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Chopin the Teacher

MANY of the world’s greatest men have given their time, wholly or in part, to the cause of education. The names of those who made it their lifework are well known; but less thought is given to the fact that poets, painters, sculptors, historians, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of highest fame have divided their time between creative work and the imparting to others of their knowledge and skill: Milton, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Socrates, Plato, Spencer, Huxley, these are the names of a few of the exalted geniuses who have honored the teaching profession.

Most of the masters in music have been teachers also: Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Weber, and Liszt were sought after as teachers of eminence, the quality of instruction varying according to the temperament of the man, from good to indifferent; actually bad it could never have been, for association with a great man is always uplifting and fruitful.
Chopin’s Pupils.
The story of Chopin as a teacher is an interesting one. Unlike Bach, Liszt, and Mozart, he founded no school of playing in his own day, and none of his pupils became great composers or very distinguished pianists. This may have been because several of his most talented pupils died at an early age, or because, being mainly of the nobility, they had not the spur of necessity to prod them; or there may have been some quality necessary to vital teaching lacking in Chopin’s work—although this last surmise would seem, from the proof obtainable, to lack foundation, for both pupils and friends of Chopin considered him a most excellent teacher, and the records of his teaching bear them out in this. But while none of his pupils became great composers, a number of them became celebrated teachers. George Mathias, who studied with Chopin for five years, was until very recent years, when he was afflicted with blindness, one of the best known of the Parisian teachers of piano playing, as was also Marmontel. Carl Mikuli is best known through his edition of Chopin’s compositions. Others less prominent are Gustav Schumann, Brinley Richards, Lysberg, Wernik, Tellefsen, Guntsberg, and numerous Polish and French princesses and countesses. Those who have left written accounts of their pupilage are Madame Dubois, Adolph Gutmann, Mathias, Mikuli, and Madame Streicher. Madame Streicher’s diary, extending through ten years of musical association with Chopin, is especially valuable.

Chopin’s Enjoyment of Teaching.
Although Chopin did not in his day become the center of school, yet the influence of his music, and of his playing and teaching have left an indelible impress upon pianism; his etudes alone were epoch-making in piano-technic. As Chopin was engaged in teaching from four to five hours each day, it is a pleasure to learn that he thoroughly enjoyed the work. Karasowski, in his “Life of Chopin,” writes: “He found in this laborious employment a certain pleasure of which he made no secret, if only he discovered talent and industry in his pupils. He reproved, it is true, the slightest mistake, but always most kindly and in a manner to encourage the pupil. Only in later days, when his nerves were irritated to the uttermost by increasing disease, did he become angry, generally with pupils who were slow to comprehend. Then he threw the notes from the stand and the pupils were obliged to listen to bitter words. Chopin’s apparently weak hand has not only broken in pieces pencils, but chairs, also. But the outburst of passion did not last long. A tear in the eye of the upbraided pupil could appease the anger of the master at once, and his kind heart was troubled to make amends for the wrong.”
That his teaching might be of the very highest order, and no lesson be given when he was wearied, Chopin gave usually but four lessons a day, never more than five. These he gave punctually at the hour appointed, although a single lesson often lasted for several hours, during which “a holy and artistic zeal burned in Chopin; every word from his lips was incentive and inspiring.” Chopin’s usual charge for a lesson was twenty francs—about four dollars, and this, after the unpleasant European fashion, was placed upon the mantel shelf by the pupil, after receiving the lesson. “Yet even the highest fees could not induce him to give lessons to anyone without talent. Courteously—for with Chopin it could not be otherwise—he expressed his view in such a case, and declined to increase the number of his pupils. On the contrary, he encouraged young talent with genuine kindness. To such he lent with pleasure books, music, and sometimes even money, if he discovered that their means were limited, and also gave instruction to many without accepting compensation.” To the lessons he brought a concentrated intensity, an insistent force, which inspired his pupils with enthusiasm for work and a devotion to their master which never wavered, even when the lesson had been a stormy one. Through it all they recognized that he had their musical progress at heart.
All Chopin’s teaching tended to make, not merely pianists, but musicians of his pupils, and to this end he insisted upon much ensemble practice. He strongly advised the study of theory of music; and to such extent was this practiced by the more talented of his pupils, that “little Filtsch,” a wonderchild of 13, upon occasion when he was to play with orchestra the F minor Concerto, supplied from memory all the orchestral parts, which had become mislaid: it is not strange that Chopin greatly mourned the loss of this favorite pupil, who died when he was 15 years of age.

