Friday, December 13, 2013

Beauty: Let it Kill You

Heather King has linked to a very good essay by English pianist James Rhodes, published a few months ago in the Guardian, about the sacrifices, existential and ethical as well as physical and material, that Rhodes has made in order to be a musician. Rhodes writes (quite accurately, as any working classical musician or singer can tell you):

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching) . . . And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary.

The "and yet" part is one of the great, secret pleasures, I think, of any classical musician's life. There is a quiet but profound elation at opening a fresh piece of music and settling in to work. A young musician, to paraphrase Stanislavsky, practices his art because he loves to hear himself in it; but as you advance in that art, you begin to fall in love with practice itself. You come to love the protecting walls of even of the most moldy practice rooms, the ones with the broken piano benches, the missing ceiling tiles, and the garbage cans stuffed with half-full cups of deli coffee; such places become your kingdom of solitude, your secret laboratory, the place where you shuck off the shell of the mundane world and become better than you are. And you also come to love the methods, the process of taking apart a piece: phrase by phrase, working those phrases backwards, forwards, in triplets, in dotted rhythm, in reverse dotted rhythm, using different vowel sounds, in different keys, etc. Maybe the dawn of this very particular kind of love is one of the reasons classical musicians appear to exhibit more autistic traits than the general population.    

Using Rhodes's essay as a starting point, Heather suggests that the necessary sacrifices an artist makes -- the eschewing, or the loss, of love, financial security, success, and emotional stability -- can be a unique imitation of Christ:

If you want to be an artist, you have to be willing to be totally ripped apart. Maybe that's why we don't have more Catholic writers (and painters, and poets, and composers, and musicians). Maybe we lack the willingness to be ripped let grace work its violence on us. To wait for a wedding that may or may not ever come, practicing, practicing, practicing. Preparing, hoping, praying, waiting. . . . There is nothing more Catholic than letting ourselves be killed by love. 

Indeed, though one often hears platitudinous reassurances from teachers and mentors that you don't HAVE to to be unhappy to be an artist, one sometimes suspects that these mentors are just trying to stave off the ruining of their students' lives. Who are these happy artists our teachers allege exist? And do we admire them? Edvard Munch said, "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. . . .My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Conversely, Gustave Flaubert wrote:  "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

Beethoven is known to have been a difficult and not very nice guy who was at times wildly unhappy, unhappy to the point of suicide when he realized that his hearing loss would eventually be profound deafness. He wrote in 1802, in a letter found after his death which has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament:

Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. . . . With joy I hasten towards death [but]  if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead.

To echo Heather's point, the sacrifice that Beethoven made in his terrible unhappiness -- the decision to forestall his own longed-for death and to continue living a life of suffering until he had brought out of himself all the beauty that he wanted to give to humanity -- is Christ-like. 

I'm not sure that great art and happiness are compatible, and, for the selfish reason that I get to be wrenched open by the  profound understanding of the human spirit that is evident in his playing, I'm rather glad that James Rhodes does not live a bourgeois life of comfort and forced good cheer.

No comments: