I knew de Pachmann, who died in Rome last week, and
among the artists he was rare in that he lived up to the
most fantastic and fictional concept of the great musician.
If a playwright undertook to set him down as a character
in a comedy any audience would be dubious as to the
authenticity of the figure. It would seem as if the dramatist
strained too much after a bizarre effect.
And yet the eccentricities of the man were not affectations.
I always felt that a sound philosophy underlay his
curious concert manners. I note that Leopold Godowsky
has referred to him as a "miniaturist." "His field," says the
composer, "was limited, but within its narrow range he was
supreme and inimitable."
Underneath Godowsky's compliment I seem to catch
some hint of a point of view which has always appeared to
me heretical. I refer to that state of mind which withholds
something from the artist who does not choose to spread
himself across vast surfaces.
And that is a notion which leads us to such palpable
absurdities as figures carved upon the sides of mountains
and "the largest mural paintings in the world." Not to
mention that giant motion picture theater which was but lately
the world's largest music hall.
De Pachmann may not have belonged among the great
pianists but he was supreme as an interpreter of Chopin.
It was some English critic
years ago who referred to him
as the Chopinzee. And there was much in this pun to meet
the eye, for de Pachmann was curiously squat in figure,
with long arms and hands disproportionately large. When
the mood was on him he seemed almost to swing back and
forth upon a grand piano.
I heard him play several times in his apartment here and
once in a Carnegie Hall concert which infuriated many of
the better critics. He had become old and his eccentricities
had grown upon him, but he remained, for all that, in a
state of grace.
To him a piano was an intimate instrument, and as a
miniaturist Carnegie Hall presented a canvas too large for
his scope or interest. He liked to play where four or five
were gathered together. "There are too many fools in any
thousand," he once said.
For reasons obscure and erroneous de Pachmann drew the
impression that I was a person of musical understanding.
It is true that I loved to hear him and sat as rapt as any
connoisseur while he played. But when he talked to me in
technical terms I managed to conceal my ignorance by
offering only assent and never any comment.
They kept most of the notices from the old man after
his last Carnegie Hall appearance, but he hit upon one or
two which were severe and said to three of us who were his
friends, "You liked; that is enough."
He was happily insulated against criticism, for anybody
who praised him became at once a great musician and the
rest were either ignorant or malicious. I think the attitude
has always been a useful one to creative artists.
As a pianist I felt that de Pachmann was always reaching
out and trying to bring people in closer to himself and the
keyboard upon which he perched. His style of concert was
not unlike what the older vaudeville theaters call a pianologue.
There was always a running fire of comment from
the performer himself. "Bravo, de Pachmann!" he would say
to himself in a loud voice as he played a passage and found
his interpretation excellent.
And he would throw in little bits of autobiography and
reminiscence as he went along. It was in Carnegie Hall, as
I remember, that he prefaced one piece by saying, "I once
heard Mme. Schumann play this. Oh, my God!"
During a waltz the old gentleman would sometimes get
up from the piano stool, cavort about for a step or so and
then sit down again. And always there was a muttering and
a chattering from him as he swung high in the treetops
intoxicated by the sounds which he brought forth from the
big black box.
Temperament is an ungainly thing unless it is part of the
organic structure of an individual. I do not like to see any
artist slip into a mannerism as if it were a garment. But
these moods of de Pachmann were in his marrow.
It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that the
finest of all who deal with sound and shape and color must
be those who look upon their own creation and cry out