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September 01, 2008

Obsessional neurotics in music

Freud once remarked that human civilisation owed a great deal to the contributions of obsessional neurotics (a form of neurosis in which internal punishment, 'conscience' for error is extremely severe and manifests iself in the form of being self-deprecatory to an excessive degree, being highly formal, being withdran, unable to accept praise due to its conflict with the person's negative self-image etc). There are numerous studies of obsessional neurosis in Freud's work - his classic case study is The Rat Man. The reason for the high degree of contribution to civilisation by obsessionals is that this excessive internal punishment leads to perfectionism. Obsessional neurosis is not a precondition for perfectionism, however, but it may therefore create it.
Music, as much as any other field, has its own debt to obsessional neurotics. Only examples from performers are taken here.
Anyone who has seen Bruno Monsaingeon's superb Richter: The Enigma will remember the scene in which Richter, one of the greatest pianists of all time, indeed probably one of the greatest interprtative artists of the 20th century, says almost with tears in his eyes 'I don't like myself very much' - innumerable other pieces of evidence, from audiences' appreciation to testimony of those in the film, showing why he deserved to be liked very much indeed. Richter also developed the habit of playing at small halls across Russia (withdrawal) and his preference for Yamaha piano's due to their neutral tone, compared to Steinways, was also symptomatic.
Michelangeli used to criticise people who applauded him on the grounds that applause should be reserved for the composers he was playing - a highly unbalanced concept given that, certainly, his audiences knew Chopin, Beethoven or Debussy deserved applause but they were not available and he deserved it as well. Michelangeli's extremely limited repertoire, confining himself to continuously perfecting a small range of music was also a typical symptom of obsessional neurosis.
But my favourite of all obsessional neurotics in music stories concerns Mravinsky - someone with classic obsessional features including by the end of his career preparing the orchestra meticulously at rehearsal and then leaving someone else to do the performance (a characteristic 'hiding' feature of obsessionals). The orchestra were once awestruck by his rehearsal of Bruckner's 7th symphony and at least one player wondered (not to Mravinsky) how it could be improved on at the performance. Mravinsky however cancelled the performance - on the grounds that it couldn't match the rehearsal!
These characteristics are not as frequently commented on, but are as notable, as the manic-depression of Klemperer. The great contribution of these artists is of course independent of the psychological motivation - and in some cases the great internal suffering it imposed on those who contributed so much to others.
NB Considered above are cases where the degree of 'neurosis' merely affected features of interpretation without imposing itself on the music to a degree which qualitative alters its character. The more well known case of Glenn Gould, with his well documented neurosis, involved distortions which did, in this author's opinion, qualitatively distort the character of the music performed. Michelangeli peforming Chopin is exactly what it says, whereas 'Glenn Gould performs music based on original texts by Bach' might be a better descriptions of his approach - it may interesting but it is not really Bach. Others may disagree of course - and I own a huge number of Glenn Gould recordings.


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