The other day, for the umpteenth time, I removed from my bookshelf My Life and Music, Artur Schnabel’s sometimes charming, sometimes ornery, always insightful series of lectures on his musical experiences. I opened the book — truly at random — to an exchange in the question-answer portion, which purportedly concerns Schnabel’s student (and my teacher) Leon Fleisher:
Voice: I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing your pupil, the young Mr. X, this summer and I would like to have your opinion of his work?
Mr. Schnabel: He is a highly gifted boy. He plays, for his age, amazingly well. The real difficulties for him lie in his future, for it is more difficult to retain fame than to gain it. I feel certain of his capacity to meet them.
Voice: He seems very much more mature than his seventeen years warrant, though.
Mr. Schnabel: Oh, I wouldn’t use that term: mature. It would in his case sound like an objection, almost a condemnation. He plays well, convincingly, with an already manifest personality of his own. His type of talent is not too common. He has imagination and courage. He will try things and face the risk of failure. That is nowadays a rather rare quality. Courage is suppressed by the pursuit of safety.
I am reprinting this delightfully on-the-mark analysis and prediction not because (or not merely because) I take pleasure in how on-the-mark it is. Rather, I’m very struck by what Schnabel has to say about maturity. I’ve quite often had the experience of being told that I seem mature, and feeling sort of queasy in response: it’s the queasiness that comes not just from receiving a compliment you don’t feel you deserve, but from feeling a little demeaned by the compliment. An extra layer of queasiness is provided by my inability to locate the precise source of the initial queasiness. (The final layer of queasiness arrives with my guilt over feeling queasy at what was, after all, meant as a compliment, but that is — counting generously — only tangentially related to the subject of this post.)
Schnabel — who did not mince words and did not, as far as I can tell, waste energy feeling queasy about things — cuts right to the heart of the matter. It is interesting, and revealing, to hear him place such value on having “a manifest personality of [one’s] own,” as we tend to associate Schnabel with the virtue of textual fidelity, and this is a nice reminder that textual fidelity is not, in fact, a virtue, in the way that eating brussels sprouts or taking in stray ferrets are virtues, but rather, when the text involved is a timeless masterpiece, a window into a world of possibility — a world where those with manifest personalities have a vast canvass on which to (forgive me) manifest them.
(Elsewhere in the book, responding to a question about his approach to music, he says, “Love has to be the starting point — love of music. It is one of my firmest convictions, that love always produces some knowledge, while knowledge only rarely produces something similar to love.” Perhaps, rather than persist with this blog, I should acquire the rights from the publisher, and simply copy Schnabel, line by line, in regular installments.)
These two processes, coming ever closer to the music that we play, and coming closer to ourselves — which, as Schnabel suggests, can and ought to occur in tandem — strike me as the basis of artistic growth. Put another way, they are both about paring down: removing the excess which clouds our vision, and stands in the way of self-knowledge, and thus, real expression.
On that journey, there are no short cuts. Some people may travel down those roads faster than others, but there is no substitute for the passage of time. And that is why, when I hear the word “mature” ascribed to me, or any other comparatively young musician, I wonder what it means. My nervous suspicion is that it implies that the person gives unimpeachable performances — performances in which holes cannot be punched, in which the performer has resorted to easy answers, because he cannot bear unanswered questions.
Schnabel often said that there is “no safe conduct to wisdom,” and these, as much as anything he ever said, strike me as words to live by. The reason that performing, in addition to all of the other things it is, is frightening, is that done properly, it exposes one’s weaknesses along with the rest of one’s qualities. Of all the memorable performances I have heard, none has been memorable because it was perfect; rather, those performances remain etched in my mind because nothing was hidden from view. With any performer, positive and negative qualities come together to make a unique whole, but no attribute has the potential to move quite so much as doubt. (Or: what moves us is not the sense that the performer has the answers, but rather an awareness that he is asking the questions.) Whatever maturity is, it is not the acquisition of certainty, and it certainly does not come from ignoring the questions.
In my own unsafe journey towards wisdom, or maturity, I am holding on tightly to my questions, and to my vulnerabilities; or, to paraphrase Schnabel once again, I am suppressing safety in the pursuit of courage.
"Berkeley Rep scrutinized InstantEncore and the competition. We opted for IE and have no regrets. Designing our mobile site and app was affordable, collaborative, and on-time. We launched both, and we love them. We can’t wait to see what they do for the Theatre."