The present writer does not boast of having once been
a pupil of Vladimir de Pachmann. For one thing, this would not be fair to
Pachmann. It was very literally "once". There was but a single lesson.
The admirable principles expounded that afternoon,
so many years ago, failed to make a pianist of the unworthy pupil, who
has to admit that the details of the precious instructions have escaped his
memory. The details in question concerned the fingering of the first
movement of Beethoven's Sonate Pathétique. Generously, the strange
little old master not only revealed his secrets — his discovery after
half a lifetime of thought — of the right fingering for the opening of
the Allegro of that movement, and other passages, but moreover, devoted the
afternoon to an endeavour to persuade the pupil's graceless hands to emulate
his own wonderfully suave execution.
If it has to be confessed that the details of that
fingering have gone out of mind, a general impression of the lesson
remains vivid enough. In public Pachmann had for a long while
been indulging in his celebrated unconventionality, which the
unsympathetic called clowning. It was, no doubt, more the fault
of the audience than his own, but his concerts had begun to be
almost tiresome, since the celebrated unconventionality seemed
to be growing into a rite. Although Pachmann's playing remained
incomparable, the interruptions, if you happened not to be
amused, could be thoroughly irritating. But that afternoon with
the Sonate Pathétique blew away any doubt one might have
harboured about Pachmann's genuineness. To the unworthy pupil
it was brought home afresh and unanswerably that the queer old
man, though on the concert platform he may at times have let
himself go wild a little deliberately, incited by the public's
delight in his confidences, was an artist through and through.
He, who had all along been the most exquisite
of pianists, touchingly declared himself that day to be only beginning to
attain a style of real refinement. He spoke with comically
exaggerated horror of the enormities he had committed in his
less enlightened years. There was nothing in him of that
fatigue and disillusionment so common in great executants in
their later phases. The ageing Pachmann felt the allurement and
possibilities of the keyboard with all the freshness of youth;
and Pygmalion, when his statue came to life, could hardly have
been more delightfully infatuated than he was with one of his
own elegant solutions of the problems of fingering the classics.
Nothing else in life, at that time, mattered much to him. His
was a pure artist's passion, touching and, indeed, impressive.
This little reminiscence was called to mind by the
appearance of the first installments, just published by
Augener's, of a Pachmann edition of Chopin's works, which we owe
to Marguerite de Pachmann-Labori. Seven of the Studies from Op.
10 are issued, and also the C sharp minor Fantaisie-Impromptu.
Mme. Labori's preface deserves to be quoted.
She — who was first known to the world as Maggie Okey,
an Australian child
pianist, then becoming Pachmann's wife, and then the wife of the
celebrated French barrister, Maître Labori, Dreyfus's counsel
— was Pachmann's one pupil, and after his death last year she
entered into possession of his music, fully marked with the
fingering of which he was so proud. In the course of her
remarks Mme. Labori says:
"Those who have heard Vladimir de Pachmann play will
remember how even in public he used with innocent pride to speak
of his fingering, and the solutions of difficult problems which
it represented. All pianists, of course, attach great
importance to fingering, but with Pachmann it was the essence of
his method — that method which he described as his life's work.
He never wearied in his search for the fingering that would
enable the hands always to retain the position which he, like
Chopin, considered so desirable — the position in which they
appear to glide over the keyboard and are, at the same time,
capable of articulating perfectly the individual
notes. . . .
"Pachmann's choice of fingering depended often upon
the quality of the tone he desired to produce. This should be
remembered if, at times, his fingering appears difficult and
even awkward. No one has ever been able to dispute the beauty
of Pachmann's touch. His fingering once mastered, the most
intricate passages will be exempt from any blur or unevenness,
and the hands will retain the position in which they seem to
move effortlessly, with never a jerk or twist. In this way a
perfect legato is attained. Let us remember how highly Chopin
prized an easy position and smooth motion of the hands."
