Musical Virtuosity

By: Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University) //

When I was in my late teens and early twenties and was aspiring to a career as a professional musician, I surrounded myself with as many examples of excellent playing as possible. This meant that I sought out recordings of musicians who challenged the boundaries of their instruments and their own bodies, performing at extreme tempi, dynamics, and ranges. As I listened to musicians such as trombonists Joe Alessi and Christian Lindberg and euphonium players such as Robert Childs, I found myself simultaneously inspired by their talents and frustrated by my inability to come close to the standards they set, even as I was learning the same repertoire that they had helped to make famous. Rather than seeing their work as the product of years of practice (in some cases, more years than I had been alive), I began to believe these musicians were superhuman. I spoke of their work in hushed tones to sympathetic peers, but I found myself increasingly discouraged, all that practice time yielding the musicality of a mere mortal. 

Robert Childs, one of the leading British euphonium soloists of the past three decades, demonstrates his virtuosic command of the instrument in his performance of a theme and variations on the popular tune “Carnival of Venice.”

The musicians that I aspired to be in my youth (and who I continue to admire into my middle age) were virtuosi, musicians who demonstrated what seemed to be an effortless command of their instruments and, in the words of musicologist Dana Gooley, “cross … the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine.”1 As such, they often command a degree of respect and even reverence from other musicians and rise to great fame in the eyes of concert-going audiences. (In fact, many of the leading classical solo recording artists of today might be accurately understood through this lens.) Yet, away from the stage and studio, virtuoso musicians also dedicate long hours to careful practice of technical exercises, subject themselves to isolation from their peers, and devote their lives to the development of their craft in a way that most people simply are not willing to do. As Sara Haefeli recently noted in “The Problem with Geniuses,” “none of the ‘geniuses’ were born that way. They were all trained, products of a specific time and context. It’s not a special ‘spark’ that made their music, and we don’t need to be geniuses to listen.”

Virtuoso musicians are often deeply involved in the process of presenting themselves as extraordinary human beings. As people on the margins of both society and musicianship, virtuosi must often work especially hard to cultivate a persona that engages the imaginations of their audiences and convinces them that they possess that “special ‘spark.’” As Lawrence Kramer has argued, the nineteenth-century virtuoso concert pianist Franz Liszt developed “carnivalesque features” that he integrated into his public performances, including the extreme use of his body to draw his audiences into the emotional expressivity of a work and what Kramer describes as “the coexistence of exaltation and debasement,” in which the composer-performer would edify his audience while coming down from his lofty perch to engage with them.2 During the nineteenth century, virtuosic pianists, violinists, singers, and even conductors built sometimes lucrative careers by parlaying their carefully refined musicianship into successful concert tours of Europe and the United States.3

Martha Argerich, a twentieth-century piano virtuoso, demonstrates the intense skill, physical effort, and mental focus that the music of Franz Liszt—who was himself a piano virtuoso—demands of the most skilled pianists.

In addition to demonstrating remarkable control over their instruments and voices, virtuosi frequently use improvisation to illustrate their musical fluency. In some instances,  these improvisations take the form of variations on a popular theme, in which the composer-performer reveals the hidden possibilities of a rather simple and commonplace tune. In still other traditions, including the jazz tradition, musicians reveal their prowess by improvising melodies that emerge from the harmonic structures of well-known popular songs, forcing the musician to display not only their command of their instruments but the complexity of their harmonic vocabulary as well. Such is also the case in the Hindustani classical tradition, in which musicians frequently explore the structures of the raga (melodic mode) that the piece is based on while also demonstrating their facility as singers and sitar players. Consequently, virtuosic musicians are often seen as transcending the ordinary, as they can often take material that seems familiar and perhaps even simple on the surface but that, in their hands, is revealed as a source of great complexity.

Organist James Kennerley improvises a set of variations on the plainchant “Veni creator spiritus.” Listen carefully to the ways that Kennerly reharmonizes and ornaments the melody.

Alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt barely makes the tune of the popular ballad “Lover Man” clear in his improvisations over the song’s chord changes. Instead, he explores the nuances of its harmonic structure and occasionally alludes to some of the tune’s melodic motives.

Hindustani singer Kaushiki Chakrabarty offers a performance of a musical composition built around raga Multani. Take special note of the ways that the musicians with whom Chakrabarty is playing respond to her exposition and variations on the raga.

Presenting oneself as a virtuoso does not necessarily gain an artist a wide following. In fact, as MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Chris Thile—who is perhaps best known for his work with the bands Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers—has wisely observed, there might not be much interest in someone who can “play too many notes on the mandolin.” But, as musicians such as the members of the jazz collective Snarky Puppy, turntablist DJ Qbert, and jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding indicate, virtuosi continue to push devoted audiences to explore the boundaries of human musical performance, challenging us to think of the ways that we, too, might realize our own potential.

For Discussion

  1. How do the physical exertions required of virtuosic performances relate to similar physical exertions in other forms of bodily expression, such as dance or athletics? What does the vocabulary that we use to speak of these exertions tell us about the things that we value in physical performance?
  2. How do virtuosi push against the limitations of their instruments? How have instrument manufacturers responded to the needs of virtuoso musicians?

1 Dana Gooley, The Virtuoso Liszt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.

2 Lawrence Kramer, Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 84-86.

3 See, among others, Gooley, The Virtuoso Liszt; Jim Samson, Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); R. Allen Lott, From Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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