When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo

In Camera: Bosnia (text and photographs)

Making Music: the Work of a Concert Violinist


Sound of Peace (play)

Short Writings

As a solo violinist, Ruth Waterman often wrote her own programme notes, including extensive booklet notes for her recordings of Bach, which outline her understanding and unique approach to the performance of Bach’s music. She has also written numerous articles for music journals. During her international tours, she tended to keep a travel diary, simply to order her thoughts at the end of busy and eventful days. In time, some of these ended up providing material for a book, When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo, which was selected by The Observer UK as a Book-of-the-Year. It intersperses the story of her experiences in post-war Bosnia as guest conductor of a multi-ethnic orchestra, with first-hand accounts of war and its aftermath as told to her by the many Bosnians she met. Ruth Waterman also writes poetry and has been published in several poetry magazines, winning a prize in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize competition. A few years ago she was invited to combine her writing with her work in the visual arts, in the form of a photographic essay on Bosnia consisting of poems, prose and photographs. [Link] She has also combined her writing with music in a short performance commemorating victims of genocide at London’s Young Vic theatre. She has spoken at many literary festivals and conferences, from Edinburgh to Johannesburg, including the venerable Shakespeare and Co in Paris, and has made numerous radio programmes about music and the art of listening both in the UK and the US. For BBC Radio 4 she wrote and presented the documentary Music and Memory in Mostar, and Deep Listening on the series Something Understood. During the recent pandemic, Waterman served as editor and co-author for the medical group In My Own Bed Please . Her interest in theatre, music and the aftermath of war has led her to write a play, The Sound of Peace, which was workshopped at London’s National Theatre Studio and features live classical music.


When Swan Lake Comes To Sarajevo

A Musician Journeys into the Aftermath of War

Canterbury Press

Selected as a Book-of-the-Year by the Observer

“This book by violinist, conductor and poet Ruth Waterman [is] inspiring … she captures the humanity of the place and its people: the pain, the resilience and, yes, the humour.”
Classic FM Magazine

“Her moving and inspirational account is essential reading”
The Strad

War is always with us, and so is peace. This book is about the peace that comes after a war. It is one woman’s account of her experiences in the new country of Bosnia as guest conductor of a remarkable little orchestra, the Mostar Sinfonietta.

International violinist Ruth Waterman first met the musicians of the multi-ethnic ensemble in 2002, and since then has returned regularly to the region, teaching, conducting and performing, and listening to their stories. Here she describes the nuts and bolts of daily life – in turn frustrating, hilarious and touching: the putting together of concerts despite the odds; the rebuilding of bridges, towns, communities, lives; and how making music can connect us to our essential humanity and to each other.

Ruth Waterman’s writing is humane and down-to-earth, perceptive and inspiring. Interspersed with her diaries and observations are the stories of war and peace by the Bosnians themselves, in their own voices, acts of witness that reveal their courage, despair, resilience and humour.

This intermingling of narrative and first-hand accounts builds a mosaic that provides a visceral introduction to an unfamiliar world where people simply want to ‘live a normal life’.

I had never been to a post-war country before, though I’d often wondered what happens after the guns are silenced and the media moves on. Encountering Bosnia as a musician rather than as a diplomat or social historian or journalist, I didn’t know how to understand the long uncharted path away from the days of violence.

This is an account of my personal journey, of my experiences and thoughts in the order in which they happened, with all their incompleteness and contradictions and misunderstandings. In a chaotic country, one experience after another piles up, feelings sometimes follow facts at a remove, and the sense of it all emerges only gradually, if at all. In choosing to write without the benefit of hindsight, I have attempted to give a flavour of what it was like to walk in the aftermath of war, to breathe the Balkan air.

At first there was a vague thought of making a radio programme (which was in fact broadcast on BBC Radio 4), so I took a tape recorder in case people wanted to tell me their stories. I was startled, and touched, by the number of acquaintances and strangers who, without invitation, started to talk of their experiences both during and after the war. It seemed part of a deep need to speak, to have someone hear them, especially an ‘international’ as I was called. What they said was so extraordinary that I continued to record them during my subsequent visits. So this book honours the victims and survivors of the Bosnian War by having them speak in their own words, opening an invaluable window onto how a people survive catastrophe, and by inference, how we all survive and live our lives.


And then they destroyed apartment more than before. Yes we were here, all the shells come, in this room three shells coming. And it was funny things, in this period of course I was member of the army. And I’m coming home to sleep. And I slept overnight, we put this big cabinet in the window to protect us here in this corner. In the morning my wife told me ‘why you didn’t take all the bullets from your pockets?’

I said ‘what you talking about?’

She said ‘look, all these bullets are all around the room.’

But that’s coming from window, and we’re sleeping! From the Gymnasium, machine gun bullets. We sleeping all night and we didn’t know! My wife she thought I have in my pocket bullets from gun. And she start to collect these bullets from room and I say these are not my bullets and we find out there’s hole in our cabinet. Put on the window to protect us. All night it’s very loud, grenades and everything, so, so. But this is the kind of protection of body you going to sleep, you don’t like the situation and you going to sleep and forget about everything.


Dress rehearsal. The bassoonist, who could not come to any of the other rehearsals, is nowhere to be seen. I start without him, and we have just finished rehearsing the Adagio when he walks in, an hour late, and seats himself in the empty chair.

At the break, he comes up to me and apologises for his late arrival. He is tall and dignified.

‘My wife was driving,’ he explains.

I’m speechless.

‘She drives slowly,’ he adds, as if this clarification makes his case indisputable.

