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Scaling the musical Matterhorn

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible Alan Rusbridger

Cape, pp.387, £18.99

This book is an account by the music-loving editor of the Guardian of how he set himself the task of learning to play one of the most daunting virtuoso pieces in the piano repertoire, and to do so within the space of what turned out to be perhaps the most hectic year in the newspaper’s history.

Alan Rusbridger didn’t actually meet his self-imposed deadline. He had been overwhelmed by developments at his newspaper — the Wikileaks and phone-hacking exposures (both huge Guardian scoops), the Arab revolutions, the English urban riots, the near-collapse of the European financial system, not to mention the huge financial problems created for the paper by the digital revolution — and so could not put in the hours of practice he needed. ‘A job that was routinely 12 to 14 hours a day, Monday to Friday, regularly expanded beyond that and ate deeply into the sixth and seventh days,’ he writes. So it took him another six months of snatched practice periods to master Chopin’s fiendishly difficult Ballade No. 1 in G minor or, in his words, to find that he could ‘in the professional view of at least three proper pianists play it — sort of’.

Nice though it would be to have a CD of Rusbridger’s public performance of the piece at a rented hall in London on 13 December 2011 (the book should have included one), we have no reason to doubt his words. And listening again to my recording of Arthur Rubinstein’s performance of the Ballade, I am lost in wonder and admiration at the progress Rusbridger must have made since we used clumsily to play piano duets together when we were both foreign correspondents in Washington in the late 1980s. The question arises why? What has driven him on? And what has made him want to master a work that strikes fear into even the most accomplished professional pianist? These are questions to which he himself seeks the answers.

He was always musical. As a boy, he was a cathedral chorister at Guildford and started learning the piano at the age of eight. But he subsequently subordinated the piano to the clarinet, which became his instrument of preference. This may have been because it provided more opportunities for convivial music-making than the piano, the quintessential solo instrument, because he had been told by his mother that ‘music would lead to friendship’.

But it left him in middle age with regret that he had never learnt to play a piano piece ‘properly’, meaning that he had never worked on and memorised a piece so that he could play it as a professional might. This, he says, was because he had a natural gift for sight-reading and a hopeless memory. So to learn something by heart and to play it well became his belated ambition in life.

He makes several convincing arguments in support of amateur music-making. For someone like him, with a stressful day job, practising the piano can be the equivalent of going for a run or working out in the gym — an essential preliminary to going to work, a means of clearing the mind and facing the day with calm. In his own case,

it felt like a physical need. If I could spend 20 minutes at the piano before going to work, I had a powerful sense that the chemistry of my brain had been altered. On the days I played, my brain felt ‘settled’ and ready for whatever the next 12 hours would bring.

Rusbridger also discovered that piano-playing could be a protection against Alzheimer’s.

That apart, he believes that amateur music-making has value in itself, largely as an antidote to the ‘cult of precision’ that has killed off the creative flair in many professional musicians. The phrase ‘cult of precision’ belongs to Alex Ross, the celebrated music critic of the New Yorker magazine — one of the many musical experts and professional pianists from whom Rusbridger sought reassurance on his arduous journey — who attributed it to the 20th-century rise of the technically flawless professional pianist (as opposed to the 19th-century pianist-composer) and to the way in which modern recordings are cleverly edited to expunge all imperfections.

The pianist Murray Perahia told Rusbridger much the same thing. He had listened to the performance of the Ballade on YouTube by Vladimir Horowitz and seen on the internet comments by ‘idiots’ complaining about his many mistakes. ‘I don’t hear them,’ he said. ‘I really don’t hear them. We’re listening so clinically to things now that it’s … as far as I’m concerned it’s a perfect performance.’

One of Rusbridger’s goals was to see if it was possible for a person in his late fifties with a bad memory and poor technique to conquer these disadvantages. He concluded that it was: that the fingers could be re-trained, that the brain could be taught new tricks, and that anybody, however busy, could always find time to practise if he wanted to (he himself practised the Ballade at every opportunity, including once in a half-abandoned Tripoli hotel at the height of the Libyan revolution).

He was also influenced in his endeavour by Carl Jung, who preached that ‘culture’ could be ‘the meaning and purpose of the second half of life’; and by Arnold Bennett, who wrote that the white-collar ‘salaryman’ was

constantly haunted by a suppressed dissatisfaction [springing] from a fixed idea that we ought to do something in addition to those things which we are loyally and morally obliged to do.

This book, written in diary form, makes clear that Rusbridger was punctilious in the performance of his duties as editor of the Guardian in an extremely testing year, but equally clear that the piano was always his first love and that he couldn’t bear to be separated from it for long. It was a ‘hobby’ that also cost him many thousands of pounds in the purchase of Fazioli and Steinway grands and the construction of a special ‘piano room’ beside his country cottage in Gloucestershire.

But why did he choose to test himself against a piano piece that Perahia himself described as ‘one of the hardest in the repertoire’? ‘In mountaineering terms,’ Rusbridger writes, ‘it would be akin to a middle-aged man deciding to climb the Matterhorn — something a few obsessive and foolhardy amateurs do indeed attempt, but fraught with peril.’ That, I suppose, is answer enough.

This book is well written and often entertaining, but it is long and stuffed with detail about Rusbridger’s learning sessions with his various teachers, about complicated problems with fingering, and other recondite information likely to bemuse the general reader. But it is, all the same, an impressive, even inspiring record of one man’s mountaineering exploit in the realm of music. Rusbridger set himself an ‘impossible’ goal, and then more or less achieved it. There is something admirable, even heroic, about that.


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