WHAT THEY ARE SAYING
“In this dazzling, dizzying memoir, one of the world's leading newspaper editors tells of learning to play Chopin's formidable Ballade in G Minor against a backdrop of phone hacking and Wikileaks espionage. The day-to-day counterpoint of piano practice and breaking news is a compositional feat in itself: you have the impression of a wide-awake, fearless mind.”
- Alex Ross, author of the Rest is Noise and music critic of the New Yorker.
“This wonderfully illuminating and entertaining chronicle shows Mr. Rusbridger's incredible dedication and energy in pursuing the unattainable mastery of an iconic Chopin piano work. He is an amateur of the piano in the way that we all should be — he truly loves the music and the instrument. I am deeply inspired by his example.”
—Emanuel Ax, Grammy Award-winning pianist
“This captivating book masquerades as the journal of a magnificent obsession, but you soon realize that it's wider-ranging than that, and far more endearing. The story pivots on a feeling that many of us share: a deep and abiding love of music coupled with a daydreamer's challenge to master one truly great work. With an exegetical discussion of Chopin's masterpiece, Alan Rusbridger insists we step inside the music with him and consider the score with the probing mind of a dedicated amateur. A remarkable tour de force.” —
- Thad Carhart, author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank
"This is not only a diary of a 16-month challenge, but also an extended essay on beauty, memory and performance, on time and how we use it, on work and what we do it for. A wonderful book."
—Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live
"Music is not just for professionals. It is a universal art form - to be treasured, shared and enjoyed by amateurs. Play it Again is the inspiring story of how an exceptionally busy editor makes the time in his life for the piano - and one piece in particular, the fearsomely difficult Chopin G Minor Ballade. If it encourages others to find the space for music I, for one, would be extremely happy."
- Daniel Barenboim, pianist, conductor
“This charming, nimble, flighty book argues that a life cannot be too rounded nor a day too dull. It also makes an unarguable case for music-making as a life-giving oasis….Like a performance of the Ballade you are hurled towards a tumultuous finale.”
- Jasper Rees, Author of I found My Horn, Telegraph. ****
"Bravo for your determination!"
- Angela Hewitt, pianist.
"This book is an inspiration. You may be flummoxed by the constant reference to key signatures and metronome markings, impossibly fast semiquavers and complicated fingerings. You might be dazzled by the parade of living, breathing, international icons casually sardined into its pages, from musicians to world leaders, Alfred Brendel to Condoleezza Rice via Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Hough, Charles Rosen, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. ... But abandon envy. Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian and Observer, has attempted a feat so difficult, so crazed, so admirable, jaw-dropping and heroic you quite expect Julie Andrews and the whole cast of The Sound of Music to dance in with what should be the Rusbridger theme tune: 'Climb Every Mountain'.
The task he set himself, inspired by going to a summer piano camp, was to learn Chopin’s Ballade No.1, the pianist's ultimate nightmare, in 12 months. He had played the piano since childhood, never practised his scales but developed a facility for sight-reading. He more or less gave up until the age of 40. This book is about his super-human struggle to rid himself of all his old habits of skipping through the easy bits, skating over the hazards and never really improving as a pianist.
Had he done this in retirement, we should be staggered. That he has achieved it to a passable level - the details of just how passable are part of the drama of this gripping story in the busiest year of his journalistic career calls for wholehearted admiration. This was the year that included WikiLeaks and strange encounters with Julian Assange; Leveson, Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal and, weirdest of all, a trip to Libya where he braves a piano in a near deserted hotel restaurant in the middle of civil war: 'I see a few faces craning up at me, but soon they go back to their scrambled eggs and grilled tomatoes. This is hardly the craziest thing happening in Tripoli at the moment.'
His practice time per day averages around 20 minutes each morning before work. As you read it – presumably not having to fly the world, reinvent the news media, make frequent appearances on the Today programme or Newsnight – you feel you could do anything: learn gymnastics from scratch, become a Red Arrows pilot or, even play the piano. Maybe - if you possess some of Rusbridger’s uncompromising ambition. He has nerves of steel and a will to match. But he’s also funny, humble and realistic: this is a wonderfully rich read. There’s really only one message in this book that matters: it’s a love-song to the power of music.
