Read an Excerpt
Great Contemporary Pianists Speak for Themselves
By Elyse Mach
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1991 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Claudio Arrau has made his home in Douglaston, a New York suburb located about thirty-jive miles away, since 1941. Mr. and Mrs. Arrau reside in a white frame house concealed by tall hedges. Mrs. Arrau greeted me at the door and immediately ushered me down a short flight of stairs to the large music room more conspicuous for its walls lined with shelves of books and objets dart than for the black Steinway that occupied its own niche in afar corner of the room.
As Mr. Arrau entered the room, my curiosity about the total artistry of the room almost got the better of me; but as he began to speak I knew that, in his own time, he would explain why a music room was so filled with books, icons, African and pre-Columbian art, antique furniture and oriental rugs. Gentle and mild-mannered, Arrau speaks softly and slowly, delivering his carefully phrased ideas in an animated tone punctuated with much laughter and many gestures. Although he laughs easily, he weighs his words carefully, often stopping to rephrase a thought lest his meaning be misinterpreted. Like most other famous virtuosos, Arrau couldn't remember wanting to be anything but a concert pianist.
There was never a moment of doubt. When I look back, I think I was born playing the piano because, before I realized what I was doing, I was sitting at a piano trying out various sounds and playing in a very natural way. I had a feeling for the instrument. To me, even as a child, the piano seemed to be a continuation of my arms. On the other hand, natural gifts by themselves aren't enough. They have to be developed, and I was fortunate enough to be aided in my development by Martin Krause, who had studied under Franz Liszt. So I inherited the Liszt tradition, and through Liszt, the Czerny and Beethoven traditions. Krause was the greatest influence in my life because he was my one and only teacher. I may have had the same career without him, but it would have been accomplished much differently.
I know many artists claim they have developed by intuition, but I don't believe it. Intuition is important, so is talent. But a teacher, a guide who helps you unfold and develop is absolutely necessary. Also, that teacher has to be the right teacher for you, because the teacher-pupil relationship is a two-sided affair involving mutual responses. In a sense I worshiped Krause; I ate up everything he tried to put in front of me. I worked exactly according to his wishes. Krause taught me the value of virtuosity. He believed in that absolutely, but only as a basis for what follows—the meaning of the music, the interpretation of the music. Being a "piano player," no matter how brilliant, is never enough. I believe in a complete development of general culture, knowledge, intuition, and in a human integration in the Jungian sense of the term. All the elements, all the talents one possesses, should go into the personality as an artist and into the music the artist makes. Concentration should not be on music alone; to better understand music the artist must embrace, as it were, the total universe.
One of the most common criticisms leveled against musicians is that they are so specialized and that they don't live outside their own realm. The criticism may be valid, and I for one am very much against any attitude or philosophy that gives rise to it. When I teach, for example, I try to awaken not only musical elements in the youngartist, but also to inculcate the importance of developing the completely cultured personality—reading, theater, opera, study of art and classical literature, even the study of psychology. All of these contribute enormously to making the complete artist. I myself, though I never went to school, was given the most thorough education. But mostly I continued to educate myself. I never stopped reading and wherever I am, I buy art of all kinds, as you can see. I need to surround myself with beauty. Art, beauty, nature, and knowledge are my inspirations. As for books, they are a passion with me. Not only this room, but the whole house is filled to capacity with books: modern and classical fiction, poetry, sociology, art, and musicology. I mustn't leave out books on psychology, one of my particular interests. Right now I am reading a marvelous new book, Mozart, by Wolfgang Hildesheimer. It's not available yet in English; it differs from so many books on composers in that it emphasizes the psychology of Mozart's music. Even television can be brought into the educative process. Although I'm far from being a television watcher, when I do hear of a very special presentation, I watch it. Just recently I saw a superb rendition of Madame Butterfly with von Karajan conducting. The music was beautifully performed and sung, of course, but it was the acting and the direction that made the production so different. What all of this means, or should mean, is that the true pianist must draw from all sources to develop his total personality. Not to do so is to remain narrow and incomplete as an artist.
