Stravinsky puts it pithily enough: Music “expresses nothing outside of itself.” It’s a dictum that puts critics like me on the back foot, accusing us of peddling only a pale and inadequate imitation of the thing itself. Those who can’t, write. But it also describes a deeper sense of music as incommensurable, elevated by thinkers like Walter Pater or Schopenhauer above all the other arts because its expressive language is an exquisite fusion of subject and form. Music sheds the earth-bound burden of representation, and, the thinking goes, is transcendent, even universal, because it is not tethered to an outside. Music, Pater has it, is “the ideally consummate art.”

We are less stringently formalist in our sense of music’s relationship to the outside world today. We see its meaningfulness shaped by contexts and parallels beyond the pages of the score or the pitch-class set. So too do we grasp its historical and political baggage, as well as its subjective or psychic resonances. But why, nevertheless, do musicians turn to writing? What can they possibly have to add? What makes the writing musician distinctive? The last year has seen a flurry of books from major keyboard players—Stephen Hough, Alfred Brendel, Zuzana Růžičková, with a new book forthcoming from András Schiff—who have all turned to another expressive medium.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed the frisson of live performance that, as a critic, I enjoy with relative and privileged frequency. In lieu of this we’re offered streams—of opera, ballet, concerts—or direct access to the homes of performers themselves, which can feel awkwardly informal. Stripping the vestiges of ritual from performance is itself distancing. Streaming opera with a group of close friends and toasting each other over Zoom in boozy intervals offers more social than strictly artistic succor, though is still sorely welcome. Reading books by musicians during this crisis has felt like a more immediate connection to the musical culture in abeyance. Perhaps this is because reading is more commensurate with our circumstances than trying to squeeze the Wigmore Hall into an 11-inch laptop screen, or the Met onto an iPad. Music seems to find its feet again, to come to life more, when paradoxically channeled through the intimate conduit of prose.  

Of course, instrumentalists who write are nothing new, though their efforts are usually practical rather than determinedly literary: my old violin teacher did her doctorate on 18th-century violin treatises; my singing teacher just completed his thesis on bel canto pedagogues. Their subjects wrote to shape technical and expressive norms, propagating the influence of their musical schools. The writings of Leopold Mozart or Manuel Garcia are rich accounts of their artistic practice, but they offer only an oblique picture of the self-reflective artistic consciousness.

Technical writing on music from musicians, not least composers, would burgeon and grow in the 19th century, with the increasingly complex arts of orchestration, harmony and conducting calling for new treatises and theories, boosted too by the rise of the professional conservatory. Hector Berlioz, one of the most inventive writers of musical history, would bring poetic sparkle to a technical manual on orchestration. The clarinet, he writes, has a “priceless ability to produce a distant sound, the echo of an echo, a sound like twilight.” In Weber’s “Freischütz” overture it intones a music of “the lonely virgin, the blond betrothed of the huntsman, who raises her eyes to heaven.”

The proliferation of newspapers and journals in the 19th century, along with the concomitant rise of the professional critic, gave the writing composer another avenue of exploration. Berlioz made a living from such work, and in cartoons would be pictured holding both quill and baton.

“Lélio” (1831) for orchestra, vocalists, and actor is a deliciously bizarre hybrid of Berlioz’s dual interests. The eponymous protagonist reads a text by Berlioz between the musical scenes that is more artistic manifesto or critical essay than theater. Its culmination sees the artist-composer realize a tone poem based on “The Tempest”—a play that has in Prospero a figure who knows the incantatory power of both words and music.

Not all musicians would make writing so indivisible from composition. But as a side hustle it would become increasingly important to composers, for financial and personal reasons. In France, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy, and Paul Dukas would likewise be as respected for their critical writings as their compositions. Pierre Boulez would sustain this double vision in the 20th century, upbraiding peers and admonishing rivals with machine-gun prose in the pages of Tel Quel or Domaine musical.

Wagner looms predictably large here. Boldly extemporaneous essays like The Artwork of the Future, Opera and Drama, and Art and Revolution come from the late 1840s and early 1850s. They are placeholders for an aesthetic project he was unable then to even begin to realize, for want of both funds and friends (the ban on his music in Dresden, and elsewhere, would not be lifted till 1862).

As pieces of prose they are as visionary—and long—as the music dramas he would eventually write. In their blend of philology, linguistics, anthropology, music theory and political history, they presage the discipline-bending ambitions of the Gesamtkunstwerk. But their prolix verbosity make them meagre substitutes for the musical and dramatic eloquence of Wagner’s operas. They are also good examples of when musicians would be wise to shut up. Wagner might’ve won some antecedent benefit of the doubt if he’d stayed his pen before writing Jewishness in Music or essays on the racist Arthur de Gobineau.

András Schiff’s latest book, Music Comes Out of Silence, begins in conversation with Martin Meyer, an author whom Schiff has worked with previously. Zuzana Růžičková’s story is told in the first person but is presented with Wendy Holden, also named as author. Holden tells us that the book is compiled from a lifetime of interview transcripts which Holden revisited with the harpsichordist before she died in order to compose the book. From this patchwork of conversations a life emerges.

