I have been to Athens only once, for three hours. That changed my life forever. I saw the Acropolis, I saw what made us what we are, the source of all that is precious, profound and joyous in us. ‘It is because passion is alive that the Greeks made a goddess of Minerva,’ wrote Maurras. As a child, I dreamt of Greece, and the very word ‘Greece’ aroused in me more than I could express or even know.

I had the good fortune to be brought up by a remarkably intelligent mother. She adored me – she had lost a child before I was born, so I was a miraculous new arrival – but she loved me enough to be dispassionate in her judgments. There was one thing she could not tolerate: lack of attention. From the first I grew up with this absolute attentiveness, which is vital to self–awareness. People often seem to lack it now, yet it’s essentially a form of character. With certain people there is such a force of concentration that everything becomes important, with others, everything passes and is forgotten, they repeat their actions from day to day. No evolution is possible because whatever is produced immediately dissolves. And then there are people who take twenty, forty, fifty years to find what they are looking for.

So, before encouraging anyone, you must find out whether they’re capable of loving, of interesting themselves in what they’re doing, whatever it may be, for its own sake. This is a fundamental distinction between people, it makes some extraordinarily active, and others what I call sleepers. Let the sleepers lie – there is no point in waking them up. They are nice, happy, polite; unobjectionable as people; they are what they are.

I don’t know whether attentiveness can be taught. I would say that anyone who acts without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life. I’d go as far as to say that life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece. It takes us back to that marvellous page of Bergson, where he explains that man is confronted with the chaos of nature, and that, to a certain degree, it is given him to organise it. In these conditions, man found he was capable of much more thought, of much more understanding, than he had believed possible: ‘Philosophers who speculate on this question have not sufficiently stressed that when the desired end is reached, nature gives a sign.’ Bergson adds this marvellous image: ‘This sign is joy; I can only define it as the divine essence.’ And he concludes waspishly: ‘One looks for praise in the exact proportion that one is unsure of success. He who is sure does not seek any approval, he knows.’ So what is it, this force which makes saints, heroes, geniuses, which makes men pursue their destinies to the end? It is given to everyone. It applies as much to Wagner writing his Ring cycle as to the anonymous window cleaner, or to the baby that we believe has only a rudimentary form of consciousness. I don’t know whether you like babies, you’re probably too young; I love them, but they make me anxious, because I don’t know how to cope with them. But I’ll never forget the day I took a child of fourteen months a parcel with a little bear or something of the sort. He wasn’t at all interested in the toy. He was fascinated by the string! You could not have distracted his mind and his little fingers from undoing the knot.

There are people who shake hands like a dead fish – not very pleasant. Conversely, when some people shake your hand you register an exchange, however brief, an extraordinary exchange between that person and you. And both will soon die, disappear, or rather assume an unknown form.

There is a phrase in Hamlet, which I think of absolutely every day of my life, without exception: ‘Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.’ If I say ‘Good Morning’ to you without thinking, I don’t exist. When we were in Rome, my sister was nineteen, she’d won the Prix de Rome, she was there in all her grace, all her guilelessness. We were walking in the gardens of the Villa Medici. In the gardens, we had the illusion of youth which thinks it will last forever, and there was also an old woman doing the weeding, her skin all wrinkled, with traces of what must have been extraordinary beauty. This was in 1913, and it still plays a very important part in my life. We passed, she raised her head, she smiled an ineffable smile and said to us: ‘Buon giorno, e per tutto il giorno.’ The smile by itself was a gift. We must have understood, and thanked her. Sixty–five years have gone by, my sister died in 1918, but when I hear that phrase, I say to myself: ‘Never forget that your days are blessed. You may know how to profit by them or you may not, but they are blessed.’

Do you think that it is intolerable, too serious an attitude to life? I don’t mind if it seems intolerable, ridiculous or naive; I owe my greatest joys – as I imagine other people do to those moments when I’ve seized what was given and experienced it not superficially but profoundly.

That overwhelming moment produced by the ‘Buon giorno, e per tutto il giorno’ was nothing in itself, it was only an old woman gathering old weeds, but she had a crystalline soul. It gave her a kind of genius of the heart, a sanctity of spirit, and having nothing to express but what her heart inspired, she created something beyond herself, beyond me. She perceived the existence of something which made the day fine, she knew it was beautiful and everything deriving from it was a means of grace.

