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The Indispensables in Pianistic Success

An Interview with the Eminent Piano Virtuoso JOSEF HOFMANN
 
(The First Section of this Interview Appeared in The Etude Last Month)
 
"In the art of piano playing we have much the same line of curve. At first there was childlike simplicity. Then, with the further development of the art, we find the tendency toward enormous technical accomplishment and very great complexity. Fifty years ago technic was everything. The art of piano playing was the art of the musical speedometer; the art of playing the greatest number of notes in the shortest possible time. Of course, there were a few outstanding giants, Rubinsteins, Liszts and Chopins, who made their technic subordinate to their message; but the public was dazzled with technic—one might better say pyrotechnics. Now we find the circle drawing toward the point of simplicity again. Great beauty, combined with adequate technic, is demanded rather than enormous technic divorced from beauty.
 
"Technic represents the material side of art, as money represents the material side of life. By all means achieve a fine technic, but do not dream that you will be artistically happy with this alone. Thousands—millions—of people believe that money is the basis of great happiness, only to find, when they have accumulated vast fortunes, that money is only one of the extraneous details which may—or may not—contribute to real content in life.
 
"Technic is a chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what he needs at the right time for the right purpose. The mere possession of the tools means nothing; it is the instinct—the artistic intuition as to when and how to use the tools that counts. It is like opening the drawer and finding what one needs at the moment.
 
The Technic Which Liberates
"There is a technic which liberates and a technic which represses the artistic self. All technic ought to be a means of expression. It is perfectly possible to accumulate a technic that is next to useless. I recall the case of a musician in Paris who studied counterpoint, harmony and fugue for eight years, and at the end of that time he was incapable of using any of his knowledge in practical musical composition. Why? Because he had spent all of his time on the mere dry technic of composition, and none in actual composition. He told me that he had been years trying to link his technic to the artistic side of things—to write compositions that embodied real music, and not merely the reflex of uninspired technical exercises. I am a firm believer in having technic go hand in hand with veritable musical development from the start. Neither can be studied alone; one must balance the other. The teacher who gives a pupil a long course in strict technic unbroken by the intelligent study of real music, is producing a musical mechanic—an artisan, not an artist.
 
"Please do not quote me as making a diatribe against technic. I believe in technic to the fullest extent in its proper place. Rosenthal, who was unquestionably one of the greatest technicians, once said to me: 'I have found that the people who claim that technic is not an important thing in piano playing simply do not possess it.' For instance, one hears now and then that scales are unnecessary in piano practice. A well-played scale is a truly beautiful thing, but few people play them well because they do not practice them enough. Scales are among the most difficult things in piano playing; and how the student who aspires to rise above mediocrity can hope to succeed without a thorough and far-reaching drill in all kinds of scales, I do not know. I do know, however, that I was drilled unrelentingly in them, and that I have been grateful for this all my life. Do not despise scales, but rather seek to make them beautiful.
 
"The clever teacher will always find some piece that will illustrate the use and result of the technical means employed. There are thousands of such pieces that indicate the use of scales, chords, arpeggios, thirds, etc., and the pupil is encouraged to find that what he has been working so hard to acquire may be made the  source of beautiful expression in a real piece of music. This, to my mind, should be part of the regular program of the student from the very start; and it is what I mean when I say that the work of the pupil in technic and in musical appreciation should go hand in hand from the beginning.
 
The Indispensable Pedal
"The use of the pedal is an art in itself. Unfortunately, with many it is an expedient to shield deficiency —a cloak to cover up inaccuracy and poor touch. It is employed as the veils that fading dowagers adopt to obscure wrinkles. The pedal is even more than a medium of coloring. It provides the background so indispensable in artistic playing. Imagine a picture painted without any background and you may have an inkling of what the effect of the properly used pedal is in piano playing. It has always seemed to me that it does in piano playing what the wind instruments do in the tonal mass of the orchestra. The wind instruments usually make a sort of background for the music of the other instruments. One who has attended the rehearsal of a great orchestra and has heard the violins rehearsed alone, and then together with the wind instruments, will understand exactly what I mean.
 
"How and when to introduce the pedal to provide certain effects is almost the study of a lifetime. From the very start, where the student is taught the bad effect of holding down the 'loud' pedal while two unrelated chords are played, to the time when he is taught to use the pedal for the accomplishment of atmospheric effects that are like painting in the most subtle and delicate shades, the study of the pedal is continuously a source of the most interesting experiment and revelation.
 
