Tag Archives: Messiaen

Prom 38: Foulds and Messiaen excite and uplift

John Foulds – Three Mantras

Olivier Messiaen – TurangalÎla-symphonie

BBC Philharmonic

Juanjo Mena, conductor

A guiding thread of Hindu philosophy ran through Prom 38 which brought together music by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century with one of its neglected non-comformists to create one of the most exciting and uplifting concerts I have attended for some time. Works by Olivier Messiaen and John Foulds combined in a programme of ecstasy and excitement. The piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie was Steven Osborne, acclaimed for his performances and recordings of Messiaen’s piano music. He was joined by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on the Ondes Martenot, a curious electronic keyboard instrument much used by Messiaen in his music.

Read my full review here

On Messiaen – and more: Meet the Artist……Cordelia Williams, pianist


British pianist Cordelia Williams is undertaking a special project in 2015 exploring Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant- Jésus’, arguably the greatest piano work of the 20th-century. In this interview she discusses the project and the particular attraction of the music.

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I never really made a specific ‘decision’ to be a pianist – it has just always been what I am. Deciding not to pursue a career in music would be as ridiculous as deciding not to age! Having heard my mother teaching piano and harpsichord since I was born, I was impatient to start learning as soon as I could sit on the piano stool, and since then studying and playing music has always seemed completely natural to me.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life? 

Definitely my mother: she taught me for the first six years (age 3 – 9) and I’m sure my approach to music was set during that time. However, I’d also say the seven years I spent boarding at Chetham’s School of Music, because I started to learn then how to take charge of my own musical development. Finally, I think during the last couple of years the contentment I’ve felt in my life – growing older, an incredibly happy relationship and an adorable cat – has allowed me to really learn who I am as a musician and to find a greater honesty and confidence in my playing.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I suspect for me it has been finding the self-belief to deal with the knock-backs and disappointments of any performing career. My friends gently point out that I can (sometimes) be an overly emotional person, and chasing opportunities and career advancement does not come naturally to me. I have a constant battle between what needs to be done for my career and what I want to do as a person.

Musically, I would say recording my second CD (Schumann for SOMM, out in September 2015). It is such emotional challenging and complex music – I really had to struggle for a long time to feel that I knew what I wanted to say. And organising my ‘Messiaen 2015’ series has been an enormous learning curve; quite apart from learning the marathon Vingt Regards in the first place, there have been so many aspects to coordinate that I wasn’t expecting.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

Performing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the RPO at the Barbican in December 2014: it was a really special performance and something magical happened between the orchestra, the conductor and myself. Getting a standing ovation for Rachmaninov 3: it’s such a scary and enormous work to perform that I was quite overwhelmed with the reaction (may have cried a bit). And my recording of Schubert’s Impromptus for SOMM (2013): it was a big thing for me to release my first CD and, thank goodness, I still like it!

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

I’ve always had an affinity with Beethoven’s 3rd, 4th and 5th concertos. Schubert’s C minor Sonata (D958) has been a special work for me, as has Schumann’s Fantasie op. 17. And perhaps also Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat – someone once remarked that my performance reminded him of Dinu Lipatti, which for me is the highest compliment.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

There’s always something that I’m desperate to learn, so I usually plan programmes around that, gradually introducing new repertoire so that I always have some new works and some more familiar. I try to make every concert a holistic listening experience for the audience: interesting, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding and complete.

Tell us more about your ‘Messiaen 2015’ project.  What was your motivation for organising this series of concerts and events focussing on Olivier Messiaen?

It was the music itself – the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is such a fascinating work that I wanted the chance to explore it further, make new discoveries and look at it in different lights. And I wanted to share all that with anyone who was interested. So the commissions, collaborations and events were developed in a very organic way.

What is the particular appeal of this composer’s music for you? 

I think he must have been a wonderfully interesting man, because his music is! He combines so many different musical layers, symbolism, theology, literary inspirations, images from paintings and ideas from all walks of life, to create music which is worked out in minute and precise detail but which sounds natural, passionate, reverent and overwhelming. All of existence and all of non-existence is within Messiaen’s music.

What are the challenges and pleasures of studying and performing his piano music?

It’s unbelievably complicated to memorise! It really took me ages to learn the Vingt Regards. But I’ve found that, because it’s so pattern-based, once it’s learnt it stays in quite well. On the other hand, I love how thought-provoking his titles and commentaries are: he has allowed me to contemplate new concepts and look at familiar scenes (e.g. the Nativity, the Annunciation) in a totally new way.

What have been the special pleasures and challenges of working with poet Michael Symmons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker on this project? 

