I remember so many discussions with my late husband about artists and how they work. He was a poet, what I call a “primary” artist, the person who starts with the blank page and then begins his work; I am a performer, what I call a “secondary” artist. No blank page for me! I start with the musical score, preferably the “urtext,” the original edition that the composer left. (Extremely important especially when interpreting Beethoven as too many editors have made changes to what Beethoven so carefully indicated in his scores.)
By observing how my late husband worked on a poem, I had a glimpse of what it means to be a “serious” artist. His meticulousness in placing a comma or hyphen or choosing the “right” word for the natural rhythmic flow was in evidence within every draft of his well-crafted poetry. At my first visit to his apartment, I saw papers posted along the wall. These were the drafts he lived with, and when walking by would make minute changes until he felt that he had finally gotten it “right.”
Not all performers can be called “serious” artists even if the talent is exceptional and the facility—what is called technique—astounding. Of course, that is a prerequisite for getting on the stage. But the more important question that needs to be answered is this: do they dig deeply enough and go under the notes of the score to understand the composer and convey what he is trying to say? Are they able to rise above themselves and go beyond their own ego to communicate a spiritual message directly from the composer to the listener without getting in the way and interfering with the process?
Franz Liszt suffered throughout his career with accusations of circus antics and too much theatricality, but underneath all the trappings was a seriousness of purpose—a need to communicate and share with the masses what he believed was the good, and he did so with noble intentions.
Piano competitions have usually emphasized the importance of speed and note-perfection above individuality in that quest for the first prize. Remember that famous quote of Bela Bartok? “Competitions are for horses.” These words were said by the great composer after a fellow competitor of inferior talent was named the winner over Bartok at an international competition for composers. Anyone who rises above the norm and demonstrates their uniqueness becomes suspect in most competitions. The natural talent usually has a harder time climbing the ranks than the well prepared diligent student whose blander personality will not offend the judges—nor will it truly excite!
Often in our talks, my husband and I debated the question whether most artists are aware of the level of their own talent. He insisted that when an artist looks into the mirror at two in the morning and confronts his own soul, he truly knows his own level if he is honest with himself. I frequently disagreed as I am acquainted with so many successful performers who seem so self-satisfied with where they are professionally. However, after repeated listening, there is the realization that their playing always remains the same—it never changes because they haven’t grown—they haven’t had the courage to look inside and venture deeper into the music and confront their own souls.
I’ll admit that the hardest thing to do is to look inside and evaluate the self. I recall an audition that I had many years ago when I was based in Amsterdam as a young artist and very active as a performer throughout the country. Holland at that time could boast 22 orchestras. Quite extraordinary for a country the size of our state of Kentucky and what wonderful opportunities for young artists to perform! My manager had arranged an audition with the Director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was a lovely man, a hero of the Resistance, and a composer himself and extremely knowledgeable— truly a wise man. I still remember what I played for him- Franck’s Prelude Chorale & Fugue and perhaps also a Beethoven sonata. I thought the audition went very well— I felt I had played my best. When I heard from my manager what he had told her after my audition, I didn’t quite understand at the time what his words had meant. He said that I was indeed a good pianist but not “committed” enough. Only now do I understand what he was talking about. I was not at the point in my life where I could go under the notes and commit myself to that serious journey of exploration. As a young and flashy performer with plenty of facility, it didn’t occur to me to play any differently than I did. I was not ready to search for my own growth. I was too involved with making my own concert career! Looking back, I can understand now why this man wisely made this observation.
My late husband often spoke about the “artist’s responsibility to his own talent.” In other words, never take lightly the gifts that you have been divinely given. Try and search for meaning in everything you do and uncover the mission, the responsibility with which you have been entrusted. As a performer, that means an allegiance to the composer and his spirit, and an obligation to the public who has come to hear you, to play at the highest level.
Looking back at the journey I have taken with the piano makes me feel as if I am always at the beginning of a new adventure—starting all over again with that blank page that is yet to be written. Also the realization that yes indeed, I truly am a late bloomer! Performing and recording Prokofiev’s music proved to be the turning point for me as a serious musician. This Russian composer encouraged—even dared me to go deeper and go beyond the notes to try and clarify his complexity. And he presented me with a difficult challenge. As I lived with his music, I began to understand the nature of this man, so misunderstood in his own lifetime. I began to feel in tune with him and his music and much more in harmony with myself.
However, as much as we strive, we never do arrive to our destination—there is always so much more to discover—many more layers to be uncovered on this exciting journey! And what is needed is the time to do so.