“The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music – they should be taught to love it instead.” – Igor Stravinsky
Regular readers of this blog know that I have little patience for the sanctification of classical music – my New Year’s resolution is to be even more focused on bringing this great music to people in as unpretentious ways as possible.
On Sunday night, I will be playing on Cincinnati’s version of Classical Revolution, in a bar. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be at the headquarters of Procter and Gamble, home of Crest and Pampers. And on Bach’s birthday, March 21, I will play his music in a club that is better known for country and heavy metal bands – should be a lot of fun. More to come about that in the weeks ahead.
Over the weekend, I read two articles which reminded me of the push and pull between tradition and innovation that seems to be particularly strong in the music world these days. The first was by Ian Bostridge, a well-known tenor who has written a book about Schubert’s great song cycle, Winterreise. He compares these great art songs to modern pop songs, and suggests that Schubert may have influenced Bob Dylan. It’s really interesting, and makes me hope that he will perform this great work in a club sometime.
The second gave me a little less hope – it was an article in the New York Times about performers who wait to play the music of certain composers until they feel “ready.”
In the article, Jeremy Denk, one of my favorite pianists and writers on music, said: “ ‘In a case like Schubert, who died at 31, he had enough sorrow for a lifetime. There is something about the subtext of his music — people say you have to suffer a little more.’ He recalled that when he attended Marlboro (the prestigious chamber music festival in Vermont now run by the veteran pianist Mitsuko Uchida), ‘there was a feeling that there were the seniors in the back row and they were grousing about how superficially the kids were playing the pieces — a get-off-my-lawn kind of attitude.’ ”
This reminded me of one of my own experiences as a student – one year at the Chautauqua Music Festival, my friends and I were playing quartets, looking for repertoire to play for a chamber music master class later that summer. We came across the “Grosse Fuge” by Beethoven and attempted to sightread it (stop laughing).
Don’t try this at home – anyone familiar with this piece knows how difficult it is to play (or listen to, for that matter – much of it sounds weirder than anything written since.) To me, it sounded like Beethoven had been listening to Jimi Hendrix – of course, we decided we had to play it, and spent the next three weeks trying to figure it out.
On the big day, we played it for the Festival’s resident quartet in the class, and the first violinist immediately said: “You are too young to play this piece.”
(Now I’m not going to name names here, but I would just like to point out that this violinist was well known for non-musical reasons, featured in a story for an ad for a violin case. He absentmindedly left his very valuable instrument in said case on the roof of his car and drove onto the highway – the instrument fell off into traffic and miraculously survived (in tune, according to the ad!). Says a lot about the case, not so much about his judgement. As my wife puts it, I’m just saying.)
Anyway, I guess he felt we didn’t have the life experience to play this great work, and I suppose he was right, but man, was it fun! Sure, we were in over our heads, but everyone is with that piece, and that’s the point. You will never be really “ready,” so get started!
Later in the Times article, Paul Katz, cellist of the Cleveland Quartet puts it perfectly: “ ‘We have a responsibility to probe, but at the same time it’s amazing how many young people are throttled and intimidated by that,’ he said. “It’s something I never felt myself. I was able to feel the greatness and sense of responsibility but not feel bottled up by it.’
‘No mortal ever feels totally ready’ for Beethoven’s late string quartets, he added. “ ‘Those works humble us. We grow into them.’ ”
Exactly. We don’t serve great composers (or ourselves) by being afraid to play their music. And aren’t classical musicians are always complaining that the audiences at our concerts are all old – is it any wonder with this kind of thinking?
And does it make any sense to say that profound music can only be played by performers who’ve reached an age that its composer never even got to? Schubert, as Denk reminds us, died at 31. Mozart, 35. Mendelssohn, 38. Schumann, 46. Beethoven was comparatively lucky – he made it to 57.
Let’s close with one more quote from the Times article, by pianist Jonathan Biss: “Musicians have anxiety about everything. A solution to my anxieties is that you step into the void. Just try. On the one hand, you’re dealing with truly great works of art, but at the same time you’re not a doctor — if you make a mistake, nobody will die.”