Knowing the Score

"Recently I served on the jury of an international piano competition for young pianists in Eastern Europe. While the majority of the contestants played quite well, the weakest area, almost universally, was the lack of understanding of the Classical sonata genre. Why might that be? Well, some of the answers are definitely found in Malcolm Bilson's DVD, "Knowing the Score." Bilson, distinguished professor and brilliant pianist at Cornell University, has brought us a stimulating and provocative way of looking at a music score. Through period instruments, contrasted with the modern piano, he takes us into the magical and expressive world of the past. Taking into consideration the instruments' particular acoustic properties, he could well have subtitled his discourse, "A Stein or a Steinway?"

While period instruments are not the main focus of his lecture, Bilson tackles the polemical problem of performance practice ("Everything" he says, "is performance practice"). Even if you thought you knew most everything about stylistic interpretation, Bilson will make you sit up and take note. Note-lengths come under heavy fire. "Can a crotchet be shorter than a quaver?" The answer is found in their context, with Heavy or Light execution being an important key to the stylistic character. Bilson takes into consideration other factors, such as tempo indications, expressive marks, graphic notational style, aesthetic values, organological issues, amongst others. He asks: "what is the length of these four equal descending crotchets (do-si-la-sol)?" Then he draws a line over them. "Now, what does that mean?" The audience of course replies, "legato". "But," Bilson says, "according to CPE Bach, it is a 'diminuendo'!"

Pedal considerations are no better illustrated than with the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight," which Bilson demonstrates on a Walther copy. He dares to keep the pedal down throughout, creating a romantic shimmer that would be impossible on today's pianos. He puts things into perspective when he says: "if I am in a room this size (a small hall), then I can speak very loudly. But if I am in my living room at home, I may whisper and you can hear me." He convincingly shows that tone on a Steinway does indeed begin to swell after it is played, contrary to the characteristics of 18th- and 19th-centruy pianos.

Tempo rubato is addressed through various examples, with hands not played together in a Chopin nocturne or a Johann Strauss waltz. From 20th century literature, we hear wonderful samples of interpretative freedom in recordings of Prokofiev's performance of his Gavotta (1920) and Bartók's performance of his "Evening in the Country." Bilson is quick to show that in early performance practices, the grupetti were always to be played faster and this is exactly what we hear in both Prokofiev and Bartók's playing. Most teachers would become hysterical if their students played like that! Works of Mozart, Schubert and Haydn also are discussed, as well as Beethoven's op. 26 and op. 111. Bilson admits that he wanted to make this DVD in order "to free up a certain kind of tyranny, not just in the piano world but in the classic world." The question-and-answer period with the audience leaves us wanting more.

And more is what we get. Back to the Menu, we find Bilson interpreting Haydn's Fantasia in C at the Esterházy palace in Fertód, Hungary. We are also treated to Schubert's Moments musicaux (nos. 2 and 3) as the Brahmsvereinsaal in Vienna before a live audience in a spellbinding performance, full of beauty and passion. In a 30-minute chat with David Owen Norris, many stylistic matters are discussed and illustrated, from Haydn through Schubert to Field. Norris comments about the transparency of the fortepiano's "voice", which the modern cross-stringing technique inhibits. We are also given a look at Bilson's four fortepianos (three of them Viennese: Schanz, Streicher, Simon/Graf and the English Longman-Clementi, which we reviewed in Piano Journal. n° 82, Spring 2007. p. 49, as used in Liv Glaser's Clementi sonatas). An extra treat – the background music of the Menu search – is the gorgeous playing of a Chopin Impromptu by Bilson on a fortepiano. Bibliography, discography, and biography sections are also not to be missed. And you have your choice of language subtitles: English, French or German. This DVD is deep and thought-provoking. Simply wonderful! Nancy Lee Harper, EPTA Piano Journal 83, Summer 2007

This brilliant lecture filmed at Cornell University has a faint aura of material for a distance-learning course, but Malcolm Bilson is a clear orator, and enthusiastic and good-humoured tutor who places his wealth of knowledge at our disposal.

By attempting to understand the implications of notation in music by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Prokofiev and Bartók, he persuasively demonstrates that many pianists miss the composers' intended effects. Bilson proposes that Beethoven's piano writing deliberately stretched the instrument to evoke a sense of risk, and suggests that Mozart is "emasculated" and "robbed of its drama" owing to the way pedalling and legato have to be applied on a modern piano.

