Beethoven on Prozac

Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997): 340-345.

Denis Dutton

With the musical reputation of David Helfgott now in tatters, the question persists how an incompetent, mentally disordered pianist has found himself touring to sold-out halls, promoted in the expensive souvenir program as “one of the world’s leading pianists.”  Why don’t his champions snap out of the delusion that his recitals are supreme musical events?  Is it despite or because of the most scathing reviews dumped on any pianist in recent memory that Helfgott continues to get rapturous, standing ovations? 

The Helfgott entourage, of course, has been asking for it. Their repeated descriptions of Helfgott as a “genius,” as “the ’90s version of Horowitz and Rubinstein,” in the words of an official of his recording company, have rubbed knowledgeable piano aficionados the wrong way. The excusing of his loud grunts and mutterings during performances by comparisons with the great Glenn Gould (who was normally silent in recitals) are merely offensive, as are comparisons with Horowitz’s neuroses or de Pachmann’s eccentric behavior: all of these artists were men whose technical and artistic accomplishments are beyond serious question.

The controversy in the United States and Britain duplicates patterns established by Helfgott’s appearances in New Zealand, where he began his 1997 world tour. Perhaps his handlers were hoping for a gentle start, working up toward the concert halls and critics north of the equator. But even though people in this green and pleasant land are polite to a fault, Helfgott’s five recitals generated more acrimony and hurt feelings than any musical episode in years.

New Zealand critics and seasoned listeners dismissed his performances as inaccurate, eccentric, self-indulgent, and amateurish. There were repeated references to circus and freak shows, and assertions that without the movie no one would take Helfgott seriously as a concert musician. Given Helfgott’s overt displays of mental peculiarity, his playing put one observer in mind of Dr. Johnson’s analogy of the dog that walked on its hind legs: “it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”  Another had the uneasy feeling that he was not so much listening to a piano recital as eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session.

To judge by the indignation and outrage these criticisms provoked, you’d have thought someone had accused the Queen Mother of shoplifting or ridiculed the Special Olympics. Among the dozens of concert goers complaining about frank newspaper reviews, one woman wrote, “This wasn’t just a piano recital, it was a chance to touch the world of an extraordinary human being, and everyone with a heart will have been enriched by the experience.” Another stated that never had she been “so moved and enjoyed a recital so much.” One person decried the inaccuracy and prejudice a critic displayed: “the only thing the reviewer got right,” he said “was to notice that Helfgott was not a very good pianist.” 

Ah, yes. That any purely musical evaluation of Helfgott “missed the point” was an accusation repeatedly heard.  An academic defender of a Helfgott performance wrote that the concert “was part of a wonderful and deeply moving story of music and the human spirit. The story was brilliantly portrayed in a film which most of the audience had seen, but the story was also true, and now the audience were part of it.” 

It was evident that Helfgott’s New Zealand audiences were made up largely of Shine fans who had never before attended a classical piano recital.  They applauded between movements of the Beethoven’s Waldstein, and even during the Chopin F minor Ballade, in which they were abetted by Helfgott himself. New Zealand audiences consistently mistook the soft cascade of chords which precedes the stormy finale of the Ballade for its end. As cheers and clapping began, Helfgott sprang to his feet and bow to what then became general applause. Bows completed, he shot back to the piano and played the last bars of the Ballade, then stood for another, even more excited round.  The same routine has continued elsewhere on his tour.

David Helfgott

When I saw him in New Zealand, Helfgott played with suggestions of what once might have been a fluent natural technique. Although he frequently dropped notes, he mercifully hit very few “clangers.” His tone was pleasant, within a restricted dynamic range that was never very loud nor soft (in light of which, Elizabeth Silsbury’s report on his 1986 Adelaide recital is surprising). Absent, however, was any sense of an organizing musical intelligence.  In the slow Chopin Étude opus 10 no. 3, he would lavish close, obsessive attention in some phrase or detail, only to seem vacantly distracted in the next bar.  The return of the main theme at the end was played with no apparent regard for its first statement; it was as though a new pianist had shown up in the hall to complete the piece. If, as Goethe claimed, architecture is frozen music, David Helfgott is the musician who finally proves the converse: that music can also be melted architecture — a structureless rubble of notes. 

The Ballade rambled senselessly, accompanied, as with everything else, by Helfgott’s continuous chatter and atonal singing.  One especially intrusive squeal was followed by a wink in the style of Victor Borge.  The audience’s laughter and approval wasn’t so much a knowing response to a comedian, as the indulgence of a child showing off.

The Waldstein was a collection of fragments, alternating slow swoons over the keyboard with frenetic passage work. The shallow fingering produced a smooth, blurred legato which nearly masked the fact that whole handfuls of notes failed to sound.  The dropped notes, however, were less of a defect than the complete lack of dramatic tension.  It was Beethoven on Prozac, but to the crowd it merited a standing ovation and demands for encores.        

