THE ETHIC OF THE PERFORMING ARTIST
A LECTURE GIVEN BY MARTIN BERKOFSKY AT THE HARRIET KATZMAN LEVINE MASTER CLASS; 2 APRIL, 1991, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY
I understand that almost all of you here are musicians and I would like to share with you my good feelings to say how fortunate you are, how lucky you-we all are to be part of this life of creating beauty, giving it to others, and dedicating our efforts to making a more beautiful world.
I confess to being a bit ill-at-ease standing here offering to speak about a life in music when by accepted standards I've only lived half of a musical life. Therefore I don't feel qualified to lecture as an expert on music's tried and true formulas, but rather, I'm inspired to share my thoughts and experiences with you as a fellow searcher trying to divine and even briefly understand that remarkable phenomenon which we call art, beauty, inspiration, truth.
It seems not out of sorts at this moment to call up a rather humorous but true story illustrating how not to approach our goals: An unnamed maestro in one of our famous institutions was approached one day by a security guard calling the cigar-puffing virtuoso's attention to a large and conspicuously placed "NO SMOKING" interdiction. The blustered response to the guard's meek request to abate the fumes, "Do you know who I am," brought the innocent but perfectly placed rejoinder: "No."
The composer Alan Hovhaness once wistfully remarked that all musicians should study astronomy in order to more accurately survey their own insignificance against the magnitude of the universe. Taking this one step further, I imagine that everyone at one point in his or her upbringing has mused over the eternal paradox of "Where does the universe end and if it ends what's on the other side and where does that end and what's on the other side of that but how can it just go on forever without ending," and so on and so on. So much for the finiteness of human thought capacity. We just don't know it all and we were never meant to know it all.
Artur Schnabel remarked simply that music was better than it could be played, and Busoni, discoursing over transcriptions in so many words said that music was better than it could be written. To pick up where Busoni left off, I suppose it boils down to some fairly basic principles: music as well as the other arts is not only an amplification of all the good qualities of earthly aspirations but in fact also attempts to approach and even briefly contact that which is above the ordinary human experience; that which enlightens, inspires, brings understanding and transforms us to higher planes of being.
Pianist Jorge Bolet once complained in the most delightfully grouchy manner about the "Urtext Gang" when he was trying to illustrate a certain creative freedom in his performances. His remarks brought to mind that bothersome question of whether we as performers are just interpreters or full-fledged creators. There are those who would claim that we are to play a work "the composer's way" and not add, delete, or change anything on the revered page. But indeed, just what is the composer's way anyhow and how much does that revered page really tell us?
To be certain, a composer works with these creative variables: pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, form, counterpoint, architecture, orchestration, instrumentation, plus some basic suggestions concerning dynamics, phrasing, articulation, tempo, and general mood or characteristics. That's a pretty good jumping-off place for determining our own responsibilities.
You don't play a Beethoven piano sonata without having at least sight-read through the other thirty-one and without a decent acquaintance with Mozart and Haydn, Romaine Rolland, Beethoven's letters, and a half-decent idea of European history. And if you've lived your life as an able-bodied and comfortable being spent in the company of similar beings you may find it difficult to capture that ethic of superhuman striving in Beethoven's works. On the other hand, some surroundings of material security and ease might put you more at rest with Mendelssohn if that's what you would prefer.
Well, those things are all a bit of conjecture, for we are aware that monsters like Wagner have created great works and decent sorts like Czerny have not. It probably makes more sense to deal with the concrete and definable.
In trying to come to terms with those concrete aspects of a performer's art, I would like to speak specifically of solo players as opposed to orchestral musicians who more often than not have to take their orders from headquarters. A solo player has first to develop a sense of self-awareness: that he is unique and one-of-a-kind. While it is necessary to learn from the performances of others and to have a solid understanding of history and so-called tradition (I say so-called because tradition at times can be misinterpreted in the form of a death-mask,) it is necessary to comprehend that trying to perform a certain work exactly the same way as famous performer X, Y, or Z, makes about as much sense as expecting Bach, Chopin, or Shostakovitch to compose a prelude in exactly the same way. We can admire and even revere but we can't copy.