Many replies jostle in my brain, but as I look up into his lined face, I just nod. Or maybe I shake my head. Or maybe I smile. I’ve no idea anymore. As far as excuses go, this is one of the best.


This first visit to Bosnia left me with many strong memories. The location itself, with its bullet-riddled walls and collapsed buildings, was a new experience for me. As was making music in such surroundings. Music goes anywhere, but here it was in its element, touching raw emotion, going straight to the heart. I have played the same Mozart Adagio in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, a splendid palace with room after room of magnificent works of art. These two places stand at opposite poles of human activity, and the music filled the space in different ways. But I felt the same connectedness to the Russian people, setting aside their daily lives for the moment to come together in Mozart, as I did in Bosnia, we who were playing, and those who were listening, brought together into a temporary community, the sounds vibrating through us all simultaneously.



(Prize-winning poem of the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2016)

I am Portia, daughter of the silversmith.
Here’s a stool – take it; we live in hard times.
What news on Cheapside? I hear a coffee-house
is coming, a new gathering place.
We shall talk.
The sea is creeping in, do you notice? The sea is bringing …
we shall not talk of that.

Yesterday I rounded a corner and came upon
a large plot of weeds and rubble; a starving cat
threaded through mounds of shapeless stones –
there will be a crumb of comfort for it somewhere.
A square of cotton sheeting hung on a dirty clothesline.

For months I’ve walked like driftwood through these streets.
You don’t know when …

One day I found a bridge I’d not observed before
and slowly climbed up to its mid-point,
to the top of its arch; I turned and waited.
The canal slept as tiny ripples fluttered.
The sun left the water first; then it left the rooftops.

Ruth Waterman 2016


Try a triangle. First
cut a square, then fold
corner to corner. Slice
along the beautiful crease.
You get not only one,
but two, triangles.

At night I would create
sun and moon and all the silvery stars,
eyes closed;
and fields of buttercups,
gnarled oak trees, fictitious
aunts and uncles lounging
on white picnic cloths;
and ballroom nights with dizzy waltzing.

Now when I try to fold
a square, the corners will not
meet. Not even one
triangle appears.


The room is cold. It lacks curtains.
Standing at the window, I see Martha
walking in the street below
with her basket of breads. She pauses,
looking round as if hearing a voice
or remembering something.

It must be significant, this moment,
because it comes back to me all these years later.

My Father My Mother

My father dug his own grave.
Some days. Not always.
An extra few inches on Thursdays.
He’d toss the dry soil aside into a spreading heap.

My mother saw stars.
She didn’t want to look.
Too bright, too far, too other-worldly.

My father was a suit-and-tie man.
Even on the beach – well, maybe not the tie.
He’d roll up his trouser legs, take off his black shoes and socks, and tread gingerly
across the sand to the water’s edge, where he’d stand
gazing towards the hazy horizon or scrutinising his toes
as the white foam curled round them.

My mother wore a pinny.
She’d roll raw fish-cakes into balls, flour
flying all over the wooden table and onto the linoleum floor.
Washday was Mondays, if it wasn’t drizzling; the mangle lived in the garage.
Once hung up, the sheets blew this way and that,
trying to break free of their wooden pegs.
At my uncle’s funeral, my distracted mother wore her gardening clothes.

Old Fire-station Clock

What’s more reassuring than a clock
that has stopped? Let other clocks do their rounds,
endlessly repeat the hours, sway their
pendulums genteelly, settle into
monologues of chimes and ticks and tocks.

I prefer the clock above the old fire-
station, steadfastly reliable in its
fixity, day and night, whether
encrusted with winter frost, swathed in mist,
or shimmering in a glow of August sun.

It’s not like the others, that have such a
poor sense of timing – either racing
like the clappers so that when you look up
after only a minute, hours have gone;
or on the contrary, hanging about, going

nowhere, especially in the small hours of the
night, or when you’re waiting for the bus.
But this old clock stands firm, so that every
time I raise my eyes up to its tower,
I know it will be always ten past four.


In Camera: Bosnia

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Mostar. The most destroyed city in Bosnia, Mostar lies in a beautiful valley, its pretty houses rebuilt with its original light-coloured stone.

“I feel that everything I touch turns to sand.”

“I’m very tired. I’m impatient with everyone, just want to be alone, go to the village and sleep and work in a garden and not be with anybody, not even my husband. I’m tired of stress, tired of everything.”

“I feel worthless – sometimes I don’t want to live anymore.”

“I think there will be another war.”

Many Bosnians are despondent and suffering from the late emergence of symptoms of trauma.


“I am so angry. About the war. Yes, it’s finished almost twenty years, but my brother escape and now he lives in Australia, so how can I see him? I visited him last year, and it was wonderful to be with him and his family, but when it’s time for leaving, it was very hard. I cried, you know. And I still crying. Families are scattered in the world. All because of the war. I am so angry.“

During the Bosnian War of 1992 – 95, over 100,000 people were killed, and two million were displaced.


“My marriage is broken. My trust is gone, and I feel so differently. I have a good job, but there’s bad atmosphere at work and our salaries go down each year.”

Divorces have soared and unemployment has been over 40% for many years.**

“There’s one war criminal, convicted nearly twenty years ago, and he’s served many many years in prison. And now he being released, and those stupid people, they welcoming him! Like he’s a hero! Those people are very stupid, they don’t understand anything.”

War crimes are being tried not only in The Hague, but also in national and local courts. Many people complain about the lengthy delays of the trials and the low numbers of war criminals apprehended.


“It was Europe’s fault. The war. I mean, Europe let it happen, and then waited over three years before it bombing and ending it. Three years!”

