Brief an einen jungen Musiker

Classical, Romantic, Modern, Neo-Romantic! These labels may be convenient for musicologists, but they have nothing to do with composing or performing. In fact, they may be more of a hindrance than a help in the education of young performers. All music is the expression of feelings, and feelings do not change over the centuries. Style and form change, but not the basic human emotions. Purists would have us believe that music from the so-called Classical period should be performed with emotional restraint, while so-called Romantic music should be played with emotional freedom. Such advice has often resulted in exaggeration: overindulgent, uncontrolled performances of Romantic music and dry, sterile, dull performances of Classical music.

As far as Mozart is concerned, we know from his letters that he showed great concern for musical expression: he continually criticized performers whose playing lacked freedom for their “mechanical execution” and the absence of “taste and feeling”. As for Beethoven, historical accounts describe his playing as very free and emotional—the trademark of a Romantic.

All my life, ever since I was a young man, I have considered music of all periods romantic. There is, of course, an objective, intellectual component to music insofar as its formal structure is concerned; but when it comes to performance, what is required is not interpretation but a process of subjective re-creation.

The notation of a composer is a mere skeleton that the performer must endow with flesh and blood, so that the music comes to life and speaks to an audience. The belief that going back to an Urtext will ensure a convincing performance is an illusion. An audience does not respond to intellectual concepts, only to the communication of feelings.

A dictionary definition of ‘romantic’ usually includes the following: ‘Displaying or expressing love or strong affection; ardent, passionate, fervent.’ I cannot name a single great composer of any period who did not possess these qualities. Isn’t, then, all music romantic? And shouldn’t the performer listen to his heart rather than to intellectual concepts of how to play Classical, Romantic or any other style of music?

Of course, mastery implies control—in music as well as in life. But control that is creative does not limit or restrain feelings or spontaneity. It is rather a setting of standards, limits and boundaries in regard to taste, style and what is appropriate to each composer. In order to become a truly re-creative performer, and not merely an instrumental wizard, one needs three ingredients in equal measure: a trained, disciplined mind, full of imagination; a free and giving heart; and a Gradus ad Parnassum command of instrumental skill. Few musicians ever reach artistic heights with these three ingredients evenly balanced. This is what I have been striving for all my life.

Vladimir Horowitz

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