I can’t think of any challenges! But it has been a real pleasure to discuss the music with them and to see their own individual responses take shape. I couldn’t even have imagined what they’d come up with – it has been a true example of the sum being greater than the parts.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I think either performing the Vingt Regards in 2013 in King’s Chapel, Cambridge, which was wonderfully atmospheric, or my debut recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011. I was stupidly nervous! But in the end, the performance I gave was a huge achievement for me, and lots of my family and friends turned out to support me. We all got drunk at Las Iguanas afterwards.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Goodness – I don’t feel qualified to answer this yet! Ask me again in 30 years.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Having a lazy Sunday morning at home together with newspapers and coffee (perhaps, in the future, surrounded by children), a walk in the countryside and then cooking a big roast lunch for friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My friends and family and my health. And my engagement ring, not for what it’s worth, but for what it symbolises.

What is your present state of mind?

Excited about life and unusually energetic.

Cordelia Williams’ ‘Messiaen 2015’ project, an exploration of the ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus’ in music, words and art, continues at various venues in London and beyond. The next event in the series is a Study Day at King’s College, London on Tuesday 28th April. The event is free, but registration is required to attend. This in-depth exploration of the Vingt Regards and their origins includes sessions on Messiaen’s historical and musical context, compositional style and theology. The day includes sessions with poet Michael Symons Roberts and artist Sophie Hacker, an exhibition, poetry reading and a lunchtime concert by Cordelia Williams. Full details here http://www.messiaen2015.com/event/kings-college-london/

For further information about other events, please visit the dedicated Messiaen 2015 website

The ‘Messiaen 2015’ project was made possible by the generous support of the City Music Foundation.

Hearing her mother teach piano, Cordelia wanted to learn to play too, and began lessons at home as soon as she could climb onto the piano stool. She gave her first public piano recital to celebrate her eighth birthday. She spent seven years at Chethams School of Music in Manchester, studying with Bernard Roberts and Murray McLachlan. She went on to work with Hamish Milne in London, Joan Havill and Richard Goode, and is grateful to have received support from the Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, the Stanley Picker Trust, the City of London Corporation, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the City Music Foundation.

Cordelia Williams’ full biography

Messiaen’s ecstatic visions: Peter Donohoe & Benjamin Frith at Institut Français

The piano music of Olivier Messiaen is not performed enough for my taste, partly because there aren’t that many pianists around who are willing to tackle it. One notable exception is British pianist Peter Donohoe, who studied with Messiaen’s second wife Yvonne Loriod, and who played the composer’s music to the composer himself during his studies in Paris in the 1970s.

The concert at London’s Institut Français, part of the three-day It’s All About Piano Festival, was originally to include the London première of La Fauvette Passerinette, a work fully sketched by Messiaen in 1961 which was discovered by Peter Hill, who worked with Messiaen between 1986 and 1991, and which Hill completed in 2012. Sadly, Peter Hill was unwell, and so the work was introduced by Elaine Gould from Faber Music and Peter Donohoe, who played brief, appetite-whetting extracts, and relayed some interesting and entertaining anecdotes of his studies with Monsieur and Madame Messiaen, and his experiences of performing Messiaen’s music. Benjamin Frith stepped in at the last minute to perform Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Peter Donohoe

Read my full review here

Making sense of Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) surely ranks amongst the “greats” of the piano repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s WTC and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extrordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extroardinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant part in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or pauses for hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawkings, trills and shrillings in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full. It was British pianist Steven Osborne who stepped up to the challenge of performing this amazing work in full as part of the Soutbank Centre’s International Piano Series and year-long Rest Is Noise festival.

It was after hearing Steven Osborne’s account of Messiaen’s Trois Petite Liturgies that the composer’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, invited him to study the larger piano works. Since then, Osborne has performed the epic Vingt Regards in public several times, and has also produced a highly acclaimed recording of it. His performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29th May 2013 was revelatory, not just in his ability to physically hold all the elements of the work together for two hours, displaying total technical and pianistic command, but also in his articulate and insightful approach to the music. The hushed chords and repeated right-hand octaves of the first Regard were almost whispered, before a clear bell sounded across the hall. Such meditative pianissimos contrasted with glittering effects high in the upper registers, richly-hued Debussyan harmonies, and deep, sonorous bass rumblings redolent of the sombre spirituality of late Liszt. It was a performance imbued with virtuosity, yet never at the expense of the music, nor quality of sound, and Osborne’s physical gestures always had meaning, emphasising a particular effect or intensely-felt emotion. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. Sitting in the back row of the hall, the sense of an audience engaged in an extraordinary shared experience was palpable in the absorption with which we listened. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had hard, and savoured the fading sounds in the hall, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a sustained standing ovation.

