Leaves From a Virtuoso’s Note Book
By the Famous Russian Pianist, Conductor and Teacher
(Secured expressly for The Etude by Harriette Brower)
“Some of the happiest, although some of the most strenuous, days of my student life were spent with the master, Franz Liszt, in Weimar. I was but a lad of nineteen and had just finished my course of study at the Conservatory in Moscow. After this I had some lessons with Anton Rubinstein, who subsequently felt that the greatest thing for me would be to be accepted as a pupil by Liszt.
“A little later it was made possible for me to go abroad for further study. A couple of friends went with me, and we arrived in Leipsic in time for the Music Festival, in which Liszt himself was taking part. I met him and he asked me to come to Weimar and study with him. As soon as the Festival was over, my friends went with me to Weimar and engaged a room for me there. By this time I was horribly homesick, for I knew not a word of German; but after my first lesson with the master this feeling left me and I threw myself into my studies with the greatest ardor. For three years I had the infinite privilege of coming into close contact both as pupil and friend, with this wonderful man, who showed me many marks of his kindly interest and affectionate regard.
“I am asked sometimes what were the distinguishing characteristics of Liszt’s playing and why was it so remarkable. I find the question somewhat difficult to answer. His piano tone was not so big; some of the rest of us had as much; but it excelled in a marvellously searching, poignant quality, the like of which I have never heard from any one else. In fact it could not be said that he merely played the piano; he played music. The two terms are widely different. He would sit at the very same piano which we students used to thump with our playing, a very mediocre, unreliable instrument; yet he could produce music from it such as we, none of us, had dreamed of. Apropos of Rubinstein, Liszt once told me a story of a banquet given to Rubinstein in Vienna, at the close of his historical concerts there, Liszt himself being present. One of the committee gave ‘Rubinstein,’ as the first toast. Rubinstein became very restless during the speech, and as soon as the speaker finished he sprang to his feet, exclaiming, ‘How can you drink to my health, or honor me as a pianist, when Liszt is sitting at the same table? Compared to him we are all corporals and he is the one and only Field Marshal.’
“If ever you heard Anton Rubinstein you heard a fine artist, a great artist. I studied with him and know whereof I speak. Compared with the rest of us, he towered far higher. We were pigmies and he the stalwart man. But when one speaks of Liszt, then Rubinstein sinks into insignificance. He is then the pigmy and Liszt the giant. As much difference between them as between black and white. While Rubinstein had a fine tone quality, which he diligently cultivated, Liszt’s tone was memorable. I can never forget how he intoned the theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Those tones will remain with me for life; I can hear them now and always try to reproduce them when I play the work.
“It is the fashion to play Liszt’s music, and many treat it very superficially, as though it were merely meant for the salon. But there is usually a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. The master had some special thought or experience, which influenced or compelled him to compose as he did. And the interpreter of his music should bring to it a many-sided experience of life in order to fathom its depths. Take for instance that short composition of his, Il Penseroso. To many pianists it means little or nothing; just a ‘harmony of sweet sounds.’ When he wrote it, Liszt had in mind that masterpiece of Michael Angelo, the statue of Lorenzo di Medici, in the Church of San Lorenzo, in Florence. It will be remembered that he sits, a heroic figure, plunged in deep reflection, above two recumbent figures at his feet. The work is termed “Meditation,” and is one of the great marbles of the world of art. So with Liszt’s Sposolizio, an embodiment, in tones, of Raphael’s masterpiece of the Madonna. One has only to turn to the pieces to which Liszt has given titles, to realize the poetical significance of the compositions. I carry photographs of these masterpieces with me as reminders of the master’s intentions.
“In my long life I have met many interesting and remarkable personalities, but never have I seen any one as impressive as Liszt. One felt the instant of coming in touch with him, that there was something majestic, god-like in him; one felt that here was an all-embracing spirit. He impressed people that way and he played music in that spirit—the spirit of a conqueror.
