Whether soloist or ensemble player or composer, at the beginning one learns to play one note at a time, depress one key, touch one string. Only with considerable practice, only when these quanta are melded, does the seamless, experiential web of music begin to appear.
Recently we attended a student piano recital in another city and witnessed this process first-hand. We were fortunate to be in attendance. There had been two snowfalls in the previous week, and we were worried about more bad weather postponing our trip. But it was a perfect early winter afternoon. Snow blanketed the fields and the wooded hills. Low in the sky a bright sun, with only a day or two until the solstice, seemed to light our way.
We had been directed to the wing of an international house on a large university campus. Within, three of the older students pushed about a Yamaha grand piano until it found its right position in front of a brick fireplace. The piano’s keyboard was now viewable by the twenty-odd relatives and friends who had gathered to listen.
Through two windows to either side of the mantel the last of the day’s light was pouring in. A custodian went from one window to the other and drew thin blinds – scrims that seemed to distance the outer world, and not so much darken as dim the room where we sat, placing a visual hush over everything.
We had been given printed programs. Madame Instructor rose and spoke a few words, her voice so soft and quiet I could barely hear her. She then introduced the first pupil – a beginning student with brick-red hair – and played a duet with him. He took the melody in the treble and she accompanied in the lower registers. It was, appropriately, a familiar Christmas song, and the two played it with an engaging warmth and liveliness.
There were four more students, all in their early and middle teens. Three of them played two selections apiece. Before and after playing, each performer bowed to the audience. All were suitably attired. (I was told afterward that Madame’s only dress requirement was that no one could wear sneakers.)
The music was from the distant past. The composers’ names were familiar to anyone who has ever taken piano lessons when young. Clementi from The Sonatina Album, a waltz and a mazurka by Chopin, a more challenging piece by Bach – Sinfonia and Andante from Partita No. 2 in C minor – and, to close the program proper, a Haydn sonata.
The playing was energetic and forward-moving but not always note-perfect. Some students momentarily lost their way, faltered, repeated a note or a phrase, but kept going. The young man essaying the Bach lost it entirely during the opening bars. He stopped. Madame, who was sitting nearby with the score, came to his rescue and held the first page in front of him. With a glance he recovered, and sailed through the rest of the piece.
This was traditional piano music as it was originally meant to be heard – in a small hall, among friends, among persons who cared nothing for a missed note, but who had come to tend the flame of something that is otherwise invisible – something that had risen, like a Phoenix, from the days and weeks and months of practicing. Now it had arrived.
For a number of years I have been a subscriber to classical concerts by a leading symphony orchestra, and during that time have heard many of the leading instrumentalists and vocalists of the day. Such music is always a joy for its immediacy and its near-perfection.
But such music is also the end product of a long process. In contrast, as I listened, I realized that this – this winter recital – is the beginning. This is the tradition brought to life again as though for the first time, and explored and appreciated as though it were entirely new.
The notes matter, surely, for without them, there is no music. And yet there is something more, and that is what we had come to support. It is that very beginning of commitment and belief, even a trust in music, to which these young people had been apprenticed, and which they now honored by their efforts.
Without this kind of beginning, there would have been no grand careers or world tours for the concert artists we so much admire. Each of them originally trod this path.
A wintry day, then, with the sky and trees outside dark by the time the last student finished playing. Madame Instructor rose once more, and explained that the program had been shortened because two students had other commitments and could not be present. “So I will play something for you,” she said, “in order to round out the program.” Everyone in the room nodded. We would like that very much.
She spread a folio on the music rack and turned to us. “This is by Brahms,” she said. “He wrote it late in life, when he was very old, three or four years before his death. He was – how old? – maybe eighty-two, eighty-three. It is called ‘Intermezzo’ and . . . and I love it.”
Brahms opus 118, no. 2, with the hemiola rhythm in the left hand, and the familiar ringing chords in the right. Brahms alternatively meditative, moved, retiring, then plunging on. While she played, moments of the last decade of the nineteenth century seemed to return, like embers of late afternoon light.
We had reached the end of a long process. The students who had played for us had stood at the beginning. This was culmination. This was Brahms at the close of his life, looking back over the years. This was Brahms seeing himself as a young man playing in cafes in Hamburg, Brahms calling for the first time on the Schumanns, Brahms on the train to Vienna, Brahms finally becoming Brahms.
All of that in a piece of music not five minutes long, played manually, produced non-electronically, heard aurally, in a mid-sized room, with an audience of twenty, and with pupils listening and admiring. One cannot imagine a more rewarding way to spend a winter afternoon.
The accompanying photo shows Johann Strauss Jr. and Johannes Brahms at Bad Ischl, Austria, in 1894.