A Half-Light between Heaven and Despair
Two years ago, I was in Positano for an unforgettable period in October 2013–somehow the sense of awe was so much that I could not bring myself to write about it until now. Every year, eight pianists from around the world participate in an intense two-week course on the interpretation of Beethoven Sonatas, which were a specialty of the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff. These take place in the Amalfi Coast of Italy, which is of a jagged, stark beauty. Started in 1957 by Kempff, the courses are today led by the very illuminating Bernd Goetzke, who was the final pupil of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. I was very ill for weeks before I arrived, and was still very unwell during my stay; the impressions were nevertheless for a lifetime. Anybody who has had any type of extended convalescence understands the type of transformation that one goes through–almost as though a soul has aged through years of wisdom in sped-up time that simultaneously seems frozen while going through it.
Wilhelm Kempff was a musician’s musician, whose nature on stage was unpredictable but often miraculous–his combination of spirit and intellect, as well as decades of experience, combined for performances of unusual power. The tradition of his teaching was apparently a lively one here, and I was privileged to have been a part of these courses for a few days.
Upon arrival, I immediately sensed something about the beauty here–it was other-worldly but not in the postcard sense–it is a jagged, Shakespearean beauty–a mirror of inner drama, a confrontation of the individual with himself with primordial power. I felt as though I had been transported to Prospero’s island with his desolation of spirit and barren surroundings. Every evening, a thunderstorm passed through, with elemental power. It was as a fairy tale. Climbing the steps of the mountains from the village to the Casa Orfeo was almost a spiritual ritual. During the rains, they were zen-like rivers of rainwater.
Lessons were daily, for many hours–one wished to absorb every note and every word as musical and spiritual truth for a lifetime. The teaching of Prof. Goetzke seemed to hold the very key to Beethoven, who himself was inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest.
I had enough strength to play the two F Major Sonatas of Beethoven–Opus 10#2, and Opus 54. I emerged from these lessons feeling like a changed person and musician, with renewed desire for better hearing, better sonic explorations, and more powerful dramatic narratives.
It would be impossible to forget the time here–one felt focused solitude for a musical retreat.
With Prof. Goetzke’s teaching, one senses the presence of a long and time-honored tradition of centuries of European art and culture–and an opening of the eyes, ears, and heart. I felt also the presence of not only the Kempff traditions in Beethoven, but the sonic and artistic world of Michelangeli as well.
The whole time I was there, I could not escape the words from Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1–Prospero’s monologue, as read here unforgettably by Sir John Gielgud:
You do look, my son, in a mov’d sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.