The must of music-making

Let us right away acknowledge how profoundly this pandemic has affected the lives of everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, occupation, any description that we use to identify us. Everyone.

Today I invite you to think with me about a particular group, those who make music. I mean ALL music makers — the elderly grandmother who hums familiar hymns while seated in her favorite rocker, the professional opera singer, the rock band drummer, the folk guitarist, the symphony conductor, the choir singer. I include myself, with due modesty. I sing, as often as possible, in choirs and with a big band. We all are members of a huge family of music makers.

How has this pandemic affected our music-making?

It has slammed the doors on group rehearsals, emptied concert halls, forced the cancellation or postponement of concerts, performance tours. But it also has stirred our technological imaginations into action, creating Zoom-based rehearsals and discussions. We struggle to find the words to express our frustration at impediments to our music -making.

One gifted musician has found a way. His name is Igor Levit. Alex Ross, New Yorker magazine’s music critic, has written about Levit in the magazine’s May 18 edition. Reading, we learn that the 33 year-old pianist was born in Russia and moved with his parents to Germany when he was eight. Just as concert halls everywhere were cancelling events and closing their doors, Levit, a Beethoven specialist, was in the midst of a tour of European cities. All of his concerts were cancelled suddenly.

But Levit asked himself, why not live-stream my concerts? Before long, he was at the Steinway in his Berlin apartment, sending the strains of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata out to music lovers everywhere. In short order, his eager listeners had increased to tens of thousands, Ross reported. A chat room sidebar attracted appreciative comments from Nairobi, Tokyo, Montevideo, Ross wrote.

This continued for 52 such concerts until an exhausted Levit finally granted himself a break to rest and think. Here, according to Ross’ account, is what he tweeted to a friend:

“Maybe for the first time do I understand what it means to speak of music as something life-keeping. It really keeps me alive. . . . I don’t care if it’s wrong or right, whatever B.S. that means, just as long as I can actually press down those black and white keys. I’ve never, never been freer than now. Never. And I am in tears half the day. Very, very dark. And yet. The existential must of music-making becomes bigger and bigger by the moment.”

Let’s slow down and think about his choice of words: “the existential must of music making.”

As untold numbers of people struggle in these times to find ways to continue making music, I can’t think of a better way than Igor Levit’s words to express how we feel about what we do. We must make music. It keeps us alive.

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