I’ve always thought how useful it would be to be able to play a really good version of ‘happy birthday’ at a party or some other sing-along song. I probably could play something resembling it, but I would need to practice a lot first, and I wouldn’t play as well as I want to because I would love to play the piano well, really well.
How To Play Chopin (By Vladimir De Pachmann)
Of all the composers whose works are familiar to lovers of music not one is so generally popular or so widely appreciated as Chopin. Yet it is safe to say that the works of no other composer are, year in year out, so religiously – or, should I rather say, sacrilegiously – and horribly murdered by the amateur and the mediocre pianist. The works of any other composer suffer just the same proportionately at the same hands!
But yet, what would you have? Musical insight, with the true appreciation of all the beautiful feelings and emotions expressed upon the piano, is a possession of which few can boast in an active sense, although many possess it passively. With proper musical training it can be acquired to some extent, it is true, but real genius in this respect is God-given at birth; it is as a tiny speck of yeast, which grows and expands with the mind until the whole soul of the artiste is leavened. The passive appreciation, as I have already said, is a different matter. If one walks through an exquisite garden, full of rare and beautiful flowers, one cannot but admire and appreciate the work of the gardener. The arrangement of the beds, the size and perfect symmetry of the various blossoms, the strange and beautiful colours which surround one would be attractive to anyone, even though they had never been in a garden before. But what proportion of those walking through such a garden could as successfully perform the gardener’s task?
Thousands of people visit the Royal Academy each year. All can admire the paintings exhibited there. To some there are certain pictures more pleasing than others, but all will find beauties to appreciate, however individual his or her taste may be. Yet how many of those who see and admire them could paint any picture or depict upon canvas any one of the particular effects that appeal to their sense of the beautiful?
Music is both a garden and a picture gallery, and great artistes are the gardeners and the painters. The beauties of a garden appeal spontaneously to everyone alike. The sweet simplicity of the daisy, the brilliance of the sunflower, the elegance of the lily, and the fragrance of the rose are appreciated at sight by both the uncultured and the cultured mind. The very savage knows how beautiful is Nature’s work, although he cannot imitate it, however hard he may try. It is to the cultured mind, therefore, that my simile of the picture gallery is directed. For discrimination as to the comparative beauty of pictures, special education is essential. Yet even where this special education exists, it does not say that those who possess it would be able to paint the pictures they admire and criticise.
The beauties of music, when properly brought out, appeal just as spontaneously as the beauties of a garden. The uncultured mind appreciates them immediately and indiscriminately, the cultured mind appreciates them spontaneously and discriminately, yet the productive ability in both cases may be equally lacking. Thus it is that Chopin suffers at the hands of the thousands of pianists who attempt to play him, for, while they can appreciate his beauties when they are shown to them by others, they do not possess the ability to bring them out themselves. Indeed, Chopin is one of the most difficult composers to play well, and the artiste who attempts him must have a heart by nature, a brain by study, and technique by constant practice. His works contain countless beauties, but these must be read not only upon the music but between the lines, for to properly interpret the poetry and emotionalism of the composer it is necessary to mentally create the same atmosphere as that in which he lived and moved and had his being. For Chopin came into existence at a time of great political restlessness among his countrymen the Poles, and the surrounding influences of his time were reflected to an extraordinary extent in all his works. The very variety of his compositions speaks of his birth, for the characteristics of the Pole are a strange intermingling of gaiety and sadness, and sudden changes from triumph to dejection, caused by his utter inability to hold up his head in face of opposing circumstance. Thus Chopin’s music was impregnated with subtle romance, exuberant fancy, inconsequent gaiety, triumphant grandeur, and utter disconsolateness. In more than one of his compositions, these various moods succeed one another in quick succession, until the music reflects, like a mirror, the emotions that stirred the composer’s soul. Review, for a moment, the B Flat Minor Sonata with the Funeral March. As the piece progresses mood succeeds mood in the composer’s mind. The light-heartedness of youth, the romance of love, the triumph of manhood, the lust of battle, the intoxication of success, the anguish of defeat, the bitterness of death, and the mournful passing of the spirit follow one another with dramatic swiftness. Each successive mood of the composer must receive its own special interpretation at the hands of the pianist, yet the whole piece must present the ensemble of a finished picture.
