S C R O L L   D O W N



Questioning sources and traditions of notation and rubato


As a main source of literature and key reference, I chose the pianist Jan Henrik Kayser’s important book “Rondo Amoroso” from 1997. This book has recollections of working with the composer, specific comments on and insight into the piano music and many relevant quotes of the composer. Some of these quotes were especially interesting, since they cover many comments on the composer’s own artistry. Three of them were new to me and important as starting points:


…” If the titles of the pieces can help to bring out more ways of playing than just the two – staccato and legato – then they have been of great use. Large sections of them are in any case dependent on non-legato, this sadly neglected but most important of all the main three kinds of touches”. (Kayser: 1997, p. 108)


…” Sæverud’s rubato was unique and could not be copied. He could rest with weight and duration on melodic points of emphasis or culmination – and then let the music glide organically towards the next “point of reference”. This – combined with the left hand sometimes playing before the right hand – gave the music a natural, living, and freely pulsating expression. Even in the slowest parts, the tones never became still”. (Kayser: 1997, p. 47)


…” The transformation to the pure, quiet and sensitive (tones) could happen quickly as lightning. In intimate musical revelations, Sæverud played unusually soft and cushiony – with the hands in a gliding movement inwards or outwards on the keys. He also used a lot of falling of the arm and flexibility of the wrist and he could magically produce the strangest sounds from the piano, among others with his refined and much used pedal”. (Kayser: 1997, p. 47)


The composer refers to non-legato as the most important of the three touches (the two others being legato and staccato), and Kayser recalls the composer’s highly-individual rubato, refined use of pedal and sensitive touch when playing his own pieces. Investigating these areas of expressive means opened topics that had not been much talked about earlier but were obviously of great importance.


Being a pianist himself and composing these pieces at the piano, the composer presumably tried out many musical effects in his work situation. When deciding to write notations such as pp dolcissimo or forte ma dolce, he must have experienced or imagined this quality of sound/touch and wanted pianists to strive towards achieving it. The indication “f ma dolce” also implies that he knew that the pianist could easily play a harder forte sound if he did not ad ma dolce (but softly). And this is a pitfall: performing Sæverud’s piano music can easily become over-articulated and marcato so that the softer nuances are lost. Did Sæverud have a pedagogical purpose for his notation? Why - when revising scores – did he add even more indications in them? Did he feel the need to remind or educate the pianist?


We undoubtedly live in an age where piano performances are dominated by concerts in big halls with large audiences with the need for effective sound projection. The prevailing mainstream tradition is to play with a lot of resonant pedal supporting a well-rounded and rich sound. Is this why Sæverud told Kayser to use pedal almost all the time, and repeatedly stated that he did not like a dry piano sound? Did he give in to the modern trends of piano performance and feel that his piano music needed the help of continuous pedalling for greater effect, despite the differentiated articulation marks and with a wide range of pedal indications in scores? Maybe this is why “Kjempeviseslåtten” (Ballad of Revolt) Op. 22, No. 5 was preferred by Sæverud as the final piece in Kayser’s recitals; it is his most accessible tune and is by far the loudest and most impressive piano piece he ever wrote since the early, thunderous “Piano Sonata” Op. 3 (also in G minor). On the other hand, trying to project the notated shades of dynamics and articulation in a piece like “Revebjølle” (Foxglove) Op. 22, No. 1, with constant use of full pedal, is nearly impossible in a large hall with a modern Steinway grand piano. In this piece, Sæverud’s pedal instruction is pedal ma discretamente. This can be one of the reasons why his piano music is not so much played in concerts; the thinly textured piano pieces can easily become less interesting, losing their dimensionality when the variety and richness of musical expression are lost.


The issue of rubato and the performer’s freedom in relation to the score is a central topic for performers. How do we interpret works of composers of the changing times and traditions of the twentieth century? As with contemporaries like Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Bartók, Sæverud started writing in a highly expressive, late-romantic style which in later years was distilled to a thinner texture with a classical transparency (neo-classic style). Twentieth century performance styles and ideals have in a similar way changed from the highly expressive, freer rubato styles of the beginning of the century to stricter and more objective approaches later on. Schoenberg’s comments from 1948 sum up the extremities of these positions and how the pendulum swayed within his lifetime:


“Today’s manner of performing classical music of so-called “romantic” type, suppressing all emotional qualities and all un-notated changes of tempo and expression, (…) came to Europe by way of America, where no old culture regulated presentation, but where a certain frigidity of feeling reduced all musical expression. Thus almost everywhere in Europe music is played in a stiff, inflexible metre – not in a tempo, i.e. according to a yardstick of freely measured quantities (…) It must be admitted that in the period around 1900 many artists overdid themselves in exhibiting the power of the emotion they were capable of feeling; artists who considered works of art to have been crested only to secure opportunities for them to expose themselves to their audiences; artists who believed themselves to be more important than the work – or at least than the composer. Nothing can be more wrong than both these extremes”. (Schoenberg: 1948)


