In these essays and lectures, Brendel considers sound, silence, sublimity, humor, and the performer’s critical role in the experience of music. What also makes this collection so relevant is just how appealing his analysis and commentary are to scholar, performer, and amateur listener alike—a rare accomplishment for anyone writing about classical music.
In “Form and Psychology in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” a lecture that was originally published in Music and Musicians in 1971, he says that “although I find it necessary and refreshing to think about music, I am always conscious of the fact that feeling must remain the alpha and omega of a musician.” It’s the role of the performer, in other words, to both interpret the music and convince the audience of its immediacy and relevance.
The musician’s fidelity to the composer-performer-audience nexus is as important as it is difficult. A careful listener in a concert hall might notice that music is surrounded on all sides by quiet. “The musician wants to hear the silence,” Brendel notes:
She is there before and after the sound, tacitly breathing in the rests, at times, as in Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, the source of the beginning, elsewhere, as in Beethoven’s last three Sonatas, the designation to be reached: as the withdrawal into an inner world, the throwing off of all chains, the ultimate merging with silence.
Ever the performer, he wonders: “I hear myself. The public hears me. Do I hear the composer?”
The best attempt at an answer comes in Brendel’s writing about the multiply talented composer, pianist, and writer Ferruccio Busoni. In “A Peculiar Serenity,” Brendel writes about Busoni’s idea that musical interpretation “springs” from “sublime heights” and that, when it’s in danger of falling, Icarus-like, back to Earth, the performer must guide it back to those heights. Brendel, in kind, asserts that it’s the performer’s role to return “the creations of music” to “that elemental power beyond human concerns,” which is shared by composer and performer alike.
This all might seem a bit dramatic to the nonperformer until you consider what a performer is really trying to do onstage. It’s easy to take for granted that a performance should speak directly to a listener’s passions, vulnerabilities, and sense of self. What many listeners might not fully consider is that the experience is almost totally in the hands of the performer, someone tasked with somehow summoning the ethereal without losing the audience in the process.
But if there’s going to be so much talk of the sublime, there should be just as much talk about humor. Mozart comes to mind. His comic operas teem with a cleverness matched only by their humanity. On Mozart, Brendel quotes Busoni, who might have put it best: “In the most tragic situation, he is ready with a joke—in the most hilarious, he is capable of a learned frown.” In “Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious?” Brendel considers humor in what, to many, might seem like the least funny music imaginable. So Mozart was funny, sure, but what about Beethoven and Haydn? Yes, them too. Sensing some musical mischief in and around Vienna, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II wagged his finger at what he saw as “Haydn jests.” And Brendel cites the German writer and musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz, who wrote that “once Beethoven is in the mood, rough, striking witticisms, odd notions, surprising and exciting juxtapositions and paradoxes occur to him in a steady flow.” Brendel builds off this observation to reflect on Beethoven’s humorous side.