A ‘Universal’ Pianist?
Questioning the Standard
Why have I decided to play only Baroque music, leaving behind a mixed repertoire where figured a bit of all from Bach to Bartók? In fact, why striving to be a ‘universal’ pianist—where is that idea coming from? It is a musical and philosophical ideal based on the historical change from the ‘composer paradigm’ to the ‘performer paradigm’ that occurred during the lifetime of Franz Liszt. Under the old rule the composer was naturally his or her own performer. Bach, Beethoven or Mozart were the best performers of their own works.
This changed in the 19th century when the musical ‘performer’ was gaining the upper hand and grew in reputation over the head of the composer. Suddenly it was more ‘virtuous’ to merely perform music instead of composing it in the first place!
That this is a sort of psychological perversion needs no comment. And this perversion of music was also a perversion of life in that the exuberance and vitality so typical for Baroque music, of which the composing technique called counterpoint is a vivid metaphor, led to a decadent period of music production that lasts to this very day: classical, romantic and modern periods were all unable to keep up with the natural vitality of Baroque and produced huge amounts of ‘musically expressed’ sadness, depression, melancholy and—ultimately—character weakness.
A Natural Response
The Baroque Lifestyle
We are living in sad times. Gadgets seem to control people, and their connection to nature appears to be severed long ago. They may see trees on their way to work, but do not pay attention to them. They may see grass when mowing the lawn on Sunday afternoons, but that grass, even even its wonderful fragrance, does not stir any of their emotions.
That was not always so. Back in the 17th century and in the first half of the 18th century—the epoch we use to call ‘Baroque’—society was basically split in two classes, the landlords and the peasants, leaders and followers, noble-born and the rest. Needless to add that a musical life was only present with nobility. But with that, it was in good hands!
This class was very nature-bound. They lived in manors and castles on the countryside, before the culture was more directed toward building towns and living in towns. But still, take only Versailles as an example. You got a huge castle in a small town. The castle has its own natural environment, largely independent from the town. It possesses huge landscapes, most of them arranged and cultivated, it hosts water sources and distributors, and fountains, it cultivates flowers of the most diverse and exquisite types; it is thus a natural environment of the best sort, for nature and culture combine here in ways so high and complex, and beautiful that we can talk about a climax of nature-bound, integrated, lifestyle.
And this class was educated, the highest strata of it being part of a steadily growing European intelligentsia that was subject to inter-marriage and a sophisticated multi-lingual lifestyle. It is here that we find musical performance embedded in a framework of cultural sophistication that has no more equal in later times!
On a tangent, let me report here how Baroque has come in again through the backdoor, in a high-level and high-intensity educational project originally from Bulgaria. I am talking about Suggestopedia® or Superlearning®. But the claims American educators and journalists make regarding the involvement of Baroque music are entirely distorted! They are namely talking only about slow Baroque, thus a choice they make of the music that they find well-adapted to enhancing the brain’s learning ability. (They seriously contend that only slow Baroque music—like Adagios and Andantes—has this brain-stimulating effect, not movements of the music titled ‘Allegro’ or ‘Presto.’ This is once again, and typically so, an ‘American’ interpretation of realities that is a complete white-wash of stupidity combined with ignorance. In truth, there is no slow or fast in music, for it all depends on who you count the mathematical texture!
—See: Superlearning® and Slow Baroque: A Review of Superlearning 2000 by Sheila Ostrander, Lynn Schroeder and Nancy Ostrander, New York: Delacorte Press, 1994.
The tenor of the book is that only slow Baroque music is conducive to fast learning and high memory, that the music should ideally have a beat of 60 beats per minute. It is conceded that Dr. Lozanov and later research found this kind of music especially fitted for accompanying the learning process; besides, it was found that when heartbeat is low and steady, our overall health improves.
Now, as a musician specialized on Baroque music, let me say this upfront. It is well possible to achieve the same effect with fast Baroque, all the movements that are ‘Vivace’ or ‘Allegro’ and even ‘Presto.’ The only thing the listener has to do is to count ‘Alla Breve,’ that is to count half-measure, not all the four beats, or even count the whole measure as 1-beat in a ‘Presto’ movement. This leads to perceiving the music again as ‘slow’ while it may be racing. So all this about slow or fast Baroque is after all a matter of perceiving the music.
So, it is not necessarily so that faster movements accelerate the heart beat—or this would have to be proven by research first of all. But again—it is all a matter how we internally ‘count’ the musical rhythm to ourselves.