They are not the first. In 2016 conductor Seiji Ozawa’s interlocutor was novelist Haruki Murakami; Daniel Barenboim would team up with literary critic (and friend) Edward Said to write Parallels and Paradoxes in 2002. Said’s acute grasp of philosophy and geopolitics make this a particularly fruitful, indeed contrapuntal, meeting of minds. The significance of the difference between a short note and a long note, when they discuss it, is no less than the struggle of life and death.

Even in a book with just one writer we can hear multiple voices. Alfred Brendel punctuates 2019’s The Lady from Arezzo with translations (sometimes his own) of nonsense poetry by Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, and Daniil Kharms, giving the whole a polyvocal quality. For Brendel poetry and essays allow him to express parts of himself unavailable on the concert stage: “Whoever looks for the Dadaist in my piano playing,” he notes, “has tried the wrong door.” “One Finger Too Many” begins Brendel’s first collection of poetry, the story of a pianist who grows an extra digit to chide coughing audiences and “to point things out / when both hands were busy.” It’s an apt symbol for Brendel’s additional literary capacities: an extra finger for writing on a quite different keyboard to his usual one.

Like his beloved Haydn, Brendel is a humorist. He does not turn to writing to show off his expertise or justify artistic choices—though remarkable essays on Schubert or Haydn’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross” offer plenty of scope for that—but to tease and delight. The nonsense poems sprinkled throughout suggest Brendel’s feeling for language as evocative magic rather than a tool for settling scores. The memoir he includes in The Lady from Arezzo mostly eschews discussion of his private life, wrong-footing readers in search of juicy revelations. He writes that he is “too fond of the truth” to observe the conventions of autobiography.

Brendel delights in anecdotes of a blithe, absurdist quality. After a recital in Lockenhaus with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau the singer “instantly disappeared, and was carried away by a helicopter.” The reason? “He was being pursued by a woman with a gun.” Brendel’s stories raise more questions than they answer, more like dreams than entertaining table-talk, though they are often darkly witty. He writes of a concert promoter in Australia:

The man in charge was a certain Mr Moses whose hobby was chopping wood. In his office, there was a cupboard full of axes. In order to demonstrate how sharp-edged they were, he selected one of them, rolled up his shirt-sleeve and shaved off a few hairs from his arm.

András Schiff is a comparatively straight-shooter in a book of discipline and focus. As a writer he is less pleasure-seeking than Brendel or Hough. Martin Meyer’s preface says the book is “all-encompassing…a tour d’horizon,” and we are given a comprehensive picture of Schiff as an artist. He is forthright, even irascible, in setting out his stall: he chides audiences for their lack of discipline, takes arms against the reckless advocates of Regietheater, and woe betide those who pedaling is lax; other bugbears include the internet and the “globalization” of the piano sound incarnate in the Steinway (as regrettable as “in the worlds of fashion or gastronomy”).

Schiff likes to get to the point. He is as direct in condemnations of Viktor Orbán in Hungary as he is wary of “authenticity” in performing Bach, and his book is more taut and driven than others I describe here. Schiff’s writing is a direct reflection of the performer, not one of his other selves: immaculately precise in gesture, serious in atmosphere, thorough in approach. Nothing is wasted in Martin Meyer’s smooth, firm prose, which reproduces Schiff’s own feeling for the “short notes” he describes early in the book: “Short notes aren’t beautiful, but so what? It always depends on their context and function.” This could be Schiff’s writing in a nutshell: unsentimental, stoutly spoken, interrogative of received wisdom. His humor, self-deprecating or acidic, sharpens the points of his explication.

Pianist Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas, published last year, has an aphoristic, digressive quality; like many books by musicians it is a miscellany, built from program and CD notes. Hough describes the book being composed on the road, in the dead time between airport, hotel and concert, “jotting…unfinished musings on scraps of paper or saved as files on my iPhone.” Episodes rarely exceed a page or two, with sudden shifts of subject matter across parallel trains of thought. Their brevity catches Hough’s gift for aphorism (“If Rothko was arguably the most Romantic of the modernists, Chopin was the most Classical of the Romantics”).

Hough rarely lingers on one topic, though occasionally grounds us for more than a few pages: a sequence of four moving eulogies, quietly focused, is followed by four “Great Greens,” who are actually three (his piano teacher, Gordon; Catholic priest, Father Maraus; and novelist Julien). Others will jump from Teju Cole to architecture to the painter Anthony Mastromatteo, in a book whose learning would be dizzying if it wasn’t worn so lightly.

An unwillingness to be pinned down sees Hough playfully tease out ideas. “I don’t hate Bach” follows “I don’t love Bach.” More controversial and sombre disquisitions are saved for the final sections of the book, where Hough’s Catholic faith comes to the fore on euthanasia, abortion, Lazarus, and Alzheimer’s. Others are cheekily provocative (“Gay pianists: can you tell?”; “Don’t listen to recordings”) or confessional parable (“Stephen, that was really dreadful!”; “My Terrible Audition Tape”). Like Brendel Hough relishes the vividly poetic—in phrases like “Caruso’s Garlic Breath”—and often offers intense literary renderings of music. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 is

a great Romantic work…heard from a point of inaccessibility: tunes deflected and diverted by the frozen surface, fissures forcing the counterpoint to veer off at strange tangents, climaxes narrowly averted, melodies ungraspable.

