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Technical Phases Of Piano Playing


An article which is to deal with the whys and wherefores which actuate different artists in the physical peculiarities and varieties of attacking and presenting pianistic work will necessarily leave scope for great diversity of opinion, for “de gustibus non est disputandum” and even doctors disagree. Still there must be some underlying cause or principle, so elastic in character as to change and shift readily in its application to individual cases.

Differences in Hands.

The difference in hands has considerable to do with the manner of using them, and yet it seems as if hands of all descriptions, sizes, and shapes have been made to play well provided the right man (or woman) was behind the gun. Tausig, Pinner, and von Bülow had small hands; Godowsky, de Pachmann, and Joseffy do not wear number eight gloves; Rubinstein’s hand was large and ample, and very fleshy, and d’Albert’s resembles his in that respect. Joseffy’s hands make up in width what they lack in finger-length. The possessor of a very small hand, like Mr. Sherwood, is necessarily forced to resort to many peculiar motions in order to encompass stretches and skips, which Mr. Seeboeck, for instance, could easily reach. Madame Carreño’s hands and arms are solid and heavy and in marked contrast to the tech­nical outfit of Madame Bloomfield-Zeisler, which presents the very opposite features; one might go on ad infinitum, and yet all these artists play splendidly and have their own ways of doing it. Take Pa­derewski, for instance: His hands are muscular, the fingers long and slender, yet he controls the whole gamut of dynamic shadings from the force of a sledge hammer to a zephyr-like whisper.

In the Public Eye.

To some extent all artists are actors as well as poseurs, and are driven to that expedient largely by the audience. Men like Rosenthal, who disdain the half-darkened stage, the halo of long hair, who appear on the stage and seat themselves at the piano in a quiet, business-like manner, deprive themselves greatly of the halo and glamour which a little eccen­tricity and skillful stage management engender; but, after all, one is only too willing to consider the in­cidental chicanery and mannerisms a necessary evil and put up with it, provided the performance is satis­factory, and de Pachmann’s nonsense is only toler­ated, because, after all, when he settles down to his work, it is nobly done; the self-restraint which char­acterizes Rosenthal’s appearance applies also to Godowsky; this rare artist, however, lacks the phys­ical force of Rosenthal and in that way does not play to the gallery with the same effect.

There is an endless amount of entirely needless juggling with the keys in the playing of most all performers. After the key has been struck and is held down no amount of squeezing, jiggling, or mov­ing of finger, arm, or wrist makes the slightest dif­ference, and yet we are constantly treated to gym­nastic gyrations which have no earthly bearing on the actual performance. Of course, when a grand effect is intended, we expect to see as well as hear a grand effort, and the visual sensation has every­thing to do with the tonal results. We hear an opera better, when using the opera-glass, because the singers are brought nearer to us, and we see them sing; similarly do we receive a different perception of force, when we see the arms brought up high in the air, and then descend rapidly and land the hands on the keyboard with unerring strength and pre­cision.

Great Power from Hard Practice.

To produce just that orchestral and strident effect (as in the second theme of Liszt’s etude, “Die Wilde Jagd”) all artists preserve a rigid attitude of all muscles from the finger-tips to the shoulder and use the entire combination like a sledge-hammer, not pausing in the descent, nor relaxing until after the stroke. This sort of playing is comparatively mod­ern and was probably not used by the older virtuosi, who would otherwise have reduced the instruments of their period to kindling-wood very quickly. Ro­senthal combines with this arm-movement a peculiar snapping of the wrist, something like the cracking of a whip, which, in his case, probably serves to relax the muscular tension.

But all these tight-rope walkers of virtuosity, these Blondins of the piano, do such prodigious practice as ordinary mortals never conceive of. These Kube­liks and other comets of the concert stage saw wood at the rate of 25 hours a day and 61 minutes to the hour, and never ask: How long will it take? Nor do they propose to accomplish day before yesterday’s task on the day after to-morrow! The endless toil goes right along, and in that way they not only as­certain what they can do best, but also the manner in which that specialty can most easily be mastered, and these individual peculiarities fit their own cases only, and often form dangerous precedents for others to follow.

They do not disdain to study a finale from a Liszt Rhapsody for years before presenting it to the pub­lic (Carreño), nor to retire from publicity for six or eight years after graduating with highest honors from a Vienna conservatory in order to file away un­remittingly at their technical deficiencies, real or fancied, until the high and ideal standard of their own goal is reached (de Pachmann). These artists study a task for two years, which it takes fifteen minutes to perform, and consider the time well spent and themselves lucky to have accomplished so much in so short a time; they practice risky and ticklish places in the “Don Juan Fantasia” and Campanella until the element of chance is totally eliminated; certain jumps as in the Chopin variations, opus 2, and the etudes, opus 25, Nos. 1 and 3, also at the end of the scherzo opus 31, and the scherzo from the sonata, opus 35, in certain Scarlatti movements, at the end of the first Schumann “Kreisleriana” num­ber, and the coda of the fantasie, opus 17, also in some older compositions by Willmers and Moscheles, are attacked unhesitatingly and played with perfect composure and absolute correctness.

