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[This article first appeared in Arthur Symons, Plays, Acting and Music: A Book of Theory, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1905. It was also published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1928. An Internet version taken from the 1905 edition by Ates Orga is available here. The present version is taken from the 1928 edition, pages 199-215. The author is the Welsh poet and writer Arthur Symons (1865-1945).
This web version is dated 11 April 2006.]

Pachmann and the Piano

by Arthur Symons

– 1 –

Par 1 p.199 IT seems to me that Pachmann is the only pianist who plays the piano as it ought to be played. I admit his limitations, I admit that he can play only certain things, but I contend that he is the greatest living pianist because he can play those things better than any other pianist can play anything. Pachmann is the Verlaine of pianists, and when I hear him I think of Verlaine reading his own verse, in a faint, reluctant voice, which you overheard. Other players have mastered the piano, Pachmann absorbs its soul, and it is only when he touches it that it really speaks its own voice.
Par 2 The art of the pianist, after all, lies mainly in one thing, touch. It is by the skill, precision, and beauty of his touch that he makes music at all; it is by the quality of his touch that he evokes a more or less miraculous vision of sound for us. Touch gives him his only means of expression; it is to him what relief is to the sculptor or what values are to the painter. To 'understand,' as it is called, a piece of music, is not so much as the beginning of good playing; if you do not understand it with your fingers, what shall your brain profit you? In the interpretation of music all action of the brain which does not translate itself perfectly in touch is useless. You may as well not think at all as p.200 not think in terms of your instrument, and the piano responds to one thing only, touch. Now Pachmann, beyond all other pianists, has this magic. When he plays it, the piano ceases to be a compromise. He makes it as living and penetrating as the violin, as responsive and elusive as the clavichord.
Par 3 Chopin wrote for the piano with a more perfect sense of his instrument than any other composer, and Pachmann plays Chopin with an infallible sense of what Chopin meant to express in his mind. He seems to touch the notes with a kind of agony of delight; his face twitches with the actual muscular contraction of the fingers as they suspend themselves in the very act of touch. I am told that Pachmann plays Chopin in a morbid way. Well, Chopin was morbid; there are fevers and cold sweats in his music; it is not healthy music, and it is not to be interpreted in a robust way. It must be played, as Pachmann plays it, somnambulistically, with a tremulous delicacy of intensity, as if it were a living thing on whose nerves one were operating, and as if every touch might mean life or death.
Par 4 I have heard pianists who played Chopin in what they called a healthy way. The notes swung, spun, and clattered, with a heroic repercussion of sound, a hurrying reiteration of fury, signifying p.201 nothing. The piano stormed through the applause; the pianist sat imperturbably, hammering. Well, I do not think any music should be played like that, not Liszt even. Liszt connives at the suicide, but with Chopin it is a murder. When Pachmann plays Chopin the music sings itself, as if without the intervention of an executant, of one who stands between the music and our hearing. The music has to intoxicate him before he can play with it; then he becomes its comrade, in a kind of very serious game; himself, in short, that is to say inhuman. His fingers have in them a cold magic, as of soulless elves who have sold their souls for beauty. And this beauty, which is not of the soul, is not of the flesh; it is a sea-change, the life of the foam on the edge of the depths. Or it transports him into some mid-region of the air, between hell and heaven, where he hangs listening. He listens at all his senses. The dew, as well as the raindrop, has a sound for him.
Par 5 In Pachmann's playing there is a frozen tenderness, with, at moments, the elvish triumph of a gnome who has found a bright crystal or a diamond. Pachmann is inhuman, and music, too, is inhuman. To him, and rightly, it is a thing not domesticated, not familiar as a household cat with our hearth. When he plays it, music speaks no language known to us, has nothing of ourselves to p.202 tell us, but is shy, alien, and speaks a language which we do not know. It comes to us a divine hallucination, chills us a little with its 'airs from heaven' or elsewhere, and breaks down for an instant the too solid walls of the world, showing us the gulf. When d'Albert plays Chopin's Berceuse, beautifully, it is a lullaby for healthy male children growing too big for the cradle. Pachmann's is a lullaby for fairy changelings who have never had a soul, but in whose veins music vibrates; and in this intimate alien thing he finds a kind of humour.
Par 6 In the attempt to humanize music, that attempt which almost every executant makes, knowing that he will be judged by his success or failure in it, what is most fatally lost is that sense of mystery which, to music, is atmosphere. In this atmosphere alone music breathes tranquilly. So remote is it from us that it can only be reached through some not quite healthy nervous tension, and Pachmann's physical disquietude when he plays is but a sign of what it has cost him to venture outside humanity, into music. Yet in music this mystery is a simple thing, its native air; and the art of the musician has less difficulty in its evocation than the art of the poet or the painter. With what an effort do we persuade words or colours back from their vulgar articulateness into at least some recollection p.203 of that mystery which is deeper than sight or speech. Music can never wholly be detached from mystery, can never wholly become articulate, and it is in our ignorance of its true nature that we would tame it to humanity and teach it to express human emotions, not its own.