No Hard and Fast Pedal Rules
"There should be no hard-and-fast rules governing the use of the pedal. It is the branch of pianoforte playing in which there must always be the greatest latitude. For instance, in the playing of Bach's works on the modern pianoforte there seems to have been a very great deal of confusion as to the propriety of the use of the pedal. The Bach music, which is played now on the keyboard of the modern piano was, for the most part, originally written for either the clavier or for the organ. The clavichord had a very short sound, resembling in a way the staccato touch on the present- day piano, whereas the organ was and is capable of a great volume of sound of sustained quality. Due to the contradictory nature of these two instruments and the fact that many people do not know whether a composition at hand was written for the clavichord or for the organ, some of them try to imitate the organ sound by holding the pedal all the time or most of the time, while others try to imitate the clavichord and refrain from the use of the pedal altogether. These extreme theories, as in the case of all extreme theories, are undoubtedly wrong.
 
"One may have the clavichord in mind in playing one piece and the organ in mind in playing another. There can be nothing wrong about that, but to transform the modern pianoforte, which has distinctly specific tonal attributes, into a clavichord or into an organ must result in a tonal abuse.
 
"The pedal is just as much a part of the pianoforte as are the stops and the couplers a part of the organ or the brass tangents a part of the clavichord. It is artistically impossible to so camouflage the tone of the pianoforte as to make it sound like either the organ or the clavichord. Even were this possible, the clavichord is an instrument which is out of date, though the music of Bach is still a part and parcel of the musical literature of to-day. The oldest known specimen of the clavichord (dated 1537) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Should you happen to view this instrument you would realize at once that its action is entirely different from that of the piano, just as its tone was different. You cannot possibly make a piano sound like a clavichord through any medium of touch or pedals. Therefore, why not play the piano as a piano? Why try to do the impossible thing in endeavoring to make the piano sound like another instrument of a different mechanism? Why not make a piano sound like a piano? Must we always endure listening to Wagner's music in a variety show and to Strauss' waltzes in Carnegie Hall?
 
Indispensable Guidance
"If one were to ask me what is the indispensable thing in the education of a pianist, I would say: 'First of all, a good guide.' By this I do not mean merely a good teacher, but rather a mentor, a pilot who can and who will oversee the early steps of the career of a young person. In my own case, I was fortunate in having a father, a professional musician, who realized my musical possibilities, and from the very beginning was intensely interested in my career, not merely as a father, but as an artist guiding and piloting every day of my early life. Fate is such a peculiar mystery, and the student, in his young life, can have but a slight idea of what is before him in the future. Therefore, the need of a mentor is essential. I am sure that my father was the author of a great deal of the success that I have enjoyed. It was he who took me to Moszkowski and Rubinstein. The critical advice— especially that of Rubinstein—was invaluable to me. The student should have unrelenting criticism from a master mind. Even when it is caustic, as was von Bülow's, it may be very beneficial. I remember once in the home of Moszkowski that I played for von Bülow. The taciturn, cynical conductor-pianist simply crushed me with his criticism of my playing. But, young though I was, I was not so conceited as to fail to realize that he was right. I shook hands with him and thanked him for his advice and criticism. Von Bülow laughed and said, Why do you thank me? It is like the chicken thanking the one who had eaten it, for doing so.' Von Bülow, on that same day played in such a jumbled manner with his old, stiffened fingers, that I asked Moszkowski how in the world it might be possible for von Bülow to keep a concert engagement which I knew him to have a few days later in Berlin. Moszkowski replied: 'Let von Bülow alone for that. You don't know him. If he sets out to do something, he is going to do it.'
 
"Von Bülow's playing, however, was almost always pedantic, although unquestionably scholarly. There was none of the leonine spontaneity of Rubinstein. Rubenstein was a very exacting schoolmaster at the piano when he first undertook to train me; but he often said to me, 'The main object is to make the music sound right, even though you have to play with your nose!' With Rubinstein there was no ignus fatuus of mere method. Any method that would lead to fine artistic results—to beautiful and effective performance—was justifiable in his eyes.
 
"Finally, to the student let me say: always work hard and strive to do your best. Secure a reliable mentor if you can possibly do so, and depend upon his advice as to your career. Even with the best advice there is always the element of fate—the introduction of the unknown—the strangeness of coincidence which would almost make one believe in astrology and its dictum that our terrestrial course may be guided by the stars. In 1887, when I played in Washington as a child of eleven, I was introduced to a young lady, who was the daughter of Senator James B. Eustis. Little did I dream that this young woman, of all the hundreds and hundreds of girls introduced to me during my tours, would some day be my wife. Fate plays its role—but do not be tempted into the fallacious belief that success and everything else depend upon fate, for the biggest factor is, after all, hard work and intelligent guidance.
 
 
 
 
 

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