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[This article first appeared in The Musician, Vol. 18 No. 10, October 1913, pages 659-660. This web version was revised 3 December 2000.]

Vladimir de Pachmann
with a Study of his Hands

by G. Mark Wilson

Par 1 Ah, come right in. You must have lunch with me. Be seated and tell me how all these good people are, whose letters you brought. Don't you think I played magnificently at the concert this afternoon? Yes? Papa always plays with his whole soul. This is my secretary, M. Pallottelli. He is a nice young man. You also are nice. See that diamond scarf pin he is wearing? It's a beautiful stone. Beautiful, but" (confidentially) "it has a flaw in it. I know all about gems. I have a wonderful collection — that is my hobby — but" (with a characteristic wave of the hand), "I never wear any of them."
Par 2 Accompanied by expressive facial, hand and shoulder motions, this was the hearty though erratic greeting extended by that eccentric yet remarkable genius, Vladimir de Pachmann, who, during the interview refused to be confined to direct replies, but insisted in following any one of the several tangents dictated by his imaginative fancy. However, after a two-hour visit, the writer came away well pleased with the additional data in his notebook. It was unnecessary to ask questions. Sit still, remain silent, and wait for your answers to appear in the maitre's conversation seemed to be the plan, and it worked out remarkably well.

De Pachmann's hands, extended:

Hands extended (71,247 bytes)

Side view of left hand of de Pachmann, showing muscular development:

Left hand (25,740 bytes)

