I have been invited to write for this issue on the suggested subject, “the advisability of specialization – such as you did on Bach.” Knowing how deeply concerned students and professionals are all over the world in regard to this question I am happy to contribute some thoughts as result of my own experience.
The most direct way necessitates my telling of a few events in the beginning of my career. I entered the combined contest of the National Federation of Music Clubs and the Schubert Memorial in 1935. During the same year, indeed in the same period, I also entered the Naumberg contest. For the former I offered the required varied concert programs an concertos, ranging from Bach through Stravinsky. But for the latter I offered two all-Bach programs, one of varied works and the other, the Goldberg Variations. I won the former contest. But I lost the Naumberg due to the general consensus of opinion on the part of the judges that a Bach performer is too limited and/or a major career could not be built by a performer who specialized in Bach. With the combined awards of the National Federation of Music Clubs and the Schubert Memorial I was plunged into a national career, marking my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy as conductor in the Brahms B-flat Concerto in New York and Philadelphia, and in a Town Hall recital whose program included Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.
Two years later, in October and November 1937, I performed my first all-Bach series at the Town Hall in New York, playing six all-Bach concerts in as many weeks. The programs included the entire 48 Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, Partitas, Suites and other works from the miscellaneous collection. From that moment there was no looking back, not only because the series was a success but, more important, this experience confirmed for me the fact that I, as an artist, could not proceed solely with the conventional pianistic career and the conventional repertoire. I realize now that in this moment of my life I did not so much choose Bach as Bach chose me. This is not meant in any immodest sense: it means that I had become so deeply involved in every facet of this field as result of my specialized work in Bach research and performance since the age of fourteen that the fulfillment afforded by this Bach series was not an end for me, but a beginning.
I had been lucky in having so early begun serious work in the Bach repertoire on the piano, harpsichord, clavichord and organ as well as musicological study. Playing all-Bach recitals since the age of fourteen helped to build the requisite endurance of memory power and control in performing – to build in the intellectual, emotional and spiritual muscles in the growing adolescent, as I think of it. But the telling decision emerges from oneself in maturity. At the age of 22 I made this decision. Obstacles were offered from every side. Musicians discouraged me on the basis of finding little or no audience. Managers were cautious or reluctant to admit the possibility of a national, to say nothing of an international career. And within myself, as an artist and scholar I was forging my way and building the supporting structures for the concept of Bach's music which emerges from the marriage of musicology study and a developed insight into musical and performing needs. Thus although one chooses, at the same time one also has no choice. I had my work to do, the fire underlying my work was self-nourishing. This is the reason I ascribe to the fact that for the last ten years I have been playing all-Bach to audiences of 3,000 and 4,000 all over the world. It is the result of an inner need to develop as an artist – not of an external plan for a career.
Therefore, I would not hesitate to encourage specialization in any field no matter how unrelated it may appear to practical career making at the moment. But – one factor must be present beyond talent, intellect and capacity for work and that is – inevitability of inner direction. And I believe that the necessary courage emerges as offspring to the quality of inevitability, making it possible to build a life-work and ultimately a career in a new artistic direction, in the face of obstacles produced by the environment of the status quo.