Even if, for the moment, we confine ourselves to the study of music, I don't think it's a good idea to specialize in one composer. The wider you extend the range of your musicianship, the more every single composer you perform will gain. And if you're trying to learn a particular composition of one composer, it is extremely important to study the entire output of that composer so as to better understand his total language. Sometimes there are little enigmatic qualities in a composition that almost defy understanding until suddenly, through analogies in a piano sonata, in a string quartet, or in a symphony, what was vague before now becomes clear.
You ask how Krause taught me. Well, to begin with, he showed me the many ways Liszt used to play trills. He stressed the fact that trills had meaning; they were not merely adornments to a work but had expressive purpose. The trills had to be played at different speeds to fit the mood of the work being performed. Some were fast, some were slow, some were loud, and some were soft. The technique was determined by the character of the piece. And, in playing scales, arpeggios, and general passage work, Krause advised that the arms should be like snakes so that together with loose wrists there would be no interruption of the flow of movement anywhere. The whole picture was one of fluidity and effortless playing, whether you were rendering a great chord or the smallest package of notes. It is the way Liszt himself is supposed to have played.
Krause also spent time working with broken chords. He demonstrated how Liszt taught and played the big broken chords that appear in some of his études, for instance in Harmonies du Soir. And I can recall what he said about the use of the pedals. To get a very rich sound, but not a hard one, I learned to push the pedal down first before beginning the chord. However, when you sum it all up and talk of technique, you have to recognize that the apparatus is never an end in itself. Practicing trills, scales, broken chords, and pedaling is only the means to realize and express all your musical visions.
Technique is, to put it another way, the means to the art of interpretation. You have to start with an absolute faithfulness or loyalty to what the composer wanted by studying the early editions, the manuscripts and the facsimilies. If the composer noted that a passage should be played fortissimo, then it should be played fortissimo, not pianissimo. On the other hand, this fidelity and loyalty to what the composer wanted is only a basis on which the artist builds his own vision, his own idea of the work. But the vision must not jeopardize his respect for the text, or what he might know about the intentions of the composer. Some pianists "use" the original music and change it into a form of self-expression only. This is wrong. Others seem to be so awed by the composer that they do the opposite: They play nothing but notes. This is wrong, too. A good artist goes into a flight of imagination on his own, but he never destroys the integrity of the work as the composer saw it.
In no way, though, does this imply that the vision remains constant. As the artist's career moves along, he sees more depth; the vision becomes more profound. But it is a gradual process. You are always moving toward new revelations of the meaning of certain passages. And this brings you closer and closer to the core of the music. That's why it's inadvisable, for example, for a very young artist to want to play late Beethoven. He should occupy himself all his life with the study of the late Beethoven sonatas, but he should not want to play them too soon because that is an impossible pretension on his part. Works like late Beethoven and late Schubert should mature in you gradually. You should live with them for many, many years before deciding to play them publicly. This is also true of Mozart. In Schubert's early works, for example, there is the purity and simplicity, with some depth, of folk tunes. But in his later works I see what I call the proximity of death, death as a part of life. That mood is in the music and, most definitely, in the late sonatas and the late songs. Because there is such a combination of so many diverse elements in these works, I believe the young artist would have a hard time relating to all of them, not only because of a lack of life-experience, but also, as I noted before, because he hasn't come to know all composers and all the works of the composers.
Debussy is another composer whose depth and spirituality often escape the performer. Naturally, I think Beethoven is probably the greatest composer that ever lived, and the deepest, because he encompassed the whole cosmos. I'm sure he never realized how much meaning his works would have for future generations, and how those meanings might shift from time to time. But he must have felt something of the tremendous appeal that his music would have for many, many generations of human beings.
The music of Debussy, on the other hand, is something entirely different. The miracle in Debussy's music is this feeling of mystery, of musical mystery which makes it so difficult to explain what he actually meant. Again, one has to spend a lot of time studying his works before one really grasps the meaning of his meaning. There is no question about the incredible beauty of his sounds, but to stop at his sounds is to misunderstand Debussy. His sounds are the expression of more mysterious, more enigmatic, and very deep perceptions. That's why he is difficult to perform; his meanings present so many great problems. Ravel, for instance, is technically much more difficult to play than Debussy, but Ravel's meaning is far easier to grasp.
