on, each time a problem presented itself, the solution also presented itself immediately or shortly thereafter.
Why, after the exciting experience of organizing an event as complex as a music festival, did you search for years/months of seclusion and silence, vital for an artist to create, but far from the public? In the documentary, you specifically refer to this stage of your life as “an end and a beginning”… tell me more about this.
Organizing a music festival is indeed complex, and while exciting, it takes away energy from being a performing musician. At that time in my life I needed to find balance and going back to the piano, and deep into Bach especially, was very important. But it is not like I stopped organizing! Every year since 2011 I have organized a version of a festival: the Beethoven Festival, the Beethoven UnFestival, the Beethoven Birthday Bash series… it has never stopped! In fact, during the entire period of the Bach recording, and in addition to my ongoing responsibilities of President and Artistic Director of the International Beethoven Project, I made this recording in August 2017 while organizing a major Chicago film festival for November of that year (CIMMfest)… It was a bit crazy.
The recording period itself was indeed an end and a beginning, a major turning point in my life, for several reasons. First, it was the culmination of my preparation to record, and really of decades becoming a musician. I felt, and still feel, like learning to play, to perform and then to record the entire Well-Tempered Clavier was like the “final exam” to becoming a true musician, at least for me.
Really? Do you still need exams? I am joking, of course…
Really! It was the final requirement to find my true voice, and to overcome some of the greatest musical and technical challenges of the keyboard literature. I think that, succeeding in recording this major work in five days, was my graduation, and while it represents the end of my apprenticeship, I feel that it therefore also represents the beginning of my life as a fully-formed musician, a title I sense I have truly earned through this experience, even if there is always so much more to learn, and even if a musician must always remain humble in front of the giants whose music he is lucky to be able to interpret.
It was also the end for other reasons: just six weeks before the start of the recording sessions, I lost my beloved paternal aunt Nicole Laury-Lepauw, someone to whom I was extremely close, and to whose memory I have dedicated this album. This death affected me very deeply, and I almost canceled the recording because of this emotional shock. I pushed through nevertheless and I was right to do so. It was the only way to grieve fully, through Bach’s consoling sounds. I thought about death a lot, I thought about Bach’s relationship to death as well, as someone who had lost so many loved ones (his parents when he was just ten, his first wife, ten of his children in young age, other family and friends…). His music goes straight to the heart of life’s fragility, of the pain of living. But always, Bach rises up from sadness, grief, and all forms of deep suffering, and finds optimism that reminds one of the beauty of life, of our privilege to be alive.
That summer of 2017 was also one of deep realizations about the course of my life on all levels, of my place in the world, of my professional and personal choices, of the general direction my life had taken. This focused experience on Bach helped me readjust my entire life course, because it forced me to reconnect with my inner self, my true nature, and to correct course where needed.
What ensued in my life that summer and what happened in the following months in my professional and personal life turned into radical readjustments. I subsequently met the love of my life and moved from Chicago to Paris; plenty of beautiful new doors opened up to me in alignment with my deep nature and the courage I found to be honest with myself…
So yes, I said in the film that it was an end and a beginning, and I was even more right than I even knew at the time. Bach’s wisdom did me all the good in the world!
You could dedicate yourself to a million piano masterworks (just to name a few: Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Bach’s Art of the fugue, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux and so on). Why did you choose the Well-Tempered Clavier?
Well, because the Well-Tempered Clavier is the beginning! It is the First Sound, the Word spoken by God to set things in motion and create the world! Yes I know there is great music that precedes Bach, but in a symbolic sense, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is the foundation of music, also itself an end and a beginning. There is a tradition in the music world of calling the Well-Tempered Clavier the Old Testament of music, which is also in relation to Beethoven’s Sonatas, a collection musicians refer to as the New Testament of Music.
But I am excited to have done it and now to be open to other music. My next major project is to record the entire Beethoven Sonatas, because again, this is a mountain I must climb as I deepen my knowledge of self as a human being along with my musicianship. But I also plan to record and release music by Chopin, Debussy, Rameau, Brahms, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, Messiaen and others in the years to come, if life allows. Yes, I love music, and as a pianist I have access to huge amounts of music literature. I will not be able to do all I love in this lifetime, but I have certain affinities and composers whose music I want to spend time with. I expect to perform and record lots of music in the next ten years, and I am very excited about that.
How do you measure yourself with the great interpretations of the past (just to name the reference interpretation, so to say, in my opinion at least, that of Glenn Gould)?
I don’t. As I said before, I have my own personal relationship with Bach and with the WTC. That belongs to me. And I was lucky enough to realize that I had to look at this music with new eyes, ears, and feel it with “virgin” fingers, with no preconceptions about “how to play Bach”. I had to tear apart the straightjacket, break my chains and escape the asylum that music education has become (especially in formal studies). From the moment I gained my freedom, I also gained access to my voice and engaged a personal and honest relationship with Bach, with no more middlemen to meddle with the simplicity of notes on paper. I learned many things from listening to the great masters when I was younger and had not found confidence in my own voice yet. But from the moment I found my freedom, I knew that whatever I did with Bach would be true to me, and therefore would not be like anyone else’s version. Simply put, I trusted my gut and went with it.
