What are the tell-tale signs of a great pianist? Or especially one of genius?
Artur Schopenhauer, one of only two German philosophers who could write intelligible prose (Nietzsche is the other), produced the best explanation of the difference between talent and genius:
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Applying this adage to pianists, I’ve heard quite a few extremely talented ones. Why, I’m even married to one of them.
But, in about 60 years of listening to music, I’ve heard only one pianist – actually only one instrumentalist – who always hit targets no one could see: Glenn Gould.
Some sublime pianists (one could think of Schnabel, Gieseking, Yudina, Richter, Gilels and a few others) could occasionally approach that level at their best.
However, Gould lived on that level and never descended from it. His playing was never short of genius – even on those rare occasions when he played badly, which all serious musicians do from time to time. However, as another great pianist, Sofronitsky, once said: “You can play badly by accident, but you can’t play well by accident.”
In other words, playing well – and Sofronitsky’s ‘well’ meant near-genius – involves more than just a flash of inspiration. That alone wouldn’t raise a mediocrity into the rarefied atmosphere of genius or even sublime talent.
Obviously there are many physical and physiological skills that go into playing well, this goes without saying. Playing the piano to any reasonable standard is perhaps one of the most physiologically taxing tasks.
Watching my wife practice, she has to coordinate at the same time both arms and hands, all ten fingers and both feet, while her eyes follow the score and the keyboard, and her mind races several bars ahead of the notes she’s playing.
Her mind also has to make sure that structural integrity is observed with minute accuracy, while her ears and fingers combine to make the piano sing, delivering cantabile that all concert pianists could produce in the past, and so few can at present.
Yet real talent, never mind genius, goes well beyond just those devilishly difficult things. For music is the highest manifestation of Western culture – a statement that can’t be credibly made about any other culture.
Unless a pianist, no matter how lavishly gifted in physical and physiological skills, lives his life immersed in that culture, he’ll always remain nothing but an epigonic Peeping Tom, spying on serious musicians and then trying to reproduce what they do.
He won’t be able to. Playing to the standard of the pianists I’ve mentioned requires permanent residence in Western culture. Any Peeping Tom or even a short leaseholder will forever remain an interloper.
Is it possible to play Western music well without being on intimate terms with the culture that alone could have produced that music? But of course – provided we define ‘well’ in a different way from Sofronitsky’s aphorism.
Apparently, however devilishly difficult the physical and physiological aspects of piano playing seem to me, millions of people take those things in their stride. China alone has a million professionally trained pianists at present, and they can all get around the keyboard with reasonable competence.
They can play well in the sense of hitting all the right notes in the right sequence, displaying virtuosic digital fleetness whether it’s required or not. Then again, a computer can be programmed to do just that, and even better.
If that’s all that today’s public requires, then suddenly pianists like Yuja Wang, who in my day would have struggled to gain admission to Moscow Conservatory, never mind having a successful career, can become international stars. Especially if they, like Yuja, are pretty girls performing semi-nude.
When music is played that way, it’s no longer the apex of our culture. It’s soulless entertainment activating the same mechanisms of appeal as pop or rap.
That’s why I’m always incensed when some modern barbarian says he likes both classical and pop. “If you can listen to pop at all,” I once said to a lovely young girl, “you simply can’t understand real music.” She was upset, and I had to offer profuse apologies for my rudeness. But I meant what I said.
This brings us to the undisputed leader of the Sino pack, Lang Lang, whose parents loved him so much they named him twice.
I’ve had the misfortune of hearing some of his robotic, mindless, deracinated performances, and each time I thought he could have a brilliant career as a circus performer. But he doesn’t need to: he rakes in millions playing non-music to gaping audiences of non-listeners.
Every audience gets the kind of performances it deserves, and modern audiences weaned on pop excretions don’t deserve any better.
It’s in that spirit that I read a recent Lang Lang interview, which started the emetic impulse that could have been brought to gushing fruition had he also played, not just talked.
Here are some choice bits:
The instrument I wish I’d learned. The guitar… You can take the guitar everywhere. It would be amazing to play guitar like a rock star. [Why, Lang Lang? You already play the piano like one.]
My favourite author is Shakespeare. His works are basically screenplays. [Why not TV adverts?]
The music that cheers me up is my friend Pharrell Williams’s song Happy… Listening to it makes you just want to be together and have a good time. [And what else can one expect from music? A couple of pints would go down nicely too, to make the time even better.]
The book I wish I had written is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. [Not The Divine Comedy? The Iliad? War and Peace? Well, at least he didn’t say Fifty Shades of Grey.]
The place I feel happiest is on stage. If you play music by yourself it’s OK but when you share it that’s when it becomes really powerful. By yourself, you’re just a computer. With other people you become the internet. You’re connected. [Yes, with internet listeners. But I appreciate his honesty in admitting his playing is computer-like.]
I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors…Mozart, Pavarotti, Lady Gaga and Michael Jordan. These are my favourite musicians and my favourite sports star. I would love to see how Mozart plays the piano. [Yes, but he wouldn’t have played in this company. Pearls before swine and all that.]
A composer who is underrated… Carl Czerny… and there’s another incredible composer I love called Clementi. [Both of these men wrote mostly technical exercises for budding pianists – not much cultural attainment is required for playing their music.]
Overrated… If you are a famous classical composer then you’ve earned it. [Penetrating insight, that.] Even really popular composers like Chopin and Rachmaninov are not overrated. Their music has stood the test of time. [Really? And there I was, thinking Chopin only wrote funeral music for marching bands.]
I don’t mean to be nasty to Lang Lang or other Oriental musicians. Granted, they are all without a single exception cultural barbarians who understand the music they play at the level of an average rave-goer. But at least they have the excuse of having been raised outside our culture.
Alas, many Western pianists flash the signs of barbarism with equal gusto. What’s their excuse? What’s ours, for launching them to stardom at the box office? Well, don’t blame me: I voted Glenn Gould.