My friends are those who haunt the Ideal; there, dear friend, we 'recognize' each other, and shall always do so…

Liszt to Ödön Mihalovich

Music’s Soul is Behind the Notes

14 August 2019

Violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy has been conducting since 2001, and by now it has become his main activity. He was appointed music director of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra in 2007 and of the Manchester Camerata since 2007. He was the principal violin (1975 to 1992) of the Takács Quartet, still named after him. During his career He has performed with legendary musicians such as Gidon Kremer, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, György Solti, Isaac Stern or Mstislav Rostropovitch. The Liszt Prize winner musician tells our magazine about fantasy and the stories told by sounds.

What tools does a musician have to inspire his fantasy?

An actor evokes emotions with words; we have the sounds and notes. We look beyond the sheet music just as an actor sees behind the text. When his son was born in 1756, father of Mozart wrote in his Violin School work: 'the musician’s prior task is to stir up and control emotions of the listeners depending on the emotions he feels beyond the notes.' To achieve impact, he must first evoke these emotions in himself. This is precisely when fantasy becomes key. Already the Hungarian language is helping us as we say 'képzelet', 'imagination'. Through images, we get closer to the feelings hidden in notes. It wasn’t by accident that György Kurtág, Ferenc Rados, András Mihály bombarded us with fantastic pictures in those days while teaching us chamber music. They led us, young music students to the emotions encrypted in the notes.


Does it mean you see pictures beyond notes?

No, it’s not that simple. For me, every sound tells a story, and our task as musicians is to bring them to life. The same way the prince woke up the Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. The sheet of paper, the dots dropped on it, and the side notes are worthless in and of themselves until the musician comes and fills them with life and the power of imagination. I understood all of this when my father died. I only arrived home for his funeral, but I wanted to bid farewell to him physically and see him for the last time. His figure has been alive in me, yet when I saw him in the coffin, he seemed like a stranger. A psychologist friend of mine gave me an answer to this. He said: you only saw the envelope, but not the letter, the soul flew away. What we see on the music sheet is similarly lifeless. The task of the musician and the conductor is to guide the audience from the bare materiality of what’s written down, to the soul of the music. It is only possible via imagination and fantasy. Every time I got to a stage where I could switch on my imagination during a rehearsal even my muscles started to behave differently. I could technically level up to the moment I was no longer concentrating on my technique. We don’t have to play music the way it is written. We have to transmit what the composer has written.


Photo: Liszt Academy/László Mudra


Many composers give exact instructions in their sheets, and they write down every possible detail.

I’m not saying we should ignore the composer’s instruction. The opposite! We have to let everything burn through us with humility. Then comes the point: we need to add ourselves to the sheet music . György Kurtág once told me that even if he scribbles the sheet entirely, it is only about 5% of what is there from what he feels during composing. Another example: you can live with any of Bartók’s works, you can have all the notes, small letter prints in your blood, but it does not mean a piece will come to life in his hands. You cannot write down emotional depths, subtle shades. You can only recall the soul of the man behind the notes with imagination and empathy.


Photo: Liszt Academy/Gábor Valuska


What tools does a conductor have to express its fantasy?

Emotional credibility. Personal empathy. These are the most important. If a composer can fully empathise with the piece, it impacts the orchestra’s overall performance. He might not be able to pull each member of the orchestra along, but if he wins the majority, he has the concert. Furtwängler writes in his article about imagination that the composer drops the notes and harmonies on the sheet from a particular spiritual altitude and as a result of a certain mood or a state of mind. So, the composer first gets into an elevated mood, but the performer only gets his first impressions from the notes. He needs to live it through the reason these notes ended on the page while working on the piece. During the performance, he needs to get in the same mood that triggered the written notes and harmonies by the composer. Therefore, the preparation is only partially an intellectual process: the performer also needs to use his instincts. During a concert, he needs to get away from the braincontrolled influence, as too much thinking kills emotional empathy. György Kurtág once said after we suffered for over two months with the rehearsals of his Officium Breve, that before the show you need to forget everything. 'Forget about me, the piece is now yours; you are the co-composers. Give it birth again through your own personalities and souls.' He could not have given a piece of wiser and more liberating advice.


Ágnes Mester