On another level, and in general terms, I can also say that, to take Glenn Gould as an example, his experience of the world is not the same as mine, and therefore his Bach, while in some ways timeless, is also very much of his time, while my Bach is certainly of my time, of our time today. I am a musician who has an iPhone and who listens sometimes to Daft Punk and Lady Gaga and all sorts of radio stations, to put it simply. I am also deeply aware and concerned about the climate crisis our world is facing, and of its many political problems, issues that are very much of our times. Unconsciously, these things and many other elements of our world today, and of my own personal life, take root and impact the way I listen, and therefore play, Bach. That’s one of the reasons there is always value in re-interpreting the greatest works of all time, even if “definitive” versions have already been recorded. The energy is different, and each voice, if true, is unique. To go ahead with this project I just needed to know for sure that my voice was ready to come out. And I was. And so I did!
How is it possible to make a music project sustainable today (just to give an example: the popular music streaming app Spotify pays about $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream to the holder of music rights)?
Well, it’s cliché to say so but van Gogh never sold a single painting in his life. Yet he painted. Why? A true artist has something to say, and cannot hold back, no matter the economic reality around him. My first instinct was to make this recording. From that point on, as I mentioned above, I addressed obstacles as they presented themselves.
The financial issues you bring up are important, however, because there are costs to making a recording and because a musician also has to make a living. The disadvantage of streaming music is definitely the extremely low share given to a rights-holder for his work. However, the advantage is that this music will reach many more people than physical recordings of the past. In reality, I am not concerned with the streaming issue. I already assume that financial rewards from streaming will be modest. But I also know that real fans of classical music and of Bach will be happy to buy the physical box set, and even if only hundreds or a few thousand sell over the course of a year, the financial return will be honorable. However, the reality is that the cost of making the album will likely not be made up by future sales, at least for a long time. Luckily, I was able to secure grants and donors to cover the costs of making this ambitious album in collaboration with the International Beethoven Project, without which it would have been impossible. We all have to be creative to find the means to make art. This has always been true.
Why did you choose the mixed medium recording and videos?
It was essential for me to make an album that included a visual version of the audio (we made a film of the entire recording), and I also wanted to tell the story of the WTC and of my journey to record it. Sadly, classical music appears dry and distant to lots of people, especially young people, who think it really is old music for another generation. Knowing the fascinating stories behind the music, the composers, the interpreters, brings it all to life and opens people’s hearts to what we care most about, which is the music. Knowing that Bach spent a month in prison and that he developed his idea for the Well-Tempered Clavier while sitting in jail makes a difference to how we perceive this man and the music he put so much effort into birthing. Seeing me visiting this very prison cell brings this story into today’s world, which people can relate to. This is not just old history, this is a story told in the present, experienced in the present, expressed in today’s language.
In today’s extremely visual world, mainly based on images and videos, and not on listening, how important is it for a musician to take care of his/her public image?
Image? I don’t care much about that idea. But I care about showing things, I care about telling stories, I care about engaging people in those stories, and most importantly, I care about drawing people into music that I consider essential for the health of our human souls. And okay, sure, it’s important to think in terms of image in order to spread this message far and wide, but it’s not an end into itself. Good photos, a good website (we developed a dedicated site for the album, http://www.bach48.com/redesign/), the films, the trailers, a good communication and marketing plan to get people to find out about the project, all that is important, but never at the expense of good art. I think it is actually taboo, especially in classical music, to be an artist that is also good at marketing and business. Sadly, the two are not mutually exclusive, but one certainly does not guarantee the other either. A great musician can be terrible as promoting himself, while a terrible musician can be a master at it, tricking audiences into supporting his art which is itself not really good. But if a good musician can also be business savvy, this is a great combination, because it means more people will benefit from being exposed to meaningful art. I have good ideas on how to do all this but only time will tell if I succeed in getting this recording out to lots of people! Most importantly, I believe in staying true to myself, and I will never do things which go against my nature, even in the name of business…
Did the video recording proceed along with the recording? Making a documentary (being filmed, I mean) while realizing an album isn’t distracting?
Indeed, the video recording was part of the audio recording process over the course of 5 full days at the Jakobskirche in Weimar. In addition to filming me playing piano during the entire time, the filmmakers (Martin Mirabel and Mariano Nante) also followed me with cameras before, during and after the recording as I visited various sites where Bach lived and worked. As far as being distracting, this can certainly be the case. However, I was extremely lucky because both Martin and Mariano, in addition to being extremely professional, accompanied me emotionally throughout the experience and their presence, along with that of my audio producer Harms Achtergarde, became an essential aspect of my ability to give all of myself to this music and to this project. They pushed me to be at my very best, but always supported me with kindness and heartfelt generosity. I was very lucky, and I consider that their own spirits mark this recording very much. Without them the result would have been different.
In the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries composers went to visit their idols at home. Basically, you have made an iconographic journey that completes/integrates your recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier: it’s very exciting! You followed Bach’s life, as if on a pilgrimage, in his land: why this peculiar choice?
