What It Was Like

Peter Seth: Absolute Masters, Part I

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My last blog on Turner got me thinking: who is as good at doing what they do as Turner is at painting? In other words, who are the Absolute Masters – those people with complete command of their talent, who work at the highest level? Who are the people before whose art I bow in reverence?

Here’s a beginning list:

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – Gotta start with him; he’s the foundation. I don’t read as much Shakespeare as I should, but I’ve seen quite a lot of wonderful Shakespeare on the stage in my lifetime: two KING LEARs (one with Robert Stephens at Stratford, one with Ian McKellen), HAMLET with Nicol Williamson’s legendary prince, OTHELLO with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA with Claire Higgins – and I’ve also seen quite a lot of pedestrian Shakespeare. But no matter at what level the acting is, in a Shakespeare play, every thirty seconds or so – or even more frequently – you get a little piece of his genius: some play-on-words, some insight into character, some plot point, some eternal truth – or all of it, at once. In Shakespeare’s work, you have the comfort of knowing that you are in the presence of someone who is infinitely more intelligent that you will ever be.

He gives you everything: entertainment, truth, laughter, tears, fantasy, reality, wit, mystery, Life writ large and small, and the most remarkable collection of characters every created by one writer.

Here are a couple of samples:

Hamlet’s soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – by Laurence Olivier — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ks-NbCHUns

Two versions of Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pusU90ov8pQ— by Patrick Stewart

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Wf_EQz8nLY— by Nicol Williamson

A young Judy Dench as Lady Macbeth — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dgbbtUbgcM

Henry V – a young Mark Rylance delivers the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTrnn0qzzCU

This goes on forever.

MOZART – I’ve probably spent more time listening to Mozart’s music than anybody else’s. I play it while I’m working, and it’s supposed to make me smarter. I’m not sure if it works, but I’ll take all the help I can get.

Though I have an abiding love of Murray Perahia’s recordings of the piano concertos, I spend most of my time listening to the three operas that Mozart wrote with Lorenzo Da Ponte: THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, DON GIOVANNI, and COSI FAN TUTTE. These three works give me everything in the way of inspiration – and background music when my concentration kicks in and I enter the Zone of Art. Mozart’s music is brisk and clear and logical and deep and entertaining. Even unconsciously, I try to live up to his standard when I’m trying to create my own “operas.”

From COSI FAN TUTTE – “Soave sia il vento” – the farewell Trio from Act I
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Wi7UsXW1As

From THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO – “Sull’ Aria” with Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli – this is the music that Andy Dufresne plays in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION for the entire prison when he locks himself in the warden’s office

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLtqZewjwgA

A complete DON GIOVANNI – the famous 1954 Salzburg production conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, with Cesare Siepi – with subtitles

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPYjqz7nToY

JAMES JOYCE – I’m almost embarrassed to type his name, he is so far above me. Talk about someone who can do anything he wants with his chosen art form! He’s like Turner, but with words. And, I confess, I’ve never read FINNEGANS WAKE; never even tried it. (We had a friend, a distinguished English professor at Iowa State, who upon retirement went into a reading group with other retired professors to read FINNEGANS WAKE – and they gave up!)

But the other works – DUBLINERS, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS YOUNG MAN, and ULYSSES – are ingrained in my mind. I go back to Joyce often, re-reading the stories in DUBLINERS, to re-learn the lessons he teaches. Precision, human truthfulness, dedication to reality, x-ray love: all these I try to take from Joyce. I fail, but he shows me the way forward.

Joyce once said, “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.” I try to keep that well in mind, too, when I write. It’s my only chance.

Here are some samples of his genius:

“THE DEAD” BY JAMES JOYCE – a free audiobook of one of the greatest stories ever written

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQBq8un4AWI

Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from ULYSSES – Barbara Jefford in Joseph Strick’s film

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2BP_I6kuOw

James Joyce reads from “Anna Livia Plurabelle” from ULYSSES –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBxnxwaKgno

MARIA CALLAS – In my office, there is only one photograph of a woman who is not a member of immediate family, and that is a signed photograph of Maria Callas. (OK, it was a Christmas gift from the Tiny Goddess, so it has some family connection.)