Par 3 M. de Pachmann first saw the light of day on July 27, 1848, in the city of Odessa, Russia. His piano instruction began at a very early age. While speaking of his childhood studies he said that practice to him was never what we commonly term work. At present there is nothing to which he looks forward with greater pleasure than to his daily study periods. Each time he goes over a number he sees something new, some additional beauty, some way in which he can improve upon his interpretation. When deeply engrossed, he frequently sits at the keyboard hour after hour with little or no apparent fatigue. Yet when physically or mentally tired, he rests for a day or so, thus being guided by the axiom, that there is nothing to be gained in forcing oneself to study. We must be eager to start and just as eager to do our best.
Par 4 Except as above noted, the master devotes a portion of every day to practice. The periods vary. On tours the time allotted is, of necessity, short. However, when away from the concert stage, he says, "I spend most of my time wearing out pianos." He believes that the metronome is invaluable to "beginners and some grown-ups." It gives them correct measure, note and rest value. It also assists them in attaining rapid execution but, with a smile, "Papa Pachmann doesn't need such assistance."
Par 5 At this juncture a young woman appeared on the scene, with an appointment, some concert ambitions and a desire to hear the maitre's opinion of her work. She was decidedly nervous at first, but, seating herself at the piano, became more self-possessed and in the end received a pat on the back and many glowing words of commendation from the host, who then said to the embryo pianist:
Par 6 "Music is a wonderfully satisfying art. You may not be conscious of this fact now but you will as you grow older and become better acquainted with it. Attend as many good piano recitals, operas, and orchestra concerts as you possibly can, for by this means you enlarge your scope, improve your taste, and learn how others achieve good results, to say nothing of the pleasure one derives from hearing a well rendered program. Do not become discouraged. Fits of depression only make matters worse. Remember that it is impossible to master an art in a day, a year, or ten years. Ability is a thing of slow growth."
Par 7 The subject of instruction being brought to the foreground, M. de Pachmann remarked that a capable instructor in the beginning saves much trouble in the end — adding that by a capable instructor he meant a musician, well grounded in the art of practical piano technic, who can demonstrate the correct manner of playing and not indulge in mere verbal theories. Moreover, he holds that a teacher should be quick and untiring in calling attention to faults, but just as quick and willing to give praise when praise is merited.
Par 8 Someone who has been near Papa when the word "criticism" was mentioned, can perhaps describe better than I the sudden change that takes place in his mood, tone, and actions. His gestures become vigorous, he moves impatiently in his chair, and expressions of resentment, resignation, anger, and despair are alternately portrayed on his animated countenance as he voices his opinions.
Par 9 "Criticism," he said; "I can stand criticism from p. 660 a critic who knows whereof he speaks, but tell me, how many really do know? In several cases, yes in the majority of cases, it seems to me that their limit of understanding is a third rate rendition of Home, Sweet Home or We won't be home until morning. As I said before, I do not mind the critical expressions of a musician, but where is the justice or benefit in giving space in public print to the opinions of someone, concerning an opera, symphony, or piano recital, when that someone knows next to nothing of such things. The soloists and composers give years and years of their life to schooling in their particular line of study, but it seems that many critics are made, as Americans say 'in jig time.' Frequently I am criticised because my feeling of good fellowship and high spirits lead me to talk and smile while playing. This is second nature to me and does not detract from my interpretative ability."
Par 10 In proof of which and to show what perfect control he maintains over his fingers and emotions, he played the Chopin Db major waltz, Op. 64, No. 1 as only De Pachmann can, and at the same time indulged in remarks on such topics as the weather, the attendance at his last concert, the tone of the piano, etc.
Par 11 Concerning technic, he expressed himself as believing that the virtuosi of the future may possibly accomplish more in this line than we know of today. Notwithstanding which, however, he seemed to think that pianists now possess all the technical skill necessary to elevate, inspire, and satisfy our desire for all time.
Par 12 He is very positive in the assertion that the present day struggle or greater technical attainments has a degenerating effect on modern music, though he makes others share the blame with the artists.
Par 13 The public, for example, likes to be startled and composers go out of their way to write sensational passages. In view of which, it is to be expected that virtuosi, in their turn, follow and possess themselves of the ability to furnish the sensations.
Par 14 "On the other hand," he said, "'tis true some pianists take it upon themselves to insert startling displays of skill in their concert numbers. But I have never known a man to resort to such methods, without lessening the appeal, understanding, and impressiveness of his work.
Par 15 "For my part," the master continued, "I play things just as they appear in the score; neither adding handfuls of notes here, a group of octaves there, or arpeggi some place else. Not that I am unable to produce these effects, for I can do anything on the piano that anyone else can do."
Par 16 M. de Pachmann paused here for a moment, and Mr. Pallottelli, who was seated at the piano, created a diversion by playing some ragtime. The ceiling did not fall, neither did the walls bulge in, but the master laughingly suggested that his secretary use the soft pedal lest the shades of Wagner, Beethoven, and others rise up and smite him in their wrath.
Par 17 The interpretation of M. de Pachmann's regular concert numbers is the result of years of faithful study. Moreover any novelties he may introduce are thoroughly analyzed and rehearsed several months before he gives them a place on his program.
Par 18 His ideal composer, needless to say, is Chopin, although he tells us there are others who have done and are now doing wonderful work. He himself has written a few piano numbers, but it was simply a desire for recreation and amusement that prompted these efforts.
Par 19 Being questioned concerning the appeal which the work of other pianists makes to him, he said that there are several virtuosi playing whose work is particularly worthy of commendation, but, with a deprecatory shrug, "Liszt, Rubinstein, and myself, are the truly great pianists. The first two named being dead, I am the only one living."
Par 20 Relative to this characteristic way of deciding his own position in Piano Land, it may be well to say, that the maitre's manner at such times is by no means as self-centered or deplorably conceited as his words indicate. Such statements are made by him as facts over which he has no control. In brief, the impression formed by the present writer, was that De Pachmann considers himself simply an instrument or tool in the hands of Fate and is glad that Fate has selected such agreeable work for him. Moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that he is wonderfully artistic and knows the piano as well as its literature from beginning to end; yet emotional temperament, musical thought, study, and mastery dominate his existence to such an extent that there is little room for knowledge or sympathies outside of this field.
Par 21 Compared with other famous pianists, his hands are the smallest of any playing at the present time. They are rather odd in shape, the body of the hand being long and narrow, while the fingers are short and thick. He asserts that pianists with short fingers have greater command over the volume of tone, style of touch, rapid execution, etc., on account of the decreased though steadier leverage which they of necessity must adopt. Evidence of great muscular development is at once apparent in the hands. This is particularly noticeable when viewed from the side. The wrists are large and powerful, but like the fingers are as flexible as finely tempered springs; springs that act in perfect harmony with his mind when producing the exquisite tone pictures that delight us now and which we will recall with pleasure many years hence.