The Bosnian War ended after NATO bombed the Serbian positions besieging Sarajevo. Many Bosnians felt abandoned by the outside world and still feel resentment.


Bosnia is unhappy. I’ve not been there for five years and now that I’ve returned, I am rocked by its onslaught of despair, fatigue and pessimism. For Bosnians, the future seems to offer a fearsome spectre of poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption, division and, for some, even a renewal of war. But mainly an intolerable continuation of the present, hopeless status quo.

This is bleeding into the personal lives of my friends, in the form of divorce, depression, suicidal impulses, and suspicious death. But fortunately the nightmare seems to spare some of the younger generation, who are marrying, starting families, and beginning to make their way as anything from teachers to tourist guides.
There has been much rebuilding, not all of it tasteful, and some of it rather puzzling – for instance, a huge modern shopping centre in Sarajevo containing luxury goods that hardly anyone can afford; and a rash of mosques although people say that existing mosques are not at all over-subscribed. But there are fewer abandoned ruins, and tourists now crowd the narrow streets, so the towns feel more normal, if one can ignore the common spattering of bullet holes in the walls.

For me the saving grace of this visit is the unfailing warmth of its people. My friends and acquaintances and former students welcome me with open arms and an immediate offer of deliciously strong Bosnian coffee. As we settle down to our conversations, they take me into their confidence and lay out for me the details of their lives and fears and dilemmas with touching bravery and honesty. And it does take courage to endure all this, on top of the ghastly memories of the war itself which, of course, still hang in the air. It’s been twenty years now, but it will take many more years before its effects start to fade.

I have my own personal disappointments. I was looking forward to hearing the wonderfully romantic folk-music of the region, called sevdah, but no-one can tell me of any bars or clubs where it is played anymore. And the famous bridge in Mostar is no longer white and pristine as it was when it was first rebuilt and unveiled in 2004. It has lost its sheen, and somehow this embodies my sense of Bosnia itself.

Despite all this, I have to admit that I’m very glad to be back. Yes, it’s incredibly stressful to see how my friends suffer, and to listen carefully to their distressing tales for hours on end. But the young people are grasping at enjoyment where they find it, and there is an intensity and rawness to life here that I know I will miss when I return to London next week. I’m lucky to be able to come and go, and I bless my lucky stars every day that I’m here.


Graves on the hillside.

Speed is all, you said.
Sunlight hurts my eyes. I’m speeding now –
along its tracks the train is carrying me to.

We’ll go together, you said.
You said, it’s not so far, see,
just across the street,
two big breaths will do it. Ready?
Onetwothree, you said.
We ran.

Often. Every week.
Sniper Alley.
Onetwothree, you said.
We ran.
But you.

Grass and weeds grow over.
Sunlight hurts my eyes.
Speed is all, you said.

During the war, snipers positioned themselves in tall buildings and fired on civilians – men, women and children – as they ran to pick up water and food. The main street in Sarajevo became so dangerous that it was renamed ‘Sniper Alley’.

The new Stari Most. “It’s not at all the same – it’s our bridge, but it’s not our bridge.”

The hill catapults fire
throughout the night. A choir
of missiles calls us from our beds,
from dreams of ordinary times
before they conjured crimes,
split our town, crazed our heads.

We run to broken windows.
Does the Bridge stand? Shadows
of stone flicker into the river.
Emptiness is hard
to see. The air is jarred
to flow so free. Oaks shiver.

Mostar’s iconic bridge, built by the Ottomans in 1566, was destroyed by days of shelling in November 1993. Its reconstruction was meticulously carried out by an international consortium, to the exact specifications of the original. When the new Stari Most was unveiled in 2004, its stone was a brilliant white, and it seemed to float and shimmer high above the green river. But now it has lost its sheen, its surface is already graying and stained, and it no longer seems capable of reflecting the light of the sun.
A small alleyway in Mostar.

Playing music – not an option, while
outside my window, ‘that’ is going on.

My violin stays unbidden, mute, packed
inside its case, no glorious melting sounds

to soothe and make a pillow for my shattered
trust. What music keeps us true to our

burning, coruscating anguish? holds us
inconsolable? Music, choking,

falters into silence, while they fall,
dying, on the lane outside my window.

A young music teacher told me that she could not even look at her violin during the siege of Sarajevo “while ‘that’ was going on outside my window”.

Mostar. The most destroyed city in Bosnia, Mostar lies in a beautiful valley, its pretty houses rebuilt with its original light-coloured stone.

Darkness oozes from my pores,
blackens my thoughts,
fills my days with night.

Fault-lines in my skin slowly
widen, tear, split;
debris from those three mad years,
now fermented, ripe,
push towards the light.

I can no longer hold myself together.
Cover the sun, and I will sleep,
before my heart scatters like shrapnel in the field.

Old and New.

After that, I didn’t go out.
Stayed inside my two dark rooms.
They brought me food, my friends.
I wasn’t going out. Ever. Never –
my body smothered in terror –
until this is over.

It won’t be over.
Every day a month.
Every minute a year.
I read my books, slowly.
Centuries pass.

And then, one morning,
I opened my door,
walked down the concrete stairs and out
into the autumn air.
They can’t make my home a prison. And
they can’t make me run. I’m not
going to run. Ever. Never.

So I walked, a crazy young woman, head held high.
I walked in my town and smiled at the sky. And
wherever I went, they held their fire.
They saw me coming, normal and easy, and
all of them held their fire.

To Be To Be. Shakespeare’s existential conundrum is altered to become a double affirmative. In Sarajevo, there is no question.

