Piero Weiss, pianist and musicologist, died Sunday in Baltimore. The New York Times has an obituary here.
I count Weiss as one of the best teachers I ever had.
He began teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore in 1985, the same year that I arrived there to study in the music criticism program. We were soon closely intertwined — often, I think, to his consternation. Weiss was a learned man, deeply devoted to music and, as a scholar, committed to getting things exactly right. He had mastered five or six European languages; he had taught himself Ancient Greek late in life. He was also a gifted pianist, but wasn’t playing anymore by the time I met him. He was kind enough to give me some old recordings of himself playing, however, and those recordings were impressive.
I have many memories of him. I learned, among other things, how to write a program note from Weiss. In some fashion, I forget how exactly, I was given the job of writing the program notes for the concerts at the Conservatory, a pretty big job. Weiss was my editor and adviser. I turned in my first set of notes to him, and he flipped out. He called me on the pay phone right outside my dorm room, steaming. “Why, these aren’t even in English!” he growled, and I was crushed. I took them to the English teacher at the school, a young man named Michael Clive, who assured me they weren’t all that bad (he may have been lying), but that Weiss wanted them in, well, something like the King’s English, and he helped me fix them up to Weiss’ satisfaction. (Not sure he’d like that last sentence … it’s a little long.)
Weiss could be stern, but almost everyone liked him. He had an intensity as well as vulnerability that everyone responded to. He was going through a divorce when I got to know him, and it was clear that he was suffering. I helped him move out of his brownstone into an apartment. He was very particular about where we set his desk and typewriter, not just the area, but the exact spot. He was a runner, and rather gaunt, wore wire rims and had a gray beard. He looked the part of the scholar. The students could easily imitate him, because he always closed his eyes when concentrating, and clasped the bridge of his nose with his fingers.
In his wallet, he proudly carried a photograph of himself as a boy, perhaps a teen, standing with Toscanini, who was a family friend. There was also some connection between the Weiss family and James Joyce (Piero was born in Trieste), but more than that I do not know.
Our big project together was my graduate research paper, which was on the early English music historian Charles Burney’s visit to Paris in the 1770s. Weiss guided my research, pointing me in the right direction and encouraging me to explore as far as I could. I would take many of the documents I found to him to translate, and he would do so on the spot, reading from them directly into my tape recorder. I was delighted when he was happy and surprised with some of the things I managed to dig up — a catalog from a music store that Burney had visited, the weather report on a particular day of his trip, the letters of Baron von Grimm describing a concert Burney had been at.
I started to write up my findings, and would bring the pages to him as I finished them. He was initially unhappy with what he read (I was trying way too hard), but gave me a bit of advice that I’ll never forget. It doesn’t seem like much now. But he said, “Just tell me what you’ve found.” Nothing else, no gilding, just the facts, ma’am. He knew I had found plenty, and a straightforward account would be just the thing. He eventually ended up publishing my Burney paper, and that of another student, as the first issue of the Peabody Essays in Music History. He sent them out to university libraries and offered a subscription. I don’t think the publication ever panned out (there was one other volume, I believe), but my essay is still in the UCLA music library and also at Johns Hopkins.