In this time of Covid-19, the loss of cultural luminaries has an even greater significance than under normal circumstances. Losing their sage wisdom just at the time we seem to need it most seems especially cruel, as they have something special to impart that would save us all from ourselves. In the last two months alone, we have lost the great film composer Ennio Morricone and two titans of the performing world, Ida Haendel and Leon Fleisher. They and their music seem to recall an earlier era that we are all longingly nostalgic for.
On hearing the film scores of Ennio Morricone, for example, I am immediately transported back to my youth. That singular “ah-ee-ah-ee-ah” followed by “wah-wah-wah” immediately recalls the sound of gunfire, the dust of the open desert, and the man with no name, as much as lazy Saturday afternoons watching Westerns from the sofa. To have just one more new score from that composer I would gladly pay just a few dollars more, even though he composed over 400 scores that quite literally made such films as The Untouchables, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, just to name a few. His scores not only elevated the storytelling but transported the listener into the plot.
This is the special quality of Morricone’s music: that it was more than simple background but was truly operatic and integral to the plot. Sergio Leone, who catapulted Morricone to fame through his Spaghetti Westerns (a term and an association Morricone disliked), on more than one occasion asked Morricone to pre-compose music based on the story treatment or just verbal description of the drama so that he could play the music on the set for the actors and design the shots around the music. A number of directors including Leone, Quentin Tarentino, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Brian De Palma, among others, shot extended scenes without dialogue, showing only images supported by a sweeping orchestral score might last for tens of minutes in some cases, precious celluloid real estate, for the express purpose of highlighting the genius of the music crafted by this Italian maestro.
A Feeling for Composers
Leon Fleisher, who does as much to make one reminisce as much as Morricone, by his own admission felt a kinship with composers. In his own words, like many performers, he strove to play the music as if it was being composed moment by moment.
At the age of four, he hijacked his brother’s piano lessons by repeating from memory all that had just been played. As one might expect, it wasn't long before this child prodigy garnered the attention of a musical great, and acclaimed pianist Arthur Schnabel soon took him on as a protégé. But after his meteoric rise to stardom and being the first American to win the Queen Elizabeth competition in Brussels, Fleisher then began to experience severe deterioration in the fingers on his right hand, which he later attributed to focal dystonia, a disease relative to Parkinson's.
Looking from the Left
Here many would argue that a second career began, perhaps the one that truly cemented his legacy. Just three years after withdrawing from public performance, Fleisher began to perform works specifically composed for the left-hand alone, those which had been written for other pianists of stature also harpooned during their artistic vitality. These included not only well-known works such as the D major piano concerto by Maurice Ravel but also new pieces such as William Bolcom’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Left Hand and even those that had been shut in drawers for decades, such as Paul Hindemith’s 1923 Klaviermusik that Paul Wittgenstein had commissioned but which he didn’t like so he locked it away ― Fleisher premiered work in 2004.
His circumstances also gave him the opportunity to pass on his seemingly divine knowledge to a new generation of pianists. What is more, he claimed that the deficiencies in his right hand that restricted him from demonstrating aspects of technique and musicianship forced him to adopt a new and imaginative grammar to inspire his students. Above all he valued rhythm, which he considered the essence of music ahead of harmony and melody. Not rhythm for the sake of rhythm, but to play in his words “as late as possible but not too late.”
Alone in Society
Ida Haendel seems to have had this in common with Fleisher, acting as an inspirational pedagogue and mentor in the latter part of her own career. Also, in common was the theft of her sibling’s prescribed career path when, at the age of three, she picked up the violin of her older sister and played back everything her mother sang. Like Fleisher, Haendel was a fountain of witticisms and aphorisms and possessed wisdom that one can only earn by reaching their ninth decade. She lived most of her life alone, though she often claimed she preferred the company of strangers, loved to talk, and was curious to get to know everyone she met. She spent most of her life in Miami, Florida, a beloved fixture of the community both musically and as a woman of exceptional fashion and colourful hats, a social butterfly even at the age of 91.
She attributed this youthful vigour to a conversation she had with her cousin at the age of five. When she told her cousin that she had been staring out the window thinking about death, her cousin replied it is not too good to think too long on death, for death finds those who dwell on it. Her personal mission became to fill up her life and to perform at all costs, even well into her 80s. But despite her outward attitude, many were surprised to learn how lonely she seemed to feel. Her response was a bit of wisdom that we all could use now; quoting Shakespeare that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…”, she continued, “we try to stay optimistic for the sake of other people. We must be optimistic for other people, and, of course, music is such a great help.”
The Wisdom of Music
As we celebrate the lives of these greats and relisten to their music, we also revisit their wisdom, to be late but never too late, to be optimistic, and rely on the great help of music in difficult times. And, perhaps one other piece of wisdom from the late Ms. Haendel can comfort us. When she moved from her hometown of Chelm in Poland as child, she believed she left a memory of her soul there, always to remain. In some sense each artist leaves a bit of their soul in their music, and like Shakespeare and his verse, they are never really gone.
To hear more details of their extraordinary lives and the music they made, tune in to Tributes to the Masters on 21 September for ‘Once upon a time in Italy: the life and works of Ennio Morricone’ and on 28 September for ‘Never Too Late: celebrating Leon Fleisher and Ida Haendel’.
大師緬憶 艾樂冊 中譯：李夢