Maybe they are right.
Their thoughts, unspoken,
stare out of their eyes:

‘She has no right
to be sad’
there was
no bullet
no sniper
no grenade
no mortar
no explosion
no fire
no dying from starvation

only a car, an everyday car,
an everyday
car accident.

It shouldn’t be allowed in the middle of war –
accidents –
pitifully low in the hierarchy of deaths.

So I have to slaughter my grief
smother it
strangle it
starve it
push it deep where its pulse can’t be felt.
Mourning is postponed until further notice.

Today, and today, and today, I estrange myself from myself.
I make myself unnatural, a living ghost.
Until tomorrow.

Elaborate doorway. Sarajevo still bears signs of its cosmopolitan culture.

Sevdah! Sevdah! How I long for you!
A bride in white waits for her faithless groom,
and many a girl sighs as fruit is picked.

Sevdah! Sevdah! Where are your sweet tones?
Magicked on the bare karst mountain slopes,
flavoured with green valleys, stone-clad towns,
where are your plaintive harmonies? your swaying
rhythms? sad, accepting melodies?

Sevdah of my soul, of all our souls,
keep us in your embrace, together, whole,
sevdah, my love, we are too much divided.

The folk music of the region is called ‘sevdah’, which loosely means a longing of the soul, melancholic love. The lyrics were mainly romantic outpourings used in courtship. The performance of sevdah is becoming less frequent as popular music takes over.

Two doors in Sarajevo.

Sometimes you have to forget.
Because forgiving is impossible.
And even if forgiving were possible,
You’d have to forget.

If you succeed in forgetting,
You won’t know what you should be forgiving.


First published in Critical Muslim Quarterly 2014



A full-length theatre-piece about a real orchestra in the unrelenting aftermath of war
by Ruth Waterman

Somewhere in Eastern Europe, in the strange peace that follows war, an English conductor has been invited to conduct a haphazard orchestra from first rehearsal to concert performance, while the locals find themselves compelled to tell – and sometimes to re-live – how it is to go through a war.

Lively, funny and profoundly moving, the scenes merge in a non-naturalistic style to evoke the pervasive bewilderment that follows a national catastrophe. Using the words of actual survivors, it has a multi-national cast of six, and includes live music, both classical and folk.

Mostar. The most destroyed city in Bosnia, Mostar lies in a beautiful valley, its pretty houses rebuilt with its original light-coloured stone.

Comments following a showing in London 2018

Theatre at its best: interactions and juxtapositions that created deeply moving – and unusual – insights into the aftermath of civil war. The way the music was woven into the scenes was particularly affecting. The experience has left me with numerous enduring memories.

It was stunning. I particularly loved the orchestra pieces as it was a real pleasure to really listen to how the music builds.

In this post-war scenario, not only the men are talking about the horror of the war, but it is the women who show us their war on the home front by recalling the daily grind of survival and therefore making them equal heroes.

I know my wife and I were not the only ones who were thrilled with The Sound of Peace – there was a real buzz in the theatre afterwards.

This play started out at London’s Young Vic more than ten years ago, when Waterman performed a short piece as a musician and actor at a commemoration for victims of genocide. Its subsequent development as a full-length piece entailed many years of workshops, including at the National Theatre Studio.

Short writings

Making Music: the Work of a Concert Violinist

Great music is like a lover who demands everything and gives everything. Performing it requires a huge range of skills – physical, intellectual, emotional – yet the final result, the moment of truth on the concert platform, must exude an ease as natural as breathing. All the years of preparation are aimed at knowing and loving the music so well that we can virtually become it as we play. To offer it in performance to the public opens the possibility of their also being drawn into its orbit. Our reward is in the doing: living great music in the presence of others is a profound joy, such that we are willing, even eager, to face the obstacles that stand in our way.

The physical challenge

The most visible obstacle is the physical: the act of drawing sound from a wooden box by means of a length of horse-hair. It seems miraculous that any novice has the perseverance to persist past the out-of-tune, scratchy-tone stage. The violin has no frets to mark the notes, so the left-hand fingers must learn their spacing to the accuracy of a millimetre in order to create the pitches themselves. It usually takes many years before any fairly reliable accuracy is developed, and it requires constant vigilance to retain it. Precise spatial memory must be coupled with strength, suppleness, speed and stamina, the muscles being trained as carefully and rigorously as an athlete’s.

Meanwhile the right arm and hand must learn a completely different style of movement, a butter-smooth fluidity to set the strings vibrating evenly. The bow not only coaxes the sound from the instrument, but also conjures the colours and emotions in the sound and traces the contours of the phrases, giving voice to the music itself. The right hand must develop an acute sensitivity to the action of the bow on the strings, constantly adjusting its speed and weight and keeping its path absolutely true. And of course, both hands must be perfectly co-ordinated, the smart actions of the left-hand fingers timed exactly with the fluid motions of the right hand.

All this is further complicated by having to hold the violin itself, a constant that causes many a neck and shoulder injury. In fact, the universal nightmare of violinists is of dropping the violin!

Even when a serviceable technique is in place, each piece of music demands technical attention, the hands first learning to negotiate its unique order of notes, with its particular leaps and stretches and switch-backs; and then consigning this knowledge, through assiduous practice, to kinetic memory.