Chopin urged his students to frequent hearing of good singing, especially of the Italian school, in order to gain a good conception of legato, of phrasing and especially of the vocal portamento, an effect which he imitated when playing the embellishing runs and passages of his own compositions. “You must sing if you wish to play” he would say: and “he does not know how to connect two notes” was his most scathing, withering criticism.
Legato Scale Playing.
Apropos of legato, Mikuli writes that “he treated very thoroughly the different kinds of touch, especially the full-toned legato. As gymnastic helps he recommended the bending inward and outward of the wrist, the repeated touch from the wrist, the extending of the fingers, but all this with the earnest warning against overfatigue. He made his pupils play the scales with a full tone, as connectedly as possible, very slowly and gradually advancing to a quicker tempo, and with metronomic evenness. The passing of the thumb under the outer fingers and the passing of the latter over the former was to be facilitated by a corresponding turning inward of the hand. The scales with many black keys (B, F-sharp, and D-flat) were first studied, and last, as most difficult, C major. In the same sequence he took up Clementi’s Preludes et Exercises, a work which for its utility he esteemed very highly. According to Chopin the evenness of the scales (also of the arpeggios) not merely depended upon the utmost strengthening of the fingers by means of five-finger exercises and on a thumb entirely free at the passing under and over, but rather on a lateral movement (with the elbow hanging quite down and always easy) of the hand, not by jerks, but continuously and evenly flowing, which he, tried to illustrate by the glissando over the keyboard. Of studies he gave after this a selection of Cramer’s ‘Etudes,’ Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum, Moscheles’ style-studies for the higher development (which were very sympathetic to him), and J. S. Bach’s ‘Suites’ and some fugues from ‘Das Wohltemperirte Clavier.’ In a certain way Field’s and his own nocturnes numbered likewise with the studies, for in them the pupil was—partly by the apprehension of his explanations, partly by observation and imitation (he played them to the pupil unweariedly)—to learn to know, love, and execute the beautiful smooth vocal tone and the legato.” Smoothness of passage work and a cantabile style of playing he continually insisted upon. He considered that legato depends, primarily, upon absolute suppleness and independence of the fingers, and often cautioned the pupil—“easily, easily!” He insisted upon scale practice with all gradations and changes of dynamics, with both staccato and legato touches, as well as rhythmic playing in groups of four, three, or two notes. Mikuli says “Chopin taught indefatigably that the exercises in question were no mere mechanical ones, but called for the intelligence and the whole will of the pupil, on which account twenty, and even forty, thoughtless repetitions (up to this time the arcanum of so many schools) do no good at all, still less the practicing during which, according to Kalkbrenner’s advice, one may occupy one’s self simultaneously with some kind of reading. ”

