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Commencement Address, Cincinnati College-Conservatory, June 1962

(As noted elsewhere, Ulanowsky received an honorary doctory from the Conservatory. This was the occasion. One friend of his told me that the welll-known Louise Nippert had been instrumental in his receiving the honorary degree.)

The typescript copy from which this was transcribed was made from an apparent carbon copy. Ulanowsky may have edited the original. I have left punctuation as-is.


Since this is my maiden commencement speech, I should feel much more self-conscious and inadequate than I do, but for one saving grace: I have the pleasure of addressing you not as an elderly civilian, but as an elderly fellow-musician, fortified by the happy knowledge of sharing a vast and delightful common ground with you. 

This pleasure is further enhanced by the fact that it takes place in an institution with which I may claim an extra link, however tenuous: The late Severin Eisenberger who taught here for a number of years, was also once my teacher, so that I may permit myself to think henceforth of the College-Conservatory of Music with affection as of my Step-Alma Mater-in-Law.

Having thus established our relationship properly with a glance into the past, it is time now to turn to the future, your future,  my young colleagues. 

You have in these years become intimately acquainted with a number of approaches to music; with its history, technique and aesthetics; you have just run the last obstacle course and are about to graduate. Let me here add my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to the many you have already received, and let me assume for the sake of further argument, that in spite of the blood, sweat and tears of your tests, exams and papers, you still love music. 

You are now prepared to carry on with your work outside the protective custody of school curricula and teachers, to share the accumulated wealth of your talents and accomplishments with the world at large. You will doubtless continue to study, to acquire new skills and information, but today marks the point of transition into professional adulthood. From now on you will have the privilege of being your own judge, at least to a higher degree than before; and soon you may have the even greater responsibility of judgeing others, when you wield the cudgels of scholastic authority above the heads of your own pupils. 

Thus, while your activity will be in many aspects an extension in a straight line of what you were doing up till now, it will have a different key signature, as it were, and with lots of extra accidentals, of course. 

You ought to feel great pride and satisfaction in your achievement today and also a lot of burning enthusiasm in your anticipation of all that lies before you. This enthusiasm must remain standard equipment with you as long as you make music. Be sure of this as you start on the long road towards the goal you have set yourselves; it will carry you across obstacles (sorry I have to mention this word so soon} and past disappointment that will crop up from time to time; but more importantly, this enthusiasm will transmit itself to others and create the aura of joint expectancy and fulfillment without which there is little point and little joy in music. 

There is naturally a wide variety of individual involvement in this; thus the first question you have to consider is to what extent you regard music as an end in itself, or to be more exact, as the most sensitive and satisfactory means of self-expression; and to what extent it represents your preferred way of making a living, because of a combination of native talent, training, taste and opportunity. 

The possibilities for employment however have become so diversified that, generally speaking, there is always room and even need for every musician with a certain minimum of competence and adaptability. Some special requirements may be quite far-reaching. Anent the reorganization of a string quartet, its leader recently asked a friend of mine whether he knew of a good second violinist. "This man," so he said, "must have excellent qualifications; first of all, he must be an expert driver." Well, what with present day logistics of concert fees and transportation costs, this is not as startling as it may sound; so be sure, all of you, to carry your driver's license next to your union card at all times. 

This is a far cry indeed from the time when I was you (Practically anything would be now, come to think of it); anyway, there was no TV then, of course; radio was not even in the crystal set stage; the record or rather phonograph industry concentrated on opera singers, with Caruso and Galli-Curci leading the field...and this, except for opera and public concerts, WAS IT. The music lover outside the larger cities therefore had to become a Do-it-yourself-addict, from sheer necessity. Please remember this when you should find the going a bit difficult at the outset; the pastures may not have become greener, in the interval, but there are a great many more. 

If there is one thing which makes me nostalgic for that legendary state of affairs, it is that people used to put a different value on music. We live in a time and culture where its presence or absence is determined by the pushing of a button or the turning of a knob. It haunts and hounds us in restaurants and rest rooms, in elevators, stations, on trains and planes, in addition to other more conventional premises, at work and at leisure. This has inevitably led to a revision of the status of music in our civilisation and to a reappraisal which on occasion becomes agonizing in the truest sense of the word. 

You may ask: "How does this concern  me, and where do we come in?" 

Well, you are already in it, as far as time and place are concerned, and your activity is bound to become part of the organization which I just mentioned in much jaundiced terms. As to how this concerns you in a more comprehensive meaning, will depend on your basic attitude to music as an art, a profession or a livelihood; as an ideal, a hobby or a job. Just as music is these and several more things to you musicians, so it is to your employers, customers and listeners in general. 

You are the guides to this kingdom of music, you are the keepers of the key, which of course means the whole bunch of them, major and minor. The success will come from trying, without being so. 

This is the era of the performer and his glorification ad nauseum; of emphasis on his individuality to the point where that of the composer and his work is successfully neglected, minimized, falsified, and eventually lost in the shuffle. It is quite characteristic, and has naturally nothing to do with my respect for these artists, that we can hear and read about Klemperer's or Toscanini's Ninth, Beecham's or Walter's Magic Flute, etc., etc. In short: it is not WHOSE WHAT that matters, but the WHO that does it on the program, and on the records, naturally, it is the WHODUNNIT. 

It goes without saying that this is not to impute such nefarious designs to you, {not today, anyway), but the temptation, powerfully aided and abetted by the blandishments of easy public acclaim and commercial success, will always rear its ugly head. 

Your years of study, of listening and performing, however, have surely equipped you well enough that even within the limitations of style, of performance practices, of historical perspective and other directions concerning interpretation, you will find plenty of elbow-room left for a sufficiently personal contribution of your own. 

The ideal approach to this, in my mind at least, is to become absorbed by the music in an almost passive way, to put all faculties and resources at the service of its study and analysis, and to reflect its carefully developed image in the focus of one's own personality only in the final act of re-creation. This may be a lot to ask, but is really no more than any composition's birthright. In the opposite approach, the performer not only absorbs, but completely assimilates all music. The whole repertory passes through the digestive tract of his aesthetic Super-ego, to come out invariably as an evening full of pure Jones, or Brown, under the thin guise of Bach or Beethoven, or what have you. This can be very fascinating in a gruesome way. 

Let me also warn you against imitation. If some musicians have successfully developed certain characteristics or mannerisms into hallmarks of their style, it doesn't mean that you will attain equal success by copying them. First of all, it isn't quite as easy to make that imitation sound genuine, secondly the graft will always show at the seams, and thirdly, it is an odd thing that people who are quick to compare any newcomers of consequence to the outstanding representatives in their field, really don't want a second Rubinstein or Heifetz or Lehmann, even if this were imaginable for a moment. Therefore concentrate on growing and developing your own musical style and personality according to your own lights, assets and liabilities, with an artistic logic and responsibility entirely your own. 

As you go about these chores, however, please don't freeze in your special field. You must by now have a pretty good idea of the vastness and complexity of the realm of music, and it is very important, even for your standing among your specialist colleagues, to remain an all-around musician as much as possible. If you have to pull strands out of the whole fabric, do so only on a temporary basis, for study and practice, and try to keep in touch with the pattern as a whole. This may sometimes involve a great effort on your part, and usually there will be little or no money in it, yet don't ever give up this quest. I have met many musicians of considerable competence and achievement, but only in one isolated field of interest, closely fitting the definition of a specialist as a man who doesn't know anything about everything else. You will not be less the loser for never knowing what you missed. 

So far I have mainly talked about performing on your own, a highly desirable but probably exceptional event in your near future. Most of the time you will be engaged to perform or teach music of someone else's choice; the fact that you are being paid for it, may not always preclude attacks of boredom, fatigue and disgust, depending on circumstance and your emotional equilibrium. To combat these, you must marshal various integral elements of your professional makeup to wit: 

Discipline and imaginativeness, a sense of balance and proportion and last but not least, a sense of humor. 

DISCIPLINE for instance in not letting anyone know what you think of the music, or your colleagues, of the audience, or anything else connected with the occasion. 

IMAGINATIVENESS in finding something interesting, a fresh general approach, a new angle of perception, a different nuance to a work which you may be performing for the umtieth time (and when perhaps you didn't like it very much the first time, either.) 

A SENSE OF BALANCE AND PROPORTION to weigh your own discomfort against the pleasure others may derive from your work; thus you will hesitate to give in to your critical or otherwise ugly mood, or at least limit it to the irreducible minimum of intensity and duration. Don't bite the hand that a applauds you, maybe! 

A SENSE OF HUMOR finally lets you see the funny side which every irksome event or situation inevitably has; it keeps you from taking yourself too seriously and making everyone else miserable because of your suffering, justified or not. 

All of us have at times had those rare, extraordinary musical experiences, those inexplicable supreme moments which seemed to touch our whole being with an almost mystical flash of recognition of the oneness of art, humanity, and life, in their most exalted manifestations. As performers we are seldom, if ever, aware of making this impression on others; we may actually be in one of our negative moods just then, but as spokesmen for the composer and his work we have no right to indulge our private feelings; in any audience somebody may be waiting on the threshold of such a supreme musical experience in which we serve as catalysts. Neither must we forget that our work is likely to be measured with a different aesthetic yardstick by every listener; there should be no lack of spontaneity and appeal in naïveté and simplicity just because we happen to be more interested in sophistication and aloofness of style.

With all this, bear in mind also that the big opportunities to shine will be few and far between, especially at the start. The incidence of concertos or operatic roles performed, or of new works given a public hearing, is not very high for the average musician. Thus it is in the day to day, lesson to lesson and rehearsal to rehearsal drudgery that you are called to prove your mettle, and work the required minor miracles of artistic re-creation. When you can play or teach for the hundredth time music you don't care about to people you don't care about and still make it a significant even for yourself as well as for them, then you have truly reached the pinnacle of artistic discipline.

