Spectators and Artists – a strange loop

The Spectator

Tatiana Nikolayeva (1924 – 1993) was a Russian pianist, composer and professor. She’s acclaimed for her interpretations of Bach and especially Shostakovitch whom she met at the age of 26 (1950), while participating in the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition, celebrating the bicentennial of Bach’s death. They became lifelong friends and she made a point to emphasize that it was a horizontal friendship with no hierarchy between them, i.e., she wasn’t his protégée. She obviously won the competition and made quite an impression on the great composer who fell in love with her Bach.

Her closeness to D. Shostakovitch gave her direct access to the creative process of the composer by listening to his work and interpretations. Particularly significant was her exposure to the preludes and fugues that Shostakovich composed and played… with no intention of publication (they were later said to be sort of intimate for him). Deeply impressed by these pieces she went on to press him to publish them and became the first performer of the now famous Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (premiered in Leningrad in 1952). We owe the pleasure of listening to this wonderful work to Tatiana Nikolayeva.

That Bach competition changed the course of Tatiana’s life… but how many of us have the chance to make a life changing encounter? and when it happens, how many of us are ready to see it and dare to follow it? Tatiana certainly seized the moment and followed her heart and intuition. By doing so, as we will see, she changed the life of other people too, including Shostakovitch.

Music and particularly the gift of Shostakovitch’s preludes and fugues that she gave us defined her life. So much that death came to visit her while she was playing them at a concert in San Francisco. Tatiana was stricken by a cerebral haemorrhage and couldn’t complete her performance. She died few days later. I can’t help but find beauty even in her death…

The Artist

Tatiana, as a hard working and passionate pianist, had come to the competition ready to play any of the 48 preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Seizing the opportunity of an impromptu meeting with one of the judges, she asked him to request her to play any one of them at the end of her performance even though it was not required. One of the judges was the greatest composer of his time: Dmitri Shostakovitch.

Impressed by Nikolayeva’s playing and inspired by the competition, Shostakovich started composing his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. He was a very hard working man and finished the set of the 24 pieces (considered to be one of the greatest examples of music written in all 24 major and minor keys) in only four months. After finishing each piece (in more or less three days) he would ask Nikolayeva to come and visit him and he would play for her the latest piece. Once finished, he dedicated the work to her.

The Artist and The Spectator

These two perspectives on the creative process, from Shostakovich’s (here the artist) and Nikolayeva’s (here the spectator) points of view show how elusive is this process. We tend to see the artistic (or even scientific) creation as an isolated event and give full and exclusive credit to its creator but is it really so? Didn’t Tatiana, as a catalyst between the artist and his own self, had a crucial role in this artistic process? As an active spectator, she participated in the creative process and her role was, I believe, as fundamental as the composer’s role.

We can now reverse this picture and consider Nikolayeva to be the artist and Shostakovitch her spectator and rewrite this post because the influence is always mutual. Shostakovich helped her reach and express her own sensitivity and probably her compositions were influenced by this encounter too.

Great Works of art and science reveal the true nature of the human condition. Not only through their final result but also through the path that lead to them. A careful analysis would reveal that the artist/scientist had little control on the whole process. By expressing the unintended, being subject to the zeitgeist of his time, the historical environment he lived in, the multiple encounters that can change the course of his life … as well as many other factors she has absolutely no control on.

Simplifications so dear to “storytellers” (also known as Historians, sometimes) that give all the credit to the genius of the artist/scientist are simply flawed as they do not take into account the intrinsic lack of control on our own lives. Perhaps the greatest merit of such Men is to give everything for their quests. More than the actual work, it is the strong intention and passionate work that made them accomplish such great things that make us proud to be Humans. As A. Zewail put it in his book: with passion, optimism and hard work… how could anyone fail?

It is time now to enjoy the music. An interview of Tatiana Nikolayeva plus her performance of the 24 pieces is included here :

Related posts: Le mystere de l’Art.

24 Preludes and Fugues (Shostakovich)
Website dedicated to Tatiana Nikolayeva
Tatiana Nikolayeva @ Wikipedia


9 thoughts on “Spectators and Artists – a strange loop

  1. Thank you, very well said on “… the intrinsic lack of control on our own lives …”, but I am even more perplexed than before, should Vermeer take all the credits or not? I remain questioning myself if you do not have a convincing answer!

    I like Shostakovich’s works on string instruments, his lukewarm keyboard works could never be compared with Bach’s ….

    1. “should Vermeer take all the credits or not?”
      It’s not an either/or situation…
      Here for instance I do not claim that Shostakovich takes no credit for his work,.. instead I am just thinking and analysing the concept of ‘credit’ itself. If the post makes you think.. then it’s all good for me. The main goal of this blog is to provide questions… not answers.

      “his lukewarm keyboard works could never be compared with Bach’s ….”
      Who could be compared to Bach ?!
      But it’s good to listen to other composers/sensitivities from time to time..
      Some of these variations are very good though.

      Good to see you back ;-)

      1. mmm, the author of a post should clarify his/her standpoint, how disappointing to obtain no answer on question – one should then read a book from the “dead author” instead of a living author!

        I prefer his op 34 to op 87, more youthful spirits; in general I dislike his piano work, he seemed to be chased by the “Soviet System / Stalin”.

  2. What a great and insightful blog post! How interesting. In fact, many musicians have inspired composers throughout the years, and those musicians had an immensely important role in the creation of beautiful music, but they’re often forgotten.

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