By BRINTON SMITH (Professor of Cello at Shepherd School of Music at Rice University; Principal Cello, Houston Symphony Orchestra)
From a comparative analysis of Feuermann’s Dvorak Concerto:
Feuermann definitely chose tempos much faster than his colleagues, both for faster and for slower sections (though often Casals’ tempos on the slow sections were similar.) Feuermann produced a clear beginning for each note, with the vibrato beginning exactly with the start of the note and not slightly afterwards as with the other cellists. The precise coordination of the left and right hands also contributed this extraordinarily clear sounding of each note. Feuermann’s vibrato was faster than that of the other cellists, of an average width and more consistent in application. Feuermann used glissandi frequently to produce a sense of connection between notes, but they were generally fast and lightly emphasized. Whatever the degree of emphasis of these glissandi, it was secondary to (though it also, in fact, helped to create) the emphasis of the arrival and departure note. Often only the highest part of the glissando was heard.
Feuermann made many small accelerandi and ritardandi during the course of a phrase, but these effects were never extreme and the overall rhythmic flow was rarely disturbed. Feuermann played with a clear and strong emphasis on those notes which he wished emphasis, and very little on those he did not. He relaxed the tension in between emphasized notes, creating a clearer sense of rising and falling line. Feuermann interpreted similarly to the other cellists, but avoided technical carelessness and interpretive extremes which could distract from his musical line. One of his colleagues summarized it thus “With the other cellists, I hear every note-every swell and gesture. With Feuermann, I am only conscious of the line.”
From a comparative analysis of Feuermann’s Schumann Concerto:
Overall the distinguishing characteristics of Feuermann’s editions seem to be a somewhat simpler approach with regard to fingering, opting for more extensions and small shifts and fewer larger shifts, and an overall concern that shifts and bow changes not disturb a phrase by placing accentuations on notes which are rhythmically weak or otherwise lesser emphasized within the phrase. The simplicity and care to avoid disturbing the phrase which Feuermann shows in his performing editions are characteristics that are also very evident in his playing.
From an analysis of Feuermann’s only surviving video recording:
The most striking differences between Feuermann and the other cellists are Feuermann’s somewhat greater angling of the body to the right side of the cello, his rarely straightening his right arm, his more constant right hand position on the bow -not moving much even during bow changes, his holding the bow slightly further back towards the frog, with the second finger near the metal band on the frog, and his straight thumb. With Feuermann’s left hand, the major differences are his consistent vibrato usage, usually produced with the hand in the ‘natural’ position, the fingers close but not tightly bunched, his never remaining in an extended position longer than necessary, and the high striking action of his fingers, with much of the striking impulse seeming to come from the arm rather than the individual finger.
This analysis actually only scratches the surface of what can be learned from these films. Only the most obvious differences are discussed here -necessarily in broad generalities- and the comparisons must make many generalizations. The correspondence between the physical motions of the cellists and their interpretive differences is most noticeable in the case of vibrato, where the clearly observable physical motion directly translates into the sound produced, but what are also striking are the ways in which all the cellists, whose playing is so different to the ear, seem to play similarly physically, with many of their differences explainable by their different body sizes and cello heights. As young cellists we are taught to play the cello by being instructed as to what physical motions we should make -‘put this finger here’, ‘move your shoulder so’, ‘shift with this type of motion’- and this type of instruction continues even into the highest levels of conservatory training, with students consistently being given the impression that if they will only hold the bow in a certain way or shift with the same motion as their teacher, that all their problems will be solved.
While some physical techniques and motions clearly hinder a cellist, and correcting them would obviously be beneficial, the fact that these five cellists produce such different results, using techniques that in many ways appear very similar, points out the limitation in this approach. One can not start with the ‘correct’ physical motion and expect, therefore, to produce good cello playing. If one starts, however, by attempting to produce the desired sound and effect, the correct physical technique to do so will inevitably be discovered. How much of our learning is wasted by concentrating on reproducing the methods by which another cellist achieves a result, instead of the actual result? For this reason, we can not take those physical motions in Feuermann’s technique which are different from the other cellists’ and assume that they are the answer to the question of how Feuermann played. The most significant differences in Feuermann’s technique are the things that can be heard -the unique features of his performance that we discussed in the comparison of recordings chapter.
