One day as I was casually reading through music by Robert Schumann at the piano (one of my favorite pastimes), I found the assertive Novelette in B Minor, Op. 99, No. 2, unusually satisfying and, after playing it through, stood up and said to my mother off the cuff, “I like that; it makes me feel powerful!” Sitting back down at the piano I looked across the page at the next work in the Schumann volume, the A-flat-major Phantasiestück (Fantasy Piece), Op. 111, No. 2. I thought to myself, If the other piece makes me feel powerful, how does this one make me feel? For some reason, the word “weak” came to mind. Entering my mind uninvited, as it were, it proceeded to set up shop. Ironically, the word “weak” seemed to be more powerful than my ability to replace it with a more desirable adjective. I could handle something like “elegant,” “childlike,” or perhaps “sensitive”—but “weak”? In any case, the reason for the intrusion of this undesirable adjective does not lie on the surface. After all, the Phantasiestück is not as assertive or virtuosic as the Novelette; it is a quiet, introspective work. But this shouldn’t diminish my power. After all, the act of lifting something light does not of itself decrease a bodybuilder’s strength. However, having played through the Phantasiestück before, I knew at least subconsciously that not all is as it may appear on the surface.
To illustrate the complexity of this, let’s continue the analogy of weightlifting. Suppose that we could convert piano pieces to equivalent weights: the more difficult the music, the heavier the weight. Let’s take two divergent works as examples: “Für Elise” by Beethoven and the “Perpetual Motion” Rondo by Weber. While the latter is a glittering showpiece that bombards the gawking audience-member with a relentless barrage of blistering sixteenth notes, the former is a quiet, unassuming work, demanding no great technical prowess and considered to be among the “easiest” works Beethoven ever wrote. The million-dollar question is: Which of the two would be heavier if we could magically convert them to weights and endeavor to lift them? At this point, you may be thinking that I am going to say “Für Elise” would be the heaviest, simply because that’s not the obvious answer, and I wouldn’t have brought up the scenario had the answer been obvious. You may also be thinking that it is ridiculous to compare music to lifting weights. Nevertheless, in the weightlifting analogy, I think the Weber would be heavier—but I agree that the analogy is ridiculous. Then why did you bring up the analogy? I did so because it draws attention to our subconscious tendency to think in similar terms. We always seem to be searching for some way to measure artistic achievement, as if it were as straightforward as weightlifting.
Unfortunately, we often tend to judge artistic merit on the basis of how thrilling it is. We love a good show: the more action, the more noise, the more fireworks, the more we cheer. It’s obvious how this mindset among consumers has influenced various kinds of “popular” music, but what about “classical” music? Here, too, we see it, if in a somewhat less-pronounced way. For instance, every year, the music department at Southern Adventist University hosts a concerto competition. A handful of students are selected from the finalists to play a movement from a concerto of their choosing with the university orchestra. I’ve attended the concerts many times over the years, ever since I was a kid, and not once have I heard a student play a slow movement. In fact, when we look at the most famous concertos—the Grieg Piano Concerto, the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, etc.—we find that the outer movements (especially first movements) are much more famous than the slower, middle movements. The outer movements are flashier, and since we love a good show, they’re the ones we remember after the concert. And you don’t have to attend many concerts before you notice that audiences tend to respond with greater vehemence if the program ends with a “bang.” For instance, I once attended a rather poor performance of the Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto; but, poor as it was, it ended dramatically and the audience was on its feet. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, by contrast, was unsuccessful at its premiere—not because it was poorly played, but because it ended softly! If you want to get an encore, you have got to end with a flourish—and encores, too, are almost always virtuosic works.