"Listening again to my recording of Arthur Rubinstein’s performance of the Ballade, I am lost in wonder and admiration at the progress Rusbridger must have made since we used clumsily to play piano duets together when we were both foreign correspondents in Washington in the late 1980s. The question arises why? What has driven him on? And what has made him want to master a work that strikes fear into even the most accomplished professional pianist? These are questions to which he himself seeks the answers...
It is.. an impressive, even inspiring record of one man’s mountaineering exploit in the realm of music. Rusbridger set himself an ‘impossible’ goal, and then more or less achieved it. There is something admirable, even heroic, about that.
- Alexander Chancellor, former editor of the Spectator, Spectator
Play It Again turns out to be surprisingly pleasing, not only to the mind’s ear but to the heart and even, at a pinch, to the soul. For a start, it isn’t about triumph at all. Instead, it is about determination – determination to do something fiendishly hard and almost entirely pointless, and having the courage to stare down failure every day....His obsession is both charming and infectious: I ended up taking a keen interest in the fingering of the piece and I can’t even play “Chopsticks”.
Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times columnist, Editor's Notes, Financial Times.
This is an inspiring read for the competent amateur who aspires to play some of the “greats” of piano literature. The book is a celebration of the dogged persistence of the determined ‘amateur’ (in the French sense of the word – “a lover of….”), which will give hope and support to pianists seeking a challenge from new or more complex repertoire. The fact that Rusbridger pulled it off will doubtless inspire others to follow his example: I certainly hope so.
Frances Wilson, piano teacher and blogger The cross-eyed pianist
Bernard Levin once told me that journalism was “half gossip, half obsession, half slog and half madness”. If that’s true, Play it Again is a minor classic from a major hack. It’s an account by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian for the past 17 years, of how at the age of 57 he fulfilled a desire to play Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, a piano piece that packs enough challenges into ten minutes to give professionals sleepless nights for weeks.
Rusbridger didn’t take a sabbatical to accomplish this remarkable feat. On the contrary, he brushed up his pianistic skills, learnt in childhood but neglected for decades, in snatched 20-minute bursts, usually early in the morning, while editing a national paper in a year of huge stories (Wikileaks and phone-hacking, notably) for the other 17 waking hours of his day. It’s an engrossing, multi-stranded tale, wryly told in diary form and woven through with strands of autobiography dating back 50 years to Rusbridger’s choirboy days at Guildford Cathedral...
It’s about a stressed, insanely busy middle-aged person finding time to cultivate a hobby and discovering that his inner fire has been rekindled. That’s a lesson we all need.
Richard Morrison, chief music critic and columnist, the Times The Times (£)
This is a journal of [a] year: part piano diary, part day-by-day breakdown of what a 21st-century editor actually does. The result is a unique melange of political and musical reportage, meditations on music-making deftly interwoven with reflections on the ever-changing newspaper industry. The frenetic pace of Rusbridger's working life contrasts starkly with the tortoise-like speed of his pianistic progress, documented through detailed, self-flagellating metronome marks. WikiLeaks kicks into touch the problems of fingering and hand position; the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone puts paid to memorising.
To a professional pianist the practice diary induces exquisite agony, as the Titanic inches in slow motion towards the iceberg of performance. ..Rusbridger ducks off-piste at regular intervals to interview luminary pianists. Daniel Barenboim puffs a large cigar at Claridge's; Murray Perahia proffers chocolate cake in St John's Wood; Charles Rosen, painfully soon before his death, opens the door of his Manhattan apartment in pyjamas. Alfred Brendel, a reluctant Chopinist, looks on magisterially. Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, Noriko Ogawa and Stephen Hough chip in too. Almost all learned the Ballade on entering puberty. "It seems to be a piece everyone wants to try as a teenager," Rusbridger punts out at Barenboim. "Yeah," comes the voice of experience, "and then as an adult mostly avoids it!" All shed precious light on the Ballade, on Chopin, on performance. Ronan O'Hora is particularly insightful on how the piece invites hysteria in performance, drawing a parallel in Chopin's output with Elektra in Strauss's.
