There’s no Place Like Home for a Singer

Intimacy, authenticity and domescity combine to make for a great performance

History Literature Modern Life Music Russia

Music performed at home was one of the defining experiences of the 19th-century bourgeoisie. It inspired some of the greatest masterpieces of what has become the concert repertoire – especially songs and solo piano pieces – as well as a lot of underrated music that is less often heard publicly, precisely because it was designed to be performed by friends, such as vocal ensembles with piano, and pieces for four hands. Thanks to the gramophone and its successor technologies, the tradition of performing at home has largely died out. Every so often, though, friends ask musicians to play at home, or musicians want to try out a new programme in a friendly environment, and Hausmusik, as the Germans call it, is resurrected.

Of course, performing tricky or emotionally exposing music to an audience of friends or acquaintances a couple of feet from you – literally spitting distance if you’re a singer – in somebody’s drawing room, is often far more intimidating than standing on the stage of La Scala or Carnegie Hall. And being in the audience can also be challenging. A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked about 20 of us to come to a party with music, only announcing once we’d all arrived that we would be hearing Zemlinsky’s piano transcription of Mahler’s 6th Symphony as the centrepiece of the evening’s entertainment. Even the most committed Mahlerians among us found the prospect of an hour and 20 minutes of piano transcription for four hands in a smallish room daunting. As it turned out, it was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life – transparent and compelling, lacking the rhetorical, clever orchestration that, as with Mahler’s songs, often overwhelms the directness and authenticity of the musical material.

The Mahler was followed by something utterly different. Marina Poplavskaya, the Russian soprano who has just been playing Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo at Covent Garden, sang an unaccompanied Russian folk song, something about love and magic, melancholy, heartbreak. I can’t remember exactly. It doesn’t matter, though at the time the words (which I couldn’t follow) were a crucial part of the experience, of its emotional contours and emotional impact. It was timeless and itself magical. It embodied something that is, for me, at the same time the touchstone of great performance and almost impossible to capture in words: authenticity.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy arranges for young, impressionable Natasha Rostova to have two musical experiences, placed very close together in the architecture of the novel, clearly meant to shed light on each other and speak together to the reader. In Book VII, in one of those set-pieces that ties the book to the Homeric epic tradition, the Rostovs go on a wolf-hunt. Six chapters of hunting are followed by a night in a simple Russian home. The host plays and sings. Sings “as peasants sing, with full and naive conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words, and that the tune comes of itself, and that apart from the words there is no tune, which exists only to give measure to the words. As a result of this the unconsidered tune, like the song of a bird, was extraordinarily good. Natasha was in ecstasies …”

Book VIII shows us by contrast a night at the opera, which “after her life in the country, and in her present serious mood seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha”. Everything is artificial and external, alienated, so “pretentiously false and unnatural that Natasha at first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them”. When she eventually falls under the spell of the bizarrerie on stage, which now seems, in Tolstoy’s words, “quite natural”, it is because she has submitted to the world she has found herself in, given up on the authentic life of Book VII. The next step in her corruption is her planned elopement with the scapegrace Kuragin, who had flirted with her at the opera.

While I’m not so sure about the terrible moral effects of going to the opera, Tolstoy does highlight one of the dilemmas faced by the performing artist: the tensions and contradictions implicit in the relationship between art and artifice.

One of the worst criticisms, supposedly, that can be made of a performer is that he or she is “mannered”. It seems to me that, in fact, this is an accusation without any traction at all; we may not like the particular way in which a performance is mannered, but all artistic performance is artificial, contrived, mannered. Tolstoy’s unmediated art, as natural as birdsong, is a useful myth, a shimmering ideal, a fictional but intangible goal. When we perceive authenticity in performance, it is most often because the artist as artificer has been at work – coaxing, striving, editing, experimenting, failing – to produce something that, in its harnessing of technical accomplishment and mannerism appears assured and expressive. It was surely Marina Poplavskaya’s craft as a singer that allowed her to achieve such authenticity of expression that night.

For those working a lot with Lieder – the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms, their contemporaries and followers – this issue of authenticity is particularly moot. The artifice of opera, which Tolstoy so hated, is more or less accepted by its audiences as a necessary feature of the art form, to be enjoyed and, occasionally, wonderfully transcended. Recitals of Lieder are much more naked: not just the lack of costume, set or make-up, but the dramatic conceit of a direct communication between one human being and another (you can usually see your audience) in music that does not, as far as the singer is concerned, make an issue of display or technique, though much vocal technique may actually be deployed.

It is crucial that while the outcome may seem spontaneous – and is indeed spontaneous in that it isn’t choreographed in the way an opera is – it does nonetheless depend on artifice and on craft, not only the singerly craft of supporting the voice, managing its registers and so on, but the specifically Lieder singing craft so perfectly expressed by Tolstoy: working with a pianist to make sure that “the tune comes of itself … that apart from the words there is no tune, which exists only to give measure to the words”.

This doesn’t mean that the words are more important, or that the pianist doesn’t exist, but that the pianist and singer work together, in immense detail, with alertness to rhythmic fluctuation and harmonic accentuation, to produce a seamless whole and the illusion of true expression, which is, somehow, true.