Monday, November 7, 2011

Sprezzatura!

This is a concept that I picked up reading Catch and Release a book about fishing and the philosophy of life written by Canadian Mark Kingwell. He got the idea from the author of the book on the perfect courtier, Baldassare Castiglione. The book is called The Book of the Courtier and it was written between 1508 and 1528. Regarding sprezzatura, Castiglione says:
I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
 The concept is surprisingly relevant in music, especially for performers and understanding it has improved my own playing immensely. When I came to the classical guitar I was undoubtedly heavy-handed. My first instrument was electric bass, after all, and I went at everything with perhaps an excess of energy. There is a whole school of guitar playing that is effortful. It seemed that the seriousness of the music--or the seriousness of my intentions--meant that this was how you had to play. It made difficult music even more difficult of course. I finally grew tired of this way of playing and heard a guitarist who just seemed to do everything effortlessly. At first I resented it and thought it was a kind of fakery. But with time I came to see that this was a much better way to play. Instead of effort and strain, sprezzatura! --playing with lightness, charm, elegance, grace and poise.

I went to a concert last night that included the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn. A lovely piece and the first written for a trumpet that could play chromatic notes. The soloist did a wonderful job up until the encore. Lacking any other choice, and since the orchestra had just played it in the first half, they decided to repeat the Hornpipe from Handel's Water Music. Here it is on natural trumpet:


For some odd reason, perhaps because Dennis Brain, the great English virtuoso hornist had done it, he decided to amuse us by playing it on a length of garden hose with mouthpiece. Alas, he messed it up terribly! Remember, sprezzatura! As someone pointed out, the audience does not want to hear what you can't do. As a performer you want to show, not only mastery, but ease, delight. Here is what the opposite of sprezzatura looks like:


And this:


But even the great Julian Bream has touches of it:


In this approach one must not only make a great effort for the audience, but one must show what a great effort one is making by flurries of notes, heavy accents, furrowed brow and straining tendons. The reliable indicator of this effort, on the guitar at least, is the timbre which becomes thin, naily and harsh. Julian Bream has it much less than the first two gentlemen, Eliot Fisk and Kazuhito Yamashita, and he makes a lovely sound despite it, but he, too, possesses the opposite of sprezzatura.

Here is what sprezzatura looks and sounds like:


Alvaro Pierri, a student of Abel Carlevaro, is the guitarist that I first noticed with the quality of sprezzatura. Others have it in spades:


That is the fine Scottish guitarist, David Russell. John Williams also has it:


I have stuck to guitarists here because sprezzatura can be a subtle thing and the classical guitar is the instrument I know best. It is also one where the timbre reveals many things that on the piano, are filtered out by the key mechanism.

Sprezzatura is one of many traditional aesthetic values that I think need rediscovering.

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