My interests, however, lie in the present, too. I'm very much interested in modern composers, but I have not had the time to study them very thoroughly. Had I the time, I would play a lot of their music. Names like Stockhausen, Boulez, Copland, Eliott Carter, and Charles Ives come readily to mind. I think Eliott Carter's piano concerto is a marvelous piece of work. Ives, of course, is almost a classic already; so is Copland. Arnold Schoenberg is another avant garde composer who will last, along with Stravinsky. And then I'd have to include a composer still unknown in America who has written an opera, Die Soldaten, which contains what I consider some of the greatest music ever composed. I went to see that opera three times when I was in Munich several years ago because I found it so incredibly filled with musical imagination and so rich in musical ideas that I could not absorb the total meaning at one time. Bernd-Alois Zimmerman died rather young, so his musical legacy is quite limited. But Die Soldaten will make him live.
Another modern whom I believe in very much is Michael Tippett. His opera, King Priam, is probably his greatest work. When I call it fantastic, I'm using the term in its strictest sense because the music in that work is so different from anything usually considered music. Both of them, Zimmerman and Tippett, go into realms that haven't been explored in music yet. The feeling I have about these two is somewhat akin to what I felt when, right after World War II, I heard electronic music in Cologne for the first time. "Now, what is this?" I asked myself. "This is terrific; this is tremendous; but what is it?" I couldn't put it into words because it was like listening to the music of another planet, or how one imagines the music from another planet would sound. So it is with Tippett; I could not possibly describe to you the realms that his music encompasses.
Yet there is still quite a way to travel. In Wagner's time the question was asked, "What can come after that?" But something did come. And after Stravinsky, they asked, "Who or what can come after that? Stravinsky is the end of music." But he wasn't. Ligeti, Berio, Penderecki, Carter, Zimmerman, Tippett, and others followed with new sounds, new depths, new visions. And there will be others still. There is never an end because there will always be new creations and for that reason it is impossible to stop. And why should it stop? Thirty or forty years ago no one would have expected the flood of avant garde music that we have today. "What could they do now?" might be a valid question, but the proper artistic attitude to take is to wait and to anticipate. Naturally there are and always will be doubts, but something will spring up, be nurtured, and grow.
You're going to see changes in the performance format, too. I don't think the recital, for instance, as an institution is at an end because more young people seem to be interested in hearing live piano literature and listening to it with greater participation. They are so much more stirred up than the audiences we have been used to. But the programming will change. We won't return to the potpourri of a little bit of Mendelssohn, a little bit of Chopin, and a little bit of Liszt. That arrangement has been pretty well used up. You may well see more of what Mr. Serkin and I have been doing, namely, to perform three big works at one recital, or a one-composer recital.
As I noted before, the make-up of the audiences has changed dramatically over the years. At one time concerts were almost reserved for a standard of living rather than for people. And if one enjoyed that standard of living, the thing to do was to go to concerts. While at the concert, this audience was quiet, reserved, and appreciative. This is no longer true today. The audiences come from all walks of life. Recordings, television, and radio have made people much more knowledgeable about classical music, and they are much less reserved in showing their appreciation of artistry. They are much more stirred and are wonderful in their receptivity, in their openness. They enjoy, they clap, and they cheer. For many, too, the concert has become almost a religious experience, and this has led to an increase in participation.
I'm not so sure, though, that the product they receive is always that good. There are only a few artists today who give you musical depth. But then that was also true in the past. Who are the great pianists of the past most remembered? For me they are Busoni, Schnabel, Fischer, Cortot—all thinkers and great interpreters, as well as great pianists.
Today, too much commercialism has crept into the picture to allow the young artist sufficient time to develop. Music has become too big a business. Now young people win a prize and are expected immediately to live up to expectations. They are supposed to be ready-made great artists, which obviously they cannot be. They need time to mature; instead they are pushed into a tour of fifty or sixty concerts with only one or two programs, which is as unhealthy a situation as you could find. I suppose that, with the number of young gifted people available, it is quite difficult to make a career without winning a competition, but there ought to be another way, too. I know that Daniel Barenboim has never won a prize, but I think he is an extraordinary musician. To me he is the greatest of the young artists. In both fields, as pianist and conductor, he is really outstanding because he is a true musician. And while I'm on the subject of young musicians, a very interesting one to listen to is Martha Argerich. She is a bit inconsistent, but she shows provocative intuition in her playing.
Excerpted from Great Contemporary Pianists Speak for Themselves by Elyse Mach. Copyright © 1991 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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