While it has personally been helpful to me to emulate some of Feuermann’s physical methods, and I hope that it will be for other readers as well, we must still remember Feuermann’s teaching -his repeated rejection of Suzette Forgues’ first notes of the Haydn concerto without ever explaining what was wrong, until she finally heard it for herself. The process of learning and correction must begin from the ears, rather than the body. The most important thing that can be learned from studying Feuermann is not how to merely imitate Feuermann, but how to listen and analyze as he did, and only by reaching this level of awareness can we begin to emulate his standards of technique and musicianship, and finally allow the cello to realize its full potential.
–Excerpted from Brinton Smith’s dissertation “The Physical and Interpretive Technique of Emanuel Feuermann”
Excerpted from Annette Morreau: Emanuel Feuermann (Yale University Press, 2002):
“Artists owe more to their art than just performing before audiences. No matter how great an artist is, no matter how much pleasure he gives to his audiences, the art which he practices on the concert platform is just a passing thing. But if he takes the trouble to pass it on to young students, his art in some measure survives him more than just in the memory of those who heard him play”
“In every profession, the more a man appreciates his responsibility towards his work, the farther he will go. And in music there is just one responsibility: towards the music one plays.” (270)
“Students are being trained mostly without being taught to use their brains and ears. Ideas deteriorate in passing from generation to generation, and many teachers are still using principles which they have received at third or fourth generation. What a great master has taught as a living thing loses the greater part of its meaning by the time it has passed through the minds of generations of pupils who have been led by their teachers to take everything they are taught for granted instead of having been shown how to rediscover it for themselves.”
“ No ‘method’ should be taken over and passed on purely mechanically. Schools of musical technique and style become as rigid and meaningless as, for example, political parties. We are apt to forget the facts and vital ideas which gave birth to them.” (272)
On Feuermann’s teaching:
“What many students don’t realize … is that when you’re concerned and when you criticize a great deal you’re giving your all to the student. And the student who has a weak ego feels that you’re trying to destroy them. Those with a strong ego realize that you’re doing it for him. You’re not trying to destroy the student, you’re trying to help them. And this was Feuermann’s great quality. He took teaching very seriously.” (286)
From The Collected Notes of Emanuel Feuermann:
These notes by Feuermann are culled from several spiral notebooks that the cellist carried with him on his concert tours around the United States between 1940 and 1942. The notes were written in German and English-mostly in the latter, as time wore on.
An attempt is made here to balance topicality with the sequential order that the notes were given by the cellist. Obviously there is some repetition. But this can be borne, especially since there are always slightly different nuances given by Feuermann to each of the topics.
Of necessity, some rewriting has been done to correct obvious errors in grammar or word choice that might obscure meaning. Occasionally a word or phrase has been added in order to maintain connection between ideas. And since these are occasional fragments written here and there, limited restructuring of paragraphs was necessary.
PART ONE, THE CELLO
To the Student
My dear friend,
It happened as I predicted. You came to me an established cellist. You played all the concerti and chamber music and felt confident of your ability. True, you had some difficulty with intonation and your staccato did not seem very good. In addition you expected some help in the interpretation of the bigger works of our literature. But you had the feeling that these, plus a few other minor problems, could be corrected in just a few lessons.
When your time was over and you left for home, I felt great pity for you. You seemed broken and no longer knew what was right or wrong. This did not happen all at once. When you first came to me, I told you there were others who had come expecting to be helped in a short time, but were instead given the miserable feeling that they would never be able to play again. You were like the man who takes his car to the garage for a paintjob and two new spark plugs, only to be told the whole motor has to be taken out and a new electrical system put in, not only to make the car run better, but to allow her for the first time to take advantage of all her potentialities.
