Obscure, it seems, the altogether two-faced notion that we will never truly hear the music written by the greatest composers of our time and before. The notes once put to paper by Beethoven after he lost his hearing is a story we all know by now. The mention of it is no surprise, perhaps, in the context of the sense I get when I consider the composers who wrote the pieces now closest to my heart before we could record them actually playing from the page.
Are the pieces written by these great composers truly the pieces that are closest to my heart? What is the piece itself? Is it the notes on the page? The set tempo of the piece? Or is it the particular expression that one arrangement or one performer of the piece gives it? Is it that moment where one conductor guides the orchestra to speed over a certain note while one slows down?
It is, to my mind, apparent that each version of the music produced as a result of reading from the page – for example – Debussy’s Sonata for Cello & Piano: I Prologue, is infused with a different facet of the emotion implied by the notes and evoked upon hearing them. And so, if one musician arranges the piece to fit better their preference or playing style then we would hear that musician’s rendition of it. And, subtler then, the minor inflections and involuntary alterations another musician might make even if attempting to produce a performance as close to Debussy’s original vision as possible.
The twinge of a pain not felt since first love when the notes come together in a certain way to bring that feeling to the surface may be the reason we – conscious or not – connect with the piece and yet this and all other things affect the way we hear the piece when it is performed by another person. And their rendition will always go through their filter of emotion and perception as much as a minor muscle spasm from an injury suffered when falling from our bike as a child might affect the way we would play a certain coupling of notes if we were to take to a piano and perform the piece for ourselves.
And so, then, to listen to a piece performed by arguably the greatest composers of days gone by in exactly the way their creators would have intended is, in itself, impossible. All we have are, in comparison, pale imitations and try-hard replicas. Each notably significantly more beautiful than what is being shovelled through music studios en masse today but still not, in exact form and sound, entirely what was intended. And though we are never to truly hear the great Debussy’s Sonata for Cello & Piano: I Prologue, the brilliant Bach’s Bouree in E Minor or the genius Chopin’s heart-achingly beautiful Prelude in E Minor, we will always – for as long as we look after the world well enough – have written copies of their original works to interpret for years to come.
And while, no, we will never quite hear them as they were intended, we do have these innately ingenious works recorded in some form. And in that sense, we will be able to take these incredibly provocative works and recreate them, infused with our own feelings and emotions. And in this sense, while the extent of the subtleties of the genius of these great musicians in lost to a degree, the bulk of that brilliance lives on. And it falls to us, the creative minds of the modern era, to listen and reinterpret these pieces. Listening to the music closely so as to be sensitive to the profound nuances that remain hidden in trajectory and prose, we give ourselves the opportunity to access a deeper sense of creativity and wisdom that presides within each and every one of us. In such a way, these pieces of art allow us to access deeper and more valuable parts of ourselves and, in just existing, they invite us to call upon the genius which may have, until putting our fingers to strings or keys, remained dormant and waiting.
If we allow it, I believe all art can inspire us in such a way.