Then there is the question of human relationships in an ensemble. Sometimes there arises an apparently insoluble conflict of opinion, further complicated by the fact that one of the contestants may be in a position to exercise pressures of a financial or social character. If and when he does, where do we now draw the line‘? Do we have to choose between our job and our integrity? This is a problem which has bothered me as long as I can remember, and I'll give you my answer for what it may be worth to you: 

As a musician you have the right and duty to declare your convictions regarding matters of study and execution, or manners and methods of presentation, in short, everything pertaining to your collaboration as musicians should be open to debate. But once you have stated clearly what you think, especially with respect to the composer's will and wish... please remember, once is enough, it is left to your discretion how long you want to persist. It is usually the better part of wisdom to be flexible under duress; you aren't going to convince anyone by mere repetition of your argument, and the performance is bound to suffer from unresolved clashes of mind and temper. You have already saved your soul by speaking frankly that first time; as to saving the soul of the music, it has a way of taking care of itself ultimately, and there is always the nagging chance that you were wrong in the first place, and that stubborn idiot of a partner right all the time. I speak from experience. 

Especially pianists among you, beware when it comes to joining forces with people of a different persuasion. You may be full of righteous ideas about purity in performance but there is no sense for instance in overlooking that there is a natural limit to the length of a singer's breath or a fiddler's bow. I have frequently antagonized and occasionally lost a partner by insisting on details of execution which went against his judgement. 

Talking of pianists, it won't surprise you that I also want to say a few words on behalf of the accompanist's career, its special requirements and attractions. Besides all the customary qualifications for a fine pianist, he ought to have, among others, temperamental aptitude in the direction of calmness of spirit and flexibility, a natural predilection for ensemble work, and finally a more than average facility in sight-reading and transposing. By this latter item hangs a little story which the late Ignaz Friedman told on himself. 

In his salad days, he once traveled as accompanist with a tenor whose ambitions were greater than his stamina. One weary evening, in the middle of a phrase, the tenor suddenly dropped a minor third in pitch; Friedman obliging1y dropped with him, almost instantaneously, and they both finished happily in the new key, whereupon Friedman was awarded an extra florin at the end of the concert by the grateful singer. Thereafter, Friedman always started one song or aria in a key which he knew would give the singer trouble. The latter eventually dropped, Friedman dropped with him and cashed in at the end of the concert. 

So you see that besides the virtuous feeling of having prevailed against adversity and saved a precarious situation, there is access to unusual sources of revenue peculiar only to us accompanists, and which I am sure you haven't included in your previous estimates… at least I trust you haven't. 

To those who plan to go out and teach, I would say this: 

There is all this wealth of skill and knowledge in your possession, to be taught and handed down to your pupils. They must learn to do their daily scales and arpeggios in the spirit of brushing their musical teeth, before sinking them into the various succulences of their repertory. But there is something even more basic than exercise, something which is often overlooked in the pressures of a professional curriculum heavy with technique and literature. That is the meaning and value of Silence. Not just the measured silence of the rests between phrases and movements, but that blessed primal silence which first created the need for sound. 

This seems to me particularly essential at a time when we must compete in our music making with automobiles, dishwashers and other such gadgets. More than ever we must remind ourselves and others that music needs this inner silence and poise of listener and player alike. 

Another basic fact is that besides being part of a major aesthetic structure, each motif, each harmonic step, each rhythmic element and dynamic accent represent also a gesture with a definite and definable content of emotional character. It is this ingredient primarily which has made and kept music the universal language which continues its message where verbal communication stops. It was music which provided the last common meeting ground for the occupying forces in Vienna after the last war. There, in the opera and concert houses, and in the more modest establishments where Viennese music and wine work their joint charms, representatives of the opposing camps could sit side by side, let their bemedaled savage breasts be soothed by the strains of Wolfgang Amadeus, or Richard and Johann, and straighten out quietly and unobtrusively matters that had bogged down in official controversy. Down to the present day, too, we may witness how a handful of musicians can open a door in the Iron Curtain where other keys have failed.

Thus, in an age when the art of music is being promoted into big business, and its life made into a big industry, there is still reason enough, if not more than ever, to be a musician, and to be proud of it in whatever capacity we function.   

Remember also that in becoming a musician, you are starting at the top in many ways. No other comparable activity carries such rich immediate  rewards in the work itself, even in its very preparation, long before you get down to the task of weighing critical and financial returns. 

You are the owners and guardians of a magnificent heritage; don't lock it up in ivory tower isolation to preserve its purity; neither make it a 5 and 10 cent store basement item in distributing its treasures. Let this day of commencement be one also of joyous rededication to our wonderful profession and make each step, each moment of music, a living experience in the fellowship of art and humanity. Good luck!

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