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On Playing the Piano


One of the first things a child is taught when learning the piano is to play a C-major scale. We always begin with the simple fingering 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5, and we are shown how to exploit the special character of the human hand and the mobile thumb by crossing the thumb under the third finger as we play the scale. In other scales (E-flat for example), we cross the thumb even more awkwardly under the fourth finger. This is a basic part of piano technique as it is conceived in conservatories the world over. Nevertheless, it is a mark of the extraordinary variability of approaches to playing the piano that this fundamental practice is not as useful for some pianists as piano teachers think. A pupil of the late Dinu Lipatti, one of the most interesting pianists of this century, told me that Lipatti once remarked: “You know, it has been at least ten years since I last crossed my thumb under the third finger.”

I was pleased to hear this, because I too have discovered that this position is in fact very uncomfortable. Perhaps that is because my thumb is relatively short, not even reaching up to the middle joint of my second finger. I therefore find that wiggling my thumb into an awkward position moves the hand into an inconvenient angle and it is better for me to keep my hand at a steady angle and displace the arm quickly to the right when shifting from the third finger to the thumb, and I have learned how to accomplish this legato.

Everything depends, of course, on the shape of the hand, and it must be stressed that there is no type of hand that is more suited to the piano than another. Josef Hofmann, one of the greatest pianists that I have ever heard—certainly the most remarkable in his control of the widest possible range and variety of tone color—had a hand so small that he could reach no more than the eight notes of an octave, and Steinway built him a special piano in which the ivories were slightly narrower so that he could reach a ninth. His friend Sergei Rachmaninoff had a very large hand, as did Rudolf Serkin, and Sviatoslav Richter could not only reach a twelfth but could play the last chord of the Schumann Toccata all at once without arpeggiation—an effect that would certainly have astonished the composer. My teacher Moriz Rosenthal, famous for his technique, had a small hand with stubby fingers; Vladimir Horowitz’s fingers were exceptionally long, while Robert Casadesus had fingers so thick that he had trouble fitting them in between the black keys. There is no such thing as an ideal pianist’s hand.

In addition, there is no agreement on how to hold the hand at the piano: most children are taught to curve their fingers and place the wrist in a middle position, neither too low nor too high, but of course playing rapid parallel octaves generally demands a higher position for wrist and arm. Horowitz played with his fingers stretched flat, and José Iturbi used to hold his wrist below the level of the keyboard.

This variety is the reason that almost all books on how to play the piano are absurd, and that any dogmatic system of teaching technique is pernicious. (Most pianists, in fact, have to work to some extent in late adolescence to undo the effects of their early instruction and find an idiosyncratic method which suits them personally.) Not only the individual shape of the hand counts but even the shape of the entire body. That is why there is no optimum position for sitting at the piano, in spite of what many pedagogues think. Glenn Gould sat close to the floor, while Artur Rubinstein was almost standing up. It may seem paradoxical that some pianists spend more time choosing a chair for a concert than an instrument; the piano technician at the Festival Hall in London told me that the late Shura Cherkassky decided on the piano he wanted in five minutes, but spent twenty minutes trying out different stools.

The height at which one sits does affect the style of performance. It is difficult, for example, when one is sitting very low, to play bursts of virtuoso octaves fortissimo, as with the following famous passage of the Tchaikovsky concerto in B-flat minor:


That is one aspect of piano technique that Glenn Gould, for example, could not deal with. (A recording engineer at CBS Records told me that when Gould recorded Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, he first recorded some of the virtuoso octaves in the right hand by using both hands and overdubbed the left hand afterward.) Nevertheless, the low seated position enabled Gould to achieve a beautiful technical control of rapid passage-work with different kinds of touch. The way one sits at the keyboard has had an influence on the music that composers write as well as on performance. Ravel also sat very low, for instance, and in his music there are no examples of parallel octaves fortissimo in unison for both hands which are the trademark of so much nineteenth-century virtuosity, particularly the school of Liszt, and which account for the main excitement in the concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. This Lisztian style of octaves demands a play of the back and shoulder muscles more difficult to manage from a low position. Ravel’s Scarbo, perhaps the greatest tone poem for piano in the Liszt tradition, contains no parallel octaves of this kind, but only octaves alternating between the hands, equally difficult to play but not requiring a raised position of the arms.

