83 Hours per Song and Counting
I was fascinated this morning to read a review of Alan Rusbridger’s book Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible. Rusbridger is an editor at the Guardian and information about his quest to learn Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op 23 in a year, while maintaining his day job can be found here:
I shall now buy a copy of the book.
I am interested because almost exactly 10 years ago, I decided that I should tackle Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. I found a singing teacher and, with my wife, Alison, playing the accompaniments, I’ve been working on those 24 songs for those ten years. I have a 1 hour lesson each week and work at least 30 minutes each evening, either singing or listening to interpretations by different singers. Allowing for our occasional excursions into Die Schoene Muellerin, Schwanengesang and (horror!) Schumann’s Dichterliebe and holidays and business trips, I would estimate that Alison and I have spent at least 2000 hours working on those 24 songs. That’s only 83 hours per song so we have a long way to go.
There’s a long walk between a Chopin Ballade and a Schubert Song Cycle and, not being able to understand how anyone can play the piano’ (I have too much co-ordination to be able to do different things with my left and right hands), I can’t say which is harder. Or which is more rewarding.
The difficulty with the songs is projecting the song while not “living it”. I heard a Canadian singer on the radio just before Christmas. She was being interviewed about the calls that were made on her around Christmas to sing an incredibly syrupy song that I hadn’t heard before called “O Holy Night”. She told the interviewer that her interpretation of it had got a lot better since she stopped being a Christian. The interviewer double-took on this but the singer explained that, if the words mean something directly to the singer, then the singer doesn’t project them correctly to the audience.
My teacher says that to me, too. The trouble is that the songs in Winterreise are written in the first person. I see the signpost indicating the path from which no one has ever returned. It is my tears that fall onto the snow, are carried to the river and glow as they pass my ex-girl’s house. I see the lights on in the bedrooms of the bourgeois as I walk through their town. It is I who seeks out the stony and steep paths. I lost the girl! Not you.
It is easy to get sucked in and finish the song on my knees, hands pressed to my heart with tears pouring from my eyes, drowning the mice in our living room. It is much harder to tell the story and convey that emotion to the audience. Thomas Quasthoff (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Quasthoff) can do it. So can Thomas Hampson (http://www.thomashampson.com/), in spades. Perhaps the next 10 years will help me find the way. The way from which no one presumably ever returns.