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  • Helfgott’s Musical Offerings
  • Renée Cox Lorraine

Many music critics are perplexed at the phenomenal popularity of pianist David Helfgott. In view of Helfgott’s inconsistent performances and erratic concert behavior, more than a few critics have opined that this popularity is undeserved. While Helfgott’s appeal is a complex phenomenon that will probably remain at least partially mysterious, my own view is that Helfgott’s musical offerings are of considerable interest from both psychological and musical perspectives. Perhaps a central aspect of his appeal is that Helfgott has emerged from a relatively unknown psychological realm, bringing with him information, interpretations, and aspirations that can tantalize and illuminate.

Some of the reasons for Helfgott’s sold-out performances are clear enough. An obvious one is that many people admired the film Shine (which recounted Helfgott’s promise as a young pianist, his mental collapse followed by years in an asylum, and his eventual return to the concert stage) and want to extend in any way they can the experience that the film evoked for them. Narratives that deal with someone down-and-out-who overcomes great adversity to achieve fame and fortune have always been popular, especially among those of us who can identify with being down and out or with overcoming adversity. (That, I dare say, includes a lot of us.) And Helfgott has fallen particularly hard and re-emerged in a particularly dramatic way; it is as if Icarus has emerged from the depths of the sea and managed to fly again in spite of somewhat melted wings. Another reason for Helfgott’s magnetizing effect on concert-goers is that he puts on one hell of a show. One concert-goer, in response to an inquiry about her choice to attend a Helfgott performance, responded that she didn’t expect brilliant piano playing, but that she did expect to have an experience. What with Helfgott’s rhapsodic vocalizing and unorthodox bodily movements taking place as he plays, such listeners are doubtless granted at least as much as they bargain for. And even if slightly embarrassed or amused by Helfgott’s unusual performance practices, most of his audience genuinely admire his achievement and wish him the best.

Helfgott’s “show” is not a carefully manufactured one like Liberace’s, but one in which no one—no doubt including Helfgott himself—knows [End Page 346] exactly what is going to happen next, musically or otherwise. The experiences of uncertainty and immediacy have always been good reasons to attend live performances (in spite of the availability of excellent recordings), and Helfgott’s performances give rise to such experience in abundance. Perhaps the excitement of a live performance generally comes largely from a hope that the performance of a difficult piece will ensue without error, and that the interpretive concentration and inspiration of the performer will remain consistent throughout. With Helfgott, in contrast, one hopes for as few errors as possible, and is particularly impressed when flashes of technical brilliance or interpretive inspiration occur. Yet even though general performance expectations may be lowered when listening to Helfgott play, an excitement in anticipation nonetheless exists for many listeners. A resurrected Icarus may not fly as well as he did before he fell, or ever achieve status as one of the world’s best flyers. But it would still be a joy to see him fly again, and the uncertainty and immediacy one would experience in watching his attempts would be intense.

Whatever the reasons for Helfgott’s popularity with the public, it has been suggested that this popularity has little to do with the music he plays. I disagree. The Helfgott phenomenon could be regarded, for instance, as an example of the remarkable power and potential of music therapy. (We should heed more carefully, I believe, the wisdom of ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Asian thinkers in this area.) Any significant achievement, along with recognition or adulation offered for that achievement, can affirm the achiever and help heal the achiever’s past or present wounds. That Helfgott’s achievement involves some of the finest works of music written in the history of Western culture may be particularly beneficial for him. This is not...

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pp. 346-351
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