Listening to Ivry Gitlis’ violin playing, one cannot stay indifferent to the sweeping fervour of the music. Under Ivry’s hands, the violin spoke, sang and electrified. It did not seem like he was playing the music, but rather living it, and each time he touched the violin, his playing was like no other.
I was introduced to Ivry’s music through his recordings as a young student in the academy, and on one special occasion, a couple of years ago, I have had the privilege of hearing him live, when he was asked by maestro Zubin Mehta to come up on stage, in the middle of his dear friend Martha Argerich’s chamber music concert in Tel-Aviv. Ivry played a small improvisation on Zubin and Marhta’s names, followed by a couple of miniatures accompanied by Argerich. The experience was unforgettable. Though he was 96 years old and his technical control of the instrument was not as it used to be, his playing was touching and fragile, expressing the exact essence of the musical moment he was absorbed in. I have never heard something quite like it before and highly doubt I will be able to hear this again.
A little over a year ago, soon after arriving in London to write my PhD, I have already travelled to Paris by bus to interview him, as the first activity of my research. Since spending that late afternoon in Paris with Ivry, I have often thought of the things he told me about music and life, and I would like to share some of his words here for anyone who may be interested.
Our interview was supposed to focus on Ivry’s special musical perception and understand the atmosphere of his musical upbringing in 1930s Paris, alongside my teacher and Ivry’s friend, pianist Pnina Salzman, “an era,” in Ivry’s words, “where altogether, things were given more and were received more, whereas nowadays [people] don’t give and don’t receive.”
The conversation moved between three languages, but speaking about music with Ivry was not an easy task in any of them, as it was impossible for him to “look at music as something separate from yourself.”
When asked about the musical approach of his legendary teachers, George Enescu and Jackues Thibaud, he replied: “What do you mean ‘approach the music?’ You do not approach music. First of all, either you are a musician or you are not. Either it shakes something within you or not… If you are a musician and you are not shaken by the music, how could you then shake someone else?”
Instead he told me about his studies as a young boy in Paris: “They did not talk to me as a pupil … we were not like a teacher and a pupil. There was one person who was older and another that was younger, and we shared something. Not ‘I'm a Professor and you are a pupil’. They were great artists, but they did not treat me as a little boy to whom you should show things… Sometimes they would ask me …
“I mean, I worked with Thibaud and with George Enescu, who was a composer and a great violinist as well, and also an exceptional pianist. In the lessons, he would sit next to the piano and play everything with me. He didn't say here you should do piano, here you should do forte, or do this and that… He played with me! He lived the thing with me, and I lived the thing with him. If that answers your question, I don't know …
“Look, you have to understand, during that time, when we were there, we were surrounded by and spun by [* I am not sure if there is a good translation for this word in English] a few of the most extraordinary artists, people, personalities, in the history of music in general, if we are talking about music, and without talking about music too. And this atmosphere was quite natural, it was not… how do you say, artificial. It's a shame, but it does not exist in such a way any longer. If there were people like Enescu and Thibaud, and this and that… that was part of our lives, and we were part of the life of that. When I went to study with Thibaud, for instance, I had this summer in Saint-Jean-de-Luz… are you familiar with Saint-Jean-de-Luz? It is in the South-West of France, next to the Basque coast. Thibaud had a house there and he invited me to come and work with him, so I would come to his house, and let's say that the lesson was at 11, but until he got out of his bath, or his, god knows what… from his room, and got to the… it was probably 11:30, and perhaps he would drink a glass or two of Whisky, and smoke a cigar that fell out of his mouth, took the violin and played with the cigar falling on his violin… This is hard to comprehend today …
“It was an era of romance, but you shouldn't think of romance simply as a story of Romeo and Juliet, it is romance of imagination and enthusiasm…”
Later in the interview, I was reprimanded once again for asking Ivry about his sources of inspiration: “Look, you talk like you say - what did you eat today for lunch? What was in your stomach? … you ask questions that I cannot… I cannot play music that doesn't mean something to me. And if it doesn’t mean anything, then I must find something…”
When I continued and asked if he finds this meaning in the sound alone, Ivry was outraged, telling me: "’Only’ in the sound?… The sound is everything! That's the expression of it…”
However, while insisting that his teachers “did not talk about the meaning of the music, they just played the music,” Ivry immediately contradicted himself by saying: “They talked, of course… Yes, they talked about the imagination and the impression, images… of course, yes… I mean… that this is like that, or it's about this… yes, of course,” also mentioning that he himself did the same as well, “automatically, I mean, sure… We need images.”
Ivry also mentioned his interest in reading about the composers’ lives in order to get closer to their music, telling me: ”Well, of course, for god's sakes, it's not even a question. I mean, I have, next to my bed, a book about Robert and Clara Schumann. Love letters between them.” (Though he later added “I am not reading the book, but it's there…”)
And while talking about his identification with the composer and the music, he said: “I don't try to step into the composer's shoes. I am in the shoes … “The music is a reflection of what you are… I don't… How do you say? I don't say music is this and life is that. It is the same. I don't take one thing and cut it into different pieces … We are a whole. You are a whole. I am a whole. Not a hole, h-o-l-e, but with a ‘w’ … We are many things. When we play we play with everything that we are. We should, anyway.”
Finally, when asked about his own love for music, Ivry replied: “I don't know if I love or not; I am the music, that's all … Or I'm not… Anyway, we are not talking about me, we are talking about music.”