It seems to me that attention is the state of mind which allows us to perceive what has to be. It is a form of the vision experienced by the great mystics, on days when they were granted a profound concentration. Saint Teresa of Avila often comes to my mind. Great saint that she was, great spirit that she was, she still had what she called ‘days of dry prayer, when she prayed and prayed – she never ceased to pray – but there was nothing! And then a day would come when she would hear. In art we call this inspiration. It is the moment when a man succeeds in grasping his thought, his real thought, right at the core; the moment when we touch the truth, when communion is established. This year there was a concert by Menuhin, an altogether superb concert. He gave a number of encores and the last was the slow movement of Brahms’s sonata in D minor. What happened then was part of an indescribable completeness: the whole house found itself in the grip of the same mute emotion, which created silence of an extraordinary quality. Everyone understood, felt, participated in what he himself must have been feeling. I don’t think he will ever forget that moment. In some way it passed beyond him, to a higher level, which we very rarely reach. We are too weak to scale those heights very often, to realise the potential available if we could really commune with ourselves.

Another example, I remember recently attending Rostropovitch’s rehearsals for Tosca. Rightly or wrongly, I could survive quite well without listening to Tosca, which I recognise is a masterpiece, but I can live without it. Yet I know I shall never forget those rehearsals. He came to see me at the end of one, and said in his slightly broken French: ‘When I undertake something, it must be done as well as possible.’ For him each note is essential. He can’t stand a single indifferent note, and though many would have been satisfied with the first results, he repeated some passages an extraordinary number of times with such good humour, with such an incapacity to be impatient, that the orchestra, charmed by rehearsing, was euphoric. Each musician gave of his best in the euphoria created by the absolutely disinterested determination of Rostropovitch. He wanted the music to reach its best level. And he succeeded because he is such a great artist!

But each to his own highest level. Everyone should try to stretch himself; otherwise the great would remain isolated behind a barrier.

If you talk to Andre Malraux, for example, your attention is stretched – his thoughts are so quick, sometimes he doesn’t finish a sentence – that in order to follow him, you have to develop a new sort of attention yourself.

I have the impression that the more I try to think of the essentials of music, the more they seem to depend on general human values. It’s all very well to be a musician, it’s all very well to be a genius, but the intrinsic value which constitutes your mind, your heart, your sensibility, depends on what you are. You may have to lead a life in which no one understands who you are. Nevertheless I believe that everything depends on attention. I only see you if I pay attention. I only exist in my own eyes, if I pay attention to myself.

One always comes back, willy nilly, to the great words. Have you or have you not received grace? Saint Teresa of Avila, afflicted despite everything with arid prayer, has visions; we say to ourselves, ‘She is mad, it is hysteria.’ That’s very convenient! Was Menuhin hysterical while playing sublimely a sublime movement of a Brahms sonata? No, he received the power to penetrate a thought which is neither Brahms’s nor his, nor mine; a thought floating in the world, above the world, bearing light.


When you have the opportunity, as I do, to deal with people just setting out – most of them are twenty, some eighteen, others thirty, it doesn’t matter – you suddenly discover in some of them such a longing for life that you know they will do whatever they do with love, with a feeling of abundance which comes from desire. Everything is there. Are we capable of desire, a permanent sense of discovery?

One day I was invited by Turks to hear Oedipus in Turkish, admirably done. I knew Oedipus by heart, as we all do, so their speaking in Turkish didn’t bother me at all. I followed the thought. If I hadn’t known my Sophocles, I would never have guessed that Oedipus was Jocasta’s son and that he had killed his father, never...not the slightest suspicion. It’s something that wouldn’t enter your head.

Although you know how the play unfolds, it develops in such a way that the moment comes when you are taken by surprise. I find that miraculous. I thank God and bow before the miracle. You can talk to great actors: each time they take up some piece they have played all their lives, it is a rediscovery. That is the privilege of emotion: if I know how to look at you, you surprise me each time. If I accustom myself to seeing you, without grasping that each time can offer a different insight, you become a piece of furniture I don’t think about any longer, and the loss is mine.

That you should be here, that you should be who you are, I find that a profound mystery. And if it isn’t a profound mystery, you are a nuisance to me. Because I’ve no desire merely to see you.

Mother used to say to us: ‘Ah, please don’t start hugging me at the same time every night, it’ll become a habit.’ When I was a little girl I was sight–reading – in what must have been a scandalous way – the last sonatas of Beethoven (can you imagine!), it seemed to me that I was playing them better than anyone else could. I changed my opinion afterwards, but I still hear those works as if for the first time.

I wouldn’t like to say to myself: ‘I like so and so a lot, but less than I used to.’

