Yes, I know the young folk think we old-timers are sad because we dwell so much on our memories. Their turn is coming, of course, and they too will learn the pleasure of taking a treasured memory out of the heart and appreciating it afresh.
I listened today to some music played by the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982). While listening I opened my treasure box and found there two happy memories of Rubinstein.
The first was a concert by Rubinstein in San Francisco in the spring on 1965. The music was magnificent, of course, but the momentous experience began not with the music but with the entrance of Rubinstein onto the stage. He was the smallest giant — or should I say the grandest little man? — I had ever seen. His posture was erect, almost stiff, and his steps very deliberate. He conveyed in the first instant we saw him that he was the master of that piano, of that stage, indeed of all of us in the audience. We were cheering before he reached the piano.
I will never forget the sensation: We were in the presence of a master, a true master, a person who excelled at something to a degree that very few people can ever imagine. While we adored him from that first, highly poised moment, the exhilaration only got deeper and richer when he played. His wonderful poise was not misleading. He was in fact the master of that instrument and, more importantly, master of the music of Chopin and a few others.
The second memory has something to do with that sense of distinction between the piano and the music. Yes, Rubinstein was a highly skilled piano player but we in the lucky audience never gave a thought to the instrument. Rubinstein created not mere sounds but music, something beyond the notes. The music was far, far more than the sum of its parts, its notes. We were transported into a realm beyond our plush chairs in that rich, golden hall.
That second memory? It was a PBS show back in the 70s on the occasion of Rubinstein’s 90th birthday. (Now on YouTube I find there were two different Rubinstein shows on PBS; I’m not sure which one made the biggest impression on me. A link to one of them is below.)
What most impressed me was that (as I recall) he was asked to comment on the younger generation of pianists. He said there were many excellent piano players but he worried that they might not always focus on making music rather than playing the piano. With that San Francisco concert tucked into my treasure box, I knew immediately just what he meant. I had heard the music!
On my desk are a couple of small but beautiful rocks. Now and then I will pick one up and look at it carefully, turning it over and over, feeling its texture. As I do the same thing with intangible memories, I find myself asking two questions: Did I play at life or did I make music? And, how can I encourage young people to care about making music with their own lives?
Want to hear the master playing a beautiful piano concerto? Take the time to dwell in this great piece of romanticism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVCvJZtzkqQ. As always, I encourage you to listen on the best equipment you’ve got — it really makes a difference.