The perpetual riddle: notation

Being able to sound the notes physically prepares the ground for the fundamental work of transforming the musical text back into sound. It is no simple matter. Most of the music that we play was written by composers who are long gone, and who lived in different eras and cultures. Their compositions are preserved and handed down by means of a written text. At first, when music was almost always played or conducted by the composers themselves, the written text served as an aide-mémoire, only the main notes being necessary. Later, as music scores were disseminated and musicians other than the composers themselves began to play them, the need for a fuller notation became apparent. So markings were devised to provide more detail: signs for ‘loud’, ‘moderately loud’, ‘fast’, ‘getting gradually slower’, ‘sweetly’, ‘big accent’, and many others. These are certainly helpful, but obviously not at all definitive. Despite some recent composers specifying a torrent of playing instructions, the sound in a composer’s head has resolutely refused to be pinned down and penned.

The simple truth is that music notation is inadequate: sound cannot be translated into any other medium, neither words nor marks on paper. This realisation is of fundamental significance for the performing musician, in that it forces the need for interpretation.

Interpretation is therefore not an indulgence – something added to the written text; the very instant the bow touches the string, it comes into play, whether we are conscious of it or not. Despite the surprisingly widespread belief that all a player need do is to ‘play the notes’, this very concept is nonsensical, for as soon as notes are sounded, they have a full complement of attributes: intensity, attack, dynamic level (loudness), warmth, character, direction, length, speed and so on. So if we assert that we are merely ‘letting the music play itself’, it can only mean that we are forfeiting a conscious choice of attributes, allowing habitual, automatic ways of playing to overlay and strangle the voice of the composer.

The expressiveness of music is another issue that is widely misunderstood. All students have at some point been told, “Now play with expression”, implying that it is possible to play without expression. They may indeed be playing in a way that sounds bland, uninflected, monochromatic, mechanical, strait-laced, joyless, but this does actually convey an emotional message, and one that is powerful. Juliet would be quite alarmed to hear Romeo confess his love for her in a monochromatic tone of voice! The challenge for a musician, as for an actor, is to match the expression with the deeper meaning of the text, to be in tune with its underlying essence. And since music can be heard only through the mediation of a performer, we musicians bear the responsibility of presenting a fair and true interpretation. How do we go about this?

Collecting information

Like good historians, we need to recognise the evolution of ideas and customs, and to collect as much information as possible. Preliminary spadework involves reading contemporary accounts of music-making in the particular time and place of the chosen composition. These include the writings of the composers themselves, teaching manuals, newspaper reviews – anything that may shed light on how a composer may have wanted his music to be played. Recent composers may have made recordings of their works, but these cannot necessarily be regarded as gospel: composers are not always the best interpreters of their own music and, like the rest of us, will play differently from one night to the next.

It is also crucial to know how the instruments of the time sounded, and how that sound would have been affected by the acoustics of the performing spaces. For instance, the practice of playing short notes with clear separation in certain eras is inextricably linked to the ample resonance of their halls. To achieve the same effect in a dry hall necessitates a longer touch than advocated then.

Since the violin has traditionally been the dance-master’s instrument, much of the music we play is based on dances. It is virtually impossible to capture the feel of a waltz or a tango without having seen it, or better still, having danced it oneself! So going off to the dance, or at least the dance studio, is all part of the day’s work.

And of course the total oeuvre of a composer is enormously revealing. To understand a composition entails entering a composer’s sound-world, and this needs total immersion. Burying oneself in his other compositions can foster a deep understanding and empathy, as well as providing days – months – years – of delight.

Confronting the score

When confronting a specific score of music, we proceed (like good scientists) by drawing on all our powers of observation. These can be stimulated by asking questions, one of the first being: whose notation is this?

For instance, a note written by Bach usually indicates a shorter sound than one written by Brahms. Two quavers (eighths) written by Gershwin indicate a completely different rhythm from two written by Beethoven. If we have done the spadework, we will know that music is similar to language in that its pronunciation differs by region and by period. Until about forty years ago, musicians played all music in the current fashion, reading the notation as if it were contemporary. These days, more and more performers look at the score with a historical eye, learning the language of each composer.

Joining up the notes

Just as in verbal language, musical sounds gravitate together, forming words and phrases. But music notation rarely indicates this. Imagine if English were written without any spaces between words, and without punctuation: it would be incredibly tedious to decipher it, though it could be done. In music notation, this omission allows much more room for misreadings because it is less specific and more fluid than language. With experience, a musician learns to read the signs contained in the harmony and rhythm and melodic lines to be able to join up the notes.

Once the words and phrases are in place, the search expands to finding sentences and paragraphs. Each grouping relates to the ones preceding and following, whether leading or receding, building, reiterating, preparing, or separating. And as each unit is heard in relationship to each other, an underlying structure begins to emerge. Particular notes or chords or groupings act like the pillars of a building and their presence must be marked as strong and intentional. In contrast, the remaining notes, by far the majority, serve as explanatory or ornamental additions and need to be played as such, adorning, modifying and expanding on the bare structure.

Placing the stresses

How notes are grouped together affects how they are to be stressed. As with words in English, notes in music need a variety of stresses to show how they belong together. For example, all the historical evidence suggests that two notes joined into a couplet should have the first note more stressed than the second (like a trochee). Playing couplets in this way corresponds to the correct pronunciation of words: a mispronunciation causes confusion. A performance containing a monotonous stream of notes is incomprehensible, and betrays a lack of understanding, like a speaker reading in a language he does not understand. Similarly, a string of couplets will not make sense if they are played with an equal stress on each first note; each couplet will relate to the next as words in a sentence, inspiring stresses of varying intensity and shape.

Violinists spend hours – years – practising to achieve a perfectly even sound, ironing out all the lumps and seams; but this basic technical skill is fatal if actually applied in performance. Classical music, like English pronunciation, lives by its inflections.

