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PIANO PLAYING WITH PIANO QUESTIONS ANSWERED
By Josef Hofmann
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1976 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE PIANO AND ITS PLAYER
THE first requisite for one who wishes to become a musicianly and artistic pianist is a precise knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of the piano as an instrument. Having properly recognised them both, having thus staked off a stretch of ground for his activity, he must explore it to discover all the resources for tonal expression that are hidden within its pale. With these resources, however, he must be contented. He must, above all, never strive to rival the orchestra. For there is no necessity to attempt anything so foolish and so futile, since the gamut of expressions inherent to the piano is quite extensive enough to vouchsafe artistic results of the very highest order, provided, of course, that this gamut is used in an artistic manner.
THE PIANO AND THE ORCHESTRA
From one point of view the piano can claim to be the equal of the orchestra; namely, in so far as it is—no less than the orchestra—the exponent of a specific branch of music which, complete by itself, reposes upon a literature exclusively its own and of a type so distinguished that only the orchestra can claim to possess its peer. The great superiority of the literature of the piano over that of any other single instrument has, to my knowledge, never been disputed. I think it is equally certain that the piano grants to its players a greater freedom of expression than any other instrument; greater — in certain respects — than even the orchestra, and very much greater than the organ, which, after all, lacks the intimate, personal element of "touch" and the immediateness of its variegated results.
In dynamic and colouristic qualities, on the other hand, the piano cannot bear comparison with the orchestra; for in these qualities it is very limited indeed. The prudent player will not go beyond these limits. The utmost that the pianist can achieve in the way of colour may be likened to what the painters call "monochrome." For in reality the piano, like any other instrument, has only one colour; but the artistic player can subdivide the colour into an infinite number and variety of shades. The virtue of a specific charm, too, attaches as much to the piano as to other instruments, though, perhaps, in a lesser degree of sensuousness than to some others. Is it because of this lesser sensuous charm that the art of the piano is considered the chastest of all instruments? I am rather inclined to think that it is, partly at least, due to this chastity that it "wears" best, that we can listen longer to a piano than to other instruments, and that this chastity may have had a reflex action upon the character of its unparagoned literature.
For this literature, though, we have to thank the pianists themselves, or, speaking more precisely, we are indebted to the circumstance that the piano is the only single instrument capable of conveying the complete entity of a composition. That melody, bass, harmony, figuration, polyphony, and the most intricate contrapuntal devices can—by skilful hands—be rendered simultaneously and (to all intents and purposes) completely on the piano has probably been the inducement which persuaded the great masters of music to choose it as their favourite instrument.
It may be mentioned at this point that the piano did not have the effect of impairing the orchestration of the great composers—as some musical wiseacres assert from time to time—for they have written just as fine works for a variety of other instruments, not to speak of their symphonies. Thus has, for instance, the most substantial part of the violin literature been contributed by piano-players (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruch, Saint-Saëns, Tschaikowski, and many others). As to the literature of the orchestra, it came almost exclusively from those masters whose only, or chiefest, medium of musical utterance was the piano. Highly organised natures, as they were, they liked to dress their thoughts, sometimes, in the colour splendour of the orchestra. Looking at the depth of their piano works, however, at their sterling merit, at their poetry, I feel that even a refined musical nature may find lifelong contentment in the piano—despite its limitations—if, as I said before, the artist keeps within its boundaries and commands its possibilities. For it is, after all, not so very little that the piano has to offer. It is both governed and manipulated by one and the same mind and person; its mechanism is so fine and yet so simple as to make its tone response quite as direct as that of any other stringed instrument; it admits of the thoroughly personal element of touch; it requires no auxiliary instruments (for even in the Concerto the orchestra is not a mere accompanist but an equal partner, as the name "Concerto" implies); its limitations are not as bad as those of some other instruments or of the voice; it outweighs these limitations very fairly by the vast wealth of its dynamic and touch varieties. Considering all these and many other points of merit, I think that a musician may be pretty well satisfied with being a pianist. His realm is in more than one respect smaller than that of the conductor, to be sure, but on the other hand the conductor loses many lovely moments of sweet intimacy which are granted to the pianist when, world-oblivious and alone with his instrument he can commune with his innermost and best self. Consecrated moments, these, which he would exchange with no musician of any other type and which wealth can neither buy nor power compel.
