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In the Domain of Faust

Pianist Jeremy Denk’s memoir is both dirge and demonology

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons by Jeremy Denk. Random House, 384 pages.

All memoirs are deceptive, but those of classical musicians are more deceptive than most. It’s not that musicians are dishonest, though some can be; it’s that the genre can’t capture the reality of their lives. Memoirs are concerned with people and events, while most of a musician’s life unfolds in solitary tedium. Memoirs attempt to make experience articulate, but a musician’s work is as far from speech as the most mindless labor: the endless hours in the practice room, training the fingers to race and strike; the attempt to find the passion behind a set of dots on a page and give it audible form. The memoirs of a virtuoso like Arthur Rubinstein show us everything—who he loved, where he traveled, what he believed in—except the daily struggle between himself and his instrument. Around this love-hate relationship his life is arranged, a life defined, like the monk’s or the athlete’s, by elusive moments of rapture, surrounded by long spans of loneliness, boredom, and failure.

That’s if he’s lucky. Another reason classical musicians’ memoirs can mislead us is that they only show us part of the picture. The musicians we hear from are the exceptions, the ones who’ve reached the top of an unforgiving field through talent, money, ruthlessness, birth, or chance. Their stories resemble fairy tales: mentors and benefactors materialize at the right time; hard work pays off; setbacks are followed by dazzling triumphs. We seldom see them struggling to make the rent, coming to terms with disappointment, or waiting anxiously for their bodies to wear out and their careers wind down. We miss the pervasive unhappiness that makes classical music, in the words of the pianist Jeremy Denk, “the world’s most thankless profession.”

Denk is, if not quite happy, at least unhappy on his own terms.

Denk is, if not quite happy, at least unhappy on his own terms. A prominent soloist, MacArthur Fellow, and frequent contributor to The New Yorker and New York Review of Books, he’s one of the lucky ones, and knows it. The title of his memoir is a rueful half-joke: Every Good Boy Does Fine is a child’s mnemonic, a way to remember the notes in treble clef. At one level it’s a fitting name for this book, which interweaves an introduction to classical music with the story of Denk’s own education. At another level, it’s mordantly ironic. Denk knows his success was hardly inevitable. As if in atonement, much of his book is devoted to the lives of the defeated. Among them are his childhood mentor, trapped in the stultifying safety of academia; a high school conductor forgotten but for “obscure mentions in archived issues of The New Mexico Musician”; and a conservatory professor sinking slowly into disaffection. The book is a “love letter to the music teachers in his [Denk’s] life,” as a fellow pianist admiringly writes. But it’s also a chronicle of disappointment and obscurity, of lives both graced and stunted by music—a memorial for the ones who didn’t do fine. It’s an unusually honest book; whether it’s true is a different question.

Given the odds, why do people still choose to study classical music? Some would reply that they didn’t choose music; it chose them. Less romantically, they might say they started young, maybe when they were barely toilet-trained, either drawn to music by chance and affinity, or pushed there by their parents. For Denk it’s the former: before he starts the piano, he spends his happiest hours “cross-legged on the living room floor, in my pajamas,” listening to records. But starting music is one thing, sticking with it another. What begins as play soon becomes a test of will. “Piano playing was lonely—so lonely,” Denk writes, and he remembers with dread the “long forced march down the hall” to his first practice room, the hours of tedious technical exercises, “like scrubbing the grout in your bathroom.” What keeps him at it, practicing first an hour a day, then three, then five, is not just ambition or tenacity, though he needs plenty of both. It’s also the hunger for approval, and the happiness of music, and the satisfaction of discovering his own strength. He recalls with palpable pleasure his first breakthrough at the piano, when the “notes on the page seemed to sound before I could read them.”

Yet Denk’s devotion to the piano also hints at unhappier compulsions. He remembers his mother, paralyzed by anxiety, smoking and “staring out the window into the backyard,” pouring herself an endless series of drinks. When the drinking nearly kills her, Denk turns to the piano for catharsis. His hopes are disappointed: “What was the point of music if it didn’t save you at a moment like this?” That doesn’t keep him from seeking salvation time and again. For him the happiness of music is a refuge from—and transfiguration of—the suffering outside it. Years later, in graduate school, Denk hears György Sebők and János Starker, two legendary Hungarian emigrés, perform a sonata by César Franck. Their playing seems to express “all that [they] had survived” over the years—“wars, Fascists, Communists, labor camps,” and finally exile. Amid all this loss and catastrophe, “their musical ideals were what remained, the few items of value that the world had not yet managed to take away.”

While Denk’s mother smokes and drinks, his father cultivates other obsessions, beginning the book as a monk and ending it as a comic Lothario. Denk follows a happier trajectory, from his pious Catholic boyhood to his belated escape from the closet. Either story could serve as an allegory for his profession. If music is a refuge from suffering, it’s also a sublimation of desire. To Denk desire is “the heart of the art of harmony”: one chord longs after another, dissonance after consonance, in a perpetual chain of wanting, never quite satisfied until the music stops. But it can be hard to tell where all that longing points. In instrumental music, at least, it floats free, untethered from any concrete object. And desire without an object can be volatile: maybe it points toward the infinite; maybe toward the first thing that walks in the door. In the same moment, classical music can evoke both idealism and insatiability. Like Denk’s father, it has half its mind on God and the other half on sex, frequently unsure which is which.