In any case, Maria Callas is high on my list of Greatest Artists, and for many reasons. She didn’t have the most perfect voice, but she had the most truthful voice. That is why so many books and plays and movies have been written about her. Almost four decades since her death in 1977, she remains one of the biggest selling classical artists. Her legend continues to grow because her art is so strong, so real, and so true.

As an artist, Callas was fearless. In pursuit of artistic truth, she broke new ground. I always compare her influence to Marlon Brando’s. There was “before Brando” and “after Brando.” Same thing with Callas. There is “before Callas” and “after Callas.” She changed an entire art form.

Sure she has some bad notes, especially at the end of her career, after her big weight loss. And the registers of her voice aren’t perfectly matched, so there are some sudden changes in tone that grate on the ear. But all that is quibbling; her voice cuts through to the dramatic center of whatever she’s singing. It’s a magical gift she has, that way of getting to the emotional core of the music and spinning out a beautiful sound.

Whether you like opera or not, Callas is a presence in our everyday lives. Her music is around us constantly, in dozens of TV commercials and movies from Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning “Philadelphia” to “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Really.)

Frankly, her music is so strong, so truthful, that I can’t listen to it when I’m writing. She distracts me too much. Callas refuses to fade into the background. She burns with a special fire that no one else comes close to.

The photograph of her in my office – from the famous Covent Garden TRAVIATA in 1958 – is a constant reminder to me to reach for the truth, to try to give that little bit extra for my art.

Here are some samples of her great genius:

“Casta Diva” from NORMA – one of her greatest roles– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYl8GRJGnBY — 1958, in Paris

from LA TRAVIATA – the famous Giulini/Visconti production from La Scala in 1955 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDNjQ5Z-tqk

from the famous live LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR from Berlin, conducted by Herbert von Karajan — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmwUQm302j4

a live version of “La Mamma Morta” from ANDREA CHENIER (La Scala, 1955) – the aria used in “Philadelphia” – but better live, she was always better live!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHJgJs6Em0M

ART TATUM – I listen to a lot of music, which means I listen to the work of musicians, all day long. There are many, many musicians I admire (some of whom I’ve seen in person), but I don’t think that there is a musician whose TECHNIQUE, whose command of his instrument I admire more than Art Tatum, the great jazz pianist.

I am low on the list of Tatum worshippers. There are so many stories about Tatum, so many recorded encomiums – including Fats Waller’s famous words, giving up the piano bench to Tatum: “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house” – that I’m just one more jaw-dropped fan.

Ray Charles said, “He sounded like two people playing…. When you sit back and listen to Art Tatum, you just don’t believe what you’re hearing.” Critic Leonard Feather called Tatum, “the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument,” and Charlie Parker said, “I wish I could play like Tatum’s right hand.” That’s good enough for me.

Sometimes when I listen to Tatum, I just have to laugh out loud, his playing is so fluid, so witty, so perfect. But there is real feeling under his mountain of technique.

Quite simply, I wish I could write the way that Art Tatum plays the piano.

“Tea For Two” – with sheet music – try to follow along! — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kACt0FM0Kf8

“Humoresque” by Dvorak — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZL-CVV616nI

a nice little Tatum documentary — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7dPMuTI3QY
The extraordinary gifts of these Absolute Masters are some of the things that make this life worth living. And they are available to everyone, forever.

More to come.

Peter Seth

Peter Seth is the author of the recent Barnes & Noble bestseller, What It Was Like. You can stay up-to-date on his blog posts at his website.

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On July 15, 2015
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One Response to Peter Seth: Absolute Masters, Part I

  1. mary marcus says:

    I loved this piece Peter. So inspiring! Thank you.

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