It is not really that difficult to begin this process of self-awareness. One could, for instance study a score and ask "If I went to somebody else's concert (usually your worst enemy,) and heard his or her performance of this piece, how would I like it to sound?" I suppose that's a bit of a silly trick to play on ourselves but there is a great truth in the fact that we more easily and more energetically criticise the performance of another before we perform the same operation on ourselves. More pertinent questions might take such forms as "What does this work mean and what of value do I have to say to the world through it?" I have to assume here that all solo artists believe they have something important to say to the world or they wouldn't want to be soloists in the first place.
Back to the "Urtext Gang." If for example you look at an unedited Beethoven score, you'll see some indications of dynamics-forte, piano, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano, pianissimo, fortissimo. But aren't these only a fractional indication of the range of dynamics that one should really employ? Should there not be at least five levels of dynamics between pianissimo and piano, piano and mezzo-piano, etc? A thorough practitioner of his or her instrument should have at least twenty-five or thirty different levels of dynamics available in his or her technical arsenal and be ready and comfortable in producing them when the music, which is a living organism in constant state of flux, requires. Crescendi and the more difficult and less successfully experienced decrescendi are learned techniques whose proportions have to be a practised attribute. Most of us fall into the old trap of immediately playing loudly when we are confronted by the crescendo sign or instantly dropping to a whisper upon encountering the decrescendo.
The Urtext gives few if any clues how to handle polyphonic dynamics. Artur Schnabel attempted an exploration of these problems through pianists' eyes theorizing that the soprano melodic line often had prominence; the bass, secondary supporting importance; and the remaining inner voices be played at minimum level. He realized that this melodic and harmonic pecking order could easily be inverted or reversed according to the needs of the immediate construction of the music. Ideally, each single line whether of a piano composition or an ensemble or chamber work should be under completely independent control: if it be necessary to make a crescendo in the soprano line, produce a decrescendo in the bass, play the alto mezzo-piano and the tenor pianissimo, we as performers should have the curiosity to search out these situations, the means to meet them, and the will to solve them.
Concerning musical problem-solving, I hope you won't mind a funny story about my own experiences: for two summers I learned chamber music with Hermann Busch at the Marlboro Festival. Invariably in the middle of a passage he would stop. I had come to know that this was the signal that I had played a phrase most unmusically. There was the ever-friendly plea: "Please sing that phrase." I would always comply with the request with the predictable result: "Now please play it exactly that way." It always worked. He was always right.
Later the full truth dawned on me. Every single thing in music is a natural occurrence. Nuance was not invented and is not dictated. We need only to search to discover what has always been there.
I don't mean to give the idea that such problem solving is always an easy or instant process. If we are constantly searching, the process invariably leads us through many false first ideas. A colleague from Belgrade by way of comic illumination once related the following anecdote: it seems that his colleague visited London for the very first time. He was extremely impressed with the beautifully manicured green lawns and inquired of the parkskeeper how the foliage had been so well developed. "Its quite simple," came the explanation. "You water every day, fertilise, and trim. And you just keep doing that every day for 300 years."
I apologize if I have in any way demeaned the Urtext, because it is the source from where we must begin to form our own thoughts. I've only meant to discourage the idea that an Urtext is the do-all and end-all and within itself gives a complete formula. Naturally, studying any work from an edited source without first consulting the unedited will invariably give an altered impression, and even Artur Schnabel whose edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas is a singular document of high and inspired thought, cautioned others to take his editorializing only as an example of to what extent they themselves had to produce original and scholarly observation.