Music, deliverance, and desire: to the German Romantics, who more or less created classical music as we know it, these three things were inseparable. In a famous essay on Beethoven, the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote that music draws us toward the eternal, “awaken[ing] that endless longing which is the very essence of Romanticism.” This idealism gives the classical music world an oddly religious character. In places like Carnegie Hall it can feel stuffy, like going to church; but the faith Denk joins is more like an unruly New Age sect. The teachers he meets are “gurus,” exacting fealty and obedience, and offering extraordinary powers in return. They exude a charismatic menace. Denk plays for a celebrated cello professor, wreathed in “halitosis and cologne,” sporting “a deranged expression, like in Munch’s The Scream.” He finds the encounter “cultish”: “I felt violated,” broken down and rebuilt, sacrificing “my right to privacy . . . as the price of something better.”

Classical music has half its mind on God and the other half on sex, frequently unsure which is which.

Such episodes give the book a fantastic air. When Denk finds his own guru, the great pianist György Sebők, he follows him to Indiana, like a fighter trailing his sensei to a mountaintop. Sebők, he says, is “my idealistic Hungarian Yoda,” with a pedagogical style to match: folksy, then paradoxical, culminating in a flash of esoteric insight. “Don’t put whipped cream on goulash,” he tells him.

[Then] he told me to bring my wrist down, to imagine, and reach for, the space below the keyboard. This impossible idea of traveling through solid wood seemed to help . . . His few words expressed one of the most essential tricks to playing Bach . . . [Bach’s] ongoingness is essential to his revelation—God’s eternal plan, the spinning cosmos. But you must find repose, you must breathe while in motion, like the pilot of a plane turning in order to stay in place.

In the view of music Denk inherits from Sebők, virtue and skill are linked. By teaching him about his art form, his guru also teaches him how to live. An insight into rhythm eases Denk’s alienation from his body; melody provides a model of “pure affection, love divorced from the necessity of a specific object.” A musical education is a spiritual education. Denk dedicates the book to Sebők, “and to all the other people who save us from ourselves.”

The spiritual vision of music coexists in Denk’s book with another, which at first glance looks very different. In this view, musical desire points to the profane, not the sacred. The love it evokes, Denk writes, is one we “hope to reattach to reality.” A friend puts it more bluntly: “Harmony is kind of like sex.” This sounds harmless enough. Yet classical music’s not just associated with sex. It’s associated with the wrong kind of sex. In films, as Denk notes, it’s a “hypercivilized foil” to scenes of eroticized violence: Beethoven accompanying rape and murder in A Clockwork Orange; the masochism of The Piano Teacher; Hannibal Lecter flaying guards to the strains of the Goldberg Variations, orgasmic ecstasy playing across his face. Denk blames this trope on pop culture, but it’s arguably much older than that. The same Beethoven that gives Hoffmann thoughts of infinity incites the jealous narrator of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata to murder his wife.

This view of music seems quite different from Hoffmann’s, yet both are inspired by the same longing. Infinite yearning entails endless suffering: listening to a Monteverdi madrigal, Denk finds it “impossible to hear anything other than this suffering, the individual destroyed by love.” When acted upon, it also entails an endless search for satiation—the lawless, destructive eroticism personified in Mozart’s seducer Don Giovanni. “In other words,” as Kierkegaard writes of Mozart’s opera, “music is the demonic.”

In fact, the two views are not opposed but complementary. Combined they form classical music’s traditional self-image. In this picture music, like desire, is both divine and demonic, and has the power either to save or destroy us. It is a moral testing ground, inhabited, as Denk learns from Sebők, by a host of otherworldly apparitions: “temptations and seductions . . . demons, hubris . . . Don Giovanni.” Of these figures one, to which Sebők often returns, best embodies music’s danger and ambiguity. This figure is the central Romantic myth: music is the domain of Faust.

The sense of spiritual danger, along with the more concrete dangers of injury and failure, can give a musician’s life, outwardly uneventful, the character of a hero’s journey. Virtuoso pianists, in the words of Edward Said, perform on a “precipice,” each concert “a perilous experience full of constant risk and potential disaster.” They confront this risk by mythologizing themselves. Their nineteenth-century predecessors conformed to stark archetypes: on one side, chaste priests of art (Clara Schumann); on the other, demonic Don Juans, seducing their listeners from the keyboard (the virtuoso Franz Liszt, who closed his fantasia on Don Giovanni with an account of the rake’s damnation). These roles were good for business—Liszt’s idol Paganini did nothing to dispel rumors he’d sold his soul to the Devil—but just as importantly, they made the stakes intelligible. The lonely drudgery of mastering an instrument, the omnipresent risk of disaster, had their place in a grand narrative of sin and redemption.

