It’s November 13, 1979, my last quarter as an undergraduate student, and I have nothing to do all day. I have one class, which I won’t be attending. I intend to wander campus and waste time and count the passing seconds. That evening, I will play my senior piano recital, the first solo recital of my life, in Lotte Lehman concert hall. Two Soler sonatas, four Scriabin preludes, Schumann Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22, Haydn Sonata in E-Flat (yeah, the “big” E-Flat, formerly No. 52), Liszt Funérailles and La Campanella. If I am still drawing breath, the encore will be a largely improvised, whacked-out version of Blind Boone’s “Carrie’s Gone to Kansas City,” a sort of post-Civil War pre-Rag that I learned by ear. The entire mess is from memory.
I am almost out of my mind with terror.
I will survive all of it, of course; as I have told many students since, the sun goes down and the sun comes up and time continues and we do survive these things. What is most needed is something to occupy the mind, to prevent the brain from eating itself and the psyche from committing hari-kari. That day, what I found was the latest issue of Scientific American, which featured a story about the research being done on Stradivarius violins to try to discover the Secret: I think they were using X-Rays machines and other highly technological, medical-research-type tools, and figuring stuff out about the instruments’ proportions, and I guess they were hot on the trail. I don’t remember all that much of it, almost thirty years later, other than that it was a good thing for me to be thinking about that day.
And, we read, the Quest continues. According to a recent news item, new research suggests (shades of the National Enquirer: “Science Proves…!”) that the Secret is closer to being discovered, that it has to do with the consistency of thickness of the wood, etc. I hope they find it. Presumably this would mean the secret of the other contemporary Cremonese violin makers also, Amati and Guarneri, no? One might be flip and suggest that they should also look for the secrets of the players: Lolli, Locatelli, Paganini. Without the players, the greatest instruments in the world just sit there, and if I’m not mistaken the surviving instruments have been updated in various ways to accommodate more recent styles of playing. I wonder to what extent these instruments should still be called Guarnerii and Stradivarii and so on, but what do I know? I’m not a fiddler. Maybe their essential nature does remain.
What we all want is the Secret. I’m obsessed with the celebratedly elusive Chopin pianism, myself: rubato, touch, temperament, aesthetic, approach to improvisation. I read a piece decades ago in the San Francisco Chronicle by Jazz pianist Don Asher, who was obsessed with Bix Beiderbecke to the point of acting irrationally, almost antisocially, when he got a new lead. Many of us have experienced moments in our own improvations that seemed to come from elsewhere, that we fumble around for months trying to recapture, growing ever more stale. The Instrument, the unattainable Style, the unique Person, the Moment where the music went absolutely magical—these end up being Holy Grails to us, quested after but never attained. Which is why we needn’t worry about unlocking the forbidden, and exposing (thus nullifying) the magical secret: ever more will be discovered, but we’ll never get near the complete answer. “It’s the journey, not the destination” is by now an annoying cliché, perhaps most annoying because it’s true. The magic is the combination of, at very least, instrument, player, music, and listener. So, sure, let ’em find the Secret of the Cremonese Luthiers; they’ll then have to figure out what kinds of spaces it should be played in, what approaches to playing it work best, what kinds of music work best on it, and so on. Dare I say “how best to record it?” Today, that might be the most pressing question at all; the wrong recording approach can kill an instrument’s sound. I have every confidence that Stradivari’s Secret, if discovered, will not provide the Answer, because it’s still at most only part of the answer. I’m sure the results of this study, when applied to new instruments, will be very noteworthy, and will provoke lots of disagreement and debate. And, hopefully, performance. Let the Games Continue!