Alan Rusbridger, the Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, recently published a book with this title. It is a diary he kept of his efforts over an 18 month period to learn to play Chopin’s 1st Ballade well enough to play it in public. This period coincided with
the Assange Wikileaks story, where the Guardian was the UK outlet, and the phone hacking scandal where the Guardian had led the way, against the indifference of the police and the power of the Murdoch empire. Rusbridger was working 12-16 hour days at times, yet still managed to get in the practice necessary to eventually be able to perform the piece to his satisfaction in public.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I found elements in the first 100 pages somewhat irritating. By the end of the book I was reluctantly won over. As a self admitted pianophile/holic , even I found some of the detail about the problems he had with fingering and the technical problems too much. However it does give, to use Mr Micawber’s expression, a corroborative verisimilitude, to his efforts. Rusbridger is clearly a very good amateur musician (choral scholar, excellent sight reader, clarinetist able to play the Mozart concerto and quintet, and no mean pianist) and one lauds the time he takes to play chamber music with friends whenever he gets the chance.
He abuses his position as the Editor of a high profile newspaper to corner some of the great pianists of today for their advice and views on how to play the Ballade, as well as a the head of the Functional Imaging Lab at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square as to how memory works and why he struggles to memorise music at the age of 57. The views of people such as Brendel, Barenboim, Uchida, and Hough are interesting, but it’s all a bit self congratulatory. What are more interesting and sometimes genuinely moving are the stories of some of the amateurs – like Rusbridger – for whom playing the piano is an important part of their life
What I found myself gripped by was his perspective on the phone hacking scandal. As a Times reader, lover of Sky Sport, and an alumnus of the same Oxford College as Rupert Murdoch, I somewhat naively thought it couldn’t be as bad as people were making it. It wasn’t as bad as I suspected, it was many times worse. Rusbridger, Nick Davies (the reporter who did much of the work), and the Guardian deserve every plaudit they get for exposing two very malignant cancers at the heart of British life – the criminal activities of parts of the press, and the corruption affecting the police and parts of the political class. From this perspective alone the book is worth reading, even more so if you are interested in the mechanics of learning a difficult piece of music.
He is talking about this at King’s Place on Monday April 22nd. See you there !