There is no doubt that many Shine fans are enormously taken by the movie’s melodramatic tale of abuse and breakdown, therapy and slow recovery, with final redemption by the love of a good woman. The cult of burning genius is represented most mawkishly in the scenes where John Gielgud exhorts his young student to conquer the Rachmaninoff Third before it conquers him.  It’s the sheerest Hollywood drivel: musical art as a torch of genius passed on from a great teacher to his pupil. 

As for opinions that Helfgott’s dubbed-in piano playing in the movie is “brilliant,” when I finally got around to seeing the film, I averted my eyes from the screen to assess its actually pianistic, as opposed to cinematic, qualities. Sure enough, it was the very same choppy, technically marginal, formless playing I’d heard from Helfgott in the concert hall, except that there were fewer actual mistakes.  The only piano passage in the movie that struck me as adequate (an unexpectedly smooth and coherent excerpt from Beethoven’s Appassionata which Helfgott performs once he’s on the comeback trail) turned out, on close reading of the credits, to be the only significant part dubbed by a pianist other than David Helfgott.

Anyway, what should I have expected? The movie did what movies do: it created a fantasy.  In truth, it would require a literal miracle for any pianist to take a decade’s holiday from serious practice, undergo electric shock treatment, and who knows what medications, and come out the other end still a virtuoso. David Helfgott was and still is mentally disturbed.  Whatever its etiology, his disease is not something explained by life with an unpleasant father.  This is a view shared by Helfgott’s sister, Margaret, who has objected to the “derogatory and insulting” portrayal of their father in the film. As for their mother, who now lives in Israel, she said after the film was released that Shine “haunts me day and night. . .I feel an evil has been done.” 

It is hard not to sympathize with Mrs. Helfgott. On her and her daughter’s testimony, Peter Helfgott never struck his son. Indeed, according to a family acquaintance, the refusal to allow the fourteen-year-old David to travel to New York to study was not the act of oppression and abuse seen in Shine, but instead the first time anyone had ever uttered a decisive “no” to a rather spoiled teenager. Although none of David’s letters were burned by Peter Helfgott, they remain a source of contention: Gillian Helfgott’s lawyer has written David’s sister demanding that she surrender them, claiming that David has signed over to Gillian the copyright of the letters. Given all this, it should hardly come as a surprise to learn that David Helfgott’s capacities as a pianist are as fancifully portrayed in the film as other features of his life.

The result of Shine’s complex crossing of musical art with dramatic fiction has been, since the real David Helfgott began his 1997 tour, deep and bitter controversy. Lovers of the tradition of piano artistry from Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann through to Gould and Martha Argerich are fundamentally right to find Helfgott’s incoherent, grunting performances a travesty of piano art. But how then do we account for the feelings of his fans? They leave his concerts inspired by a deep sense of human communication. For many, quality of piano playing is not the issue, rather the triumph of someone who has been hauled back from the abyss. Still, I don’t think celebrity and victimhood alone can account for the intensity of their emotions.

Writing of Helfgott’s Boston debut in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini (6 March 1997) remarked that “it is hard to imagine that listeners whose first experience of Beethoven’s colossal Waldstein Sonata was Helfgott’s sketchy, monodynamic performance, went away with any idea of this music’s boldness and feisty vitality.”  It may be hard to imagine, but not impossible. Doubtless there were many thousands of music listeners in the nineteenth century who only knew the Waldstein through amateur renditions even less adequate that Helfgott’s. I’d be reluctant to say that none of them knew about the boldness and vitality of the music.

Even a flaccid, inaccurate performance of the Waldstein is a presentation of one of the summits of piano music. If a naive audience finds in the experience of the Waldstein that new musical vistas are being opened before it, perhaps it is right. The same can be said for Chopin, even badly played.  If many of the people in Helfgott’s audience are listening intently for the spark of genius, who can blame them for being a little confused? Their only mistake is to imagine it’s the particular talent of David Helfgott that is achieving some miracle of human expression and musical pleasure.  There are geniuses at work in Helfgott’s recitals, but they are our old friends Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven — minds whose musical ideas will always outlive marketing hype.

