The New York Times’s obit for pianist Radu Lupu, sent me back to adolescence and a conversation with my mother.
She had been considering what careers might suit her oldest child.
(Sorry, Mom, for putting this into parentheses, but years later I learned how unusual my mother was to be talking about a professional career for her daughter, at a time when other mothers were telling their daughters that they had to do well academically to get into a good college so they could meet a smart, i.e., successful husband. Even fairly sophisticated families picked marriage as the top career choice for their daughters.)
(To give full credit to my mother, she never once mentioned marriage to me — not as a career, not as a life choice. An ovation for Esther Fein, my mom.)
Given my abilities in music and writing, Mom suggested I think about becoming a music critic. I don’t recall my response then but right now I can praise her wisdom. It would’ve been an excellent field for me.
The Lupu obituary quoted a number of music critics who had personally heard Lupu play. The words and phrases these professional music writers employed in describing Lupu’s gifts…well,better to quote from the David Allen obituary itself rather than try to be what my mother wanted me to be, a music critic: “a pianist of rare refinement whose ruminative, enigmatic performances and recordings wove spells over his listeners, induced awe among his colleagues…”
The sort of music many people call “classical” (I prefer to use the term “serious,” which doesn’t bind music into a specific period) is fucking difficult to write about. Wordless music, that is. With opera and song, you’ve got some identifiable scaffolding to describe. But a piece of music out there on its own with notes only…well, you can lean on a score, maybe, and wax ecstatic over a performance, but how can you convey in words something ephemeral? It’s like grabbing bubbles a child is blowing.
What I wrote above is a noteless prelude to saying that early in the pandemic I began to play my CDs of Bach, his solo instrumental music. I live in an apartment most people would consider small, although to me it’s large, and solo instruments seem to fit ideally into the space. A piano, a cello, a violin…my place accommodates these instruments. I don’t know where I’d fit an orchestra.
As the pandemic stretched on, I acquired more Bach. Recently, I bought the Well-Tempered Clavier, played by Sviatoslav Richter in a manner so unusual, so mysterious I have no way of describing it.
Even if I knew how to describe Bach. Which I don’t.
I began piano lessons when I was ten. My teacher wanted to start me on Bach. I objected. I remember exactly what I told her: “He’s so mechanical! It’s mathematical.” Not musical enough for my teenage emotional system which fed on large romantic works. (And pop.)
That was stupid of me. It was also sort of correct.
Decades later, when I was reading Galileo, I found that he said,
“The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.”
Notes, too, are geometrical figures, while numbers are used to cite them and other aspects of music.
I’m sure Galileo himself would not be averse to applying mathematics to music. He was described as a fine lutenist and his father was a composer and music theorist. (Vincenzo did not want Galileo to become a musician, or a mathematician, astronomer or physicist. Vincenzo wanted his son to become…a doctor. Nothing has changed.)
I am listening now to the Well-Tempered Clavier. I could describe the multitude of effects the individual pieces have on me. I’d have to employ most of my vocabulary to do it and that’d be a bore for all of us.
Bach fills up all the empty spaces.
A week or so ago, I watched the first of two PBS documentaries, “The Chamber Music Society Returns,” which meant a good deal to me, since my live concert plans focus greatly on the CMS and its performances in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.
It was a sweet, modest documentary. Some moments were emotional, tear-inducing. What grabbed me particularly were the interviews with some of the “regulars,” the great, mostly young musicians who are part of the CMS family.
Each talked about what it was like during the pandemic, having no place to go to make music, no place to perform with others. Being home with their families was nice, but as far as music went, they were virtually alone.
Of course each of them kept playing. A couple of violinists, double-bassists, cellists and pianists talked about the music they played to survive.
Wu Han, the pianist and co-director of CMS (with her husband cellist David Finckel), told us that ever since childhood, Schubert had been her go-to composer.
All the other musicians played Bach. Each described what Bach was to him, why Bach meant so much. There was no exaltation in their descriptions, no ethereal epiphany. The language they used was commonplace and calm.
Finally, one of them offered a summary. “Bach,” he said, “is everything.”