Notes from a pianist: The spiritual dimension

“Her greatest interest in the interpretation and performance of her husband’s music was that feeling should be transmitted through it. She was unimpressed by fingers running up and down the keyboard, and she would sometimes say things that would irritate me. She would say that none of the pianists on the world stage really played with feeling. This was very hard for me to accept, and it took many years for it to really become clear to me, just what she was talking about.” – Elan Sicroff on his lessons with Olga de Hartmann (as quoted in Oksanen, Reijo, Elan Sicroff interview, Gurdjieff Internet Guide, 2010)

If there is one aspect that I consider vital in the interpretation of great piano music, it is the transmission of the sense of the sacred. By this I do not necessarily mean a reverence for the great composers as people (for they were as human and as flawed as any of us) but a reverence for the divine essence as reflected through the medium of their music. It is difficult to overemphasise how powerful this essence is. Through the experience of music – as performer or as listener – it is possible to achieve a state of higher consciousness and to gain an emotional and intellectual insight that is otherwise difficult to attain except through directly religious experience. This is not tied to any specific faith or set of beliefs, but rather reflects a universal spiritual truth that defies categorization.

In my opinion, the primary purpose of music is the communication and creation of an experience that in touching the emotions and the intellect, brings about transformative change in the recipient. Some music, such as that which is subordinate to a technical system or that inhabits a purely abstract world (as is particularly characteristic of some post-1945 Western art music) has little connection with human experience of this kind, and little interest for me as a result. If I do not feel both that music has a genuine and worthwhile message for the listener, and that I have something to say about it, I will leave it alone.

In these conclusions, I am influenced particularly by the late conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96). Celibidache had studied Zen Buddhism, and laid strong emphasis on the performance of music as a transcendant experience. Celibidache had concluded that such transcendance was unlikely to occur through listening to a recording, and concentrated instead upon live performance. However, my own personal experiences (not least in listening to Celibidache’s recorded live performances) have taught me that recordings can quite readily reach these heights if performer and listener are suitably prepared and receptive.

In Zen, Celibidache identified the concept of ichi-go ichi-e as key; this is in brief, the idea that an experience is singular and unrepeatable, and encourages us to focus on the moment. This idea has a natural affinity with the teachings of Gurdjieff, which encourage us to focus our attention through the concepts of conscious labour and “present here now”. Modern life promotes inattention when listening to music; it relegates music often to mere background, and it leads to concerts and recordings being consumed as mere commercial products or entertainment rather than recognized as experiences of spiritual significance. Worse still, much modern piano playing reflects similar values. Mme. de Hartmann was not mistaken. What is missing is firstly that quality of concentrated attention – shared in an intimate bond between performer and listener – and secondly the transmission of essential spiritual and humane truths. Music is forever teaching us, if we are open to learning.

Federico Mompou’s Musica callada is an ideal example of music that seeks to create a transcendent experience in the listener. Not unlike the works of Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann, it eschews traditional ideas of development in order to communicate in purely emotional, spiritual and sensual terms. In that way, it is more accessible than music which relies upon a more formal structure, and more direct in expressing its essence, saying what it has to say with economy and concentration – focusing on the moment.

It should not be thought that these reflections lead to music necessarily being seen as “religious” in any conventional sense. Rather, they lead to an understanding of music as speaking of the higher emotional and intellectual centres of the human faculties; those aspects that connect us most directly both with our Creator and with creation as a unity – with our fellow human beings, through shared experience and empathy, and through an understanding of the natural world which is reflected in sound. Our experience of music will always be essentially subjective. What is of particular importance is that we should recognize that this subjective response is an integral part of our growth as a person; that through music, we can become more, feel more and understand more.

About johnkersey

Educationalist, musician and clergyman.
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