Why Bother?

I’m writing this post at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival, an event I have now attended for 7 years. It has become an important part of my guitar life and I will write about it at a later date in an interlude. But it has become relevant to my “Chaconne Project” in an unexpected way.

When I started out on this project I decided I would not listen to any guitar performances of the piece. I told myself that this was because I wanted to avoid any influences in the interpretive choices I would make. There are a couple of interpretations that I know well from repeated listening, like Parkening’s and Segovia’s, and I can’t exactly excise them from my mind. But, I thought, at least I should avoid other voices in my head.

When the schedule for this year’s festival reached me earlier this spring I was dismayed to see that not one but two recitals would feature the piece. Last night, Colin Davin played the entire D minor partita from which the Chaconne comes, and the brilliant young Czech guitarist Petra Poláčková is playing it on the closing program Sunday afternoon. So there was no avoiding it.

After hearing Colin’s brilliant performance last evening I realized how right I was to avoid hearing a great guitarist play the piece. Not because I might be influenced—that was pure hubris. Instead, what I should have worried about was the question I asked myself afterwards:

Why bother?

I could work on the piece for the next five years and not come close to the kind of performance that Colin would give on a bad day, much less the rendition he gave us last night. Putting the issue of talent aside, I’m a part-time guitarist at best, and I don’t possess the full range of technical abilities needed to play the piece at anything like a professional level. So why bother?

I was, to say the least, deflated after the performance. The post-concert dinner wasn’t quite as much fun as usual, and my sleep was troubled.

This morning I went for a run, and while I was running I turned the question over in my head. Why bother? For myself, at least, I found an answer.

I can read a great novel and appreciate, but I can’t write even a bad one. I can watch a great film and enjoy it, but I will never make one. I can walk through a gallery and be awestruck by a painting, but I can’t paint.  But I can make my way through the score of a great piece of music and bring it to some kind of life, even if only for myself, and be in communion with the composer. In my own way, I am having a conversation with Bach in learning his piece. Listening to a performance, no matter how great, can never give me that experience. And it is not an experience I can have with any other great art; I can only do this with music.

There’s another thing. We don’t know all the details about the creation of Bach’s solo violin works, but it doesn’t appear that they were written at the behest of a patron or as the result of a commission. In fact, there were no traveling violin virtuosi giving concert tours and commissioning works to play in Bach’s time—that was a 19th century development. Like most music before the advent of public recitals, concert series, and recordings, Bach’s music was for his own use or to be copied and shared with students and other musicians, just as Bach copied out works of Vivaldi for his own study. Music was written out and shared to be played for pleasure, or in amateur gatherings, or to be studied. It wasn’t written to be played in recital for a paying public, or to be recorded.

So, in fact, what I am doing with the Chaconne is very much in keeping with the spirit of Bach’s time. I’m learning the score, just as I would read a novel, to be challenged, to be moved, for intellectual stimulation, and to appreciate the author’s ideas. I am learning the score because it is the only way I can really hear the piece.

Rationalization? Probably. But for me, it is reason enough to keep bothering with the Chaconne. Tomorrow morning I am playing it for Petra Poláčková in her master class. When I return to New York I’ll have new ideas, new enthusiasm, and I’ll start on the D major section.