Interpreting Performance: An Interview with Imogen Cooper

As an international concert pianist, Imogen Cooper’s career has encompassed performances across the globe, working with musicians such as Sir Colin Davis and Sir Simon Rattle, and recording works by Schubert, Mozart, Schumann, and Beethoven amongst others. She has recently been appointed Oxford’s Humanitas Professor of Classical Music and Musical Education, a series of visiting professorships dedicated to addressing themes in the arts, social sciences, and humanities. I spoke to her about her career as a pianist and her new role as Humanitas Professor.

Why do you choose to play Schubert? What’s special about his music for you?

It’s a love affair that goes back a very long way. I first heard his music when I was a teenager studying in Paris. I didn’t hear it through any of my teachers and I’m rather glad of that, because I’m not sure French Schubert is necessarily something what I would have wanted to go to in those days. There were discs in the hostel where I lived of Fischer-Dieskau singing Lieder – he was the great, dominant figure at the time – and I just fell completely in love with the Lieder. I didn’t do any solo music while I was there because I went to work with Alfred Brendel so soon after leaving Paris … I didn’t really make my big Schubert discoveries until I got to Vienna to work with Brendel and then it was just one discovery after another. The wonderful thing was that he, relatively late in life – he was 39 or 40 – was also coming to some of the big works for the first time so there was a great process of discovery going on which was wonderful to be involved in.

What attracts me to his music? I think a part of that is the sheer humanity of it. What he can express between the dark and the light is just so extraordinarily profound. The way that he swings you from one to another with really no warning; which could perhaps be to do with his temperament.

How important is biography, particularly for a composer like Schubert, when you come to interpret his works?

One shouldn’t be taken in too much by the fact that there were so many dark things after he was diagnosed as ill – after all, he wrote Erlkönig when he was about 18 … I think he had these swings of temperament – I use those words carefully because I don’t think for a moment he was bi-polar or anything like that … I wonder if he didn’t have Seasonal Affective Disorder, because it was often in winter that he went right down and then in the light of the summer he managed to pull himself up. But he did swing a lot and I find it fascinating how somebody manages that, and expresses it through music.

How much is the visual aspect part of your performance, particularly with a composer like Schubert who is so much on the margin between a private and public kind of expression?

There’s absolutely no doubt that we hear with our eyes as well as with our ears. If somebody – including me, and it’s very possible that it is so – conveys something physically which is contrary to what the music is saying, it is a disaster. Often when I am teaching, I have to say ‘Don’t play this theme with your head down, it is an [expansive] theme.’ It immediately ‘sounds’ different. That, to a degree, I am mindful of. Sometimes I’m too busy to be mindful of it! The … A minor [Sonata, D. 784] is essentially introverted and private apart from some angry and desperate outbursts, and the D Major [Sonata, D. 850] is great sunshine. But I think one can hear this in the music.

A lot has been written by academics on Schubert’s mood swings – how much do you feel that academic and performance aspects intersect, particularly analytical articles?

To be absolutely honest I don’t read them. There’s a wonderful book on Schubert by Elizabeth [Norman] McKay … which is incredibly informative and very thoughtful about his illness and how it would have affected him, where he was when he died. That sort of thing fascinates me, what his world would have been like, what Vienna was like – the social atmosphere there, how oppressive it was, how there were rulings about what could or couldn’t be done, and what could be read etc. Groups of young men had to meet in fairly private circumstances so as to have their own literary, cultural, and artistic freedom; it was a very different atmosphere from Oxford in the 21st century. That interests me a lot. Analytical things about the music – I don’t want to sound arrogant by saying that it doesn’t interest me at all, but I glaze over a bit. I feel that if I can’t have an instinct of that on my own, through my own knowledge of Schubert, I’m not sure I should be playing the music.

Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert

Do you think musicologists should take into account performance aspects as much as possible?

Definitely, without any doubt at all. It is fascinating to plunge into the [analytical] knowledge as much as possible, but one always has to keep it related to the music and to the actual sound of the music… It is sound that is the first thing that hits us in an experience of a piece of music. Great, if you can read it off the page and hear it that’s impressive in itself … but it’s actually what happens when you play it yourself that is important.

How do you feel that classical music in particular fits into society today?