The Music of Bach
“How Liszt loved the music of Bach, and taught us all to love it with him! I am still a student of this great music, for I do not know all of it by any means. I am only beginning to realize and feel its deep, inner meaning. I was over forty years old before I arrived at an understanding of the true greatness of the master and learned to play his music more in the way it should be played. Young pianists nowadays are fond of placing some of these big works on their programs. Well and good; if they play the notes with clearness and precision and give a general idea of the form of the compositions. When I see these programs I say—if the player is young—no, he has not lived, he has not the life experience to play such things. When one is twenty one cannot fathom the mysteries of Bach. Neither at thirty. At forty one begins to understand; at forty-five, yes, at forty-five, one should have arrived at years of experience—of life. But, lest these words should discourage young students and players who like to play Bach’s music, I hasten to say that I encourage them to study much and deeply into the works of this great master, for this study will bear rich fruit one day, when experience has prepared the soil and fertilized it.
“I feel, when I come to America, this great young country, that its people are strong, full of fire and vitality; they should also develop a great music. In the old world all depends on tradition; the people are bound and held back by it. They speak, act and feel as their parents, their grandparents, their great grandparents felt and acted. They are held back by barriers and obstacles of custom. Young America meets the obstacle fairly, gives it a blow, pushes it aside, and rushes on. Because their ancestors, in the old country, heated their houses very inadequately and froze in cold weather, their descendants do the same. America is more progressive and aggressive; the present generation will not follow in the steps of its forbears, but believes in progress. I love this freedom to progress, to constantly climb higher, and I feel this spirit will animate the art-life of the nation.
“Yes, I practice slowly. Doubtless fast practice is the bane of many a young student. Slow practice and medium power, not full power. I do not practice scales and finger exercises, but rather passages from pieces—difficult places from the whole piano literature, or perhaps I should say, from my repertoire. Take the C-sharp major Prelude from Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavichord;’ that makes a fine finger study. Then parts of the Chopin Etudes, octaves from Tschaikowsky, or anything that exercises the various muscles, or bits that need constant repetition. One must always practice; an artist can never get away from that!
Adapt the Work to the Hand
“As it may have been noticed from my recital programs, I have edited and revised many compositions, adapting them in various ways to the needs of the modern pianist. I have a large hand with a wide span and do not need to resort to the necessities of small hands in playing. For instance, take the little Gigue in B-flat by Bach. It will be remembered that this short piece requires constant crossing of left hand over the right, in order to bring out the melody. This effort is really not necessary if one has a hand capable of reaching the Intervals. I have altered the manner of performing the notes between the two hands, so there is seldom any crossing of hands necessary. It is quite simple in this way, and there is no change whatever in the notes themselves. In fact the theme sings itself more connectedly by this manner of playing. Many compositions gain in ease of delivery by forethought in making them more pianistic and helping them to lie better under the hand.
“Young would-be pianists do not work half hard enough and then wonder why they do not achieve great things. I sometimes think of the first lesson I had with Anton Rubinstein. I was told to prepare Schumann’s Kreisleriana, of eight pieces, Beethoven’s Concerto in E-flat, and Sonata in A, Opus 101, also Chopin’s Sonata in B minor. All these were then new to me and I had but six weeks to learn them. That was a task! By slaving seven or eight hours daily I mastered the notes fairly well; but of the inner meaning of these wonderful works a lad in his teens could hardly gain an insight through such a system of crowding. That the desire to learn was not killed in me was due to my happy disposition and real love for art. All the lessons with Anton Rubinstein were on the same order; I cramming for them and he hearing me go through my pieces and afterwards playing them for me, but without correcting me or showing me how to do them. The work I did with him was after I had graduated from the Conservatory, and was perhaps the stepping stone to the period I spent with my revered master, Liszt.
“I have very definite ideas as to how music should be taught. Let me tell you how we do it in Russia, in the great Conservatories there.
