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Hidden under the piano

· A conversation with Elisabeth Sombart ·

“I was overcome by wonder when, very small, I listened to music hidden under the piano. I had the impression that I myself was the music” Elizabeth Sombart informs us, speaking of the birth of her vocation: “one does not become a musician, one is born a musician”. In these words the pianist of international fame evokes the art of music in terms similar to those of the great musicians for whom, as Gille Deleuze emphasizes, “emotion does not say I”. Born in Strasbourg, the pianist began piano lessons very early. At the age of ten she was awarded. First Prize in Piano at the Bach-Albert-Lévêque Competition and, six years later, the First National Prize for Piano and Chamber Music. She then left France to perfect her playing with the greatest masters, Bruno Leonardo Gelber in Buenos Aires, Peter Feuchtwanger in London and Hilde Langer-Rühl in Vienna. Her meeting with the great conductor Sergiù Celibidache was to be crucial.

For almost ten years Elisabeth Sombart then trained in the phenomenology of music which he taught at the University of Mainz. This teaching opened up to her the paths of a new exploration of music, “experienced as the mobile image of immobile eternity”. She developed this teaching and created Pédagogie Résonnance, built on the basic principle of the reduction of the multiplicity of sonorous phenomena to unity. Simultaneously the pianist pursued an international career in the most prestigious concert halls: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Victoria Hall in Geneva and so forth. She also recorded an important discography from Bach to Bartok. In 1990, she created the Fondation Résonnance in Switzerland, which has since been developed in seven countries – Italy, Spain, Romania, France, Lebanon and Belgium – in order to take music to places of solidarity. She currently organizes about 500 concerts a year, 70 of which are held in Rome. For Elizabeth Sombart, music is a joy, a breath, and a communion that transcends all knowledge, all culture and any social or religious affiliation.

On listening to you the writer Christian Bobin said: “What enlightens me is your way of cleaning each note with a small brush of silence”. What is the importance of silence for you?

The coincidence of sounds and silence alone enables one to be at the heart of the music. Every time we play a note we bear witness to a primordial silence. This is why each interpreter must first of all have made a vow of silence. There is silence between each one of the notes and within each note. Between each one of the notes there is room for interiority. The artist who proceeds with an awareness of this grows to love this inner silence. It is necessary to know that all musical works begin on an expiration. Throughout the work our breathing adjusts from phrase to phrase in order to reveal them and to link them to each other. Each musical phrase therefore emanates from the inner continuity where the soul of the performer breathes. It is in silence that breath takes its source and that the interpreter of it finds the path of his or her heart, the one that leads to the world from the soul of music, where sounds become music.

So does music lead to another space and time?

At the end of a concert people say so magnificently: “I was in paradise!”. This transport is also uplifting. St Jerome explained that musicians on earth are there to fill the void that the angels left in heaven on departing with Lucifer. In fact, when they play musicians enter another dimension of time and take their audience with them. Musical time is not the time of chronology or of clocks. It is the time outside time, a time that fits into the intervals between the sounds where past and future interpenetrate each other in the moment.

Is the Greek verb ”katekhein” – literally, to cause to resonate – that gave rise to the word “catechism”, to teach, to transmit – at the root of the foundation you have created?

The Fondation Résonnance has a twofold vocation. Its aim on the one hand is to create and manage the Résonnance piano schools whose founding principles are the following: giving freely, the absence of examinations and competitions, lessons in Pédagogie Résonnance– and all of this with no age limits. On the other hand the Fondation Résonnance aims to give concerts in hospitals, retirement homes, medical and social establishments, institutions for the disabled and prisons, etc.

How does the public react?

One prisoner, in tears at the end of a concert I had given in the Regina Coeli Prison, Rome, sought me out. He had never heard classical music before and said to me: “I escaped on high, from the bottom of my heart”. In the letters she wrote from the Westerbork Camp in 1942-1943, Etty Hillesum said of her writing that “she wanted it to be a balm poured out onto so many wounds”.

You yourself speak of a form of the apostolate of consolation through music. Is there any link with the Gospel?

The Foundation’s actions are related to the message of the Gospel according to St Matthew: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Mt 25, 35-36). All this was impressed upon me.

Basically are you likewise very close to the Neoplatonic vision of Medieval thought that conceived the infinitely small as a tracing of the infinitely great?

According to this principle each created form is liable to be brought back to perfect unity since it is a model of the original. All the pedagogy that I endeavour to put in place relies on this relationship within which the visible world is constituted, as well as another that might be described as invisible and that Beethoven named the “world of music”.

Do you opt for a depersonalization of the artist?

It is a question of forgetting oneself to serve music, rather than using music to serve oneself: Such is the condition sine qua non for sounds that communicate to become the creative sounds of communion. Music then speaks of itself, at its finger tips, in a present where all secret fears are overcome. It thus moves those who are listening, creating one heart with its own. The hands of performers make each one of them a transmitter of grace. They achieve a spiritual touch with an expressive gesture in which their offered hands reveal the music’s soul. Beauty is what appears when one loses sight of oneself, when one goes beyond oneself.

So is music a “gift”?

There is a form of free giving in art. Music cannot but be giving oneself, which implies that it is not borne by mercantile values. Today the consumer society is tending increasingly to associate music with a trade. Under this banner the professional musician is subjected to a harsh trial: competition, the law of the market, the profitability of concerts, recordings, etc. I believe, on the contrary, that music should remain an “offering” rather than a chain reaction.

Without playing on words, is this also the reason why the Pédagogie Résonnance does not award

prizes?

Music teaches us that the only reward is an inner reward; sounds change into music in the here and

now so how is it possible to compare one young musician to another? Why should they be made to compete? Isn’t this equivalent to eliminating one of them? In the Résonnance schools, as in our master classes, as soon as students play their pieces with ease we take them to perform at one of our places of solidarity. This is their most beautiful reward.

In conclusion, what should we wish those who listen to you?

That our listening together be transfigured so that the light which illuminates the stained-glass of our soul may shine out for our life to be a continuous creation of grace and beauty in the heart of each one. This is the challenge.

Sylvie Barnay

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