Originality of Fingering.
While it is to Bach that we owe the establishment of the most common formula of scale fingering, and a methodic and intelligent use of the thumb in turning it under the fingers,—for he was the first musician of high standing who gave encouragement to the thumb to perform its natural function in scale playing, instead of hanging down, off the keys, cumbrously and uselessly,—it is to Chopin that we owe a scientific elaboration of this branch of technic. Chopin often advocated the turning of the thumb under the little finger when cantabile playing or speed were to be gained by this means. such a manner of playing, of course, implied an inclination of the hand even greater than with the usual fingering, so that the thumb could be prepared thoroughly and easily over the key next to be struck by it. This was not his only innovation; he frequently used his thumb on the black keys. With what horror did those of the old school look upon this innovation! What must Czerny have thought of this new style of fingering—Czerny, who in his rules for fingering says: “As to what must be observed or avoided in any regular system of fingering: First. When several keys are to be played, one after another. either in ascending or descending, and five fingers are not sufficient for the purpose, the four longer fingers must never be turned over one another; but we must either pass the thumb under, or pass the three middle fingers over the thumb. Secondly. The thumb must never be placed on the black keys. Thirdly. We must not strike two or more keys with the self-same finger.” As to Czerny’s remark about t he longer fingers being turned over each other, we well know that the playing of thirds and sixths as well as a cantabile style in general has been made much easier by the frequent violation of this rule—a violation so common as to have become, not merely the exception which proves the rule, but a law in itself, and one of infinite value. Legato in the outer parts can frequently be obtained only by this means, which, thanks to the boldness of Chopin, is now taught as a part of the technical equipment of every student. As to producing two or more consecutive tones by means of the same finger, we now do this in almost every piano composition, perforce, besides which, the player often prefers such fingering as a means of obtaining a certain quality of tone different from that gained by using successive fingers. These things Chopin taught, by example, by precept, and by the fingering which he sometimes marked in his own compositions. Chopin used two makes of piano: the Erard, when he was not feeling strong, because it had a “ready-made tone,” and, when in good health, the Pleyel, which he considered the superior instrument, because it yielded variety of tone in proportion to the skill of the performer.
The Pedals.
“In the use of the pedal he had likewise attained the greatest mastery, was uncommonly strict regarding the misuse of it, and said repeatedly to the pupil: ‘the correct employment of it remains a study of life.’ ” This from Madame Streicher; Marmontel, in his “Les Pianistes Celèbres,” corroborates this in saying: “No pianist before him employed the pedals alternately or simultaneously with so much tact and ability,—and in making constant use of the pedal he obtained ravishing harmonies and melodic rustlings which astonished and charmed. ‘Play as you feel and you will always play well’ was a maxim of his; and ‘do put your whole soul into that’ he would cry excitedly to a pupil who was missing the spirit of the passage he was playing.”  It is of interest to learn that, like Beethoven, Chopin intended to write a book upon piano-playing; like him, also, he always found poetic creation more important and interesting, and this proposed theoretic work was never completed. He wrote but a few pages, and these he destroyed, dissatisfied; for it is little, indeed, that one can learn of an art by reading about it. Living it is the only way of acquiring it in even a small degree.
His Kindliness.
A few anecdotes as to his reception of pupils and his personal attitude toward them will give an idea of his manner in teaching. Niecks, to whose “Life of Chopin” we owe more information than to any other one authority, quotes the following from Madame Streicher’s diary: “Anxiously I handed him my letters of introduction from Vienna, and begged him to take me as a pupil. He said very politely, but very formally: ‘You have played with applause at a matinee at the house of Countess Appony, the wife of the Austrian ambassador, and will hardly require my instruction.’ I became afraid, for I was wise enough to understand that he had not the least inclination to accept me as a pupil. I quickly protested that I knew very well that I had still very, very much to learn. And, I added timidly, I should like to be able to play his wondrously beautiful compositions well. ‘Oh!’ he exclaimed, ‘it would be sad if people were not in a position to play them well without my instruction.’ ‘I certainly am not able to do so,’ I replied anxiously. ‘Well, play me something,’ he said. And in a moment his reserve had vanished. Kindly and indulgently he helped me to overcome my timidity, moved the piano, inquired whether I were comfortably seated, let me play till I had become calm, then gently found fault with my stiff wrist, praised my correct comprehension, and accepted me as a pupil. He arranged for two lessons a week, then turned in the most amiable way to my aunt, excusing himself beforehand if he should often be obliged to change the day and hour of the lesson on account of his delicate health. His servant would always inform us of this… . He taught with a patience, perseverance, and zeal which were admirable. His lessons always lasted a full hour, generally he was so kind as to make them longer. Many a Sunday I began at one o’clock to play at Chopin’s, and only at four or five o’clock in the afternoon did he dismiss me. Then he also played, and how splendidly: but not only his own compositions, also those of other masters, in order to teach the pupil how they should be performed… . At a soirée (December 20, 1848) he made me play the sonata with the ‘Funeral March’ before a large assemblage. On the morning of the same day I had once more to play over to him the sonata, but was very nervous. ‘Why do you play less well to-day?’ he asked. I replied that I was afraid. ‘Why? I consider that you play it well,’ he rejoined very gravely, indeed, severely. ‘But if you wish to play this evening as nobody played before you, and nobody will play after you, well then!’”
His Severity.
A view of Chopin at his teaching is given by Mikuli: “Chopin made great demands on the talent and diligence of the pupil. Consequently there were often des leçons orageuses, as it was called in the school idiom, and many a beautiful eye left the high altar of the Cité d’Orleans, Rue St. Lazarre, bedewed with tears, without, on that account, ever bearing the dearly beloved master the least grudge. For was not the severity which was not easily satisfied with anything the feverish vehemence with which the master wished to raise his disciples to his own standpoint, the ceaseless repetition of a passage till it was understood a guarantee that he had at heart the progress of the pupil.”

While these pupils emphasize the fact that Chopin often played to them, others state that his instructions were mostly verbal. But as every teacher will appreciate, whether or no he played much to the pupil would depend largely upon the pupil himself, the stage of his advancement, his temperament, and the likelihood of his profiting from such a form of instruction, as well as upon the state of health and strength and upon the mood of the master; for no good teacher trains all his pupils upon the same plan. That Chopin never resorted to the Procrustean bed, but, employing all his skill, adapted his teachings to the need of the individual pupil, is a foregone conclusion, even were the testimony not so varied and positive as it is.

