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‘Classical music journalism is mostly shallow and ignorant’: Pienaar

By Sigurd Neubauer


For pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar, Curzon Lecturer in Performance Studies at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor of the University of London, it’s all about keeping in mind that we are now all “tourists” when it comes to classical music.

He’s referring to the sensation of “always in some way or other being a non-native when it comes to accessing materials from the past,” Pienaar explains.

Born in South Africa, he first arrived in London, UK, in 1992 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He sees that geographical outsider status as useful when considering (in the words of L.P. Hartley) that the past represents a “foreign country,” which, he says, requires us “to work hard to relate to it, especially within the modern experience.”

Pienaar began taking piano lessons at the age of eight – relatively late for a pianist – and was not trained from within a strong tradition or in the hyper-disciplined way that talented young players are often taught in European specialist schools, the US or Asia. Apartheid South Africa was then still under heavy international sanctions, and traveling abroad was much less common, so that the classical music scene in the country at the time felt limited and isolated. But perhaps that only added to the sense that Europe and European music and art was a magical dreamland, he adds. 

While Pienaar doesn’t consider himself to be a pure autodidact, he did not come from a family of musicians, and always had reading and studying projects of his own underway instead of practicing at the instrument for many hours daily. Thus, Pienaar developed what he calls “a natural approach” to the instrument.

I am not a pure autodidact : Pienaar
A public lecture at the Royal Academy of Music in 2019. Photo credit: Peter Sheppard

“Sometimes standing somewhat outside a strong school or method of training really helps to develop one’s own systems – and thinking outside the box comes naturally.” Pienaar’s career primarily focuses on recording the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 –1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 –1827), Franz Schubert (1797 –1828), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 –1750), Frédéric Chopin (1810 –1849), among others, and teaching a wide range of materials related to this repertoire.

Pienaar’s early ability developed quickly enough for him to perform Liszt’s First Concerto and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto with the leading South African orchestras as a young teenager. He also won two national competitions “without too much effort,” he concedes, in 1988 and 1989, respectively. In 1991, he was granted a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in the UK and hasn’t left London since. 

On why he chooses to focus on the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Bach, the professor explains in simple terms: “They inspired me when I was young, and they were there for me. I have always felt that one should only play that with which one feels a strong personal connection. And nothing can trump those early emotional bonds one makes in childhood.”

These figures are widely considered to be ‘The Great Composers,’ but that notion has recently come under stronger attack than ever before. “In fact, the notion of a canon, of a library of great works, has always been a contentious one, but I am quite happy to defend why I find it particularly rich and rewarding to study Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. 

To be honest, mindless attacks on these figures are no worse than sheepish reverence. I am a firm believer in the idea that one must be prepared to defend one’s aesthetic values and not become too comfortable! So, challenges and shifts in the zeitgeist can be opportunities to keep things fresh and alive.

There may well be a certain fatigue among people always hearing the same music, played in more or less that same way, all of the time. It is healthy that every generation reconsiders its priorities.”

How these great artists are viewed has been in constant flux over the past 200-300 years, he adds. That reception is not constant.

When performing Beethoven’s music, Pienaar finds himself is in dialogue with those who came before him

On why these composers are important to Pienaar as a performer, he singles out Beethoven as an example.

“What is so fascinating about playing his music is that it is not just about what he composed and how he might have executed it – or might have wanted his music to be played: it is far more complex than that.”

Pienaar points out that modern pianists play on instruments that differ significantly from those the composer used. “But we also live in a vastly different world, which includes different types of music, different sights and sounds and sensations, technologies, cultural values, social mores. Many of the meanings that his music had some 200 years ago don’t resonate in the same way today. And familiarity with his music has brought an inevitable normalization.

It is impossible for us to hear his music in a way which resembles those original listeners’ experience. There is at best a kind of constant process of translation and recasting going on, even for experienced aficionados.”

The pianist posits that much of what we feel is part of Beethoven is really about the thought of others subsequent to him – thinkers, writers, analysts and artists who were likewise driven by visions and impulses of their own, in worlds of their own – whether we are talking about philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, Thomas Mann, the celebrated German novelist, or painter Gustav Klimt, their experience of Beethoven inflect ours.

“But for the performer there is also a hundred years’ worth of recordings of Beethoven’s music.

These recordings show how a whole array of different types of musicians, each with their own technique and their own thoughts and insights, have expressed themselves in Beethoven’s music. When we listen, we don’t only hear Beethoven, we also hear Wilhelm Backhaus (1884 –1969), Artur Schnabel (1882–1951),  Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) and so on,” he adds. Pienaar is quick to note that the composer “couldn’t have possibly imagined all of the ways that people would be playing his Moonlight Sonata, for example, nor the many innovations that have been created around his work.”