Musical groupings might not always be clearly delineated: great composers often blur the edges, writing phrases that seem to emerge from nowhere, and endings that do not feel final, that already contain the seeds of new beginnings. This is where the deeper excitement begins, with ambiguity and double meanings and false trails.

And this points to an important way in which music can reflect our experience of life and of ourselves; as a continuous flowing, without discrete beginnings and endings, like a river that changes direction and intensity only imperceptibly.


Understanding how the notes belong together allows the performer to ask further questions. Is this piece a fantasy, with a free and fluid rhythm? or a march with a strict regular beat? or a dance with its individual lilt? Playing in strict rhythm is appropriate only for march-like music, and even then the quality of rhythm can be subtly varied to sound solemn or pompous, funereal or resolute or bouncy. Most other music requires some flexibility to a greater or lesser degree. Because music notation is not capable of indicating rhythmic subtleties, and because composers know better than to try to ‘prescribe’ rhythmic freedom, performers need to be alert to this issue.

Many listeners, especially non-performers, fall into the trap of assuming that performers are “taking liberties with the music”, when in fact they are following the underlying spirit perfectly. On the contrary, it is those performers who play a waltz without a lilt, or a fantasy without caprice, who are taking the liberties.

Narrative, accompaniment, pacing

Almost all music contains narrative: a progression of motifs (phrases), themes (melodies) and intensities that correspond to the plot of a story. The most complex narratives can involve a number of themes that interact, affecting each other like protagonists in a novel, developing new characteristics, and visiting exotic places as they ride on the seas of changing harmonies.

Though music is usually thought of as mainly melodic, it is interesting that some composers place more value on the narrative than on the melodies themselves. Beethoven often chooses themes that can hardly be called melodic or even attractive, but his focus lies in their manipulation and development. Rather than painting a static picture, his music depicts a journey.

Accompaniment – the sounds in which a theme is clothed – is also important in conveying narrative, and we need to get to know it just as intimately. What is it adding? Is it active or passive? Is it threatening in its harmonies or rhythm? Is it in conflict with the melody? Does it lead in unexpected directions? Is it echoing the melody, or making fun of it?

As the general character and the order of events become clear, so does the rise and fall in tension, and we can begin to understand how the work is paced. Some pieces contain only one big climax, some two or three, and others eschew climaxes altogether. All assumptions (and desires) regarding contrasts and drama and excitement must be laid aside. After all, a composer may choose to write a movement that fluctuates only mildly in character, like an Impressionist painting with a restricted palette of pastels. Whether the music is mesmerisingly tender or unrelentingly angry, the performer must place his trust in the composer’s skill by putting all his eggs in one basket.

Observation is the key

In all these issues, observation is the key to understanding and the score must be mercilessly questioned. This means taking note of the big picture and the small picture, asking what is occurring at each moment. Most of us walk through life with only one eye open: those with both eyes open are normally called saints or enlightened ones. At least a musician has the opportunity to investigate the music time and again, to re-run the score, go back to the beginning, put it aside and dust it off as often as our time and patience permit. And patience we must have in abundance. A great work of art brims over with layers of ideas and emotions, unexpected twists and turns, ambiguities and subtleties. And as we live on, developing greater capacities of observation, we notice more and more.

The heart of the matter

In making music, observation is useless on its own. Its indispensable twin is emotional responsiveness, the ability to connect emotionally with all that we observe. Only when emotional responsiveness is added to the cauldron together with historical awareness and meticulous observation, can the written score begin to be transformed back into music.

For every feature that is noticed in the score, we need to ask, how does this make us feel? What is the emotional import? For instance, if a harmonic modulation is unexpected, is it a welcome guest or an unwelcome intruder? Is it a mild surprise or an earth-shattering event? The answers lie always in the score itself; but we need to be emotionally open to be able to find them.

Being emotionally open is an attitude most of us seek throughout our lives, but it is an essential quest for musicians if we are to relate to everything that happens in a piece of music. If a composer has drawn on a large emotional store, a performer must also have such a store to draw on. Playing the work of several composers demands an even greater capacity for empathy. But there are few of us who do not shy away from certain emotions; not everyone feels comfortable expressing intimacy, rage, anguish. Some of the strangest emotions to express on stage involve vulnerability or fragility. It takes enormous confidence to play in a tentative way…

Perhaps we place too great a burden on ourselves by expecting to be able to play a wide variety of music; it would be wiser to recognise our emotional boundaries. If we do not have the key to unlock the emotional secrets of a particular piece of music, it should be seen as a mark of respect that we refrain from playing it.

To be emotionally open also means to be free from the shackles of our instinct. Our automatic pilot must be switched off. For instance, it is tempting to play music in an intense style, especially if it is labelled ‘great’ music. In fact, we are living at a time when intensity in performance is considered obligatory. But great art does not shout all the time; it knows that there is enormous power in gentleness.

Similarly, great music is not always earnest and serious. A mature work of art often reflects an integrated view of life, and like a wise person, will contain the wonderful sense of humour that seems to be a part of wisdom. It is well to remember that all the great composers wrote with a delightful wit, and our storehouse of emotions must have it polished and ready.

If we truly listen to our own responses to the music, we may find our interpretations flying off in unusual directions. It takes courage to stay the path of innovation, but we must not look back. We must shake free of the clutches of both stultifying tradition and current fashion. We must banish all thoughts of the critics’ wrath or the audience’s incomprehension. In short, we need to be absolutely fearless in our search for the heart of the music.

The moment of truth

The final demand made of a performing musician is that all the work that goes into the understanding and preparation of a piece of music must be embodied in one single moment at the appointed time and place of the performance. There can be no false starts, no second tries. Our muscles and co-ordination must be on top form, our concentration unwavering, and our emotions laid bare like a surgeon’s instruments, available for the work ahead.