Selection of Technic.

The exigencies of the task often suggest the only possible technical solution; where, for instance, the harmonies fairly crawl along, as if in a fog after the second intermezzo in “Kreisleriana,” No. 2, we use the fingers accordingly, low down, with something of the kneading organ-touch; that all Bach is played with a high, clear, hammer-like finger-stroke goes without saying, for in no other way can that auto­matic precision be obtained, which alone insures cor­rect polyphonic playing. Where sentiment is in­volved, a clinging pressure is exerted, and many motions are resorted to in order to secure variety of tonal effects; in the half-staccato chords, which form one of the variations in Chopin’s berceuse, a bright and glassy effect is simulated by a participa­tion of the forearm, instead of using the wrist alone; such selections as Mendelssohn’s scherzo, opus 16, No. 2, are, so to speak, played entirely in the air, with the lightest possible wrist-staccato; the marvel­ous lightning-like rapidity of Madame Zeisler’s runs is often aided by a decided raising of the wrist and the fingers seem then to be in the best possible posi­tion to accomplish the desired effect and result.

In Schumann’s “Des Abends” the player should utilize a low position and play well into the piano, avoiding all side-motions and keeping the fingers almost entirely in actual touch with the keyboard, making up by pressure what is lost by the lack of stroke. Chopin’s nocturnes often require lengthened and curved finger-positions in quick succession, accord­ing to the required expression; light cadenzas usually involve curved fingers, arpeggio-work demands as well a horizontal position as the utmost freedom in other motions largely depending upon the shape of the hands, and no general rule can be given for the exe­cution of such pieces as Chopin’s etude, opus 25, No. 1, in which many performers are obliged to poise and support the hand almost entirely on the little finger while the rest of the palm is in nearly a perpendicu­lar position, while larger and wider hands can pre­serve more unity of condition. Broken-chord pas­sages, such as we encounter at the beginning of the finale in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, are best played with quiet and horizontal position of the hand, taking care to keep the thumb well over the keys; in all selections involving wide spreads—Liszt’s “Waldesrauschen” etc.—the remarks given above in connection with the Chopin etude, opus 25, No. 1, will equally apply. Continued wrist-octaves are often facilitated by shifting periodically from a low to a comparatively high position of the wrist, and this expedient is often resorted to advantageously in Rubinstein’s staccato etude, Liszt’s “Erl-King,” Godard’s “En Route” and the middle portion of Chopin’s polonaise, opus 53.

Of great importance is the upward arm-movement in pieces which commence with an unfinished meas­ure: Schumann’s “Faschings-schwank,” “Grillen,” and seventh novellette, and the opening of Mendelssohn’s concerto, opus 25, illustrate this point well; the eye of the hearer readily perceives the movement, and if the following measure is then played with proper ac­cent, the rhythmic rapport is successfully established, without which the listener is completely at sea in regard to the proper time-beat. Where sudden con­trasts are required, as in the scherzo of Beethoven’s sonata, opus 31, No. 3, and in the third variation from sonata, opus 26, a sudden stiffening of the muscles, coupled with an elastic arm-stroke, is in order. Often we introduce the beginning of a melody with a forearm movement effectively instead of using only the fingers, as in Neupert’s etude in F, and Brassin’s nocturne, opus 17; legato passages in double thirds are played with perfect quietude, the hand slightly turned in the direction toward which it is going; all unnecessary swaying motions of the body are to be avoided without, however, encouraging an ungraceful rigor; de Pachmann invests a mazurka or waltz with a peculiar charm by a slight sympa­thetic movement of the body, but with him it is an accepted part of the whole show, and he is so utterly sui generis that we gladly condone the offense.

Strongly to be condemned are the excesses of brute force and unwarranted changes of rhythm which characterize the performances of many great artists; but here again we must remember that “quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi” and that it would be as stupid to apply the tape-measure of conventional pedagogic requirements to a Paderewski as to imitate his offenses. It is just as well on such occasions to temporarily dispense with our critical acumen, lean back, thank Providence and our stars for giving us this star, and mentally exclaim: “Go in, good boy; hit ’em again.” But the result is deplorable when tyros like Gabrilowitsch and Hambourg set tradi­tion and sanity aside and inflict technically imperfect and mentally unbalanced performances on us. With these weaker vessels the extraordinary St. Vitus-like movements of the hands continue incessantly without rhyme or reason, and they disregard the fact that it is only what we do before and while we strike that affects the tone, and that, when the key is once pressed down and bottom is struck, nothing more can be done.