That has never happened in my life. I have never abandoned any friendship. It seems to me that the sign of old age, the real sign – and I have all of them except this – would be not to attach importance to things. I think of this often in my regret at not speaking Russian, because that Russian heritage speaks strongly in me. I regret not knowing and not speaking Russian, or Latin either, which inevitably cuts me off from my roots; and I’m ashamed to have to admit that if I’d had courage and resolved to learn one word a week for ten years – that’s not a lot, one word a week – I could have read all of Russian literature. Now, have I read it? No. I have to search for the letters to read my own name in Russian. It’s the result of my negligence, of my indifference. I only had to learn it. No one prevented me and nothing stopped me from learning one word a week. If my desire is such that my natural laziness prevents me realising it, then the desire isn’t very strong.

Recently, someone carried out an odd project: to count how many notes Schubert wrote. Perhaps his energy was somewhat misplaced. He arrived at a horrifying number and asked the following question: ‘Leaving aside genius, how much time would it take simply to write this number of notes? After investigating the matter, he found that it would take about twenty-five years. Well, Schubert only took fifteen years to put millions of notes on paper. Where did this power come from?’ Schubert didn’t say to himself I should like to speak Russian.’ He did it instead of talking about it. We talk about what we don’t do, and the great excuse we offer is lack of time. But Schubert didn’t have time, Bach didn’t have time, Fauré didn’t have time, no one has time! They found time – that’s why Plato is still alive to us today. That is why you must say to children every day: ‘It depends on you, oh passer–by, whether I am tomb or treasury. It depends on you, friend; do not enter without desire.’ Those words of Valéry’s are inscribed on the walls of the Trocadero.

I knew Valéry well, but I knew Stravinsky even better. Stravinsky was a great believer and in his art you sense the sacred. The day this man, who always accepted commissions, decided to write a mass, as he had decided, years before, to write ‘Ave Maria’, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and the ‘Credo’, he was responding with a ritual gesture to his faith – the faith which determined that if he played cards, he would play seriously and as well as he could. In all his actions there was something serious, even amidst frivolity or burlesque. Think of the ‘Circus Polka’, for example. He was so happy when he was asked to write ‘Circus Polka’ for the elephant act in a circus. When I went to California to see him, he’d just finished writing it, and he told me to go and hear it performed in New York, and tell him about it afterwards. He was euphoric at having succeeded in writing ‘Circus Polka’. Many people have insinuated that he was ready to do anything for money. But he would himself have paid to write this ‘Circus Polka’. It had so entertained him. But there is no confusing ‘Circus Polka’ and the Symphony of Psalms; no mock religion, no stagey sign of the cross!

I asked him one day, ‘Are you going to accept such and such a commission?’ He replied with this marvellously elliptic phrase: ‘I can’t, it doesn’t make my mouth water.’ Valéry said, ‘Do not enter without desire’ and Stravinsky said, ‘that doesn’t make my mouth water.’

That goes for great as well as little things. I don’t think that in itself, playing cards is criminal, and so if it amuses me to play patience, I at least want to do it properly. Moving a card from left to right and right to left, is either stupid or very important, even in its uselessness. It is useless to write a masterpiece, it is useless to think.

That a fine fellow called Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the St John Passion, the St Matthew Passion, is unknown to most people, or else they couldn’t care less, and take not the least joy in them. But what do you think it takes for this immensely important event to survive?

It seems to me that Johann Sebastian Bach is the vital element. Well, not to me; you are, because the St Matthew Passion doesn’t exist if you do not listen to it. When I had read a new book by Valéry, I would say to him. ‘What a marvel, what an incredible achievement!’ And Valéry would reply: ‘But it is you who have made it.’ You’d be surprised for a moment.

I don’t know whether, when you were little, you were as struck as I was by the Evangelist’s saying, ‘For whosoever hath, to him shall be given.’ I was incensed. ‘What, he has already received a lot and he will be given even more!’ However, there is great wisdom in that because what good does it do to give a lot to someone who has nothing and will do nothing because he has no desire in him?

One day a pupil of mine went for a piano lesson with a very well–known teacher, who greeted him with, ‘It’s terrible, you know, to be a talented artist and to be reduced to giving lessons.’ My pupil, bad–mannered but really inspired, said: Well, Monsieur, if you are wasting time giving lessons, you won’t waste it with me, because I’m going.’ And he left. I told him: ‘You are very bad–mannered, but you’ve done the right thing in telling him that, because no one is obliged to give lessons. It poisons your life if you give lessons and it bores you.’

Are you interested by your pupils’ personalities to varying degrees?

Yes, but it’s also interesting to find out why one doesn’t interest you. That’s sufficient. If you’re interested by nature, everything interests you.