Par 7 Pachmann gives you pure music, not states of soul or of temperament, not interpretations, but echoes. He gives you the notes in their own atmosphere, where they live for him an individual life, which has nothing to do with emotions or ideas. Thus he does not need to translate out of two languages: first, from sound to emotion, temperament, what you will; then from that back again to sound. The notes exist; it is enough that they exist. They mean for him just the sound and nothing else. You see his fingers feeling after it, his face calling to it, his whole body imploring it. Sometimes it comes upon him in such a burst of light that he has to cry aloud, in order that he may endure the ecstasy. You see him speaking to the music; he lifts his finger, that you may listen for it not less attentively. But it is always the thing itself that he evokes for you, as it rises flower-like out of silence, and comes to exist in the world. Every note lives, with the whole vitality of its existence. To Swinburne every word lives, just in the same way; when he says 'light,' he sees the p.204 sunrise; when he says 'fire,' he is warmed through all his blood. And so Pachmann calls up, with this ghostly magic of his, the innermost life of music. I do not think he has ever put an intention into Chopin. Chopin had no intentions. He was a man, and he suffered; and he was a musician, and he wrote music; and very likely George Sand, and Majorca, and his disease, and Scotland, and the woman who sang to him when he died, are all in the music; but that is not the question. The notes sob and shiver, stab you like a knife, caress you like the fur of a cat; and are beautiful sound, the most beautiful sound that has been called out of the piano. Pachmann calls it out for you, disinterestedly, easily, with ecstasy, inevitably; you do not realize that he has had difficulties to conquer, that music is a thing for acrobats and athletes. He smiles to you, that you may realize how beautiful the notes are, when they trickle out of his fingers like singing water; he adores them and his own playing, as you do, and as if he had nothing to do with them but to pour them out of his hands. Pachmann is less showy with his fingers than any other pianist; his hands are stealthy acrobats, going quietly about their difficult business. They talk with the piano and the piano answers them. All that violence cannot do with the notes of the instrument, he does. His art begins where violence p.205 leaves off; that is why he can give you fortissimo without hurting the nerves of a single string; that is why he can play a run as if every note had its meaning. To the others a run is a flourish, a tassel hung on for display, a thing extra; when Pachmann plays a run you realize that it may have its own legitimate sparkle of gay life. With him every note lives, has its own body and its own soul, and that is why it is worth hearing him play even trivial music like Mendelsshon's Spring Song or meaningless music like Taubert's Waltz: he creates a beauty out of sound itself and a beauty which is at the root of music. There are moments when a single chord seems to say in itself everything that music has to say. That is the moment in which everything but sound is annihilated, the moment of ecstasy; and it is of such moments that Pachmann is the poet.
Par 8 And so his playing of Bach, as in the Italian Concerto in F, reveals Bach as if the dust had suddenly been brushed off his music. All that in the playing of others had seemed hard or dry becomes suddenly luminous, alive, and, above all, a miracle of sound. Through a delicacy of shading, like the art of Bach himself for purity, poignancy, and clarity, he envelops us with the thrilling atmosphere of the most absolutely musical music in the world. The playing of this concerto p.206 is the greatest thing I have ever heard Pachmann do, but when he went on to play Mozart I heard another only less beautiful world of sound rise softly about me. There was the 'glittering peace' undimmed, and there was the nervous spring, the diamond hardness, as well as the glowing light and ardent sweetness. Yet another manner of playing, not less appropriate to its subject, brought before me the bubbling flow, the romantic moonlight, of Weber; this music that is a little showy, a little luscious, but with a gracious feminine beauty of its own. Chopin followed, and when Pachmann plays Chopin it is as if the soul of Chopin had returned to its divine body, the notes of this sinewy and feverish music, in which beauty becomes a torture and energy pierces to the centre and becomes grace, and languor swoons and is reborn a winged energy. The great third Scherzo was played with grandeur, and it is in the Scherzos, perhaps, that Chopin has built his most enduring work. The Barcarolle, which I have heard played as if it were Niagara and not Venice, was given with perfect quietude, and the second Mazurka of Op. 50 had that boldness of attack, with an almost stealthy intimacy in its secret rhythms, which in Pachmann's playing, and in his playing alone, gives you the dance and the reverie together. But I am not sure that the Études are not, in a very p.207 personal sense what is most essential in Chopin, and I am not sure that Pachmann is not at his best in the playing of the Etudes.
Par 9 Other pianists think, perhaps, but Pachmann plays. As he plays he is like one hypnotized by the music; he sees it beckoning, smiles to it, lifts his finger on a pause that you may listen to the note which is coming. This apparent hypnotism is really a fixed and continuous act of creation; there is not a note which he does not create for himself, to which he does not give his own vitality, the sensitive and yet controlling vitality of the medium. In playing the Bach he had the music before him that he might be wholly free from even the slight strain which comes from the almost unconscious act of remembering. It was for a precisely similar reason that Coleridge, in whose verse inspiration and art are more perfectly balanced than in any other English verse, often wrote down his poems first in prose that he might be unhampered by the conscious act of thought while listening for the music.
Par 10 'There is no exquisite beauty,' said Bacon in a subtle definition, 'which has not some strangeness in its proportions.' The playing of Pachmann escapes the insipidity of that beauty which is without strangeness; it has in it something fantastically inhuman, like fiery ice, and it is for this p.208 reason that it remains a thing uncapturable, a thing whose secret he himself could never reveal. It is like the secret of the rhythms of Verlaine, and no prosodist will ever tell us why a line like:

