“Many performers have been performing Bach for years without experiencing for themselves the deepening that Bach is capable of bringing out in any true artist. Most of our singers are far too caught up in a technique to sing Bach correctly. Only a very small number of them can reproduce the spirit of his music; the rest of them are incapable of penetrating into the Master’s spiritual world. They do not feel what Bach is trying to say, and therefore cannot transmit it to anyone else. Worst of all, they consider themselves to be outstanding Bach interpreters and have no awareness of what it is that they lack. The danger is that our love for Bach’s music will become superficial and that too much vanity and smugness will be mixed in with it. …. A bit less noise, a bit less “Bach dogmatism,” a bit more ability, a bit more humility, a bit more tranquillity, a bit more devotion… Only thus will Bach be more honored in spirit and in truth than he has been before.”[i][i]

Many of us remember and respect Albert Schweitzer for his work as a medical missionary and his well-deserved winning of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Peace. But, a perhaps less well-known fact is that Schweitzer was also an accomplished organist and musical theorist with many books on music and musical recordings (especially the work of J.S. Bach) to his credit. The above words belong to Schweitzer and are imbued his characteristic humility and a disdain for music played without feeling.

In his book, “I Am a Strange Loop” (which incidentally is about an essential physicalist theory of the mind), Douglas Hofstadter is reminded of Schweitzer’s above observation after Hofstadter heard someone play a Bach composition which was a “nonstop display of unrestrained vocal virtuosity… terribly impressive… but also terribly vapid.”[ii][ii] This made Hofstadter long to hear the “slightly flawed, very mortal, and reflective profundity” of Schweitzer playing the organ in the village in Alsace where he grew up.

Jonathan Biss, the American concert pianist, expresses a similar sentiment when he describes the playing of a Schumann composition by Joseph Szigeti, the Hungarian violinist, who was 64 and arthritic when the recording was made. Szigeti’s playing here, as Biss notes, could only be fairly and charitably described as wobbly. But what is more important is that “the fragility of the playing — the feeling the listener has that every note is taking just a bit of the player’s life-blood — is precisely the quality that makes it so riveting… Think of a person trying to say something deeply painful, and of the words being caught in his throat — in as pure or as riveting a manner.”[iii][iii]

It is no doubt easy to sneer at technical brilliance for its lack of feeling. We sometimes fail to appreciate sufficiently the years of dedication and practice that culminates in such musical excellence. It is undeniable, therefore, that Sudip Bose, the managing editor of “The American Scholar” is justified in vehemently objecting to the facile criticism of “empty virtuosity.”[iv][iv] Bose decries the fact that “by suggesting that a highly developed technique… has no value of its own suggests that virtuosity is… without feeling.. cold”. Bose attests instead that he has at times felt a great emotional response when listening to music played with talent verging on the impossible.

Nevertheless, one could also argue that what Bose talks about is an emotional reaction and enjoyment by the audience at a solely personal level. Several things lift the performance of music far above such merely esoteric appreciation. One is the realization where the artist is not playing solely to show off his wares but is also imbued with a certain uncertainty about his own abilities and an unceasing desire to strive for a higher level of performance and feel. As Biss observes, “there is no quality which is more powerful or has a greater capacity to move than doubt. (Put another way, we are drawn to performers not because they have the answers but because we can hear them asking the questions.)”[v][v]

What ennobles music, even more, is when it acts as a universal language that can transcend differences and disabilities that may prove insurmountable for mankind’s other linguistic systems. Robert Gupta (who is both an acclaimed concert violinist and also a neurobiologist, and is just 25 years old) recounts – in his April 2012 TED presentation – how he saw in a YouTube video Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford working with her speech therapist. In the video, Gifford struggles to produce some very basic words (as the bullet that entered her head knocked out the speech regions of her brain). But, when her speech therapist tries to make her sing with him, Gifford can clearly enunciate the words of the song in one beautiful descending scale.[vi][vi] Gupta feels moreover that the synchrony of emotion that we experience when we hear great music reminds us, again and again, our shared oneness, “the deeply communal connected consciousness.” Gupta supports this by presenting a few examples where he has been instrumental in helping kindle – if only temporarily – in people living in dehumanizing conditions (such as the homeless or those in prison) a spark of hope and a feeling of our underlying humanity.

Friedrich Nietzsche put it very succinctly, “without music, life will be a mistake.”

[ii] ibid

[iii] Biss, Jonathan (2011-12-14). Beethoven’s Shadow (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations, 231-237). Rosetta Books. Kindle Edition.

[iv] http://theamericanscholar.org/on-virtuosity/

[v] Ibid, location 357.

[vi] http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_gupta_between_music_and_medicine.html

By Venkat Ramanan