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New Tendencies in Pianistic Art

MAY 1920 Page 295
New Tendencies in Pianistic Art
An Interview Secured Expressly for THE ETUDE with the Distinguished Russian Pianist
 [BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Benno Moiseiwitsch is the latest and possibly the last of the noted line of Leschetizky pupils to attract international attention. He was born at Odessa, Russia, February 22, 1890. his early education was in the public school of his native city. He studied piano with Klimov at the Imperial Musical Academy at Odessa, winning the Rubinstein Stipendiary Prize. He then went to Vienna to Leschetizky and remained with him for several years. It is reported that he is one of the very few Leschetizky pupils whom the master ever permitted to accept encores at the pupils’ assemblies. He made his debut at Reading, England, in 1908, and has since played in Great Britain, Germany and Austria repeatedly with sensational success. He is a brilliant performer, and has a splendid background of solid musicianship. He is now upon his first tour of America.]
“IN speaking of new tendencies in pianistic art I am reminded at once of Leschetizky’s chief pedagogical attribute—that of developing first of all the individuality of his pupils. In the older methods employed in European conservatories the peculiar idea of discipline was such that individualism was impossible. That is one of the dangers of standardizing education in music. It tends to make the course of every pupil identical with that of every other pupil. I believe in a more catholic choice of material. Of course there is a kind of educational backbone which runs through the training of every musician, and teachers have to depend upon certain courses of studies, but the first duty of the teacher should be that of studying the pupil. This Leschetizky did before he ever did anything else. He found out the pupil’s limitations and his inclinations.

“No ambitious pupil can succeed unless he feels that there is some play for his inclinations. I remember that when I was a boy I was very unhappy because I knew that I was being pushed through a kind of educational music-machine with no special attention being paid to my real ambitions in piano playing.

“When you come to think of it, individuality is the pianist’s most precious asset. Unless this is well marked, the pianist can hope for but little success. People do not attend piano recitals as they buy an ordinary commodity, such as nails or rice! They go hoping to hear some new interpretation—some new phase of beauty which the artist has discovered. If all pianists played exactly alike, no matter how well they played, our recital halls would be empty. It is the individuality—the different thought which the interpreter puts into his work, which sustains the interest and packs our halls. This it was that Leschetizky emphasized. I am very glad to make a point of this because so much has been said about the Leschetizky ‘method’ that one might infer that all of his pupils played along the same lines. As a matter of fact there is a perfectly wonderful variation. Hambourg does not resemble Paderewski in any way, nor does Bloomfield-Zeisler resemble Katherine Goodson.

Leschetizky’s Caustic Criticism
Leschetizky was very caustic in his criticism. Often he was altogether unjust. When I went to him after a long course of study and after I had spent much time in self-study my first impression was that he would not take me as a pupil. After I had played he remarked casually: ‘Well, I could play better with my feet than that.’ Yet I learned from a friend that he was very much pleased with my playing. I never knew whether his initial criticism was made with a view of ‘taking me down—curbing the young man’s natural conceit—or whether he was afraid that if his first criticism was not severe he could not point to me later on as an example of his own particular methods.
“At all events his initial criticisms were invariably biting. Like all others I was placed with a Vorbereiter—fortunately with the precise and exacting Fraulein Prentner, who has written out the material which she used in preparing pupils for the master.
“At my first lessons with Leschetizky I learned to use my hands as a painter used a palette—to apply different tonal shades to the keyboard. This was not merely a matter of dynamics or gradations of tone, but the method of using the hand and arm so that a pure limpid tone could be produced by one set of fingers while others, for instance, were playing with a different touch and different degree of tone. These might be called a new tendency, for prior to Leschetizky’s time they were understood by few.
“It was often the master’s custom to let the pupil play right through the piece selected for the lesson without disturbing the performance in any way. Then, however, came such a shower of criticism as many will never forget. He would dissect the piece as a botanist dissects a flower under a microscope. His bright, shining eyes would seem to see everything—to remember everything. It was not in any sense a torrent of useless abuse, for he had an uncanny way of finding out just what was wrong with one’s fingers, and telling the pupil in the most practical manner possible how to produce the result. First he would illustrate at his other piano the desired effect—then he would show how the effect might be attained—and then he would show why the student had not been able to acquire the result at first.
“He was disgusted with a pupil who never seemed to care for anything more than technic—that is mere digital facility. To him technic was only a means to an end. Of course there must be a certain amount of technic, but in so far as my experience goes in observing the work of teachers, it would seem to me that a great deal of time is wasted in the redundant study of technic. I say redundant, because if the pianist masters a thing once he should go on to something else, and not everlastingly want to go over and over the same thing. By this I mean that if you have acquired your scales and arpeggios in excellent manner; if you have been through a certain amount of Czerny, Cramer, Hanon, etc., your technic should be in such shape that you could abandon these things and devote all your time to the extension of your repertoire. Some people seem to look upon technical exercises as a kind of musical whetstone upon which they may put a fine edge upon their playing. This seems a waste of time to me. After you have once been through the technical studies and have mastered them, forget them. If they have not done their work they never will. Mind, I am not belittling technical exercises, they are absolutely essential at one stage of music study, but to continue them indefinitely is merely musical waste.

