Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible

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9780374232917: Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible

As editor of the Guardian, one of the world's foremost newspapers, Alan Rusbridger abides by the relentless twenty-four-hour news cycle. But increasingly in midlife, he feels the gravitational pull of music―especially the piano. He sets himself a formidable challenge: to fluently learn

Chopin's magnificent Ballade No. 1 in G minor, arguably one of the most difficult Romantic compositions in the repertory. With pyrotechnic passages that require feats of memory, dexterity, and power, the piece is one that causes alarm even in battle-hardened concert pianists. He gives himself a year.

Under ideal circumstances, this would have been a daunting task. But the particular year Rusbridger chooses turns out to be one of frenetic intensity. As he writes in his introduction, "Perhaps if I'd known then what else would soon be happening in my day job, I might have had second thoughts. For it would transpire that, at the same time, I would be steering the Guardian through one of the most dramatic years in its history." It was a year that began with WikiLeaks' massive dump of state secrets and ended with the Guardian's revelations about widespread phone hacking at News of the World. "In between, there were the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring, the English riots . . . and the death of Osama Bin Laden," writes Rusbridger. The test would be to "nibble out" twenty minutes per day to do something totally unrelated to the above.

Rusbridger's description of mastering the Ballade is hugely engaging, yet his subject is clearly larger than any one piece of classical music. Play It Again deals with focus, discipline, and desire but is, above all, about the sanctity of one's inner life in a world dominated by deadlines and distractions.

What will you do with your twenty minutes?

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About the Author:

Alan Rusbridger has been the editor of the Guardian since 1995. Born in Northern Rhodesia, he was educated at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Friday, 6 August 2010
The annual holiday begins. It’s unadventurous of us, but for the past few years we’ve taken the same house on the La Foce estate in the Val d’Orcia in Italy. It’s an old farmhouse with a pool and works fine for someone who, once they’re on holiday, has no great inclination to move more than a hundred yards from the kitchen, a deckchair or a swim. The landscape all around is baked and agricultural – day after day a vast tractor ploughs the soil which breaks into such great boulders of heavy clay that it seems impossible that anything could grow in it. In the 1920s, the Anglo-American writer Iris Origo, who lived on the estate with her husband, Antonio, an Italian duke, described the area as marked by ‘low clay hillocks’ which are ‘as bare and colourless as elephants’ backs, as mountains of the moon’. The UNESCO World Heritage List calls it: ‘an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was rewritten in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture’. The Renaissance flavour certainly hits you on rare sorties out of the house to the extraordinary hilltop town of Pienza, whose fifteenth-century cathedral and palaces tower over a valley with a view which can’t have changed much over the past five centuries.
The holiday villa consists of four bedrooms above a ground floor which would once have been a winter shelter for animals and is now a very large ping-pong room with futons for spill-over guests. And, this year, a piano – quite unexpected and unasked for. It transpires the previous occupants had ordered it and the rental company has so far failed to collect it. So there it is: a shiny Yamaha upright in the corner of the downstairs room.
Saturday, 7 August
The La Foce estate is dotted with houses tucked away on hillsides or on the edges of forests. Mostly, you never discover who is staying in these houses: there is just the distant sight of a car kicking up dust along a winding white road, or the echoes of laughter. But there is a bush telegraph at work, with the occasional invitation to a drink or meal.
In the evening, Lindsay and I take a twenty-five-minute drive up a tortuous, rutted track to a hilltop house with spectacular views over the valley below. And there among the guests, sipping a glass of wine and gazing out over the volcanic valley, is none other than Alfred Brendel. He is looking good at eighty, and much more relaxed and easy-going since playing his last piano recital in Vienna, in December 2008 – I had reviewed the Musikverein concert in the Guardian. Over a drink Brendel says he’s perfectly happy with his post-performance life. He didn’t, he insists, live for applause or accolades. Lots of people may have shed tears when he gave up, but not him. Is he happy talking about the piano? It’s difficult to tell, but he is extremely graceful in answering my questions, which I hope don’t fall into the category of ‘Where, as an editor, do you get all your stories from?’
He talks about the age in which he grew up – where you had to choose between the classical tradition (Haydn–Beethoven–Schubert) and Chopin (and, to a degree, Liszt). Brendel made one Chopin recording – and then, with some regrets now, decided not to play any more Chopin for the rest of his career. But he did play the G minor Ballade before the curtain came down on Chopin. I ask him about it. It is, objectively, not the hardest, he says, but it is very difficult to interpret. He tells me that the thing one has to realise about Chopin is that he was the only composer who wrote purely for the piano. The music grows out of the instrument. With all other composers you feel they have a symphonic side, or a choral side, which comes out in their piano music, but with Chopin it was all piano music.
Sunday, 8 August
Today, when the house is empty and there is no danger of being overheard, I decide it’s time to begin. The girls will sleep in late. Lindsay is down at the pool. I have two hours to myself. I sit down at the shiny Yamaha and for the first time try sight-reading Chopin’s G minor Ballade. I’ve known the piece since university, but it has never once, in the intervening years, occurred to me to try to play it. Turns out I was right to avoid it: it is surely an impossible piece for any amateur pianist to pull off. As I sit with my fingers fumbling their way laboriously over the notes at snail’s pace, I am immediately overwhelmed with frustration. The technical challenges are so enormous. What if I’d not left it so late, if I’d kept up twenty minutes a day from the age of 30 instead of 50? Maybe then it wouldn’t be so impossible.
The first of Chopin’s four Ballades was probably composed around 1834–5. Chopin was about 24 and was living in Paris, having left Warsaw for an unsatisfactory nine-month stay in Vienna around the time of the 1830 uprising against Russian hegemony. Various musicologists think all these historical details help understand what’s going on in the piece. A listener, they say, has to understand this is a work of exile. It’s a piece composed during a revolutionary period when Polish nationalism found its way into culture – in the case of music, by virtue of folk songs or by drawing on folkloric forms from literature. Chopin, unable to return to Warsaw, wrote mazurkas and polonaises. He read the ballades of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and moved away from many aspects of the classical tradition which arguably reached its peak with the late works of Beethoven. The Ballades were complex and revolutionary pieces in every way.
The Ballade lasts just under ten minutes – at least in the hands of professionals – and begins with a declamation. If this is a story, the storyteller is calling everyone to attention. For five bars there are only octaves, with no internal harmony or colouring. The starkness of the notes is compounded by confusion as to where they lead. It’s not entirely clear what key the piece is in or where the tonal centre lies. The introduction ends with an extraordinary chord (bar 7) known as a Neapolitan sixth. This is an ‘unstable’-sounding chord which has to be resolved – not straight to the key of the overall piece, G minor, but to the ‘dominant’ key of D before finally reaching G minor in bar 9.
By now we’re into the first theme – theme A, which is certainly in G minor. But there’s a little motif in that introduction which is worth noticing, a little ‘sigh’ in the second half of bar 3. We hear it again in bars 9/10 and across 13/14 – and then repeatedly and wistfully through the opening Moderato. Theme A is tender, yearning and built around a tentative two-bar phrase which Chopin keeps restating, each time with a slight harmonic or melodic variation. It’s a lilting fragment of a tune at this stage, not quite a waltz, but with the hint, or echo, of one. There’s also the suggestion of a heartbeat in the throb-throb pulse of the left-hand (LH) chords, the first maybe a tiny bit louder than the second. Only at bar 22 can we sink into a longer, more fluent statement. Then for a moment the music swells in confidence, only to become more hesitant again by bar 29.
From bar 36 we’re into a linking passage – once more with a hint of the sighing motif from the introduction. At first the mood is still tender and wistful. But this four-bar phrase is repeated agitato and suddenly we’re jolted out of a gentle, if sometimes edgy, world into something more menacing. The music is much faster now, more percussive and fragmentary. As before, there’s a suggestion of a waltz, but a rather demotic one.
At bar 48 the mood changes again. Everything – at least in a professional performance – has been speeding up. Suddenly there’s a torrent of sound – the left hand hammering and insistent over a cascade of right-hand (RH) notes with syncopated cross-rhythms. A series of rippling arpeggios and thundering LH octaves firmly establishes that we’re rooted in G minor.
