"Bravo!" roared the audience. And from the piano he would bow
appreciatively, saying with relish: "No, that was very bad. I will
now play it properly."
The name Pachmann probably does
not mean very much to anyone under
the age of forty, except perhaps an entry
in a gramophone record catalogue.
It is the fate of the musical executant, as
distinct from the composer, that his fame is
fleeting. But to the hundreds of thousands in
all parts of the world who heard—and saw—Pachmann
at the piano, the centenary of his
birth brings back vivid and unique memories.
There have no doubt been greater pianists
than Vladimir de Pachmann,but there have
been few greater personalities. People filled
the largest concert halls of the great ities of
the world not only to hear him, but to see him.
"I am the last pianist with a great platform
personality," he used to say. "They are all
wooden except Paderewski."
The Expressive Old Look
His style and manner were in complete
contrast to what seem popular today, when
pianists apparently like to give the impression
that they are completely businesslike and that
any gesture or expression of emotion on their
face would interfere with the impression of the
music. That is why, perhaps, we shall cherish
memories of Pachmann long after others have
been forgotten. He showed frankly that the
music gave him pleasure and he produced an
extraordinary effect of intimacy with his
audience, even in the unpromising vastness of
the Albert Hall.
My own last memory of him is playing at
the Albert Hall just over twenty years ago.
He was then in his eightieth year. After he
had played the final Rondo of a Weber sonata,
there was a burst of applause, but Pachmann
himself shook his head in disapproval and
pantomimed to show that loss of memory was
responsible for his giving a performance of
which he could not approve. He was always
a severe critic of himself, and although he
liked applause he was discriminating about its
Facing the Music
I remember once, after being loudly
applauded for his playing of one of Chopin's
works, he held up his hand and said: "You
should not have clapped for that. I will play
it again, this time much better and then you
may applaud as much as you wish!"
Pachmann never considered the audience
as something distinct, but as men
and women who took part in the
performance. This could be embarrassing.
On one dreadful occasion he decided that a
woman sitting near the front was not capable
of enjoying his music. He asked her to leave
the hall and nothing would persuade him to
continue until she had gone!
"I am very sorry," he said afterwards.
"She was no doubt a beautiful woman, but
I did not like her face."
In speaking of himself he was as naïve as
a child and I remember once discovering him
playing a phrase over and over again, in
an ecstasy of pleasure. "Only Chopin
could have written it thus and only Pachmann
could play it so!" he explained.
Pachmann told me something of his
extraordinary life. Like so many pianists he
was a prodigy, but he did not play in public
until he was grown-up. When he applied to
the Conservatoire at Vienna for admission,
the famous Professor Dachs told him to open
his music and play something. The young Pachmann
replied, "I have brought no music,
but I will play anything you care to name from
memory." Rebuked for joking, he started to
play Liszt's Fantasia on 'Rigoletto,' a fiendish
technical test. When he finished he found the
Professor had disappeared. Not, however,
because he was offended, but because he
wished to fetch the Principal, who was duly
As a further test he offered to play any of
Chopin's studies in any key they named and
the scene ended—according to Pachmann—by
Dachs embracing him, saying, "I have
heard this played by Chopin himself, but you
play it somewhat better." Chopin remained
Pachmann's idol, but Liszt was his great
friend. When Pachmann related his
Conservatoire experience, Liszt laughed, saying:
"It was the same with me. Czerny
fainted when he heard me play."
The professors felt there was not much they
could teach the young Pachmann about the
piano, but he studied harmony until the time
came for his public debut. It was at one of his
early concerts that Liszt hailed him as a
genius, and introduced him to Wagner and
other musical giants of the day. Pachmann
became a worshipper of Liszt. He considered
him the finest pianist he had ever heard and
told me that his breadth and rhythm exceeded
his own. Coming from Pachmann, there was
no higher praise. But as a pianist he always
considered himself much ahead of Chopin.
Ten Thousand Times
There started for Pachmann a series of
world tours which were always triumphs. But
he was an extraordinary man. At twenty-five
he decided he was not good enough and
retired for eight years to study and practise.
When he played again in public he decided
that two years more practice were required.
He set himself astonishing standards. He told
me that he never played a piece in public until
he had practised it ten thousand times and
that there were some pieces of Godowsky (for
whom he had a great weakness) that he had
played thirteen thousand times and still did
not feel were fit for public performance.
