Ludovic Einaudi has a special manuscript displayed in his studio. It’s a student piece by him, with corrections from a surprising mentor: Karlheinz Stockhausen. When the famous avant-garde came to Milan in the early 1980s, the young Einaudi was a regular 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 wrote Light [his seven-opera series – Donnerstag, Samstag and Montag were premiered at La Scala], which uses the idea of composing a formula. I loved the idea that a week of music could be contained in a single seed. It’s something that stuck with me. Of course, my language is very different from Stockhausen.
“Different” is an ironic understatement. Stockhausen’s electronic and random works are considered among the most advanced achievements of contemporary music, but not, as one editor told me, “the kind of thing you hum after the concert.” Einaudi, on the other hand, specializes 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. If you ever see a ‘play me – I’m yours’ piano in a mall, someone at some point is sure to sit down and smack some Einaudi.
But Einaudi’s greatest achievement is the repopularization of the famous pianist-composer, developing the legacy left by Liszt. While 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 on a much softer tone, less technically demanding approach, his music appears just as impactful on its audience.
Poet Heinrich Heine described Liszt’s frenetic behavior at a concert as “Lisztomania”, and according to biographer Oliver Hilmes, “the women tore their hair trying to get their hands on a glass or a handkerchief that Liszt had used”. In 2014, after Einaudi In a period of time concert at the Arena di Verona, with a capacity of 11,000 seats, I attended a 21st century equivalent. As Einaudi signed the scores for a group of breathless teenagers, a girl held out her arm and insisted that the composer ink it. After a moment of hesitation, he complied. “I’m going to get a tattoo,” the young woman assured me.
I remind Einaudi of this incident, wondering if it was unusual. “I met several people who had my notes tattooed on them,” he comments, apparently both delighted and slightly embarrassed. The accessibility of music means that Einaudi fans aren’t just listeners – they’re often players too. The scores are as expected as the release of the album. It’s a model that has inspired dozens of others – Yiruma, Stephan Moccio and Joep Beving, to name a few, sell sheet music alongside records, backed by concerts of their own tunes. “I am now part of a forest of pianists who work in this way”, agrees Einaudi. “It was an interesting time when I started because there were still music stores and they didn’t know where to put my music – is it classical or pop?
There may be fewer music stores today, but the labeling of Einaudi music remains as controversial as it was 20 years ago. “Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t like my music – and I respect their opinion,” he says politely. “But some people have put on the internet that I pretend to write classical music – what does that mean? »
American composer Nico Muhly is also baffled by the industry’s insistence on categorization. ‘Critics and previewers get a huge 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, little matter, or this new hell, ‘Indie-Classical’,’ writes Muhly. And woe to any composer, be it Muhly, Anna Meredith or Einaudi, who moves between these parentheses. The problem is compounded when the artist achieves commercial success. For millions of fans, Einaudi is currently the greatest pianist-composer in the world. For most classical music critics, it is not.
I liked rock, folk and classical music – honestly I couldn’t choose between them
Einaudi was introduced to the piano by his mother, an accomplished musician. ‘My grandfather – his father – was a conductor and composer. She wasn’t professional but she taught me Bach, Chopin and Schubert. And the Rolling Stones! Her paternal grandfather was Luigi Einaudi, Italy’s second president (1948-55), and her father was a notable publisher. The varied cultural diet had a great impact on the teenage Einaudi. ‘I loved rock, folk and classical music – I honestly couldn’t choose between these types of music because they all gave me something. I couldn’t say ‘I like Chopin so I’ll throw the Beatles’.’
A graduate of the Milan Conservatory, he continued his composition studies with Luciano Berio and obtained a scholarship for the Tanglewood Music Festival. “When I started making my own music, I wanted to bring all of these influences together in one career,” he recalls. “I composed piano ballads that were in the tradition of classical composers – songs without words – but which used the harmony of the rock-pop tradition. It wasn’t a definite plan and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just played what I felt was fair.
The result was Einaudi’s first solo album, The wave (“The Waves”, 1996), inspired by the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf. This and I Giorni (‘Days‘, 2001) received airtime on Classic FM, and in an era before streaming, Einaudi’s music became some of the most in-demand. In 2011, Radio 1 DJ Greg James described how he had studied at university while listening to Einaudi and started playing piano music on the show as part of the station’s support for students. The title song of I Giorni was later downloaded so many times that it entered the official singles Chart Top 40 and the pianist was invited to play in a special Radio 1 piano session.
Einaudi continued to innovate: In a period of time (2013) became the first classic release to sell more digital downloads than physical copies. With the exception of Elton John, no other pianist is able to sell multiple dates for large venues of 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 the Manchester O2 Apollo, a date which has been postponed due to the pandemic.
The cover of Einaudi’s latest album, Submarine, features a swan photographed by the composer himself. He turns more and more to nature for inspiration. “The longer I live, the more interested I am in having a relationship with nature rather than human beings,” he says, half-joking. The 12 pieces on Submarine are all for solo piano, which was “prepared” by adding extra felt to the hammers. “I was looking for a specific color – it was a long process,” he says.
Like so many recent projects, Submarine was impacted by the 2020 lockdowns. The first fully solo album Einaudi has released in 20 years, it was written during a period of prolonged isolation and has an improvisational style. “I was writing every day and started editing and refining sections like you would,” he says, “but I found I wasn’t adding anything to the music. The best bits were musical breaths; once I exhaled, it was done.
Submarine follows on from Movie theater, a compilation of Einaudi’s greatest screenplay successes. To date, he has written for 80 film and television projects, including The Untouchables, nomadland and The water diviner. He’s also the unlikely creator behind the soundtrack of It’s England, a gritty and powerful British film (and subsequent TV spin-off) about skinheads and white supremacist culture in the 1980s. Between excerpts from The Specials and The Smiths are dark piano melodies that follow perfectly on-screen trauma. It’s the sadness that goes beyond the comfortable tunes in, say, night book Where Seven days of walkingand reveals another facet of the composer.
What Einaudi’s music means to so many listeners can be understood at a glance from YouTube comments (he has over a million subscribers to his official YouTube channel). “As someone with mental health issues, I find this music very helpful,” says one writer. “This music literally saved my life,” notes another. “Ludovico is the pianist who got me started piano lessons at 44,” someone else adds, while a jovial commenter puts “how many people have come here because they need to give it a try “. (The latter drew more than 2,000 likes.)
It may not be the most harmonically adventurous or technically complex, but Einaudi’s pianism is healing, soothing, engaging and encouraging. It comforts restless spirits and brings peace. “There’s an anxiety about having to be busy even though there’s no reason for it,” he says. “My music is a manifesto for slowing down.”