A gift arrives from America: a pianist colleague has kindly sent me Barbara Alex’s handsome new book about Hungarian piano professor Gyorgy Sebok, who died in 1999. Like all Sebok’s former students, I love to be reminded of how he spoke. He had a gift for aphorism which I’ve never heard equalled, but that doesn’t do him justice; what I mean is that he had a genius for insight and was able to express it with memorable pungency.
Barbara Alex’s book is really a collection of Sebok’s wise sayings, elegantly displayed on the pages with the help of some imaginative typography. It’s rather like reading a collection of Zen proverbs, and indeed there are things in common between the two. ‘Play the contents and not the container’, Sebok said. ‘Teaching freedom is a self-defeating thing, because one has to become free. That cannot be taught. It is the learner’s job.’ ‘Don’t concentrate, but rather be concentrated by the music.’ ‘To play louder, you must hear more.’ ‘You cannot play now and think later.’ ‘Music is understanding in action.’
Such remarks were great when they arose naturally in the course of a lesson, and were often said with a twinkle in the eye. When I read the isolated comments in the book, I can’t help wondering how they will strike people coming to them ‘cold’. Will Sebok’s remarks, pinned to the page like rare butterflies, seem enlightening or tantalisingly enigmatic?
The final concert of the Gaudier Ensemble’s Cerne Abbas Music Festival, in which I took part, featured one of my favourite pieces of chamber music, the Clarinet Quintet of Mozart. There was a surprise this time. Clarinettist Richard Hosford has an instrument which he recently had re-built to emulate the clarinet of Anton Stadler, whose playing inspired Mozart to compose the quintet. With the help of a wind instrument maker of the day, Stadler had modified his clarinet, extending the length by several inches in order to add a few more notes at the bottom of the range. Nobody seems to know for sure, but there are passages in the Mozart quintet which probably incorporated longer runs and arpeggios than are possible on the ordinary clarinet. Richard Hosford played them on his ‘basset clarinet’ and we heard some deep bass notes we’d never heard before. It was startling because of the way these deep notes combined with the chords of the string players to produce new voicings. In the photo Richard is holding the modified ‘Stadler’ clarinet.
I’ve been rehearsing tangos by Astor Piazzolla for a late-night concert tonight. As I don’t play this kind of music very often (more’s the pity), I got in the mood by listening to a number of recordings by Piazzolla himself.
Without the sound of a genuine Argentinian tango ensemble in my ear, I couldn’t make much sense of the piano part. I was very aware of the amount of information not contained in the printed notes. No instructions are given about the style of ‘attack’ or the type of sound required to conjure up the tango clubs of Buenos Aires. When you’ve heard this music played by experts, you know what’s needed, but what if you haven’t? Just playing what’s on the page, using Western classical technique, keeps you at arm’s length from the right sound. In particular, the amount of ‘oomph’ required, the degree of emphasis in the articulation, is something that you have to hear to believe. The composer doesn’t say a word about it in the score. No doubt he can hardly imagine that anyone wanting to play his tangos will be ignorant of how they’re supposed to go.
The experience has made me wonder about all the music I play from different centuries and different composers who no doubt thought that ‘the right way to do it’ was totally obvious – not realising that there would be times and places when people didn’t know, and wouldn’t be able to retrieve the information from the score alone.
I’ve always been fascinated by Ravel’s remark, when a friend asked how he was getting on with composing his Piano Trio, that he had finished it, and all he needed to do was to invent the themes. This seems to indicate that the structure and the inner shapes must have been crystal clear in his head before he found the notes.
Right now I’m re-reading Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’. The translator, Alan Russell, comments in his preface that Flaubert was an inveterate polisher of his prose, working for ages to create the right rhythm for his sentences. As Flaubert neared the end of ‘Madame Bovary’, he commented that he could hear ‘the fall of the phrases’ for pages ahead, before he actually had the words. As a musician, I find this quite haunting to imagine.
Chatting with a friend about how long a certain car journey would take, I guessed that it would take x hours, and my friend replied, ‘Well, it only takes me y hours, but then I know the roads, so I whiz along.’
People often say that kind of thing, and I never really understand the link between ‘I know the roads’ and ‘I whiz along.’ There are plenty of roads that I know well, too, but it doesn’t make any difference to how fast I drive, which is determined by other things, like traffic conditions.
It strikes me as a bit like saying, ‘I know the music well, so I play it faster.’