I was a participant in Pleeth's masterclasses in the late eighties and early nineties and from the very outset was struck by the unique and utterly captivating musical vision of this "English gentleman." It was only later that I became aware of his Eastern European origins; his passionate commitment to music had roots centuries old.
When I enquired whether anyone had filmed him in action, the reply was no. Furthermore, there were no plans to do so. I could envision entire generations of cellists poorer for not having witnessed his vision of music through the voice of the cello. These are the times when something takes over and says in you that this just has to be done. In three months, with William's consent, I found the donors (Charles Beare and Peter Biddulph among the generous), organised the film crew, and took care of the thousand and one things a novice producer encounters on their first adventure. It was a labour of love from start to finish.
If you'd like to rediscover the opening of the Dvorak Concerto and the Beethoven A major Sonata, if you want to hear the Elgar Concerto as Jacqueline du Pré might have first learned it, then give these tapes a good listening. They will become an indispensable part of your cello library.
Now for a few words about William Pleeth the man. I would like to share with you a speech I was asked to present at his memorial concert in London in January 2000. To recall his teaching and his wonderfully alive presence in words is a bit like emptying a glass of water with a slotted spoon. Whatever I can say is little compared with what I cannot.
To begin with, I would like to share with you a description of learning from the delightful " Song of Joy" by Wang Ken:
These words offer one of the keys to William's magic as a teacher. With William, working out the demands and difficulties of our marvellous cello repertoire was a moment to moment joy. He was not one of the teachers who promised you future rewards in exchange for present torments. Not so at all. It was the pleasure of discovery from the beginning of a lesson onwards, and perhaps that's why one felt enriched beyond the hour one spent with him.
I first met William in 1987 in Aldeburgh. Shortly after arriving for his masterclasses at the Britten-Pears School, I was walking up the High Street in Aldeburgh, and came face to face with the distinctive head and features which could only have been William's. I had to think quickly, should I bother him now or wait until the first day of class? The Englishman's famous reserve can loom large to an American. I took a chance and the manner in which he affectionately welcomed me not only left me holding the reserve, but affirmed that from such a heart one could learn without worry and without fear.
It is said that in the perfume trade there are noses and then there are Noses, the ones that can detect layers and degrees of scent. In the wine-tasting profession, there are tongues and then there are those treasured Palates on whom the fortunes of entire wineries depend. William had something equally precious, an extraordinary ear, linked to a musical intelligence and intuition that could reveal within a familiar bit of music the underlying logic of the phrase. There is a famous Tai Chi teacher in London who is fond of saying that there are no secrets, it is just that we do not see. Nor, William might have said, do we hear what is there in the music.
In my first summer of his classes at Snape, he told the following story about a prodigy in bloom brought to him from America. The young cellist began the Beethoven A major sonata with a rich slide up the G string. When the pianist followed with the very same theme several bars later, William stopped, motioned in the direction of the keyboard and said, "Did you happen to notice that the pianist cannot make the same slide as you did in the opening theme? "Yes," came the reply, "It's too bad, isn't it."
It was William who elucidated for me the shape of that very same theme and overturned years of cello tradition in so doing. What he could see was indisputable. Whether one had the courage to reexamine similar examples was another matter, and an individual responsibility.
Observing William at work was as enjoyable and beneficial as taking the lesson. While preparing this talk, I was visited at odd intervals during my own teaching by three of his characteristic phrases.
The first perhaps only a tea-drinking nation can appreciate to the fullest…what William called "instant coffee fingerings." Imagine a pupil, having triumphed with the fingering that could make a difficult passage lie down and behave, be brought up short by the very result he or she is most proud of. Instant coffee fingerings were symbolic of the easy way out, the convenient solution which makes life comfortable for the player but shortchanges the musical intention of the phrase. It meant a lack of courage, a lack of daring. The composer risked everything to create, but we cellists, said William, weren't willing to meet the same challenge on our instruments.
The second phrase is my personal favourite, "ironing the sheets." How to explain this one without a cello? I will try. In the days when sheets were ironed, the gesture was a continuous one, and if William had one antipathy, it was to the undifferentiated, continuous production of sound. It signified a lack of musical understanding. He often said that music is not simply a matter of producing beautiful sounds. It is speech, spoken with meaning. If the language of music is to be heard, then the bow must enunciate the subtleties of the phrase. From this awareness of how the bow releases, as well as produces, the sound, one can explore endless nuances of meaning.
The last phrase " live today and worry about it tomorrow" requires a bit of clarification. The concern about getting something right on the instrument can breed the wrong sort of effort. Worry about what might happen overtakes the moment, and takes the life out of the moment. William was fond of pointing out how we are our own worst enemy, both at the instrument and in life. Our need for security splits our creativity in two. He would say…"Take the leap, go wrong, but live. Then one can learn what is required." It was years later that I read of a much-used combined verb in Hawaiian pidgin called "try-see"; I knew then that William was onto some ancient wisdom.
That brings me to the heart of our subject tonight, which is perhaps the most difficult part to put into words. It concerns the unspoken ways in which William communicated.
In the ancient traditions of China and India, it was well understood that a teacher was a bearer of significant spiritual qualities; what he had to teach emanated from his Being, not simply from an acquired knowledge. His presence, not his words, was the primary moving force, and only through this level of being was the teacher then able to awaken pupils to what lay before them. Many of us who worked with William have experienced or observed this mysterious shift of energy without being able to put our finger precisely on how it happened. But all we knew was that we learned to trust ourselves, to ask more of our eyes and ears, and to recognise that our instincts, even the best of them, must be tempered by a well-developed intellect.
I am certain there are many in this hall tonight who, like myself, are deeply thankful to have received William's guidance, whether at the cello or in the art of living the honourable life.
And so in closing, I would like to quote a quatrain by the Sufi poet and mystic Jelalludin Rumi:
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Thank you, dear William, for sharing with us your boundless love of music and of life.
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