Strictly speaking, there is hardly a performance by a virtuoso which is not open to condemnation on rhythmical grounds, but it really seems as if the very extravagancies which are so offensive to the trained listener form the basis for the success with the audi­ence at large, and after all one person’s owl is an­ other’s nightingale and “wer vieles giebt, kann jedem etwas geben.” The truest test lies in the atmos­phere created by the artist for the listener, and in this indispensable requirement, many fail while others glory in imperishable fame; it is in this regard that the strong objective players of the Rubinstein type excel, while the followers of the analytical and sub­jective von Bülow school suffer by comparison; in­tellectual pleasures may last longer than those of sensuous emotionality, but who would not rather enjoy the frenetic plaudits of an enthusiastic au­dience, wild with excitement, than the rational retrospect and deliberate attitude of the reasoning cognoscenti; from the box-office point of view the former success likewise yields much more satisfactory and telling results, as evidenced by Kubelik’s present experience in America.
Where we desire to emphasize the ending of one phrase, and the commencement of a new sentence, a deliberate raising of the arm is of great assistance and makes the division more intelligible to the listener. There are some peculiar portamento effects in compositions of the character of Liszt’s D-flat “Consolation” and “Cantique d’Amour” where the same fingering is employed for continued double thirds or melody-notes; in such instances we use the whole forearm as a reinforcement of the hand, which is really active while the fingers are comparatively passive, yet firmly held. The position of the pianist should be reasonably quiet, the face should not be poised over the keys, nor is it good form to em­phasize the difficulty of a passage by an upward jerk of the hand at its conclusion, with a corresponding oscillation of the head in the opposite direction. We rarely hear a perfect legato nowadays, but are usu­ally treated to a semistaccato with obligato pedal and an immoderate use of the soft pedal, and it almost seems that an artist who plays a pure legato is relegated by the patronizing critic of the day to the days of Hummel, Moscheles, et al., and yet this very quality is extolled in the work of singers and violinists.

No Cut and Dried Methods of Selection.

It is thus evidenced that circumstances govern cases; those who claim to have rigid and cut-and-dried methods for each exigency are like the doctors whose patients die after a successful operation; it is like pronouncing the word either—you can say eether, or ither, and whichever you use somebody will make you wish that you had said the other; some use a high wrist, and some the low, and most of them ought not to attempt using theirs at all. Some of the best work is done by unconscious voli­tion; you ask the artist and he answers: “Je ne sais quoi.” He is like the darkey at the hotel who picks out your hat from five hundred others, not because he knows that it is yours, but because you gave it to him. Call it what you will,—instinct, talent, aptitude, or genius,—some have it, and others never can acquire it; perhaps it is Kismet. We heard a little 17-year-old girl here a few weeks ago who played a tremendous program superbly and seem­ingly had nothing more to learn, while only last week I attended an exhibition of very poor piano-playing by a lady who, chronologically speaking, has had ample time to do better, and there you are! When I studied in Berlin many years ago Ehrlich made the same point in regard to Anna Mehlig, who was just beginning to attract attention, and who at the age of 16 played with dazzling technical facility; practice will do much, but not everything, and we all remember Josef Hofmann at a tender age. I have never forgotten a masterly performance of the Bach-Liszt “G-minor Fantasie and Fugue” by Adele Aus der Ohe at the age of 13, and of Chopin’s E-minor concerto by Joseffy at 16. Most of us are apprentices until we are 50, and find it a hard C. O. D. world; some drop out, some are knocked out, while others are forced out, and I pity the many who are completely out, and do not know it, and their name in the profession is legion.

Careful Study.

There is a disposition to underrate the difficulty of the task, and we do not place the blame of failure where it really belongs, and often we practice a seem­ingly easy selection like the Boccherini menuet for a month and then wonder why we cannot accomplish it, instead of thoroughly investigating the real state of affairs right at the beginning and saving valuable time in the end thereby; there are many performers who play neither well enough nor badly enough to interest us; they are on a level of dull, respectable commonplace mediocrity; to this category belong the people who give “functions” at fashionable hotels under patronage of society people, and whose adver­tisements refer more to their teachers than them­selves; with them it matters but little what and how they play; but with earnest students the how is a matter of much concern, and I trust that the above desultory hints will prove of service.

When you play Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” look the very repose which is intended, whereas Kullak’s arrangement of Lützow’s “Wilde Jagd,” with its bugle-calls and cavalry charge, necessitates a visible staccato and violent treatment in accordance with the score.

Variety is the spice of life and furnishes the condi­ment which seasons the common gruel of existence; interpretation is largely individual, and many sins are committed in the name of tradition; the means of interpreting are also unlimited and cannot be de­vised accurately. I have read the preceding articles in The Etude on the same topic with interest; the writers gave their own experiences, which makes good reading, but is hardly convincing, when all is said and done, each performer is apt to make his own selection from the bill of fare at hand. In listening to an artist, judge him by his best efforts only, for they furnish the correct criterion; where there are strong lights, there must be also powerful shadows.

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