These famous Lisztian octave passages bring up an important point: the performance of music is not only an art, but a form of sport, rather like tennis or fencing. This is particularly true of piano music, although the violinist who wields his bow aggressively like a sword has not been unknown to audiences since the early nineteenth century. The triumphant octave effects are not only the greatest crowd-pleasers (when Horowitz was young, members of the audience sometimes stood on their seats to watch him play the octaves in the first and last movements of the Tchaikovsky concerto); they also require special and painful training similar to the hours of exercise to which athletes must submit. Rubinstein, jealous of Horowitz’s glamorous success, remarked sardonically to him, “You have won the octave Olympics.”

It is interesting to note, however, that the most painful of all octave passages to execute are not to be found in Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff or even in Liszt, not even in the notorious Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody, but in the accompaniment to Schubert’s Erl-könig. This work must have given trouble even during the composer’s lifetime, when the pianos had a much lighter action, since he wrote out a simplified version of this song—simplified for the pianist, that is. It is, however, the brilliant loud octave passages that audiences wait for, just as they wait for the fouettés of the Black Swan in the second act of Swan Lake, another feat rather more athletic than artistic—although it would be a mistake to deny the dramatic interest of these displays of physical prowess both in piano music and ballet, which have an artistic importance at the very least equivalent to the high-altitude arabesques of the mad Lucia.

The true invention of this kind of octave display—or, at least, the first appearance of a long and relentlessly fortissimo page of unison octaves in both hands—is to be found in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto


It marks a revolution in keyboard sonority, but it is slower than the rapid virtuoso octaves of the early and late Romantics and not particularly hard to play.

It was initially with the generation of composers that followed Beethoven that technique first required the performer to experience physical pain, starting with Liszt and minor composers like Thalberg. Schumann does not use octaves like that, at least not at a speed to cause the pianist any discomfort except for a brief passage in the Humoresk and a much lighter one in the Toccata. Chopin employs them only once and only in the left hand, in the Polonaise in A-flat Major, and he was horrified when he heard a pianist perform this at an unreasonably fast tempo. These famous octaves in the middle section that are popularly thought to represent a cavalry charge are difficult at a rapid speed (at least, one pianist some years ago was rumored to have recorded this piece with her husband playing the left-hand octaves with both hands while she played the right-hand melody).

I have dwelt on this technique, largely outmoded in composition today (the last example that I know in a really fine work is in the final movement of Elliott Carter’s piano sonata of 1947, more than half a century ago), not only because of its popularity, but also because the hours of practicing parallel octaves have been conjectured to be the reason for so many pianists’ having lost the control of the four and fifth fingers of their right hands in recent times. Béla Bartók in the Out of Doors suite made the effect even more athletic by writing parallel ninths. We have seen in our time the equivalent among pianists of the physical injuries experienced by tennis and football players as a result of their professions.

Keyboard performance as a sport as well as an art is already in evidence with the early sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti in the first half of the eighteenth century: here it is the gymnas-tic aspect of the athletic performance rather than physical endurance and strength that played the principal role, with the astonishing leaps of crossing hands and the rapid repeated notes in guitar effects that were Scarlatti’s specialty. With the arrival of the so-called first Viennese style of Haydn and Mozart, there is a loss of virtuosity: only a few concertos of Mozart and one or two piano trios of Haydn have anything remotely to compare with the virtuoso display that we find in Scarlatti and in Bach’s organ toccatas and his Goldberg Variations.

Late in the century there was more concern for writing for the amateur rather than the professional in order to sell sheet music, although Mozart was unable to please his publishers and accommodate himself satisfactorily to the demand for easy music. It was Beethoven who felt that the desires of the amateur—or even of the average professional—were not worth attending to, except when he wrote an easy piece to make a little extra money. Even then, his idea of an easy piece was likely to deter the average amateur, as with the first movement of opus 79, just as Mozart composed one of his hardest movements (D Major, K. 576) under the mistaken impression that he was producing something that could be negotiated by a beginner or an amateur.

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