Music and Dignity

I love to see pianos played in public places, and, of course, other instruments too. Over the last few years I’ve seen more and more pianos, some of dubious quality and provenance, in railway stations and airports.

On Saturday I saw someone play jazz (very well) on a piano at Avignon station, and later a teenager practising a chromatic scale (very badly) at Charles de Gaulle airport. And when I was last in Sofia I admired this lonely, unplayed Steinway and its incongruous ‘piano stool’ at the airport, but sadly, there was nobody to play it, and no one, I think, would want to hear what I can do.

sofia piano

Live music, wherever it is, in the concert hall or the departure lounge, is always preferable to the piped variety. I’d put my own Bluthner grand piano in the street outside my apartment if only I could get it through the window. It would probably get more playing there than in my living room.

People often think that classical music should be played with a special kind of dignity, in sombre, old-fashioned, uncomfortable, expensive clothes, in sombre, silent, sepulchral halls. We forget that it’s ‘entertainment’, by which I don’t mean that it isn’t serious or intelligent. It’s entertainment because it’s played for, or to, an audience, and audiences can be found anywhere.

Most of the time classical music is played as if it’s a ritual, whose moves are known only to a few initiates, and as if its practitioners are unapproachable high priests, even Gods, remote and full of dignity. It’s usually played in sterile ‘laboratory’ conditions, in an inert and unvarying atmosphere, where performers and audience are set decisively apart. Heaven forbid that you should clap at the wrong time or show too much emotion as you sit and absorb what the musicians are doing in front of you. Small wonder that when this is the prevailing style, audiences are sparse, and elderly.

Why should we listen to music in just one way? We eat in restaurants, on the street, at home, even at 30,000 feet. Every new location adds something different to the experience. Food tastes different in the open air. A Beethoven sonata, taking us by surprise on the concourse of a railway station, comes at us in a different way, catches us in a different frame of mind. And for the performer, too, it can be exciting to play for different audiences in different places. Why should the experience of performing and listening be confined only to a few locations?

Classical music needs to be stripped of its excessive dignity. At its best it’s an informal, warm, living, exciting, entertaining, even challenging, activity that’s performed by people for people, the one lot ‘saying something’ to the other, and the other responding with appreciation, delight, or sympathy. Music, at least in the form of singing (or howling!), was probably the precursor of speech. Music is communication of an elemental kind.

The fact that music is entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. I mean ‘entertain’ in the broad sense of capturing the attention of an audience. In this sense both Hedda Gabler and Absolutely Fabulous are entertainments. Seriousness needn’t be pompous, needn’t be surrounded by too much dignity. You can play Beethoven just as well in blue jeans as in a dinner jacket.

When I played my oboe regularly in amateur orchestras in London in the 1980s we often performed in busker venues, such as in the piazza at Covent Garden, and these performances were as serious, and as much fun as any in a concert hall. Never mind that some people came and went, that others stayed, that the applause came at the ‘wrong’ moments, I’m sure we said as much as we ever said in the frigid conditions of the concert hall.

So, I love the pianos that we see in public places, where the public are invited to perform any music that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes (too often) it’s Fur Elise, and sometimes it’s deeply serious music. When my nephew Frederic played some Chopin at Herne Hill Station in London, a small crowd gathered and applauded. I would love to come across Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff playing at St Pancras station or on this Steinway at Sofia Airport. I hope that they could dispense with the dignity they’re used to.

But, for some players, music is so special that it’s no longer part of life. It’s something separate, dignified, dead. There’s a young pianist I know in Prague who takes himself too seriously. He’s good, and has played as a soloist with many famous orchestras. Though he has a magisterial way with Brahms, he’d be a happier man if he could lighten up a little. I invited him to my annual Christmas Party, which is also a Birthday Party for my partner. As I lit the candles on the birthday cake (a little the worse for drink, I will admit), I asked him, on an impulse, to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the Bluthner grand. I knew immediately it was a faux pas of colossal proportions. He actually shuddered, as if I’d put something nasty under his nose. Too much dignity!

If Leonard Bernstein were my guest (sadly, he never will be now, because he’s dead), I wouldn’t even need to ask. It would be difficult to get him to stop. Music infused every moment of his life, not just those moments in the concert hall, and he didn’t give a damn about dignity.

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