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Part II

Continued from part I

The responsibility of the performer is enormous. We must be true to the composer, who gave us this work. We must also be certain that we are being true to our understanding of the piece. This is where, and why, the sterile application of received traditions will not do. A sense of style, a knowledge of the context from which the music sprang, and of the 'performance practice' (unhappy phrase), all these are certainly essential. They can help to lead the player deeper into music, closer to the mysterious centre where its nature resides. But they are never enough in themselves. Applied superficially, like a Band-Aid, or as a formula, they create only a mechanical reproduction of the notes. Keats writes: 'The excellency of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with beauty and truth'.5  It is only when the player's instincts bond with the soul of the work itself that the performance becomes an interpretation and an effective force, convincing because of its sureness of identification, its consistency of vision, its recognition of the truth. That is not to say that there is only one way to play a piece, one message to come from it. Just as a personality may have many facets and be thus endlessly fascinating, so a great work can be seen, within certain limits of style, in a myriad ways. That is why it can reach so many people, who hear it on their own terms, at many different levels.

What, then, is success, in the performance of a piece? There seems to be an alchemical process, made up of the chemistry of the composer, the performer through whose consciousness the work is filtered and by whom it is enriched (otherwise there would be no reason for more than one, recorded, performance), and the listeners, who acquire a corporate identity that interacts with the performer, materially influencing the result.

The balance of factors is extremely delicate, and to these main ingredients are still to be added the seasoning of the surroundings, the acoustics, the occasion. It is rare that everything comes together in even a brief state of perfection, but when they do it is a consciousness-changing experience for all involved. One of the supreme occasions for me came in 1985 when I played all Bach's organ works in a series for the University of Western Australia in Perth. They were arranged in 15 concerts over just three weeks, and although not every member of the audience attended every recital there was a nucleus who did. As we wended our way through the sublime wonders of the oeuvre, the spirit of the music became almost tangible. Despite temperatures of 104 degrees, I approached each concert with not only eager anticipation but a feeling of gratitude for what was happening.

This seemed to be shared by the audience, who after the last concert formed a long line of people bringing gifts - given to me, but brought also in thanksgiving for what was at the heart of the experience: the communicating of a vision, through the music. In perceiving this other world, and by his conviction proclaiming its reality, the performer becomes a transmitter, the strength of his own vision intensifying that of his audience. At such times the listener is not simply enjoying beautiful music; there is a sense of understanding, comprehending. Wordsworth puts it wonderfully: '....with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things'.6  In saying 'I then comprehend the whole at one glance' Mozart voices not only his method of composing but the essential requirement of a performer; at the end of a work there is - should be - a moment when the work as a whole hangs in the air as if tangible, triumphantly escaped from the chains of time, and free to be seen, felt, known.

Apart from that unforgettable Bach series, for me the experience has most often been repeated with the music of Messiaen. For six weeks in the spring of 1998 some one thousand people came each week to hear his organ music in the inimitable surroundings of London's Westminster Cathedral, their intense concentration a tribute to the music's power and the awareness that they were witnessing a creative process, taking place before and within them as the sounds shimmered in the air. Two months later it happened again, even though this time in a much more mundane acoustic and setting, in a small American church and in a European concert-hall. There was the moment of perfect union, too, in a Bach harpsichord concerto, when the performance took ecstatic wing and the orchestra, conductor and I conversed through the music with a joyous spontaneity that should be ever-present in our music-making, but is all too rare. These are the moments that humble and exalt at the same time; the moments when one feels least worthy of the music, but most grateful for a life lived at its centre.

Copyright © Gillian Weir, 28 January 1999

1,2 Intimations of Immortality     Wordsworth
 3 In conversation with the author
 4 Quoted by Prescott, The Poetic Mind (NY 1922)
and in part by Micklem Prophecy and Eschatology (London 1926)
 5 Letters of John Keats, To G. and T. Keats, 21 Dec 1817
 6 Tintern Abbey     Wordsworth

Gillian Weir Through her unparalleled career as an internationally-acclaimed concert organist, known for her virtuosity, integrity and outstanding musicianship, GILLIAN WEIR, one of today's foremost artists, has won the admiration of audiences and critics worldwide, placing her at the forefront of her profession.
Her fame as a performer, which has stimulated numerous young players to follow her, is backed by her scholarly reputation; she is in constant demand as an international adjudicator, lecturer, broadcaster, teacher and writer, while her television appearances have reached vast new audiences. She has received numerous awards and honours, including a CBE in 1989, and in the 1996 New Years' Honours List, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her distinguished services to music.