Sæverud’s detailed notation can be compared to Schoenberg’s. Both emphasize expressivity and character as important ingredients in their music. At the same time, there is a danger of performing their music in a rhythmically rigid manner. Two reasons for this can be the extensive use of articulation marks and an apparent “dry” piano style; the job of realizing the indications and clarity of counterpoint can easily become a main focus at the expense of varied phrasing and tempo flexibility.


Sæverud’s music has in general been played quite straightforwardly, with hardly any rubato. Even though Jan Henrik Kayser – the composer’s preferred pianist - refers to the composer’s characteristic rubato when playing his own pieces (see citations above), Kayser’s recordings do not use much rubato. Does this have something to do with the fact that Kayser started his career and cooperation with Sæverud in the 1950s when the prevalent performance style – as Schoenberg mentions – tended towards objectivity and matter-of-fact style of playing? Kayser also writes in his book that he felt it was impossible to copy the composer’s rubato-playing, because it was so personal and unique to him. This reference to Sæverud’s rubato reminds one of other composer-pianist’s recordings of their works such as Bartók, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Here one can find characteristic idiosyncrasies and un-notated, freer use of rubato. These sources reveal a more open, non-literal attitude towards the composers’ own notation. They can inspire other performers to become less dogmatic with regards to the score, thus finding their own paths. Schoenberg’s words on interpretation can also apply to Sæverud’s music; one needs to find a balance between extreme positions and avoid cold rigidity as well as excessive freedom. But the point is also not to imitate or copy earlier traditions but to let oneself be influenced by a more open attitude towards the score, while still respecting it. “The musician who has surrendered his will to tradition has abandoned the possibility of keeping the tradition alive”, is Charles Rosen’s paradoxical appeal to the necessity of always performing with a new, reflective, and undogmatic view:


“Both the uncritical acceptance and the dogmatic revival of a tradition can be deadening: a tradition prolonged is unconsciously altered and hardened as it comes down to us, becoming rigid and preventing the free play of imagination; an old tradition revived is often misunderstood and misapplied with a disastrous enthusiasm (…) Simply imitating the finest performers of the past when they have been documented by recordings is a bad policy; they themselves did not arrive at excellence by aping their predecessors – on the contrary, the reaction of each generation to the one before is commonly profound. There is certainly no reason to think that the pupil of a pupil of a pupil of Beethoven reproduces anything like the way Beethoven played. Basically, our problem is to rid ourselves of complacency and avoid the two complementary forms of subservience: an exaggerated obedience to what is considered academically correct or fashionable, and a self-indulgent and frivolous confidence in our own ego. A performance ought always to give the impression of a fresh contact with the music, an original approach that respects the work (...) We all pay lip service to the ideal that a good performance must be an illuminating renewal of even the most familiar work, but how to achieve that renewal cannot be reduced to a system and will differ from one pianist to another.” (Rosen: 2002, pp.192-193)





I never had the opportunity to discuss Sæverud’s string quartets with him. However, we worked intensely on the “Twenty Small Duets for two violins” Op. 32. These, together with the “Six Piano Sonatinas” Op. 30, can be regarded as representing Sæverud's musical style in its purest form. My score of the “Duets” Op. 32 is peppered with oral comments from the composer, who did not hesitate in making drastic changes in pieces written and published many years earlier. This includes major changes of tempo, dynamics, articulation and even of form. This was an eye-opener for me, who was surprised and enlightened to discover that composers are not nearly as attached to the text of their compositions as one is taught to believe in music schools and college. Sæverud's attitude to the text of his violin duets rendered any concept of "Urtext" implausible in his music.


VIDEO YouTube Sæverud: “20 small duets” Op. 32 with a short introduction.

  • Performed by Trond Sæverud and Ricardo Odriozola.


During his intense work on the 2nd and 3rd string quartets of Harald Sæverud, Odriozola came to see that Sæverud's markings could be interpreted in various ways. Mainly as a result of conversations with Einar Røttingen, Odriozola realized that these markings could produce very different effects on different instruments. Also, that they must necessarily change relative to tempo. This was an important part of "unlearning in order to relearn". First-hand knowledge gained from instructions from the composer had to be temporarily put aside in order to approach the music as if for the first time.


Further reading about the research question No. 1:

How do the different performers in the research group relate to the context of relevant sources, references, traditions and understandings as part of the artistic processes and intentions?