Jeannette Haien

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Concert pianist, music teacher and novelist Jeannette Haien shares her thoughts on the structure of music and fiction and the importance of “emotional memory” in her work with Bill Moyers for his A WORLD OF IDEAS series.



BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jeannette Haien has spent her life teaching and performing music. At her hand, students and concert audiences have learned and experienced the beauty and meaning of classical form. Now, after more than 35 years as a musician, she has turned to the music in words. With the precision and clarity of a concerto, her novel, The All of It, tells the story of a parish priest in Ireland who hears a remarkable confession. The book was greeted by critics as a gem of style and grace. Whether performing or teaching, at the keyboard or at her desk, Haien is concerned with the artistic forms that define and enrich our lives. We spoke at her home in Tuxedo Park, New York.

[interviewing] One of your former piano pupils said to me: “I always enjoyed taking lessons from Jeannette. She always explained the structure of the music to me, and I was fascinated by the structure of the music.”

The best art, the best thinking, is highly structured. It has within it all the windows onto the outside, and light coming in. It’s a well-structured affair.
JEANNETTE HAIEN: Structure, which as it sounds-it’s a marvelous word, but it is usually thought to be more architectural in the form. In its peculiar way, structure is a kind of architecture in sound, in a book or anything. The great thing about structure-no, I’ll say it a different way. The biblical phrase, “…in whose service is perfect freedom,” if you start with structure, then you can move walls. That is, you can move walls in relation to each other. You have the freedom to work in the freest way imaginable. The best art, the best thinking, is highly structured. It has within it all the windows onto the outside, and light coming in. It’s a well-structured affair. Music is a language, an oral language. And I always begin learning a new score away from the instrument. I never take it to the instrument. I always-

BILL MOYERS: You mean you read it cold?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -read it like you do a novel. Musicians do. Musicians

BILL MOYERS: Like a novel, those notes on that page?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -of course. A musical score, to a musician, is a narrative, and you take it to bed at night and you read it, and you can-you return to it as you would reread a Conrad novel and find some new marvelous thing in it that you’d never noticed before.

BILL MOYERS: A narrative-Mozart’s concertos, I never thought of them as narratives.


BILL MOYERS: With plots?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -yes. That’s where I learned to write. I mean

BILL MOYERS: From music?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -yes. Because, let’s say Mozart, let’s say a Mozart concerto. Here’s this extraordinary thing, with immediately a theme. It’s called-musicologists call it a theme. There’s a statement of an idea, which is oral, but it-you enter, you begin to enter a body of material through it. It has a key, it is a minor key, or it is a major key. It is a vivace, or it is an adagio. So that right away, some mood takes place, and right away, in the hands of a genius, musical ideation, as with the written word, right away is a landscape that is-well, think of Opus 13, the sonata, the so-called Pathetique sonata-

BILL MOYERS: Which goes-

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -{hums] that opening adagio, first moment. I mean, what is going to follow? There is that stark, extraordinary opening, with two sort of interspersions of surprises. And then you come down in C minor, and you come down to a G, and there’s a fermata, [snaps fingers] and then, you light into the extraordinary exercise of thing.

So that a novel sometimes begins with a dire description of a landscape, or a village or a place, or a character sitting alone and thinking, and then the action takes place. It comes to a point, a

denouement, the act is done and there is a consequence. If you fiddle with that consequence and that consequence is out of focus, with the oldest series of consequences since the beginning of time, it runs all through Homer, all tl1rougq the Iliad and the Odyssey, if you try and give it a cute and clever ending, it may be very titillating to an audience for now, but it won’t last.

Jeannette Haien

(Photo: Lilo Raymond)

BILL MOYERS: Even that which is imagined must be true to reality.


BILL MOYERS: Because the imagination is a form of reality.


BILL MOYERS: It comes out of this.


BILL MOYERS: And sees what we want to see. Or can see.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: That’s right. And there is even now, among a certain genre of writers, a falsification of reality. I mean, Flaubert really wished to create reality, and did, but there is such a strain now to be horrible beyond words, to pervert, distort, queer in such a way the world. And the world won’t do it.

BILL MOYERS: I don’t know, the world is fairly queer.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: No, but I mean not the form of the world itself, it is resistant. It’s a-it will fight back. So that-so you know that moment [snaps fingers] where the novel breaks down.

BILL MOYERS: Hmm. Or movie.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Or it just doesn’t-or a movie. Or a play. Or a bad modern piece of music. I can go and hear a new score, and it can go along and go along, and the theme -and it could be theme and variations _ and the variations, and then where it is supposed to come together and coalesce, and it can’t quite make it, and you know it. You just know it. And it isn’t a thing you will listen to again, or a book you’ll pick up again.