After seeing you leave in that desolate condition, I was more than pleased to read your letter, which shows so much appreciation, understanding, and good will. But it contains so many questions it would be difficult to answer all of them thoroughly without writing a whole book. And gradually this very idea took solid shape, until, finally, I decided to write it. I shall send you a chapter at a time as it is finished and I would appreciate your answering me right away to let me know of things that are unclear to you.
I had put you off balance and everything seemed upside down. You did not dare play a note for fear it would be wrong. You had become uncertain and self-conscious. You remember how surprised you were when, even as you tuned your cello, I made remarks about how I expected you to play in general. And how, in the course of the lessons, more or less for fun, I predicted how you would play certain phrases or how you would finger certain passages.
Why should that be so mysterious to you? Consider the amount of experience I have collected over the years from teaching and giving auditions; consider that my present technique was developed in direct opposition to the way I was taught to play myself; and consider that I am seldom satisfied with my own playing and, if at all, only with parts, never with a whole performance. Then perhaps you will understand that, even if music and some of its great performers are still a mystery to me, there is nothing that can be done on the cello or any other instrument, whether it be improbable or impossible, that will ever surprise me.
However, I would be immodest if I let you believe that I was the only one who knew how badly a stringed instrument can be played. Not long ago, I heard perhaps the best living violinist play the first movement of a Viotti concerto so poorly, with every possible mistake, that, closing my eyes, I could have imagined I was listening to it at a pupil’s concert in Kalamazoo.
I realize that in performing, as in all other things, there is a scale from the best to the worst. The question arises automatically, why is it that in all other professions there is an effort made to raise the standard and the average, while in our profession, there is not even the slightest attempt to recognize existing lacks or more especially the need for correction?
Nine times out of ten when I hear cello playing, I cannot but ask myself, does cello playing mean turning off the brain and ear and the connecting muscular system? I shall go so far as to insist that, as absurd as it may sound, brain and ear muscles must have been turned off in order for generation after generation to have produced cellists whose playing is an insult to the ear. Even worse: that it is not generally so perceived that there is an even more shameful reason behind it-one expects nothing special from the average cellist and accepts unquestioningly that the difference between the few really good cellists and the mass of cellists must be so great. Besides, most people are too polite and few are interested enough to perceive the reasons for the difference.
The Demands of the Instrument
I do not believe the cello must be played poorly. I will maintain that in the not-too-distant future the standards of cellists, will be raised. I cannot stand idly by and see so much talent and energy wasted. To me every serious-minded, ambitious young cellist is a living reproach: I am talented,
I want to work; is it not possible that my talents can be developed?
They say one must be born a musician. Of the cellist one can say one is perhaps born to be a cellist, but one is not born with the possibility to develop oneself fully. Sad, but true. Take your own case. You are talented, you have studied for many years, and you feel you have the right to assume that you are a good cellist. Still, I had little difficulty convincing you, intelligent as you are, that you are unaware of most of the things which go together to make a good musician and a good cellist. You asked me in the lessons and again in your letter why no one had ever taught you to look at things the way I suggest. The answer is that in years of studying with teachers of good standing you have not been led to recognize the simplest and most obvious principles, or almost any principles.
What I have told you is not that you did not grasp the idea in a certain piece or that you played out of tune. Rather I outlined to you your lack of knowledge of 1) how to read music, 2) how to look over a piece of music and recognize its structure and its moods, 3) the physics of your arms and their proper use, 4) difficulties of the instrument and bow and the rules and principles to overcome them, and 5) most important, how to bring these rules and principles to life and how best to apply them to the music.
It is surprising how few rules and principles there are and still more surprising how cbmpletely they change the entire style of playing. Believe it or not, my dear friend, the really outstanding string players, whether Kreisler, Casals, or Heifetz, are similar to each other in the way they use their muscular systems and handle their instruments and bows. The main differences lie in their different personalities, talents, and ideas, and only to a very small extent in their techniques, for which, again, physical differences are accountable.
Very simply, these rules are not demanded of the performer, but demanded by the instrument.
Please understand this point thoroughly, because this is the basic fault of your approach. You have to know your in struments-cello and bow-and how to handle them, the demands of the music and your mental and physical abilities and weaknesses to be able to recognize your mistakes, the inadequacies in your playing and to try to correct them. Analysis, patience, and endurance are the main requirements for your development.
