The role of music
I am starting to study the repertoire for a recital that I am giving in March ( it has been postponed from February). It is music from 18th to 20th century; songs in Spanish, English, German, French and Italian.
When I was at The Royal Academy of Music, we were asked to regularly perform French Song, Italian Arias, German Lieder and English Song in our respective classes. Often, with the amount of work that we were expected to produce, we learnt our pieces quickly and then performed them in class using all of our bravado and quick memory skills to produce an adequate study. It is only later in life, when re-learning these songs and snatching precious time to do so, that I really appreciate them for the beautiful works of Art that they are. (I am sure that other students were wiser than me and picked up this nugget of information earlier, but I’ve always been something of a slow learner.…) The poems themselves are things of beauty. So why the necessity to put these beautiful poems to music?
The performer needs to have a certain level of knowledge in the given languages to be able to recite them properly. Arguably the listener also needs a certain level of knowledge in the language to appreciate the poems too. But when listening to a song, written for the poem, it then becomes possible for the listener to appreciate the poem, whether or not knowledgable in that particular language. Why is this?
Firstly the music sets the atmosphere of the poem for the listener. A major key tends to make the listener feel that the song is happy, upbeat; a minor key gives the impression of sadness or melancholy. The pace of the song instantly gives the music character: a fast pace tells the listener whether the poem is energetic, vibrant or nervous; a medium pace conveys to the listener a relaxed, contemplative, reflective feel; a slow, turgid pace shows the listener that the poem is likely to be sad, melancholy, exhaustive or tired … ; and so on. The music locks on to the listeners’ senses and subtly suggests the mood of the piece from the beginning. It then suggests a change of thought, or mood, through a change of pace, or key. Sometimes the sheer beauty of a phrase bringing the listener to tears, without full knowledge of the text; such is the power of a good performance.
Last week, I met the wonderful pianist Jonathan Duke for a rehearsal (I once heard him sightread a contemporary piece of music for clarinet and piano IN A PERFORMANCE because another pianist had been unable to get to the concert. He said afterwards “ I really enjoyed that! It was great fun to turn the page and see the surprise of the upcoming music!” – I can’t imagine being anything other than horrified at the prospect, but it shows what a talented performer he is, even before practising!)
We began with Schubert and it became increasingly obvious that the pieces required that we, the performers, play and sing as purely and concisely as possible. The music is so beautifully crafted that the only way to do the piece justice is to sing as honestly as possible, in order to allow the music to speak and the listener to get the maximum enjoyment from the performance. One of my teachers at the RAM was Ian Partridge. He was forever telling me this. Well, finally it’s sunk in and it really works…!
Now, as a teacher myself, I have heard myself telling my students the fundamental difference between being a performer and being a listener. As a listener, we can experience intense feelings and emotions due to what we are hearing from the performers. As a performer, we have to put those feelings to one side; to not try to show what we as a listener experienced when hearing the piece for the first time; to have faith that the music will speak through an honest performance, thus giving the listener the same intense, but personal, experience. It sounds obvious enough, but it is easy to over complicate and cloud the music.
For this up-coming recital, my challenge is to finally perform these songs with the honesty and integrity that they deserve.