Helfgott’s CD of the Rachmaninoff Third nicely bears out the point. I’ve carefully studied this lamentable performance, which I had to buy, since the Radio New Zealand’s classical music network refuses to air it on the ground that the playing is below their minimum broadcast standard.  Let me confess straightaway to a teenage crush on the D Minor Concerto which I’ve never completely overcome, though I have today a more realistic appreciation of the old girl than when I was in high school. She’s a bit of a tart, I admit: none of the class of the Emperor or the depth of the Brahms B-flat, but I’m a sucker for her still. Through the years I’ve kept up with new versions, commercial recordings by pianists famous and unknown, as well as live and pirated recordings. These stretch from the first commercial 78-rpm set (Horowitz with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates, 1930) followed by Rachmaninoff’s own stupendous 1939-40 performance, through an odd early reading by, of all people, Walter Gieseking, as well as an unremarkable late-’40s recording by Helfgott’s teacher, Cyril Smith, with the City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by George Weldon. Later readings include pianists of the stature of Gilels, Janis, Cliburn, Cherkassky, Ashkenazy, Argerich, and  Kissin. It must be close to a certainty that Helfgott’s effort — which has sold more copies than any other version in history — would stand as the most awful commercial recording of the Rachmaninoff Third ever released.

At the same time, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that even in such a technically defective and musically confused version as David Helfgott’s, my old flame reveals her charms — and her dramatic powers overshadow his pianistic weaknesses.  “Worst” is, after all, a comparative judgment; Helfgott does play most of the notes at reasonable tempos (in fact, so many tempos that the conductor is quite flummoxed).  If Helfgott’s were the only version of the Rachmaninoff Third I knew, I’d not only tolerate the bad playing, I’m certain I’d treasure it for the music alone.  Presumably, there are at this moment thousands of neophyte music lovers, owners of Helfgott’s CD, who are in precisely this position. 

I dearly hope that more than a few of these fans move on to better things, that in years to come names like Andsnes, Schiff, Hamelin, and Pletnev will be familiar to them.  Maybe by then, they’ll remember the Helfgott episode as some of us look back on the Pastoral Symphony sequence from Fantasia. It was kitsch, to be sure, but it could also be a young person’s first glimpse of Mount Beethoven.

But perhaps the poor quality of David Helfgott’s pianism misses the point altogether. Stan Godlovitch wrote recently in this journal, “The Helfgott affair exemplifies a new form of massively extended aesthetic object in which performance spills out over the confines of sculpted sound and encompasses the totality of opportunity offered by taking as one aesthetic unit a number of varied elements drawn from film, from sound recordings, from live display, and also — let us never forget — from the meta-aesthetic shadows following these displays in the form of promotion, advertising, radio, television and radio interviews, and other thematically related phenomena.”

If so, then the total entity that constitutes “David Helfgott” seen as a large-scale cinematic/musical/media aesthetic event has been abruptly altered by the appearance of some new information. A new player, so to speak, has crashed the scene.

Part of the meaning of the larger Helfgott-event in Godlovitch’s sense is that the film of David Helfgott’s life, Shine, was to be treated as a true-life story, a docudrama. The film’s writer, Jan Sardi, says in his introduction to the screenplay that “it remains faithful to the essence of the biographical facts,” and Shine was heavily advertised as a “true story” and accepted as such by its audiences. However, the whole issue of truth in relation to Shine needs a serious rethink. About the time the Shine Tour began, I noticed at the Jerusalem Post Internet site an an interview (February 23, 1997) with Helfgott’s older sister, Margaret. It was disturbing reading for anyone who accepted Shine as a true story. Now Margaret Helfgott has published Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine (Warner, $24.00), her incensed account of the Helfgott family’s life and her brother’s career. This book, co-written with journalist Tom Gross, reveals a campaign of disinformation mounted by Shine and its publicists.

In order that the dramatic salvation David Helfgott be effected in Shine — beginning with the implausibly polite and attentive crowd in a wine bar and culminating with the love of his new wife, the astrologer, Gillian — he had to be portrayed as down-and-out and friendless. According to Margaret Helfgott, this part of the film was pluperfectly false. David and his family exchanged affectionate letters through the whole time of his stay in London, letters which were rather treasured than burned by anyone. When it began to become clear that David was losing his grip, his father urged him to return to Australia. On his arrival home in August, 1970, he was welcomed by his whole family. Although in and out of mental hospitals, he continued to perform privately and in public.

He met and married his first wife, Claire Papp, in 1971, not long after he was released from his stay in hospital. He was at the time obsessed by this woman, a widow with four children who was herself a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp. His relationship with her so raised his spirits that he won the State Final of the ABC Concerto and Vocal Competition playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She helped him to continue with public performances, and like the rest of his family, including his father, visited him regularly when his condition declined and he was committed again to a mental hospital in 1974. Released in 1975, he was out of love, and so moved in not with his wife and her children, but went back to his father. It was his father who was caring for him at home when Peter Helfgott died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1975. There never existed an estrangement between them as portrayed in Shine. Peter Helfgott loved his son and David grieved at his funeral. The tragedy for Peter Helfgott was not that his talented son left home, but rather that David was slowly succumbing to the same genetically caused mental derangement that afflicted both Peter’s aunt in Poland and his own sister, Hannah, who died in 1989 in a Melbourne mental institution.

