The Power of Stage Fright

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Happy New Year! In the first month of 2011, we are shining the WQXR spotlight on the rising young pianists in the classical music world. And yet, this week I find my thoughts wandering back in time to one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz – a man who overcame great emotional challenges to bring classical music lovers some of the most thrilling performances of his day.

In the mid 1980’s, I had just moved to the Big Apple and was hired to work for the public television series Great Performances. One of the first programs I remember working on was a documentary by Albert and David Maysles called Vladimir Horowitz:The Last Romantic. The documentary was shot in Horowitz’s New York home with his wife, Wanda, looking on from the couch nearby. From time to time the music would stop and the two of them would reminisce about their life together and the musicians Horowitz had known and admired during the over 60 years of his remarkable career. It was incredibly memorable for me. But what I didn’t realize at the time was just how petrified Horowitz might have been to be playing that day.

As I understand it, this living room performance was actually Horowitz’s first public appearance following a two year hiatus. The hiatus was one of several in his life – the longest being twelve years from 1953 to 1965 – during which he stopped performing and was treated for – among other things - extreme stage fright. 

The Last Romantic was followed closely by Horowitz in Moscow which featured the maestro’s return to his homeland after sixty-one years. I will never forget the tears streaming down the faces of the stalwart Russians who came to hear their fellow countryman play that night. Amazing. Now I wonder exactly what it took to get Horowitz on to the stage and through the performance.

Until I saw these two television programs, I never had the opportunity to see Vladimir Horowitz play. As a result, the programs served as my introduction to his genius and unique talents. They also brought me closer to Horowitz as a human being - a man who for all his fame and good fortune was extremely fragile and vulnerable.

My heart aches at the thought of Horowitz suffering so throughout his career. That he could be so gifted and yet so full of self doubt is difficult to understand. And yet, stage fright is a very real phenomenon, isn’t it? And the lengths to which people in the public eye go to deal with it can be extraordinary. Apparently in his heart of hearts Horowitz wanted to be a composer rather than a pianist. I don’t know... maybe he should have followed his heart there? It might have been a lot less painful.   

On the flip side, maybe being vulnerable is one of the keys to artistic immortality? Could it be the ingredient that separates the good from the great? If so, how do the most fragile avoid being crushed by its power?

As always, I’d be interested to know what you have to say about this.  So, if you have a minute, please post a comment.

And, thanks!