Thursday 14 April 2016

Review of In Pursuit of Music by Denis Matthews

Following my discovery of a treasure trove of recordings on YouTube by the pianist Denis Matthews, I have followed-up by reading his autobiography In Pursuit of Music (1966, 192 pages) - which I have taken quite slowly and which has delighted me.

The style is accomplished, light and engaging (rather like the writing for the humour magazine Punch) - but the depth and riuchness of the musicality is a wonder to behold. I am myself musical enough to know both when another person is less so - and also to appreciate when someone is off the scale above me. And with music, there is range of ability which is as extreme as in any aspect of human endeavor I am aware of; perhaps comparable only to mathematics - with which there is some occult relationship. In short, musicality has objectivity - again like mathematics: an objectivity to the measurement which is unarguable.

A real musician not only plays things, but more importantly hears things far beyond the capicity of ordinary mortals - and this brings objectivity to artistic judgment of music that is seldom matched in literature or the visual arts. So I have come away from Matthews book with a shopping list of composers and their works, and perfomers and their specialism, which will keep me going for a considerable time.

Of course, there is room for sheer taste - so that one may simply be unable to enjoy excellence, even at the very highest level. Matthews knew the conductor Arturo Toscanini, knew his work; and on the basis of deep understanding - the capacity to hear very fully what is happening in the music, what Toscania was doing - and wide comparison and experience with his 'rivals' names him the greatest conductor of his age, perhaps of any age. This kind of thing compels ultimate acceptance - even though I may not myself be able to enjoy what I have heard of Toscanini as much I enjoyed - say - Klemperer.

So, Matthews was a man who lived inside music, in particular the great composers of the classical era, and it is hard to avoid a kind of enviousness at someone participating so fully in the depth and complexity as well as beauty of this unexcelled world of human accomplishment... and yet... like many another great artist the lesson of Matthews life is that even this is not enough.

I found myself recurrently recalling what is revealed in this book, and what I have vaguely but reliably heard, of Matthews tormented and psychologically turbulent life; and his eventual death by suicide which (sadly) seemed to surprise no-one who knew him. 

Even the greatest art does not, cannot, substitute for religion: it is a lower and lesser world. And the greatest musicians - hugely though I admire them - are men and women of qualitatively lesser human  stature and human satisfaction than religious people; even when these may be obscure and unremarkable in worldly terms. I have no doubt which constitutes the most successful life.

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