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Things That Have Interested Me

More Than a Feeling

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
16 September 2006

Supposing you took a complete stranger to western music to hear his first symphony orchestra, and on the way you told him a little of what to expect. Suppose you explained the role of the conductor, and said: "The conductor is there to explain to the audience what is going on in the orchestra. The musicians seldom look at him, and could happily perform without him. But it has been found that the audience likes to be shown the rhythm, and to have certain key moments underlined for them, especially if they are unfamiliar with the work.

"So, for instance, if there is an interesting entry for the oboes, the conductor will point them out to the audience just in time for us to watch the oboists as they play. And, most importantly, the conductor indicates to us what we should be feeling. If he looks cross, we too should start feeling cross. If he seems transported with delight, we should permit ourselves to be delighted. He is the prompter of our emotional response, and a sophisticated audience will make sure not to respond emotionally until he has given the signal."

How long would it take for our hypothetical stranger to realise that he had been misled? It depends, no doubt, on the conductor, but generally speaking, by the end of the evening, he looks a complete mess, an emotional wreck, while the members of the orchestra never seem to follow the conductor's emotional lead. They don't all shut their eyes when he does, or turn up their noses to sniff the air. So it might be fair to assume (experiencing all this for the first time) that the players are not expected to feel emotion.

Unless of course they are soloists, storming the keyboard or scraping away under the spotlight. They certainly display emotions, although not necessarily the emotions we expect. I watched Alfred Brendel playing Mozart's Duport Variations in Hamburg. When he began it was as if the piano, open before him, was an enormous open tin of suppurating pilchards, and he could scarcely bear to sit anywhere near it. But in the course of the evening, the fish-carrion smell seemed to wear off and, after keeping the instrument at arm's length, he ended up with his nose very near the keys.

It makes little difference to the experience, as long as you understand what the conventions are - that what looks like anger in one musician may be a purely musical anger, while another player, with a similar facial expression, has just heard a cellphone. Susan Tomes, in a little essay called "Keeping the Emotions out of Music", quotes Daniel Barenboim's advice to a masterclass: "Your task is to convey the emotion, not to experience it!" And she tells a story of Andre Previn, conducting a romantic symphony just after the death of a close friend.

"Feeling distraught, he resolved to dedicate the performance to his friend's memory. Throughout the piece he felt convinced that a sense of tragic power had elevated the whole performance. However, when he watched the video of the concert afterwards, he was horrified to find that far from raising the level of performance, his misery had got in the way. The way he directed the orchestra seemed haphazard and melodramatic, and his facial expressions distracting. His emotional identification with the music had actually prevented him from controlling it."

Such questions of the psychology of performance, as regards both the performer and the listener, have been of interest to Tomes in her books Beyond the Notes (Boydell, 2004) and A Musician's Alphabet (Faber, 2006). Tomes is a pianist specialising in the chamber repertoire, and the first book is largely about her experiences with two groups, Domus and the Florestan Trio. In "The Domus Diary" she asks such questions as: "How can it be that one feels a musical rapport with someone to whom one has little to say? Or how can it be that I feel musically distant from someone with whom I've just shared an intimate exchange of confidences about our private lives?" She answers: "There must be something about one's musical being that is not paralleled by one's social being."

In concert, Tomes tells us, "it can be quite hard to make contact with certain people, other than a kind of 'pantomime contact' which is almost done as though projecting what they imagine the audience wants to see. Actually I hate it when I glance across the platform and see someone give me an 'emotional look' of the kind that I never see on their face in ordinary life."

This reminds me of uneasy experiences at chamber music concerts, where some member of the group seems to spend too much time "signalling" - and it is hard for the inexperienced audience member to guess whether something is going wrong, or whether this is just an exhortation to raise the performance to a higher plane, or whether - as I now realise - there isn't an element of play-acting, and bad acting at that. So that what we may be experiencing is simultaneously great playing and ham acting.

"I have always had a great admiration," writes Charles Rosen in his Piano Notes (Free Press, 2002), "for an artist who appears to do nothing while achieving everything." He has been talking about things that pianists do which are not strictly necessary for the performance, although they might help the player psychologically in some way, or be persuasive for an audience.

Tomes, at the end of her essay on keeping the emotions out of music, comes to a similar point. "In every field of music," she says, "fans have a special love for those performers who give us the music as the primary experience, and themselves as the secondary experience. Audiences sense where the performer's priorities lie, and for whose sake they are in the business of performance." But the word "fans" in this sentence is used in a special sense, meaning something more like "connoisseurs". I would add that this distinction between giving the music and giving of the self is easier to maintain with players and with conductors than it is with singers. We expect a solo soprano to give of herself, and would feel thoroughly let down if she didn't.

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