Ludovico Einaudi: why does the musical phenomenon still struggle to find acceptance in the classical music world?
His fans may run into the millions but, the pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi tells Claire Jackson, his style of writing will always struggle to find total acceptance within the classical music world
Ludovico Einaudi has a special manuscript displayed in his studio. It’s a student piece of his, with corrections from a surprising mentor: Karlheinz Stockhausen. When the renowned avant-gardist came to Milan during the early 1980s, the young Einaudi was a keen attendee at his lectures. ‘It was a very important experience for me,’ says the Italian pianist and composer, smiling at my surprised expression. ‘At the time, Stockhausen was writing Licht [his seven-opera series – Donnerstag, Samstag and Montag were premiered at La Scala], which uses the idea of composing to a formula. I loved the idea that a week of music could be contained in a single seed. It’s something that has stayed with me. Of course, my language is very different to Stockhausen.’
‘Different’ is a wry understatement. Stockhausen’s electronic and aleatoric works are considered among contemporary music’s most advanced achievements, but not, as one editor has said to me, ‘the sort of thing one hums after the concert’. Einaudi, on the other hand, specialises in hummable melodies – according to the Official Charts, his music is currently streamed over a million times a day, played everywhere from arena concerts to yoga classes. Should you ever see a ‘play me – I’m yours’ piano at a shopping centre, someone at some point is sure to sit down and tap out a little Einaudi.
But Einaudi’s greatest achievement is the re-popularisation of the celebrity pianist-composer, developing the legacy left by Liszt. Whereas the Hungarian virtuoso pushed the newly invented piano to its limits, the strings are more likely to remain intact after an Einaudi concert. But while the Italian takes a much softer, less technically demanding approach, his music appears just as impactful on its audience.
The poet Heinrich Heine described the frenzied behaviour at a Liszt concert as ‘Lisztomania’, and according to biographer Oliver Hilmes ‘Women tore at each other’s hair in trying to lay hands on a glass or handkerchief that Liszt had used’. In 2014, after Einaudi’s In A Time Lapse concert at the 11,000-capacity Arena di Verona, I witnessed a 21st-century equivalent. As Einaudi signed a group of breathless teenagers’ scores, one girl proffered her arm and insisted the composer inked it. After a moment’s hesitation, he obliged. ‘I will get tattoo,’ the young woman assured me.
I remind Einaudi about this incident, wondering whether it was unusual. ‘I have met several people who have my notes tattooed on them,’ he comments, apparently both pleased and mildly embarrassed. The music’s accessibility means that Einaudi’s fans aren’t just listeners – they are often players as well. Scores are as highly anticipated as the album release. It’s a model that has gone on to inspire dozens of others – Yiruma, Stephan Moccio and Joep Beving, to name a few, sell sheet music alongside records, supported by concerts of their own pieces. ‘I am now one in a forest of pianists who work in this way,’ agrees Einaudi. ‘It was an interesting time when I first started, as there were still music shops and they didn’t know where to place my music – is it classical or pop?’
There may be fewer music shops today, but labelling Einaudi’s music remains as contentious as it was 20 years ago. ‘Of course there are lots of people who don’t like my music – and I respect their opinion,’ he says politely. ‘But some people put on the internet that I pretend to write classical music – what does that mean?’
American composer Nico Muhly is similarly baffled by the industry’s insistence on categorisation. ‘Reviewers and previewers get an enormous pass if they can describe a composer’s work as being part of some sort of genre: post-minimalist, new complexity, Darmstadt School, chamber pop, whatever, or this new hellery, “Indie-Classical”,’ writes Muhly. And woe betide any composer, be it Muhly, Anna Meredith or Einaudi, who moves between those brackets. The problem is compounded when the artist is commercially successful. To millions of fans, Einaudi is currently the world’s greatest pianist-composer. To most classical music critics, he is not.