Concert review: Quartet for the End of Time at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen in 1930

The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night’s chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

Read my full review here

Takemitsu’s musical landscape

Toru Takemitsu (source: Wikipedia)

“My music is like a garden – and I am the gardener”

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)

It was rather wonderful to wake to the sounds of the music of Toru Takemitsu on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning. An unexpected pleasure, as such music is usually reserved for the wilder shores of Radio 3.

Takemitsu was a composer, but he was also a writer on aesthetics and musical theory. His music is delicate and refined, as beautiful as Hokusai print or a carved jade netsuke. Largely self-taught, his music combines elements of Japanese and western philosophy with the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, using both western and traditional Japanese instruments, and the use of defined silences to create a unique and extraordinary soundworld.

Takemitsu admired Debussy and Messiaen, as is evident in his piano music, and was drawn to composers who were themselves deeply influenced by the musical and philosophical culture of Asia, including John Cage. After my very positive experience with Messiaen for my ATCL Diploma programme, and my love of the piano music of Debussy, the desire to explore the piano music of Takemitsu seemed a natural one.

Takemitsu composed his Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992 in memory of Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer who had a strong influence on Takemitsu. The work was composed for a concert “Hommage à Olivier Messiaen” at Les Semaines Musicales Internationales d’Orleans, France, and was premiered by Alain Neveux on 24 October 1992. The name of the work was probably inspired by a quotation from a novel by Kenzaburo Oe about the miraculous rain tree, whose tiny leaves store up moisture and continue to let fall raindrops long after the rain has ceased. The work is also a dreamy meditation on the flow of life, and was the last piano piece Takemitsu wrote (his first Rain Tree Sketch was written in 1982). It is in a clear ABA (ternary) form, with a rhythmic opening which is reprised, in shortened form, after the melodic middle section. Its tonal language is redolent of Debussy and Messiaen, with chords used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progressions, and, like its dedicatee, Takemitsu employs recurring motifs (such as an ascending three-note broken chord figure) and well-placed silences to create a carefully nuanced atmosphere and colouristic shadings. Directions such as “celestially light” and “joyful” contribute to the metaphysical nature of this work.

There are some written in pedal markings, and these should be adhered to as the composer directs. Elsewhere, use of the pedal is at the discretion of the pianist. I tend on the side of restraint and use half or one-third pedal to avoid obscuring the clarity of the chords and melodic figures. Regarding the bars of silence, these should sound expectant and anticipatory, rather than dead; using the pedal to allow sounds to “ring” will help achieve this.

The metronome markings in the piece are somewhat ambiguous. On the dedication page of the score, the duration is given at 5 minutes, but if one adheres to the metronome markings exactly, the piece comes in at around 3 minutes. I have opted for a calm moderato, a sense of the music moving forward, but without pressing ahead. In my Diploma programme, this piece comes between the Bach D minor concerto BWV 974 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511. The contrast is, to me, rather special, and I feel it works well.

While researching the programme notes on this piece for my Diploma, I came across an interesting piece of research in which the author discusses the suggestion of traditional Japanese instruments in this work, and other piano works by Takemitsu, specifically the Taiko drum (the low D pedal point at the opening of page 2), and the long zither koto and the short-necked lute biwa (the ascending arpeggio figure suggests the plucked sound of these instruments). The article contains many interesting thoughts about Takemitsu’s piano music, and is definitely worth exploring further.

As for performances of this work, when I heard Noriko Ogawa perform it at the Wigmore last autumn, I was struck by the incredible soundworld she managed to achieve, producing “droplets” of notes and really evoking the miraculous rain tree (my review here). The recording I have been using for reference in my study of this piece is by Ichiro Nodaira: I particularly like the relaxed tempo of the opening melody.

The pianist Paul Crossley has recorded Takemitsu’s complete piano music, sadly, now out of print, though available via some music streaming services and Spotify.

 

Further listening:

Rain Tree Sketch

Litany

Les yeux clos

Piano Pieces for Children: No. 2. Clouds

The first page of Rain Tree Sketch II (Schott Music)

Diploma programme

Going back over old territory here, but by chance I found a film I made when I was rehearsing for my ATCL Diploma recital last winter with my page turner (who also happens to be a very good friend of mine, and one of my piano students). I’ve edited it into a more watchable programme. The pieces are played in the order in which I performed them in the exam recital on 14th December 2011

 

Review: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Queen Elizabeth Hall

photo credit: A Newton

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard demonstrated Liszt’s far-reaching musical legacy in a spell-binding concert of intense concentration and illuminating pianism celebrating Liszt’s bicentenary and the release of Aimard’s new recording, The Liszt Project. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

Why music matters….

