The legendary German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) shares his thoughts on piano technique in an interview with Harriette Brower, published in her book Piano Mastery (1915):
– How do I produce the effects which I obtain from the piano?
The young German artist, Willielm Backhaus, was comfortably seated in his spacious apartments at the Ritz, New York, when this question was asked. A grand piano stood close at hand, and the pianist ran his fingers lightly over its keys from time to time, or illustrated some technical point as he talked.
– In answer I would say I produce them by listening, criticizing, judging – working over the point, until I get it as I want it. Then I can reproduce it at will, if I want to make just the same effect; but sometimes Iwant to change and try another.
– I am particular about the seat I use at the piano, as I sit lower than most amateurs, who in general are apt tosit too high. My piano stool has just been taken out for a few repairs, or I could show you how low it is. Then am old-fashioned enough to still believe in scales and arpeggios.
Some of the players of the present dayseem to have no use for such things, but I find them of great importance. This does not necessarily mean that I go through the whole set of keys when I practise the scales; but I select a few at a time, and work at those. I start with ridiculously simple forms – just the hand over the thumb, and the thumb under the hand – a few movements each way, especially for arpeggios. The principle I have referred to is the difficult point; a few doses of this remedy, however, bring the hand up into order again.
The pianist turned to the keyboard and illustrated the point very clearly.
– As you see, I slant the hand considerably across the keys, but this oblique position is more comfortable, and the hand can accommodate itself to the intervals of the arpeggio, or to the passing of the thumb in scales. Some may think I stick out the elbow too much, but I don’t care for that, if by this means the scale becomes smooth and even.
OVERHAULING ONE’S TECHNIC
– I have to overhaul my technic once or twice a week, to see that everything is all right – and of course the scales and arpeggios come in for their share of criticism.
I practise them in legato, staccato and in other touches, but mostly in legato, as that is somewhat more difficult and more beautiful than the others.
Perhaps I have what might be called a natural technic; that is I have a natural aptitude for it, so that I could acquire it easily, and it stays with me. Hofmann has that kind of natural technic; so has d’Albert. Of course I have to practise technic; I would not allow it to lapse; I love the piano too much to neglect any part of the work. An artist owes it to himself and the public to keep himself up in perfect condition – for he must never offer the public anything but the best. I only mean to say I do not have to work at it as laboriously as some others have to do.
However, I practise technic daily, and will add that I find I can do a great deal in a short time. When on tour I try to give one hour a day to it, not more.
Speaking of the action of fingers, Mr. Backhaus continued:
– Why, yes, I raise my fingers whenever and wherever necessary — no more. Do you know Breithaupt?
Well, he does not approve of such technical exercises as these (illustrating); holding down some fingers and lifting others, for technical practise, but I do.
As for the metronome, I approve of it to cultivate the sense of rhythm in those who are lacking in this particular sense. I sometimes use it myself, just to see the difference between the mechanical rhythm and the musical rhythm – for they are not always the same by anymeans.
– Do you know these Technical Exercises of Brahms? I think a great deal of them, and, as you see, carry them around with me; they are excellent.
– You ask me about octaves. It is true they are easy for me now, but I can remember the time when they were difficult. The only alternative is to work constantly at them. Of course they are more difficult for small hands; so care must be taken not to strain nor over-tire the hand. A little at a time, in frequent doses, ought in six months to work wonders. Rowing a boat is good to develop wrists for octave playing.
– You ask if I can tell how I obtain power. That is a very difficult question. Why does one child learn to swim almost immediately, while another cannot master it for a long time? To the first it comes naturally—he has the knack, so to speak. And it is just so with the quality of power at the piano. It certainly is not due to physique, nor to brute strength, else only the athlete would have sufficient power. No, it is the ‘knack,’ or rather it is the result of relaxation, as you suggest.
– Take the subject of velocity. I never work for that special thing as some do. I seldom practise with great velocity, for it interferes with clearness. I prefer to play more slowly, giving the greatest attention to clearness and good tone. By pursuing this course I find that when I need velocity I have it.
– I am no pedagogue and have no desire to be one. I have no time for teaching; my own studies and concert work fill all my days. I do not think that one can both teach and play successfully. If I were teaching I should no doubt acquire the habit of analyzing and criticizing the work of others; of explaining and showing just how a thing should be done. But I am not a critic nor a teacher, so I do not always know how I produce effects. I play ‘as the bird sings,’ to quote an old German song.
MODERN PIANO MUSIC
– Your MacDowell has written some nice music, some pretty music; I am familiar with his Concerto in D minor, some of the short pieces and the Sonatas. As for modern piano concertos there are not many, it is quite true. There is the Rachmaninoff, the MacDowell I mentioned, the D minor of Rubinstein, and the Saint-Saensin G minor. There is also a Concerto by Neitzel, which is a most interesting work; I do not recall that it has been played in America. I have played it on the other side, and I may bring it out here during my present tour.
A BRAHMS CONCERTO
As I listened to the eloquent reading of the Brahms second Concerto, which Mr. Backhaus gave soon afterward with the New York Symphony, I was reminded of a memorable event which occurred during my student days in Berlin. It was a special concert, at which the honored guest and soloist was the great Brahms himself. Von Bülow conducted the orchestra, and Brahms played his second Concerto. The Hamburg master was not a virtuoso, in the present acceptance of the term: his touch on the piano was somewhat hard and dry; but he played the work with commendable dexterity, and made an imposing figure as he sat at the piano, with his grand head and his long beard. Of course his performance aroused immense enthusiasm; there was no end of applause and cheering, and then came a huge laurel wreath. I mentioned this episode to Mr. Backhaus a few days later.
– I first played the Brahms Concerto in Vienna under Hans Richter; he had counseled me to study the work. The Americans are beginning to admire and appreciate Brahms; he ought to have a great vogue here.
– In studying such a work, for piano and orchestra, I must not only know my own part but all the other parts—what each instrument is doing. I always study a concerto with the orchestral score, so that I can see it all before me.