And then there’s a simply magical transformation. The insistent hammering LH G minor chords in 56 and 60 become – in 64 – a far-off horn call. And then another and another. The music fades as the call becomes more distant. And we’ve changed key. Are we in F major now or F minor? Everything, within a bar, melts into E-flat major for the second tune – theme B. Once again, there is the lilt of a waltz to the tune, but this is the most exquisitely tender love music – sighs and all. Throughout the piece, Chopin never allows one mood to prevail for long. Within fifteen bars (at bar 82) there’s an apparently new motif introduced – a little triplet ornament in the RH. In fact, it’s a speeded-up variation on theme A, though not explicit enough for most ears to recognise it as such immediately.
At bar 92 the mood changes again. The temperature drops around 10 degrees in the space of a few notes, the harmonies wither away to a bleak and bare E. The throb-throb – so tender in the first hearing of theme A – is now a little menacing. The heartbeat is quickening a little as theme A returns in a much edgier way. The sigh has become anxious and, by bar 99, almost a question.
But then sunlight floods into the piece. At bar 106 theme B returns – by now not a whisper of love, but as something majestic or triumphant. It’s large, expansive, grandiloquent music over grand fortissimo chords in the LH. Or is it? Pianists can’t even agree over the key here – some think it’s A major, some E major. And some urge you not to be seduced by the apparent grandeur. Listen more carefully: it’s ironic, can’t you see?
By 119 the grand mood, ironic or not, is dissipating. The LH chords become more dissonant, while the RH has ever more and insistent octave runs up to a dramatic fortississimo climax which lasts precisely one beat before it comes crashing down to something like pianissimo two bars later. Now the mood, with the goading LH interruptions and quickening tempo, is positively anxious. The clouds are once more casting a shadow of doubt.
But then what happens? Chopin – out of nowhere – gives us a real waltz (bar 138), not an implied or twisted or suggested one. We’re back in a major key and the RH has a piece of filigree ornamentation over the elegant three-step LH. We could be in a Paris ballroom. But are we? Is this more irony? Is that the ‘sigh’ returning in the LH, with its feeling of regret and longing? Is the RH actually a distorted version of theme A?
In any case – and long before you have a chance to decide on any of that – the waltz is over as suddenly as it began. It’s lasted precisely seven bars – in the middle of which (bar 141) Chopin subverts the whole thing by writing cross-rhythms into the RH which make the ear hear a bar in four time rather than three time.
Virtually throughout the piece the music is either falling or rising. Now, at bar 146, it starts rising chromatically and then in angular repeated patterns leading to another fortissimo one-beat climax – a second inversion (hence very ‘unstable’ F-sharp major chord) followed four bars later by a sforzando second inversion E-flat major chord at 158. The music rises again. And immediately, at 162, cascades down to another fortissimo restatement of theme B at 166. We’re in B-flat major now – closely related to the original G minor. For some twenty-five bars the LH ripples away with an arpeggiated bass as the RH sings the theme … majestically? It certainly could be. But maybe by now the listener has learned to mistrust any of the surface moods of the music. It is never quite as tender, nor as sweet, nor grandiloquent, nor charming as it seems at first. Perhaps we simply suspend judgement and let the great heaving ocean waves of glory roll over us. By 180 the alert ear will pick up the double-speed variant of theme A that Chopin first introduced halfway through the first statement of theme B. Now (bar 180) it’s a con forza – but soon melting.
By 194 it’s melted. Precisely a hundred bars earlier the temperature dropped to a single note of doom. It does so again now, but a note lower. We’re back with theme A, with the heartbeat LH. But no one could mistake this for tenderness now. It’s an adrenaline heartbeat. There’s worry, barely controlled panic in the sound. By 202 the RH sigh has been repeated three times. Theme A – remember how lilting, gentle and waltzlike it first sounded? – is turning to terror.
At 206 Chopin lays down an organ-like pedal in the dominant D and tells the pianist to play passionately and as loudly as possible. Something terrible is coming. In 207 he winds the spring to a pitch of unbearable tension which is only released with the arrival of G minor at the start of the coda.
The coda is the bit nearly every pianist fears, no matter how good they are, no matter how many hundreds of hours they’ve put into this piece. It explodes. It’s presto con fuoco – extremely fast and fiery. The syncopated rhythms can throw and confuse the ear, the feet, the brain and the fingers. The RH is soon flying up and down the keyboard in trapeze-like leaps completely unrelated to the LH’s own jumps. Something diabolic is happening – the listener must hear that – a sense of loss of control and a shattering of all earthly order. But how to convey that abandon without a loss of technical control?
By 230 the music is edging up chromatically, suggesting creeping horror. By 238 everything is falling to earth. Four bars later we’re on our way back up – another chromatic sweep in the RH against a LH fanfare. And, at 246, the reverse – plunging from the top of the keyboard to the bottom, arriving on a knell of G minor. A moment of still. Then – whoosh – back up. A quiet chorale G minor chord. Theme A in its manic form breaks in. Silence. Again, another upward swoop – four octaves of G minor, this time in tenths. Silence. Chorale. Manic theme A. And – the most revolutionary ending to any piano piece ever written to that point? – a crashing convergence of octave chords. They start from opposite ends of the keyboard at first getting slower, then faster and faster. Sometimes harshly dissonant, sometimes not, they end with two octaves of a chromatic G minor scale. A final doom-laden knell of G minor.
*   *   *
So what’s going to stop me being able to play this piece? I start to construct a list of the horrendous technical challenges which – at any other point in my life – would have deterred me from even trying. Here are a dozen immediately obvious reasons why the piece is unplayable … by me.
This sort of stuff at bar 33 – squashed flies on a page – happens all over Chopin. One moment everything’s calm, the next the right hand is fitting in millions of notes for every note in the LH. Well, not millions, but enough for the little black dots to blur in front of the eyes and beads of sweat to form on the forehead. Four per note for the first three beats. And then – count them – eighteen for the next three. Six a beat, strictly speaking, except that would sound rather mechanical. So perhaps split them six-eight-four? They have to sound effortless. But that means a long time with a pencil writing in exactly which finger is going to play which note and then memorising it all.
The first bit of passage work which hits you three pages in. This is really hard. The LH starts in one octave and then plummets an octave. So does the RH, but exactly a bar later. The LH figure is a clumsy mixture of third fingers and fifth fingers – they’ll have to find the leaps on their own because the eyes are going to be on the RH, which is darting all over the place – difficult fingerings, difficult leaps, twisty shapes. And the fact that the eyes are not going to be on the music means that eve...

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