Essay: what constitutes virtuosity?

Posted on: March 9, 2018

“The first virtuosic performance we really notice might be the most satisfying one we hear in our lives,” writes Ben Ratliff in the Spring 2018 issue of Virginia Quarterly (University of Virginia). “It might be ‘Vision of Love’ by Mariah Carey … or Aaron Rosand playing Camille Saint-Saëns’s third violin concerto…. Regarding ‘virtuosity,’ I sense that this movable and slippery word has grown more so through the evaluation of music, particularly in the European classical tradition…. Virtuosity is more a beholder’s value, rather than a musician’s…. It has been suggested that Liszt raised up off the bench while playing his famously fast concert-closer ‘Galop Chromatique’; [Jerry Lee] Lewis ritually did the same thing and kicked his stool away. I doubt that Lewis is a virtuoso in terms of harmonic fluency or range of expression … but he is fluid and purposeful and in control of his own musical language, and to see him play his music is to feel implicated by it…. I can’t shake the thought that one can be not ‘good’ at one’s instrument in some traditional way … and still be virtuosic. Rather, what that virtuoso might possess is confidence, grace, a knowledge of their own musical language, and an ambition that just slightly outpaces their physical ability.”

Posted March 9, 2018

Pictured: Violinist Jascha Heifetz