I loved rock music, folk and classical – I honestly couldn’t choose between them
Einaudi was introduced to the piano by his mother, an accomplished musician. ‘My grandfather – her father – was a conductor and composer. She was not professional but she taught me about Bach, Chopin and Schubert. And the Rolling Stones!’ His paternal grandfather was Luigi Einaudi, the second president of Italy (1948-55), and his father was a notable publisher. The varied cultural diet had a big impact on the teenage Einaudi. ‘I loved rock music, folk and classical – I honestly couldn’t choose between these types of music as they all gave me something. I couldn’t say “I love Chopin so I will throw away The Beatles”.’
After graduating from Milan’s Conservatory, he continued studying composition with Luciano Berio and was awarded a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival. ‘When I started to make my own music I wanted to bring all these influences into one career,’ he reflects. ‘I composed piano ballades that were in the tradition of classical composers – songs without words – but that used harmony from the rock-pop tradition. It wasn’t a precise plan and I didn’t know what would happen. I just played what I felt was right.’
The result was Einaudi’s first solo album, Le Onde (‘The Waves’, 1996), inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. Both this and I Giorni (‘The Days’, 2001) benefitted from air time on Classic FM and, at a time before streaming, Einaudi’s music became some of the most frequently requested. In 2011, Radio 1 DJ Greg James described how he revised at university while listening to Einaudi and began playing the piano music on the show as part of the station’s support for students. The title track from I Giorni was subsequently downloaded so many times that it entered the Official Singles Chart Top 40 and the pianist was invited to perform in a special Radio 1 Piano Session.
Einaudi has continued to break new ground: In a Time Lapse (2013) became the first classical release to sell more digital downloads than physical copies. With the exception of Elton John, no other pianist is capable of selling out multiple dates for large venues on the same scale. When he comes to the UK in the spring, the 66 year-old will perform three nights at Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith and two at Alexandra Palace. His London residency will be interspersed with a performance at Manchester O2 Apollo, a date that has been rescheduled due to the pandemic.
The cover of Einaudi’s latest album, Underwater, features a swan photographed by the composer himself. He increasingly turns to nature for inspiration. ‘The more I live the more interested I am in having a relationship with nature rather than human beings,’ he says, only half-jokingly. The 12 pieces on Underwater are all for solo piano, which has been ‘prepared’ by adding additional felt to the hammers. ‘I was looking for a specific colour – it was a long process,’ he says.
Like so many recent projects, Underwater was impacted by the 2020 lockdowns. The first entirely solo album Einaudi has released in 20 years, it was written during a period of extended isolation and has an improvisatory style. ‘I wrote every day and began to edit and refine sections as you would,’ he says, ‘but I found that I was not adding to the music. The best pieces were musical breaths; once I’d exhaled, it was done.’
Underwater follows on from Cinema, a compilation of Einaudi’s greatest screen-writing hits. To date, he has written for 80 film and TV projects, including The Intouchables, Nomadland and The Water Diviner. He is also the unlikely creative behind the soundtrack to This Is England, a gritty, powerful British film (and subsequent TV spin-off) about skinheads and white supremacist culture in the 1980s. In between snippets of The Specials and The Smiths are dark piano melodies that perfectly track the on-screen trauma. It’s bleakness that goes beyond the comfortable tunes in, say, Nightbook or Seven Days Walking, and reveals another side to the composer.
What Einaudi’s music means to so many listeners may be gathered through a glance at YouTube comments (he has over one million subscribers to his official YouTube channel). ‘As someone who suffers from mental health issues, I find this music so helpful,’ says one writer, ‘This music literally saved my life,’ notes another. ‘Ludovico is the pianist who made me start piano lessons at 44,’ adds someone else, while a jovial commentator puts ‘how many people came here as they need to knock out an essay’. (That last one attracted over 2,000 likes.)
It might not be the most harmonically adventurous or technically complex, but Einaudi’s pianism heals, soothes, engages and encourages. It comforts hectic minds and brings peace. ‘There’s an anxiety about having to be busy even if there’s no reason for it,’ he says. ‘My music is a manifesto for slowing down.’
Journalist Claire Jackson regularly writes for BBC Music Magazine and Opera Now, and the Big Issue. She has also written for Country Life and Pianist, as well as industry titles including Classical Music and International Arts Manager. She is also a former editor of International Piano (2011-15) and Muso (2008-11), an alternative classical music magazine that was distributed throughout conservatoires in the UK and the US.