It’s a really visceral thing. I believe very strongly that in a really great performance there is a process of identification that goes on between the audience and what is happening. It’s like reading a great book. You suddenly read your own story in there and you think – I have gone through this too. It is not only revealing but it’s cathartic, it can be absolutely life-changing. Indeed, does one not often go for the books that have precisely that function at a given time in one’s life? In the same way one will probably go for a composer whose emotional world, the emotional make-up of his psyche, you can respond to. People who love Schubert will come and know that a given player can do this with and for Schubert, and they will come because that is exactly what they need too. It’s a synergy, something circular … that is entirely beneficial. Yes, audiences can hear things at twenty different levels – but in the best and the most profound experiences, I think this is what happens. And I think that we really need deep, live music experience nowadays. In a world that is disturbed, terrifying, always seeming to be on the brink of something absolutely horrific and you just have to cross your fingers and pray for whatever it is, be it the situation in Iran or something else. So I think we can benefit from being in a confined space with like-minded people and sharing this stuff which is all about life. Schubert, for all that he was a genius, was basically a human being like us – albeit touched by the finger of whoever exists up there. There is a common experience to share, I think.

A lot of people think that classical music has become a ‘side-lined’ art compared to pop music; do you agree?

Of course not, I couldn’t possibly. There’s some great pop music around, and I listen to a lot of world music at home, as much as I do classical, if not more. I’d just as well hear a fantastic Madagascan male voice choir as I would a Beethoven symphony badly played; in fact I would rather hear it. It does a lot for me. I don’t find that in pop music so much. I’m not an expert; I love good jazz but I don’t know enough about pop to comment. Cultural pop has a huge amount of money behind it and every possible hook to get people on board, including probably psychologists who know how to tap the right colour and the right sound … I don’t want to castigate anything, but to say that classical music is a side-line is a castigation in itself and no, I cannot agree with that.

Could classical music be doing more to ‘hook people in’?

We’re all doing our best. I don’t know if this is generational but I think in trying to do too much to popularise it, you lose something along the way. What is more important is to enrich the field where you are and allow yourself to go deeper. Not to spread out and catch in that way, but to go deeper and I think it’s possible to engage people in that way. I’ve met people who have gone to concerts when they’ve not been to concerts before – young people – and they have surprised themselves. They’ve said it was amazing, that they thought they would be bored or wouldn’t know what to say, but they understood it completely. It’s often really a question of getting through the door, and opening your heart, ears, eyes and mind, everything, to be open to what is going on. It is up to us to make it alive, of course. There shouldn’t be anything starchy or didactic in music making. Not to me. It should be alive, plastic, and something everyone can identify with.

Do you think we teach music enough in schools?


So something like the proposed EBacc, in which music is not considered as an option for further study in the standard curriculum?

It’s appalling. It’s quite simply wrong, because for a child to learn how to make music is so important… It is about giving confidence, and in the context of another instrument that isn’t the piano, maybe belonging to an orchestra. Look at El Sistema in Venezuela, it is absolutely extraordinary; these children come off the streets and do two or three hours joining in with an orchestra and practice every single day, forming themselves into the most extraordinary orchestra. They’re validated as human beings; even when they leave [the orchestra] one day, their lives will be completely different. It’s so obvious. It proves my point that music is not just about entertainment, something that can be pushed to the side-lines. It is part of a possible inner development, and the maturing of a human being which has very particular qualities and characteristics of its own which are very often not tapped. There may be musical children around who are simply not using it because they do not have the wherewithal to do so.

Particularly if you take music off the curriculum at this stage, it dries up possibilities for future composers as well. You perform a fair amount of new music?

Not as much as I would like to. I came to contemporary music quite late. The generation in which I grew up, you were much more compartmentalized. Either you were a classical musician, and/or you were a soloist, a chamber musician as part of a trio, or you ‘accompanied’ (a word I can’t stand) Lieder, or you did contemporary music. Now what is so wonderful about musicians who are only 20 now – they take it for granted that a bit of everything comes into that, particularly contemporary music. So I came to it probably in my forties – and I started with Thomas Adès, which was like leaping in at the deep end without a rubber ring! It was terrifying. But it changed my life, it was absolutely wonderful. I felt like a child starting, and when I finally managed to play through this ten-minute piece which took me about a month, I was jubilant. I had realised things I didn’t know I could do.

What are the unique pulls of a pianistic lifestyle that drew you to it as a career?

