Edoardo Bellotti, notable Italian concert organist and Professor of Organ at the Eastman School of Music, discusses the aspects of organ performance, culture, education, and competitions in Italy and the U.S. with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman.
Professor Bellotti, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. To begin, could you talk about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the organ, and what attracted you to it?
I remember two special events in my life with a strong influence on my decision of studying music. My great-grandfather played guitar and when I was four years old, I often secretly attempted to strum the guitar. But one day I knocked it over and the case crashed. My great-grandfather was not very happy… but when he passed away, he left the guitar to me. It is a beautiful late nineteenth-century Spanish guitar: I paid for a good restoration and now, even if I am not a guitar player, I have it at home.
The second event had to do with the Italian television. I was six and every Saturday night there was a program called Senza Rete ("Without Net"), a typical Saturday night “variety” show — entertaining people with pop singers, sketches and comedians. The show was broadcast live from the RAI Auditorium in Naples where, on the back of the stage, there were the majestic pipes of a four-manual organ. Every Saturday night, in the middle of the show, the electric console was moved to the front of the stage and an organist was invited to play ten minutes of organ music (it is quite amazing to think that ten minutes of organ music were regularly performed in the middle of a live broadcast Saturday night show, unthinkable today!). The first night I watched Fernando Germani playing Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: I was so impressed that I told my mother I wanted to play the organ.
At seven years old, I began studying piano privately and at twelve I attended the school of music in my hometown. In the meantime I started playing the harmonium in the church: but at the beginning I played by ear, and I had to memorize all the songs for the Sunday service!
I would characterize you as a specialist in Italian music, especially that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Have you always been especially interested in Italian organs and repertoire?
When I was twenty years old, organ studies in the Italian Conservatoires were still based on the program created by Marco Enrico Bossi in the early twentieth century: the first five years consisted of a lot of piano, theory, music history, harmony and organ technique (manual, pedal, Trios by Renner and Rheinberger), followed by five years of organ repertoire, counterpoint, fugue, composition and improvisation. The repertoire was Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck, Widor and Marco Enrico Bossi. But in Bossi there were many examples from Frescobaldi: they were written with obbligato pedal, but that was my first encounter with the Italian repertoire. Moreover my first teacher, Giuseppe Tamburelli, was one of the active personalities in the rediscovery of historical organs and of the old Italian organ repertoire together with Achille Berruti, Gianfranco Spinelli, Elsa Bolzonello and Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini. Unfortunately in 1978 he suddenly died when he was only 39 years old; he has been very influential in my music education.
Speaking of and the Italian baroque repertoire, one of the most difficult genres for organists to grasp from a stylistic perspective, is the elevation toccata. How do you make sense of these pieces?
The elevation toccata is one of the most challenging pieces for any organist! I must say that my first memorable encounter with this kind of music was when I was 12 years old and I found a LP with Pierre Cochereau playing the magnificent organ in Notre-Dame in Paris. The program, together with Bach, Widor and Liszt, included Frescobaldi Toccata Chromatica per l’Elevazione. This piece was played very slowly with the voix celeste, and today we could say that the style was wrong — tempo, temperament, registration, articulation. But, despite that, I loved that performance, because it created a very lyrical and mystic atmosphere and fascinated me.
The elevation toccata is a kind of “program music”: it describes Christ’s passion and death on the Cross, represented on the altar during the Catholic Mass. Frescobaldi has developed the elevation toccata combining two elements: "durezze e ligature" — short compositions for keyboard featuring daring harmonic experimentation based on strong contrasts between dissonance and consonance, and the "affetti", the vocal figurations in the style of the contemporary monodic madrigals codified by Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Giulio Caccini.
The information we get from these sources, together with what Frescobaldi himself writes in his foreword to Il primo libro di toccate, can help us in playing this music, particularly in the use of tempo flexibility.