These contributions are central to the book's success. The author meanwhile illuminates not only print media in this digital age but also the changing role of music within it; much thought is given to the complementary roles of professional and amateur, of solo performance and chamber music played with friends...The book is handsomely produced, rich in both musical and photographic illustrations. At the end, delightfully, sits Rusbridger's own annotated score, complete with thoughts from his galaxy of star pianists
Enjoyment may not be the word, but Rusbridger emerges unscathed and quietly triumphant, older and wiser. The Matterhorn has been scaled, his epiphany rewarded.
What begins as a slow, esoteric exploration of the piano quickly turns into an extraordinary logbook of some of the most momentous global events of the past decade... As a politics junkie, amateur musician and journalist, it would be pretty difficult for me not to like this book. Would it be as interesting for a layman? Definitely in the case of Rusbridger's account of the battle with News International and his fallings out with Julian Assange. One gobbles up these entires like popcorn...
But alongside all this high-powered news-breaking and hobnobbing is some serious musical exegesis: harmonic analysis, a detailed examination of every finger permutation..and numerous lengthy discussions about the piece and Chopin with all the heavyweights... Simply looked at as a repository of information on how to perform Chopin, the book is invaluable....
Much the most interesting aspect of the book, however is in the main intellectual investigation and defence of the amateur, from the twittering citizen journalist to the online-score-distributing musical enthusiast. Prepare to be inspired....
"There are huge compensations in being an editor, but breathing space isn't one of them. Play it Again is based on Rusbridger's diaries and in pianistic terms is a two-handed one, one part being an ccount of the travails of learning the Ballade, the other chronicling a feverish journalistic year. ..The point of the exercise was never to play like a professional but to relish being an amateur. In this sense his book is affirmatory.."
- Michael Podger, Mail on Sunday ****
"Kudos to @arusbridger for learning, as an amateur, Chopin's 1st ballade and writing about it so beautifully... His book is so good on so many levels :)" - @JRhodesPianist - James Rhodes, concert pianist, broadcaster and writer
"Alan Rusbridger - Play it Again. Wonderful book! Says it all, and reminds me why I wanted to be a musician in the first place." - @PeterHDonohoe - silver medalist 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow
@arusbridger's splendid book - @iainburnside Pianist and broadcaster
"Thoroughly enjoying Play It Again by @arusbridger - brilliantly written and highly recommended. Felt as if piano was on the flight with me! Many thanks for being my tour companion. I hope your book will be an inspiration to all those who wish they had more time to play - your schedule made me feel positively lazy! I look forward to revisiting the Ballade #Chopin -" @kathystott Kathryn Stott Pianist
"Really interesting book by @arusbridger about an amateur learning the 1st Ballade. I like the curious weave of the subjects, a bit like a piece of music."
@houghhough Stephen Hough, pianist and writer
Chopin's Ballade No 1 is a piece even the greatest professionals struggle to master... For this one-time chorister and clarinettist, musicality isn't the issue so much as dogged, pedantic technique - the grunt work that never quite happened way back when. Although dressed up in the trappings of Chopin's Romantic excess, in many ways this is a quest for stillness and slowness.
What could be a navel-gazing study of self-growth emerges as a much more intriguing story about the value of amateuriusm. ..Chopin's Ballade (which is, incidentally, the piece that saves Adrian Brody's life in Roman Polanski's The Pianist) takes many forms throughout the book - nemesis, stress-relief, friendship-former - but, most interestingly, it's also the mirror into which a cast of extraordinary and unlikely characters peer.
Rusbridger is...exhaustingly fascinated by this music. He cares about fingering, arm-pressure and complex rhythmic divisions...such passages can be skipped over without loss and what remains is strangely gripping. While the diary format can make for a fragmented narrative it also allows the tensions of WikiLeaks, the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent investigation to build as if in real time. "
Alexandra Colghan, New Statesman music critic
Sir, All amateur pianists will be delighted with Alan Rusbridger’s book . ...There is no doubt the Chopin G Minor Ballade is formidable, especially for amateurs, a pianistic Himalaya. To think that Mr Rusbridger learned this 15-page masterpiece in 18 months in spite of a heavy work schedule is to be even more in awe of his accomplishment...Mr Rusbridger may be an amateur, but those who are familiar with this Ballade realise that he is obviously a fine and determined pianist. I hope to hear from time to time that he has climbed other beautiful musical mountains.