This means that, for Pienaar, performing Beethoven implies not only entering into a dialogue with the late eighteen or early nineteenth centuries; it also means entering into dialogue with all these subsequent histories. This has a real impact on the choices he believes that are available when playing the music now. 

One might have in mind competing characterizations of the same work that one heard in several recordings, or one might have an internal conversation about the supposed meaning of a passage, or even about how the associations with certain musical tropes or figures have changed over time and how that might affect what one chooses to emphasize in a certain phrase. 

And that is not even to start talking about how aesthetic ideas through the last two hundred years might also have an impact: a pianist might for example bring a kind of pointillist clarity or even a modernist brutalist into his sound; or by contrast might hark back to the hyper-emotion of expressionism or the suggestiveness of impressionism in their own style of playing.

All these thoughts must be worked out into a performance that makes sense now, that feels modern, not just an artisanal exercise in conservation. 

That also provides a healthy antidote to the veneration that sometimes makes classical music a dour experience. From Beethoven’s music, “it is obvious that sometimes he’s being funny or silly or headstrong or odd, but so often those things are whitewashed…”

Having the nimbleness to shift perspective and not get bogged down by external expectations is key.

A young Pienaar performs Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 in Durban, South Africa, 1988. Photo credit: Pienaar

‘The Western Tradition’

For Pienaar, what we call ‘Classical Music’ is a highly specific, even peculiar phenomenon. One could say much about the relatively short period of notated music and the often strange and very particular relationship between written text and performance.

But perhaps the more interesting thing is to muse on the intense periods of bloom, sometimes during short periods of time in a specific place, that adorn the history of an art form. Think sculpture in Renaissance Italy, drama in Elizabethan England, and, of course, Viennese Classicism in music (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven…)

“When we celebrate Mozart, we are also celebrating the culture – the ‘infrastructure,’ as it were, the resources, the craft materials, the supporting cast of other people – which made it possible for his extraordinary musical mind and heart to flourish.”

'The Great Composers' are under a stronger attack than ever before
Pienaar is passionated about promoting early music 

Early music/ media criticism 

Beyond Beethoven, the professor has also developed a passion for music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is still fairly unusual for pianists to explore music before Bach in any great depth, but Pienaar has already recorded extensively from this repertoire.

He feels especially close to Elizabethan and Jacobean keyboard composers like Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) and William Byrd (1540-1623).

“They developed a complex keyboard style, and in their hands quite formulaic genres ended up flourishing in spectacular fashion.

This was the same culture that produced William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Like in all great cultures, people got together and learned from each other across disciplines.”

On why he prefers recording above live performance Pienaar says that the impulse to communicate is intrinsic to the creative act. “But when I perform now, I feel increasingly confused by who the audience is, by what I can expect them to know, by what they may expect from me. And looking at the industry at large, I don’t often see my values reflected. As a recording artist this does not worry me – I can project to a kind of idealized audience – an audience that is not just interested in the music, but in the performance of it, and in how my performance might be surprising or striking to them (or not).” Pienaar feels quite happy to be, in a sense, on the margins of the music profession.

According to him, very little of how classical music performance is presented to the wider public centers on the intrinsic content of a performer’s work. And the role of social media with its instant gratification mantra does not help. “It is mostly narcissistic and trivial,” he says.

Equally depressing is music journalism in the mainstream media: “95 percent of it is just silly and ignorant,” he says with a laugh. “Reviews, for instance, mostly boil down to whether a reviewer liked something or not.

Now we know that when you ask different people their opinion of the same thing you are likely to get varying responses, irrespective of the level of expertise of whom you ask. So, these opinions are frankly simply uninteresting.

I think people are thirsty for more in-depth content. Not a statement of somebody’s opinion, but an inquiry into how something (in this case a performance) is made and how that relates to the wider world of ideas.

We don’t read a piece on, say, Van Gogh’s painting of clouds, to find out whether the writer likes it or not, right? Whether the writer likes it is up to a point immaterial since the viewer can make up their own mind on that.

The viewer wants to be illuminated on the subject matter itself.”

When it comes to teaching, Pienaar prefers to connect with students either individually or in small groups, focusing on sharpening their critical apparatus and sensitivity to their relationship with history.

He also guides students through projects of their own.

We conclude our conversation by once more discussing his complete recordings of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert sonatas. “One of the things that I love about cycles is that they are the ultimate test of variety,” he says, referring to a set of piano sonatas in particular. “Finding as much variety as possible within set parameters is the challenge,” the professor explains.

His relationship with the recording studio is quite individual. Unusually for classical artists he edits all his own recordings and works without a producer. In 2020 he went one step further, recording 48 Haydn Sonatas without a sound engineer, using only one set of suspended omnidirectional mics. “Working in this way, I feel the end result is truly my own!”

Pienaar first arrived at the Royal Academy of Music in 1992
The professor prefers to connect with students either individually or in small groups
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