Telling a Story. . .
I was driving home the other week whilst listening to Radio 3′s excellent ‘Spirit of Schubert’ celebration (where they played nothing but Schubert’s music over 8 whole days of broadcasting). The whole event covered every detail of this great composer’s life and world (even including little vignettes about the type of coffee he may have drunk when he could afford it). Like Schubert’s music itself, it left the listener eager for more and on the final evening I had to stop the car on the way home to listen to the slow movement of his String Quintet (a work put into perspective by hearing a good cross section of his output in the space of only a few days). It seemed an enterprise that few radio stations could pull off, but the combination of assiduously chosen archive recordings and the likes of the brilliant Graham Johnson illuminating the music with authentic readings from the texts of Schubert’s songs, made this a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Anyway, as I was driving home, a young violinist was being interviewed about Schubert’s ‘Landler’ (country dances which are a forerunner to the waltz and eminating from the Landel area of Austria). She was to play 6 solo Landler and talked about how she liked to try and tell a story through the music. It struck a chord with me as my violin teacher Kato Havas sees the opening up of a musical imagination and the telling of a story as the purpose of musical communication. Through liberating ourselves from our physical blocks and learning to play ‘through’ the instrument and not ‘on’ it, she gets her pupils to sing the music and get beyond the notes to convey what the composer really intended. So when I heard the same type of approach, I was in anticipation of hearing Schubert’s voice.
When I heard the performance though, I realised again how difficult this ideal is on a stringed instrument. The pressure of ‘playing well’ is the greatest enemy, for audiences are now so used to hearing heavily doctored recordings that they have developed unrealistically high expectations for perfection in performance. This means that the focus of the musician has to be in playing all the right notes all of the time as a bare minimum to satisfy the listener. This often results in highly polished performances that play safe and take few risks, with the result that they often sound flat and a little characterless. The listener knows they have just heard a near perfect rendition of a piece but feel completely unmoved. With all the glissandi and much of the rubato ironed out for the sake of tuning and ensemble, and little attention to the spirit of the music, we are all realising that the modern age has deprived us of the ‘spirit of musicmaking’. It was no surprise therefore, that the young performer (with all the best intentions) was unable to tell any story at all. That instead of street vendors, hurdy gurdies and coffee houses, we were left with just notes. And notes on their own aren’t music.