David Hawkins, Hillsdale, NY, Letter to FT (£)
Rusbridger was fortunate enough to receive advice from a number of world-class pianists, including Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax. An appendix to the book gives us a fascinating reproduction of the score, together with various comments from these great players, always helpful though sometimes daunting. Alongside the final coda to the Ballade, which even the most virtuoso pianists find frankly terrifying, Ax himself writes, “I don’t think I ever played the coda accurately. You know, it’s a very, very hard thing.” The two really appealing things about this book are Rusbridger’s deep love of music and his dogged belief that it is possible to find time for things such as piano practice, even for the most frenetically busy. He makes the life of a newspaper editor sound like sheer hell to me
- Christopher Hart Sunday Times (£)
His diary is a bravura performance of dedication undeterred by distraction
- Iain Finlayson, Saga Magazine
Really enjoying reading 'Play it again' by @arusbridger - inspiring me to crack on with the piano more than ever
- @richardhiscutt Richard Hiscutt, founder, Fantastic Thinking
Loved Play it Again by @arusbridger - didn't expect book about learning a piece of Chopin to be so gripping. Resolved to practice piano more
- @ruskin147 Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC Technology correspondent
Many ideas are developed in the course of this musical pilgrimage, and sometimes the subsidiary themes are so gripping that they threaten to eclipse the main subject.
Reading music is not an essential requirement for enjoying this book, but getting to know the Ballade will make Play it Again infinitely more enjoyable ...As soon as you enter the pages you are hooked, not just by the efforts to overcome this elusive piece through curiosity and courage, but by the clear way in which the diary takes the reader into the murky world of WikiLeaks and the still more polluted waters of phone hacking by News International. These are both stories the Guardian broke (with, we learn, considerable tenacity). As if this were not enough, one of the Guardian's foreign correspondents is thrown into prison in the last days of the Gaddafi regime. Tintin-like, our heroic editor flies into what is left of Tripoli and, with only hours to go before the airport shuts down completely, manages to rescue his man. This is riveting stuff..
The book's ultimately redemptive conclusion is that the determination to climb one of the high peaks of piano playing without the right gear (a formidable technique) requires devotion and dedication yet, in the doing, some insight into life, some acceptance of its irrational hurly-burly, is imparted like a blessing.
One of the most fascinating conversations in the book is with the neuroscientist, Ray Dolan, who patiently explains that there is no such thing as muscle memory, a term beloved by teachers, ski-instructors and tennis coaches. ..
It helps if you are as consumed with your goal as Rusbridger is, symptomatic of the qualities that have helped to make him such a successful journalist and editor...Politicians and newspaper editors in Britain tend to be less culturally aware than their counterparts in some other European countries, so it is encouraging to learn that not only Rusbridger, but also Robert Jay (the QC in the Leveson Inquiry) and Jonathan Evans (head of MI5) find their lives enriched by classical music - examples of why we must not disenfranchise our schoolchildren by denying them music as a core subject.
Play it Again is a hugely enjoyable, touching and informative volume.
- Michael Berkeley, composer and broadcaster, Literary Review.
"It's a tale of snatched practice times, advice from fellow amateurs and scientists and an entertaining and fascinating insight into the life of a national newspaper editor, complete with hair-raising visit to Tripoli to help secure the release of a Guardian journalist (where Rusbridger manages to steal time to practise on his hotel's dilapidated grand). But it's a tale, too, of self-discovery and fulfilment, an exploration of what it takes to embark on and succeed in a serious hobby alongside a consuing full-time job."
