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Library notes

Behind Heifetz’s crooked smile; Gould’s Last Resort practice technique; Auer on truth and beauty; Leopold Mozart pits orchestral players against soloists; and the problem with music colleges

I spent a day at the Barbican Music Library last week, scouring artists’ autobiographies for quotations about their own sense of mortality and age for my next BBC Music Magazine article, and (being on deadline) I couldn’t help but be distracted by all the, well, books. So I thought I’d share a few random but interesting quotes I came across along the way.

Behind Heifetz’s crooked smile

I’ve never subscribed to the calumny that Heifetz’s playing is cold (just shut your eyes and listen, for Pete’s sake) but there is certainly a froideur to his demeanour while playing, especially when compared with today’s movers and shakers. Ayke Agus originally studied with him as a violinist and went on to collaborate with him as a pianist for many years, including at the end of his life. Her book Heifetz as I Knew Him therefore offers special insight, and her description is pretty heartbreaking – although probably applies to many musical prodigies.

Heifetz laughs: some time time between 1915 and 1920. Photo: Bain Collection, Library of Congress

‘As do many musicians who spend their lives practising the minutest details, Heifetz tended to take everything seriously. He knew no measure of big or small, and that included even small talk. His wry humor was mostly derived from real-life situations, and he had no appreciation of or talent for wisecracks. As a true performer who considered it his job to make his audiences emote without showing his own feelings, Heifetz never laughed at his own jokes or stories, only sometimes cracked a crooked smile. It was difficult for him to adapt to the formulas and assumptions of society, and he didn’t have to look hard to find the false notes and the insincerity in his fellow human beings. He always had to probe and find the brute beneath the thin veneer of civilisation, then prick the balloons of inflated egos and generally make a pest of himself. In turn, society looked at this strange person with apprehension and a jaundiced eye, always suspecting that Heifetz really didn’t belong there, yet kowtowing to him because he was a world-famous celebrity. In his younger years he liked to believe in the sincerity of this adulation, but he wasn’t surprised when he found himself more and more isolated in proportion to his exit from the limelight. After he retired and retreated into his own world, he had to come to the realisation that some of those whom he trusted as his friends began to consider him a “has-been” and were reluctant to respond to his summons. In the past he had conditioned himself quite well to face the “two imposters,” Triumph and Disaster, represented for him by success and failure, but he wasn‘t quite ready in his old age to face a new set of imposters, the most devastating ones, abandonment and despair.’

The Last Resort: Glenn Gould’s special practice technique

In Glenn Gould: Music and Mind, Geoffrey Payzant recounts what may be a useful practice technique that Glenn Gould developed. Gould describes having a ‘tactile’ block while learning a particular sequence of notes. His first idea is to blast two radios, or a radio and a television, while practising those notes, unable to hear himself for the noise, only able to feel the notes themselves. He realises that this isn’t enough so he adds another stage:

‘I was separating, at this point, my areas of concentration, and to such an extent that I realized that that in itself would not break the chain of reaction. (It had already begun to make its mark, the problem had begun to disappear. The fact that you couldn’t hear yourself, that there wasn't audible evidence of your failure, was already a step in the right direction.) But I realised that I had to do something more than that.Now, in this variation, the left hand has at that moment a rather uninspired sequence of four notes, the third of which is tied over the bar line. There’s not too much you can do with those four notes… I played them as unmusically as possible. In fact the more unmusical the better, because it took more concentration to produce unmusical sounds, and I must say I was extremely successful in that endeavour. In any event, during this time my concentration was exclusively on the left hand — I’d virtually forgotten about the right — and I did this at varying tempi and kept the radios going, and then came… the moment. I switched off the radios and thought: I don’t think I’m ready for this… need a cup of coffee, made a few other excuses, and then finally sat down. The block was gone. And now, every once in a while, just for the hell of it, I sit down and do that passage to see if the block’s still gone. It still is, and it became one of my favorite concert pieces.’