Obviously, if by a certain time I see that a pupil hasn’t any talent, I will say: ‘Listen, I think you’re wrong to carry on with a course which isn’t for you.’ But someone who hasn’t much of an ear, who doesn’t know much and who takes the trouble to learn, to develop what he knows without having particular talent, can be of great service to somebody eventually, by showing that to learn a skill is already a victory, already progress, the satisfaction of an inner desire. It is easier to reject effort than to appreciate it.

I had a Polish student whose father had shut the piano and only permitted his academic studies, which were brilliant. At twenty–one, he still had not touched a piano, but he decided, ‘Whatever Papa thinks, I want to be a musician, I want to be...a pianist.’ He sought out the Director of the Warsaw Conservatory, Monsieur Sikorsky, and said: ‘Monsieur, I’ve come to ask you for piano lessons.’ ‘Well, play me something.’ ‘The thing is, I can’t play.’ ‘And why do you want lessons?’ ‘I want to become a pianist, I want to play the great concertos.’ ‘But my boy, you can’t, you are twenty–one, you know nothing about music, it’s impossible. I haven’t the right to encourage you. Better to give up, believe me.’

He went away, saying to himself, ‘I’ve been talking to an honest man, but I’m determined to become a pianist.’ He began work on his own. After six months, he wrote to Sikorsky: ‘Monsieur, I realise I am being indiscreet, but my whole life depends on your decision and judgement, I think I’ve made some progress. Would you give me ten minutes of your time? Would you hear me play?’ Sikorsky invited him along. He had made such progress that Sikorsky was moved to tears. He gave him lessons every day; at thirty–one, Wojtowicz was playing the great concertos, the whole repertoire, and he became a teacher at the Warsaw Conservatory. It is an incredible story. He is still alive, I see him whenever I go to Poland. He found the way to become a great pianist.

I believe there was someone in Bergson’s circle, his right–hand man in a way, who at thirty–five declared, ‘I’m really very drawn to Chinese.’ Bergson said to him: ‘My dear chap, you cannot begin Chinese at your age. To be able to do anything decent in Chinese, you have to learn to transcribe thousands of signs. You can’t do it.’

‘Yes, I know, I know, but there are summons one simply has to obey.’ And he succeeded.

After all, Rameau wrote his first opera at fifty. And you have the example, the miracle of Roussel, a naval officer who graduated from the Naval Academy, without professional access to music until he was twenty–five. Those who teach phonetics say that until a child is eight years old it has no accent in a foreign language. Of course, you feel there are moments when Roussel is self– conscious. You never feel that Mozart or Haydn is self–conscious. You never feel Schubert is awkward.

To think that a man with everything against him can overcome all obstacles by courage, will, energy, vital powers! I find that more impressive than the result itself; it’s a joy to see that all effort bears fruit. And then, you must take the time to savour. To eat is to taste. Stravinsky used to taste. He didn’t eat fast. He savoured. I almost never taste. I eat a meal while giving a lesson and I don’t notice what I eat. And then suddenly there’s something extraordinary, a peach...Two years ago, I had a cherry that was a masterpiece of a cherry. From time to time I think of it. I’ve never eaten its equal.


The Well–Tempered Clavier has been with me throughout my life. When my father died I already knew it by heart. That must have satisfied him, because I think he had it by heart too.

You were twelve and you knew it by heart?

I had to. Each week I had to play a prelude and fugue by heart. But you know, you mustn’t exaggerate, a prelude and fugue a week, that’s not much! In my course I require as much of my pupils. I make them write out the separate parts from memory after which they should be able to reconstruct the whole piece. After a training of this kind, they have well–furnished minds. In fact I get the most out of this class, because each note interests me and takes on a new dimension.

But these are draconian demands!

Draconian, savage! I think it was Montaigne who said: ‘Without memory I have no past, I have no present, I have only something fugitive which is linked with nothing.’ We are eternally faced with the equation: living in the past, living in the present, living in the future.

Everything that brings us into contact with great minds, minds inspired by noble motives, helps us to rise above the humdrum. If we have learnt a lot by heart, we always have company. And what company! The royal company of the centuries’ great masterpieces.

Craftsmanship: Two Attitudes

There are two ways of approaching music: it is quite possible to know nothing while fully sensing melodic emotion, musical emotion. And the music charms you, transports you; above all you must respect this feeling and not spoil it with false efforts at knowledge. You can’t work at Greek for three months. It’s a waste of energy. Either you know that you don’t know Greek and despair of it; or you take the necessary time, ten years, fifteen, twenty, thirty years, it doesn’t matter. You will never tire of it; you do what you love, that’s what you choose to do. It’s unbearable on discouraging or boring days, but you do it, because it has become vitally necessary.