- Oliver Condy, Editor, BBC Music Magazine
"It’s an incredible journey with a successful result, one made all the more compelling by using his journalist skills to seek help and guidance from masters of the keyboard. The remarkable detail involved is equally intense and emotional... Yet where this brilliant book takes off is in the exciting background of Rusbridger the editor in intimate conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury or Martin McGuinness and battling with the Murdochs and even Julian Assange to orchestrate the sensational scoops that exposed the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and the downfall of the News of the World."
Only Baremboim laughs when Rusbridger confides his Ballade ambition... It is, after all, a work that terrifies even the most seasoned professionlas, most of whom have it in their fingers by their teens....As a prose stylist, Rusbridger is in the JB Priestly class. The heady pace of his narrative and brilliant perceptive commentary on the Ballade's progress contributes to what is an unlikely page-turner. I can't remember a musical journal that I enjoyed reading more.
Jeremy Nicholas, actor, writer, broadcaster & musician. Biographer of Chopin. Gramophone
Fascinating and inspiring in terms of getting inside the mind of an adult amateur pianist and seeing how his determination, enthusiasm, strength of character and love of music can carry him forward...Entertaining, intriguing and uplifting reading....Bravo! - a unique and wonderful testament to a deep faithful love of piano from a non- professional.
Murray Mclachlan , pianist and internationally renowned piano teacher.
The Chopin becomes a tantalising entity that tempts him on to better himself. And this makes the book rewarding at a deeper level than its already enticing surface.
Jessica Duchen , BBC Music Magazine *****
"An absorbing and technically detailed book in which the daily events of a newspaper during a tempestuous year play only a walk-on part. "
- Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Times Literary Supplement
-"Any journalist will find Rusbridger's personal account of these news events engrossing... Play it again is an extraordinary book.. I thoroughly enjoyed it."
- David Fairhall, British Journalism Review
- "a wonderful account of trying to learn a complex piano piece while running the Guardian at the time of WikiLeaks and phone hacking. I had to skip some of the accounts of the fingering he is learning but he eloquently expresses the struggle to take up the playing of this piece – the Chopin Ballade No 1 – and segues into fascinating accounts of different historic pianos and the idiosyncratic manner individual musicians use them, and his various "teachers", who mostly sound very strict, alongside the emergencies from the office. A parallel story of how newspapers can move forward in the digital age runs along the narrative. I am always curious about people's daily lives and their curiosities. This book gives both in abundance.
- an absorbing, adroitly crafted tale of humility, discipline and the sheer love of music...His triumph is an inspiration.
- Katie Hafner, New York Times
Alan Rusbridger, an unapologetic and disarming advocate of music by a composer who died 165 years ago and wrote for an instrument whose design has scarcely changed since the 1870s, should give pause to all who profess any connection to this tradition. In a classical music industry dominated by cries of doom, he cheerfully dives in, and across some four hundred pages of Play It Again, the pursuit of Chopin holds its own with WikiLeaks and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal....Yet no one—including a sizable scholarly literature on pianos and piano music—has delved into the process so enticingly as Rusbridger.
His diary, then, is a conceit, a stream-of-consciousness platform for exploring the challenges of remaining human in a world that moves at the speed of Twitter...Among the most remarkable entries in Play It Again is an early one, for August 8, 2010; it escorts the reader almost bar-by-bar through the entire ballade. .... But despite its array of a dozen musical examples, this seat-of-the-pants account will hold even the most uninitiated reader under its spell.
Rusbridger has mastered omnivorous high-end chattiness to a degree that makes readers feel they are hearing this unlikely tale over a cup of tea or a good Scotch. We come to care about the progress on his music room as much as we do about his negotiations with Julian Assange. Many a page emits the warm glow of Dickens, here as a Tale of Two Brain Hemispheres that complete rather than compete with each other. Books like Play It Again run the ever-present risk of narcissistic overtones. But Rusbridger describes his jousts with those in power in a straightforward fashion that calls relatively little attention to himself. About his own musical talents he takes gentle self-deprecation to a new level.
It is the author’s journey rather than his destination that we remember. In the end he is selling not triumph—leave that pointless pursuit to the politicians—but a powerful entreaty, merging science and the humanities, to engage before rigor mortis comes calling.