I announced at five I wanted to be a pianist – I had no idea what I was saying, I just knew that I wanted to share music. It’s that which kept me going. My parents, particularly my father, would say – do you know what it means? I was eleven, and about to drop all schooling to go off to Paris and live alone there without my family and train for six years to be a concert pianist. Of course I didn’t know what it was about, I didn’t have the smallest idea. But because it was what I wanted to do, I stuck with it and I have always loved being on the stage … I just love the experience of sharing something inner that becomes sound and then goes out there and benefits other people. I think it’s an extraordinary thing to do. I feel very privileged to do this, and I think I’ve always had a sense of that. But the lifestyle of a pianist? It’s ghastly. I come down every morning, I see [the piano] in the corner saying ‘Come on? What are you waiting for?’ and if I get to six in the evening and I’ve been taken up by other things I feel dreadful. It’s a permanent guilt-trip. The lifestyle is not so great. There are colossal sacrifices along the way, it’s quite a tyranny. But as Aung San Suu Kyi said on Desert Island Discs only a few days ago – I think Kirsty Young was asking her about not having seen her husband before he died when he was ill – she said something to the effect that the things she had done in life were a choice. I don’t remember her exact words, but what stuck with me … was that this is a choice. There are terrible sacrifices to be made but if that’s what you choose you have to put up and shut up, really. But there’s nothing normal about the lifestyle. There are no weekends; holidays are very strange because you always have to have an instrument not too far away so for anyone who is holidaying with you it’s enough to drive them mad because it’s very curtailing. I could do without the lifestyle, and the travel too, but it’s the price you pay.

Would you prefer to do just recordings?

No. I love live music, the live aspect is so important. And unfortunately it means you have to get on a plane, so that’s the price that you pay. Recording is a different shot in the arm. It’s wonderful to be in (hopefully) a good space with a wonderful piano, and a team listening to you in the next room; and the possibility to go over things again if you need to. I’d never be worried about not having an audience there because I can somehow recreate what it is that I’m trying to say. Maybe I consider the audience to be the team in the other room. I don’t know, the juices don’t run dry through not having an audience there. But I would hate to be a Glenn Gould and just do that. I love live performance too much.

Do you feel that the audience adds something to the way in which you perform?

Yes. This is what I’ll be talking about in May. It’s something to do with the quality of the listening. You really know when you’ve bonded – I was going to say ‘hooked’ but that implies something active which I don’t like so much – with an audience. You also know when you’ve lost them, and you think within three seconds somebody is going to cough – and they do. It’s extraordinary. I can’t really explain it but that is something that has struck me; the shared experience of music is one of the biggest and most important things in the making of music.

Do you not get nervous?

Yes, but you learn how to manage your nerves, by and large. If you know in your heart of hearts that you’ve prepared as well as you possibly could, you should try and be calm and peaceful. It’s generally the unpredictable that can throw you. I remember a concert where I lost my concert shoes five minutes before going on stage, I couldn’t find them anywhere. I did eventually find them about a minute before, but it had de-concentrated me. I started the great Mozart C Minor Fantasia, and I had not noticed in the learning of it that the passage that opens it comes back at the end but goes in a different direction. And I played the end. … I found a way of going back to the beginning, and the same thing happened. So I had to get up, in a packed hall, and I could hear an intake of breath. They’d hardly had time to see what colour dress I was wearing (which of course people always like to do). I said ‘I’m sorry, I have to go and look at the score.’ It was a huge stage, it took me ages getting off it. When I got offstage … I was furious with myself. But I looked at the score, went back on and everything was fine. That wasn’t really nerves, just being de-concentrated. Nerves are good, they keep you concentrating because you have to think that you cannot take this one for granted, you have to be there.

When you’re travelling, how many hours do you have to practice compared to at home?

Often more. I’m in my hotel, I have a rehearsal at three in the afternoon and I can work from ten until two if I want. I can’t really at home, there are things happening – the telephone goes, etc. Of course you have email now wherever you are but I can at least choose to turn my smartphone off and not look at my emails. You can choose to do that at home but it just doesn’t work like that. Also when I’m at home, by and large, I feed myself so if there’s nothing in the fridge I have to go and find something. If I’m travelling I just go to the cafe next door and pick something up … Home, in a way, takes up more time if you’re only there for five days between trips. If you’re home for three weeks then you can settle down a lot more, but I often do much more practice when I’m away. There is also a feeling that it is your duty, you’ve been paid for it in that particular week and you just have to focus entirely on the music and nothing else. When you’re at home … there are always other things that have to be dealt with, maybe related to your work, but still not to do with playing the piano.

Do you think a formal training in an academy is hugely beneficial?

I imagine that it’s beneficial in the sense that for instrumentalists they should have more hours in the day where they can practice. Unfortunately if you want to be a performer you just have to put in the hours, and there is no way round it. But I do get a little alarmed by academies sometimes, at how much people have to do and how few pianos there are, how difficult it can be to pin down an instrument … I could put it another way – certainly, the fact that I stopped any formal education at the age of eleven I have always regretted. There are other ways of living one’s life and I’m still educating myself now. Of course learning to play is in itself a discipline of the mind, a discipline of everything. But I missed out on a huge amount and if one can have everything then it’s good. But there does come an age where if one is going to play as a profession then you just have to put in the hours.

Leah Broad

To find out more about Imogen please visit her website; more information about the Humanitas Visiting Professorships is also available here. Imogen will be speaking in Oxford in May on music and performance.

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