- “Please Shoot The Piano Player!” The David Helfgott Debate
Music has vast potential to unite us. The shared expressive purpose of an orchestra, the passion of a church choir, or the sense of spiritual communion of a solo performer with an audience, can at times seem magical. Perhaps more than any other expressive form, music possesses the capacity to bring peoples together and enable them, as Friedrich Schiller urged in his Letters on Aesthetic Education, to stand equal before the mystery and wonder of art.
In view of such expectations for music, the bitter acrimony generated by David Helfgott’s recent return to the international concert platform is unprecedented. The Helfgott episode is not quite comparable to controversies surrounding Liberace, Nigel Kennedy, Glenn Gould, or the Three Tenors, though aspects of all of these are relevant to it. What is surprising is the level of indignation, disgust, and outright hurt which feature in the Helfgott controversy. Never in my memory have critics and audiences been so emotionally at odds over a classical performer. I suppose it would be nice to imagine that somehow everybody is right. Perhaps we could say that David Helfgott is on some days a genius whose powers to plumb the depths of music approach Clara Haskil’s. Even on off days, maybe his performances should impress us as triumphs of love and the human spirit. Having worked so hard and suffered so much, he deserves all this success. And yes, maybe the critics are at the same time justified in saying that his playing stands somewhere between the amateurish and the incompetent. If a substantial percentage of his worshipful audiences can barely tell Weber from Webber, let alone Helfgott from Haskil, that’s not his fault, and so long as everybody’s having a good time. . . .
Comforting thoughts, but in truth there are impossible contradictions at the heart of the debate that has followed David Helfgott’s [End Page 332] renewed career. It is not so much Helfgott’s psychic impairments that are the issue, according to the critics, as the fact that his piano playing is plainly, objectively awful. In the face of such performances, Helfgott’s adulatory audiences, so the critics say, reveal themselves as victims of sentimentality and ignorance. The critics insist on holding Helfgott to the same standard they would apply to any pianist presenting serious repertoire to audiences who’ve shelled out fifty dollars a seat: it’s not the job of responsible criticism to indulge uninformed hysteria. The critics, it seems, are still waiting for David Helfgott to demonstrate that he can have just one good day.
The essays which follow explore the range of opinion, fact, feeling, and argument that have made the Helfgott episode so arresting. David Helfgott provides a fine test case for anyone who imagines that the musical value of a pianist’s work can be easily cordoned off from other human considerations. Conversely, the response to David Helfgott poses a considerable challenge to anyone who supposes that taste and the aesthetic aspects of music are reducible to social class or background, or in general that musical values come down in the end to everything you care to name, except music. There are striking differences in these contributions and revealing parallels. I was surprised to learn that the pianist who maintained a muffled, monodynamic sound in Christchurch (and Boston) in 1997, and tended to drop notes in precisely the manner Peter Feuchtwanger describes, was the same one capable of pounding relentlessly at the Steinway to produce huge contrasts in Adelaide in 1986. Equally surprising in another way is that, in complete independence from one another, Elizabeth Silsbury and Jennifer Judkins both invoke a performance of Hamlet to illustrate thoughts about Helfgott. Anyone certain that Helfgott never could play the piano will be given pause by Dr. Feuchtwanger’s contribution, while Kevin Bazzana deals decisively with the claim that critics are generally intolerant of eccentricity. These contributors are not all hearing the same things in David Helfgott’s playing; but then they are not all listening for the same things either.
Whether the Helfgott phenomenon represents the opening of classical music to a broader, less...