How fascinating it is to walk around a city like Salzburg, so rich in cultural history, a place whose musical heritage reaches back centuries and today still glows with a unique kind of integrity and spirit. Pale yellow and white buildings enclose narrow cobblestone streets, with cafes and restaurants adorning old wrought-iron signs, not a skyscraper in sight. It’s as if the city breathes with the aura of an earlier era. Of course, Mozart was born here; there is a reminder on almost every street corner of his enduring legacy—Mozart chocolates, gift shops, even cafes and hotels named after him. Tourists flock to his famous Geburtshaus, as well as his residence on Makartplatz where he lived and worked throughout much of his life. One wonders how Mozart may have spent his free time all those years ago, which streets or cafes he frequented, where he would go to unwind or take a break from his composing.
As I roamed through the city streets I began to wonder how my own approach to music might be different if I had grown up in a place like Salzburg, a place where classical music is so deeply embedded within its culture. It reminded me of a lesson I had many years ago when I was playing Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. I remember my teacher saying to me, “you know, you’re playing it well. But you just need to live in Vienna for a few years.” To be honest, at the time her comment kind of bothered me; I didn’t quite know what to make of it. It’s not like I could just hop on a plane with all the money I didn’t have at the time and live in Vienna just so I could play that piece a little better. I mean, surely she could have given me something more practical to work on?
Of course, in retrospect, I do understand the truth behind her statement. One would certainly play it differently if one were to try to bring out the Viennese charm, the Gemütlichkeit, so inherent in the music. And maybe this is something one could only truly understand after having lived in Vienna for some time, experiencing the unique culture and lifestyle.
I received another very similar comment when I played Shostakovich’s concerto for a few people right before a competition. One Russian woman remarked, “it’s very good…but you need to live in Russia for five years then you’ll understand it better.” Again, it bothered me a lot. I distinctly remember my teacher being quite bothered too (at this point I had moved to the US and was studying with a different teacher, not the aforementioned one). But we both kind of knew what she was saying. The next time I played it in class my teacher said it sounded like I had lived in Russia for ten years!
Looking back now, it certainly makes me wonder. How necessary is it to experience the country or culture of a composer in order to interpret their music convincingly? Would living in Russia, for example, allow one to understand the emotional essence and message of Shostakovich’s music on a deeper level, and thus allow one to form a more convincing interpretation of his works? Do you think you would play his music differently after having lived there?
Sure, on the one hand I can definitely attest to the fact that being in Salzburg offered me a certain kind of inspiration that I could only really find in that particular place, owing to its specific historical roots. It was incredibly fulfilling simply to know that I was standing where Mozart once stood, where he once lived and breathed and wrote music. Similarly, I could imagine that living in Vienna for a few years would undoubtedly allow one to better understand the feeling behind some of the Viennese qualities of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. In this sense one could argue that experiencing the culture of a certain composer could potentially elevate one’s outlook in a unique way, and perhaps even open one’s mind and imagination to different creative possibilities in the music.
On the other hand, however, I’m not sure this is ultimately what is most important when it comes to performing a piece of music. Sure it might help a little bit; it might even lend one’s performance more musicality or nuance. Still, I’m not sure I would say it is absolutely necessary. Much more important, I think, is how one feels and interprets the music, understands it, and ultimately, shapes the experience for the listener. Of course, this would be different for every individual, with each person relating to the music in his or her own way. The question, then, should not be whether one has lived in a particular city, but whether one is able to bring the essence and soul of the music to life, or to tell the story of the music in a genuine and compelling way.
At the end of the day—and this has been proven to me time and time again—the most memorable and moving performances I have heard throughout my life are the ones that arise from a genuine connection between the heart of the performer and the spirit of the music. So much of this, I think, comes from life experiences, struggles, relationships and so on, all of which allow one to empathise more deeply with the emotional content of a piece of music. I have heard many beautiful and moving renditions of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata by cellists from all over the world, from all kinds of different cultures and backgrounds, many of whom I’m sure wouldn’t have the faintest idea about what life in Vienna might be like. Still, they are able to interpret the score and convey the spirit and essence of the music in a deeply moving way. It might not always be the “correct” way of playing the music, or the most authentic, but it still remains convincing nonetheless.