These archetypes still shape how classical musicians dress and act, the repertoire they play and the way they play it. Yet they’re increasingly remote from the world most listeners occupy, and to which the musicians themselves return when they leave the stage. Denk feels the pull of both roles. When he rejects Rachmaninoff for a competition (too “whorish”), he’s answering the call of some half-forgotten priestly vocation. When he stuns audiences with his speed and precision, he’s following in Liszt’s Faustian footsteps. These poses retain their force in the concert hall. But are they still plausible anywhere else?

For an old-world figure like Sebők they are, if barely. He pauses in class over a chilling passage from Bartók: “That is the work of Mephistopheles.” Denk is thrilled. “Hanging with the smoke in the dimly lit room, that fantastic remark verged on camp. It nailed the moment of the piece, while connecting it to a moral of life.” Then he repeats the remark himself, in a mock-Hungarian accent. The spell is broken. His classmates look at him with disgust. What’s possible for his guru is no longer possible for him.

Maybe it was never possible. Even in their heyday, the virtuosi gave off a whiff of stagecraft and charlatanism. Paganini, who sometimes broke his violin’s top string during a concert and finished performing on the other three, was accused of having snapped it deliberately. Yet if musicians are always playacting, they still need to make the act convincing, to their listeners and to themselves. Today that conviction seems harder to summon. The old stories about the power of classical music have worn thin; it takes an act of faith to believe them.

Denk struggles to hold onto that faith, often in the face of the evidence. The idealist in him thinks that music can save us; the dispassionate observer knows it seldom does. Many of the figures he meets are unheroic: the disaffected conservatory professor; a celebrated pianist with the soul of an accountant; a nonagenarian cello teacher flirting with a student perhaps a quarter his age. Others are simply obscure. Trapped in dead-end jobs, ground down by “the hardship of musical life,” they shadow Denk’s triumphs like a memento mori. After a competition, he broods on the sense of hollowness that sets in after each performance. Glamorous while the music lasts, “with the fading of the applause [musicians] become, as elderly people often feel, a burden, a thing to carry to the airport and dispose of.”

Given this gap between what classical music promises and delivers, why should we still think it makes life worthwhile? Denk’s answer comes, obliquely, in an episode toward the end of the book. He leaves his guru in Indiana to go to Juilliard. There he meets his “anti-Sebők,” the famous violin teacher and “power broker” Dorothy DeLay. Indifferent to “subtleties and shades, my many years of thought,” she sees music as pure calculation and effect: “Well, it is the last movement, isn’t it? . . . And if you think about the audience, really, they need a new energy.” What DeLay offers Denk is “the antidote to years of Bloomington idealism”: a vision of music demystified, in which the stagecraft is all that’s left. It feels “like a violence and a useful truth.”

Though the encounter lasts just a few pages, the whole book is a response to the temptation it presents. That response is not articulated explicitly, but is implicit in Denk’s literary style. The figures he depicts have a fantastic quality at odds with the often unspectacular facts of their lives. The same is true of DeLay, in Denk’s eyes “enormous, gluttonous, [and] magisterial.” She denies that music is supernatural, yet her own grotesque presence says otherwise. As a character she seems not quite at home in a memoir. But then this book—with its themes of temptation and secret knowledge, its hero torn between purity and sin—really belongs to a different genre entirely. It is an attempt to give new life, by force of imagination, to the myth Denk’s younger self failed to inhabit. It is his Faust story, and DeLay is his Mephistopheles.

It’s told subtly and stylishly enough that the story almost feels convincing. Is that story true? Denk himself seems of two minds, and in fact his book ends not once but twice. Each ending implies a different reading of what came before.

The old stories about the power of classical music have worn thin; it takes an act of faith to believe them.

One ending is the expected salvation. Denk resists the call of cynicism, emerging with his idealism battered yet intact. In the book’s epilogue, following the deaths of his father, mother, and beloved friend, he travels to the New Mexico desert. There he shuts himself up like a monk, “to take revenge for my solitude with more solitude.” Instead he finds himself practicing Mozart, “with a feeling I recognized to be happiness.” His childhood doubts are finally answered: “Back when I was twelve, and my mother was deathly ill, music had no consolation to offer—it felt fake. But now, after all those losses and teachers and time, it felt like one of the few dependable realities.”

The other ending comes in the book’s last chapter. It hints at salvation’s limits, and at what has to be sacrificed in return. At a chamber-music festival in Vermont, Denk falls in love, happily for once. “There you were, staring back at me . . . I asked what you wanted. You said, ‘Everything.’” Here the musician discovers something found nowhere else in the book: something more important than music. “Everyone asked me if I was OK. I had never been better. I think I played the piano; I just don’t remember.” This suggests yet another view of the musician’s life, neither divine nor demonic. What if music is not a summons to love but a substitute for it? What if music is itself the temptation—not to some Faustian passion but simply to a life unlived? The last chapter ends with an air of serenity. Then comes the epilogue, with its litany of deaths and its bleak consolation. The unnamed lover is gone, as if he’d never been. What remains—faithful, inescapable—is the piano.

On the book’s cover, the pianist Conrad Tao writes that “it makes me want to practice.” This is something musicians often say about people they envy or admire. It’s the highest praise I know, and the saddest.