May 1, 2013
Little Suzy was in the midst of working on a piece with her piano teacher when she suddenly stopped playing, crossed out Johann Sebastian Bach’s name at the top of the page, and wrote her own name above it.
“Why did you do that, Suzy?” her surprised teacher asked.
“He’s not playing the piece. I am,” Suzy answered.
I laughed when I heard this story and so has everyone I’ve told it to. Kids can be so cute. But Suzy was absolutely right, wasn’t she. Bach, dead for close to 300 years, certainly wasn’t playing the piece, Suzy was. On the other hand, Suzy should know that if Bach hadn’t composed the work, she would have nothing to play.
So who is more important, Bach or Suzy, the composer or the performer? It’s a question of little practical consequence for composers whose works are already circulating in the world and beyond their control. Their horses are out of the barn. But we performers have to grapple with this issue every time we encounter a work of music, no matter how long or short, how profound or inconsequential. It is said that composers create, performers merely re-create. True, but give us just a little credit for what that entails. We are the composer’s enabler, mouthpiece, and translator. We are the teller of his or her stories.
Here are two reviews I would not like to read after a performance of mine:
Review #1: Mr. Steinhardt’s rendition of the Schrattenholz Violin Concerto, while unerringly faithful to the score, seemed to lack anything of a personal nature, and ultimately failed to bring the music to life.
Review #2: Mr. Steinhardt’s rendition of the Schrattenholz Violin Concerto blatantly ignored the composer’s intentions and used the music to show off his technical skills and misguided musical notions.
Fortunately, I’ve never received either of these reviews, but they represent extreme choices for performers: a strictly literal interpretation of the composer’s music versus one of unfettered freedom to do exactly as you please. Something more in the middle of those polar opposites, I hear you advising. Fine, but exactly how, where, and when?
The pianist Arthur Schnabel likened the performer’s role to that of an alpine guide leading his group to the summit’s splendid view. I sense this when I listen to his recording of the Largo e mesto movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Opus 10, #3. Schnabel draws me insightfully into the emotional and highly charged nature of the movement—lingering just a touch to highlight a surprising harmonic shift, charging forward to dramatize another. Schnabel is indeed a masterful guide.
Another image of the performer was prompted by my daughter Natasha’s stories of her work as a midwife. As I listened to her, I couldn’t help thinking that performers are also midwives. Notes make no sound and stir no emotions lying mute on the printed page until a musician actually brings them to life—exchanging ink for sound. What an alluring idea to think of myself as a midwife delivering the Beethoven Violin Concerto or a Bach Partita to the listener.
Then there’s the scholarly performer who studies a composer’s life down to the smallest detail in hopes of acquiring a deeper understanding of his or her music. I love reading about our inspired composers—how Mozart played pranks, how Beethoven dealt with his deafness, how Shostakovich was hounded by Stalin, and so on, but does my knowing these anecdotes bear significantly on my interpretation of their music? After all, Mozart wrote music of despair during happy moments in his life. Schubert composed an opera farce while in the throes of tertiary syphilis.
I certainly have no need to read about the composer I know best of all. He’s my brother, Victor.
Victor and I share the same parents, have presumably inherited the same genes, grew up in the same house, played numerous violin and piano recitals together, and have remained lifelong friends. Yet my closeness and familiarity with Victor as a person and musician does little to help me interpret, say, his wonderful Tango for violin and piano. Knowing Victor’s amiable nature provides no link to the Tango’s melancholy beginning; his artistry as a pianist gives little clue in dealing with its soulful middle section; and I fail to see how his infectious humor and outrageous puns can help me with the Tango’s conclusion that fairly seethes with anguish.
If, however, I think of Victor as an architect, the Tango he presented me for the first time as his building blueprint, and yours truly as the designated builder, the parallels to composer and performer make solid sense. I once asked my friend Tom Casey, an architect who worked at Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture, what would happen if he gave one of his building plans to ten different builders. Tom said that the finished structures would look similar but they would vary depending on the builder’s taste, the materials at hand, and the region of the world involved. The connection to my profession was irresistible. Ten different violinists, ten different violins, ten different concert halls, and therefore ten different versions of Victor’s Tango!
Our conversation reminded Tom of something written by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tze, and displayed on one of Taliesen’s walls by Lloyd Wright:
The reality of a building
Does not consist of its roof and wall
But in the space within
To be lived in!
The structure, individual parts, and minute details of Victor’s Tango— its roof and walls, so to speak—have to be dealt with, of course, but “the space within” that Lao Tze speaks of, the very essence of music, may be the most elusive and important element of a performance.
Sometimes, I feel like separating myself into two different people on stage. One of us dutifully takes care of the business of trying to play well. That person monitors tempos, shapes phrases, checks intonation, and so forth. The other me looks for a way to give the music wings—not so much by conscious thought but rather by letting go of thought altogether in order to seek, almost trancelike, that blissful if always unreachable goal of becoming the music itself. The great pianist Rudolf Serkin was asked if he had ever been entirely happy with a performance of his. Serkin answered that once, in all the innumerable times he performed music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he had felt that Mozart himself was playing. But just once!
It seems that performers can be many things—enabler, translator, storyteller, guide, midwife, scholar, architect—but we are inevitably inseparable from and equal partners with the composer. That goes for Suzy at her piano lesson as well. If by chance we should ever meet, I’ll have the following suggestion for her:
“Suzy, erase the line you drew across Bach’s name and also your name that you wrote above his. Now add a hyphen after Bach’s name and then write your own.”
Johann Sebastian Bach-Suzy.
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