To make a beautiful thing ugly is a very easy matter indeed, and in this respect most pianists who attempt Chopin are eminently successful. But to make an ugly thing beautiful is the most difficult of tasks. Yet it is a task that even Chopin occasionally demands. It is not to be supposed that all the work of any great man could possibly be of the same high standard, and Chopin is no exception to the rule. About one-third of his compositions are comparatively poor, and are, in consequence, not played at concerts. Personally, for public performance I pick out from his works only the gems, for the public will and must have the best of music as of everything else. For amateurs, however, there is no need to pick out and study special pieces in the same way. They have no large public to please, and their task is therefore an easier one, since, instead of being obliged to play what other people want, they need only interpret those pieces specially fitted to their own temperament.
This leads me to a point which I would specially urge upon all who play the piano, independently of whether they play Chopin or any other composer. Each should early discover which particular works appeal most readily to his or her temperament. These should then be carefully studied and mastered one by one. Each piece that is thoroughly understood will open up some new avenue of thought which will in turn make possible the interpretation of some fresh and more complicated work.
No piece can be mastered very quickly. Often it is a matter of years before one fully appreciates all the meaning and beauty of a passage. For my part, constant playing of Chopin’s works has made them so much part of myself that I see and appreciate many different aspects of beauty in them. Yet even now I am constantly finding fresh points of view with different meanings and new beauties.
Chopin-playing requires, above all else, an education amongst the works of other composers, not only because familiarity with other composers educates the musical understanding and cultivates a variety of temperament, but for technical reasons. The compositions of other composers may in some cases be more uniformly difficult than Chopin technically, but the works of no other composer combine such a variety of technical difficulties in individual pieces. To play Chopin, therefore, one must have thoroughly mastered all the means that every composer makes use of to obtain effect. And on top of the variety of technique required comes the special study of the true Chopin pianissimo. Of so delicate a nature are some of Chopin’s passages that to do them full justice, and to bring out all their beauties, careful and special study must be made of pianissimo effects. This is no easy matter, and can only be acquired by constant effort and practice, but it is absolutely indispensable for the renderings of the works of this master.
Another small technical point which the amateur must master is the ability to accentuate some particular note in a chord. It often happens that Chopin’s melody – the melody that lends meaning to the whole piece – lies in the top notes in a series of chords. If all the notes of those chords are played with an equal accent the melody is lost and the whole meaning of the passage destroyed. The melody, therefore, must be accentuated and brought out, while the other notes of the chord must be heard like an accompaniment. This is particularly beautiful in soft passages where the melody notes are themselves played pianissimo. The rest of the chord is so lightly struck as to resemble, more than anything else, the sighing of a breeze over the strings, so that they are only just stirred into sound. Often the same passage of chords is repeated several times in a given piece. Such passages should never be rendered in exactly the same way each time. The difference may be simply a matter of tone, but an even more striking effect may be sometimes obtained by neglecting the original melody and accentuating the second note of the chords, which will thus sound like an alto echo to a treble voice. Such effects as these are arrived at by careful thought and study, but they often transform passages that would otherwise be comparatively uninteresting into bars of great beauty and attractiveness. Chopin’s 20th Prelude is one in which these effects can be produced in many different ways.
The whole question of melody is of the utmost importance where Chopin is concerned, for many of his most beautiful pieces resemble songs which, alas! too often lose their beauty at the hands of second-rate pianists, through the voice being drowned by the accompaniment. Infinite delicacy and elegance are required for the playing of these songs on the piano, and much may be done to ensure perfection by listening to great singers, observing how they obtain their effects, and adapting their methods to the piano.
For me, Chopin’s great attractiveness lies in the fact that practically every piece he ever wrote tells a complete story in itself, or paints some picture easily comprehensible to the mind educated in music, and often quite intelligible, when interpreted by a great artiste, even to a mind uneducated in music, or comparatively so. The great Chopin-player is the man who not only sees the pictures that Chopin conjures up, but can show them to his audiences in such a way that they can see them too.
The necessary technique for playing Chopin could never be acquired by reading anything that I or another might write on the subject, but it is possible in an article like this to draw attention to noteworthy points in connection with specific pieces, and with this end in view I will run through a few of Chopin’s works that are most familiar to amateurs.