Emotion without knowledge is perfectly respectable, though. You can’t expect at a stroke to initiate the general public into technical terms. Not everyone can study theology and work on the Church Fathers. It would be pointless.

Obviously there are people who experience nothing when they hear music. I had a medical friend whom music didn’t affect a bit. There was no connection between him and music; it didn’t bother him, it didn’t carry an emotional charge for him. And yet this man was very intelligent, sensitive, refined, perceptive about lots of things, but not about music. Whatever you make of it, that’s an exceptional case. On the other hand, I know eminently intelligent people who can say nothing about music. It touches them, it moves them. That’s all. They’re happy with that sensation, and that’s the end of it. But emotion has a regenerating power, and the emotion of a non–specialist audience is essential.

One day during the war, General Huntziger said to me: ‘Would you come and play music for my soldiers?’

‘Listen,’ I said to him, ‘I don’t do that sort of thing. What I’d suggest wouldn’t be the sort of thing they want.’

‘You don’t understand, they know the situation is very grave. I should like to show them there is something better, to let them hear beautiful things.’

‘You are the commanding general here. If you appoint me commander–in–chief of music, I will send you a programme and we’ll each take our chances.’

And I worked out a programme, being careful to include pieces that were quite short and eloquent, but all of them masterpieces. I arrived at the hall, in the vicinity of Sedan; there were eight hundred soldiers, and I said to myself, ‘This will turn out badly. This programme is too severe, even though the pieces are short – it can’t be helped!’

Half way through the concert I had placed ‘Dieu, qu’il la fait bon regarder’, one of Debussy’s Chansons de Charles d’Orleans. It’s the only time in my life that it’s had to be sung three times. It moved them,profoundly. After that, General Giraud asked me to go to Saint Omer, this time for an orchestral programme. He had brought together all the soldiers who were at all musical to make a kind of orchestra, and again it was a programme of masterpieces. Everything went off magnificently, they were enchanted; there was nothing but the best.

All the same, I wondered if I’d put some rowdy piece in the middle, whether that would have been the great success... I’ve been to give concerts in factories two or three times, and I’ve said to the people there: ‘You have a profession I don’t know. I have a profession you don’t know. I bring you and can give you only what I believe to be the best.’ And they couldn’t be fooled. They understood perfectly, they were absolutely at one with the music. Would they be able to follow the canons of the Musical Offering with the same satisfaction? It would be interesting to try it out because, despite the purely intellectual aspect of these canons, they create an emotion which is music itself, and ignorance can be balanced by an extraordinary intuitive love. Only a few people are born with the ability to comprehend an abstract work.

What I don’t really understand is why there’s a difference between a masterpiece of purity by Mozart and a bit of successful pop music. I believe it’s in the mind, but I’m not too sure. I ask myself: does the man Mozart or the man Bach have an order of thought which takes you into another sphere of emotional activity, sensual activity, technical activity? Is the object different? Am I the same person, listening to a pop–song or attending Mass? I don’t reflect much on this matter, because to me it seems a fact. And I can’t find a satisfactory explanation for this fact. But everything that goes beyond the everyday level seems to belong to the same sphere.

The ability to enjoy even the least structurally complex music always denotes musical intuition. That needs to be preserved and sustained if possible. The question is, how may such intuition be nurtured?

Awakening Sounds

In most elementary education, the right to learn how to listen, a child’s birthright, is seldom taken into account. Children are made to see, they are made to feel a little (not a lot), they are made to choose (very seldom), but not to listen. All children, from the time they’re four, know their right from their left hands. They know colours. I don’t understand why they shouldn’t know sounds, even if they are never to become musicians. They learn words, they learn gestures, signs, and there is one area in which they learn nothing: music. They hear notes without knowing what they represent. The energetic repercussion of a rhythm, of a developing melody, of combinations of sound, can give them great excitement; but knowing about these sounds will take away nothing of the excitement.

Do you think that the power of naming is linked to perception? In other words, that consciousness is a condition of pleasure?

I don’t know whether this puzzles you, but I’ve never declared ‘This object is yellow’ and had someone else tell me, ‘No, it’s red, or blue.’ And yet if I look at a painting, I discover that the painter has seen shadows and lights that I couldn’t even have imagined. Everything depends on the angle and power of perception.

Do you know what Valéry wrote in Leonardo? ‘We are told that the sea is flat, we do not see that it is standing up in front of us.’ It’s probably the same thing with sound. It produces phenomena of the same order.

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