A quality to which we refer often but to which no edition, original or altered, can give us any clue, is colour. Vocalists are said to have a good or bad voice, wind players a "sound," string performers and pianists a "tone," either acceptable or unacceptable. Tone, voice, sound, colour, however you call it, is not a quality either positive or negative, switched on or off; but rather a creative variable. The technically-minded, I am sure, could well lecture on the particular phenomena governing overtones, harmonics, and sine-waves in relation to timbre, but to me as a pianist, there rests the self-conscious awareness that each composer and indeed each various division of that composer's catalogue, will require an appropriate set of colours, and that my task will be to find the right combination of pulleys, weights, and angles of the elbow to produce those sounds-and to monitor and feedback the changing acoustics from hall to hall and instrument to instrument. "Tone is technique and technique is tone," as Heinrich Neuhaus wrote, and I can't imagine how to say that any better than he did.
There's a question of pacing and its big brother, rhythmic architecture. Schnabel rightly said that rhythm is not arithmetic and by example both in his editing and his recordings showed how breathing, pausing, speeding up, compressing or expanding a moment or passage could radically bring the static to life. The most meaningful ways of moulding lines are not always immediately self-evident and I imagine that just as a fine actor has to experiment countless times over bending and shaping strings of words until the accentuation and emphasis fall on the right syllables, we musicians likewise usually go through the "first-ninety-nine-times-wrong" syndrome before an acceptable shape materialises.
Temperament, that ability to draw on countless reserves of energy, a willingness to get involved, to take chances, is that quality-if Ted Lettvin doesn't mind my borrowing a phrase-that distinguishes the aesthetic from the anesthetic. It certainly is no secret to anyone that no amount of intellectualizing or calculating will ever substitute for just plain honest feelings. Neuhaus went so far as to say that he even suspected characterless players of being characterless people.
There's another word that we won't find on the printed page-inspiration. And here I would like to stop boring you with discussions of what everybody already knows, and instead, try to search out a process that I've never really completely understood myself. I imagine that everyone here has at one time or another in their performing lives played something in the most remarkably beautiful and moving way. It was probably something that didn't show itself before in practise or rehearsal and could never again be recaptured or repeated.
A remarkable book, "Talks with Great Composers," attempts to explore the workings of inspiration. The author, Arthur Abell, was an American living in Europe around the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries and was the European musical correspondant for several of our journals and dailies. He interviewed, among others Brahms-in the last few years of the composer's life, Richard Strauss, and Max Bruch, questioning each in rather disarming detail about the source of their creative powers. The most penetrating revelations were claimed to have come from Brahms who in return for his disclosures made Abell promise not to publish his volume until fifty years after the composer's death. The promise was kept.
In their discussions, Abell and Brahms were joined by Joachim, and the trio traded their experiences. Brahms volunteered that he had to be totally isolated when composing, that he went into an almost trance-like state which he could easily lose if the solitude were violated. Brahms tried to explain how he had to appropriate a power outside of himself in order to receive his ideas.
The discussions took on a religious and mystical turn when Brahms, in theorizing how his appropriation of this power outside of himself took place, attempted to draw parallels with such miraculous events as Christ's walking on water or turning water into wine. Arthur Abell interrupted with a tale from his home town of Norwalk, Connecticut, recalling the feat of a local spiritualist-levitator, one Daniel Home, who actually raised himself up into the air and floated out, through, and back into a window before settling to the ground.
The theory finally generated by the three was that Christ did not just walk upon the water, but by appropriation of a higher power, "the Father within me," levitated himself above the water's surface. In conclusion, there was general agreement that an individual lacking in humility to ask for and accept higher influence, most likely lacked the ability to create any real art of potential inspiration or substantial spiritual value.
If left unchecked, I'm afraid I might endlessly go on trying to dissect the elements of performance, but it is not my intention to do so about things which I myself would like yet another half-century to crystallise.
Were I to attempt to come to terms with at least one possible conclusion from all of this, though, then it would be an attempt to define the role, responsibility, and path of the performing musician. Our simple job is to bring beauty and inspiration to others and to do this through the most honest and humble search to find these qualities within our unique selves and then within our unique work; to painstakingly increase our knowledge and to refine and re-refine our results until we are certain that until some new enlightenment falls to us, we have done the best that we possibly can; and that as in any human endeavour which attempts to transcend its mortal bounds, we always know that we still do not know.
Thank you for listening and my best wishes for the highest success in your work.