THE PIANO AND THE PLAYER
Music makers are, like the rest of mankind, not free from sin. On the whole, however, I think that the transgressions of pianists against the canons of art are less grave and less frequent than those of other music makers; perhaps, because they are — usually — better grounded as musicians than are singers and such players of other instruments as the public places on a par with the pianists I have in mind. But, while their sins may be less in number and gravity—let it be well understood that the pianists are no saints. Alas, no! It is rather strange, though, that their worst misdeeds are induced by that very virtue of the piano of requiring no auxiliary instruments, of being independent. If it were not so; if the pianist were compelled always to play in company with other musicians, these other players might at times differ with him as to conception, tempo, etc., and their views and wishes should have to be reckoned with, for the sake of both equilibrium and—sweet peace.
Left entirely to himself, however, as the pianist usually is in his performances, he sometimes yields to a tendency to move altogether too freely, to forget the deference due to the composition and its creator, and to allow his much-beloved "individuality" to glitter with a false and presumptuous brightness. Such a pianist does not only fail in his mission as an interpreter but he also misjudges the possibilities of the piano. He will, for instance, try to produce six forte-s when the piano has not more than three to give, all told, except at a sacrifice of its dignity and its specific charm.
The extremest contrasts, the greatest forte and the finest piano, are given factors determined by the individual piano, by the player's skill of touch, and by the acoustic properties of the hall. These given factors the pianist must bear in mind, as well as the limitations of the piano as to colour, if he means to keep clear of dilettanteism and charlatanry. A nice appreciation of the realm over which he rules, as to its boundaries and possibilities, must be the supreme endeavour of every sovereign—hence also of every sovereign musician.
Now, I hear it so often said of this and that pianist that "he plays with so much feeling" that I cannot help wondering if he does not, sometimes at least, play with "so much feeling" where it is not in the least called for and where "so much feeling" constitutes a decided trespass against the æsthetic boundaries of the composition. My apprehension is usually well founded, for the pianist that plays everything "with so much feeling" is an artist in name only, but in reality a sentimentalist, if not a vulgar sensationalist or a ranter upon the key-board. What sane pianist would, for instance, attempt to play a cantilena with the same appealing sensuousness as the most mediocre 'cellist can do with the greatest ease? Yet many pianists attempt it; but since they are fully aware that they can never attain such ends by legitimate, artistic means, they make either the accompaniment or the rhythm, if not the phrasing, bear the brunt of their palpable dilettanteism. Of such illusory endeavours I cannot warn too strongly, for they are bound to destroy the organic relation of the melody to its auxiliaries and to change the musical "physiognomy" of a piece into a—"grimace:" This fault reveals that the pianist's spirit—of adventure—is too willing, but the flesh—of the fingers and their technic-—too weak.
The artistic and the dilettantic manners of expression must be sharply differentiated. They differ, principally, as follows: the artist knows and feels how far the responsiveness of his instrument, at any particular part of his piece, will allow him to go without violating æsthetics, and without stepping outside of the nature of his instrument. He shapes his rendition of the piece accordingly and practises wise economy in the use of force and in the display of feeling. As to feeling, per se, it is the ripe product of a multitude of aesthetic processes which the moment creates and develops; but the artist will keep this product from asserting itself until he has complied with every requirement of artistic workmanship; until he has, so to speak, provided a cleanly covered and fully set table upon which these matters of "feeling" appear as finishing, decorative touches, say, as flowers.
The dilettante, on the other hand, does not consume any time by thinking and planning; he simply "goes for" his piece and, without bothering about workmanship or squirming around it as best he may, he rambles off into—"feeling," which in his case consists of naught but vague, formless, aimless, and purely sensuous sentimentality. His accompaniment drowns the melody, his rhythm goes on a sympathetic strike, dynamic and other artistic properties become hysterical; no matter, he—"feels"! He builds a house in which the cellar is under the roof and the garret in the basement.