Bilson delivers a rigorous and convincing defence of the merits of early pianos. He clearly does not have much sympathy for the anti-period instrument lobby (the school of thought that insists that "Beethoven would have adored hearing his music on a Steinway if only he were as lucky as we are nowadays"). He examines the technical capabilities of sounds from a modern Steinway piano compared to a Viennese piano from about 1790 and insists: "I'm not saying Steinways are no good, but there is something else we can discover about this music."

Bilson puts his ideas into practice in a sparkling performance of a Haydn sonata filmed in the music room at Eszterháza, and there is an informative discussion between Bilson and David Owen Norris about different kinds of historical pianos in Bilson's music room. David Vickers, Gramophone

"This DVD is something quite special and unique, the kind of thing one wishes to see more often: a grandiose and lively lecture on DVD. At the same time it contains so much valuable information that it is not only pianists who should see it but all who are interested in music. Bilson is indeed a specialist who goes deeply into the material and yet can explain things with a flair and bravura that makes it also understandable to the layperson. Although the DVD is entirely in English, the German and French subtitles make everything easily understandable. A DVD that is a must for everyone."

"Diese DVD ist etwas ganz Besonderes and etwas Einmaliges, was man sich häufiger wünschen würde: eine grandios lebendige Vorlesung auf DVD. Zudem ist es eine DVD, die so viel Wissenswertes parat hält, dass nicht nur Pianisten sie unbedingt ansehen sollten, sondern alle an Musik Interessierten. Denn Bilson ist ein Spezialist, der so teif in der Materie ist, dass er das zu Erklärende bravourös auch für den Laien verständlich macht. Zwar ist diese DVD nur in englischer Sprache verfasst, doch die deutschen oder französischen Untertitel lassen alles bestens verstehen. Eine DVD, die ein Muss für jeden ist!" Carsten Dürer, PIANONews
Deutscher text komplett
Read the full text in English here

"This is an extraordinarily stimulating DVD raising and answering all kinds of questions about how we read and listen to music, and how composers transmit their message through both the written text and the instruments on which they played. Malcolm Bilson demonstrates with an infectious enthusiasm that an understanding of and attention to the score can result in increased musical expressivity and excitement, allowing the music to have its full, radical impact." Stephen Hough, pianist

"It is only once in the proverbial blue moon that a top drawer performer comes along who is also a scholar and manages to balance the competing priorities of both disciplines in a productive synthesis. It is rarer still when these qualities are allied to a gift for teaching. One such is Malcolm Bilson. By the sheer zest of his commitment to reappraising the way we play and hear the keyboard music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, Bilson has probably done more than anyone else toward shifting the lazy anachronistic clichés to which performers often resort. His passion is an inspiration to us all!" Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

"Here's the DVD that will free you from tyranny! All those years of respecting exactly what's on the page in your trusted editions may have skewered your beliefs about how to interpret and teach the music. This has been authenticated by the in-person and recorded performances of artists who subscribe to the theory of phrasing systematized by Hugo Riemann nearly 125 years ago. Now here comes Malcolm Bilson, an enthusiastic revolutionary who will challenge many maxims you have come to accept as gospel—and he does so with such convincing sense and good humor that you enjoy being provoked.

A lecture–demonstration, with a live audience, is the meat of 'Knowing the Score.' Most of the scores discussed are by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, but there are also examples from the music of Chopin, Johann Strauss, Prokofiev and Bartok. You can listen to the entire lecture or choose specific 'chapters.'

The production values are superb. The music examples fill the entire screen, measure by measure, as Bilson plays and speaks or when you hear performances by major artists, comparing interpretations (and how wildly different some of these are!). You see audience reactions and individuals who ask questions appear on screen and are identified by captions.

The cream of the 'extras' is the stimulating and extended conversation between Bilson and David Owen Norris in Bilson's home studio, where both men play and compare three Viennese instruments (two copies, one original) and a copy of a 1799 Longman and Clementi. You see inside some of these are they are played. The special treat is hearing Bilson and Norris alternate phrases, on two different Viennese pianos, of the Schubert B-flat Major Impromptu (D 935).

