Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A, D959, is my sonata. Never mind that I’ve heard Imogen Cooper, Daniel Barenboim, Piers Lane, Andras Schiff and Richard Goode, amongst others, perform the sonata, and have listened to countless recordings (including Shera Cherkassy, Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Inon Barnatan and Krystian Zimerman), all of whom might claim that it is their sonata. Schubert’s D959 is my sonata.
Why is it ‘my’ sonata? Because I spent many hours, days and months studying, learning and eventually performing this work, and through that meticulous process I acquired a sense of “ownership” of the music.
Taking ownership of one’s music, literally making it one’s “own piece”, is something that musicians strive for. A strong sense of ownership connects one to one’s music, and also creates a special communication with the audience.
Ownership is hard won, however, and comes from close study and deep knowledge of the score to fully acquaint oneself with the composer’s message and intentions. All the explicit information contained within the score must be processed, understood and acted upon – the notes, dynamic, rhythmic and articulation markings, tempo, expression and character directions, and all the technical aspects of the music; in addition, implicit directions need to be considered and factored in: a rising passage may suggest a slight crescendo or stringendo, rests and fermatas suggests breathing space, a doubling of octaves may indicate a more orchestral sound or texture. The ability to process and interpret implicit directions comes from the musician’s own musical knowledge, training, an understanding of historical contexts and performance practice (in, for example, Baroque music), experience, maturity and personality.
Such disciplined learning and study gives one the confidence to play the music convincingly and to create one’s own personal vision of the music. I have been to concerts where it is evident that the music is well learnt, all the details taken care of, but it doesn’t communicate, or touch one’s emotions. A non-committal performer may tread the middle road, providing an inoffensive range of dynamics, expression and so on, but without a real sense of conviction which robs the performance of that special edge of excitement. Audiences can certainly feel this and may leave the concert satisfied but unmoved.
So, ownership is about having done the detailed work on the score to give one the confidence to perform the music convincingly. But there’s more: ownership also creates spontaneity, freedom, originality and sprezzatura in performance – the impression that everything one does is effortless. As a performer, one does not want to show the audience what one cannot do; instead, the performer reveals, through their ownership of the music, not only mastery, but also freedom, ease and delight, playing ‘in the moment’…. Performers who have these qualities, and who have complete ownership of their music, are prepared to take risks in performance, secure in the knowledge that one never plays the same piece of music the same way twice. Such performances are thrilling and memorable.
I love the concept of ‘ownership’ which is so well set out in this post, although at my level I have approached it but never achieved it fully. However, I have realised that getting a piece under one’s fingers is only a tiny step in the ‘ownership’ process, so I am spending more and more time getting inside a single piece and really understanding what is going on and making it mine. This resulted in some great feedback when performing a Scarlatti sonata at my piano club recently when someone said, ‘One can see how much you love that piece’. It had certainly taken a huge amount of time not merely repeating it slavishly but understanding and developing it, but it was definitely worth the effort.