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Leopold Godowsky - The Place of Technic in Pianoforte Playing

[EDITOR’S NOTE.—The following interview with the renowned pianist, Leopold Godowsky, was secured shortly after his arrival in America for his present tour, No pianist in recent years has attracted such wide attention as Godowsky. He was born at Wilna, Russia (Russian Poland), February 13th, 1870. His father was a physician. When Godowsky was nine years old he made his first public appearance as a pianist and met with instantaneous success—success so great that a tour of Germany and Poland was arranged for the child. When thirteen he entered the Royal high School for Music in Berlin as the protege of a rich banker of Königsberg. There he studied under Bargeil and Rudorff. In 1884 he toured America together with Ovide Musin, the violin virtuoso. Two years later he became the pupil of Saint- Saëns in Paris. In 1887 and 1888 he toured France and visited London where he received a command to appear at the British Court. In 1890 he returned to America and made this country his home for ten years, appearing frequently in concert and engaging in several tours. In 1894-1895 he became head of the piano department of the South Broad Street Conservatory, Philadelphia. He then became director of the Piano Department of the Chicago Conservatory and held this position for five years. In 1900 Godowsky appeared in Berlin and was immediately recognized as one of the great piano masters of his time. In 1909 he became director of the Master School of Piano Playing connected with the Imperial Conservatory of Vienna (a post previously held by Emil Sauer and F. B. Busoni). His success as a teacher has been exceptional. His compositions, particularly his fifty studies upon Chopin Etudes, have won the admiration of the entire musical world.]
“IT is
quite impossible in a short talk to the readers of THE ETUDE to do more than discuss a few of the more important points in the subject proposed. It may safely he said at the start, however, that the popular conception of technic is quite an erroneous one and one that deserves correction. It is highly necessary that the student should have a correct attitude of mind regarding this matter. First of all, I distinguish between what might be called mere mechanics and technic.

“The art of piano playing as a whole seems to divide itself into three quite distinct channels when it is considered from the educational standpoint. The first channel is that of mechanics. This would naturally include all that pertains to that branch of piano study which has to do with the exercises that develop the hand from the machine standpoint—that is, make it capable of playing with the greatest possible rapidity, the greatest possible power, when power is needed and also provide it with the ability to play those passages which, because of fingering or unusual arrangement of the piano keys, are particularly difficult to perform.
“In the second channel we would find the study of the technic of the art of playing the instrument. Technic differs from the mechanics of piano playing in that it has properly to do with the intellectual phase of the subject rather than the physical. It is the brain side ofthe study not the digital or the manual. To the average student who is short—sighted enough to spend hours hammering away at the keyboard developingthe mechanical side of his work, a real conscious knowledge of the great saving he could effect through technic, would be a godsend. Technic properly has to do with Rhythm, Tempo, Accent, Phrasing, Dynamics, Agogics, Touch, etc.
“The excellence of one’s technic depends upon the accuracy of one’s understanding of these subjects and his skill in applying them to his interpretations at the keyboard. Mechanical skill, minus real technical grasp, places the player upon a lower footing than the piano-playing machines which really do play all the notes, with all the speed and all the power the operator demands.Some of these instruments, indeed, are so constructed that many of the important considerations that we have placed in the realm of technic are reproduced in a surprising manner.
“However, not until man invents a living soul, can piano playing by machine include the third and vastly important channel through which we communicate the works of the masters to those who would hear them. That channel is the emotional or artistic phase of piano playing. It is the channel which the student must expect to develop largely through his own inborn artistic sense and his cultivated powers of observation of the playing of master pianists. It is the sacred fire communicated from one art generation to the next and modified by the individual emotions of the performer himself.
“Even though the performer may possess the most highly perfected mechanism, technical mastery which enables him to play great masterpieces effectively, if he does not possess the emotional insight, his performances will lack, a peculiar subtlety and artistic power that will deprive him of becoming a truly great pianist.
‘Exercises for the mechanical side of pianoforte playing abound. Czerny alone wrote over one thousand opus numbers. There have also been valuable attempts to provide books to assist the student in his technical work, but it should always be remembered that this depends first of all upon understanding and then upon the ability to translate that understanding to the instrument.

“There can never be any exercises in the emotional side of the student’s work other than the entire literature of the instrument. Onemay as well try to capturethe perfume of the flower as define the requirements of the emotional in pianoforte playing. A great deal may be done to inspire the student and suggest ideas which may bring him to the proper artistic appreciation of a passage,but it it is this very indefinability which makes the emotional phase one of the most important of all. Attendance at the recitals of artistic pianists is of great help in this connection.

“The student, however, may learn a vast amount about real piano technic and apply his knowledge to his playing through the medium of the proper studies. For instance, in the subject of touch alone, there is a vast store of valuable information which can be gained from a review of the progressive steps through which this significant phase of the subject has passed during the last century. The art of piano playing, considered apart from that of the similar instruments which preceded the piano, is very little over one hundred years old.