The following text is the welcome address from Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division, Piano Faculty, of the Boston Conservatory. It is moving, succinct and sensitive.

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re wasting your SAT scores!” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp. 

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds. 

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does. 

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation. 

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” 

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

 

Repertoire update – June 2011

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (from ‘Années de pèlerinage, 2ème année: Italie’). When I ‘performed’ this the other night for friends, on a very ropey ‘Chas n Dave’ piano, I realised how far I’ve come with this piece in the two months since I played it at my teacher’s course. Nevermind that the instrument was appalling (so much so, that I couldn’t play one of the trills because the keys simply did not work!); overall, it felt concert-ready – and so it should. I am playing this in my students’ concert in a month’s time. A year ago, I never thought I would be playing Liszt – and neither did my teacher. Her positive comments, and my own satisfaction at having learnt the piece almost entirely without assistance from her, shows how far I’ve progressed in the last year. And another diploma piece is finally in the the fingers for the exam next year. This recording by Wilhelm Kempff is sublime and has been very inspirational:

Wilhelm Kempff – Sonetto del Petrarca no. 123 (Più lento)

Debussy – Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano: I’ve dropped the first piece from this suite (the Prelude) as a potential diploma piece because I am worried about all the semiquavers! It’s a very rapid piece, at once grand and playful, and when I play it, if I’m not careful, it has a tendency to run away with itself, like an over-eager racehorse. I would not want to risk any “bolting” in the exam, so I am concentrating on the Sarabande, which I feel would make a good companion piece to the Bach Toccata from the Partita No. 6, since it draws very strongly on Baroque antecedents (Bach’s French counterparts Couperin and Rameau, rather than JSB himself). This piece was in danger of turning into a Sisyphean task, as every time I felt I was making progress, the tenosynovitis in my right hand would flare up and I would have to take a break from practising it. In the end, a lesson spent doing hand loosening and relaxation exercises has armed me with a strategy to practice without pain. I spent a week retraining my muscle memory (using the “Jumping Cat Invisible Hand” exercise – see earlier post), and at last I feel comfortable playing this music. The sound has changed for the better too, as my hand/arm function has improved.

Mark Swartzentruber – Debussy: Pour Le Piano, Sarabande (11/2005)

Schubert – Impromptu in E flat, Opus 90, No. 2: I didn’t think I could get so smitten with another Schubert Impromptu (the fourth of the Opus 90 being my absolute favourite) but this piece has hooked me in and I love playing it. Like the Prelude from ‘Pour le Piano’, it has a tendency to bolt, so I’ve been practising it in the manner of a Chopin Nocturne, to concentrate on the phrasing and long melodic lines, and it feels more reined in now. The contrasting sections sound both dramatic and poignant: the coda needs finessing, but overall this piece is progressing nicely. I am particularly enjoying the ‘etude’ elements of it, and I’m looking forward to playing it to my teacher when I next see her. I feel it would be an excellent contrast to the Debussy in my diploma programme.

Schubert – Impromptus D. 890: No. 2 Allegro

Messiaen – IV Regard de la Vierge, from ‘Vingt regards de l’enfant Jesus‘: At Christmas, in the ski chalet, I was marking up the score and playing the opening measures on my cardboard fold-out keyboard, much to the amusement of Tony, my host. I learnt the first two pages fairly easily and then got disheartened (easy with this music – it’s physically and emotionally draining in practice). Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to practice this at least three times a week and the other day I had a real breakthrough, when I managed to play right through to the end of the piece. As a friend of mine who has also been learning this piece said recently, it’s actually quite comfortable under the fingers once you’ve nailed the awkward chords and leaps. Because I have fairly small hands, I can’t manage all the big chords with one hand, but I think it is perfectly acceptable in these instances to share the notes between the hands. It’s immensely satisfying to be playing music like this – especially as it is way off my usual repertoire. I would like to end my diploma programme with this piece: it is tender, dramatic, and portentous.

Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus : IV Regard de la Vierge

Mozart – Nine Variations in D, K573, on a minuet by J P Duport: Late Mozart, and the last set of variations he wrote in the ‘galant’ style, evocative of “courtly grace”. After my travails with Messiaen, playing Mozart again is like coming back to earth from some dark, outer firmament, and finding grass and trees, flowers and cows. However, that does not mean this is entirely light-hearted music: the D minor variation is melancholy and agitated. Plenty of technical challenges in here too: crystalline articulation is required, and the ornaments need to be carefully thought out, so as not to sound contrived. I love the way Mozart evokes different instruments: in Variation III it’s all violin lines, while Variation IV suggests woodwind.

Mozart – Nine Variations in D, K.573 on a minuet by J.P. Duport