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Musician-Scientist Dies

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Manfred Eigen (Ingrid von Kruse photo)

Manfred Eigen, renowned German biochemist, who won the Nobel Prize in 1967 for his elucidation of ultrafast chemical reactions, died on February 6th. I never read much about Eigen’s kinetics research, but I do remember a surprisingly readable and fascinating article that he wrote on “viral quasispecies” in Scientific American. I also remember the CD “Musikalische Spezialitäten 1991”that has Mozart’s Piano Concertos in A major, K. 414, and G major, K. 453, with the New Orchestra of Boston conducted by David Epstein, with Manfred Eigen the scientist as the piano soloist; the performances are very good indeed. Eigen’s own liner notes for the record include this: “Mozart himself would probably have had no objection to the fact that the solo part was played by a dilettante since he wrote so many of his works for his own pupils. One day when I accompanied Rudolf Serkin at a rehearsal, I mentioned that I was only a dilettante at playing the piano. He paused for a moment and then said gravely: ‘But we are all dilettantes!’”

Eigen’s recording testifies not only to the ability of amateur musicians to rise to professional proficiency, but also, and more so, to the priceless value to our art of the amateur musician’s role; amateur musicians keep alive the musical art just as surely as do the professionals, whether in community orchestras and choruses or theater groups, church choirs, chamber musicians who play one concert a year instead of 40, and record collectors who can remember and sing more themes from more 19th-century symphonies than can most professional violinists or pianists. 

Eigen’s research made me think about how his own excellent musicianship may have influenced the very idea of  “viral quasispecies.” Wikipedia gives a practical explanation: “A viral quasispecies is a group of viruses related by a similar mutation or mutations, competing within a highly mutagenic environment. …The quasispecies model is deemed to be relevant to RNA viruses because they have high mutation rates … and viral populations, while not infinite, are extremely large.” Allowing for the rather different sphere of action and relevance, I perceive a musical analogue, which can be found in different versions of the same work: Bach’s different arrangements of the same concerto (e.g. BWV 1049 and 1057; or 1043 and 1062), for instance; or different arrangements by others of Art of the Fugue (for two keyboards, for organ, for string quartet, etc.); Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Second Symphony as a piano trio, or any number of other arrangements you or I could name. And beyond this, musical quasispecies can be considered as different performances by different performers of the same version of the same work.  The speciation resides in the recognizability; the “Hallelujah” Chorus sung by the three Roche sisters, or even the 19th-century arrangement for two flutes, is what we cannot fail to identify as the “Hallelujah” Chorus. What may be defective may in the event no longer be ineffective, to return to the viral model;  “authenticity,” whether of any performance or any arrangement or even any edition of a printed score, is therefore a relative property, and an artificial construct — to whatever extent, a quasispecies of a musical work. Eigen’s recording of Mozart’s K. 453 Concerto no. 17 utilized Mozart’s full indicated orchestra; Meng-Chieh Liu’s performance of the same concerto last week in Jordan Hall did not; we recognize the differences, but they are differences of the same work.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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