Gordon Willis

Piano recitals, and Brahms the demon possessor

27 Sep 2015 Article

Yesterday took place the second of what is intended to be an annual recital given by some of my students. Last year, I presented only my more advanced students, as a trial run, and as a sort of advertisement to draw the attention of all my students and their families to the fact that piano-practice can actually be meaningful in the real world. This year, I made room for some of the younger ones too, with very positive results.

For years I have wanted to provide a better opportunity than an annual music-party for my students to exhibit their talents in a safe environment, and a local church has recently and very kindly allowed us to put on our concerts free of charge (the audience are simply asked to donate: it's a 12th-century building that is hungry for upkeep). Yesterday, all the students, from the youngest to the oldest, acquitted themselves very well and made me very proud. Also, instead of being dedicated entirely to solo piano, we were honoured by a talented young clarinettist of just 16 who performed the last movement of Brahms's first clarinet sonata in a very musical and even professional manner.

The point of this is to say how important it is for young music-students to have an opportunity to perform in public, and especially to have an aim beyond mere examinations. Not only does it help to introduce them gently into the real world of music-making, and to show them that piano-practice isn't an isolated activity that relates to nothing else in their lives (and this can more easily happen with piano-playing than with almost any other instrument, such a lonely activity as it so often is), but it also encourages their parents to take their children's music-making more seriously, to better appreciate the value of the tremendous skills that their children are busily (one hopes!) and at considerable expense acquiring. Everyone sees that their investment of time or of money is positive and valuable in itself, everyone is proud to participate or to see their little ones up there with other children and doing so well. It reminds me that music-making isn't just a matter of entertainment but a social activity of incalculable value.

As my own contribution to the recital, I accompanied our young clarinettist. The piano part is very difficult. What strikes me most about it is how -- and I have experienced this with other works of Brahms -- one cannot help but feel that for the moment one somehow is Brahms! I mean that his highly personal way of using the keyboard somehow takes possession of one, and his fabulous musical intellect becomes one's own mind, in a way that I have experienced so completely with no other composer except Bach and Beethoven. You might expect me to say the same of Chopin, but I can't, though this might only be because I experience a deep antipathy to Chopin's romanticism. One of my favourite composers, Haydn, writes as though the keyboard is not quite natural to him, even though he writes, as he always does, with great sympathy for the performer, and this is true of many other composers, at least for me.

Somehow, with Brahms I experience a more intimate bond, as though I had become an extension of his keyboard, moving my arms and fingers in response to something deeply internal and inseparable from the layout and mechanism of the instrument. Thus the enormous demands that he makes come simply from his own superbly natural relationship with his instrument, and perhaps this is why I feel peculiarly bound to this long-dead composer, as though he were living again. I don't know whether other people have experienced this somewhat numinous and shivery sense of possession.

It would be nice to know how other people feel, and which composers they most feel bonded to, if at all, when they play. I'd also like to know how players of other instruments feel: for example, Bach's deep understanding of string-playing must surely resonate with violinists. My daughter, who is a singer, tells me that she responds to the vocal writing of Massenet in a similar way, and I have sometimes felt this when singing Handel and not at all when singing Mozart. Clearly this whole thing is subjective and personal, but it is surely important as an extension of human relationship.



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