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Aspects of Vision

by Gillian Weir

'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

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 œuvre, 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.

  1. Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth
  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, 28 January 1999


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