Let it be said in extenuation of such a player that he is not always and seldom wholly to blame for his wrong-doing. Very often he strays from the path of musical rectitude because of his misplaced trust in the judgment of others, which causes him to accept and follow advice in good faith, instead of duly considering its source. For, under certain conditions, the advice of even a connoisseur may be wrong. Many professional and well- equipped critics, for instance, fall into the bad habit of expecting that a pianist should tell all he knows in every piece he plays, whether the piano does or does not furnish the opportunities for displaying all his qualities. They expect him to show strength, temperament, passion, poise, sentiment, repose, depth, and so forth, in the first piece on his programme. He must tell his whole story, present himself at once as a "giant" or "Titan" of the piano, though the piece may call for naught but tenderness. With this demand, or the alternative of a "roasting," public artists are confronted rather frequently. Nor is this, perhaps, as much the fault of the critic as of the conditions under which they must write. From my own experience and that of others I know that the critics in large cities are so overburdened with work during the season that they have seldom time to listen to more than one piece out of a whole recital programme. After such a mere sample they form their opinions—so momentous for the career of a young pianist—and if this one piece happened to offer no opportunities to the pianist to show himself as the great" So-and-so, why, then he is simply put down as one of the "littlefellows." It is no wonder that such conditions tempt many young aspirants to public renown to resort to æsthetic violence in order to make sure of "good notices"; to use power where it is not called for; to make "feeling" ooze from every pore; to double, treble the tempo or vacillate it out of all rhythm; to violate the boundaries of both the composition and the instrument—and all this for no other purpose than to show as quickly as possible that the various qualities are "all there." These conditions produce what may be called the pianistic nouveau-riche or parvenu, who practises the vices of the dilettante without, however, the mitigating excuse of ignorance or a lack of training.
THE PIANIST AND THE COMPOSITION
As the piano, so has also every composition its limitations as to the range of its emotions and their artistic expression. The hints in this direction I threw out before may now be amplified by discussing a very common error which underlies the matter of conception. It is the error of inferring the conception of a composition from the name of its composer; of thinking that Beethoven has to be played thus and Chopin thus. No error could be greater!
True, every great composer has his own style, his habitual mode of thought development, his personality revealing lines. But it is equally true that the imagination of all great composers was strong enough to absorb them as completely in their own creation as the late Pygmalion was absorbed in his Galatea, and to lure them, for the time being, completely away from their habits of thought and expression; they become the willing servants of the new creature of their own fancy. Thus we find some of Beethoven's works as romantic and fanciful as any of Schumann's or Chopin's could be, while some of the latter's works show at times a good deal of Beethovenish classicity. It is, therefore, utterly wrong to approach every work of Beethoven with the preconceived idea that it must be "deep" and "majestic," or, if the work be Chopin's, that it must run over with sensuousness and "feeling." How would such a style of rendition do, for instance, for the Polonaise op. 53, or even for the little one in A, op. 40, No. 1? On the other hand, how would the stereotype, academic manner of playing Beethoven suit his Concerto in G—that poetic presage of Chopin?
Every great master has written some works that are, and some that are not, typical of himself. In the latter cases the master's identity reveals itself only to an eye that is experienced enough to detect it in the smaller, more minute traits of his style. Such delicate features, however, must be left in their discreet nooks and niches; they must not be clumsily dragged into the foreground for the sake of a traditional rendition of the piece. That sort of "reverence" is bound to obliterate all the peculiarities of the particular, non- typical composition. It is not reverence, but fetichism. Justice to the composer means justice to his works; to every work in particular. And this justice we cannot learn from the reading of his biography, but by regarding every one of his works as a separate and complete entity; as a perfect, organic whole of which we must study the general character, the special features, the form, the manner of design, the emotional course, and the trend of thought. Much more than by his biography we will be helped, in forming our conception, by comparing the work in hand with others of the same master, though the comparison may disclose just as many differences of style as it may show similarities.
The worship of names, the unquestioning acquiescence in traditional conceptions—those are not the principles which will lead an artist to come into his own. It is rather a close examination of every popular notion, a severe testing of every tradition by the touchstone of self-thinking that will help an artist to find himself and to see, what he does see, with his own eyes.
Thus we find that—in a certain constructive meaning—even the reverence for the composer is not without boundaries; though these boundary lines are drawn here only to secure the widest possible freedom for their work. Goethe's great word expresses most tersely what I mean:
Outwardly limited, Boundless to inward.CHAPTER 2
SUCCESSFUL piano-playing, if it cannot be entirely acquired by some very simple rules, can, at least, be very much helped by what will seem to some as contributing causes so slight as to be hardly worth notice. Still, they are immensely valuable, and I will endeavour to set down a few.
The Value of the Morning Hour above any other time is not generally appreciated. The mental freshness gained from sleep is a tremendous help. I go so far as to say play away for an hour, or a half hour even, before breakfast. But before you touch the piano let me suggest one very prosaic little hint: wash the keyboard as clean as you did your hands. Eating always tastes best from a clean table. Just so with the piano: you cannot do clean work on an unclean keyboard.
Excerpted from PIANO PLAYING WITH PIANO QUESTIONS ANSWERED by Josef Hofmann. Copyright © 1976 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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