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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VIII. REAL MUSICAL UNDERSTANDING

I am told that some teachers lay a great deal of stress upon the necessity for the pupil learning the source of the composer’s inspiration. This is interesting, of course, and may help to stimulate a dull imagination. However, I am convinced that it would be far better for the student to depend more upon his real musical understanding.

It is a mistake to suppose that the knowledge of the fact that Schubert was inspired by a certain poem, or that Chopin was inspired by a certain legend, could ever make up for a lack of the real essentials leading to good pianoforte playing. The student must see, first of all, the main points of musical relationship in a composition. He must understand what it is that gives the work unity, cohesion, force, or grace, and must know how to bring out these elements.

There is a tendency with some teachers to magnify the importance of auxiliary studies and minimize the importance of essentials. This course is wrong, and must lead to erroneous results.

IX. PLAYING TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC

The virtuoso must have some far greater motive than that of playing for gain. He has a mission, and that mission is to educate the public. It is quite as necessary for the sincere student in the home to carry on this educational work. For this reason it is to his advantage to direct his efforts toward pieces which he feels will be of musical educational advantage to his friends. In this he must use judgment and not overstep their intelligence too far. With the virtuoso it is somewhat different. He expects, and even demands, from his audience a certain grade of musical taste, a certain degree of musical education. Otherwise he would work in vain.

If the public would enjoy the greatest in music they must hear good music until these beauties become evident. It would be useless for the virtuoso to attempt a concert tour in the heart of Africa. The virtuoso is expected to give his best, and he should not be criticized by audiences that have not the mental capacity to appreciate his work. The virtuosos look to the students of the world to do their share in the education of the great musical public. Do not waste your time with music that is trite, or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.

X. THE VITAL SPARK

In all good pianoforte playing there is a vital spark that seems to make each interpretation of a masterpiece–a living thing. It exists only for the moment, and cannot be explained. For instance, two pianists of equal technical ability may play the same composition. With one the playing is dull, lifeless and sapless, with the other there is something that is indescribably wonderful. His playing seems fairly to quiver with life. It commands interest and inspires the audience.

What is this vital spark that brings life to mere notes? In one way it may be called the intense artistic interest of the player. It is that astonishing thing known as inspiration. When the composition was originally written the composer was unquestionably inspired; when the performer finds the same joy that the composer found at the moment the composition came into existence, then something new and different enters his playing. It seems to be stimulated and invigorated in a manner altogether marvelous. The audience realizes this instantly, and will event sometimes forgive technical imperfections if the performance is inspired.

Rubinstein was technically marvelous, and yet he admitted making mistakes. Nevertheless, for every possible mistake he may have made, he gave, in return, ideas and musical tone pictures that would have made up for a million mistakes. When Rubinstein was over-exact his playing lost something of its wonderful charm. I remember that upon one occasion he was playing Balakireff’s ISLAMEY at a concert. Something
distracted his attention and he apparently forgot the composition entirely; but he kept on improvising in the style of the piece, and after about four minutes the remainder of the composition came back to him and he played it to the end correctly. This annoyed him greatly and he played the next number upon the program with the greatest exactness, but, strange to say, it lost the wonderful charm of the interpretation of the piece in which his memory had failed him. Rubinstein was really incomparable, even more so perhaps because he was full of human impulse and his playing very far removed from mechanical perfection.

While, of course, the student must play the notes, and all of the notes, in the manner and in the time in which the composer intended that they should be played, his efforts should by no means stop with notes. Every individual note in a composition is important, but there is something quite as important as the notes, and that is the soul. After all, the vital spark is the soul. The soul is the source of that higher expression in music which cannot be represented in dynamic marks.

The soul feels the need for the CRESCENDO and DIMINUENDOS intuitively. The mere matter of the duration of a pause upon a note depends upon its significance, and the soul of the artist dictates to him just how long such a pause should be held. If the student resorts to mechanical rules and depends upon them absolutely, his playing will be soulless. Fine playing requires much deep thought away from the keyboard.

The student should not feel that when the notes have been played his task is done. It is, in fact, only begun. He must make the piece a part of himself. Every note must awaken in him a kind of musical consciousness of his real artistic mission.

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