Jonathan Biss: Many of us become musicians in part because we feel out of step with the world. Music makes up for something that is missing. And Beethoven has done it for me. But his personality is so immense, irascible and conflictive that living with him all the time, as much as it made life bearable, also made it unbearable. And that’s the conflict that finally tore me apart.
Stephen Fry: Perhaps Shakespeare is closest to Beethoven in grandeur and all-consuming emotional range. There are actors who have had failures when playing certain characters. Hamlet and King Lear can be incredibly disturbing. There is a famous 1947 movie with Ronald Colman playing Othello. He murders his wife on stage because the character consumes him. These things are good stories, and they were told at a time when mental unrest was the joke you used to tell about artists. It was part of his artistic temperament, part of his eccentricity.
But now we are more aware of how dangerous mental health problems can be. They are not a joke, but they can be scary and serious. And Beethoven’s music is terrifying and serious. I can’t imagine someone having these problems playing Schubert, however profound and wonderful Schubert is. If you imagine the great composers when you die and you’re in heaven, you’d be pretty sure Schubert would hold your hand, put an arm around you, and lead you out for a drink. Whereas Beethoven would be like Bob Dylan or John Lennon. They are the rock stars you don’t want to meet because they would look down on you.
JB: I think all piano soloists feel the pressure to be, if not perfect, then at least invulnerable. You’re supposed to go on stage and kill a woolly mammoth and look like it’s not difficult. We are not supposed to show vulnerability. That is a terrible burden. However, the performances that have meant the most to me as a listener are those in which there was some demonstration of vulnerability.
SF: With the performing arts, there are some parts of humanity that you can show off and other parts that go overboard. When an actor appears on stage playing Uncle Vanya, they may have a false beard, but have their real hair and face. So that’s Uncle Vanya on stage. But if the director decides that Vanya is going to take a shower and the actor takes off his clothes, you are no longer looking at Uncle Vanya’s penis, you are looking at that actor’s penis. The representation disappears, because that part of someone’s body cannot be considered off stage, as a rule, since we are all peculiar about it.
There is also an emotional version. You can go on stage and show this emotion or that emotion. But if you stab yourself and blood comes out, people say, “Wow, that goes a bit far.” There are limits to the exchange you expect in an artistic experience.
JB: Do you feel like you’ve crossed that line before?
SF: I have played characters who had desperate moments. Playing Oscar Wilde was a very interesting experience. But actually what affected me the most was playing Malvolio on Twelfth Night in London and then on Broadway. Malvolio is rejected and laughs at him. “I will take revenge on the entire pack of you”, those are his last words. And it goes alone. It is outside the embrace of comedy that Shakespeare gives to all the other characters in the play. All, except Malvolio, are welcomed in a big smiling embrace of pleasure. And it comes to you! It’s kind of strange. I mean, you know it’s fake.
JB: But you probably have to access a part of yourself, and that part has to get hurt over and over again.
SF: We are both people who have had issues with our mental health and self stability and, in my case, mood disorders ranging from mania to depression. It’s called bipolar disorder. People often ask: is poor mental health, while not necessarily a condition for being creative, helpful? If a doctor told you that they have discovered this amazing new gene therapy and that in 10 minutes you could get rid of all your mental health problems, would you say, ‘Yes, please go ahead’? Or would you fear being less of an artist without these problems?
JB: I don’t know, I’ve never had the experience of being someone else! There is a part of me that resists glamorizing the artist as someone who is not quite from this Earth, who has special abilities but is also, almost out of necessity, irresponsible. I think that all people feel deeply and artists have all kinds of personalities. But at the same time, I think that when you make music or any kind of art, your whole being is revealed. I feel like the part of me that is anxious is inextricably linked to all the other parts of me, which are probably essential to being a musician. It’s not that I didn’t want to live without it, I would love to live with less anxiety, but I don’t know if the other parts would still be what they are. It is a very unsatisfactory answer.
SF: It is unsatisfactory because you are right. It cannot be known. I was on stage or in a television studio talking while another part of my mind said, “I’m in hell.” You’re dead inside, yet the part of you that won’t allow you to not entertain your audience, timing the joke correctly and being lighthearted, is alive.
I was on a talk show once and the other guest was Robin Williams. My godson called me and said, “I really enjoyed you with that. And Robin Williams, isn’t that amazing? I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He said, “But you sweat a lot.” I said, “Yes, do you know why?” He said, “Was it a condition?” I said, “Yes, a condition of trying so hard.” It may seem like you are relaxed, but you are completely trying.
“Art hides art is“As the Romans used to say. The real art is hiding the art. You’re not supposed to show it. When you finish a performance, your heart races. It never leaves you, that hammering nerve, and on top of that is the feeling of, “Did I fail or did I succeed? Will I fail tomorrow if I made it today? If I made it today, does that mean I’ll fail tomorrow? All this bullshit, these voices in your head as you try to sleep at night after a performance, knowing you have another one tomorrow. It is amazing that all artists are not certifiable and are locked up.
JB: Like so many musicians, from March to September of last year, I didn’t go on stage at all. Then I had two concerts in September, followed by two in November. Normally, I do 80 concerts a year. It was a huge thing that, for all those months, he didn’t play in front of people. And that moment coincided with me trying to finally tackle these demons. At one of the November concerts, I was warming up and getting nervous, like always. Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t really have to try to be what I am not. And it was the first time that I felt like this. It was absolutely revealing. By the way, I only held onto it for about three and a half minutes. The urge to be a perfected version of myself dies.
SF: Years ago, I was working with one of my comic book heroes, John Cleese. He asked, “So what kinds of things are you doing right now?” I told him that I was doing some stage things and that I found them distressing. He said, “You have to remind yourself that the audience hasn’t walked in, sat down, folded their arms and said, ‘Come on, have fun, I don’t think you can.’ They have paid money because they want to see you. “And you think:” Yes, of course. Yes. Why am I thinking that everyone is hostile? “In general, people have come because they want to. If anything, the audience may be a little more nervous than you are.
Your job is actually to tell the audience, “You are in wonderful hands. You are going to have a fantastic time. It’s going to be wonderful. “With an actor, that moment begins with the first scene, but there is something extraordinary that a pianist does: he sits down on the stool, holds out his hands ready to play, then there’s that pause. I’ve always thought, ‘ What are you doing? Are you clearing your mind or filling it up? Are you listening to the music ahead? As an actor, you can do the same: just let the audience know that you are having a good time. It is also a way to hypnotize yourself. .
This is a edited excerpt from a talk which aired on Kings Place’s K Player and is available in the UK to view (tickets £ 9.50) until March 18.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism