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What makes the cold, hard black-and-white notes on a score sheet come to life?

From my position early on the recent three-year journey back to the piano and music that I left long ago in favor of a few demanding careers, I've often pondered the question, "What is music?".

Lately I've begun to wonder if music simply does not exist in the absence of the person who transmits it to a listener, be that listener only the instrumentalist themself? And, am I touched by a particular composer or composition or melody therein, more by the pianist than I am by the actual piece of music?

Of course, there is imagination; surely the composer plays the piano while composing, but must also audiate (aurally imagine) the melody line when away from her or his instrument. At least, that is what I imagine! Perhaps in that sense, music lives inside the composer's mind's ear.

But outside of that mind's ear, does a piece really exist without someone to play the instrument(s) and convey the sound?

Since beginning to read in the field of musicology and music, I decided that there are three components that make music real: the composer, the person who transmits the score notes, and the listener. In the absence of one of those, there can be nothing like "music" in existence.

Psychologist Anthony Storr (see my poem below) first gave me that idea. I recently watched a wonderful YouTube video of pianist Seymour Bernstein comparing and contrasting how he plays Brahm's Intermezzo Op 117 No. 1 (in my favorite key: E flat Major) compared to how Glenn Gould played it, and the difference I heard was amazing! You may hear a full recorded version here (a pianist friend did not cotton to this presentation and said as one cause that the piano was out of tune, but frankly, I am not sensitive enough to hear that). I will admit this is the first piece I have heard by Brahms that I truly loved, as odd as that may sound to other Romantics like me. (You may also delight in Bernstein playing Opus 118 No. 2, as well as his advice to various levels of pianists as worthwhile videos to watch! I join those who believe that Bernstein is a national treasure and I wish I had had the opportunity to take lessons with him!).

My experience and what I heard in the short comparison of several phrases (focused on 4.18 to 6.55 minutes into the said video) of Gould to Bernstein, was simply gobsmacking. For the first time in my life, I actually "heard" Brahms plus a measure of beauty in his melody and composition that left me with a sigh and tear in my heart.

After that I went on search for someone playing it with similar feeling and sensitivity, and phrasing so that I could "hear" it and came up with Radu Lupu, one of my top favorite pianists of all time. Not to mention Gregor Sokolov, my favorite living pianist (there is a bit more use of rubato but the phrasing is pleasing to my ear, as expected, and the piano's tone is crystal-clear and gorgeous).

Why had I missed Brahms before and what did the pianist have to do with my "hearing?"

Everything. Brahms' composition played itself through Bernstein.

Then I remembered a much-loved pop or folk song, "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen. Until I happened upon Roberta Flack singing it many years ago, I never understood or related to that song. All of a sudden while casually listening, I was struck by a series of gentle chills from the opening notes (of course, there is the maple-syrup-and-velvet voice of Flack!) and the meaning came clear, at least a meaning particular to me. It was not an intellectual event; it was a bodily understanding. At that moment I fell deeply in love with both the lyrics and the melody joined together.

The Cohen song and Brahms' piece existed in black-and-white on score paper, and others had tried to communicate them to me, but they did not come home to my heart or spirit until Flack -- and Bernstein - transmitted the pieces.

It is the pianist - the right pianist - who brings the light of day, awakens my heart, and liberates the music from the score! Admittedly who that magical pianist is, will differ from listener to listener; a friend sent me to Pogorelich's presentation but it sounded much like Gould to me. I am convinced that what we love and hear as "music" is highly individualistic for the most part.

But no matter who that person may be for you, the singer or instrumentalist who plays a piece adds flame to the ember the composer gives us, and makes music into fire.

* * *

(The following poems are from "Poetical Musings" Vol II, in preparation)

For Those Who Listen

Form and emotion, A. Storr* says,

propel the argument

that one or the other does prevail.

It’s no accident

that to appreciate someone’s composition

takes more than narrow views

of just the form. The listener

adds an element, too,

and so confounds the bloody matter!

If new music, then form

prevails to focus attention

while emotions pale so often.

But give us memory of a piece well known,

and emotions may hold sway;

we sense the structure embedded there,

our pleasure not delayed.

Form and content, body and soul,

in humans indivisible;

if one comes first or last, at last,

no matter to the sensible


*Anthony Storr (1920-2001), Music and the Mind. This book

is my favorite book about music and musicology. Dr. Storr

was a respected British psychiatrist, author, journalist, and

radio and TV commentator who had a keen love of music

and literature as well as medicine and psychiatry. He played

the viola and sang in the choir of Winchester College.

An Amateur Pianist’s Prayer

May I be just who I am

and not compare how I would be

and how I hear and what I hold dear,

had I but begun at age two or three?

May I hold on, do what I’m able,

never fall into despair

or write my epitaph before the flow

when I can express just what I hear?

May I expect a welcome touch,

from those who know just what I hear

and lead me forward with the kindest grace

to join the ecstasy in music’s place?

May I have grace to go inside

while music plays itself through me,

and as I sit at my Duchess fair,

unity in music and life come clear?

# # #

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