Igor Levit on Hope and Music

What is hope to you?

People are hope. That’s what I want to believe in. I don’t have anything else to believe in other than people.

What’s the role of hope in art?

Hope is any humane emotion, any possible gesture, any possible feeling or thought at the epicentre of every piece of art. The sole reason why people create art is self understanding: why you feel what you feel, why you live.

This could also be emptiness, nothing, a void.

I don’t think that in music the idea of a void is a possibility. You hear something, period. If you are listening, something happens. You are in the middle of something, evolving, moving, changing.

Is music different in that sense than other forms of art?

It probably is. The composer Ferruccio Busoni called it “sonorous air”. Music is immaterial, it is absolutely endless because there are no limitations to our feelings.

If music is something that connects you with yourself, can it also make you take action?

It can strengthen you. It can bring people together. When we make music or hear music, we create an atmosphere of hope. But once it’s over, there’s silence, literal silence, and the responsibility lies on us.

If you combine sound with words, you create a song, and a song can become an ideological statement, a political statement.

Can art work as activism?

Absolutely. If you combine sound with words, you create a song, and a song can become an ideological statement, a political statement. I am not sure that purely instrumenIgor Levit on Hope and Music tal music can become ideological. But take Frederic Rzewski and his composition “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, based on a revolutionary song. In Rzweski’s version, this is an activist tool.

What connects you to this tradition of political music – including Black music, spirituals, the blues?

Well, this is also in some way true for certain pieces by someone like Beethoven. His opera Fidelio, and the Eroica symphony, these were clearly aimed against the political societal establishment. And Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen is one of the most anti-capitalist pieces of music there is. Of course, Wagner is a highly complicated topic – but there has never been a single musician with the political and artistic relevance and influence of Richard Wagner.

You just saw the Rolling Stones in concert for the first time – how was that?

It was a lifelong dream of mine to see one of their performances. What touched me most has to do with hope and sincerity. Keith Richards stood on stage and said: “Boy, it is great to be with you.” It was not a PR gag. It was not an Instagram post. It was heartfelt. They are just happy to be together. And it really felt like a communion. The fact that a human being or a group of human beings can create this sincere togetherness gives me hope.

What is the role of the artist today in a world characterised by massive transformation?

What Nina Simone said decades ago: “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”

How do you get from reflection to action?

I’m a musician. I make music. I live a complicated life. I have played in circumstances which may sometimes go against my political beliefs. But the world is a messy place. What I can do is to create connections with certain pieces. I can create a certain contact. I can contextualise music. But once I stop playing the piano, I am a human being out there in this world. And yes, I am an activist, both online and especially offline. This goes hand in hand.

You also campaigned for the Green party in the recent German election.

I joined them a couple of years ago. They helped me a great deal when I was under threat from the far-right. But I am a very critical member. When, during the refugee crisis and then the Euro crisis, a great part of Germany, part of the media and many political parties began to resent certain ethnic groups and European countries– the Greens did not change their position. I really honor that.

Behind the scenes, you talk to politicians from almost all parties: are you actually less of an activist and more of a diplomat?

It’s possible I have become one. I have learned that there is a big difference between an adversary and an enemy. There are people, certain journalists, certain politicians, with whom I disagree on practically all issues. But I would never cut ties with them because you need to stay in conversation. And there are people who defend political ideas which endanger my life. I do not talk to them. They are my enemies.

Is this how change happens – that you work with people, not against people?

Again, the world is a messy place, and all we can do is stand in the mud and take one step after the other, one step after the other. I do not believe in the idea that a new day has arrived. I do not believe in the idea that we are fucked. I think both ideas are pseudo-religious B.S. That’s not how the world works. I just try to be a good mensch. And to step-by-step adapt to the reality and change the direction of where this world is going. And this doesn’t work without conversation.

Can you complete this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

because this is all I have in my life to believe in.

IGOR LEVIT is a pianist who connects his art with the social events happening around him. He has produced recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Rzweski, Stevenson and Shostakovich that have won him rave reviews. His Hauskonzerte, live streamed concerts from his living room during the Covid pandemic, were viewed by hundreds of thousand viewers across the world. A vocal critic of the far-right, racism and social injustice, Levit is a future fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

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