Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Roy Howat The Art of French Piano Music:
Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier

Debussy @ 150 Public lecture recital, with two students - 24 October 2012

Dynamic Architecture in Debussy's Symphonic Structures - 26 October 2.30-4.00 and 6.00-7.00

In the 1980s Roy Howat prompted radical reappraisal of Debussy with his discoveries about meticulously proportioned shapes and structures in his music. Based on his doctoral thesis and book ‘Debussy in Proportion’, the lecture recital stressed the importance of playing Debussy's piano music exactly as written in his meticulous manuscript scores.

Roy and his 2 advanced students (one name mangled in the hand-out programme) gave superb accounts of two Images, four wartime pieces and two versions of his Etude Pour les Arpèges composés, all completely by memory. A thoroughly rewarding session.

The event two days on was partly expanding the Wednesday insights, with a lot of repetition and was more specialised, analysing proportions mathematically with demonstrations on screen.

They were to use visual projection to show how these structures interact with the musical flow, revealing Debussy's sophisticated proportionality, involving Golden Section in his far from intuitive structures.

The two hour "tea break" on a Friday afternoon for administrative necessity, with nothing else on offer for visitors, may have lost a number of the audience.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Art of French Piano Music

Yale University Press June 2009
- Special Promotion

This is a remarkable and quite exceptional book in the annals of studies by scholar/pianists. Howat has devoted many years of his life to this repertoire, in concert, teaching and musicological research; not a page of the 400 doesn't represent a week's or more work. The publisher's introduction is succinct and I endorse every word of it:

Howat explores the musical language and artistic ethos of this repertoire, juxtaposing structural analysis with editorial and performing issues. He also relates his four composers historically and stylistically to such predecessors as Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, the French harpsichord school, and Russian and Spanish music. Challenging long-held assumptions about performance practice, Howat elucidates the rhythmic vitality and invention inherent in French music. In granting Fauré and Chabrier equal consideration with Debussy and Ravel, he redresses a historic imbalance and reshapes our perceptions of this entire musical tradition. Outstanding historical documentation and analysis are supported by Howat's direct references to performing traditions shaped by the composers themselves. The book balances accessibility with scholarly and analytic rigour, combining a lifetime's scholarship with practical experience of teaching and the concert platform.

As an editor myself but no scholar, I read it through in a week or so with immense enjoyment, regrettably without time to follow the arguments at the keyboard, as students will need to do. At the London launch at the Royal Academy, and a masterclass the same afternoon, Roy Howat demonstrated his pedagogic skill. The main message was to trust the composers and their scores, in particular avoiding gratuitous rubato and "expression" which was especially anathema to Fauré. Howat has the whole of this repertoire in his head and fingers, and without the music before him was able to demonstrate how the music should go to students who had indulged themselves with "feeling", sometimes encouraged by their teachers.

The book examines every conceivable source of evidence, including the composers' own performances on piano roll and early discs, also those of their favourite interpreters and famous latter-day specialists. It is probably the first time that Chabrier has been afforded equal status and importance alongside the three more widely accepted favourites.

There are numerous illustrative examples and tables, impeccably printed, and scarce a page lacks one of Howat's bon mots and unforgettable phrases, which make reading this dense material a continual pleasure. I found even the five pages of acknowledgments, which one is usually inclined to skip, absorbing to review, giving us so surely the unstinted effort taken and the worldwide help and support received.

It is a book to be taken in 'comparative and reciprocal context', according to desire, and it may be helpful to list the chapter headings:

If you click on the publisher's link at the top, you will be able to enjoy listening to representative samples of Howat's accounts of three of his composers. His Debussy CDs, reviewed in Musical Pointers October 2006, are a staple part of my collection; the Chabrier disc, recently acquired, is likewise a bench-mark recording.

This book, impeccably type-set and produced, is priced so reasonably that one assumes generous sponsorship? It must be in evey conservatoire and piano teacher's library, and will help to eliminate many misconceptions about this school of piano playing and composition for the piano.

I hope that Howat, who is not a man to rest upon his laurels, will write a supplement on his composers' chamber works and those with orchestras. It is encouraging to find that he has recently brought out a critical edition of one of my Fauré favourites: Gabriel Fauré, 1er Quintette op. 89, édition critique par Roy Howat (Editions Hamelle, Paris): "restoring to print one of Fauré's major masterpieces, long obscured by corrupt performing instructions."

Roy Howat's The Art of French Piano Music bids fair to remain a standard text through into the next century.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Photo: Bridget Elliot

Fauré’s Barcarolles Refreshed

Roy Howat & Rebecca Trialoup, piano

Royal Academy of Music Concert Room, 30 October 2009

This musical soirée was scheduled as a lecture-workshop to launch Dr Howat's new Peters Critical Edition of Gabriel Fauré’s Barcarolles. He apologised that it is now in proof, but not quite ready for this event; also that wine was not forthcoming....

However, a full house was rewarded with insights into the very difficult decisions required of a modern editor. Howat took us through some of his dilemmas, drawing on Fauré's own sometimes inconsistent manuscript alterations and the composer's own performances on piano rolls prepared by Denis Hall.

Some of the quandaries were thrown open for discussion amongst the learned audience. Illustrations at the piano were provided by Roy Howat and by Academy student Rebecca Trialoup, who had made a special study of this repertoire. Dr Howat explored editorial issues that had to be confronted, in particular hitherto unpublished readings of some passages and revised performance indications that change the way these pieces should be perceived and played. The evening made for an intimate window into the arcane world of the modern publishing editor.

Trumpet Masterclass - Eric Aubier

There is always a lot on for visitors to the Academy to enjoy.

During the afternoon, before the Fauré soirée, I'd attended part of Eric Aubier's Trumpet Masterclass there.

I heard four of sixteen students scheduled to play through the day; I was particularly impressed by Chris Avison (pictured) playing Tomasi; a likely soloist in the making.

Aubier used his singing voice to teach musical phrasing (for many of the students more necessary than 'trumpet') to put across the chosen pieces more effectively, as did Håkan Hardenberger on his Masterclass Media Foundation DVD from the Royal Northern College of Music).

I was discomfited by the loudness of trumpets in a small hall and resorted to protective earphones to moderate the sound. Afterwards I broached the topic of hearing protectors for trumpet students with trumpeter Principal of RAM, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, and ascertained that many of the students there do little or nothing to prevent themselves succumbing to hearing loss &/or tinnitus in the future... (My elder son suffers from permanent tinnitus from pracising jazz trumpet as a student, and afterwards descended to the double-bass !).