The Muse

When consulting the Muse, one must be humble. Your best idea won’t interest her. She often wants your castoffs. She values what you do not.


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Remembering Newtown – December 2012

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before. — Leonard Berstein

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On 7th November 1901 Gustav Mahler, Director of the Royal Opera, met and fell in love with »the most beautiful girl in Vienna«, Alma Schindler, over dinner at the house of Berta Zuckerkandl. The girl, who was nineteen years younger than he, yielded to the courtship, and the wedding took place just a few weeks later.

“You must understand that I could not bear the sight of an untidy woman with messy hair and neglected appearance.” Thus did Gustav Mahler tell Alma Schindler what he expected from a wife. He also added that he would require her to agree to their living apart when he so desired, to have separate entrances to their home and agree in advance when they would spend time together. Of course she would be expected to be beautifully dressed and well-groomed at all times.

After a honeymoon spent in Russia, where Mahler conducted 3 concerts in St. Petersburg, they returned to their home and real life began. “Work, exaltation, self-denial and the never-ending quest were his whole life…he noticed nothing of all it cost me. He was utterly self-centered by nature, and yet he never thought of himself. His work was all in all.” Alma’s words echoed those of conductor Bruno Walter, a champion of Mahler’s music who said, “Mahler loved humanity but often forgot about men.”

Alma and Gustav had 2 daughters, Maria, “Putzi,” and Anna, “Guckerl” .  The marriage had several rocky times, and during one of them  Alma had an affair with Walter Gropius, causing untold misery to Gustav. However, one might understand her frustration at being the wife of a controlling man…even if he was one of the world’s greatest composers. Her mission was to serve him and cater to all his needs, sublimating her own in the process.

Alma had lived a very exciting life up to the time she met Mahler. A student of composition with Alexander von Zemlinsky, she also became his mistress. Other affairs with Gustav Klimt, an Austrian Symbolist painter and Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian Expressionist painter, showed her preference for men of accomplishment in the arts. After Mahler she would marry the German architect and founder of Bauhaus Walter Gropius and finally Franz Werfel, Austrian-Bohemian poet, playwright and novelist.

“I can’t remember sleeping soundly”, she wrote in her diary. “The growing sense of dissatisfaction that keeps you awake at night. The brain refusing to let go of those alternative lives that might have been.”

It isn’t the strong sleepers that sleep around.

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The critic





“When one asks children what they want to be when they grow up, they never say ‘a critic,’ which proves that it’s a job for losers.” It’s impossible not to laugh with François Truffaut, who was a critic himself early on, at this statement that he put into the mouth of one of his characters.

Shall I give you an example? Who are these lines about? “Never before have we been so complacent in the face of the hideous. Is it lucidity? No, sadism. The author wallows in the stench of it. The heart tightens. The skin crawls. And one is rigid with embarrassment, the embarrassment of being there. Yes, I lowered my head, I didn’t look at the stage anymore. I had the feeling that I was taking part in obscene vision.” This author who “wallows in the stench of it”  – according to the sage judgment of this oracle who today is completely forgotten – is none other than Samuel Beckett, and the play, perhaps his most beautiful, was Happy Days. A nice job, criticism, which too often consists of finding the worst in the best, and vice versa, for lack of personal or objective point of view.

All joking aside, no one can deny the discerning heights that criticism can attain when it is the work of musicians like Debussy and Boulez, authors like Borges and Blanchot or, simply, beings who are still capable of being moved. In such cases, criticism is a parallel art, an homage paid by artists to their peers, attempting to transpose an emotion using other means, that of reason and of the mind. Baudelaire wrote about Wagner: “All great poets become naturally, inevitably, critics.”

Unfortunately, the reverse is rarely true. And I’m sorry, but these individuals lack the critical experience of stage fright, the face-to-face encounter with the hall in which every person is different from every other, where every listener (among them the critic) expects from you a distinct emotion, a specific response to his or her point of view about the work. They are missing the one-on-one encounter with themselves, seated at the piano whose keys suddenly resemble gleaming, formidable fangs. Face to face with doubt, despite hours of research and practice.

One of these critics, some time ago, called me a little goat with no taste, good only for jumping about onstage. A few years later, he wrote that, contrary to his expectations, I hadn’t changed a bit: I was still a pianist who deserved to be whipped. Still later, he admitted in the pages of the same paper that he had been moved by one of my  concerts that he attended; he was thrilled to have the chance once again to publicly change his opinion about me. That was the last one.

Today, I take the decrees of the press in stride. The public doesn’t need someone to prescribe whom they should like or not – they are adults, passionate and demanding, and they know what they like.

I admit that, in the beginning, these criticisms tormented me, until the day I took a good, hard look at them and discovered that, basically, there were more good reviews than bad. What struck me to the heart was how excessively cruel the bad ones were, their desire to go in for the kill. I considered them to be worthless, completely sterile.

An artist’s primary critic is herself: her goal is not illusory perfection, which would be stillborn – no one can speak exactly for the composers, or for their desires. What all real artists aim for is to use their lives to animate the life of the work they are playing, to give their entire being to it, in that perfect abandon – which is love.

The great painters never tried to reproduce the reality of faces line for line; they started from a model in order to draw from it the deepest part of existence. And then, what is there to reproduce in music? There is no model of the ideal interpretation, drawn up like the blueprint of a perfect temple, like a living human being. There is and can only be an encounter with the existence of music that is played. “Somewhere in the unfinished.”

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Alicia and Manuel

Das ist so megamegagenial!

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