András Schiff: The Church (Catholic & Lutheran) contributed tremendously to the develop of Western art. Bach’s main goal was to write for the glory of God and for the community. That’s why I consider him the greatest: because he has no ego. It’s not about himself. Even Mozart and Beethoven considered writing for God as the highest goal.
Jonathan Dimmock: It seems to me that both Mozart and Beethoven saw themselves as servants to the music. The music is foremost, and they serve that.
AS: Absolutely. And you can see it in the Mendelssohn Lobegesang that we’re doing right now. The second movement is an intimate chamber piece. And then you have the glorious sacred movements interchanging with the worldly elements. Bach did this in his Cantatas and Passions – These pieces are full of secular elements and dances. Instrumental pieces go hand in hand with the sacred.
It would be very good if works like that were written again.
JD: Certainly Arvo Pärt led a whole generation in that direction.
AS: Yes, that’s true.
JD: Music being ephemeral, do you ever wonder what happens to the sound as it goes out from the instrument you’re playing, whether that be a piano or an orchestra, and reaches the audience? How is it perceived? In a way this is a ridiculous question because there is no answer. But is “what happens” a question you ever ponder?
AS: Yes. I believe that each sound we ever produce is preserved somewhere in the universe, or cosmos. I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but I am a believer of sorts. I don’t believe in materialism. If materialism was a valid philosophy then we couldn’t explain art. Physicists can explain sound, of course. But great scientists know that, at a very high level, there is a certain poetry in science and in mathematics.
So, for me, music-making is the imagination and the realization of making a sound. In order to make that, you must first have imagination. Then you convey that onto the instrument, coupled with the techniques one develops in order to realize our craft.
I try to listen to the beginning (and you will know this, as an organist), the duration, and the end of a sound. What happens at the end of that sound? I think it goes out into the universe, into the cosmos, and it’s there! It also comes to the individual listeners. But the individual listener interprets the sound; this is their freedom. That’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to command the listener. The listener has the ability to associate.
With all the arts, each person has his or her interpretation, what a picture or a poem reminds them of. It’s all different. But nowhere is it more abstract than in music. That’s the beauty of it.
JD: We have a special privilege, as musicians, because we are caretakers of the soul. That’s a responsibility that I feel almost every time I play. On some small level, I am helping people make a connection, even a transformation, that they might not otherwise. It’s a weighty responsibility, but a joyous responsibility.
I love Indian classical music very much. They are great artists. And one of the great Indian musicians once told me: In our culture, we never play a note without Divine inspiration. It’s our responsibility.
I try to learn from that. Before you produce a note, a sound, think about that!
JD: Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book, The Music of Life, talks about how musicians in India play music based on their spiritual attainment, as opposed to their technical mastery. So, in my case, that would mean I wouldn’t dream of playing the Bach Passacaglia until I had some depth of life to express. It’s that concept. And I’ve always thought that was such a beautiful concept. Yes, we have to have technical mastery; but that’s not the goal.
Thank you for sharing your ideas with me, and especially for the opportunity to work together in the Concert Hall.
AS: It’s been my pleasure!