I know it is only speculation, but I love to compare the Frescobaldi Toccata per L’Elevazione, from Messa degli Apostoli with J.S. Bach's choral prelude Das alte Jahr vergangen ist from Orgelbüchlein (BWV 614). Both pieces are in the Phrygian mode and use ascending and descending chromaticism: Bach uses the same elements of Frescobaldi creating a very melancholic meditation on the death of the old year, which, consequently, is a meditation on our life and death…
You have a keen interest in articulation, registration, and touch at the organ, as well as historical context for the music. To whom or what do you attribute these interests?
I cherish unforgettable memories of my first teacher’s lessons: everything I learned, technique, articulation, touch, weight control, comes from those lessons. For Giuseppe Tamburelli, the aim of good technique is to produce the best possible sound: he was strongly attracted by “sound” and how to "fondle” the keys to get it. For that reason he pushed the Scuola di Musica in Pavia to build a new practice organ, with the best possible mechanical action inspired by old instruments.
I learned more about articulation, fingering and keyboard performance practice by attending for several summers the Accademia di Musica Italiana per Organo di Pistoia, with Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, Umberto Pineschi and Colin Tilney, as well as the Norddeutsche Orgelakademie in North Germany with Harald Vogel and the Musica en Santiago in Spain with Monserrat Torrent Serra.
The study of harpsichord and fortepiano literature has been also very useful for me to better understand the issues of Renaissance and Baroque keyboard music: playing the same piece of keyboard music on an organ versus a harpsichord, and playing the clavichord and fortepiano requires a mastery in the control of the instrument to get the best sound.
Your career has encompassed just about everything an organist can do. You have been teaching at the Eastman School of Music for several years, you play recitals all over the world, and have several recordings. What has this been like, and how do you balance work with personal time?
I spent many years struggling to find the best balance among teaching, practicing and researching and also asking myself what I preferred to do. Well, I did not find an answer, and in every period of my life I had to redesign my time. I love teaching and researching: before teaching music, I taught humanities for several years. When you teach, you share with your students not only your knowledge, but especially your love and enthusiasm, the reasons why music (or the humanities) is so important in your life. There is nothing like teaching music that is able to connect two people; you are strongly engaged and you cannot simply communicate information. Moreover, the questions from your students or their technical or musical problems push you to revise and discuss your own knowledge and experience!
Research is for me not only a way to overcome, as much as possible, the distance between us and the music of the past we are performing, a way to better understand the cultural and social context of that music, but also the way to learn how to be creative today, as musicians and performers have been in the past. And for me it has always been a very special wonderful feeling sharing the result of my research with students and colleagues!
Sometimes, the only regret I have is that I have too little time for practicing! The days at Eastman are full of teaching, meetings with students and colleagues, and many other commitments, and it is very hard to find time for practice, and for research too. In summer I normally have more time, but a lot of time goes into traveling and teaching during academies and master classes. What I’m trying to do now, and it seems to work, is get up early in the morning and practice before any other activity, when my mind is still fresh: this helps me and makes me feel better.
There are many organ students at Eastman. Are most of these students hoping to be professional church musicians, or will they pursue careers teaching and performing?
Organ students at Eastman receive a very strong education in church music and, for most of them, this is the primary goal in their professional life: being good church musicians and, with their music, playing and conducting, to help the congregation to express the deepest and noblest sentiments of the heart and faith, which is what all the organists did for many centuries. But many of them are also interested in teaching and performing careers, and some of them wish to combine these careers.
You have served on many international competition juries. Are there certain trends you see, for example, in the sort of players who win first prize? Do juries tend to favor “safe” players or those with a unique voice? What do you listen for when you are adjudicating, and do you have any advice for young organists entering these competitions?
Friends and colleagues know that I am not a big fan of music competitions. I believe that music cannot be like Olympics or sports, and I fear that competitions could become displays of virtuosity: music is not only or even primarily virtuosity. The best aspects of a competition are the opportunity for a participant to play beautiful organs, meet many colleagues, share different experiences based on the common love for music, and make new friends. Also testing himself and his composure under pressure can be very useful.