Fostering Individuality
“In fostering individuality among his pupils, Leschetizky did not look askance upon the pupil who was inclined to examine new works of the more modern composers. When the art of playing the piano passed by the more ephemeral stage of variations á la Herz and Thalberg, there was a reaction which tended to exclude the works of all modern cormposers from the programs of pianoforte recitals. In Leipsic days, Moscheles would not permit Liszt’s works to be studied, and even in more recent times programs were needlessly conservative. There was certain program routine—Bach, Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart, Schumann and Chopin, and finally as a sop to public taste a Liszt rhapsody. This with a few variations was the general scheme for thousands of recitals. The new tendency is perhaps leaning toward another extreme, and we find programs of novelties which often bore the concertgoer and add little to the laurels of the pianist. In my opinion, however, the discriminating pianist can add greatly to his prestige by the wise use of a few modern numbers of advanced composers. Personally I have introduced works of Palmgren, Stravinsky and Zsolt upon my programs with fine effect. I am particularly partial to some of the compositions of Zsolt, a Hungarian composer of the present day with a brilliant, original mind. I have been playing a Toccata of his this year. It is one of the most difficult pieces in my repertoire and it has been well received.

“Vitality, life, magnetism are wonderful assets for the pianist. Out of the thousands of people who strive for success only a few succeed and among many who fail are men and women who can play very exquisitely indeed. They do not seem to have the psychic force behind their playing which will hold the attention and interest of an audience for the time of a piano recital. That breathless silence which convinces the artist of his success far more than all the applause and encores in the world, is largely a psychic bond between the artist and his auditors. Leschetizky was very conscious of this. Particularly in his latter days was he inclined to favor those who had it. He seemed to demand activity around him at all times. Woe be to the sleepy or the lethargic pupil! He even liked to have little pupils of ten and twelve who were full of life, and he would go to great trouble to help them with their work.

No Patience with Incompetence
“He had scant patience for incompetence of any kind, and his remarks were absolutely ruthless. To one pupil he once said in a class, ‘Well, what in the world do you think you are doing? There you sit just as if you were going to lay an egg. Why don’t you do something?’ To another he said after a performance of a beautiful work, ‘There is nothing in you ; if one were to prick you with a pin there would be no blood; only sour milk.’ On another occasion when a boy played the Chopin Military Polonaise in a very clumsy fashion I have a mental picture of him chasing the frightened boy around and around his pianos.

“At times he would try to curb his none too even temper. I remember once the case of a very nervous pupil. I met her just outside the master’s door. She begged me to go in first as she was afraid to have the master rest his fiery eyes upon her first. This I did. Much to her surprise she found him in a most agreeable mood. He sat down at his keyboard with the remark, ‘Now let us enjoy ourselves.’ The understanding with the pupils was that when he commenced to play the pupil was to stop playing. Three times he started playing, every time with the remark, ‘That was not quite so good, see if you can play this way.’ Three times the girl made a futile effort. Leschetizky rose in a towering rage and said, ‘Leave this house at once and never come near me again!’

“The girl went away in tears. If she had stayed away Leschetizky would never have forgiven her. She came back in two weeks and he was delighted above all things and a model of courtesy. The passage she had found impossible was now all right, and the master could not say enough in her praise. Perhaps it was just what she needed to force her to get the phrase right? Who knows? But it seemed unreasonable.

“The world-advance in music during the last few years has been enormous. When I was a boy in Odessa, one of my friends was Mischa Elman. Together with another boy we had a little trio of piano, violin and cello, and whenever any visitors came to the school we were always selected to play. That was the day before mechanical appliances for reproducing music were made. To-day thousands and thousands of people have heard Elman play who have never seen him and who will never see him—because of the popularity of mechanical playing contrivances. Many will hear my records whom I shall never see, or who will never see me. In this new tendency for the expansion of interest in the piano and in music there is possibly the biggest advance of the times. Let us hope that the quality of art will not suffer by these means—that it will not be grossly commercialized. There is no reason why it should, and there is every reason why it should lead to benefits untold for the music lover, the student and the teacher.

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