One small example: when a cellist plays fast detache notes on the lower strings, you can hardly speak of the sound he produces, rather, you could call it a scratchy noise. The reason? You can only get a good sound from a string if it vibrates. Bring the string to vibration and one of the worst handicaps of the cello disappears. A very simple fact, certainly not a miracle, easy to remedy, yet still not recognized as the source of one of the ugliest and most prevalent ills of cello playing.
Let me try to explain to you what I mean by “approach.” Except for groups of fast notes where a given number of notes are one single rhythmical unit, there is not a note in music that should be played without expression or articulation. It can be compared to speaking, in which every syllable has its rhythm and phrasing within a sentence, according to its desired meaning. So, every note must be played according to the intended expression within the musical phrase.
Approaching the Music
As in a written sentence the only guidelines are the single words, commas, periods, question marks, etc., so in music notation we have only the bar lines, the bowings, the pitch and length of the single notes, and expression marks (accents, crescendi, etc., play quite a special role). What meaning can there be in a story recited in a monotone? Very little. The words may be recognizable, but there will be little real sense.
Cultured people grasp meaning by silently pronouncing what they are reading. This is an automatic process. Only children and people not used to reading read with great effort and are content if they can get an approximately correct literal meaning, without troubling themselves with the real meaning.
When you played for me, I showed you how little attention you have given to this way of looking at music, to this kind of approach, the most important one for a performer that I know of. Of course, partly by chance, partly because we have more to lean on in musical notation than in language, and partly because you have a musical education outside of cello playing, and lastly because one cannot practice and play for years without achieving something, you quite often understood the meaning of the music.
To my satisfaction you soon realized that if your playing was to improve, you could no longer depend upon chance. But you also noticed that the mental approach alone did not suffice. There must be as much pleasure in listening to a musical performance as there is in reading beautiful prose or poetry. For the performer who has expected this mental approach to bring him to a higher stage in playing, the difficulties and disappointments now begin. Now he knows and feels what he must play, but as soon as he sits down to play, he finds out he is not able to. Why?
Up to now I have been speaking of an approach to music (mental or abstract approach) which is applicable to all instruments. As a performer one must know one’s instrument, its beauties and weaknesses; one must know how to help oneself. In order to avoid playing uncritically, one must not shy away from employing any trick to achieve purity and rhythmical exactitude. In doing so he will be able to reproduce the spirit of the music insofar as it is possible. A combination of a responsible approach towards music and complete mastery of the instrument to make possible the realization of the music is the ideal toward which I am constantly striving and which I would like to pass on to my fellow musicians. Talent for music is another thing; here we are discussing intelligence.
Talent: the Scale
As I have said before, it appears that cellists eliminate the mind and ears as soon as they turn to cello playing. That sounds very rude, but I am almost sure that a politician, a singer, or a farmer loving his metier and being serious about it-not just wanting to outshine his colleagues but being confident that the better off his neighbour is, the better off he will be-feel and think the same way about their confreres.
I daresay that it is not any more difficult to play well than to play poorly. Talent plays an important part in how well one plays, but talent alone, unless combined with intelligence, effort, and persistence, is not enough. How often do we meet people, especially in the arts, of whom we can speak as wasted talents. The real talents find their way anyhow. And by these very exceptions, one can say with good conscience that the better balanced one can keep talent and general intelligence, as well as specific intelligence, the better one will play.
Naturally, years of practice will advance a performer, and a certain amount of facility, a beautiful vibrato, and a good tone quality are accomplished by many. I am always struck by the thought of how much better most musicians (who now just get along) would play if they had been led the proper way.
Let us take one example of inadequacy in a cellist for an explanation; from the very beginning to the very end, scales play a big role in a cellist’s life. For the beginner the scale is an aid in getting acquainted with notes, intervals, positions, and intonation. After this, scales still remain a daily practice. It is my custom to ask for scales when someone plays an audition for me.