I had opposite experiences with different juries: sometime “safe” players were favored, more rarely players with a unique voice. It is a very hard responsibility to judge a performer because each performance is unique and influenced by many temporary factors! I avoid looking only at the technical elements (tempo, articulation, registration, etc.) of the performance, even if they often show performer’s knowledge of the score; but I try to guess if the performer is understanding what he plays, if he “feels” the music and if his playing is communicative.
The only advice I could give to young organists entering competitions is to practice, collect all the helpful information to better understand the score, and try to make music — to communicate to the listeners without forgetting that the score isn’t the music, as a recipe is not the dish.
What are your observations about the differences between organ education in Italy and organ education in America, and what do you perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the different systems?
That's another difficult question. Probably the main difference isn’t in education itself, but in the very different social context of the organ and organ music. While in the U.S., most churches have official positions for organists and music directors, Italy does not. Is quite a paradoxical situation: despite the considerable number of beautiful historical organs preserved in Italy from the early Renaissance to the late Romantic periods, churches do not have interest (nor money) for the organ, and if they have an organist, he is quite often a volunteer, offering his service to the church without being paid. An organ student in Italy does not have opportunities to find a job: I taught for few years in Italy and many of my organ students simultaneously studied engineering or humanities, mathematics or chemistry…
I met a lot of excellent young organists in Italy who, despite these difficulties, organize concerts, tours and masterclasses to preserve and play the many historical and modern organs we have in Italy. But to Italian organists who want to follow a career in music, I recommend they go abroad, to Austria, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, where there is still work for organists. Regarding organ studies, perhaps the main difference is the practice of memorizing, which much more commonly used in the States than in Italy; it has advantages and disadvantages: but this is not the right place to discuss it.
I understand you have a new recording coming out. Could you tell us about that? What other projects are you working on?
I recorded a CD on a very beautiful organ built by Cesare Romani in 1613 for the church of Santa Maria Nuova, in Cortona, Tuscany. The CD was part of a recording project of three historical organs in Cortona. The other two recordings were made by two Italian colleagues Luca Scandali and Francesco Tasini.
My CD is entitled Magister et discipulus ("Teacher and Pupil"), and features music of Girolamo Frescobaldi and his pupil Johann Jacob Froberger. The program includes two Toccatas, two Ricercari, two Canzonas, two Capriccios, two settings of Variations; it is a comparison between the two composers, showing similarities as well as differences. When I played the Romani organ I was surprised by the richness and variety of sounds in such a small instrument! This seems to be the secret of the Italian organ tradition: the attention to detail, the pronunciation of each single pipe, the search for a sweet and vocal sound which still nowadays attracts and fascinates organists from around the world.
Among the next projects, I am working on a publication of other Italian baroque sources for keyboard performance practice, following the last one of Adriano Banchieri, L'Organo Suonarino, Venice 1605, which I published in 2015, and also a couple of recordings on other historical organs.
Edoardo Bellotti has extensive teaching experience, having been Professor of Organ, Harpsichord and Improvisation in several musical institutions and universities including the Conservatory of Trossingen and the University of Bremen in Germany, the University of Udine and the Conservatory of Trento in Italy.
A virtuoso organist and renowned improviser, Bellotti performs at leading festivals and concert venues throughout the world. He is currently collaborating in a project of new organ music and visual art in Milan, in conjunction with the art installation of the American minimalist Dan Flavin. He has performed the complete works of Cesar Franck, and has worked with orchestras in Italy and abroad, performing a wide spectrum of repertoire, including the Italian premiere of Satyagraha by Philip Glass. He is also considered a leading expert in the performance of renaissance and baroque keyboard music.
He combines his international performing career with musicological research and teaching, publishing articles as well as new critical editions of music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is a frequent guest lecturer at international conferences. He has made several critically acclaimed recordings on historical instruments, including Promenade (Loft Recordings), a recording of organ repertoire and original improvisations on the Eastman School of Music’s Italian baroque organ at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.