Pianist’s Autobiography Mirrors His Playing: Perceptive, Refreshing

Jeremy Denk discusses music and life in his first book. (Photo by Josh Goleman)

Jeremy Denk: Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story in Music Lessons. Random House, 2022. 384 pages.

PERSPECTIVE — A few months ago in Calgary, Alberta, I heard a remarkable recital by American pianist Jeremy Denk. He began with the most Sturm und Drang performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310, one could imagine and continued with a noble and deeply moving rendering of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109. Having established his serious artist bona fides, Denk went on to the Joplin/Chauvin “Heliotrope Rag” and the contemporary “Graceful Ghost Rag” by William Bolcom, both played with beguiling charm.

Finally, Denk left his audience gaping in astonishment with a version of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. No, not a Liszt transcription but a 1941 version by a jazz pianist named Donald Lambert. It starts with the familiar slow-moving chords then bursts into stride piano style. What a hoot!

This was typical Denk. A wonderfully gifted pianist equipped with a fabulous technique, a refreshing approach to programming, and an insatiable curiosity. Denk likes to address the audience at his concerts and always has something interesting to say, and as readers of his blog Think Denk or his occasional New Yorker articles know by now, Denk is a brilliant writer, too. Now comes his first book. It is altogether typical of the man and the artist, and the life he has led to date — he is 52 — and how music teachers and their lessons have shaped the man he is today.

Basically, Denk’s book is a coming-of-age story. In his case, how a gifted child living in a dysfunctional family discovers music and a love of the piano and advances through childhood into adulthood and a career in music. It is also about sexuality and how a young man devoting most of his waking hours to music but with a deep-seated insecurity finds love.

But this book also has other themes, and I am not sure that Denk is entirely successful in blending them into the human drama of his life story. While telling us about himself at various stages of development, Denk also attempts to articulate his views on harmony, melody, and rhythm. These musical concepts are woven into the narrative as arising from Denk’s studies of various particular pieces by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, etc.

The problem is that the analytical Denk at the forefront in these discussions is a man far removed from the child or teenager still coming of age in the main strand of the book. And the mature Denk offering Olympian pronouncements on technical issues often interferes with his own autobiographical storytelling.

Denk’s life story is compelling and enlightening to the reader, helping us to understand how an individual gets from gifted child to major concert artist. And rarely has such a story been told with insight as penetrating as Jeremy Denk’s. Just as revealing are Denk’s accounts of his experiences with five main piano teachers. They all had different approaches and emphasized different things to be practiced and improved.

One explanation of the differences is that Denk the student was at a different stage of development for each teacher. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to compare methods and outcomes, not to mention how the student reacted then and how he now reflects on what was attempted and what was achieved.

Denk moved from one teacher to another partly because his family moved several times in his formative years. He had his first teacher, Mona Schneiderman, at age 6 in Englishtown, N.J. Then Denk’s father took a job in Las Cruces, N.M. and the new teacher was William Leland. Apparently, it was Leland who first recognized Denk’s enormous talent. To this day, Denk has dozens of scores with Leland’s comments written on them. Leland was a demanding taskmaster but fair and understanding, too. He guided Denk through his first public appearances and to some early success in competitions.

Meanwhile, Denk was far ahead of his peers in other subjects, too, and advanced rapidly through high school. He was also attracted to symphonic music and took up the viola so he could play in the school orchestra. They were desperate for string players:

            “Normal kids with practical minds played in band and went to the football games, a dream of causality that led to getting laid.”

After graduating high school at the age of 15 with straight As and a year of college credits, it was on to college. It was a struggle for his family to find the money, but they did it. Denk opted for Oberlin College in Ohio. He took a double major: music and chemistry. His piano teacher at Oberlin was Joseph Schwartz who soon had him working on Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Denk was also exposed to conductor Larry Rachleff and his contemporary-music group. Rachleff was incredibly demanding in matters of rhythm. Then came chamber music classes with Norman Fischer, formerly the cellist of the Concord String Quartet. Denk’s first impression of Fischer was that he looked like a used car salesman; but looks can be deceiving, and Denk learned a great deal from Fischer. He also had the opportunity to play for visiting virtuoso Leon Fleisher. Denk succumbed to nerves, and the Great Man wasn’t impressed.

Jeremy Denk. (Photo by Michael Wilson)

“Larry Rachleff kept hounding me for precision, ensemble, exactitude of observation — an almost superhuman level of perfection. But Norman was the opposite: he wanted me to humanize everything first…Most of what Larry wanted was printed on the page; but most of Norman’s desires weren’t.”

