Chopin as Pianist and Teacher
excerpt form the forward to his edition of Chopin's works
for publisher F. Kistner, 1879
"... While Chopin the composer is now respected and honored by all true friends of art and connoisseurs, Chopin the pianist has remained almost unknown; what is worse, an entirely false impression of him in this respect has been generally circulated. According to that version, his playing was more that of a dreamer than that of a waking man - playing that was barely audible, consisting as it did of nothing but pianissimos and una cordas, highly uncertain or at least unclear because of poorly developed technique, and distorted into something totally arrhythmic by a constant rubato! This prejudice could not help being very detrimental to the rendering of his works even at the hands of highly capable artists who only desired to be utterly faithful. Incidentally, it is easy to explain.
Chopin played in public seldom and only unwillingly; "showing off" was alien to his nature. A sickliness of many years and a nervously overwrought temperament did not always allow him, in the concert hall, the composure necessary to exhibit unhindered the whole wealth of his resources. In select circles he rarely played anything but his smaller creations, and now and again excerpts from the larger ones. Thus it is not surprising that Chopin the pianist failed to achieve any wide recognition.
And yet Chopin possessed a highly developed technique, in complete command of the instrument. In all types of touch, the evenness of his scales and passagework was unsurpassed, indeed fabulous; under his hands the piano had no need to envy either the violin its bow or the wind instruments their living breath. The tones blended miraculously as in the loveliest song.
A true pianist's hand, not so much large as extremely supple, enabled him to arpeggiate the most widely disposed harmonies and to perform sweeping passagework, which he introduced into the idiom of the piano as something never before dared, and all without the slightest exertion being evident, just as overall an agreeable freedom and ease particularly characterized his playing. At the same time, the tone that he could draw from the instrument was always huge, especially in the cantabiles; only Field could compare with him in this respect.
A virile, noble energy - energy without rawness - lent an overwhelming effect to the appropriate passages, just as elsewhere he could enrapture the listener through the tenderness - tenderness without affectation of his soulful renditions. With all his intense personal warmth, his playing was nevertheless always moderate, chaste, refined, and occasionally even austerely reserved.
Unfortunately, in the trend of modern pianism, these fine distinctions, like so many others belonging to an ideal art movement, are thrown into the attic of "superseded ideas" that hinder progress, and a naked display of strength, not considering the capacity of the instrument, not even striving for the beauty of the sound to be shaped, today passes for large tone and energetic expression!
In keeping tempo Chopin was inflexible, and it will surprise many to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much-slandered rubato, one hand, the accompanying hand, always played in strict tempo, while the other - singing, either indecisively hesitating or entering ahead of the beat and moving more quickly with a certain impatient vehemence, as in passionate speech - freed the truth of the musical expression from all rhythmic bonds.
Although Chopin for the most part played his own compositions, his memory- as rich as it was accurate - mastered all the great and beautiful works of keyboard literature - above all Bach, though it is hard to say whether he loved Bach or Mozart more. His execution of this music was unequaled. With the little G major trio my Mozart (played with Alard and Franchomme) he literally bewitched the blas‚` Parisian public in one of his last concerts. Naturally Beethoven was just as close to his heart. He had a great predilection for C.M. von Weber's works, particularly the Konzertstuck and the E minor and Ab major sonatas; for Hummel's Fantasy, Septet, and concertos; and for Field's Ab major concerto and Nocturnes, for which he improvised the most captivating ornaments. Of the virtuoso music of every degree of quality- which in his time terribly crowded out everything else - I never saw one piece on his piano stand, and I doubt if anyone else ever did. He rarely took the opportunity to hear such works in the concert hall, though such opportunities were frequently presented and even urged on him, but in contrast he was an enthusiastic regular at Habeneck's Soci‚t‚ de Concerts and Alard and Frachommes's string quartet performances.
It should be of interest to many readers to learn something of Chopin the teacher, if only in general outline.
Teaching was something he could not easily avoid, in his capacity as an artist and with his social attachments in Paris; but far from regarding it as a heavy burden, Chopin dedicated all his strength to it for several hours a day with genuine pleasure. Admittedly he placed great demands on the talent and industry of the student. There were often "lecons orageuses", as they were called in school parlance, and many a lovely eye left the high altar of the Cite` d`Orleans, rue St. Lazare, in tears, yet without bearing the least resentment against the greatly beloved master. For it was this rigor so hard to satisfy, the feverish intensity with which the master strove to raise his disciples to his own pinnacle, the refusal to cease in the repetition of a passage until it was understood, that constituted a guarantee that he had the pupil's progress at heart. A holy artistic zeal glowed through him; every word from his lips was stimulating and inspiring. Often individual lessons lasted literally for several hours, until the exhaustion of master and pupil own out.
At the beginning of study, Chopin generally sought to free the student's hand from all stiffness and any convulsive, spasmodic movement, and thus to produce in him the first condition of beautiful playing - "souplesse", and along with it the independence of the fingers. Untiringly he taught that the appropriate exercises should not be merely mechanical but rather should enlist the whole will of the student; therefore he would never require a mindless twenty or forty-fold repetition (still today the extolled arcanum at so many schools), let alone a drill during which one could, according to Kalkbrenner's advice, simultaneously occupy oneself with reading(!). He dealt very thoroughly with the various types of touch, especially full-toned legato.