No pianist, one imagines, can fail to be interested by
this edition. It was all very well for Edouard Ganche in the recent
Oxford edition of Chopin — based on the composer's MSS, and
containing no fingering but Chopin's own — to decry all forms
of editorial additions. Such an edition as the Oxford, or the
stately Breitkopf and Härtel, supposes in the user either an
accomplished artist or else a student with a first-rate teacher.
For the average student, and, indeed, for the average teacher,
Chopin's own indications of fingering are altogether too scanty.
Let us take the E major Study, Op. 10, No. 3.
Except in bars 38-41 Chopin himself seems to have given no fingering at
all. It is true that the crucial difficulty of the piece occurs
in those four bars, but there are other things in the Study
which no ordinary player is going to finger aright by the mere
light of nature. The Pachmann edition may infuriate some
people, but really it is fascinating. Often a Pachmann
fingering that at first sight seems far-fetched ends by
recommending itself. Let us look, for instance, at the 19th bar
of this E major Study. Pachmann fingers the treble part thus:
5, 4—1, 5—1, 4, &c. (Please turn up the page in question.)
The surprise is the 4—1 on the C sharps. It
looks at first like a misprint. But when the fingers have got hold of it you
will see the point. The point lies in the phrasing. Use this
unconventional fingering, and the phrasing comes right of
itself, with the effect as of a slight, a tiny, catch of the
breath at the half-bar.
Many a student surely will at first stare puzzled,
and then chuckle with joy at the unexpected way in which Pachmann
sometimes divides a part between the hands — thus, in the
eighth bar of the E major study (last three notes of the tenor
part, in which the A is allotted to the left hand), but still
more in the 42nd and 44th bars, in which the left hand makes its
momentary excursions high up the keyboard. Here the upper note
of the first chord in each of the groups of two chords in the
lower stave is allotted to the right hand. One can fancy how
Pachmann himself chuckled when he thought of that. It was a find!
"Pachmann all over!" we may , too, when we open the
Fantaisie-Impromptu and find him beginning the right-hand part
with the thumb. The thumb on that G sharp is Pachmann's
signature. There are other things, too, that no one else would
have thought of. The opening of the first Study in C may not
seem to leave much room for the unexpected. Chopin fingered it
thus: 1, 2, 4, 5, 1, 2, 4, 5, &c. So did Bülow and probably
everyone else. But Pachmann suggests: 2, 5, 1, 4, 1, 2, 4, 5.
The reader will see from these few casual examples that there is
matter for debate in Pachmann's Chopin.
Did that gentle composer, one may wonder, foresee the
toil and care which his ethereal art was to provoke among generations
of would-be pianists — the anxiety that was to be caused, to
give a simple example, by the spreading left-hand part of the F
minor Study, Op. 10, No. 9? The composer's fingering of this
accompaniment figure (5, 4, 1, etc.) does nothing to smooth
matters. That "5, 4" means a stretch for the fifth and fourth
fingers over a fifth. Pachmann's surely is more helpful: 5, 3,
1, 4, 1, 3, etc.
There are also points of interest in the famous
arpeggio study in E flat. Thus in the second bar the A flat and A
natural of the third chord are fingered: 3, 5, and not 3, 4, as
might have been expected. It is a trifle, but Pachmannian.
Every pianist will appreciate having his fourth finger free for
the top note (B flat) of the next chord, and his fifth finger
for the following C. There is an interesting note by the editor
at the end of this Study, saying that Pachmann in the sixth,
fifth and fourth bars from the end of the piece used to play the
left-hand arpeggios not upwards but downwards, for the sake of
the melody notes which are at the bottom.
Our intention here is assuredly not to assert
that all Pachmann's fingerings are right and all others wrong. It can
well be imagined that another interpretative approach to the
music might require a different system. But the fact remains
that Pachmann who, after all, was incomparable, at least in
Chopin's smaller pieces, has here granted the world,
posthumously, a precious glimpse of his technical labours. It
will be surprising if pianists are not fascinated by the little
secrets now disclosed.