The mazurkas I will dismiss in a few words. In them Chopin displays some of his most changeable moods. When playing them one seems to be dancing with, so to speak, the tears in one’s eyes all the time, for there is often an underlying note of sadness throughout the theme. Occasionally they break off into utter gaiety and wild, inconsequent joy. Sadness and joy are, indeed, strangely mixed up in them.
The preludes are always popular both with players and with audiences, and this is not surprising, for, with the exception of one or two weak ones, they are all of them exceptionally beautiful, interesting, and characteristic. The first of them is in a style that reminds one very forcibly of Schumann. To play it is very refreshing, like a draught of cool spring water on a hot day, but the second is, I think, somewhat poor, and I remember that Liszt himself once told me he thought it a little weak. The third, though it has not a very high meaning, is a delightful little prelude. The melody is so smooth that it reminds me of oil floating upon water, while a sort of zither accompaniment is running. The fourth, though more poetical than the second, would have been more attractive if written in the shape of a song for a lady’s voice accompanied by a little harmonium. The fifth is one that is so difficult to properly interpret that one of the great pianists of the day once stated that he studied it for years before he ventured to play it in public. No. 6 could very well be played by a ‘cello and violin, but it is possible on the piano to get more effect than could be got with the ‘cello itself. A little curiosity is to be found in this prelude at the end of the fifth bar from the finish, when there comes a sort of trumpet call announcing the conclusion. The seventh is gay, the eighth an exercise, the ninth makes me think of returning after a funeral, and in the tenth Chopin seems to me to point at and imitate his master, Hummel.
No. 11 is a fine prelude. There is melody all the time, and at this point in the preludes we begin to get genuine Chopinism. But it should not be played vivace! It should be allegro moderato. Liszt thought this prelude was nonsense if played vivace. In the 12th Prelude, again, there is a mistake very commonly made as to the manner of its playing. Besides being a great tour de force, this prelude is also exceedingly poetical. Now, if it is played presto, all the beautiful poetical meaning is lost, and it becomes a tour de force only. If it is played poco presto, however, not only does it remain a tour de force, but all the poetry in it can be brought out.
I do not like the 13th Prelude. The 14th is all fun from beginning to end — a regular volcano of gaiety! The 15th is my favourite. It is the longest of the preludes, and reminds me of an impromptu. The 16th is my great favorite! It is la plus grande tour de force in Chopin. It is the most difficult of all the preludes technically, possibly excepting the 19th. In this case presto is not enough. It should be played prestissimo, or, better still, vivacissimo. No. 17 was the favourite of Mme. Schumann and Rubinstein. It is very majestic, and in it Chopin introduces harmonies not previously found in other composers. The 18th is really a cadenza. In it Chopin never repeats himself. From beginning to end it is brilliant and interesting. No. 19 is another one I am very fond of, but I think it the most difficult thing in the world to play.
Vladimir De Pachmann Playing Chopin’s 15th and 16th Preludes
The 20th Prelude is a very beautiful one, but with the 21st I find fault – musical fault. I am quite sure that when he started to write this he meant to make it a ballade for the orchestra. Apparently he failed to hit upon any second or third motive for succeeding movements, so he included it in the preludes. It is obviously written for first violin and two ‘cellos, and it is not piano music at all. It is most poetical, I grant, but, emphatically, it was not meant for the piano. This is no decision arrived at in a hurry, I assure you. I thought over this matter for thirty years before I dared to express this opinion!
In the 22nd Prelude Chopin created energetic modern octave play. It was the first prelude of its kind in the world. In the 23rd Prelude pretty well all editions indicate short legato passages. Chopin never played such passages. He sometimes introduced a long legato passage, but never short ones of a few notes only. In the 24th the amateur would do well to remember that the whole beauty of this prelude is generally spoilt by the left-hand notes being banged. They should be masqué the whole time and should never be allowed to drown the right hand.
So much for the preludes. They are very beautiful and are worthy of the closest study and pains, not with a view of perfecting any stereotyped manner of playing each one, but of discovering the various methods which may be employed to bring out their beauty. Half the attraction of a beautiful woman lies in the various dresses she wears. She may be in blue today, in grey tomorrow, and in pink the day after, and with every change she appears more beautiful. So it is with the preludes. Each has a large wardrobe of different dresses. Do not, then, always dress them in the same colours.
