There’s a remarkable moment in the most recent episode of The Tonic in which Emanuel Ax tells a story about taking a lesson with Arthur Rubinstein on the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto. When discussing the tempo of the piano entrance, Rubinstein casually dropped a name: “My friend Josef Joachim told me that when he conducted it…”
The rest of the story didn’t matter. Here was 25-year-old Manny Ax sitting in a room with someone who knew Brahms’s oldest best friend. In the same episode, the late Leon Fleisher mentions that his teacher Schnabel once went on a picnic with Brahms. As Ax puts it, “We aren’t so distant from these people.” Here's young Brahms (seated) photographed in 1855 with Joachim (standing):
One of the unusual things about being a classical pianist is that you’re often living in two different eras at once. When we interpret great repertoire of the past, we’re playing “old music” while simultaneously turning it into new music – interpreted with modern minds and heard here and now with 21st century ears.
A pianist's work might best be represented by Janus, the Roman god who presided over the passageways of life, often depicted in statues with two faces: one looking forward, one backward.
In an age of rapid technological change, it is easy to merely “look forward, not backward.” Ways of life only a decade or two in the past may already seem outmoded. If the 1990s can seem like ancient history with its dial-up internet and VHS tapes, then the 1890s – the decade of Brahms’s death – feels positively prehistoric.
Quoting The Tonic host Lowry Yankwich from Episode 2: “We essentially have the whole 20th century on film and on tape, because those technologies were invented around the turn of the century.” The 19th century is a dark and silent place compared to the hustle and bustle of the 20th, fully electrified and captured in motion pictures.
That means our participation in music of the past is akin to a kind of time travel. When we perform the music of Brahms, we’re in a sense “playing a record” from the 19th century, albeit second-hand. And when the music resonates with us in much the same way it did to Brahms’s contemporaries, then we feel close to these people. They’re not dinosaurs, but modern humans like us whose sensibilities we can relate to and appreciate.
This act of aural time travel is one of the big themes of The Tonic. In each episode, we tell the story of music and ideas that were born in prior centuries, but which participate in an ongoing transmission through the present and into the future.
If you’re someone who listens to podcasts, I highly recommend adding The Tonic to your feed. It’s free, and available on all major podcasting platforms (Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon). If you’re a bit more Janus-faced about online media, you can always tune in on our Youtube channel, where we release the episodes in full:
Stay tuned for Episode 3, in which we confront a perennial source of debate among pianists: rubato.