BILL MOYERS: So Mozart’s 21st in C really tells you something about writing a story.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Well, because Mozart wrote a story-let’s just talk for a moment about the opening of a work, and let’s say that you know three things. You know the key, you know the tempo marking, whether it’s going to be a fast or a slow movement and you have a dynamic marking, let’s say forte or piano, loud or soft dynamic marking. But-and that’s what Mozart, let’s say, says right away, but it is nigh.

There is no such thing as piano or forte, except as I cause it to happen. It is my vision of that, forte or piano, so that when one walks out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall and sits at the instrument, and you are left with a piano marking, that is, a soft-this piece is going to open softly, this work, I have to enter the realm of the attitude of the softness, which must project to the person who’s bought the ticket in the last seat, way up there, at the same time as the spirit of that piano -because there can be a piano passage of the most terrific animation, there can be a piano, by piano I keep meaning soft

BILL MOYERS: Soft, pianissimo.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -pianissimo, that’s better. A pianissimo passage in the animated, vivace movement or a pianissimo passage in an adagio, that is so passionate. So it isn’t a matter of dynamic. The dynamic is a kind of freedom for your perceptions about the score.

BILL MOYERS: And your emotions.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: And your emotional-

BILL MOYERS: Your emotions, not Mozart’s.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -your involvement, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Involvement.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Well, no, because you can’t overwhelm Mozart with your emotions. What happens is that Mozart inspirits you.

BILL MOYERS: Truly? -~

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Yes, truly. The–when you hear a performance where the performer gets in the way of the music, that’s very bad. It’s bad for music, it’s bad for Mozart. It’s a form of assassination.

BILL MOYERS: But there is something magical or mysterious or psychological that takes place for you and Mozart to play together. The hands are the hands of Jeannette Haien, but the music is the music of Mozart, and you must-he must-you’re saying he must be born again in you.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: He must-what he has written is that which I honor. Look, you can tack on for effect, you can do something phony, you can-a composer can drive you and drive you and drive you to a climax. And then you can tum all cute and very effective, to stir, you know, to stir them up, to give them something different if you’re a bad artist. Bad-those are pianists. Musicians don’t do that.

Look, I know, I have had instances, everybody now has the Rolls Royce equipment. We call technic-in our jargon we call it a great equipment. Now everybody has Jaguar, Rolls Royce equipment. You sit as a judge on international competitions; no one comes before you who can’t do at the instrument anything in the world. The fastest octaves, the fastest etudes, my God, they gobble up and give out every and then there will come along someone with a good equipment, not one of those jazzy really great equipments, all chrome and-but a good hand and a terribly, terribly involved musical mind. And suddenly there will be goose pimples, whereas before you just sat there, big-eyed, listening to all of the instrument being swept away by an equipment. And suddenly the instrument-you forget whether it’s a violin or a piano or a cello, and it’s the music that is projected.

BILL MOYERS: You spent so much of your career performing and teaching music. How did it come about that you started writing fiction?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: I thought I had something to say.

BILL MOYERS: You had a story you wanted to tell?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Yes. Also, I love words, I mean, the exercise of words, the making of a sentence.

BILL MOYERS: I find myself so moved by what seems to be a perfectly composed, fortunately composed sentence or passage.


BILL MOYERS: Do you think that we like stories because they are so
complete, a beginning, a middle and an end?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: I was just going to say that the story is, in a funny way, the only thing the human mind can truly understand. By understanding, I mean it’s the only thing that could truly excite it is to fascinatingly say, “Look, look what happened to me yesterday, there was this.” And then build it to a point where, of course, something happens, inevitably, and then-but here I am, telling it to you. That’s an extraordinarily evolved experience that happens between people. I think speech exchanged is a miracle I just never will get over it,∑ our capacity to communicate to each other, to one another. And then, to add to just even hello and good morning, to be able to tell something that involves breathing, heartbeat, soul or a physical impediment or something, something a blemish, something extraordinary, but extraordinary, and to say it began here. And for me, because nothing ever ends, but it ends for us as individuals, it began in that circumstances, for me, there, and it ended there, but with the knowledge that it’s going on and have this long buildup coming to it. It’s all going to come around again, as it’s been coming around for thousands of years. But the particularization of it, that it happened to me, the astonishing thing that it happened to me and that I can tell you about it, or that it happened to you and you can tell me about it.

BILL MOYERS: I also think that that’s one reason football and baseball and basketball are so important to people and play such a role in so many lives. They are stories, they have beginnings, middles and ends, you don’t know what-


BILL MOYERS: -half-times.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: And an exciting moment when you don’t know who’s going to, you know?

