When I am working on a new piece of music, I nearly always start the same way. I will go through and work out some kind of fingering that will work for the piece, so that I can start to turn my musical muddling into phrasing and something that sounds like what the composer intended. And then I will research what it is I’m playing – who the composer was, what he (or she – but usually a he) played, what else they wrote, when the piece was written, what it was originally written for – all that sort of stuff.
Now, as a child, I was always reading the back of record covers. I was fascinated by who these composers actually were. I can remember, aged about 14, becoming quite obsessed about how everyone died – Peter Warlock gassed himself, Bartok had leukaemia, Tchaikovsky died of cholera…… I would share this information with anyone who would listen. I am still interested in who these chaps (and sometimes gals) actually were, and I find myself, when I’m teaching students (of any ages), talking about their lives. Children love it, and even adults seem to be interested (or it could be an act, letting the mad ‘cellist ramble on….)
In the age of Google and the Internet, this is an easy task. Type in ‘Felix Mendelssohn’, and you’re off. No trip to the library, no heavy encyclopaedias, no imposing librarians.
So why don’t more people do this?
Why do I walk into rehearsals with other musicians and they haven’t done it? Surely this is all useful, and sometimes necessary as a professional musician, at least as a Classical one? It helps to know that the piece I’m playing was originally a song for a soprano. I will have to really think about breathing, and how I need to ‘sing’ it, as a ‘cellist, rather than play it. It helps me to know that Brahms wasn’t a string player, so his ‘cello lines will be a bit awkward to play – and I have to get around them thinking like a pianist. It helps me to know a little bit about composer’s personalities – if they were a bit mad, or a bit depressed, or madly in love at the time. As I work out the musical puzzle of how best to play this piece of music written for me to recapture and share with others, I feel that these clues are vitally important.
I had a rant about this to my highly-reasonable partner, who responded (in his highly-reasonable way), that possibly some players were more interested in their responses to a piece of music, rather than the history behind it. But this strikes me as lazy. As a Classically-trained cellist, my job is to take all of history (well, as much as I can), and learn all the rules – and then, if I choose to, with a good reason, break some/ most/ all / none of them. Because I feel that I owe it to the composer to do that – it’s somehow respectful. And if I don’t respect the composer, then I won’t play their music.
I worked with a singer a little while back (I hardly ever work with singers. I mock them, mostly.), who walked into the first rehearsal we had, and talked about why they were going to sing the words in the way they were, and how they wanted the tempo – and gave all these reasons. Not in a boring-I’m-going-to-lecture-you-for-hours way, but in a concise-I’ve-thought-this-through way. I whooped with joy.
But this is the exception, rather than the rule. People don’t wonder about stuff like this. Players can tell me what celebrity wore what to where, but not what Messiaen played as we start to rehearse his music.
And I wonder why.