Truth and beauty according to Leopold Auer

In his beautifully written and succint little teaching book from 1921, Violin Playing As I Teach It, Leopold Auer – who knows whereof he speaks, having taught the likes of Heifetz, Elman, Seidel, Zimbalist and Parlow, among others – offers plenty of insight. Regarding questions of style, he is not enthusiastic about what we might now call ‘historically informed performance’. He writes:

‘Beauty and not tradition is the touchstone of all style. And what may be beauty in style during the eighteenth century is not necessarily that in the twentieth. I have no respect for that much-abused word “tradition” in the sense in which it is largely used. If respect for tradition were carried to its logical conclusion, we should still be living in the Stone Age, doing as our forefathers had done before us. Tradition in music, as in all else, is the antithesis of progress, it is the letter which kills the living spirit. The truth of one age is bound to be modified by the events of another, for truth is progressive. The aesthetic truth of one period – the interpretative truth of one generation – may be accounted a falsehood by the tenets of the next. For each age sets its own standards, forms its own judgments.’

However, in Auer’s conception, authenticity is relative to the composer, an idea which, maybe having come full circle, is actually quite modern:

One tradition only do I recognise – that it is the function of the artist to enter into the spirit of a composition, and reveal to us the intentions of its composer. The musical message of the composer, the true spirit of his inspiration, the soul of his music – that is what we are interested in. Though no two great artists now playing before the public interpret the Bach Chaconne, let us say, in exactly the same manner – yet hearing either the one or the other, at different times, we may nevertheless feel that the true inwardness of Bach’s music has been presented to us in each case. And what more can we ask? Are we to deny the beauty of their interpretation, which we hear, by which we are moved, because someone who has never heard Spohr himself play the same work, but who has carefully collected statistical evidence to establish his “traditional” rendering, explains that Spohr's interpretation must be considered the only vital one, being “traditional”?

If the artist has entered fully into the spirit of the composition he is playing, and if we accept his reading of its spirit, if as it sounds from his strings, we feel its truth, its beauty, its poetry, then it has been read aright, and we ask no more. And the artist who accomplishes this has solved the question of musical style.’

Leopold Mozart – orchestral violinists vs soloists

In another seminal teaching book, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, Wolfgang’s father Leopold rather grouchily explains why orchestral violinists are actually better than great virtuosos. Sounding as fresh as if he had been writing today, rather than in 1755, he argues:

‘Decide now for yourself whether a good orchestral violinist be not of far higher value than one who is purely a solo player? The latter can play everything according to his whim and arrange the style of performance as he wishes, or even for the convenience of his hand; while the former must possess the dexterity to understand and at once interpret rightly the taste of various composers, their thoughts and expressions. The latter need only practise at home in order to get everything well in tune, and others must accommodate themselves to him. But the former has to play everything at sight and, added to that, often such passages as go against the natural order of the time-division, and he has, mostly, to accommodate himself to others. A solo player can, without great understanding of music, usually play his concertos tolerably – yea, even with distinction – but a good orchestral violinist must have great insight into the whole art of musical composition and into the difference of the characteristics; yea, he must have a specially lively adroitness to be prominent in his calling with honour, in particular if he wishes in time to become the leader of an orchestra. Perhaps there are, however, some who believe that more good orchestral violinists are to be found than solo players. They are mistaken. Of bad accompanists there are certainly enough; of good, on the other hand, but few; for nowadays all wish to play solo. But what an orchestra is like which is composed entirely of solo players, I leave to be answered by the composers whose music has been performed by them. Few solo players read well, because they are accustomed to insert something of their own fantasy at all times, and to look after themselves only, and but rarely after others.’

John Georgiadis: music colleges are a waste of time

More than 200 years after Leopold Mozart, the late John Georgiadis, former LSO concertmaster, sees the same problem, and has harsh (but fair, I think) words for music colleges in his frank autobiography, From Bow to Baton:

‘The music college institutions have often been criticised for the level of mediocrity that has issued forth from their doors, when each year a new batch of ill-prepared young musicians is unleashed upon the profession. It doesn’t matter too much as the talented ones will find their way through anyway, but it seems such a waste of time and money that these institutions appeared to channel their resources in the wrong direction. Whilst it is great to keep alive the belief, throughout our three or four years as students, that we are all going to be international soloists, it doesn’t make too much sense when done at the expense of reality. Perhaps it’s because the majority of musicians teaching at these institutions, particularly in the strings, are often there to avoid playing in orchestras, something they probably personally dislike. As a result, their teaching is geared to the world of solo and chamber music work and very little is done about the real world of orchestral music.’


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