He also found pianist John Perry, a persuasive teacher during a summer at Aspen. But perhaps he learned even more from Perry’s wife, who was his assistant. Denk had started to have trouble with his fourth finger. It all began when he was practicing Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The problem caused Denk so much physical pain and uncertainty that he began to wonder about his future as a pianist. He credits Perry’s wife with stressing the importance of building up the muscles in his fingers. But he confesses that he ignored her at the time and that “it cost me about six years.”

Back at Oberlin, Denk completed his studies by winning a concerto competition playing one of his favorite pieces, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

Then it was time to decide where to go after Oberlin. All signs pointed to working with John Perry at USC until Hungarian pianist György Sebők made a guest appearance in Oberlin giving a recital and a master class. Denk was so impressed with Sebők that he decided he needed to study with him, and that meant going to Indiana University for a master’s degree.

His first session with Sebők was a revelation. They worked on the Bartók Sonata. With Sebők, Denk had found a man who combined a profound understanding of musical matters with detailed and helpful knowledge of the physicality of playing the piano.

“I didn’t need to be praised. I just wanted more of what he was giving, and wished it would never end…I had met my greatest musical inspiration.”

Throughout the book, Denk offers withering descriptions of his teachers and fellow students. But he doesn’t spare himself, either. He admits mistakes of all kinds and readily acknowledges what he learned from each of his teachers.

In 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death, Denk worked up the Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 415. This was also Denk’s graduation year in the master’s program, and he immediately applied for and was accepted into a doctoral program at IU. Before starting, he spent the summer preparing for a competition in Munich with his old cellist friend Darrett Adkins from Oberlin. They first worked on the repertoire in Houston, then at Ravinia in the Steans program. At Ravinia, Denk came under the direction of Walter Levin and ended up hating the man for his rigidity.

Then it was on to competitions in Munich again and in London. He got to the finals in London with a performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 but lost to Paul Lewis. However, Herbert Stessin from Juilliard was there and had high praise for Denk. So Denk was soon off to Juilliard to study with Stessin. One of the highlights of his Juilliard studies was a performance of the Schumann concerto with Kurt Masur conducting at Avery Fisher Hall. On the negative side, he put up with abuse from the likes of Harvey Shapiro, Robert Mann, and Dorothy DeLay.

While completing his doctorate at Juilliard, he went back to Indiana University as a faculty member teaching 18 hours a week and finding out that teaching was not so easy.

            “After all the piano lesson suffering I’d been through, had I come up with no better, no more creative response than to inflict it on the next generation?”

Jeremy Denk. (Photo by Josh Goleman)

At the year-end party at IU, Denk’s students presented him with a box of Kleenex to keep in his studio for all the students he had reduced to tears.

Denk was a gifted student but so insecure he couldn’t stop going from one school to another and one teacher to another. What was he looking for? More praise? Vindication? It was never enough. Until a summer at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont. And it was not musical satisfaction but discovery of himself as a human being. After years of unsatisfactory relationships with girls and tentative encounters with boys, Denk fell in love — with a young man. Knowing finally who and what he was probably helped shore up his musical identity too.

But this book is not only about “coming of age,” nor about the pain and pleasure of piano lessons. Much of it is interspersed with great gobs of Denkian musical analysis. I say “Denkian” because the pianist often takes apart music in a way that is all his own. He is fond of using diagrams to explain what he means, but you won’t find such diagrams in music theory books. Often the analysis is brilliant and insightful. At other times, it is puzzling or even verging on the incomprehensible. Sometimes one wonders if there are better ways of making sense of the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a given piece.

Denk likes to use colloquial language in his writing, perhaps to be”‘current” or “cool.” But in his analytical forays, I suspect that he leaves the general reader far behind. Even a musically literate reader will often have great difficulty plowing through these episodes. The form of analysis is partly to blame but most of all the lack of musical examples.

Denk seems to assume the reader has a photographic recall of all the music he is talking about. Diagrams are all very well, but most readers will need to refer to the score, too. I can’t emphasize enough how frustrating it is to read Denk’s discussion of Schnabel’s recording of Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 in A-flat, D.935, with references to “the most tragic chord in the piece,” without a bar of music to look at. This sort of thing happens over and over. In a discussion of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade: “The most beautiful chord ever invented. All pianists know the spot I am talking about.” Again, not a bar of music to illuminate the text. Do Denk’s readers “know the spot”?

In an Appendix, Denk offers recommendations for recordings of many of the pieces he talks about in the main body of the book. Useful, to a degree, but often the comments are too brief to be of much value.

In summary, we have a highly self-critical memoir by a great artist with often penetrating insights into what was learned from and/or what was suffered at the hands of a variety of teachers, many of them at illustrious institutions. But Denk also has a lot to say about a lot of music. Unfortunately, he says it in a way that is unnecessarily difficult to follow. Perhaps there are two books here thoughtlessly rolled into one.