Cellists who play for me are usually considered accomplished, who, as for instance you did, come for some advice, for the “last touch.” But not once have I heard a scale played from which I could have assumed that the player knew even in the slightest the fundamentals of the scale.
What do I hear-uncertain intonation, uneven fingers, awkward string crossings and position changes. And what do I like to hear? A scale made up of clean tones, the fingers going down in such a way that the unequal strength of the fingers is hidden; a scale in which audible string crossings do not exist and in which the position is changed so quickly that the difference between a finger placed on the string and a change of position can hardly be felt; thus a row of notes of uniform strength, perfect in intonation and without disrupting, extraneous noises, these are the fundamentals of a scale, the ideal!
How does one approach this idea? Just by playing a scale over and over again, believing everything is done if the scale is played fast and approximately in tune? No. By having such an ideal, an imaginary, perfect, bodyless scale in the mind and in the ear, every cellist can overcome the difficulties ot the instrument to a surprising extent.
Musical example: You remember, my dear friend, that you played the Beethoven A Major Sonata for me and that you never had thought it possible that you, a musician with the best of intentions, could be doing the worst injustice to the second theme, which consists of nothing but scales. You must also remember how much concentration it requires, how much careful watching and especially careful connecting of notes to give those “scales,” every note, the beauty which lies in the evenness of their execution. I wonder if you can play them now to your satisfaction, after I succeeded in opening your ears a little, now that your demands on yourself have grown so much.
In order to understand something, more important still to improve something, one must get to the foundation and analyze it; it is necessary to discover the relationships of the single components to one another. Then it becomes understandable-in cello playing-how much has been taken for granted, when the only information passed down over the years is harmful and twisted: it consists of poor judgment, incomprehensibility, ignorance, and certainly lack of perception of what on the surface is obvious. As yet, no one has argued against me in this. Personality and different interpretations, etc., would be considered on a different plane. Three separate factors-music, instrument, and interpretation-play a fateful role. One can discuss the interpretation of the music as well as the amount of freedom allowed to the interpreter.
However, one cannot merely discuss the peculiarities of an instrument or man’s physical structure, just as for example one can pronounce the letter “m” by closing the lips and following a set physical procedure, so by observing and following the known immutable rules, one can draw a clear tone, play purely, produce a crescendo, etc. As obvious and superfluous as it may seem to mention it, it is my opinion that the basic ill of poor playing lies in the absolute disregard of natural laws.
The cello presents a performer with great opposition. This is true of most of the lower-register instruments. There are general physical rules, and for the instrument and bow specific rules, which one must learn and follow if one wants to go beyond the mere skills of music to stretch the capabilities of the instrument.
- Contact between the player and the cello is on the strings.
- A clear tone can be produced only when the strings are vibrating fully.
- The string can only be brought into full motion when it is stopped as completely by the finger as by the nut.
- As soon as the bow is drawn over the string everything that the fingers do on the strings will sound. Then it is necessary that the fingers follow one another cleanly, evenly and quickly.
- The intervals are set and become narrower at the top.
- The tension of the string is greatest toward the bridge; therefore the string will sound piano near the fingerboard. The nearer the bow comes to the bridge, the stronger the sound will be.
- The timbre of the pizzicato changes according to the amount of space between the point where the finger plucks the string and the bridge. It is harsher near the bridge and softer further away from it. The ugly noise that usually accompanies the pizzicato on the lower strings occurs because the string is plucked from beneath (with the finger between the fingerboard and string), and therefore the string hits the fingerboard when plucked.
- Only the hair should touch the string; even with the greatest pressure of the fingers on the bow, the stick should touch only the hair and not the string.
- The bow is lighter toward the tip; therefore, for the bow to sound evenly from tip to frog, one must compensate by increasing ihe pressure toward the tip.
- The bow must be drawn parallel to the end of the fingerboard if one wishes to avoid the unpleasant sounds that accompany crooked bowing.
- Every alteration in the surface area of the hair that touches the string changes the amount of tone; therefore, in order to play piano, only a small portion of the hair should be placed on the string, the more hair, the greater the strength.