Dans un palais, soie et or, dans Ecbatane,

can communicate a new shiver to the most languid or the most experienced nerves. Like the art of Verlaine, the art of Pachmann is one wholly of suggestion; his fingers state nothing, they evoke. I said like the art of Verlaine, because there is a singular likeness between the two methods. But is not all art a suggestion, an evocation, never a statement? Many of the great forces of the present day have set themselves to the task of building up a large, positive art in which every thing shall be said with emphasis: the art of Zola, the art of Mr. Kipling, in literature; the art of Mr. Sargent in painting; the art of Richard Strauss in music. In all these remarkable men there is some small, essential thing lacking; and it is in men like Verlaine, like Whistler, like Pachmann, that we find the small, essential thing, and nothing else.

– 2 –

Par 11
The sounds torture me: I see them in my brain;
They spin a flickering web of living threads,
Like butterflies upon the garden beds,
Nets of bright sound. I follow them: in vain.
I must not brush the least dust from their wings:
They die of a touch; but I must capture them,
Or they will turn to a caressing flame,
And lick my soul up with their flutterings.

The sounds torture me: I count them with my eyes,
I feel them like a thirst between my lips;
Is it my body or my soul that cries
With little coloured mouths of sound, and drips
In these bright drops that turn to butterflies
Dying delicately at my finger tips?