No matter how many times the music is played, we need to be able to capture the spontaneity of the moment. It can be tempting to relax into the relative security of playing as we did last night, or last week, but a re-heated performance will never come alive.

For our task is to breathe life into the music, to re-create it with all the excitement and commitment of the composer himself at the white-hot moment of composition. It is an immense privilege, one that renders us both humble and powerful. The paradox is that it is only by being intensely alive as ourselves that we can be entirely at the service of the music – be totally in its thrall.

In this way, both performer and listener are lifted out of the everyday, into an enchanted space where countless shades of emotion are brought into play, where a kaleidoscope of sound dances in our ears, and we finally connect and reconnect to our innermost being.


This article first appeared in the journal Humanitas

Ask Ruth Waterman

To submit questions to Ruth Waterman, please email askRW@ruthwaterman.com.

Do you like to hear other kinds of music, apart from classical?

Yes, I love fado (from Portugal), tango, Brazilian, French chansons, trad jazz… all these have great character. When I’m travelling, I like to pick up recordings of local folk music. One singing group that doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories is from France: Souinge – worth looking for!

Do you feel that it is really necessary for a performer to know about actual minuets and other Baroque dances, when Bach’s minuets etc. were not intended to be danced to?

Absolutely! It’s so difficult to know what a composer had in mind when we’re trying to bring his compositions to life, that any clue is a godsend.

Dance music has often found its way into the concert hall, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily loses its dance character. Some of Chopin’s waltzes are eminently danceable to; others are not. Perhaps the question should be: how closely does this particular piece of music embody the characteristics of the original dance? And obviously we can’t answer without having some knowledge of the dance itself.

Since Baroque dances disappeared from our everyday culture, we have lost the knowledge of them that was ingrained in Bach and his contemporaries. Without this knowledge, a good musician today might try to tease out the character and sound and rhythm of the different dances; but the evidence shows that this is unlikely to succeed. For instance, the way the loure is normally played these days is, I believe, quite mistaken in terms of tempo, articulation and character. But without knowing the particular loure step, as well as specific playing instructions of Baroque musicians, it’s not surprising that we’ve gone astray.

I was extremely lucky to learn to dance the various Baroque dances when I was still a student, as I was able to glean much about their general character as well as the crucial issue of tempo relationships. For instance, the first thing that struck me was that the step on the downbeats is almost always onto half-toe, causing the body to rise rather than fall. And balancing on one leg on half-toe needs control and poise (otherwise the body does risk a fall!). These basics alone affected my playing, goading me to search for a style of bowing and sense of rhythm that would reflect this feeling of lift and elegance.

Once we know the dances and the music that was written for them, we can then see whether Bach’s dances are typical or not. Mostly they do follow closely the conventions of each dance; and when they diverge, it is fascinating and instructive to understand the significance of the divergence.

For instance, the E-major gavotte feels very much like a normal gavotte at first, but there are immediate oddities that serve to puncture the courtly conviviality; like the shocking major 7th on the initial downbeat. Knowing a conventional gavotte makes it possible to appreciate Bach’s playfulness and unconventionality, which in turn affects our understanding of the composition and how we play it.

One final thought: a dance is no less a dance if it has no title. A waltz that has no title is still a waltz and not, say, a tango. But just consider if we didn’t know the difference between the performance style of a waltz and a tango: the Blue Danube would end up mangled beyond recognition! (Or does the Blue Danube actually have any characteristics of a tango? In which case…)

Where’s the most unusual place you’ve played?

I imagine there’s a place in my memory where all the concerts I’ve played are stored. But I don’t seem to be able to get unlimited access! I remember a barn in the countryside with the audience sitting on hay bales and donkeys braying outside (particularly during the slow movements, of course); and a natural stone amphitheatre in Utah, accessible only by river – the piano as well as the audience had to be brought in by boat!

I confess I have been known to whip out the violin and play impromptu in unlikely places. The lowest place I’ve stooped to play in must definitely have been the Channel Tunnel: when the French inspectors came round, they put their walkie-talkie microphones close to the violin so that all their colleagues could hear my heartfelt rendition of La Vie en Rose!

Now that you have added painting to your other activities, I want to ask how you manage to do everything. Do you set aside time each day to paint?

As with music and writing, it seems that the act of painting demands exclusivity: no other creative activity is on the cards while the brushes are wet. So my days are either for intense looking, intense listening, or working with words; unless they are for doing none of these things, which is fine and seems necessary – my creative brain needs a break too.

Do you think Jewish people should listen to Wagner? Can there be an answer to this question or is it a matter of individual choice? Can music be divorced from ideology?

Humans are complex beings. Artists can be just as bigoted, stupid, or unskilled in social relations as the rest of us. The thing about art is that it can inspire those who create it, practise it, and experience it, to great heights. It allows and encourages the best in us to shine.

Appreciating someone’s best side does not imply anything further: it doesn’t mean we like the artist as a person, agree with his/her beliefs or think that he/she is free from the sins and foibles of the human race. Gesualdo may have been a murderer, Mozart may have had his silly side, Wagner may have been anti-Semitic, but their music can still touch us. If we can dissociate Wagner’s music from the role it was forced to play in Nazi Germany after his death – if we can hear and appreciate the music as just music – we gain one more source of enjoyment and spiritual nourishment. I don’t think there are any ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’; the choice is individual, it applies to Jews and non-Jews, and it is influenced by a multitude of beliefs and attitudes both conscious and unconscious.