I ask Hough why he writes. Rough Ideas follows his 2018 novel The Final Retreat, and a memoir is slated for next year. “Right now it’s the only thing I’m getting paid for!” he notes from lockdown in London, a situation which has nonetheless given him the opportunity to compose. For him writing is pleasurable and tactile. “I love the process of writing…the musical sound of words clashing against each other,” which he attributes to his love of the sensuous, overheated sound world of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is not drawn, he says, to the more intensive and involved business of musicological and scholarly research.

Hough feels that writing achieves a permanence he feels is harder to access as a musician. Music, he tells me, “disappears into the air. As a performer you yearn to set something down…it’s falling through your fingers.” Perhaps this is why pianists seem especially drawn to writing books. The piano, unlike strings or woodwinds, is an instrument whose sonority is defined by decay. Keyboard players are especially alive to the fragile dissipation of musical sounds.

Hough was particularly aghast when The Telegraph deleted a series of blogs he’d written for them. It is no doubt a source of reassurance that he can bind between the covers of Rough Ideas ephemera gathered from CD liner notes and program books over the years; fragments, to invoke a line from T.S. Eliot, that Hough has shored against his ruins.

Rough Ideas fleet, discursive feet traverse much musical and non-musical terrain. Its short bursts create the impression of a set of piano miniatures in recital; Hough himself compares it to the skittering procession of 18 pieces that make up Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” which nonetheless communicate “a sense of unity.” The fragment has an expressive immediacy, he tells me, which he finds in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan. Hough says that one of his writerly inspirations came from reading a biography of William Burroughs, who composed The Naked Lunch from a suitcase full of fragments he then collated with the help of Allen Ginsberg. He likes “pulling together disparate things.”

Rarely do these musicians tell their stories in a straight line. Zuzana Růžičková’s 2019 memoir One Hundred Miracles is built of fragments too, collated by her co-author and biographer from a lifetime of interviews; two tender recollections, one from Mahan Esfahani, make an epilogue.  

Růžičková tells the story herself, in the first person, but this appearance of surface unity only partly belies deeper fissures. At its traumatic heart lies her experiences of the Holocaust, in the Terezín ghetto and Auschwitz, though her story is told out of order, with episodes from early childhood jumping forward decades and then back again. As in many Holocaust narratives we are left with the impression that, despite her frankness, the horror can only be approached obliquely, and that its moral catastrophe shatters the possibility of narrative order itself.

Because Růžičková plays the harpsichord, there are additional fractures in her story. The Holocaust haunts her career. She is desperate to “make up for time lost in the camps”; the war stymies her chance to study with the great Wanda Landowska in Paris; frostbite damaged her hands. She is apprehensive about entering the 1956 ARD competition in Munich because of the prospect of meeting former Nazi perpetrators there. But Růžičková resolves to go because of Bach. Her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabis, says it is her “duty” as a Jew and a survivor: “You will be showing them that someone who is not German and not an Aryan can play Bach. You will be proving to them that Hitler was not the last word.” She won a 500-mark prize.

Růžičková’s book is about the fate of Bach, whose music has a very literal place in the debased world of the Lager and ghetto. The sarabande from the English Suite in E minor, BWV 810, is the last piece Růžičková plays with her teacher before being transported to Terezín; she copies out the first page of it on a scrap of paper. It accompanies her to Auschwitz, where it is nearly lost. Růžičková turns the music over in her mind as a kind of benediction.

This is the same Bach, Růžičková notes, of whom she and her husband could’ve talked with Fritz Klein, the cultured deputy of Dr. Mengele, though Růžičková’s humanism insists on Bach’s redemptive dimension. BWV 810 contains harsh music, angular, percussive; the sarabande is a rare moment of prayerful repose. In her recording she alters the final chord by adding a G-sharp, turning it from minor to major, desolation to radiance. Růžičková would identify herself with Bach: in times of crisis she would literally ask herself, “What would Bach do?” She sees parallels between their troubled lives, where their constant companions are “music and death.”

After the war Theodor Adorno would write that musical language, despite its abstract character, “points to something beyond itself by reminding us of something, contrasting itself with something or arousing our expectations.” Růžičková’s Bach is a keen exploration of music’s paradoxical relationship to its (often appalling) context, reflecting back and intensifying its tragedies, while also offering flight or restitution from them.

We see in her book the imperfect equivalence of music and the world. Walter Pater, among others, praises music for its transcendental abstraction, elevating it above and beyond any single referent, which would be so limiting and mundane. But it is this very same quality that leaves it so troublingly open to appropriation or degradation. When musicians write they bring music back to earth, showing how it fits into the places and events of our lives—even as it promises to liberate us from them. ¶