I’ve spent the past week teaching a piano course in the south of France. Stormy weather accompanied our music-making, and the temperatures were unseasonally low, though we were sometimes grateful that cooler weather made it easier to work.
My class of pianists was a very interesting group to teach. All of them have demanding day jobs, but have managed to keep piano playing as a serious hobby, if ‘hobby’ is not too light a word for an activity which clearly means so much to many of them. Despite being short of time to practise, they all contrive to make time for the piano, and indeed claimed that playing the piano brings essential balance to their lives. They get up early to play, stay up late, and have sometimes managed to have pianos delivered to unusual and far-flung workplaces so that they can continue to play in the lull between meetings or other exciting events. Many of them devote some holiday time to attending piano courses. We had some interesting discussions about the best way to practise if you are ‘time-poor’, as many of them are.
Participants had brought libraries of music for piano duet (four hands at one piano) or piano duo (four hands at two pianos) and even more – six hands, eight hands and so on. These duets were played late into the night. We were reminded that back in the nineteenth century, before the age of recording, transcriptions of orchestral or chamber works for piano duet were a standard way of getting to know this music. Many music-lovers only knew these works as piano duets, as opportunities to hear a live orchestral concert may have been rare in their home town. In fact, I had brought along an old 19th-century edition of some Schumann solo piano music, and when I got it out during the week to practise it for a concert, I noticed for the first time that the title page described it as a work ‘for two hands at the piano’. The fact that a publisher thought it worth stating that only two hands were involved seemed to indicate that it was very common back then to buy piano music for multiple players. These days, no publisher would think it necessary to state that a new piano piece was for two hands.
It is always a pleasure to teach people so highly motivated. They are hungry for information, and they know how to deal with it when they get it. You can see appreciable change during the week. And when things go well for them in performance, their success is greeted with genuine and uncomplicated enthusiasm by the rest of the group. I remarked on this, and was told that I was not the first visiting tutor to comment on how different this is from some professional scenarios.
I’ve just been alerted to the fact that on Saturday 19 July, from 2-4pm, Radio 3 is repeating my episode of ‘Saturday Classics’, in which I choose music of personal significance and talk about the reasons for my selections before they’re played.
I seem to remember that when the programme first aired, in May last year, an awful lot of people wrote to say they’d missed it for one reason and another, so I hope that it may be possible for them to catch up with the programme this time (though perhaps that is a vain hope in fine weather). I’m quite intrigued myself, because at this distance I find I can’t recall all the musical choices I made. Would I choose different music now? Well, maybe I’d update my choices with music which has made an impact on me during the year. But some old favourites are evergreen.
Tune in on Saturday afternoon at 2pm. As before, ‘Saturday Classics’ will be available on iPlayer for a week afterwards. More information about the programme here.
I went to a wine and cheese tasting session the other night in an atmospheric old building in Edinburgh. All the cheeses were made in Scotland. The evening was fun, but over rather quickly. One wine followed hard on the heels of another and I rather wished there had been some way of creating pauses between the tastings – with some gentle folk music, perhaps, for us to listen to as the sun went down. A Scottish singer, a harp or clarsach, a Highland violinist or two – that would have been a delightful way of complementing the wines and cheeses, as well as separating them enough that we could digest them and let the taste linger before moving on to the next.
So when the organisers asked, at the end of the evening, if anyone had any suggestions for improvements that could be made to the next such session, I popped up with my idea of introducing some live music between the tastings. The organiser’s reaction was interesting. ‘Oh no – that wouldn’t go down at all well with our neighbours!’ he said with a smile. ‘They wouldn’t thank us for keeping them awake late into the night with loud music.’
Who said anything about loud music? I didn’t. I had been thinking of something intimate, something full of character and history, to fit with the old building. I suppose I’d been imagining the traditional music equivalent of freshly made goat’s cheese, soft and piquant. I was surprised by the assumption that live music meant loud music. The two are not necessarily linked, of course, unless amplification is used. In the kind of music I like to play (and hear), the music is only loud when the composer calls for it to be loud, which is only now and then, and only in contrast to quiet music. I hope people aren’t starting to think that live music is synonymous with loud music – it’s not!