“Everything goes by system. There are two classes of students, the Lower and the Higher; there are also two classes of instructors. Those for the earlier grades must understand the foundation very thoroughly, and carry the student from the first beginnings up to a certain point, when he is ready to enter the higher classes. The Lower Class instructor may or may not be a player; he can cover the elementary work without ever having come before the public as a pianist.” His office is that of a teacher.
“The Upper Class master is called a Professor. He must be a concert artist, either actively before the public, or one who has done concert work at one time in his career. He builds up the student on the foundation laid by the assistant teacher and aims to turn him out an artistic player and good musician. The Professor trains him in advanced repertoire, forms his taste, and should be able to act as an interpretative model worthy of imitation.
“There is also system in studying repertoire. Take the Lower Class, for instance. It has several divisions. For each of these a certain number of compositions must be studied, such as are suitable for that degree of advancement. Small programs, for each division, can be made from these earlier lists. As the student advances, his repertoire grows with his progress. He must study for two years before he attempts anything of Chopin. As for Beethoven—with the exception of the little Sonatines and small pieces—a full-fledged Sonata is not to be thought of for a number of years.
“And so it is with all the big works of the pianist’s repertoire. Thus the student is carefully grounded, grows slowly but surely and advances gradually into the stature of a well-rounded musician.
“Perhaps you may think this sounds too slow and pedantic for rapidly-moving America. It may be somewhat slow but it is thorough; and it forms sound musicianship and produces capable artists. Russia is not alone in desiring thoroughness; for these methods are followed in other European schools. The result of this artistic completeness is that Americans, in many cases, have felt it necessary to come to Europe to study. Why do they do so? Because they realize that there is more thorough and artistic training to be had abroad than at home. But there is no need for this condition to exist. If Americans felt they could get equally sound, thorough and artistic culture at home, there would be no reason for them to seek it elsewhere.
The General Music School
“It seems to me we have to look deeper than the curriculum of the foreign music school—deeper even than its artistic ideals to find the cause of its artistic standing and success. The crux of the matter really is that the big European music schools are not run for pecuniary profit; they do not exist to make money. There is always a deficit at the end of the year. If the school is subsidized, the Government attends to the deficit; if not, wealthy individuals or a Committee in charge of school affairs looks after it. It is art first with us in Russia, not to see how much money can be made out of teachers’ labor or out of students’ fees.
“The case is different in America, is it not? There may be a few endowed music schools with you. But the general run of conservatories follow the plan of building upon a financial standard—in other words, of making it pay.
“I have conferred with some of the heads of flourishing music schools in this country, and they all tell me the same thing. They say: ‘Our school is on a firm financial basis; it brings in large sums each year; we never have a deficit.’ And I say to them it is not possible to run a school on the highest ideals, which will do justice to its professors, its teachers and students and yet make money. The money you make comes out of the teachers who must slave day in and day out, in order that the institution may take half the fee he earns from the student, and thus make money for it. I say to them frankly, I cannot teach in any institution under those conditions. Not that I wish to make large sums for myself; I am satisfied to earn enough for daily needs.
“It is the same with orchestras everywhere. They cannot be run with profit; there must always be sound financial backing. An illustration from my own experience might be apropos. I was arranging a performance of a large work by Ducasse for chorus and orchestra. In order to secure the musicians and ensure the necessary rehearsals, it brought the expenses—including hall and advertising—to 11,000 rubles. The tickets, all of which were sold, brought in 5,500 rubles, exactly one half the outlay; the other half came out of my own pocket.
“Therefore I repeat, it is impossible to give concerts of the highest class, or run an ideal music school at a profit. Have the latter endowed or subsidized; found it on the highest ideals; and there will then be no need for any student to leave his country to study elsewhere. You would have supreme institutions right in your midst.
“I am very glad of the opportunity to say a few words on this question; for I feel it is a vital one in the cause of music in this country.”