Guest post by Tara Yonder
All it took was one comment. From someone whom I previously regarded as a friend but later realised was in fact a “frenemy”. I always knew that Wagner would tear us apart, to misquote the song by Joy Division. That composer above all others seems to provoke the most extreme reactions, divides people down party lines and creates a polarity of opinion akin to the binary contretemps one sees on Twitter virtually ever day: if you don’t agree with me (about Wagner) you are against me. He’s the Marmite composer.
“Perhaps you are growing up” said the Frenemy in response to my posting a picture of the score of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, transcribed for piano by the late great Glenn Gould. I’d been meaning to learn the piece for some years, having first heard it on the soundtrack to the film ‘A Dangerous Method’, and I’d managed to find a score of the Gould transcription in Foyles (which has an excellent sheet music department). I was looking forward to getting my fingers on it and to treating it as a long-term project (it’s about 16 pages long).
“Perhaps you are growing up“. The primary inference is that Wagner is for grown ups, for “proper” mature connoisseurs of art music. This of course is ridiculous. Music should, and does, cross generations and age groups. I have friends in their 20s and 30s who adore Wagner – and friends in their 70s who do not. It reminded me of a comment from a friend a few years ago, “Did you start to like classical music when you reached your 40s?”, thereby immediately reinforcing the common misconception that classical music is only for old people. No, I replied, I’ve always liked classical music. I grew up with classical music, I cut my eager concert-going teeth on the CBSO’s thrilling concerts at Birmingham Old Town Hall under the baton of Louis Fremaux and later a young, rookie conductor with wild tousled curls…..
What stung more was the Frenemy’s patronising tone, all too evident even in an impersonal email, like some elderly uncle from the 1950s chiding a gauche youngster. Because it was not the first time this person had taken this tone with me – commenting negatively on my writing, nitpicking my reviews, criticising my proof-reading skills (which was pretty rich coming from someone whose own emails were regularly sprinkled with literals and spelling errors), even once telling me I needed to be “taken down a peg or two“, sneering at my liking for certain concert pianists, describing one of them as “the emperor’s new clothes” without actually having heard said artist in a live concert……(you can hear the pianist in question playing Schumann at the end of this article – it brings me to the brink of tears).
I caught sight of the score of the Siegfried Idyll on the lid of the piano and felt the hurt, the insult welling up inside me again. Tinged with anger too, because why shouldn’t I change my mind about a composer? Why shouldn’t my tastes shift and alter? Such things are not set in stone, and it’s certainly not about “growing up” – I am already a fully-fledged grown up, I’ve had a mortgage and a “family car”. It’s about changing taste, and exploring the rich and varied repertoire, and finding music to play which will challenge me as well as giving me pleasure.
But the music was ruined for me. I couldn’t play it, couldn’t even lift my hands to the piano to play the opening phrase – so poignantly beautiful, so delicately romantic. So I shoved it right at the back of my bookcase, returned to practising Chopin’s First Ballade and Schumann’s Romance in C, and opened Ravel’s Miroirs beside the piano, with the intention of tackling Oiseaux Tristes.
All of this is uncomfortably redolent of a comment I once received via Twitter in response to my early explorations of a late sonata by Schubert. Someone had the temerity to suggest that, as a non-professional pianist, I was not “worthy” of this music. It’s an attitude I’ve encountered occasionally amongst professional pianists, that certain repertoire should be “off limits” to amateurs (notably Gaspard de la Nuit and Islamey). To which I assert, the music was written to be played – whether to a full house at Carnegie Hall or at home in the privacy of one’s living room. Brilliantly or badly, we should be playing this fantastic repertoire we as pianists are so lucky to have.
One day, when the hurt has healed, I’ll return to the Siegfried Idyll. Meanwhile, I’ll take refuge in my beloved Schubert, and Schumann and Chopin. If the Frenemy reads this, I suspect he would accuse me of being “over-sensitive” or of having “a sense of humour failure”. But I’m a writer, and a musician, and sensitivity is woven into every fibre of my being. And I’m glad it is, because that sensitivity allows me to shape the music I play, to linger over a piquant harmony or interesting intervallic relationship, to sculpt and contour a phrase, and to remain alert to the micro-nuances and shifting emotional landscapes of the music I love to play and listen to.