Steven Isserlis meets the pearls of wisdom in Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians, originally meant to accompany the master’s renowned 1848 piano suite, Album for the Young, with directness and allure. Isserlis relates guidance from his vast experience as a performer, educator and writer/broadcaster, which, while closely based on Schumann’s precious aphorisms, adds his own didactic playfulness. His revised suggestions and bonus chapter, which outline his personal interpretations on Schumann’s original work in a light-hearted and humorous tone, avoid the trap of haughty weightiness while managing to address high-minded ideals with the seriousness of the matter at heart.
With recommendations like the importance “to stay true to one’s convictions, courageous in facing adversity and to never lose the love for music itself,” Isserlis keeps the conversation simple, real and encouraging, counterbalancing much of the anxiety-provoking frenzy that generally dominates the competitive scenes typical of music institutions.
With many contradicting opinions on the subject available, Isserlis does not underestimate the importance of putting things into perspective, especially when it comes to overzealous practice habits: “Genuine technical command allows us to play the music we’re performing without having to think about the [technical] difficulties; it gives us the freedom to listen to ourselves. The point of scales and exercises, ultimately, is to help our fingers/voices acquire the precision they need in order to produce the interpretation we hear in our heads/hearts.”
With his don’ts striking wit more often than his dos, he may just prevent another generation’s disastrous misconstruction of the craft: “…Don’t turn your performance into a lecture-recital! How many times does one play Bach, for instance and we hear from their playing what they’ve learned about double-dotting, ornamentation, etc.; and we also hear that they know when the music is changing key, because they take time over every modulation. The music will modulate whether you point it out or not…Ideally there should be no sense that you’ve made decisions in advance – more the impression that you are (re)creating as you perform. That way, the music you play will always sound alive – and new.”
Intrigued by the composer’s musical genius, Isserlis, an acclaimed British cellist, has devoted much of his illustrious career up to this point to Schumann’s oeuvre, making him a recipient of the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwieckau, where Schumann was born. The cellist’s chamber cycles have been staged internationally and include programs about varied aspects of the fascinating composer’s life and work, revealing a keen understanding and personal kinship to the fantastical world of the master’s imagination, musical idealism and purity.
Especially noteworthy are Isserlis’ efforts in ‘recovering’ the masters’ lesser-known works as part of a vehement effort to promote Schumann. In 2010, Schumann’s bicentenary, he wrote Grammophone (with Philistines in mind):
“Schumann’s music is curiously alive today. One cannot pigeonhole him (perhaps that’s why critics have difficulties); he is too experimental, too close to the edge of the known sound world. Harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally he is way ahead of his time – outside of time, in fact, looking simultaneously into the past and the future…In short, he is a genius, unlike any other, one who can lead us into worlds undreamed of by anyone else. Every time I work on his music (as I am now doing for my upcoming residence at the Cheltenham festival), I marvel afresh, not just at the power of his imagination, but also at the brilliance of his mind. It is so exciting to follow his thought patterns as he moulds formal conventions into new, half-hidden shapes: miracle after miracle,” he offers, explaining his ongoing fascination with Schumann, the man his work.
“This bicentenary is the chance for more of us to engage with him (concert promoters, record companies and performers permitting). Far be it from me to be fanatical – but if you catch anyone being condescending about any aspect of Schumann’s music or personality this year, please feel free to gently, but firmly, shoot them. For their own good.”
Isserlis’ examining of the master’s directions on how to implement artistic goals into routine principals could open up a slew of possible reflections on the creative process. He presents thoughtful critique on the role of the musician within society, the tradition of music education and the goal of music performance to a higher end, leaving room for a more in-depth evaluation of the creative experience of young musicians. While Isserlis could clearly analyze such matters in a wider context, he rather chooses here – in tune with Schumann’s inflections – to adhere to the more concrete approach, giving comprised, practical ‘how-to’ directions, and addressing the nascent musician in this intimate discourse.
Bestowed with a direct lineal heritage of musical tradition, as well as a code of ethics, by his great mentors Jane Cowan, Sándor Végh, György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados, each of whom inspired Isserlis the musician and helped shape Isserlis the cellist in their own personal manner, Isserlis the educator is in turn consistently reaching out to the next generation. About the teachers in his life he has said: “I think I am right in saying that all four of these unique visionaries, different as they were/are, shared a basic set of musical values. In every lesson I took or observed with any of them, there was an over-riding goal: to help the student realize the composer’s vision. It hardly needs saying that none of them were interested in career for its own sake – in treating music like a competitive sport, in fact, which alas is the case in all too many institutions around the world today. These sages followed their musical ideals, and tried to help others do the same; what is the point in being a musician if one is not an idealist?” (Quoted from his 2014 speech at the Prussia Cove Chamber Music Festival).
One of the fascinating discoveries of Isserlis’ mentorship may lie in his recognition that disciplined timing is everything. A set routine – a crucial element for the fostering of inspiration – builds a central aspect of his illustrated children books: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and its sequel, Why Handel Waggled his Wig, both published by Faber and Faber in 2001 and 2006 respectively. Implementing good habits from the beginning, Isserlis describes the minutely detailed daily schedule of Tchaikovsky, for example, explaining the importance of making time for the mundane to the process of achieving the sublime: “Tchaikovsky will work from 9.30 until one o’clock. After that will come lunch, the main meal of the day, and then a walk of exactly two hours. (An hour and fifty-five minutes isn’t enough. Tchaikovsky is sure that he needs precisely two hours for the sake of his health.) He has to be alone for this, because he’s still composing in his head. The only problem is that the local children know that he’s a soft touch, because he loves children, and also because he loves to give his money away; so they will probably ambush him and beg for coins until he gives in and they run off, satisfied.” (Quoted from Why Handel Wagged his Wig).
Isserlis delivers his commentary with a particular ‘soft touch,’ always reflective of the joy he takes in passing his love for music and Schumann on to the next generation.