Other extras include performances by Bilson in the Music Room of the Esterhaza Castle and the Brahmssaal of the Musikverein in Vienna, a bibliography, a Bilson discography and biographies of Bilson and Norris. You can choose to read the subtitles in English, French or German. Did you know: Upbeats are always short and light? Unmarked quarter-notes are never held their full length? The tone on a Steinway actually swells before it begins to diminish? Grupetti are always played slightly faster than written? And—big news to most teachers—fingering should be part of what students learn to do at home, not something that is dictated by the teacher or editor. This DVD is a revelation—and a revolution!" Marienne Uszler, American Music Teacher magazine

"Diese DVD öffnet zugleich unsere Augen und unsere Ohren. Musikalische Freiheit resultiert in erster Linie aus dem Vermögen, den Notentext kreativ zu lesen. Und der Weg zu dieser Freiheit führt über das richtige Lesen des Textes, das Wissen um die verschiedenen Bedeutungsformen von Notation und musikalischem Gedanken.

Mit Esprit, Humor, vor allem jedoch mit profundem Enthusiasmus teilt Malcolm Bilson großzügig mit uns seine lebenslangen Erfahrungen in dieser pädagogischen Sternstunde - und er befindet sich damit in allerbester Gesellschaft: ein Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach des 21. Jahrhunderts!

"Worin aber besteht der gute Vortrag? in nichts anderm als der Fertigkeit, musikalische Gedanken nach ihrem wahren Inhalte und Affeckt singend oder spielend dem Gehoere empfindlich zu machen" (Versuch über die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen, Berlin 1753) Tobias Koch, pianist

"So you think you know how to read music? Malcolm Bilson's delightful presentation covers the subtle interconnections and confusions among composers’ intentions, musical notation, intellect, instinct, spontaneity, expression, and meaning in musical performance. It will almost certainly set you to rethinking much of what you thought you knew." Neal Zaslaw, Editor, The New Köchel

"Malcolm Bilson, in his guise as a Professor of Music at Cornell University, presents an inspiring 90-minute lecture that sets about answering the question of whether we really know how to read and interpret urtext editions. Bilson is well known for his work in the period instrument/performance practice sphere, and this fascinating talk puts forward a series of arguments related to that topic, taking in the legitimacy of using modern instruments to play works from the Classical era, as well as how score notations have been reinterpreted over time... Use of musical examples...give shape to the lectures main points... To round off the package, David Owen Norris joins Bilson in his music room, packed with period instruments, for a 40-minute discussion taking in areas such as the impact that an instrument has on a composer's work, as well as the use of fingerings in urtext editions." Piano International

Il nuovo "transilvano"
"Il DVD contiene due sezioni molto ampie e due sezioni brevi, oltre alle biografie di Malcolm Bilson e di David Owen Norris che, come vedremo, collabora con lui. Assistiamo dapprima a una conferenza nella Cornell University in cui Bilson spiega come e qualmente si adottino oggi religiosamente le edizioni critiche che vengono universalmenta dette Urtext, ma come d’altronde, confondendo spesso e volentieri, anzi, eliminando la distinzione fra la scrittura e il testo, nove volte su dieci non si sappia poi leggerli, quei Benedetti Urtext. E spiega espiega e spiega, parlando, moltiplicando gli esempi al fortepiano, al pianoforte, con i dischi, citando trattati, facendo insomma ricorso a tutti i mezzi necessari per convincere lo spettatore, sempre con il sorriso sulle labbra e senza mai far pesare il suo sapere, ma in realta menando botte da orbi sulle scuole di musica e sui maestri di solfeggio. . . Sara questa la trattatistica del Duemila, sara questo il nuovo Transilvano? . . ."