“During this time many significant changes have been made inthe mechanism of the instrument and in the methods of manufacture. These changes in the nature of the instrument have in themselves doubtless had much to do with changes in methods of touch as have the natural evolutions coming through countless experiments made by teachers and performers. Thus we may speak of the subject of touch as being divided into three epochs,the first epoch being that of Czerny (characterizedby a stroke touch), the second being that of the famous Stuttgart Conservatory (characterized by a pressure touch), and the third or new epoch which is characterized by weight playing. All my own playing is based upon the last named method, and I had the honor of being one of the first to make application of it when I commenced teaching some twenty years ago.
“In this method of playing, the fingers are virtually ‘glued to the keys’ in that they leave them the least possible distance in order to accomplish their essential aims. This results in no waste motion of any kind, no loss of power and consequently the greatest possible conservation of energy. In this manner of playing the arm is so relaxed that it would fall to the side if the keyboard were removed from beneath it. Since the hand and the arm are relaxed the back (top) of the hand is almost on a level with the fore arm.

“The high angular stroke which characterized the playing of the Czerny epoch and which could hardly fail to cause tired muscles and unbearably stiff playing, is seen very little in these days. By means of it the student was taught to deliver a blow to the keyboard— a blow which permitted very little modification to the requirements of modern technic.

“In my experience as a pianist and as a teacher, I have observed that the weight touch allows the greatest possible opportunity for the proper application of those all-important divisions of technic without which piano playing is not only inartistic, but devoid of all interest. Weight playing permits nothing to interfere with discriminative phrasing, complicated rhythmical problems, the infinitely subtle variation of time for expressive purposes now classed under the head of agogics, all shades of dynamic gradation; in fact everything that falls in the domain of the artist pianist.

“In weight playing the fingers seem to mould the piano keys under them, the hand and arm are relaxed, but never heavy. The maximum of relaxation results in the minimum of fatigue. In legato playing, for instance, the fingers rest upon the fleshy part behind the tip rather than immediately upon the tip as they would in passage work when the player desired to have the effect of a string of pearls. The sensation in legato playing is that of pulling back rather than striking the keys. In passages where force is required the sensation is that of pushing.
“Much might be said of the sensibility of the finger tips as they come in contact with the ivory and ebony keys. Most every artist has a strong consciousness that there is a very manifest relation between his emotional and mental conditions and his tactile sense, that is his highly developed sense of feeling at the finger tips on the keyboard. However, the phenomena may be explained from the psychological standpoint, it is nevertheless true that the feeling of longing, yearning, hope or soulful anticipation, for instance, induces a totally different kind of touch from that of anger, resentment or hate.

“The artist who is incapable of communicating his emotions to the keyboard or who must depend upon artifice to stimulate emotions rarely electrifies his audiences. Every concert is a test of the artist’s sincerity not merely an exhibition of his prowess, or his acrobatic accomplishments on the keyboard. He must have some vital message to convey to his audience or else his entire performance will prove meaningless, soulless, worthless.

“That which is of greatest importance to him is to have the least possible barrier between his artistic conception of the work he would interpret and the sounds that are conveyed to the ears of his audience. If we obliterate the emotional side and depend upon artifice or what might be called in vulgar parlance “tricks of the trade,” pianism will inevitably descend to a vastly lower level. By cultivating a sensibility in touch and employing the technical means which will bring the interpreter’s message to the world with the least possible obstruction, we reach the highest in the art. Those who would strain at gnats might contend that with the machinery of the instrument itself, intervening between the touch at the keyboard and the sounding wires, would make the influence of the emotions though the tactile sense (sense of touch) is wholly negligible. To this I can only reply that the experience of the artist and the teacher is always more reliable, more susceptible to finer appreciations of artistic values than that of the pure theorist, who views his problems through material rather than spiritual eyes. Every reader of THE ETUDE is familiar with the remarkable influence upon the nerves of the voice-making apparatus that any emotion makes. Is it not reasonable to suppose that the finger tips possess a similar sensibility and that the interpretations of any highly trained artist are duly affected through them?
“Indeed, Individuality, Character and Temperament are becoming more and more significant in the highly organized art of pianoforte playing. Remove these and the playing of the artist again becomes little better than that of a piano-playing machine. No machine can ever achieve the distinguishing charm that this trinity brings to pianoforte playing. Whether the performer is a ‘genius’ who has carefully developed the performance of a masterpiece until it evidences that distinguishing mark of the authoritative interpretation, or whether he is a ‘talent’ who improvizes as the mood of the moment inspires him and never plays the same composition twice in anything like a similar manner, he need not fear the rivalry of any machine so long as he preserves his individuality, character and temperament.
“The fault with many students, however, is the very erroneous idea that Genius or Talent will take the place of study and work. They minimize the necessity for a careful painstaking consideration of the infinite details of technic. To them, the significance of the developments of Bach, Rameau, and Scarlatti in fingering means nothing. They are content with the superficial. They are incapable of comparing the value of the advances made by Von Bülow, Tausig and other innovators whose lives were given to a large extent to the higher development of the technic of the instrument. They struggle laboriously at the keyboard, imagining that they are dealing with the problem of technic, when in reality they are doing little more than performing a drill in a kind of musical gymnasium—a necessary drill to be sure, but at the same time quite worthless unless directed by a brain trained in the principles of the technic of the art.

[Owing to Mr. Godowsky’s pressing engagements it was impossible for him to find leisure to revise the proofs of the foregoing in time for publication in this issue.]

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