In a manner perfectly suited to the I’m-fine-but-my-parents-ruined-me zeitgeist of late-century America, Shine’s love-salvation of David Helfgott casts the father as cruel ogre, and idealized second-wife Gillian as the unique, first love of his life. The film’s director, Scott Hicks, summed it up in the Los Angeles Times: “David Helfgott owes his very life to his wife and her dedication to his well-being these past 13 years....” It is she who saved him and placed him in the position, as Hicks put it, where he “will never again find himself abandoned on the floor of some halfway house.”



The real Peter Helfgott with his teenage son, David, in Perth, 1961. Photo by Margaret Helfgott


















In fact, after David’s father died, his condition declined further, and he returned to hospital, where he had a piano to play. Released yet again, he stayed for a while with a couple in the country, and eventually decided to move into Bassendean Lodge, a halfway house run by Robert Fairman, a methodist minister who is well known for his work with the mentally disabled. David Helfgott was popular with the other residents, had an active social life, was given a piano for his own room when the lodge moved to a new building, and continued during his years there to give public concerts. In 1978 he was a guest artist in a fund raiser for his old high school, and presented recitals with his brother, Leslie, a violin teacher who played with the Karrinyup Symphony Orchestra. In 1980, he gave a concert with his brother’s orchestra, playing the Bach D Minor Concerto. During this period, he earned money teaching piano and working in a book bindery, and in 1983 his brother found him a job playing at a local wine bar. He did not have to stand in the rain and tap on the glass to get in, and why should he? He was David Helfgott, a well-known local pianist. In 1984, still working in the wine bar, he even played the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto with the Nedlands Symphony Orchestra at the University of West Australia.

Aside from Shine’s false picture of Peter Helfgott, perhaps the unkindest distortion of the film lies in its ignoring the devoted labor of Reverend Fairman, who spent years looking after David Helfgott and encouraging him to pursue his pianistic activities. The reality of Fairman’s work and David’s continuing concert career had to be ignored in order to validate Shine’s salvation scenario. Thus Gillian Helfgott told the Sydney Telegraph (May 30, 1986): “Imagine him locked up in an institution for twelve years. Sometimes they wouldn’t even let him play the piano. He suffered from severe loneliness with no one to ever care about him.” (His agent, Austen Prichard-Levy, admits that although he did have a piano in his bedroom in the halfway house, the instrument was “virtually unplayable.” This didn’t keep him from playing it for “up to ten hours a day, to cries of ‘Shut up, David’ from other residents.” Depending on the time of day, who could blame them?) Contrary to the implication of Shine and the claims of its publicists, the record demonstrates that over the whole of his life, David Helfgott has been helped along and supported continuously by dedicated people from every quarter, beginning with his parents and family, and including teachers, mental health workers, lovers, wives, friends, and fellow musicians. That so many have invested so much in him stands to the credit of both his musical talent and his attractively warm and good-natured personality. It all goes dead against the Shine narrative, however, which was required to demonize the father and ignore those who helped him after Peter Helfgott’s death.

Scott Hicks and David Helfgott

Little wonder then that when Margaret Helfgott began to voice objections to the film’s inaccuracies, Scott Hicks offered to give Helfgott family members unlisted telephone numbers, so they wouldn’t be “bothered” by the media. After an unpleasant confrontation in which she reports that Hicks called her “devious, manipulative, and jealous” for giving journalists an account of her family contrary to Shine’s, Margaret received an angry late-night phone call from Gillian Helfgott telling her, “I’m sick of the way you’re going on. You’re crapping all over everything. Do you want your mom to be harassed?” The letters David Helfgott wrote to his father over the years have significant bearing on this. Contrary to the movie, they were never destroyed, and since Margaret Helfgott has photocopies of them all, would it not be in the Helfgott family’s interest to see them made public? Unfortunately for the family the copyright for these letters is now controlled by Gillian Helfgott, whose lawyers have instructed Margaret Helfgott that she may not publish them.

It’s fashionable to proclaim in this media age that the distinction between cinematic truth and mundane reality has been abolished. Not quite, not yet. Oliver Stone’s lying JFK may have impressed the naive and the paranoid, but anyone who knows history will not be persuaded. It’s a bracing and immensely pleasant experience too, after all the victimology and sentimental twaddle surrounding Shine, to be brought back firmly to the musical and domestic life of one Australian family. Margaret Helfgott is a worthy defender of her family’s honor, and Out of Tune is far more engaging than either Shine or her brother’s piano playing.

Copyright © 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.