The Adagio and the Fugue of the first Sonata for violin (1720) of Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most difficult works ever written for violin (so I’m told). It was so innovative and puzzling that Bach died 30 years later without any publisher taking the risk to publish it. A century and a half later Brahms didn’t dare buy the original manuscript that was offered to him because he doubted that it was genuine. There are less than 10 minutes of music in this piece but it carries a shadow of disbelief from the first moment.
That is the composition, and this is the time and place: the Lepanto stop on the A line of the metro of Rome, on Monday the 18th of January, 2016. And this is the situation: A violinist plays with the violin case open at his feet to collect donations.
On that Monday in January, the man who was collecting the money in the Rome metro was famous throughout Italy. As an experiment, an Italian newspaper asked Carlo Maria Parazzoli to play the Bach piece in order to observe the reactions of passersby. The violinist, aged 51, was the first violinist of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia. Throughout his career he performed with the most celebrated conductors and in the most renowned music venues in the world. When he is in concert in an evening at the auditorium in the capital, revenue is in the 10s of thousands of euros, and a good seat costs about 50 euros.
The music in the metro was free and one would never be closer to the sound than in that venue at the Lepanto metro stop in Rome. But the results of the experiment? After a half hour of Bach, the take was a little more than 13 euros. Out of 1,760 passersby, only 11 stopped.
In 2008 a writer for the Washington Post conducted a similar experiment. He tested a thousand of those going through the subway of the US capital with a great violinist of this century. Joshua Bell, who is the closest to a rock star in the violin world, agreed to improvise as a street musician in downtown Washington during rush hour. For 43 minutes he played Bach’s Chaconne and 5 other pieces, collecting $32 and change from 27 people. No one recognized him and only one adult passerby stopped to listen…for 9 minutes.
To be fair, most people in the subway are rushing to work or other appointments. Even if they love classical music, they probably don’t have the time to stop and enjoy it. However,
in the days after the fall of the twin towers on September 11, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, at times joined by Emanuel Ax at the piano, played music on the platforms of the New York subway. And I just saw that a cellist played Bach in a Brussels piazza in homage to the victims of that terrorist attack. It probably happened in Paris too. I imagine that in these cases, many people stopped and listened. Music is good for the soul.