As gymnastic aids, he recommended the bending in and out of the wrist, the repeated wrist attack, the stretching of the fingers - always with a serious warning against fatigue. He insisted that scales be played with large tone, as legato as possible, first very slowly and only gradually increasing the tempo, with metronomic evenness. Bending the hand inward would, he claimed, facilitate turning the thumb under and crossing the other fingers over it. The scales with many black keys (B major, F# major, Db major) were the first to be studied, the last - as the most difficult- being C major. In a similar sequence, he first assigned Clementi's Preludes and Exercises, a work that he valued very highly for its usefulness. According to Chopin, the evenness of scales (and also arpeggios) was founded not only on the greatest possible equality in finger strength and a thumb completely unimpeded in crossing under and over - to be achieved by five finger exercises- but far more on a sideways movement of the hand, not jerky but always evenly gliding, with the elbow hanging down completely and freely; this he sought to illustrate on the keyboard by a glissando. As studies he assigned a selection from Cramer's Etudes, Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum, the finishing Studies in Style by Moscheles (which he was very fond of), and Bach's suites, and individual fugues form the Well-tempered Clavier.
To an extent, he also numbered Field's and his own Nocturnes among these piano studies, since in them the student could learn to recognize, love and execute beautifully flowing singing tone and legato, partly through a grasp of his explanations, partly through intuitive perception and imitation (he played these works constantly for his students). In double notes and chords he demanded precisely simultaneous attacks; breaking the chord was permitted only where the composer himself specified it. In trills, which he generally stipulated should begin of the upper auxiliary, he insisted less on rapidity than on absolute evenness, and the trill endings had to be calm and unrushed.
For the turn (gruppetto) and the appoggiatura, he recommended the great Italian singers as models. He required that octaves be played with the wrist, but cautioned that they must not lose any fullness of tone as a result. Only to significantly advanced students did he assign his Etudes, op. 10 and op. 25.
Concertos and sonatas by Clementi, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Scalrlatti, Dussek, Field, Hummel, Ries, and Beethoven; then works by Weber, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Hiller and Schumann and his own works were the pieces that appeared on the music stand, in a sequence carefully ordered by difficulty. Above all, it was correct phrasing to which Chopin devoted the greatest attention. On the subject of bad phrasing, he often repeated the apt observation that it seemed to him as if someone were reciting a speech in a language he didn't know, a speech laboriously memorized by rote, in which the reciter not only did not observe the natural length of the syllables but would even make stops in the middle of individual words. The pseudo musician who phrased badly revealed in a similar way that music was not his native language but rather something strange and incomprehensible, and must, like the reciter, fail to produce any effect on the listener through his performance. In the notation of fingering, particularly the most personally characteristic fingering, Chopin was not sparing. Pianists owe him thanks for his great innovations in fingering, which because of their effectiveness soon became established, though authorities such as Kalkbrenner were initially truly horrified by them. Chopin unhesitatingly employed the thumb on the black keys; he crossed it even under the fifth finger (admittedly with a decided bending-in of the wrist) when this could facilitate the performance or lend it more serenity and evenness. He often took two successive notes with one and the same finger (and not only in the transition from a black key to a white one), without the slightest break in the tonal flow becoming noticeable. He frequently crossed the longer fingers over each other, without the help of the thumb (see Etude no. 2 from op. 10), and not only in passages where it was made absolutely necessary by the thumb's holding a key. The fingering of a chromatic thirds based on this principle (as he indicates it in Etude no. 5 from op. 25) offers, to a much greater degree than the then-usual method, the possibility of the most beautiful legato in the fastest tempo with an altogether calm hand. As for shading, he adhered strictly to a genuinely gradual crescendo and decrescendo. On declamation and on performance in general, he gave his pupils invaluable and meaningful advice and hints, but certainly exerted a far stronger influence by repeatedly playing for his students not only individual passages but entire works, and with a conscientiousness and enthusiasm that he rarely displayed in the concert hall. Often the entire lesson would pass without the student's having played more than a few measures, while Chopin, interrupting and correcting him on the Pleyel upright (the student always played on an outstanding concert piano, and was required to practice only on the finest instruments), offered the warm, living ideal of the highest beauty for his admiration and emulation. One could say without exaggeration that only his students knew Chopin the pianist in his full, quite unattainable greatness.
Chopin most insistently recommended ensemble playing, the cultivation of the best chamber music - but only in the company of highly accomplished musicians. Whoever could not find such opportunities was urged to seek a substitute in four-hand playing.
Just as insistently he advised his pupils to undertake thorough theoretical studies as early as possible, and most of them were grateful for his kind intercession when his friend Henri Reber (later professor at the Paris Conservatory), whom he respected highly both as a theorist and as a composer, agreed to instruct them. In every situation the great heart of the master was open to his students. A sympathetic and fatherly friend, he inspired them to incessant efforts, rejoiced genuinely in every new accomplishment, and always had an encouraging word for the wavering and fainthearted."
Carl Mikuli, 1879
pupil of Frederic Chopin and editor of his works