The Secret Magic of Music – Conversation with Musical Masters

By Ida Lichter

Select Books Inc 2016
ISBN 978-1-59079-305-3

RRP – $30 pb

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


It could be said that music is a human’s most primal intellectual experience. Music is emotional and appeals to the youngest mind through its sensations of sound and beat. Babies can make a beat before they can make the sound of a word. It follows that making music, like language, can be developed in humans not only to communicate but to extend emotional connection, intellectual understanding and intimate pleasure.

None of this should surprise. But in Ida Lichter’s The Secret Magic of Music – Conversations with Musical Masters what does surprise is her ability – through the many conversations she has had with conductors, performers of chamber music and a handful of administrators – to use words to convey the emotions, the pleasure and the intellectual engagement that is found in the experience of great classical music performance. Reading this book is enough to make one take out a season’s subscription to the Sydney Opera House or chase through the web for the best of classical musical festivals on offer.

The “conversations” are not recorded as such. Lichter fashions each chapter around one or two individuals dividing her collection into sections – conductors, instrumentalists (pianists, strings, oboe), voices, collaborative artists and administrators. Her introduction to each individual forms as a brief biography after which she offers an appreciation of music through their eyes from what they have told her. In doing this, Lichter combines her own musical sense with the intellectual experience of a great musician. Each cameo builds on the ones before, taking the reader on a pleasurable but intellectually engaging trip much like the pleasure and engagement of a great performance.

Lichter’s line-up of interviewees is impressive. Most have performed in Australia, attesting to the depth of musical performance on offer Down Under. Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor and pianist and, what Lichter describes as, “one of the most illustrious living musicians” found the music conservatory was “an island of sanity” as colleagues and citizens were sent to prison or incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals in Soviet Russia. In his island conservatory, Ashkenazy was “driven to comprehend the world of various composers and transmit their message as faithfully as possible”. He believes that Beethoven and Mozart could translate their inner world and understanding of human existence into a message through sound.

Israeli instrumentalist Amihai Grosz who began his studies on the viola at the age of eleven now performs with a 1570 Gasparo da Salo viola on loan from a private collection. He says, “In music you surrender to the art. We are bound by many rules in society but music has no borders, hierarchy or constraints regarding interpretation, listening and response.” Violinist Donald Grant studied in Scotland going on to rank among the world’s finest musicians with the help of scholarships. He became co-founder of the Elias String Quartet which has enjoyed global acclaim, winning the highest rating on BBC Radio’s Building a Library in September 2009. He tells us, “During periods of stress, we have a greater need for music to provide an escape from everyday life, or to tap into more positive feelings. It does not have to be joyful. Even the most melancholic music can make us feel better by accessing our emotions.”

There is a recognition, for many of Lichter’s performers, that music can transport its listeners in ways other media cannot. Angela Hewitt, who started learning the piano aged four and gave her first performance aged five, believes it is possible to feel in touch with a higher presence through music and that such spiritual connection is attainable, especially through Bach. Buddhist, Catholic or any other practitioner of religion, she says, can reach this state through music. Although she recognises that while any audience can respond to Bach, it is not so easy for Asian performers to tackle Bach with no understanding of Western church music.

One Easter Sunday, Hewitt played an Easter hymn for patients at a home where her father lived, many of whom had Alzheimers. A patient who had not spoken for two years suddenly began to sing all the words of the hymn bringing the audience of carers and patients to tears. Music retention is held in a different part of the brain from other forms of memory. Many of the contributors to Ida Lichter’s conversations were able to demonstrate the healing potential of music.

Throughout the conversations, the acknowledgement that performers of classical music are the custodians of a treasured and heritage collection is pronounced. Pianist Aleksandar Madzar, born in Belgrade in 1968, says that classical musicians have a responsibility to keep the many centuries of art music alive, not only for its intrinsic value, but also for the collective bonding it gives listeners. At one level musicians are entertainers but they “could also be envisaged as priest or messengers” he tells Lichter. This notion of custodianship is shared by younger Australian performers like violinist Dimity Hall and her husband, cellist Julian Smiles. They believe children need to learn about the importance of music as part of culture and that “when children’s curiosity about music is switched on, it is self-perpetuating, but if activation is insufficient there is a danger the art could decline, even within a generation”.

