Mario Aschauer, Austrian harpsichordist and Assistant Professor of Musicology at Sam Houston State University, discusses early Viennese keyboard music and his work as an editor of the Mozart Piano Sonatas for Bärenreiter with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman.
Professor Aschauer, thank you for agreeing to this interview. To begin, could you tell us about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the harpsichord and organ, and what attracted you to it?
I fell in love with the organ very early in my childhood. However, there are no musicians in my family, so it took a while to talk my parents into signing me up for lessons. Upper Austria, where I grew up, has an extraordinarily strong system of public “music schools” where children can take music lessons in the afternoon, after “regular” school. That was the obvious choice for my parents. However, the music school required that students take a few years of piano before they could be enrolled in organ. Piano was good enough for me and soon after my first lessons (I was ten at the time) our local organists let me experiment on their organs as well. It was after about a year that I played the first service, with pedal, all self-taught.
The harpsichord came quite some time later. I was in a special high school for musicians that collaborated with the Linz conservatory. We went to school in the mornings and attended regular classes and lessons at the conservatory in the afternoon. In addition, all students were in a big choir with daily rehearsals. This was a very important time, because already at age 15 we sang major works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner with important orchestras such as London Philharmonic, the Camerata Academica Salzburg, the Jerusalem Symphony, etc. at the world’s leading venues. I was enrolled in the conducting program at the conservatory and had to take secondary instruments. Violin was an obvious choice, but I also thought that harpsichord would be helpful as a(n opera) conductor. That was my first, yet pretty unconscious step into early music.
You have an immense knowledge of Austrian music from several centuries, from Fux and earlier to Haydn and Beethoven. I would also include Mozart’s fortepiano works as one of your specialties. Have you always been especially interested in Austrian music?
I have always had a special relationship with Mozart, but for some reason I never dedicated much research to him until recently. Rather, by a series of coincidences, I circled “around” him for many years. It all started when, by the end of our university time, one of my friends, Ernst Schlader, showed up one day with late eighteenth-century clarinets. Naïve as we were, we decided to create our first period instrument group, the Ensemble NovAntique Linz. We knew that in order to be successful we had to do things nobody else was doing, so we started to explore late eighteenth-century repertoire that was off the beaten track — particularly Viennese court composers such as Wagenseil, Gassmann, and Salieri. Then Ernst, who as a clarinetist had always had this longing for Baroque repertoire, really got into experimenting with the chalumeau and we founded the Calamus Consort. Austrian court opera in the Baroque period (I am thinking of Caldara, Conti, Ariosti, Fux, Bononcini) typically makes use of a huge orchestra. However, the instruments never play together — instead they are used as obbligato instruments in the arias and make for an incredible colorful variety. We assembled about a half dozen arias with chalumeau solo and some harpsichord music by father and son Muffat and — yet another coincidence — won the Biber Competition in Austria. As a result, we were invited to play this kind of repertoire at highly renowned festivals in Europe. Later I somehow got involved with the Fux Complete Edition and started to investigate and perform Austrian keyboard repertoire more.
Perhaps a common misconception is that there is a huge gap in Austrian organ repertoire between the late Baroque and early Romantic periods. Why is this, and have you come across some early organ literature that we should know about?
Picture the situation in eighteenth-century Austria: in the Catholicism of big cities and monasteries, there was basically no musical involvement of the congregation, so no chorales and no chorale preludes. The music of the mass was dominated by the proper and ordinary, in and by itself already a lot of music, which mostly the organist had to direct and play continuo as his main job. Beyond that, all he had to do was play a little bit at the beginning and the end of mass (if that was not done by trumpets and timpani), fill a few seconds of silence here and there, and modulate between the parts of ordinary and proper — all in all, not an environment that would inspire a lot of composed organ music. Accordingly, the available repertoire of organ music in a typical music shop in late-eighteenth century Vienna was very limited. For example, only four of the 230 pages in Johann Traeg’s music catalog (one of Vienna’s main music distributors at the time) are dedicated to organ music. And half of these listings are by composers outside of Vienna. Interestingly, Bach’s The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and Inventions are listed there, but not his actual organ music (apart from the six Trio Sonatas). Austrian names include Albrechtberger, Eberlin, Muffat, Pasterwitz, Steffan and Wagenseil, and even two volumes of toccatas by Frescobaldi are offered.
Remember, Austrian Baroque organ making was very strongly influenced by Italian traditions — most surviving instruments have manuals with short octaves and/or split keys and non-chromatic, often repeating pedal boards [e.g. every “C” pedal will play the same pipe(s) no matter what octave]. Even Bruckner denied organ concerts at some point in his life because he felt uncomfortable playing full chromatic pedalboards. Bruckner is a good example here, by the way: he grew up in this typical Austrian tradition where organists were expected to be, above all else, very well-versed improvisers, even in rural areas. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Austria it was schoolteachers who also acted as town and village organists. For example, keyboardist and composer Franz Paul Rigler was ordered by empress Maria Theresa (reigned 1740–1780) to build a school for schoolteachers. In his thorough treatise on singing and keyboard playing published in 1798, Rigler focuses on exactly these improvisational skills. He describes three main genres of improvisation: firstly, the free fantasy, basically an unmetered, late eighteenth-century version of the Italian keyboard toccata; secondly, the metered fantasy on a given theme or motive, which is developed by means of imitation and transposition/sequence; and thirdly, the verset (for Magnificat and psalm alternatim performance) and fugue. As we can observe in other Austrian sources, the verset was also a popular pedagogical tool on the path to improvising longer fugues.