The world is filled with bigots who never create great art. Now if only more of them would choose the road of the artist than the road of the politician!

What do music reviewers mean when they say that Bach’s music is mathematical?

You should really ask them, not me! But since you’ve asked, I imagine they are referring to the sophisticated counterpoint that Bach loves to use. His fugues and canons are constructed like interlocking 3-dimensional, or maybe 5-dimensional, jigsaws. He is said to have been able to spot immediately all possible permutations of any theme – whether it could be sounded simultaneously with its inversion, or its contraction, and which countersubjects would fit with it, without causing horrendous discords. Not that he avoided all discords, but obviously he aimed to avoid the kind of gobbledegook that would result from trying to write any old theme as a canon: Frére Jacques works well, Beethoven’s Fifth does not! He chose his themes carefully, but he was also brilliantly skilled in how he played with them. Bach certainly had a ‘mathematical’ brain if we mean logical and pattern-making and puzzle-solving.

On the other hand, I think that reviewers use the term ‘mathematical’ in a derogatory way, meaning lacking in emotion or expression or spirituality. And in this, they are of course completely mistaken.

For instance, Bach wrote fugues on very varied themes. In the solo violin sonatas, the A-minor theme is short and bouncy, whereas the C-major theme is twice as long and is based on a deeply spiritual hymn (Komm Heiliger Geist). So they need to be played in completely different styles, the first with perhaps a twinkle in the eye, and the second with a sense of awe and rapture. I have to admit that we performers must take the blame for promulgating the ‘Bach-is-a-dry/difficult/mathematical-composer’ belief, in that his fugues and canons are often played in an emotionally bereft way, with the initial theme declaimed in a stern, forbidding manner.

Bach’s son Carl PE said, “One of the reasons I love Bach’s music is that it engages the intellect as well as the emotions. It is like a cathedral which captures aesthetic and spiritual qualities but stands only on the basis of sound engineering principles.”

I recently read your article “Making Music: The Work of a Concert Violinist” and I learnt quite a few things about western classical music.

In the context of interpretation of music, your article seems to suggest that one must make all effort to get as close as possible to the mind of the composer, so that music is interpreted and performed as planned by him or her. This is supported by what you have mentioned in the article, “ we musicians bear the responsibility of fair and true interpretation”. I have read other articles on the subject of interpretation and all of them have echoed the same thought.

Elsewhere in the article you have also written “composers are not always the best interpreters of their own music….”. This seems to suggest the opposite of what is mentioned above. This is somewhat like the parliament enacting laws and the judiciary interpreting them.

Since the above positions on interpretations appear to be contradictory, could you please let me know the meaning of true and fair interpretation?

The issue here is that the qualities needed to write great music are not the same as the qualities needed to perform that music. Composers may try to deliver the ideal interpretation that they hear in their heads, yet fail because of nerves or self-consciousness or lack of technique or any of a myriad reasons. I know that, speaking for myself, I do not perform my own creations with as much commitment, or even respect, as I do those of others. Composers can be likewise diffident, and even more so if they don’t have enough time to practise or perform. Or they can take for granted some of the surprising features of their music: I once heard a humourless broadcast of Dohnanyi’s Variations and was shocked to hear afterwards that it was Dohnanyi himself playing. Maybe he was thoroughly tired of having to play the same work over and over again and had lost his sense of humour about it. Or maybe he was having an off-day.

My main point is that it’s advisable to listen to a composer’s performances with as much discrimination and care as any other performance, that composers cannot be relied upon to deliver an outstanding performance. That said, what would we give to have been able to hear Bach playing his Well-Tempered Clavier or Beethoven playing his Hammerklavier?!

Interpretation: Music and Painting

I’d always believed that the act of painting was an act of creation as opposed to the re-creative act of the performing musician, who brings to life the work of a composer. But an artist colleague pointed out that, on the contrary, painting is an interpretative activity too: a painter ‘interprets’ a tree, a face, an interior in two dimensions.

As my years of painting have accumulated, I have become more and more fascinated by the many different images emerging in response to exactly the same object. Perhaps my interest in portraits comes from the innumerable expressions and appearances exhibited by a face, often within a few seconds. Even when I started to work from photographs, I was astonished, at first, by the huge resulting variety of work from the same photograph, as presumably I focussed on different aspects of what I was seeing. For example one photograph inspired a painting of a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and an older woman, the motionless face somehow containing the past and future as well as the present.

Of course faces are endlessly intriguing because of the richness of qualities and contradictions so often expressed there – though not always. I feel it a disadvantage to know the person I’m painting, as any knowledge predisposes the painter and can distract from honest observation. It’s all too easy to see kindness, authority, disturbance in a face once one assumes it is there; for me it’s much more interesting, and challenging, to search for the truth – the many truths – of what is actually observable, and what feelings arise from these observations.

This approach is very similar to how I go about interpreting music. I’d rather not know what Beethoven had for breakfast, or what he felt when he realised he was losing his hearing, because this can lead me astray and fatally poison my reactions to the score. I’m very aware of the unpredictability of human responses, even to the large, predictable life events. And the art that we produce during those times, whether in writing, music or painting, can either be a reflection of what we are feeling, or equally an escape, or a rogue emotion that bubbles up unbidden. A case in point is precisely when Beethoven wrote of his anguish at becoming deaf while composing his three violin sonatas opus 30: the first sublimely serene, the second wildly angry, and the third playfully witty.

Whether interpreting a Beethoven sonata or a 42-year-old face, my starting point is to look for what is there. Then having been captured and enraptured, the task is to develop ways to convey and express what my curiosity has uncovered.

See also R A Waterman Art