The New "Transilvano"
"This DVD contains two longer sections and two shorter ones, as well as the biographies of Malcolm Bilson and David Owen Norris who collaborates with him. At first we attend a lecture at Cornell University in which Bilson explains how religiously the universal Urtext has been adopted today, yet how nevertheless ignoring the difference between notation and the text (la scrittura e il testo), nine out of ten times there is ignorance of how to read these hallowed Urtexts. He explains and explains, with many examples at the fortepiano, at the modern piano, using recordings, citing treatises; in short using all means necessary to convince the listener, always with a smile on his lips, never treating what he knows heavily, but in point of fact actually kicking music schools and their masters of solfeggio a bit in the rear (menando botte da orbi). . . Will this be the treatise of the 21st century, will this be the new ‘transilvano’?. . . " Piero Rattalino, Musica
Read the full text in English here

"Bilson's passionate advocacy for historically sensitive readings of the notation used by Mozart, Beethoven, and others reminds us that 'knowing the score' is an adventure of interpretation. No pianist should be without this remarkable guide to the rediscovery of long familiar works—starting with the very first note on the page." Gretchen A. Wheelock, Professor and Chair of Musicology,
Eastman School of Music

Malcolm Bilson's 'Knowing the Score' is an extremely powerful tool in opening the eyes of young musicians for the intended meaning of the notation. I introduced this DVD in a class of musicologist and pianist students: it was amazing to see how instant and deep the impact was. We all enjoyed that the examples were not limited to the hard-core fortepiano literature but enlightened among others the necessity of rubato in Chopin's or Bartók’s music. A fine musician's top production—very clear, pleasantly agitated, and even in touching a sore point it is an open-minded guide." László Somfai, F. Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest

"A milestone! Malcolm Bilson's new DVD is both inspired and inspiring." Bart van Oort, Professor of fortepiano and performance practice
Royal Conservatory The Hague; Conservatory of Amsterdam;
Royal Flemish Conservatory Antwerp

"Malcolm Bilson's DVD "Knowing the Score" is a golden mine for all pianists, full of inspiring performances and enlightening explorations of musical texts. Through the examples of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert, Bilson shows how misled one can be if one "blindly" follows the printed notation. The signs on the page cannot fully express the emotion, as music is a living substance, an inspiration that can only partly be caught on paper. The performer needs to find a way to resolve the ‘rigidity’ of the signs to express the emotion by smartly employing his knowledge of period conventions, instruments, genres and styles. One of the most thought-provoking examples was the contrast between the written scores of Bartok and Prokofiev and the way they performed the same music on the featured recordings. This illustrates how the present day principle of reading the score ‘as it is’ is a misunderstanding of composer’s intentions not only in pre-20th century music. Two exciting bonuses of the DVD are Bilson's brilliant performances of Schubert and Haydn in the beautiful and historically significant spaces; and Bilson's conversation with David Owen Norris, a creative interaction that explores further in practice the above issues with the help of four fine early pianos. This DVD is an absolute must-have for any thinking musician." Elena Vorotko, pianist,  Ph.D. student, The Royal Academy of Music, London

"With his usual incisive analysis, passionate musicality and dry wit, Malcolm Bilson makes a powerful case that today’s musicians, by and large, do not really know how to read music. The proposition sounds almost absurd on its face. But, by the end of this provocative, thoroughly entertaining DVD, it’s clear that Bilson is making a very important point. Proceeding by examples, Bilson makes a lively interrogation of the relationship between musical symbols on the page and the sounds and musical gestures that such symbols are meant to notate. It's a revelation. Whatever the causes of the prevalent, rather degraded understanding of this relationship (and many possible causes come to mind, including the false idea that western musical notation is exact rather than suggestive; a tyranny of mediocrity in the conservatory; a disinclination to acknowledge that certain gestures and articulations composed with the sound characteristics of earlier instruments in mind are difficult or impossible to realize on modern instruments; poor use of metronomes; a disastrous reaction to romantic excess, manifested by a celebration of the uninflected, the even, the stodgy…), Bilson’s critical foray here should provide the needed, subversive seeds of correction. Critical is the key word here. While full of wonderful and compelling ideas, Bilson is non-dogmatic. The main thing is to be persuaded that his fundamental question "Do we really know how to read music?" is a deadly serious one. And persuade he does.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the “extras” on this DVD include stunning performances of Haydn and Schubert that are, by themselves, well worth the price of admission. Christopher Karp, M.D., Gunnar Esiason/Cincinnati Bell Chair
Director of the Division of Molecular Immunology and Professor of Pediatrics
Children's Hospital Research Foundation, University of Cincinnati