Allowing for the flamboyance which was part
of his personality, it was still a startling proof
of his sincerity as an artist.
In the course of his tours,
Pachmann collected some amusing stories of royalty. The
Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, who had
some pretensions to being a pianist, infuriated
him by calling him a 'colleague.' Pachmann
retorted, "Since when have I been made
a Grand Duke?" The man who practised
pieces ten thousand times had no patience
with pretentious amateurs.
Cigars To Spare
King Edward the Seventh's taste in music
was limited, but he knew how to compliment
a musician and made a tremendous impression
on Pachmann. Characteristically he gave him
a box of cigars. Pachmann carried them
round with him for the rest of his life,
believe, looking for someone worthy to smoke
them. He allowed Liszt to have one and gave
one to Renan, the French philosopher, but
could find no one else to equal these!
He was genuinely upset by King Edward's
death, played Chopin's Funeral March
movement in memory of him, and was so moved by
his own playing that he swore he would never
play the piece again. He never did, not even
when asked to do so at a concert in memory of
Pachmann married Miss Margaret O'Key ,
a fine pianist and composer and they travelled
much together over the world. But the woman
who, as he put it, 'possessed' his brain and
imagination for over fifty years was Madame
Slepouchin. I believe that in fact Madame
Slepouchin was a creation of his own imagination.
He would quote her frequently, the
essence of all her remarks being contrariness.
If it was raining, one heard, "A fine day
as Madame Slepouchin would say"; and
if a piece of playing pleased him specially,
out would come: "That was badly done,
as Madame Slepouchin would say."
He would quote Madame Slepouchin
endlessly, and with such conviction that it
was only when he recounted that she was
sixty-five when he first met her and was now
a hundred and ten but insisted she was
twenty-nine—I realised he was joking.
A Born Clown
Pachmann was, in fact, a born clown. Most
clowns have great music in them and he found
it difficult to resist clowning. Anyone who
ever heard him will recall the famous scenes
with the music stool. It was never correctly
adjusted and the audience were disappointed
if he spent less than five minutes, apparently
becoming increasingly exasperated, in getting
it right. On one occasion he finally asked for
a penny stamp which placed under one leg
made it perfectly so that he could begin.
Then there were the famous asides, sometimes
almost amounting to a running
commentary on the music. (You can still hear
some of them on his gramophone records.)
And sometimes he would creep on to the
platform and pantomime as if to say: 'What,
I have been playing in England for forty
years and there are still people who will come
to hear me? Ah, well, I suppose I must try to
Is This A Piano?
Sometimes it was the sight of the piano that
apparently amazed him, and he would pantomime
to show that his fingers were getting
stiff and old and that he hadn't looked at
a piece of music for six years.
Because of this he was called a jester and
sometimes (by a few) a charlatan. But the
plain fact remained that his playing, especially
of Chopin, was divine and moving in the
extreme. His technique was astounding, even
in his eightieth year, a fact that he put down
to inventing a new system of fingering which
meant re-learning every piece in his repertoire.
In his own somewhat limited field he was as
near perfection as I hope to hear.
But I never heard him play with an
orchestra—his personality would have been
swamped, and perhaps also that extraordinary
ethereal quality which seemed so strange
coming from those powerful, square hands.
He was, incidentally, so short that he had
a special piano so as to reach the pedals and
I believe the piano notes were made a trifle
smaller to enable him to cover them. But at
eighty he boasted he could still play for five
hours continuously without tiring.
Pachmann retired at the age of 78, but his
retirement to his villa at Rome lasted only
a month or two. He became ill for the first
time in his life and realised it was his music
he missed. He had a wonderful imitation of
the doctors attending him, "holding my
pulse with one hand and helping themselves
to caviare, grapes and jelly with the other."
This pantomime ability made him adored
by children. Once a children's garden party
was spoiled by rain and Pachmann, who was
staying in the house, came to the rescue and
allowed the children to tie up his flowing
locks (considered essential for a musician
when Pachmann began) with ribbons. Then
he improvised for them, complete with
gesticulations, on any tunes they picked out.
Perhaps he was not the greatest pianist,
and some would say he was not great at all.
But Pachmann certainly was a most lovable
man and a great character.
We who heard him will remember him
long after we find it difficult to recollect
just how he played those tear-laden notes
of a Chopin nocturne or combined
beauty and whimsicality in a Chopin