I have dealt at some length with the preludes because, while they are always popular with pianists, most players play them in an absolutely stereotyped and uninteresting manner which utterly hides all their beauties. The amateur, almost without exception, practises them through and through in order to become technically perfect as regards the actual playing of the written notes. He or she, as the case may be, thus produces an absolutely colourless study almost entirely without interest and quite devoid of meaning. We have all seen the outlined painting-books of which children are so fond. A drawing of some simple subject is given in outline, and the child, with its box of paints, sets to work to paint it. Chopin, and, indeed, all music, is one great painting-book full of outline drawings, and those who play the piano are the children who attempt to colour them. As with children, so with musicians, artistic instincts are lacking through want of training, or because the soul is entirely without the necessary germ of art. The result is that the pictures are seldom more than uninteresting daubs. The result may be symmetrical enough, but the colours do not blend, and offend instead of please. Some are merely sketches in sepia lacking all brightness and beauty, others are in the hard black and white of crude contrast. But the real artist can make a beautiful picture out of quite an uninteresting subject by the careful choice and blending of his colours; he can even surround his subject with some subtle atmosphere all its own, until his work stands out by itself in comparison with the crude paintings of his fellows.
Perhaps more than any other composer Chopin requires deep thought and study before any one of his outline drawings is attempted, for his nature was such that he created, quite naturally, particular effects of tone and colour arrived at by none of his predecessors. These effects cannot be merely copied from the works of anyone else, so that Chopin-playing becomes a special study in itself, requiring special training and special methods of interpretation. Of course, I do not mean to say that familiarity with the methods of other men is not of assistance. Indeed, it is of the most valuable assistance, and the finest Chopin-players are those who have mastered all the beauties of other composers, since only by having so done will they be able to fully see and understand all the new and unusual beauties that exist in Chopin, and the immense gulf which divides him from the rest.
Personally, although the public for some reason regard me purely as a Chopin-player, owing to the fact that his works figure so prominently on my programme through their being so popular with the public, I can play all composers equally well; and it is this very reason that makes Chopin’s works so dear to me, for, knowing full well all the beautiful thoughts expressed by the rest, I can appreciate how much, as a whole, Chopin’s works are more beautiful than those of other composers.
Practically every line he wrote is a line of perfect poetry. Even his most simple pieces are among the finest gems of our musical literature. Look at the études! Their worth does not lie in their merits from the point of view of musical construction, but in their immense poetical beauty. The very first one is among the harmonical wonders of the world. Yet this was written when he was but a youth of twenty! Whenever I play it, it always conjures up before my mind the picture of some exquisitely beautiful little child being bathed in a silver bath filled with milk and wine amid brightly-coloured, richly-scented flowers! And almost every one of them brings some similar picture before me.
Yet, with the études as with the preludes, each will be meaningless if improperly interpreted. Many of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in literature would seem uninteresting and flat if read by a bad reciter. In the same way, a good reciter will make attractive a poem whose beauties are not so apparent. A fine painter will light up each little beauty in his pictures until the smallest detail is attractive and strikes the eye. It is only the mediocrity whose work is characterized by sameness and lack of interest. There must be no mediocrity in the playing of Chopin.
Chopin was the father of modern piano technique. He called upon all the resources of his instrument, and, seeing that the piano of today is so immeasurably improved from what it was in his time, there is every reason why the player of today should be able to obtain the same effects, or even better ones than Chopin did, with much less difficulty. For instance, I referred just now to the accentuation of one note in a chord, the rest of the notes being played so lightly as to resemble the sighing of the breeze through the strings. This effect must have been very difficult on the old pianos, but it can he easily accomplished on, for instance, the Bechstein of today, which is the piano upon which I always play. Go to one of Godowsky’s recitals and you will see to what height modern technique has come, for Godowsky is the king of the piano in this respect, and is unquestionably the finest exponent of technique in the world today. He owes his extraordinary powers partly to Chopin, who first showed what could be done in this direction, and partly to the modern piano, which makes possible so much more than Chopin could accomplish.
Present-day pianists, therefore, have everything in their favour. They have the finest brushes and the most beautiful outline drawings; all that they need acquire, then, is the musical insight which shall show them how to mix the pigments upon their palette and apply them most attractively upon the canvas.