"The DVD, 'Knowing the Score,' is essentially a lucid and engaging talk by Professor Malcolm Bilson about interpreting the often misread or neglected musical performance indications in a composer's score, such as note time values, the ubiquitous dot, slurs, dynamic markings, appoggiaturas, and other embellishments, etc. For example, in a given piece should a performer invariably hold a half note twice as long as a quarter note? Answer: 'It ain't necessarily so.' It all depends on properly 'reading the score.' The lecture has the special merit of being thoroughly professional, yet it is directly accessible to non-professionals (like us). A particularly interesting segment is a conversation between Bilson and the British pianist David Owen Norris, as they stand surrounded by a group of beautiful 18th and 19th century pianos on which they frequently illustrate their comments. The role of the instrument (modern Steinway say, or period instrument) in the interpretation  of the music makes for a provocative discussion. As a special bonus you can see and hear Bilson's moving performances of  Haydn and Schubert  in two of 18th century's most beautiful concert spaces." Herbert and Mariann Carlin

"Malcolm Bilson's inspiring DVD 'Knowing the Score' is a sumptuous production of musical knowledge and artistic beauty directed by one of the leading authorities in the field of classical performance practices. It will prove to be of treasured interest to all pianophiles and lovers of music. Bilson's considerable scholarship and exemplary artistry, along with his love of subject, come through here with the directness of a clarion call. Designed not only for the serious professional musician, this DVD will also be a delight to amateurs, students, and concertgoers. Just to experience Bilson's imaginative approach to musical understanding, as well as his joy in music-making, cannot fail to move his listeners. An added bonus is the sparkling dialogue between Bilson and fellow artist, David Owen Norris, amidst Bilson's glorious and varied collection of fortepianos. Above all, 'Knowing the Score' is a feast for the ear, eye, mind and heart." Howard Karp, Emeritus Professor Music, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"Once Malcolm Bilson told me in Eszterhaza (it was my first meeting with him): 'If you don't feel like practising, that's ok! Just go to your garden, or wherever, with the music, sit under a tree, open the score, and think about it. That is worth much more than sitting behind your piano and doing manual labour. . .' This is very true. Only when we musicians know the 'language,' know the score, can we go on stage to interpret the music." Petra Somlai, fortepiano student, Conservatory of Amsterdam

"Bilson's immense musical and scholarly talents invite teachers and students to a explore a world of exciting interpretive possibility: a world in which the musical score is brought to life, speaking with the vitality and immediacy intended by the composer." Leslie Tung, pianist, Professor of Music, Kalamazoo College, USA

"If you ever felt the urge to make a quarter note longer than an eighth note, play slightly unevenly, or not put down the hands exactly together, watch the DVD and understand why!" Christina Bratterud, fortepiano student, Royal Conservatory, The Hague

"I really enjoyed the video. Within just one and a half hour it offers you a quick insight in the most important issues regarding performance practice, performing and understanding the markings of e.g. Mozart and Beethoven. A must for every (piano) student and certainly very interesting for anyone who is interested in performance practice of the 18th century in general." Anneke Veenhoff, fortepianist, Amsterdam

"I believe strongly that all professional musicians—as well as anyone seriously interested in music—must study Malcolm Bilson's extraordinary DVD 'Knowing the Score.' It is an absolutely brilliant presentation. I'm delighted Malcolm has chosen to produce this lecture on DVD, as it allows viewers from different countries to watch it and follow along with the scores, and as it can be used by teachers at any time. The DVD comes with French, German, and English subtitles. I can think of no way to improve it, except to translate it into other languages, for example, Russian, so that it might reach an even wider audience." Viviana Sofronitzki, fortepianist
Moscow Conservatory, DMA equivalent
Royal Canadian College of Organists, ARCO
Royal Conservatory in Den Haag, MM equivalent

"Malcolm Bilson's 'Knowing the Score' is one of the most stimulating treatments of a crucial subject that I have encountered. Delivered with Prof. Bilson's unique combination of broad knowledge, deep musical insight and irresistible charm, it offers invaluable insights to performers, scholars and listeners that reward repeated listenings." Robert Levin, the Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Professor of Music, Department of Music, Harvard University

"Le programme pédagogique du pianiste Malcolm Bilson....devrait être visionné de tous, des amateurs en particulier, puisqu'il rappelle si besoin était qu'une partition renferme bien davantage d'informations sûres et utiles aux pianistes que ces derniers le laissent parfois eux-même supposer - pourvu que l'on sache la lire!" Frédéric Gaussin, Le Pianiste, Mars-Avril, 2009