The main point I am making is about the organic nature of Baroque music, if not, all music for that matter. To extract the slow movements from a musical suite is not an organic process and it doesn’t lead to an organic result.
Let me show this with an example, Georg Philipp Telemann’s ‘Tafelmusik.’ The slow movements here are titled ‘Grave’ or ‘Largo,’ ‘Adagio’ or ‘Dolce’ and then we have a medium-slow movement class called ‘Andante’ which means ‘in a walking mood.’
What I mean by organic structure of a musical suite is the alternation between slow and fast movements and I believe that this alternation is a natural and organic alternation as we experience with the day-night rhythm or the daily alternation between work and rest.
To make it very clear, I believe it is a gigantic error to believe there are any health or memory enhancements when music is split into inorganic morsels.
Rethinking the Connection with Nature
What kind of person am I when I am saying I am ‘a pianist?’ Is this self-definition important? Let me give some examples. Svjatoslav Richter was always documented as a ‘Soviet’ pianist. Arthur Rubinstein was coined to be a ‘Chopin’ pianist, Claudio Arrau a ‘Liszt’ pianist, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli a ‘Debussy’ pianist, and Martha Argerich, a ‘Ravel’ pianist. I know this is entirely stupid but it is so in the minds of (most) people. In these well-known cases the definition of the pianist is obviously a social game and not important for their self-definition.
For me, however, this is entirely different. In my case, the self-definition is important for it purposefully helps to outline my overall orientation in life, in musical matters, and beyond musical matters!
How to express this self-definition? When I say I am playing the ‘Baroque Piano’ I am expressing my desire for frugality in the realm of music, while I am practicing also frugality in general terms in my life. With ‘frugality’ in this context, I mean to convey simplicity and focus, and actually a serene attention to the essential in life, and in music.
Why is Baroque for me something like ‘the essential’ in music? For reasons related to what I have pointed out already. Baroque music is for me the ultimate musical style for the occidental musician, the one who is based on the ‘temperate’ tuning, and the 440 Hz pitch.
It is ‘complete’ music for me, compared to fragmented music that is all what comes after Baroque. Fragmented because the counterpoint is largely missing, and melodic lines are presented without this balancing factor, thereby standing in the room like isolated figures in a universe without connections. The truth is however that we are living in an interconnected universe, hence the idea of fragmentation coming in when music is incomplete and does not show ‘connections’ … the romantic idea of a melancholic musical line standing for an entire piece of music is for me total madness. Look only at composers like Schumann or Scriabin who turned mentally alienated at the end of their lives, and compare that with the vitality and strong life force of a Bach, a Handel, or a Vivaldi!
Hence the idea of my participating in a tradition that is, even today, truly alive, compared to the half-asleep ‘classical’ and romantic music that came thereafter, not to talk about the lifeless, pedantic, and unmelodious ‘modern’ musical style that bears witness if ever to the total alienation of the modern citizen and city dweller.
Power of Baroque, that is for me the power of life itself, the power of exuberant self-expression through the use of a musical vocabulary that bears witness to originality within conformity, freedom within unfreedom, and ‘phallic’ masculinity within dreamy feminity, thereby emphasizing the mutual connectedness of apparent opposites, which is what creates the artistic tension and the apparently simple but complex compositional texture of this music.
A Strange Bereavement
Losing all my Scriabin Scores
There was a strange event in my life that in hindsight seems to have metaphorically foretold my turn toward Baroque, which at the same time is a turn away from late-romantic music that I loved so much to play previous to this event. I am speaking of a moving of my personal belongings from Thailand back to Cambodia after having completed a business project in Pattaya. I am speaking of having lost all of my Scriabin scores, a little fortune for I had them all and had purchased them new, in UK, to be shipped to Cambodia. It was a large pile. But I am not talking about the financial loss here, but the fact that not a single of these new and expensive musical scores arrived back in Cambodia. It was a total bereavement!
The event actually put me in a mood of guilt for I had not lived up to my idea to focus on Scriabin, and Scriabin only, while in 2010, before my departure to Thailand, I had realized several videos in which I was speaking about Scriabin’s music, especially his Fantasy op. 28 that was so brilliantly interpreted by Svjatoslav Richter and that was for me by and large unplayable!
And there was another event that even more so fueled that guilt. It was back in 1985 when I was admitted to a masterclass in Athens, Georgia, USA while being enrolled in a postgraduate program in international law. Part of that commitment to the music school was the idea of my piano teacher for me to write my thesis about Scriabin. In his words, American pianists had a hard time to understand this quite esoteric Russian composer while he thought that I had a grasp of it while still struggling with merely technical problems for interpreting Scriabin’s music on the piano. But from the point of view of musical theory and musicology he thought I was really fit for the project.
