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This is the first of a series by great performers of our time
revealing their own perceptions about the power of music.

Part I

'The vision thing', the President called it - burdening the word for all time with a carapace of cynicism and the odour of expediency. To cleanse it, back to Wordsworth: '.....And by the vision splendid is on his way attended'. 1

The glory and the agony of a musician's life are one and the same: the attending vision is both the spur and the beacon, a siren call impossible to resist and a bubble of perfection that floats maddeningly away just as one reaches to grasp it. Students often ask me whether I would advise them to choose a career as a performer, and I always say 'No'. Why? Because they asked. I was always afraid to ask that question - in case No was the answer; I did not choose music, the vision chose me, and I remain seduced, haunted, comforted and mesmerised by it.

My first response to music was through the movement of the body. I grew up in a small New Zealand town where 'The Orchestra' came but once a year to play, and where the radio was companion and lifeline. Often in the enchantment of half-darkness, I would hug myself with the excitement of encountering a Brahms concerto, a Tchaikovsky symphony, and rise to embrace the friendly shadows the music created in my mind to dance about the house with me, a six-year-old discovering the power of music to enthral and possess.

'Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy' 2, and subjection to the discipline of the years of study that followed my magical early experiences brought awareness of much else in the music, other than that first unquestioned and hypnotic power. But although discrimination was learned, sensibilities refined, perceptions tuned, there was never any sense of imprisonment by this tantalising, ever-present muse. Rather did the vision give me freedom. I have always felt shackled by the daily round and its common tasks, the irritations of everyday life, by all the intimations of mortality through which we plod. The vision showed me a different world; more than showed - it took my hand and drew me into it, a world boundless, beauteous, shining and perfect; a world that was serious but never insincere, where truth reigned but was never judgemental; a world that existed in my mind and was made up of oscillating frequencies but seemed to me infinitely more real and substantial and above all sane than the one we have agreed to call the physical world but which, come to think of it, is also made up of oscillating frequencies but ones that jangle and are ill-tuned and chaotic.

It sounds like escapism, and it is an escape, but for a musician it is an escape into reality rather than from it. And one is not alone there; in fact less so than in the lonely company of a crowd. For it is a meeting-place of like minds, and it is a means of sending a message free of the hazards and limitations of speech and the written word, with all their possibilities of misinterpretation and mistranslation. The composer Olivier Messiaen devised a 'musical language' - a specific set of parallels in musical notation for words and grammar - to convey favourite quotations; but he admitted that it was 'a game' 3, and would have been shooting himself in the foot had he not, as he also wrote longingly of the angels' power to convey thought without speech but directly heart to heart. This is what music does; and we need it precisely because it does what words can not. Just as spiritual revelation bypasses the process of weighing up logistical evidence, the message of music can be received by each listener at his own level and in his state of preparedness, and it is all the truer for it. (The former in particular is much criticised because of this lack of verification through argument, but that does not lessen its importance to the recipient.)

One meets there not only like minds receiving the message but the mind of the composer who sent it. There is also, and most importantly, the essence of the piece itself, what might be called the mind of the music. It is usually taken for granted that this is synonymous with that of the composer, but I do not think it is. A work of art takes on a life of its own, one that may have more elements than the composer, consciously at any rate, gave it. Michelangelo's description of sculpting as the releasing of a figure from the marble is familiar, and while a composer undoubtedly carves and chips and moulds, the process is surely analogous, just as a novelist will often say that when he creates his characters he does not know every action they will take but observes them as they act out their lives within his pages. Mozart's account of the manner of his own receiving of a composition is interesting in this regard:

'When I am feeling well, and in good humour, perhaps when I am travelling by carriage, or taking a walk after a good dinner, or at night when I cannot sleep, my thoughts come in swarms and with marvellous ease. Whence and how do they come? I do not know; I have no share in it. Those that please me I hold in mind and I hum them, at least so others have told me. Once I catch my air, another soon comes to join the first, according to the requirements of the whole composition, counterpoint, the play of the various instruments, etc., and all these morsels combine to form the whole. Then my mind kindles, if nothing happens to interrupt me. The work grows - I keep hearing it, and bring it out more and more clearly, and the composition ends by being completely executed in my mind, however long it may be. I then comprehend the whole at one glance, as I should a beautiful picture or a handsome boy, and my imagination makes me hear it, not in its parts successively as I shall come to hear it later, but as a whole in its ensemble. What delight it is for me! It all, the inspiration and the execution, takes place in me as if it were a beautiful and very distinct dream. What I get in this way I do not forget any more easily, and this is perhaps the most precious gift the Lord has given me. If I then sit down to write, I have only to draw from this store in my mind what has already accumulated there in the way I have described. Moreover, the whole is not difficult to fix on paper. The whole is perfectly determined, and rarely does my score differ much from what I have had already in my mind.' 4

Copyright © Gillian Weir, 27 January 1999

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