We also know that even movements from symphonies were performed as instrumental music in church. Indeed, Mozart’s church sonatas are stylistically very similar to all his other instrumental music composed in Salzburg. The organ solos in the masses by Haydn, Mozart, and Michael Haydn reflect the keyboard style of the time. In other words, if there were Austrian organ repertoire of the Classical period, it would be very similar to the harpsichord/fortepiano style of the time, except for more serious and contrapuntal music. So why not make, for example, Wagenseil divertimenti, early Haydn sonatas, etc., part of organ recital programs?
One of your publication projects now is preparing Urtext editions of Mozart’s piano sonatas for Bärenreiter. How did you become involved in this project, and what is the process of creating editions for such a prestigious Urtext publisher?
I always thought of Bärenreiter as the “ideal” publisher as long as I can remember. Already as a student I loved the clarity of their editions, their dedication to non-standard repertoire, and the incredibly high standard of music philology that basically defined the Urtext in the twentieth century. The first time I collaborated with them was as a member of the editorial team of the New Schubert Edition. I prepared the first complete edition of Schubert’s opera fragment Adrast, D. 137, available here. It was an exciting project with lots of hitherto unpublished music, drafts, and complicated editorial scenarios.
At the time I had just finished my dissertation on German keyboard treatises in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although a musicological dissertation, I had always wanted my findings to be accessible and useful to performers. You can imagine how happy I was when Bärenreiter accepted it for publication (available here). And out of these projects grew further ideas. For example, I developed nineteenth-century style fingerings for their new editions of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux. And numerous editions of keyboard music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert contain chapters on performance practice that I authored.
And then, two years ago, I got a call from them asking if I would be interested in making a new edition of Mozart’s piano sonatas. I started with the Sonata in A Major, K. 331. I started out thinking that it would be quick and easy, since so many bright and knowledgeable people have worked on this before. Soon I felt that just looking at the sources for the Sonata wasn’t enough. I started to dig deeper into Mozart’s working habits, the motivation and target groups of manuscript copies and prints, the ways that the early editions were prepared, etc. The more I researched, the more complicated it all became. I don’t want to bore you with my full argument here (it’s all published in the text to my edition), so suffice it to say that I decided to present the sonata with a new editorial method in which the version of the autograph and the version of the first edition are printed separately.
You are Director of the Center for Early Music Research and Performance, and have now taught organ and harpsichord at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas for several years. What are your observations about the differences between organ education in Austria and organ education in America, and what do you perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the different systems?
Since my main degrees are harpsichord and musicology, let me try to answer this question a bit more generally. I never thought about it at the time, but now, 20 years later and 5,000 miles away, the situation of music education, indeed of education in general, in Austria in the 1980s and 1990s seems almost unreal. I want to think that the level of secondary education was pretty high. Students in Austria didn’t take core classes in college — all of that was covered in high school. For example, it was the norm that, at the end of their high school careers, all students were pretty much fluent in English and in most cases in at least one other language.
It was the climax of postwar socialism. All education, from Kindergarten through PhD, was free. University and conservatory curricula were designed only based on the idea of what it takes to be a great musician. No tuition, no credit hour restrictions, nothing of that kind was a concern. Many of my musician friends took lessons with their professors at conservatory for 10 years and didn’t pay a single Schilling or Euro! Even in the mid-2000s the harpsichord performance program in Vienna was designed to be five years. It included a weekly two-hour lesson with your main professor, and a weekly two-hour lesson with the basso continuo professor. It also included a two-semester course on tuning and temperament, six or even eight semesters of music history, and I paid about $400 per semester. From my perspective as professor in the U.S., this sounds decadent at best.
In the U.S. credit-hour limits, undergraduate core classes, breathtaking amounts of tuition, and many other factors restrict the framework of teaching and learning. However, I find there is more openness to thinking outside the box, beyond the confines of the classroom, and more willingness to experiment with projects, excursions, and non-traditional ways of learning. Students get more opportunities outside the classroom and have better infrastructure at their disposal, particularly libraries and facilities.
Beyond the Mozart editions for Bärenreiter, do you have any other research or recording projects? And what’s happening in the Center for Early Music Research and Performance?
Right now I am working on a new edition of the Diabelli Variations for Bärenreiter before I return to Mozart. I also have a new edition of Bruckner’s motets in the works. As far as recordings go, I am planning to record on Sam Houston State’s new Italian chamber organ. At the Center we are currently undergoing the process to create graduate degrees in Early Keyboard. The ensembles dedicate their semester to Henry Purcell, and our production of Dido and Aeneas recently took us to Japan, plus a concert with sacred music and organ music by Purcell.
Mario Aschauer is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Sam Houston State University and works as conductor, harpsichordist, and musicologist at the interface of music scholarship and performance. His first book explores German Keyboard Treatises in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2011). He has edited Schubert's opera fragment Adrast, D. 137, for the New Schubert Edition and gave it its world premiere in Vienna in 2010. The recording of the concert won the “Pasticcio Prize” from Austrian Broadcasting (ORF). His current research is devoted to a book on Anton Bruckner's creative process and was selected for prestigious fellowships from the Austrian Science Fund and the Max Kade Foundation, Inc. (New York).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.