What happened? I fell gravely ill and had to return to Europe. And the project was forgotten.
Needless to add that today I am free of guilt for I know I had not lost the scores because I ‘deserved punishment’ for not complying with my self-imposed demand to make Scriabin ‘my’ composer, but for entirely different reasons. The reason was not to just get away from Scriabin but from all that comes after Baroque!
Is it really a question of Lifestyle?
I would present a fragmented view here if I were saying, well, I love to play Baroque, but otherwise I am leading a romantic (or ‘classical’ or ‘modern’) life!
So what is the background of it all? Let us reframe the question. What is else ‘Baroque’ in my life? And was it there before the turn toward Baroque Piano? Yes, it is. Yes, it was.
What is it? Cuisine. I am a chef since my age 4. Cooking is for me an essential way to express myself in closest communion with nature, for you cannot cook without cooking nature … And my cooking was always Baroque, it was always with a counterpoint, it always had a texture to it, which means it always gave me a structure! Not to say that it was holding me up in times of depression and that it strengthened my rather fragile spine.
Next comes going for walks. I am absolutely old-fashioned in this. I need to live in an upscale traditional neighborhood with lots of good landscaping, clean streets, and neat little parks. I could also say that I love to walk in plain nature but it wouldn’t be true. I do not like to walk in places that are wild and untamed and where nature presents itself to you in its raw and uncivilized garment. That is precisely not what Baroque is, not what it was in the past, and not what it is today. Look again at Versailles, and you know what I mean!
Or to say it with a chef’s vocabulary. Baroque is the expression of nature in its most refined, cultured, sense. It is not nature in raw format, as you would not eat snails that are unwashed and crude, nor oysters that have not been cleansed of sandy deposits.
Now, to prevent the reader from gliding into just another extreme or defaulted assumption, let me foreclose the danger to describe Baroque as a sort of sensual extremism, or as an artificial cocoon that could be easily seen as symbolized by the wig that men of distinction were wearing in those times—and that have survived till today in Britain for the law profession, for High Court Judges and Members of the House of Lords.
There are today even rumors that Baroque nobles were not washing themselves often and instead were smearing lots of scented powders and perfumes on their bodies! (In our times of socially sanctioned ignorance and media-stupidity I am actually not surprised to hear and read such kind of myths in our daily news).
Let me emphasize the word ‘extremism’ here, for explanatory purposes; for it is a very ‘talking’ word. You got extremes in romantic music, you got them in Wagner, Schoenberg, Scriabin, you got them in Mahler, and the more you move on to modern times, the more it all gets into even more violent extremes. Dynamics is either too soft or too loud most of the time, and the tempi also are either stiffeningly slow or racingly fast.
By contrast, Baroque is balanced, in all manners of performance, if ‘classical’ musicians understand that today, or not. (Most do not, but in the Netherlands the average of musicians are more knowledgeable than anywhere else in this respect and in all other respects regarding Baroque). Baroque knows no extremes, it is always maintaining a healthy equilibrium just as nature does!
Now, what I wish to convey at the end of this little aesthetic essay is what I feel myself as a musician and performer when I play Baroque versus playing romantic, classical or modern music.
Well, I feel integrated, balanced, poised, in a state of quiet inner rest that is however not a stiff inalterable condition but a dynamic interplay between rest and movement, between repose and walking on, between Adagio and Allegro (Presto), so to speak. And as I mentioned it before on the subject of ‘Slow Baroque’ as a learning enhancement, we need all the movements in succession in order to feel complete, in order to be really moved by the music. To separate certain ‘slow’ movements out for whatever purposes is a fragmentation if not a mutilation of the musical texture, and thus not a smart approach. Thus the intelligent ‘Baroque’ musician will always play the integral of the composition, and will never segregate out certain movements for ‘pleasing’ any audience or even for didactic purposes.
In our times of a systems approach to life, this should even be more easily understandable than in former times when we only had our intuition to tell us doing things right. And when I thus affirm that the integral approach to playing a Baroque composition is an accordance with the systems view of life, then I implicitly say that Baroque music is more or less in accordance with modern science! (That this is not the case with any other music would need further corroboration but is for me a given on the intuitive level, and without further reasoning needed).
Thus to conclude, yes, I do believe that Baroque today is a lifestyle, not just a history, art history or musical history item. It also goes beyond the modern ‘performance paradigm’ in that it never lost its natural expressiveness that is aligned with natural harmony and cosmic universality.