Edna Stern on the piano works of Hélène de Nervo de Montgeroult
Hélène de Nervo de Montgeroult is not the most well-known of composers - indeed few have ever heard any of her works or even know her name. Yet, as a new album by Edna Stern amply demonstrates, she was a forward-looking and distinctive composer who seems to have pre-empted many of the ideas later popularised by Chopin and Mendelssohn.
I talked to Edna about this mysterious figure, her influence on other composers, and the attraction of exploring unknown links in the chain of musical evolution.
To date, most of your releases have been of fairly mainstream composers – Chopin, Bach, Mendelssohn and the like. Where did you first get the idea to put this album together?
Interpretation and/or performance are always both evolution and revolution. When tackling a piece by Bach, say the Chaconne or the Partitas, I am faced with a long history of interpretations. When recording Beethoven’s Appassionata, I am not just putting notes to sound – as a robot may soon be able to do – but explaining it and bringing it to life in the language of music. But I can’t create it in the same way as Gilels’ masterful interpretation, or that of Yves Nat’s – otherwise why am I needed? Playing core repertoire is a challenge, a competition with a long line of past greats. Recording an unknown composer brings with it a different set of challenges. On the one hand, it would seem easier, as there isn’t the weight of past interpretations - but on the other, the listener has never heard of this person. There is a challenge of bringing something completely new to life. How should a composer such as Mongeroult be played? We don’t even have a paradigm of a period for her, such as Romanticism or Classicism. It is, of course, easy to just play the notes; but to bring it to life, to a meaningful life, is a challenge. To allow Mongeroult's works to be presented at the same level as those of the great known composers necessitates an understanding and conveyance of the unique elements of her genius. Personally, I feel I need to understand her life and time, her musical language and her place in history, so as to bring her to life in our current period to a contemporary audience.
I first discovered Mongeroult’s music three years ago when I was asked to play her Ninth Sonata at a concert. I was surprised by this great work of a composer I had never heard of and wanted to bring her to people’s attention. I must admit that I also welcomed the challenge of showing people her greatness, and of bringing to life a musical period between Classicism and Romanticism.
The sleeve notes to this album refer to the ‘rediscovery’ of Montgeroult’s music. Is this a case of literal discovery (stumbling on an unknown manuscript, etc), or more of a rehabilitation of someone whose music was merely forgotten rather than lost?
We are still waiting for the literal discovery, as her manuscripts were never found. Her music was printed several times in the three volumes she entitled her Method. It was still highly regarded by a circle of pianists and pedagogues in France some 50 years after her death, but later totally forgotten. Moreover, she published all her pieces by 1816 and still lived for another twenty years. It is unclear whether she composed in those last two decades, and the fact that she is a woman makes the musicological investigations very difficult.
The similarity between these études and those of Chopin is so striking as to be almost suspicious. Do you think Montgeroult’s work exerted an influence on the generation of virtuoso pianist-composers who came after her?
From a musical point of view, it seems evident that Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann were very well acquainted with her work. However, there is no written proof on the subject, since they do not mention her anywhere. It is possible that Montgeroult simply understood in which direction the wind was blowing at the beginning of the nineteenth century. She understood the future taste the Romantics would have for the miniature form, their need to impress, their love of virtuosity, and she reacted to that. She took her compositions into the direction she believed in; the direction of poetry, expression, the beauty of the singing line, and giving (once again) importance to Bach. Bach is very much present in her works – in the way she uses Chorales, in the polyphony of her writing, and the return to his favourite form, the Fugue.
It might be a coincidence that this is exactly what Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms would do later. It is possible that the nineteenth century awoke in them a similar interest; however, I find it more probable that they knew her compositions. You should also keep in mind that artists and people in general often omit to give the credit to those from whom they borrowed/copied most.
Montgeroult evidently fills in a significant gap in the story of this period, but where there’s one neglected composer, there may be much more; do you think the conventional ‘picture’ of Western Classical music’s evolution may have some other equally significant gaps and inaccuracies that we don’t yet know about?
A perspective that I thought was fascinating (and that seduced me into making this recording) was that it followed the album I released in 2013 called Piano des Lumières in which I recorded music by Bach, Galuppi, CPE Bach, Haydn and Mozart. I was looking then to understand what happened between Bach and Mozart - how the classical composers preceding Mozart dealt with the rejection of the Baroque style when the Classical style did not yet exist and at a time when there was no paradigm of a structure. With Hélène de Montgeroult we are facing a similar question, only this time between the Classical style and the Romantic style.
We usually hear classical music, especially for piano, through the pieces and composers representing a known paradigm – the Baroque and Bach, Classical and Mozart, etc. But it is harder to convey, and to appreciate, music where the paradigm has not been set and is not known to us. How should a piece by CPE Bach sound, or Haydn, or Galuppi, or Mangeroult? It’s hard to hear a new musical language.
What’s also interesting is how these paradigms and stepping-stones change with time. I remember leafing through an old book published at the end of the nineteenth century, in which the writer made a point of enumerating the great composers of the beginning of the century, commenting on those that are still played at the time (fifty years later) and predicting those that would disappear and those who would come back. I was surprised to read that Chopin was described as one of the composers who had disappeared at the time the book was written: the writer predicted that Chopin’s music would be popular again in a few years!