Being a virtuoso has a lot to do with something that is near magical, sometimes some techniques and compositions come from a place that can hardly be copied, that’s why is so easy to know when someone is being replaced in a band, someone that really made it shine, and the new person filling the spot feels like an imitation.
There are two interesting subjects that can arise when bringing up the subject of virtuosism, first there is the virtuoso as a composer and original perfomer and then there is the question of, is another virtuoso good enough to satisfy the hearing of a person that enjoyed the orginal composer?
Of course there is also another imporant part of this virtuoso dilemma that should be taken into account, which is the question of, is there virtuosism in performance only, or is it present in composition as well?
When it comes to performance, it’s just about playing, a musician can be a virtuoso without having the need for composing. Technique alone can make someone a virtuoso.
In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist
The concept of virtusism is generally more tied to the performance itself, and by 19th century standards which is when this notion came to be, it referred mostly to a masculine artist that was able to perform complex pieces of music with fast and precise playing.
While this may be true, what about the composition itself? Well in the 19th century the virtuoso was the composer many times, but there were cases in which the composer would rather someone else play it. How is it that something can be thought but not performed as the composer intended it to be played?
What do we actually mean by compositional virtuosity? – A compositional sense of technical virtuosic display or mastery in the context of that art or practice in a similar or parallel sense to that of the performer. As a composer, I am not trying to steal limelight from the performer, but I am aware that the composer as an artist also must possess appropriate technique, stamina, technical agility etc. in order to be a master of their art. This is better perceived in the finished artefact (either score or performance) rather than in the process (in as much as one can separate the process from the finished result of course).
This was presented by Peter Fribbins at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium.
So in a way one must be a virtuoso in both categories in order to be able to compose something that only a virtuoso can play. However there is another factor that can’t really be measured by how polished the technique is or how fast the musician can be, sometimes it’s something else.
There is the example of one of the two greatest pianists/composers of all time Chopin and Lizst who actually shared quite a lot during their prime. Chopin said: ” I would love myself to acquire from him[Liszt] the manner in which he plays my etudes.”
Why Lizst, shouldn’t Chopin be better at his own composition? Or is he a better composer by aknowledging the fact that someone else is better suited for the performance, not because of virtusism but Lizst personality and approach to music.
So yes virtusism is present in composition but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also present in performance. While there are no concrete answers, thinking about this may be useful when teaching or as something to just reflect upon.