I needed to connect to Bach the man. There is so little we have from him in terms of traces of his passage on earth as a human being, other than the music (which is tremendous of course). Very few letters and amongst those very little that reveals anything about the person that Bach was, in opposition to someone like Beethoven or Mozart, who both wrote hundreds of letters in which they revealed themselves completely. So while it is possible to “know” Beethoven from reading biographies and letters, it is nearly impossible to “know” Bach this way. And he was born more than three centuries ago, so that his world really feels far removed from our own, much more so than Beethoven’s in the 19th century. I felt it necessary to know more about the man by walking his steps, breathing the air he breathed, looking at the landscapes and architecture that were familiar to him, and generally connecting to the spirit of his time and place. I had to be physically connected as much as possible, and that is why I went to visit Bach’s region of Thuringia and the towns he lived and worked in, even before making the recording, to get as close to him as I could, in hopes that something about him would be revealed to me in the process. And surprisingly, I found much more of him than I had expected, and I was able, through that experience, to connect to Bach the man, which then made relating to his music easier. I could empathize with him, with his experience, in ways I could not before, especially in the context of the academic approach we have developed with Bach’s music, which to me sucks the spirit away from this full-blooded music! Yes, it was a pilgrimage, but not a pilgrimage to find Bach the God but rather to come down to Earth and find Bach in the Flesh.
How long did the journey to Bach’s towns last, and what was the most exciting place you visited?
In reality, there were three separate trips to Thuringia, so I got to know these places pretty well. My first trip was my very first experience of this area of central Germany. I traveled in March 2017 for one week, starting in Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace, where there is a great museum in Bach’s birth house (Bachhaus http://bachhaus.de/en/home), a beautiful statue of Bach, the church where he was baptized and where he sang as a choirboy, and the famous Wartburg castle where Martin Luther found refuge to translate the Bible into German, which left a profound influence not just in Germany but specifically in Eisenach and on Bach.
I went to Ohrdruf where Bach was sent after the death of both of his parents when he was about ten years old, a place where he lived with his older brother for five difficult years. I found that this town was really “in the middle of nowhere”, in comparison to jovial Eisenach, and that it must have been particularly difficult for Bach to adjust to his new life.
I visited Arnstadt, where from 1708 Bach spent four years as organist in the “New Church” (Neukirche) which today has been renamed the Bachkirche (Bach church). It was in Arnstadt that he had a street fight with one of his adult students (Bach even had to pull his sword!).
Then off I went to Weimar, where he spent nine years in various positions and where he ended being imprisoned for breaking his employment contract. Weimar was a great discovery for me, a happy place, filled with important artistic history such as the presence of Lucas Cranach, Bach, Goethe and Schiller, Liszt, … This town was extremely well-preserved and one can really understand Bach’s life there. It was also in Weimar that I recorded this Album, and it was upon that first trip that I discovered, almost by accident, the Jakobskirche which immediately felt right for this recording.
I also traveled to Köthen where Bach spent five years at the Calvinist court of the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, and then finally to Leipzig where Bach spent the last 27 years of his life as cantor and where he is buried.
I returned to Weimar in August 2017 for the recording period, and again in February 2018 to edit the recording with my audio producer.
How did you choose the recording place and why?
It was dusk on March 6, 2017 when I first approached the Jakobskirche, atop a little hill on the outskirts of old Weimar. I was surprised to find the door open – which already says a lot about the nature of this project – despite the fact that it was past official opening hours. I entered and found this empty church, not so big, warm, intimate, principally wooden with balconies as is the style in this part of the world, and with a very warm acoustic. I immediately thought this would be a great place to record if I could arrange it. And indeed it really was! This is a place which will always remain in my heart.
What do you wish for this project?
I wanted to do this first for myself, because it was important for me as a human being and as a musician, and I am thrilled that I was able to fulfill this need. Now, I wish people will discover this recording and, by listening to it carefully, will make it their own, to appropriate for their own inner selves the meaning of this music. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has the capacity to heal people’s souls, so to speak, as it did for me. I really hope this recording can also benefit people who really need consolation or who need to access their own deeper selves. In many ways this music is very intimate, and every person who listens will have their own personal story attached to it. So we will see! But it’s now out of my hands…
Benedetta Saglietti is an Italian music historian and Beethoven scholar. She is active as a researcher in different fields and a recognized expert in music iconography. In 2020 she will publish her new essay La Quinta Sinfonia di Beethoven recensita da Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (Donzelli), prefaced by Riccardo Muti.
Saglietti was asked to contribute to the exhibition catalogue Ludwig van. Le mythe Beethoven (Gallimard 2016). Previously she edited de Vienney’s memoir Una visita a Beethoven (2014). Her acclaimed book, Beethoven, ritratti e immagini appeared in 2010, which led to her invitation to lecture at the International Beethoven Project’s Beethoven Festival in 2011.
She has worked on the relationship between music and color and on the professional itinerant musicians in the 18th century. She co-edited with Giangiorgio Satragni the new edition of Alfredo Casella, Strawinski (2016).
Her multimedia project about Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire, conceived together with Valentina Manchia, as based on the graphic designer Massin’s work, made its debut in 2018.