Although I take no interest in tennis the rest of the year, when this time of year rolls around I suddenly get very involved in watching tennis from the Wimbledon Championships. I become so interested that I wonder why I don’t continue to follow the fortunes of these players as they move off to other tournaments in other parts of the world. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that the players have to wear white at Wimbledon. When I happen to catch a televised match from, say, Australia or the US, where players might appear on a clay court in black knee-length shorts, a sleeveless blue t-shirt and red trainers, I feel curiously disappointed, even though the tennis is just as good. The lush green grass of Wimbledon is a factor in its favour. Crisp whites moving against fresh green … it’s soothing.
At this point in the tournament, commentators start to talk about who is ‘seeing the ball’ better than others. This is one of those observations that clearly has a lot behind it. All the players must see the ball extremely well, or they wouldn’t be there, but it’s true that some appear to react in a way that suggests enhanced ‘vision’, if that is the right word. I’ve heard sports people of different kinds talk about ‘seeing the ball very big’. I’ve heard them suggest that when they’re playing really well, they see the ball so big that they felt they couldn’t miss it. When things are going badly, the ball can appear to be smaller than it really is. The size of the ball is clearly a matter of perception rather than ‘seeing’ as we know it.
All this fascinates me because of the correlations with playing music with other people. No sportsman myself, I nevertheless feel I know exactly what they mean by ‘seeing the ball big’. It’s that feeling you get when you’re performing, when you’re ‘in the zone’, when you feel you have all the time in the world to react appropriately to any signal or action lobbed your way by one of the other players. You can sense when something’s going wrong and adjust. You can sense when something’s going to go differently all of a sudden. You can rise to the occasion when things go better than they ever have before. You become hyper-sensitive to other people’s modes of expression, to the point where you feel nothing can surprise you. Whatever happens, you have plenty of time to react. This is a very enjoyable feeling, but (in my experience at least) not one that you can consciously bring into being, except by being very prepared, and open to new information. I suppose that is one of the points of doing the preparation: so that you have a better chance of seeing the notes big.
Now back from the Gaudier Ensemble’s festival, I’m preparing an all-Schumann recital programme for the Aspect Foundation at Leighton House in London on June 25. The Aspect Foundation aims to expand listeners’ experience of concerts by inviting historians and musicologists to put the music in context after it’s been played – telling us things about its historical, literary or artistic background.
On this occasion it’s a double-act for me and Bob – me playing the piano, and Bob exploring Schumann’s literary influences. Schumann, the son of a bookseller, was an avid reader from an early age. His favourite novelist was the now-virtually-forgotten Jean Paul Richter, known simply as ‘Jean Paul’, and hugely popular in Schumann’s day. All Schumann’s friends were familiar with Jean Paul’s novels, and in fact Mendelssohn’s wife Cecilie was so caught up with them that Mendelssohn had to ask her to stop reading them at the dinner table.
Schumann himself said that he had learned more about counterpoint from Jean Paul than from any composition teacher. This has generally been taken to refer to Jean Paul’s obsession with dual characters who represent different aspects of the same person. Immersing himself in this world of extroverts vying with introverts, men of action set against poets and dreamers, people followed by their ‘shadow’, seems to have given Schumann the freedom to express the wild volatility in his own character, rather than reining it in. The contradictions in his own nature were given fantastical outward form by two invented characters ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’ (one impulsive, the other thoughtful) and in fact his first piano sonata was published as being ‘by’ them. It was a bold step for a young composer to withhold his own name and publish a major work in the name of two imaginary friends.
Next Wednesday I’ll be playing Schumann’s ‘Papillons’, and his ‘Davidsbuendlertanze’ – two different piano cycles linked by various themes and ideas. In both, Schumann seems to struggle with contrasting ‘voices’, each gaining the upper hand at different times. It all turns out to be linked to an important scene in his favourite novel. Are we meant to know that? Unsurprisingly, it’s not clear. He told his friends, and some editions of the piano music have indications of his extra-musical inspirations, but others do not. Clearly Schumann wanted the music to stand on its own, but I find that it adds something special to know about the literary origins of his turbulent mood changes.