How to tell ‘music from the inside’ from ‘music from the outside”

“What you will do will be simpler, but more truthful.”

That is one of many insights from the late pianist and teacher György Sebók.

I frequently describe my admiration for particular artists who can translate the piles of notes on a printed page into something meaningful for the listener.

In a 1987 masterclass in Holland, Sebók, a particularly patient and gifted explainer of an artform that so often defies description uses the slow movement of a Haydn sonata to explain a part of this process.

He asks his pupil to separate interpretation that comes from inside the self from an instance where the musician understands the music but is not personally involved — or, as he puts it, “in quotation marks.”

It all boils down to playing each note a slightly different way. These tiny, subtle nuances add up (there’s more after these two videos, equally insightful to anyone interested in discovering how a sum of tiny little decisions and gestures adds up to something beautiful):

The involvement of the interpreter’s personal emotions is also a big factor.

In an interview from shortly before his death in 1999, Sebók speaks of the personal emotional effects of going through World War II — of how the daily act of survival meant shutting down one’s emotions, an act that led to him shutting down emotional expression in music, as well.

Sebók describes in words and then music how a little bit of Bach (as filtered through the late-Romantic aesthetic of Ferrucio Busoni) helped unlock his heart once again after the turmoil and trauma of the war.

John Terauds


One thought on “How to tell ‘music from the inside’ from ‘music from the outside”

  1. John …how lovely. It’s the same for singers,too, but they must do all of this using their bodies as the instrument. It’s good to be reminded of substance and depth on occasion.

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