TEN IMPORTANT ATTRIBUTES OF BEAUTIFUL PIANO PLAYING

The following text is taken from an interview with Sergei Vassily Rachmaninoff, Supervisor General of the Imperial Conservatories of Russia.  Originally published in THE ETUDE (March 1910), the it has been reformatted and corrected for grammatical errors.
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IV. REGULATING THE TEMPO

If a fine musical feeling, or sensitiveness, must control the execution of the phrases, the regulation of the tempo demands a kind of musical ability no less exacting. Although in most cases the tempo of a given composition is now indicated by means of the metronomic markings, the judgment of the player must be brought frequently into requisition. He cannot follow the tempo marks blindly, although it is usually unsafe for
him to stray very far from these all-important musical sign-posts.

The metronome itself must not be used “with closed eyes”, as we should say it in Russia. The player must use discretion. I do not approve of continual practice with the metronome. The metronome is designed to set the time, and if not abused is a very faithful servant. However, it should only be used for this purpose. The most mechanical playing imaginable can proceed from those who make themselves slaves to this little musical clock, which was never intended to stand like a ruler over every minute of the student’s practice time.

V. CHARACTER IN PLAYING

Too few students realize that there is continual and marvelous opportunity for contrast in playing. Every piece is a piece unto itself. It should, therefore, have its own peculiar interpretation. There are performers whose playing seems all alike. It is like the meals served in some hotels. Everything brought to the table has the same taste. Of course, a successful performer must have a strong individuality, and all of his interpretations must bear the mark of this individuality, but at the same time he should seek variety constantly.

A Chopin Ballade must have quite a different interpretation from a Scarlatti Capriccio. There is really very little in common between a Beethoven Sonata and a Liszt Rhapsody. Consequently, the student must seek to give each piece a different character. Each piece must stand apart as possessing an individual conception, and if the player fails to convey this impression to his audience, he is little better than some mechanical instrument. Josef Hofmann has the ability of investing each composition with an individual and characteristic charm that has always been very delightful to me.

VI. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PEDAL

The pedal has been called the soul of the piano. I never realized what this meant until I heard Anton Rubinstein, whose playing seemed so marvelous to me that it beggars description. His mastery of the pedal was nothing short of phenomenal. In the last movement of the B-flat minor Sonata of Chopin he produced pedal effects that can never be described, but for any one who remembers them they will always be treasured as one of the greatest of musical joys.

The pedal is the study of a lifetime. It is the most difficult branch of higher piano study. Of course, one may make rules for its use, and the student should carefully study all these rules, but, at the same time, these rules may often be skillfully broken in order to produce some very charming effects. The rules represent a few known principles that are within the grasp of our musical intelligence. They may be compared with the planet upon which we live, and about which we know so much. Beyond the rules, however, is the great universe—the celestial system which only the telescopic artistic sight of the great musician can penetrate. This, Rubinstein, and some others, have done, bringing to our mundane vision undreamt-of beauties which they alone could perceive.

VII. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CONVENTION

While we must respect the traditions of the past, which for the most part are very intangible to us because they only to be found in books, we must, nevertheless, not be bound down by convention. Iconoclasm is the law of artistic progress. All great composers and performers have built upon the ruins of conventions that they themselves have destroyed.

It is infinitely better to create than to imitate. Before we can create, however, it is well to make ourselves familiar with the best that has preceded us. This applies not only to composition, but to piano playing as well. The master pianists, Rubinstein and Liszt, were both marvelously broad in the scope of their knowledge. They knew the literature of the piano in all its possible branches. They made themselves familiar with every possible phase of musical advancement. This is the reason for their gigantic musical prominence. Their greatness was not the hollow shell of acquired technique. THEY KNEW.

Oh, How I wish for more students in these days with the genuine thirst for real musical knowledge, and not merely with the desire to make a superficial exhibition at the keyboard!

to be continued…

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