Playing in the Grand Style (1950)
The critics are occasionally pleased to compliment a pianist by saying that he plays in the grand style. Exactly what do they mean by that phrase? In the broadest sense, they mean a style of playing which penetrates deeper than the physical conquering of the piano. It concerns itself with the release of music. The “grand style” moved listeners through interpretation. If today’s young pianist is to achieve similar results, he, too, must turn to interpretive values. So the next question is, how does one learn to interpret?
In the “grand” days of Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff and Paderewski, it was impossible to learn musical meaning through recordings. Learning music meant digging deep into the score itself, training the inward hearing to grasp what is there and also what is not there. By concentrated and devoted thinking about music, the artist built himself a solid foundation. Any artist worth his salt thinks music far more than he practices. Practice divides the mind between music and the mechanics of managing hands and feet. Inward hearing has its roots in musical thought.
In my student days, when Leschetizky was dissatisfied with the way we turned a phrase, he would bid us leave the piano and walk about the room with our eyes shut until a new phrasing suggested itself. Then we were allowed to play for him. I still follow this procedure, leaving the piano to think about a phrase which needs better shaping.
Moiseiwitsch plays Leschetizky’s Arabesque valsant (1922 recording)
How do you know if your thinking leads you to the right interpretive result? Well, you don’t! Except in the sense that no sincerely planned and logically motivated interpretation is wholly wrong. What you think about music (that is, your interpretation) depends upon talent, intelligence, and general makeup- I might also add maturity, always taking into account that some people mature at an earlier age than others. The natural vigor of these qualities, together with their development, will ultimately lead to some valid train of musical thought.
The only really external factors in music are the printed indications, and even these are far from absolute. Take, for instance, the famous Chopin rubati . The tempo indication is rubato – but how much? What shall the actual note- durations be? To approximate anything resembling accuracy, one needs a sound knowledge of Chopin’s life, his moods; what he was experiencing and feeling when he wrote that particular work; its relation to his work as a whole, etc. One tries to reconstruct all this, and then to apply it. Interpretation does not mean borrowing “effects” to round out the rendition of a given work. It means learning how to think musically in approaching all works. This requires preparation. First, it demands thoughtful study with a thoughtful, intelligent teacher. Also, intelligent listening to (but not copying from!) concerts and records. By intelligent listening I mean breaking away from mere feats of technique and analyzing musical meaning. Find out what is being said. Compare phrasings and phrase-contents with your own. Try to divine why a certain artist plays a certain thing in a certain way. Other requirements include solid factual knowledge of the life and times of a composer (approached without bias, pro or con); and wide general musicianship. One must be able to read any score, to see how a work is constructed, to analyze the content and structure of its various sections, to divine what the composer had to say. Finally one must learn to think one’s way into every phrase, every bar, and to form one’s own opinions about it. All these interpretive steps must be practiced as diligently as finger-drills.
I incline to be stubborn about divining and recreating musical meaning. I do not arrive at interpretive conclusions without thought; I hover over a work for days- weeks- trying shades of meaning. And once I have worked out a satisfying (if not standardized) interpretation, I am hard to sway from it. One evening last summer, I played Chopin’s B Minor Sonata, the Largo of which is among the loveliest slow movements we know. One always plays best alone at home, and this night I reveled in the beauty and sentiment of that movement. When I had finished it, I was startled to find myself sliding straight into the theme of the last movement, omitting the introductory chords. It was in no sense intentional; I simply could not break the mood of the beautiful slow movement by playing chords, And immediately it came to me that those chords do not relate to the transition between the third and final movements. I was greatly excited by the thought and determined (against advice) to try playing the work this way in public. I finally did, and was gratified when the critics, who might have condemned me, approved the alteration. On principle, I am against taking liberties with the masters; I never seek to change texts. But when changes of this kind come to me, when they fit, and when I have exercised thought and reason upon them, then I feel they must be right!
I am startled, occasionally, to find “intelligence” used as the antithesis of “feeling”, as though the two played against each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. No intelligent interpretation is lacking in emotional values. What this probably means is that, depending on gifts and degree of maturity, some natures emphasize brain over heart. Where such an imbalance occurs, it must be corrected by conscious and concentrated application to emotional content. If an interpretation is unduly cerebral, liveness and color can be infused into it by attention to whether the theme is now in the right hand, now in the left; whether it is supported by an accompaniment which has significance of its own, or merely hums along.
I have not touched upon technical matters because those can be learned at any hour of the day. The problem facing the young pianist is not how to play faster and louder, but how to play music in moving and musicianly fashion. This he can accomplish by breaking away from a preoccupation with mechanics, and by concentrating earnestly, devotedly, independently upon musical thought- as was the habit in the “grand” days.