Ten years old. Innocent. I pick up the saxophone and puff out a playful tune.
Twenty years old. A high-achieving student. I’m mid-way through my classical music training at university. I play the same phrase again and again, aiming for the same goal as all the others: (unattainable) perfection.
The balance between study, practice, work, and life is grueling. The competition is crushing. The support networks are absent. Elitism is ingrained. We don’t make it easy on each other. We don’t make it easy on ourselves.
An accident puts an abrupt end to my burgeoning performance career, years too soon. But when I pick up The Piano Teacher close to a decade on, I can access the feelings of repression and oppression all over again.
Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel is primarily considered a story of sexual repression and male-female power dynamics. If you’ve seen the Michael Haneke 2001 film adaptation, you can rest assured the book is quite similar – albeit grittier and darker (and with a few too many mixed metaphors). But if we cast aside the narrative of incompatible sexual desire and white male privilege, what we can start to see is an overwhelmingly clear picture of elitism inside the classical music industry, fulfilled and perpetuated by its practitioners. And this is a story that should be recognised.
Erika is a sharply defined individual, a personality. She stands alone in the broad mass of her students, one against all, and she turns the wheel of the ship of art.
Let’s backtrack. The titular character of The Piano Teacher is Erika Kohut – a not-too-attractive, not-too-old, psychologically abusive piano teacher. Living at home only with her dominating mother, a world is created in which Erika is ‘not just a face in the crowd: she’s one in a million’. In their self-inflicted domestic confinement, Erika and her mother share a common laugh or criticism at the disgusting world outside that does not embrace classical music; and the disgusting musicians who could never live up to the standards to which they aim. Seemingly, only Erika is worthy of practising and teaching the works of Bach and Schubert and Beethoven.
Erika is not allowed to associate with ordinary people […] If you didn’t know that they are supposed to be human beings, you could scarcely believe your eyes. Erika is far superior to any of them.
The author allows just one worthy student to penetrate Erika’s personal life. Walter Klemmer admires his teacher’s knowledge of, and self-sacrifice for, classical music. But to Walter, Erika is an elitist; she sits on a musical pedestal and must be taken down — her body physically removed from its place at the piano and conquered by a living, human man. The introduction of his character marks the beginning of his and Erika’s demise, their attitudes fundamentally conflicting.
The artist, Mother believes, must forget about sex. If he can’t, then he’s a mere mortal; but he shouldn’t be a mere mortal. He should be divine!
Later, Walter describes his desire to crush such classical sensitivities as he learns how to improvise freely on the saxophone. In this way, he symbolises to us the stereotypes in classical music: not only the free-spirited jazz musician with a smug desire to surpass the boxed-in classical musician – but the judgement we all inflict on each other, regardless of our musical discipline.
Erika judges all others as inferior, because they taint the sounds of the great masters.
Walter judges Erika as inferior, because she is a woman who has repressed her sensuality in order to pursue high art.
He complains (when he has the time) that the corset of classical training is much too tight for him. He likes to enjoy a view that’s not marred by any limits.
While I was emerging into this industry — a system filled with hypocrisy and contradiction — I too judged and was judged.
I judged jazz music as inferior to classical. I was judged for playing saxophone, which is associated with jazz.
I judged musicians for playing rock music for joy. I was judged for my desire to play classical music for joy.
Erika has one goal in common with all the other interpreters: to be better than the rest!
I was judged by fellow music students because I dared to study writing at the same time as music in academia – this being the ultimate betrayal of music itself, which demands all.
Erika’s vocation is her avocation: the celestial power known as music. Music fills her time completely. Her time has no room for anything else. Nothing offers so much pleasure as a magnificent performance by the finest virtuosi.
Throughout The Piano Teacher, it’s repeatedly stated that Erika can’t feel anything. When playing Mozart, her body becomes ‘a dead frame […] The violinist feels nothing, but she has to keep enticing the notes’. When engaging in sex, the same occurs. But we must ask a bigger question: Why can’t she feel?
It would be a mistake to assume that Erika was born unfeeling. No, it is Erika’s mother who trains her not to recognise feeling – just as so many of our real-life educators, students, and performers repeat to us the mantra that it’s not acceptable to simply enjoy playing. You must practice six hours a day until your fingers bleed or you inflict an injury on yourself or you finally lose your mind. Even then, you will remain submissive. Informed by history, you will never be more than a messenger for the dead white male composer who came before.
When the time comes that Erika may finally allow herself to feel, it is not without its constraints. As with her music, she creates for herself a sexual environment of total control. Out of her understanding of love, she instructs Walter to physically and violently dominate her; retaining through her instruction the ultimate artistic control over her student.
Erika loves the man and is waiting for him to redeem her. She would like to show weakness, but determine the form of her submission herself […] She would like to be made utterly immobile. She would like to cede all responsibility to external aids. She wants to entrust herself to someone else, but on her terms.
She only wants to be an instrument on which she will teach him to play. He should be free, and she in fetters. But Erika will choose the fetters herself. She makes up her mind to become an object, a tool; Klemmer will have to make up his mind to use the object.
I feel this powerplay between these two characters to be complex, real, and symbolic. At once, Erika ascends to a place of superiority: she herself becomes a work of art, granting Walter the permission to play her and inject his human expression into this fine piece shared between them. And yet, Erika also acknowledges that, in her submission, she is a physical slave to the high art of love.
In this way, Jelinek has accurately depicted the dualities of classical musicianship: the performer who sees herself above the rest, while simultaneously understanding that she is nothing but a tool of performance; an object under the command of an idol’s musical vision.
I find reading this book today, more than three decades after its initial release, to be a profound and resonant experience. In the era of #MeToo, it confronts us with its exploration of sexual power, ignorance, danger, and shame. In a time in which mental health in the arts is gaining wider dialogue, it reminds us that unhealthy creative practice can lead to a disruption of the self — wildly higher rates of depression, anxiety, sleep disorder, addictive behaviour, and damage to our relationships with those around us.
But one thing truly seems not to have changed, and it’s the negative culture of elitism. It’s this very elitism that Jelinek describes that fuels our egos, shapes our tastes, and prevents us from indulging in guiltless joy through the very thing we commit our lives to.
So many people grind away their young lives, turning dusty gray, hunchbacked — a swiftly passing throng.
Perhaps if more of us read The Piano Teacher, in which this undeniably real issue is reflected back into our faces, we’d allow ourselves to move forward. We’d allow ourselves to feel.
Stephanie Eslake is an award-winning arts journalist. You might’ve read her words in Kill Your Darlings, SBS, Limelight Magazine, and The Herald Sun. In 2014, she founded the national classical music publication CutCommon.