However, it was an unusual encore that really began to influence my thinking on this subject. Vladimar Horowitz provided a famous exception to the “flashy encore rule” when he played Schumann’s “Träumerei” as the final encore at the historic concert that marked his return to Moscow in 1986. According to Horowitz’ record producer, Thomas Frost, “Träumerei epitomizes the powerful effect he could produce with a simple, poetic piece.” Take note of the word powerful here. Frost goes on to quote Horowitz: “‘It may look simple on the page,’ said Horowitz about Träumerei, ‘but it is a masterpiece. The idea that slow lyrical music is easy to play is a common misconception.’” And Horowitz’ performance of the work was very powerful indeed: “An audience camera caught a close-up of a man with a tear slowly running down his cheek while the audience sat enraptured in hushed silence.” This is obviously a deeper brand of power than what I joked about feeling after playing Schumann’s assertive Novelette, which is more akin to what you might feel after beating your bossy mother-in-law at a game of chess or decidedly winning the dinner table argument about politics. But the power that moves people to tears can only be accessed by the musicians who are willing to feel vulnerable. I don’t know how Horowitz felt when he played pieces like Schumann’s “Träumerei” or the “Phantasiestück” I talked about earlier—whether he felt any “weakness” like I do, but I am encouraged by a story he related to Frost:
“Then he [Horowitz] recalled an incident which supposedly took place in the famous piano class of Theodore Leschetizky in Vienna. It seems that a young virtuoso came to town and, upon being asked to play for the class, stunned everyone with a phenomenal display of virtuosity. The most difficult music seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingers. He kept this up for quite some time without as much as a drop of perspiration on his brow. When he had finished the astonishing performance, someone wistfully asked that he play a simple piece by Schumann, such as Träumerei. Obligingly, the young virtuoso complied. After four bars he was perspiring profusely.”
This is what I like to call the “power of paradox,” a phrase coined by singer-songwriter Michael Card (albeit in a different context). The piece is simple and lyrical, yet difficult to play; I feel powerful and in control when I play dramatic, virtuosic music—provided I’ve practiced enough, but I often feel weak and vulnerable when I play simple, lyrical music. No amount of rehearsing can fully eliminate that feeling. One reason for the vulnerable feeling is that relatively small blunders can really mess up the general effect of something like“Träumerei.” Small blunders are not nearly as big a deal in most of, say, Rachmaninoff’s music, as they tend to fade into the great washes of virtuosic sound. Yet there is a still-deeper level to this vulnerability. Schumann’s music seems unusually personal, and came from the heart of a deeply troubled man who attempted suicide and was thereafter committed to an asylum. Thus his music often reflects a certain anxiety and struggle, a split personality, sometimes a sense of resignation, and yet often a profound since of nobility, of serenity and peace that Schumann must have deeply desired. Schumann’s music is tied to the human condition, and when we perform or even simply listen to his music, I like to think we feel some of the same vulnerability that Schumann himself did when he wrote it.
That can make us uncomfortable, whether we’re the people playing the music or just listening to it. For me, playing something like “Träumerei” at a concert is a bit like opening up and telling people something very personal about myself. That’s hard for me, not because the words themselves are difficult to utter, but because, like it or not, I’m afraid of what people might think of my inmost thoughts and feelings—and I’m afraid that I’ll fail to express them adequately. But when I have been willing to be open and vulnerable about what I think and feel and struggle with, people almost always respond warmly. They say things like “Thank you for being open” and “I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who felt that way”; sometimes they cry. It immediately breaks through the thin façade of “everything’s fine” that we feel obliged to put up around ourselves, and we instantly feel closer to one another. Music can do the same thing for us on a level that words can’t always reach, if we’re willing to pay attention to the music that expresses itself in the simplest, most unadorned, and, yes, most vulnerable way—music that doesn’t really seem to be trying to be or do accomplish anything in particular, nor even seem to offer any obvious “reasons” for its existence; music that seems to simply say, “This is who I am.”
Yes, in our tendency judge music and musicians on the basis of virtuosity and charisma we often miss the boat. It’s the immeasurable aspects of music—the heart and soul—that truly make it meaningful. It’s an enigma, really—almost like magic. And since we want something concrete, that’s hard for us to accept. But when we have the courage to try—the courage to be open, we find that it’s infinitely worth it.