– 3 –

Par 12 Pachmann has the head of a monk who has had commerce with the Devil, and it is whispered that he has sold his soul to the diabolical instrument, which, since buying it, can speak in a human voice. The sounds torture him, as a wizard is tortured by the shapes he has evoked. He makes them dance for his pleasure, and you hear their breath come and go, in the swell and subsiding of those marvellous crescendoes and diminuendoes which set the strings pulsating like a sea. He listens for the sound, listens for the last echo of it after it is gone, and is caught away from us visibly into that unholy company.
Par 13 Pachmann is the greatest player of the piano p.210 now living. He cannot interpret every kind of music, though his actual power is more varied than he has led the public to suppose. I have heard him play in private a show-piece of Liszt, a thunderous thing of immense difficulty, requiring a technique quite different from the technique which alone he cares to reveal to us; he had not played it for twenty years, and he played it with exactly the right crackling splendour that it demanded. On the rare occasions when he plays Bach, something that no one of our time has ever perceived or rendered in that composer seems to be evoked, and Bach lives again, with something of that forgotten life which only the harpsichord can help us to remember under the fingers of other players. Mozart and Weber are two of the composers whom he plays with the most natural instinct, for in both he finds and unweaves that dainty web of bright melody which Mozart made out of sunlight and Weber out of moonlight. There is nothing between him and them, as there is in Beethoven, for instance, who hides himself in the depths of a cloud, in the depths of wisdom, in the depths of the heart. And to Pachmann all this is as strange as mortal firesides to a fairy. He wanders round it, wondering at the great walls and bars that have been set about the faint, escaping spirit of flame. There is nothing human p.211 in him, and as music turns towards humanity it slips from between his hands. What he seeks and finds in music is the inarticulate, ultimate thing in sound: the music, in fact.
Par 14 It has been complained that Pachmann's readings are not intellectual, that he does not interpret. It is true that he does not interpret between the brain and music, but he is able to disimprison sound, as no one has ever done with mortal hands, and the piano, when he touches it, becomes a joyous, disembodied thing, a voice and nothing more, but a voice which is music itself. To reduce music to terms of human intelligence or even of human emotion is to lower it from its own region, where it is Ariel. There is something in music, which we can apprehend only as sound, that comes to us out of heaven or hell, mocking the human agency that gives it speech, and taking flight beyond it. When Pachmann plays a Prelude of Chopin, all that Chopin was conscious of saying in it will, no doubt, be there; it is all there, if Godowsky plays it; every note, every shade of expression, every heightening and quickening, everything that the notes actually say. But under Pachmann's miraculous hands a miracle takes place; mystery comes about it like an atmosphere, an icy thrill traverses it, the terror and ecstasy of a beauty that is not in the world envelop p.212 it; we heard sounds that are awful and exquisite, crying outside time and space. Is it through Pachmann's nerves, or through ours, that this communion takes place? Is it technique, temperament, touch, that reveals to us what we have never dreamed was hidden in sounds? Could Pachmann himself explain to us his own magic?
Par 15 He would tell us that he had practised the piano with more patience than others, that he had taken more trouble to acquire a certain touch which is really the only way to the secret of his instrument. He could tell you little more; but, if you saw his hands settle on the keys, and fly and poise there, as if they had nothing to do with the perturbed, istening face that smiles away from them, you would know how little he had told you. Now let us ask Godowsky, whom Pachmann himself sets above all other pianists, what he has to tell us about the way in which he plays.
Par 16 When Godowsky plays he sits bent and motionless, as if picking out a pattern with his fingers. He seems to keep surreptitious watch upon them, as they run swiftly on their appointed errands. There is no errand they are not nimble enough to carry without a stumble to the journey's end. They obey him as if in fear; they dare not turn aside from the straight path; for their whole aim is to get to the end of the journey, having done their p.213 task faultlessly. Sometimes, but without relaxing his learned gravity, he plays a difficult game, as in the Paganini variations of Brahms, which were done with a skill as sure and as soulless as Paganini's may have been. Sometimes he forgets that the notes are living things, and tosses them about a little cruelly, as if they were a juggler's balls. They drop like stones; you are sorry for them, because they are alive. How Chopin suffers, when he plays the Preludes ! He plays them without a throb; the scholar has driven out the magic; Chopin becomes a mathematician. In Brahms, in the G Minor Rhapsody, you hear much more of what Brahms meant to do; for Brahms has set strange shapes dancing, like the skeletons 'in the ghosts' moonshine' in a ballad of Beddoes; and. these bodiless things take shape in the music, as Godowsky plays it unflinchingly, giving it to you exactly as it is, without comment. Here his fidelity to every outline of form becomes an interpretation. But Chopin is so much more than form that to follow every outline of it may be to leave Chopin out of the outline.
Par 17 Pachmann, of all the interpreters of Chopin, is the most subtle, the one most likely to do for the most part what Chopin wanted. The test, I think, is in the Third Scherzo. That great composition, one of the greatest among Chopin's works, for it p.214 contains all his qualities in an intense measure, might have been thought less likely to be done perfectly by Pachmann than such Coleridge in music, such murmurings out of paradise, as the Etude in F Minor (Op. 25, No. 2) or one of those Mazurkas in which Chopin is more poignantly fantastic in substance, more wild and whimsical in rhythm, than elsewhere in his music; and indeed, as Pachmann played them, they were strange and lovely gambols of unchristened elves. But in the Scherzo he mastered this great, violent, heroic thing as he had mastered the little freakish things and the trickling and whispering things. He gave meaning to every part of its decoration, yet lost none of the splendour and wave-like motion of the whole tossing and eager sea of sound.
Par 18 Pachmann's art, like Chopin's, which it perpetuates, is of that peculiarly modern kind which aims at giving the essence of things in their fine shades: la nuance encor! Is there, it may be asked, any essential thing left out in the process; do we have attenuation in what is certainly a way of sharpening one's steel to a very fine point? The sharpened steel gains in what is most vital in its purpose by this very paring away of its substance; and why should not a form of art strike deeper for the same reason? Our only answer to p.215 Whistler and Verlaine is the existence of Rodin and Wagner. There we have weight as well as sharpness; these giants fly. It was curious to hear, in the vast luminous music of the Rheingold, flowing like water about the earth, bare to its roots, not only an amplitude but a delicacy of fine shades not less realized than in Chopin. Wagner, it is true, welds the lyric into drama, without losing its lyrical quality. Yet there is no perfect lyric which is made less by the greatness of even a perfect drama.
Par 19 Chopin was once thought to be a drawing-room composer; Pachmann was once thought to be no 'serious artist.' Both have triumphed, not because the taste of any public has improved, but because a few people who knew have whispered the truth to one another, and at last it has leaked out like a secret.