The other day I was talking to a friend on the phone. As it is customary these days, I asked her how she was doing and what she felt about working online.
“ Right now I have two choices in front of me,” she said, ”either to commit suicide or to work online. For now I am working online.”
Needless to say, the friend is Russian. Her sarcasm reminded me of the famous Chekhov quote “What a fine weather today! Can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself.”
As one thing leads to another, from Chekhov, I immediately started thinking about Rachmaninoff who suffered from severe depression for most of his adult life. After the death of his idol Tchaikovsky and the subsequent failure of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff was unable to write any music for three whole years. He was experiencing a “composer’s block”. Eventually he learned to live with it and had miraculous breakthroughs through therapy. One of the most gripping works in the piano repertoire, his Piano Concerto no. 2, was dedicated to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff’s therapist.
I was revisiting this work on and off all year in anticipation of a live performance and was reminded of the first time I ever played it, back in the mid-90s when I was a student at Juilliard. Those were turbulent years in my life and in a lot of ways learning Rachmaninoff’s music got me out of my own struggles with depression. It gave me purpose, it challenged me, but it also felt terribly satisfying and enjoyable to play.
I think that I know exactly how Rachmaninoff felt back when he was struggling to find the strength to work again, because I too have had those times in my life. Periods when nothing I do seems to be going my way and everything feels like a struggle, even getting out of bed in the morning. Once upon a time I talked about depression with my teacher, Seymour Lipkin. He was a guarded and reserved man and not easily approachable on a personal level, but on that day something compelled him to tell me a simple truth that I will never forget. “It is okay to feel sad and depressed. One has to allow oneself time for suffering. It is part of being alive.”
Mr. Lipkin was probably battling his own demons. After an early and brilliant start as a child-prodigy and winning a competition in New York in 1947 playing the above mentioned Rachmaninoff Concerto (with Horowitz and Rachmaninoff’s wife in the jury!), he embarked on an ambitious career as a conductor. He was one of the youngest conducting students of Koussevitsky at Tanglewood and later became the assistant of Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. Although Mr. Lipkin continued conducting on and off throughout his life, for whatever reason his career did not take off in the way he had imagined it.
He went back to the piano after a 10-year hiatus from playing, built up his technique all over again, and devoted the rest of his life to performing, teaching, and running his summer festival in Maine, the beloved chamber music sanctuary Kneisel Hall. I find his story very inspirational and had the pleasure of witnessing his very determined, ascetic, and disciplined approach to art. He quietly reinvented himself and began playing more beautifully and soulfully the older he got. His best playing happened in his late 70s and 80s when he devoted his entire time to playing the complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas and all the Schubert Sonatas and Miniatures. He then recording them … all while teaching and performing chamber music.
His studio in New York was a real music sanctuary. Mr. Lipkin practiced all day and taught some of his lessons in his study at home, surrounded by thousands of scores, manuscripts, first editions, books, recordings, an old typewriter, and portraits of great artists. I liked going there because I found that when he was away from Juilliard, Mr. Lipkin felt more relaxed, more inspired, and was overall happier and easier to talk to.
I learned a great deal from him and consciously or subconsciously think about him every day. He gave me the tools, which I use every day in both teaching and interpreting music, helping my students find their voice while staying faithful to the composers.
Mr. Lipkin was very impatient with my Eastern European editions. He probably didn’t realize (and I didn’t know how to explain to him) that I grew up with limited access to printed music. I remember some of the music was copied so many times, that I had to retrace the notes with a dark pen in order to read them. Even the bad editions were hard to get. I had no choice growing up, but to learn from the Russian Muzika (full of errors) or the East German Peters, which was also pretty much “hit or miss” when it came to notes, rhythms, dynamics, and other details. It was rare for me to get a hold of a Polish or Hungarian edition, let alone West German or Austrian. So I grew up without the necessary respect for the score and often changed dynamics and other markings, because “I felt like it”.
After some time I learned to pick up the good scores from the library before my lessons, but because I was practicing from my old editions, I was still playing without proper attention to the details or much thought of the authenticity of the text in front of me. It took me a while and lots of yelling on Mr. Lipkin’s part until I became more respectful when I interpreted the scores, especially those of the German masters. For me the big picture was easy to see and comprehend while I had to learn how to conquer the “devil” of details.
Mr. Lipkin never really talked about the psychological and emotional power behind the notes. He preferred to leave this part of the music unsaid and to emphasize concrete ideas about interpreting sound, voicing, dynamic range, and timing. He sneered when I tried to explain the music in poetic or literary ways. So, I kept those to myself.
I remember once we talked about the poetic influences on the Chopin Ballades and the possible influence of his contemporary romantic poet Mickiewicz. I was trying to find a specific poem to link to one of the ballades, but Mr. Lipkin felt that linking the music too literally and specifically to a poem made it somehow limited unless there was a clear intention on the part of the composer to do so. In that sense he was a purist.
One thing we often talked about was the general atmosphere and the type of poetry that was written during Chopin’s time in Paris, especially by his fellow Poles and how it was connected to the music if not literally, then in a general sense. We talked about exploring the paintings of the period and how that would allow one to truly experience the life that the composer led, the type of art he was surrounded with and the creative minds he socialized with.
One of my favorite places in Paris is Le Musée de la Vie Romantique, which is set in the house of a Dutch painter Ari Scheffer, who for years hosted Friday soirées for all the great artists and intellectuals of the mid-19th century. Visiting this place made me feel and understand the connection between these artists and to also find my own personal path to them, which has always been more interesting to me than the dots and dashes on the page. Connecting with the composers on a personal level.
For example, one thing that Rachmaninoff, Chopin and I share in our experiences, is the fact that we are all immigrants and while the circumstances of their exiles were much more difficult than my own, I certainly understand and feel the constant feeling of alienation and powerlessness that haunts their music.
Over the years I have created ways to deal with depressive moments and to manage the dark times in my life. Discipline and having a schedule is an extremely important skill that all musicians learn early in life. Keeping my physical surroundings neat and aesthetically satisfying also helps.
I don’t always succeed, but I am glad to say that through this entire time of social distancing and staying at home, I have been able to maintain sanity, thanks to the fact that I am still connecting with people through music.
In that way our art has tremendous healing power and the healing has to begin always within ourselves before we can bring it forward and share it with others.
Gloria and Isabel are the pseudonyms of pianist, teacher and concert presenter Lora Tchekoratova