BILL MOYERS: Exactly. And they are true as Mozart is true and as your novel is true, to form.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: There is something in our structure, in the structure of our being, in our organic composition that requires structure. And a baseball game, a novel, a concerto all are true to our own inner nature.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: And they happen within a form in whose service is perfect freedom. In the form of your game. I mean, think of all the freedom of action. I mean, think of how you can take off and strike a home run again and again and again, or something there-

BILL MOYERS: But you mustn’t step out of bound&

JEANNETTE HAIEN: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: -you mustn’t violate the form, the rules of the game.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: That’s what you mean by perfect freedom.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Is form, is symmetry the truth to which you say the artist is ultimately accountable? Is it to the true nature of symmetry, the way the world is, or is truth something else?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Well, it’s-truth is that thing [chuckles} which is undefinable. I mean, form is a form of truth. Form frames consciousness, it gives a frame to our real consciousness of everything. And our consciousness of things influences our conscience, our respect for that which we are conscious of. And there is a truth larger than the capriciousness of individual conduct. Some people call it God, religion, but I think that it is apparent in the way the universe functions.

BILL MOYERS: What intrigues me is that when I begin to hear a Mozart, it picks up something in me, it’s as if I were ready for it.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Well, that’s again the form, when it-when you have a further-the subject stated and then the second subject, and the development and the recapitulation of those ideas. And then the ending. but now that was the so-called form, and when you’re studying composition, if you aren’t very gifted at composition, you can write just as you can an essay, you can write a sonata, but within, for a genius, within the strictures of so-called form-


JEANNETTE HAIEN: -is all freedom in the world. The bad people are the self expressers, who don’t honor boundaries.

BILL MOYERS: -are you still teaching music?



JEANNETTE HAIEN: I’m not training people anymore, in the sense of undertaking them and seeing them through a long, long apprenticeship and then turning them loose in the world. But that’s-I said about a year ago to a colleague, “I no longer nurse, I only doctor.”

BILL MOYERS: Like a mother with her children gone.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: That’s right. I hear people who are at the beginning of careers that have great promise, and I coach more than-but I hate that word, because it sounds like a superimposition of something.

BILL MOYERS: And it’s not.


BILL MOYERS: What you’re doing is bringing out what is there, is it not?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Well, it’s where you come together over a score and you ponder it and you say, “Don’t you think that that-that in relation to that pianissimo you just come from that that fortissimo is going to be out of scale in relation to the larger architectural scope of the work? Which means that there’s really got to be a fortissimo above the one you’ve just created so the architecture, the form, is again realized.” It’s a very different experience from exposing a gifted young musical mind to the first ideas such as what is your sound going to be? Why is your hand formed so that when that finger makes contact with a key it’s going to have a sound that every musician will recognize as being yours and no one else’s?

BILL MOYERS: What do you look for in a potential pupil?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Stamina. And interior tension.


JEANNETTE HAIEN: Tension. Desire. Wanting it. That we talked about very early on. And it’s a form of tension. It’s like first love. That terrific tension between two people terribly, newly, innocently in love. Innocently is important, because the young talented mind in its first stages is innocent, and the responsible teacher never, never intrudes upon that innocence.

BILL MOYERS: Your job is not quite to requite that love, is it? It’s to nurture it there and lead it on-


BILL MOYERS: -into a deep and long ongoing-

JEANNETTE HAIEN: In terms not of self, not of, “Do this because I say so.” Never. Never. Then you turn out students who are cookie-cutters, I mean, who are-sound like cookie-cutters.

BILL MOYERS: So you don’t become possessive of that.

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Well, never possessive, but most of all, you form in relation to the score, not in relation to you as the personality of the teacher. I think the teacher-pupil relationship is the most delicate, more than any other relationship in life, more than between lovers, husbands and wives, families.


JEANNETTE HAIEN: Because for a young mind, in touch with a-I mean, I remember my first exposure to Arthur Schnabel. It is a phenomenal thing. It is-

BILL MOYERS: He was your-

JEANNETTE HAIEN: -I worked with him when I was young enough to be overwhelmed, not by him as Arthur Schnabel, but by what he said, his power, his power to say something, to demonstrate something at the instrument. I mean, it was just awe-inspiring.

BILL MOYERS: -so your relationship seems to have been with him, not with the score-


BILL MOYERS: -violating your own-

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Oh, no, no, because when you would come back to an idea, it wasn’t the idea about-Schnabel’s idea about the score, it was about the score.

BILL MOYERS: You remember the first time you truly entered a score, or it entered you?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Yes, but I think that’s as desire, that’s as wanting it.

BILL MOYERS: What was it you were wanting?

JEANNETTE HAIEN: Something so that-it’s going to so sound stupid and Pollyanna, but that beautiful, beautiful, extraordinary, heartbreaking, joyful, gorgeous, exciting thing to come back, to-I could pursue it and maybe catch it. And then we’d start the race all over again. But once, once you’ve played tag with Mozart, or with Homer, or with Shakespeare, God, you know, that’s some game you’re in. Talk about rules and joy, and wow.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From her home in Tuxedo Park, New York, this has been a conversation with Jeannette Haien. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 18, 2015.

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