Joining friends grouped around a piano one evening last week, I sat down to hear another friend play. A man of extraordinary talent, he both composes and performs; and this time he had three new compositions to perform for us.
The piano can be a spectacular instrument. An hour sped, for my friend is touched by genius. His style is extravagant, his energy enviable, his mastery of the keyboard stunning. The boom and tinkle, the crashing chords, cascading arpeggios and breathtaking runs impressed me more than I can say. And because my friend refuses to take himself completely seriously it was done in a manner so lavish as to be almost self-mocking — like a thoughtfully playful artist taking the mickey out of Liberace. He turned a solitary piano almost into its own orchestra, which I realised a brilliant pianist can do, with enough skill, will and gusto.
And yet. At the heart of a couple of the best of my friend’s compositions there was a quieter and more simple thing: there was a song. Even the word ‘song’ makes too grandiose a claim for it was often no more than a phrase: just a few notes so arranged as to seize the heart. And these phrases, though surrounded by noise, had about them a kind of quietude, like the eye of a hurricane. Perversely, the modesty of the phrase gave it an insistence that the bravura stuff, all sound and fury, lacked. So that you were waiting, listening, for it to return as the ocean rollers of sound crashed back from the shingle. This phrase, it seemed to me, was really the music. This was what signified. This was my friend’s genius. The rest was glorious noise.
You will sense that I know little about music. You will easily contradict me. You will tell me a tune is not all there is to music — not even (you may say) requisite. You will add that the smallness and integrity of a motif is a product of the whole composition — is, in a sense, defined, cradled, delineated by the more ambitious construction which delivers it to our senses. You may perhaps offer the analogy of a baroque picture-frame in whose froth of gilt and rosewood a cool, dark little miniature in oils is borne into our imaginations.
To all of which I reply, perhaps. Quite possibly. Up to a point. But a frame can also distract. I think there’s a problem here, and, knowing nothing of musicology, realise I may be blundering into well-explored controversy, on which whole treatises must surely have been written. But let me pose it here in my own terms.
I call it the problem of virtuosity. I believe the problem can arise in any of the arts, but that music throws it especially into relief. By the problem of virtuosity I mean the way in which ingenuity in composition, or skill in performance — sheer mastery of a medium — may distract from the purpose of art, which is not to impress, but to speak to the heart.
Any musical instrument, including the human voice, must have limits, margins. The margins are imposed by the physical limitations of the instrument and of the human being who plays it. Any instrument has a finite range, of notes and of tones. There will be limits, too, to how fast one note can be played after another; and how many may be sounded at the same time, and how loud or soft. A penny-whistle operates within a relatively narrow range, while a pianoforte (and this is what made its invention so important) pushes the limits. A pianist likewise: sight-reading, quickness of learning, nimbleness of fingers, size of hands, hand-eye-foot co-ordination, sheer strength … all of these expand the range, push the margins, of what man and instrument can do, partnered.
But margins there must remain. And we, the audience, will tend to admire just how far the performer can push them. Sheer virtuosity — on the fiddle, on the oboe, at the piano — becomes admirable in itself, and part of what we mean by talent. We can almost burst with admiration and pleasure when we see a musical prodigy approaching the physical limit of human possibility. Composers write for these superstars; audiences flock to hear them. The sheer difficulty of their prize pieces becomes the selling-point.
This is no different from athletics, or mental arithmetic, or feats of memory, or the trapeze. On a musical instrument rather than a high-wire, however — or with a paintbrush, or in a soprano’s coloratura or a ballerina’s leap — we call it art. But is it art? Or is it sheer — mere — virtuosity?
Some of the loveliest sounds I have heard on piano are not difficult to play, and lie well within the middle of the range of anything a piano can do. Moments in the piano accompaniment to a Schubert song are sometimes (to me) more beautiful than the song itself, yet technically unchallenging. Some of the loveliest marriages of melody and tone I have ever heard sung are not ‘difficult’ to sing, and do not push or strain or even exercise a human voice. I wonder sometimes whether, when we madly applaud an astonishing bravura performance on keyboard or vocal cords, or when we marvel at the cleverness with which a composer (or poet) has woven a difficult and intricate web of sounds and ideas, or when we gasp at the accomplishment with which an intricate tapestry has been woven … whether what we admire has much to do with art; or anything to do with beauty. We clap, too, when a seal balances a ball on its nose.
I write this in Umbria, where in the village of Piaggio last night we attended a magical outdoor performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Valiantly staged, adequately accompanied, splendidly sung and delightfully acted, this light comic opera, of the sort that Donizetti presumably churned out on an industrial scale, is nevertheless mildly forgettable stuff (‘It’s rather jolly’ — how the spirits sink) except for one serenade which you can tell the composer realised was the only hit because from the overture onward he keeps repeating it. This serenade brings a tear of pleasure to the eye.
So you can boil down the opera (bar all the capering about) to one song. And you can boil down the one song to one musical phrase. And it’s captivating. Captivated, I was whistling it all the way home through the warm Italian night.
That song was the music. That music was the art. All the rest was virtuosity. Three cheers for virtuosity. But virtuosity is not art.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.