When the piano is your “very self, your mother tongue, your life”

 
 

 

You see my piano is for me what his frigate is to a sailor, or his horse to an Arab — more indeed; it is my very self, my mother tongue, my life. Within its seven octaves it encloses the whole range of an orchestra, and a man’s ten fingers have the power to reproduce the harmonies which are created by hundreds of performers. 

– Franz Liszt, in an open letter to Adolphe Pictet, writen in Chambery, September 1837, and published in the Gazette musicale of February 11, 1838. 

  

Liszt was given to hyperbole, but his feelings for the piano weren’t unique to him. Pianist Lili Kraus (1903-1986) was imprisoned in Djakarta, Indonesia by the Japanese during World War II. She worried about her hands but she didn’t want special treatment, and so she accepted the job of pulling up buckets from a well — 40 in the morning, 40 at noon and 40 in the evening. 

At the end of my first day of doing this, my finger joints were so swollen and so painful that I couldn’t open the fingers. I was as frightened as I was shocked. But only for a moment, because the thought came again that, if I’m going to play the piano again, I will; and if it isn’t meant to be, I won’t. So I worked on, and as a consequence my hands became wonderfully strong….

  However, it wasn’t the manual work or possible damage to my hands that bothered me so much. What really ate me up was the longing for my music and my family. I could never decide which anguish was more tormenting; however, I was consumed by the desire to sit down at the piano and play and play. This longing almost drove me mad…. 

Lili Kraus. From the book, Great Pianists Speak for Themselves. No credit is given.

 

My mother played the piano and assumed the role of a piano teacher when I was about the right age to learn to play. Because she was my mother, I resisted mightily, quit in my early teens and only recently picked it up again. Unlike Lizt, I don’t have “the power to reproduce harmonies created by hundreds of performers,” nor do I consider the piano “my very self, my mother tongue, my life.” But I feel a kinship, however remote, with those who do. I love it when my fingers scamper across the cool, smooth ivory of the keys, doing things I can’t imagine my fingers doing in my more rational moments. I love the way they articulate sounds, small ones and big. I love it despite the many mistakes I make. And I won’t give up my dream of playing with some amateur (very!) ensemble or other some day. 

In the last half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, nearly every middle class home had a piano and a woman or girl who played it. Movies set in those years often find their heroines seated at the piano playing error-free Mozart or, in later years, perfect Irving Berlin. I find them terribly irritating. I was relieved when Jane Austin’s Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice played a truly sloppy piano in the book and the movie, all the time apologizing helplessly for it. It would be interesting to know if the women piano-players of those years helped us really hear the truly talented, the truly marvellous musicians of their day and ours. 

I found the Liszt quote and excerpts of interviews from various classical pianists in a 1987 book I gave to my mother, the pianist. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a reader, and I think she was too envious of those who could play so powerfully to enjoy their conversation about it. But now I’ve inherited Great Pianists Speak for Themselves by Elyse Mach and I find it a revealing read. Several of the pianists the author interviewed were already elderly at the time she talked with them, and have things to say about their era, aging and the piano. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), for example, speaks about the artist’s vision becoming deeper as he grows older. 

Claudio Arrau. Print in India ink. Photo by Andrezor ByN. Creative Commons.

 

You are always moving toward new revelations of the meaning of certain passages. And this brings you closer and closer to the core of the music. That’s why it’s inadvisable, for example, for a very young artist to want to play late Beethoven. He should occupy himself all his life with the study of the late Beethoven sonatas, but he should not want to play them too soon because that is an impossible pretension on his part.

 

 Arrau goes on to discuss “the proximity of death, death as a part of life” in the later work of Schubert. 

Lili Kraus finds the younng pianists of the 1980s are technically amazing, but frequently there is no emotional content, no personal statement, no passionate involvement and no taking of risks. 

Sometimes, when I listen to them, I fail to detect any joy or sadness. It all sounds the same: slow, fast, soft, loud. But I want to hear concepts, not just notes…. Many young pianists today are completely separated from the tradition of ‘classic’ or even ‘romantic’ feeling, and I don’t see any road back for them because they are ceaselesssly bombarded with noise that takes them further away. Consider for a moment the noise of the city, the road, the air, not to speak of jazz and rock music. Certainly jazz and rock have wonderful rhythms which are almost primitive in origin. Such rhythms hypnotize the mind, actually dull it, so that the listener is dazed. But the great masters do just the opposite: they stimulate and refresh the awareness of the spirit. 

Roslyn Tureck. Photo from Great Pianists Speak for Themselves. Uncredited.

 

Rosalyn Tureck (1914-2003), one of our era’s great interpreters of Bach, has some other thoughts on the subject of contemporary culture. 

I think it’s very clear to most people that we’re at the end of the Judeo-Christian civilization, which indeed was a very great civilization and reached a great many peaks in art, in thought, and in science. The twentieth century itself has beeen a fabulous century, filled with what might be called “miracles;” what man has achieved in this century is almost beyond belief. In that sense, I’m very excited about living in our time. But there are many aspects of this century also which are heartbreaking and full of agony, and this I cannot bear. There has been ugliness, physical, visual, aural — all kinds of ugliness. The decadence is on the increase, which forebodes a very dark, black period lasting a long time, perhaps many centuries. …. I should be most interested to live, if I had my choice for another life in the future, about 850 years from now. I think the human society by that time will have fully recovered and created a new and more advanced way of life, thought, and art. 

Claudio Arrau would have disagreed, but not entirely.  

You often hear musicians say that they would like to have lived in the age of Chopin, or Bach, or some other artist. Not I. Even if I had a choice of time in which to live, I would pick now. The questioning, the doubting, the nonacceptance of all the institutions and values that people have believed in for years are to me the marvel of our times. We are being forced to reexamine all of the traditions of the past, not only in music but in our general way of life. This is a fascinating experience. It may never come again, and I am glad to be a part of it…. 

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