Monday, September 26, 2022

Josef Hofmann on piano artistry

Some quotes from the pianist Josef Hofmann from Piano Mastery by Harriette Brower. Published in the 1920s, it's the type of thing you'd have to go to the library and dig around in the stacks for. I got it off Scribd, which I guess is OK, it's certainly in the public domain by now.  

Hofmann was one of the great concert pianists of the 20th century—  his career lasted from the late 1800s to the late 30s, after which his abilities declined due to alcoholism. He's speaking to us from a pretty superhuman level of musicianship here, about a different instrument and a different way of making music— playing composed pieces— but plenty of it still connects with our ordinary musical realities.

Here's Hofmann, plus a couple of my comments:

 I do not consider that I yet possess perfect technic, for I still have limitations. The artist must allow the public to guess his limitations. There is as much art in choosing the right kind of compositions as in playing them. 


I do no technical work outside of the composition, for the reason that I find plenty of technic to work on in the piece itself. Every passage that presents the least difficulty is studied in minute detail, with well raised fingers, clear distinct touch, always taking care to put the finger down exactly in the middle of each key, not on the side of it. The piece is studied with every kind of touch, tempo and dynamics studied till the player has command of every possible variety of tone, touch and degree of power or delicacy. When all these things are under control, he is ready to interpret the composition.

If there's an equivalent to this in drumming, it's in playing styles and systems rather than “pieces.” For a long time I've done most of my technical work in the context of a style or system serving a style— that's a lot of what this site is about.    

As I see it, there are two kinds of pianists. The more numerous sort may master every note, finger mark and sign of expression with commendable exactness; everything is thought out in the privacy of the studio. When they come before an audience they merely transfer this conception to the larger space, playing just as they would at home. They always try to play the piece in precisely the same way.

I cannot believe this is the only way. I cannot do it myself and my master Rubinstein never did so. He never played a piece just as he had played it before; I cannot do this either.

The other kind of artist, and their number is small, I admit, never play the piece twice in just the same way. They strive for the control which gives absolute freedom of expression. They realize how many forces react on the artist upon the platform[.]

This freedom of interpretation presupposes the artist's mind and taste to be so well trained as to warrant him in relying on the inspiration of the moment. 

We read this now and put an emphasis on the freedom part, but he's talking about freedom through massive technical abilities— the music he's playing, and the setting in which he performs it, demands that. And there are definitely drummers active now who agree with it, e.g. Mike Mangini. Most of us can have the freedom just by claiming it, by having it as an attitude. It's required, in fact— you're supposed to be listening to your surroundings closely enough to influence your performance every time you play. The idea is that your abilities are enough to make that work in a positive way.   

Here's the most important part of all of this:

If one is to play with freedom and inspiration, one must strike out boldly and not hold back in timidity or bashfulness; these are bad faults. We sometimes see people in society who fear to make a faux pas here or there; so they hold back stiffly and bore everybody, besides being very uncomfortable themselves. The player must cast fear to the winds and risk everything.

He should be an absolutely free and open avenue for the expression of the emotional and spiritual meaning of the music. When one can thus improvise the composition, it seems that the piano no longer sounds like a piano. It has been said that when Rubinstein played, the instrument did not sound like a piano.

[Y]ou remember how different his piano sounded from the ordinary kind; like another sort of medium, or like a whole orchestra in spite of the many wrong notes. When playing himself he often struck wrong notes, yet in teaching he was very exact; he could not endure wrong notes or slips of any kind, in his pupils or in himself. But in public he took the risk! 

Disproving the already suspect thesis of Peak— a book about high performance— which claims that concert pianists are much better than they used to be, because they hit fewer wrong notes now. Like their training was deficient, and it was just too hard to learn all the notes. No. It's a deliberate choice and attitude.


Michael Griener said...

That's great.
I think a lot of young jazz students (and their music) suffer from their fear of making mistakes.
When I hear them, I often feel that they are not playing, but showing something that they have worked out. That doesn't interest me, no matter how virtuosic it may be.
Music is an art form of the moment, unlike sculpture or writing.
When I watch someone play music, I don't want them to play it safely, I want them to play to the limit of their ability to create excitement and intensity.
That's what you practice for: to be prepared for anything that's possible but you don't know yet.
I always tell my students that the beauty of making music is that it feels as exciting as climbing in the high mountains without a belay, but if it goes wrong you don't die, at most it's a bit embarrassing.
So what's the problem?
Hence the phrase from Thelonious Monk:
“What do you want to do, learn how to cheat?”

Todd Bishop said...

That Monk quote is so great.

I always remember a line from Bukowski, when someone thought he was a bad writer: "Well, no man can hide forever."

Maybe it would help people to understand: EVERYONE is going to forget everything that happened five minutes after you played. All they're going to remember is a vibe, the musicians will remember if they had a good time or a really bad time, maybe.