music “binges” . . .
Ever since I was young, I’ve been prone to going on music binges. What that means is that I listen over and over to music that I love, entering a world of tonal joy and ecstasy. I think this kind of visceral and emotional response to music runs in my family, actually, since there are a lot of musicians in the lineage on both my mother’s AND my father’s sides. I’m a pianist and have perfect pitch. My younger sister is a violist and violinist who has played professionally her whole life. I have a first cousin who is a cellist who studied with a famous teacher at Yale before going to medical school and becoming a pathologist. The three of us have played chamber music together on a few occasions in the past.
Be that as it may, it doesn’t really account for these binges that I’ve had where I discover for myself a composition or a related set of pieces and then play them to death. In those days, we didn’t have earphones so I would listen to music as a teenager, holed up in my bedroom with a 33 rpm player. Some of my favorites as a music nerd from that time were Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #3 with the heartbreakingly gorgeous third movement and clarinet solo that was and and still is “to die for.” The opening repeating octaves of Brahms’s Symphony #1 are thrilling every time I listen to it. Other favorites at the time included Leon Fleisher’s recordings of the 1st and 2nd Brahms piano concerti recorded with George Szell; David Oistrakh playing the Khachaturian violin concerto and Jacqueline Du Pre, Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zuckerman playing Beethoven trios together when they were still young, vibrant and brimming with life’s exciting possibilities.
Believe me, it was another era in music. It was before Jacqueline du Pre’s career and life were cut short by multiple sclerosis. It was during a time when du Pre and Barenboim ran off to Israel and got tempestuously married with Zubin Mehta taking on a Jewish name so he could attend their wedding. It was before Pinchas Zuckerman divorced his flautist wife, Eugenia and married Tuesday Weld. And it was before Jacqueline du Pre’s life ended in her forties, her erstwhile husband, Daniel Barenboim having secretly abandoned her for a Russian pianist, Elena Bashkirova with whom he had two sons in Paris before du Pre passed away. I’m recounting this history because it illuminates how life takes turns we don’t expect, people change and find other people to love and life sometimes seems unfair.
But come back and listen to du Pre’s famous recording of the Elgar cello concerto conducted by John Barbirolli (who himself was a cellist) and you won’t feel so bad. Her sound and phrasing are incredibly moving. I read online that while playing piano trios together, du Pre (cello) and Zuckerman (violin) shared an unspoken kind of musical intuition that was different from that of Barenboim (piano) who wrote down markings all the time. The other two didn’t bother to note anything in writing but would “take off together” musically on occasion while they played, neither of them able to articulate how it happened or why it worked so well.
Some of you might have heard of the gossipy book and movie made by du Pre’s sister, Hilary after she died. It stars Emily Watson, and whether parts of it were true or not, certainly maligned the cellist’s personal reputation while giving air time for her sister, Hilary. Why do people do this? One of Hilary’s daughters countered her mother’s account, saying her father was serially unfaithful, even while carrying on with Jacqueline during the last years of her life. What family does this to each other in the public’s glare? Why was it important for Hilary to get her digs in after Jacqueline du Pre not only died of multiple sclerosis but whose talent was so glorious? Maybe that’s why. Daniel Barenboim, who doesn’t come off very well no matter how you dice it, was said to have asked plaintively, “Why couldn’t they wait until after I was dead?”
I also read that William Pleeth was with du Pre when she passed away from MS at the age of forty-seven. Pleeth was her teacher for seven years and was a prodigy himself. He was the youngest scholarship student at the Leipzig conservatory when he entered. At the age of fifteen, he had not only learned all of Bach’s cello suites by memory but also had thirty-two violin concerti under his belt by that time. I didn’t even know there were that many violin concerti, familiar only with about a dozen of them. My father was an amateur violinist who would play excerpts from the familiar Mendelssohn violin concerto, especially the poignant melody from the second movement that knocks me out every time I hear it. It’s not only lovely to listen to, it reminds me of a much simpler time in our family’s life.
Other musicians have had incredible lives as well. Anne Sophie Mutter, the premier German violinist who made recordings with Herbert van Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic was married for a few years to Andre Previn, believe it or not. Lorraine Hunt was a violist and didn’t begin singing seriously until she was in her thirties. She then began a trajectory of concerts and recordings (Handel arias) that were cut short by cancer when she died at the age of fifty-two.
By now, you’ll have noticed that my binges include reading about musicians’ lives as well as listening to favorite recordings they have made. With the advent of I-Tunes, I can now satisfy my OCD-ness by listening to and comparing a number of renditions of a particular piece or movement online without even having to purchase them. Last night, I came across a recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Suites for Two Pianos, recorded by Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire in 1985. It’s an astounding set of movements played with top speed (Argerich) and yet amazing technique and clarity. Argerich has been married three times to two conductors and a pianist. A daughter was born from each union. In the meantime, I’ve always thought that Nelson Freire was in love with her the whole time anyhow even though they were good friends while she went through her marriages. They have not married, but I read somewhere awhile ago that he moved into the townhouse next to hers in London where they live side-by-side. In recent clips, you can see that they both smoke like chimneys while they keep on playing piano music together.
Maybe musicians’ lives are no more or less passionate than other people’s. Maybe actors and theatre people’s lives are similar. I don’t think there are many people who could/would learn thirty-two concerti, never mind that many pieces by the time you were fifteen years old. Daniel Barenboim has survived the approbations of his marriage to and death of Jacqueline du Pre. He’s aged and is now in his early seventies. His wife, Elena Bashkirova doesn’t seem to have aged much at all. It’s noticeable, though, that in their photos, she either has her arms around him, leans in or otherwise is saying with her body language, “he’s mine!” In a 2004 interview, Barenboim was quoted as having asserted that “I don’t think she knew!” referring to Jacqueline du Pre and his affair/family with Bashkirova before she died. As though that’s what he thinks might have mattered the most to her? or to anyone else besides himself?