I highly recommend Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger. It’s a delightful book, full of fascinating detail, and will get you thinking about music in new ways.
Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian from 1995–2015. He’d played the piano when he was young, then stopped. In his forties he got back into it. In the summer of 2010 he decided to tackle Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor. It’s a very difficult piece, but he decided to learn it over the next year so he could perform it the next summer. The book is the story of that year and a bit more.
(See Play It Again by Alan Rusbridger – review by Iain Burnside for a full review of the book (in the Graun) including a video with Rusbridger talking about the book and playing some of the piece.)
Now, being editor-in-chief of The Guardian is an incredibly busy and stressful job in any year, but the year in question was also the year of major Wikileaks releases and the British phone hacking scandal, in both of which The Guardian played a leading role. What’s more, at one point Rusbridger had to fly to Libya to negotiate the release of a Guardian reporter who had crossed the country’s border illegally and then been arrested.
All through this, when he can, when he’s not working sixteen- or eighteen-hour days (and even sometimes when he is), he’s grabbing twenty minutes in the morning to practice, and taking lessons when he can.
Some of the book is about his life as an editor, which is astonishing stuff, but most of it is about playing the piano, and the amount of detail is remarkable. I had no idea people spent so much time thinking about and practicing one bar in a score. One bar!
Along the way Rusbridger talks to several pianists about the piece. I think my favourite interview was in New York with Charles Rosen, who lived in the same apartment from when he was six to when he died. Rosen studied under Moriz Rosenthal, who studied under Liszt … who studied under Chopin.
The story of his study and practice of the piece is wonderful, but I was also struck by the rest of his musical life. He often gets together with other amateurs and semi-professionals (including Richard Sennett) to play chamber pieces or bash their way through two-piano eight-hands transcriptions of symphonies. The thrill and joy of playing such music with friends comes to life in his writing, and if, like me, you can’t play the piano, you’ll wish that at least you could sit in on a night like that.