Sarcasm—a powerful pedagogic lever when advisedly applied—he employed with telling effect. “What is that?” he once exclaimed to a pupil who had played an arpeggio in a slovenly and harsh manner: “Has a dog been barking?” and when hard-pressed as to the progress of a pupil of whose abilities he was unwilling to speak, he replied: “Oh, he makes very good chocolate!” a repressive evasion which served its purpose of stopping the conversation in the unwelcome direction. This style of response has since often been imitated by exasperated teachers. To a pupil misusing and exaggerating the much-abused tempo rubato he would mockingly exclaim: “Je vous prie de vous asseoir!”—asatiric order which soon produced a more balanced and rhythmic playing in the unfortunate pupil to whom it was given.
Tempo Rubato.
Reams have been written about the Chopin rubato. Concerning it Chopin himself said: “The left hand should be like a Capellmeister, it dare not for a moment become uncertain and wavering.” Again: “Let your left hand be your conductor and always keep time.” Mikuli explains the term in this way: “While the singing hand, either irresolutely lingering or as in passionate speech eagerly anticipating, with a certain impatient vehemence, freed the truth of the musical expression from all rythmic fetters; the other, the accompanying hand, continued to play strictly in time.” Madame Streicher writes: “His playing was always noble and beautiful, his tones always sang, whether in full forte or in the softest piano. He took infinite pains to teach the pupil this cantabile way of playing… . He also required the strictest adherence to the strictest rhythm, hated all lingering and dragging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos… . And it is just in this respect that people make such terrible mistakes in the execution of his works.” Next in importance to Chopin’s own words are perhaps those of Liszt, whose interpretations of Chopin’s works were sometimes more satisfactory to the composer than his own. Liszt gave this explanation to a pupil: “Do you see those trees ? The wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, but the tree remains the same. That is the Chopin rubato.” “Through his peculiar style of performance,” Liszt writes, “Chopin imparted the constant rocking with the most fascinating effect, thus making the melody undulate to and fro, like a skiff driven on over the bosom of tossing waves. This manner of execution, which set a seal so peculiar upon his own style of playing, was at first indicated by the term tempo rubato, affixed to his writings: a tempo agitated, broken, interrupted, a movement flexible, yet at the same time abrupt and languishing and vacillating as the flame under the fluctuating breath by which it is agitated. In his later productions we no longer find this mark. He was convinced that if the performer understood them, he would divine this rule of irregularity. All his compositions should be played with this accentuated and measured swaying and balancing. It is difficult for those who have not frequently heard him play to catch this secret of their proper execution. He seemed desirous of imparting this style to his numerous pupils, particularly those of his own country.

Teaching Material.
Chopin is said to have admired greatly the compositions of Mozart, and to have taught them;and although but one pupil mentions this fact, we cannot doubt it;for after hearing Ysaye’s playing of the “Concerto in E-flat major” or Reisenauer’s rendering of the “A minor Rondo,” one feels that Chopin’s original pianistic ornamentation germinated partly from the Mozart embellishments, as well as from the Italian school of bel canto, just as his harmonic strength is founded on Bach. Some of Schubert’s compositions were used as teaching material, and a few of Weber’s; of Beethoven’s music, only the three sonatas, Op. 27, No. 2, Op. 57, and Op. 26 were used; Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” and the “G minor Concerto” and some of Liszt’s compositions were also studied: and of Schumann, nothing at all, despite the fact that it is largely owed to Schumann’s journalistic generosity that Chopin so early won recognition from his contemporaries. For it was Schumann’s “Hats off, gentlemen,—a genius!” and the rest of that enthusiastic criticism of Chopin’s Op. 2 that caused his name to leap into sudden prominence among musicians.
Bach the Master.
As is evident to any student who feels the Chopin spirit and who studies his compositions with appreciation of their depth, Chopin was a devotee of Bach. “One morning he played from memory fourteen preludes and fugues of Bach’s,” writes Madame Streicher, “and when I expressed my joyful admiration at this unparalleled performance he replied: They can never be forgotten.’ “ Questioned as to how he prepared himself before giving a concert, he replied: “For two weeks I shut myself up and play Bach. That is my preparation. I do not practice my own compositions.” With such a reverence for this greatest of masters, and with such complete realization that his works form the firmest of all foundations for the musician, and for the pianist (even from a mere technical standpoint) Chopin (to paraphrase Schumann) “made the ‘Well-tempered Clavichord’ the daily bread” of his students. “Always practice Bach,” advised he; “this will be your best means to make progress.”


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