We all know that Vladimir de Pachmann ranks
among the greatest of living pianists, with an
artistic make-up that, while having well-defined
limitations in certain directions, is, in other ways,
peculiar to himself sui generis, as it were. Pianists have
tried to learn the secret of his power as a tone colorist,
but generally without success. His art is difficult of
description, almost impossible of adequate analysis. It
impresses you, satisfies you; but the how and why,—that
is the question.
Some time ago de Pachmann gave in an interview,
published in the Saturday Evening Post, some little
light on the manner in which he obtained his effects in
playing, not only as an unrivaled interpreter of Chopin,
but in the works of other masters as well. Among other
things he said that a composer should be pianistic in
order to appeal to him, as, for instance:—
"Beethoven and Brahms I would throw into the
chimney, as far as their piano compositions are
concerned. They did not write for the piano. Only
Bach, Chopin, and Schumann wrote for the piano.
Brahms' piano things are in the organ style; they are
not for the piano. I have the greatest reverence for
Beethoven's orchestral compositions and string quartets,
but not his piano things. No, I would throw them into
This statement doubtless would horrify the pianists
who claim to be "traditional interpreters" of Beethoven
who, to them (and many others), was as great in his
piano works as in those for orchestra. But from a
purely pianistic standpoint there is much truth in what
de Pachmann says.
The true pianistic art is too little understood, de
Pachmann's especially. Once a lady who "raved"
over his playing said to him effusively, "How beautifully
you play. Do you sing?"
The pianist turned his back on her. "Do I sing?" he
echoed satirically. "Does she think—with that mind?"
De Pachmann is rather reluctant to "give away" the
secrets of his art. In many ways he could not accurately
describe the means by which the artistic mind
accomplishes results, for such results are intuitive,
unexplainable. However, the pianist, after playing for
nearly an hour, said, during his performance, like a
commentary, as it were,—
"In playing Chopin all lies in the fingering. How
many have cunningly watched me do these same things
to find out how I did them. Did they find out? Scarcely;
they would not have kept on playing with such a hard
tone afterward, if they had. It has taken me thirty years
to study out these things for myself. Let them do the
same. Why should I give away my bread? I am sixty,
and I shall soon be dead: it is well.
"But in Chopin all lies in the fingering. In playing
his music pianists get hard, brilliant effects, when they
should have the singing, velvety delicacy that Chopin
requires. They use the
wrong fingers. The fingered editions of his
works are full of errors in this direction. I
very early found out that if I played Chopin
as he demanded to be played, I must study out
my own fingering. Hour after hour I have
tried first one way then another, until I got
the quality of tone and the legato that I wished.
"I do not use the first finger in playing
passages where a delicate effect is needed. The
first finger is too heavy—too harsh. I use the
middle finger instead. Then I get the quality of
tone that I want.
"Now the stroke on the inner side of the finger
and the stroke on the outer give two distinct tone
qualities. Look at this!" De Pachmann's hand
was bent inward and perfectly relaxed. "This
stroke on the inner side of the finger is the violin,
on the outer it is the flute in tone quality.
"The true artist can give such variety of tone to a
simple five-finger exercise that he can make it beautiful.
But how many play five-finger exercises over and over
like machines until they have taken their daily
allowance of mechanism. Listen to every tone that you
play, and above all, listen if you would play Chopin."
This is true, not only as to Chopin, but as to all other
master composers as well—Schumann especially; and in
all his interpretations de Pachmann follows the same
idea. Then the pianist said further, as he played:—
"Let me show you how I trill. Bend the first finger
until it is the length of the thumb, that they may be
even. Then trill almost on the nail. There you have a
"In playing octaves I find a much better effect gained
by the use of the thumb and little finger than by
alternating the third and fourth fingers on
the top notes in the Liszt style of playing.
"There you have some of my Chopin secrets—touch and tone,
quality, octaves, and the trill.
"There is yet another thing. In playing passages
marked for both hands, with the top note to be
struck by the left hand crossing the right, a much
better effect is made by taking with the left hand
the lowest note marked for the right. This makes it
possible for the top note to be struck by the right,
a crossing of the hands being avoided.
There is another thing we must consider when
discussing the reasons that make de Pachmann
the artist he is, and that is his true conception of
the genius of Bach.
"The artist's genius is not genuine until he can
comprehend Bach. To play Bach is to play the
piano. His compositions are drops of pure gold. In
Bach you must read between the lines; he is a little
obscure here and there, but the more you
understand him the more you see his infinite
"Technically, Bach is now better played than
ever, but the spirit of his work remains unchanged.
It demands the same spirit in its interpretation now
that it has always done. There is no new way of
playing it, no matter what is said about a modern
Then, finally, the pianist remarked that he held
three composers as writers for the piano in the
perfect style of its demands: Bach, Chopin, and
Schumann,—truly a great trio.