This theme that classical music has a significant part to play in the world’s mindset and condition is explored by a number of contributors. That classical music is not easily attractive to the young and modern society in general is both deplored and debated. Pianist Paul Lewis has performed as a soloist with the greatest orchestras of the world. He says:

Today, people demand immediate benefits, usually those of a larger, faster, noisy and more colourful variety. These attitudes can be seen in television programs that encourage attraction to the loudest, most accessible disposable content that shuts out depth and contemplation. Schubert could not be further from these values, which encapsulate so much popular culture and mainstream media. He reminds us of our basic need for more introspective engagement with the world, and many people respond to this message.

There is discussion in these conversations, also, as to whether music and its degeneration into the electronic sounds of decades of pop music could be responsible for the discordant mood of many among the young in our modern world. This is by no means concluded in any scientific way but various possibilities are advanced.

For all that, there is agreement that music is not always a panacea for good. Lichter’s musicians have the highest regard for their art and exhibit nothing but positive good in their work, but their views on this could be summed up by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin who is sceptical about any ethical claims for the art of music. Kissin might wish it had moral value but he sees no evidence for that – after all Nazi leaders were no less evil for listening to music and Stalin liked certain poetry and opera. Music, he says, is morally neutral although emotionally powerful.

Emotion is a word most attached to the views on music in these comprehensive conversations. As the musicians reflect it is clear that the emotional charge is not only between composer and performer but also between performer and audience. Lichter can explain this sometimes by analysing technique and often by recording personal experience of various performers she has talked with.

All up, the engagement of any one performance in music, at such a high level, draws on energies at many points of the compass. The black notes on a white page are an intricate combination of physical tones and sounds that need to be mastered by a trained mind and physique, as well as interpreted artistically in the rendition. Beyond that, the listeners have their part to play in the performance, affecting the performer with their interest, or lack of it, even their silence. In this, Lichter, and many she speaks with, believe that only the live performance can truly capture the full experience of great classical music.

Andreas Loewe, Dean of Melbourne and Fellow and lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium and Katherine Firth, Head of Academic Programs at Trinity College and researcher on the relationship between music and poetry, believe Bach is pivotal in the development of religious and secular classical music. In Bach’s time, the music played would be specific to venue. For much of Bach this meant being heard in church. Today, too often, music lovers hear performance in recordings, film or via livestream. This means they miss “the experience of sitting in an audience and responding to a piece of music as a group”. For example, the sound of Richard Strauss’ famous Also Sprach Zarathustra where an audience can feel the vibrations before the music is audible so that, as these vibrations build, “the listener is already at a high pitch of excitement by the time the timpani and trumpets sound out” for its opening.

Ida Lichter studied piano performance and theory before taking up a career in medicine, specialising in psychiatry. She has worked in the area of performance anxiety which led her to the field of therapy for musicians who were trying to master symptoms inhibiting their ability to play in public. She writes, therefore, from a basis of experience in both music and behavioural research. The conversations cover a vast range of issues around classical performance and the challenges facing classical music performance in the twenty-first century. In spite of the rock and pop culture, classical music is thriving among many groups, and it finds renewed opportunities again and again, whether in movies or in the latest popularity for music festivals in unusual locations.

Perhaps the last word should go to double bass player Kees Boersma who puts it simply:

Music is one of the greatest accomplishments of humanity and a high point of civilisation. It brings out the best in the human spirit by touching that part of us which is only accessible through music. Can music change behaviour? Perhaps not directly, but it is definitely enabling.

Anne Henderson is deputy director of The Sydney Institute. Her most recent book, Menzies at War, was short listed for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for History.