Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Musically Gifted

Evgeny Kissin, 38-year-old concert pianist, debuted with the Ulyanovsk Symphony Orchestra at the age of 10. At 13, he gained international recognition for playing and recording both Chopin’s piano concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. He was, reputedly, able to hum a Bach tune along with his sister, who was then playing it on the piano, at the age of 11 months. So much for Wikipedia.

On YouTube, you can look up an interview with Kissin, who relates the instance of receiving a good review from a critic when he was 17, but with this barb at the end of the article - “In general, one gets an impression that, up till now, everything has been easy for Kissin in piano playing - sometimes even too easy. Both pluses and minuses of his art come from that fact. Now we only hear in his playing what comes from his great natural gift. This is, of course, wonderful, but in future, something definitely has to change. What? When? In which way? Everything will depend on that.”

Has everything been easy for Kissin in piano playing? When he was 17, he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Herbert von Karajan. And this critic expects us to believe it was easy?

As a pianist (one, I might add, who is stunned by Kissin’s playing), I can confidently say that that is rot. My reader may say I’m being arrogant - supposing that my limited piano experience is vaguely the same as this child prodigy. But I still say it’s nonsense - Evgeny Kissin’s “great natural gift” consists of an environment saturated in great music, hours upon hours of disciplined practice at a young age, and memorization skills that were whittled when children eat memorization out of the can with a spoon. To suppose that it has been easy for Kissin, who ostensibly bears an inherent talent, is lazy of the critic and insulting to Kissin. He had to work to get where he was - to credit it to a “great natural gift”, like something he can’t control, represents a pathetic understanding the great pianists of our age.

Again, my reader may think I have turned into a soft-and-squishy liberal politician who can’t stand to see people not on an equal footing. I just can’t stand to be inherently unequal to Evgeny Kissin, so I’m stripping him of his natural talent. The same with Mozart. The same with Bach. Well, no, not exactly.

I’m taking my cues from Bach himself. According to Christoph Wolff, his most recent and well-respected biographer, Bach reputedly said, at the end of his life, that he had worked hard and achieved great things, and that anybody who worked as hard as he had could do the same things. This is coming from the man who is rumored to have improvised, upon request, a 6-part fugue for the prince of Germany. Can you do that? Could you do that if you worked hard?

Well, no, I don’t think you could in all likelihood. But Bach is speaking from a specific culture, and we can’t just throw his words out as the modest and humble words of a “gifted” man. Bach is speaking from a culture that, as Glenn Gould once related, considered family entertainment sitting around the fire and composing a “quodlibet” - a contrapuntal combination of two or more folk tunes into one coherent song. Imagine living in a culture where the standard for a 10-year-old’s entertainment was competing with his Dad at writing counterpoint. Now, would a Bach (or a Mozart) coming out of that culture be such an anomaly? And, yet, we wonder why there aren’t any Bachs or Mozarts today.

Gone is the notion of music as paideia. Music teaches. It educates. It trains. It disciplines. It cultivates. This was the opinion of Plato and Boethius, who both commented on what a sly weapon music was for propagandists. Music is a matter of education - if our children grow up in a culture of Lutheran hymns, quodlibets, Bach chorale preludes, and village performances of coffee cantatas, then what we could call “talented” musicians should pop up everywhere. And they do in Bach’s Europe. A few years after Bach died, Mozart was playing, blindfolded, for the Pope.

People think of “natural talents” in two ways - a gift from God to the child, as if his musical talent were some facet of his soul, sort of like a charismatic’s gift of tongues or prophecy, or perhaps a genetic disposition resulting from a sort of natural selection. The idea here is that many people start with piano lessons, but only the ones who have the right DNA and the parents with the most developed ear and limber fingers really have the chops. And they’re the ones that end up being on stage wowing us with their “talents”.

But, briefly, I’d like to remind those Christians out there who think I’m giving the glory to Kissin’s works rather than God’s grace, that the word the Old Testament uses for “artistic talent” is the same word it uses for “wisdom”. It’s something that God gives but that simultaneously a man acquires. That modern Christians see a tension between God’s grace and man’s works is not an excuse to rush after this idea of “natural gifts” but a clear indication that they need to read Thomas Aquinas, or, even better, John Calvin.

What about Jay Greenberg, the child with no musical parents, who attended Juilliard at 10 years old, composed an internationally broadcasted, fully orchestrated overture for the 9-11 terrorist attacks when he was the same age, and reputedly hears the music in his head - sometimes even several different pieces simultaneously - and writes it down just as he hears it? Surely this is a person with natural gifts and talents from God.

A very simple test can be done that reduces such claims either to absurdity or to a better grasp of reality. Imagine Jay Greenberg, if you would, born into a family of medieval aristocrats in the 14th century. Would he compose music that sounded like Rachmaninoff or Schoenberg or Beethoven or Bach, as he composes today? Or would it sound like Perotinus, Machaut, Dufay, and Josquin? His music bears the distinctive mark of environmentally induced music - the music he hears in his head does not come from some distant, detached spiritual psyche, granted to him by God upon birth. Yet this is seemingly the attitude that we take towards Greenberg.

To paraphrase Glenn Gould again, he also lamented the loss of equality between audience and performer. The performer is now lifted up as a talented genius, but Gould insists that this is the downfall of Classical music. He says,

“I think that what happened in the 18th century, when performers stopped being composers, was the great disaster for music. And I think that to look at it today as an irrevocable move and to say that this is not any longer correctable, that we cannot in fact get back to that glorious time when performers had a composer’s insight into music and when an audience consisted largely of people who performed and composed themselves - that we cannot get back to that is simply to say that music is finished. There are people around who would tell you that music in our purely occidental sense is indeed finished. I don’t share that gloom, I must say, but there’s good cause for it.”

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