C. The Body
The body should be so comfortable and relaxed when playing that the use of the muscles, tendons, wrists, and fingers is in no way inhibited. It is not stressed often enough that the playing of an instrument is physical work and therefore the same rules can be applied to it as to any other activity in which skill is demanded. A certain amount of timidity leads musicians to fear that they will be considered craftsmen, not artists, if they give importance to the physical aspects of playing. But this is small-minded. To conceal such realities could harm the development of the real artist.
It is art and music which ennoble technique and skill and which therefore make the most talented, intelligent, and skillful musician into a true artist. It could be said that Rafael, even without hands, would have become a great artist. Yet one should not forget that Rafael had his hands. Technique is necessary in order that the genius, fantasy, spiritual power, and richness of ideas of a Rafael be allowed to rise above being just good art. And besides in the painter are combined both the creating and the performing artist, which in music would be the composer and the interpreter.
In my viewpoint, one must be very clear about the various factors within the music, which are independent of one another, and whose union is found for the first time in the accomplished performing musician: a composer must have learned an instrument, must have mastery over it in order for his compositions to be performed. Thus, genius, talent, knowledge of the musical content are not sufficient to be even remotely just [adequate] to the task of interpretation.
Mastery of the instrument is necessary for this purpose.
How often, however, within the interpretation, the performer’s grasp of the musical content and the performance itself, as well as musicality and technique, become separated from one another. Yet they are very important. One must put oneself in the position of a conductor. He is the spiritual interpreter of the music, responsible for the phrasing, the shaping, for the blending of timbres, i.e. for fulfilling the intention of the composer. But it is the orchestra which brings the interpretation to realization.
Whether a composition can better survive either the combination of good conductor with genius and poor orchestra without technique, or a good orchestra with technique and a poor conductor without genius is question that can never be answered. It is a personal matter and does not evoke a generally valid answer.
I believe, however, that the question of a musical goal can be discussed and a goal is: within the interpretation, the incorporation of the most intelligent grasp of the music; and within the performance, a sense of responsibility to the smallest detail. I believe that much mischief has been done because hardly anyone has attempted to clarify the function of interpretation. The exceptions-the great talents–come intuitively or through conscious study to results suitable for them.
This question has remained almost untouched within the study of music; I daresay it is rarely mentioned. Yet it could be of great benefit for students if teachers would bring their attention to this point. What is the function of the interpreter? Without wanting to appear to have found the only valid answer to the question, it is my opinion that the function of the performer is to become gradually acquainted with the mind of the composer, with the content of the composition, and then to fit his own personality or ability to them.
Without attaching such words as “classic” or “romantic,” it is still clear that what is necessary for the interpretation of a Bach Suite must be very different from that which a Tschaikovsky composition demands. Small slides, ritards, and crescendi, which match the spirit of a serenade or air and without which such a piece would lose all meaning, have no place in a Bach or Beethoven composition.
The ideal interpreter for me would be one who 1) is capable of grasping the period, the style, taste, and intention of all compositions which he must play, 2) possesses unlimited technique and interpretative skills, and 3) is capable of applying his technique and interpretative skills to the composition.
Such an interpreter does not exist. Even the greatest, most earnest performf will play best that music which lies closest to his nature, his character, and his general musical education, yet he will still try to grasp the spirit of the piece he is playing.
How sad, however, is the result reached by the performers who have never concerned themselves with these questions and whose interpretative skill is a closed book. How often I have heard a “famous” artist present a Bach gavotte as if it were a composition by Offenbach, and on the other hand a piece by Brahms or Beethoven in which, true, the notes were played, but with neither content nor meaning.
It could be compared to listening to a recitation of a poem in a language one does not understand.
Where does that leave the sense of responsibility of interpreting?– Is a composition the same as a piece of wax with no specific shape, or is it something to which an interpreter must first give shape? Or is not a composition the property of the composer, which is presented to us, the players, for its, final realization, an unknown property that we must oversee with the greatest conscientiousness and love, with the addition of all our spiritual and material powers.
I do not mean to imply that the answering of this question is alone enough to make a good performer out of a poor performer. But surely concerning oneself with this problem and recognizing its overwhelming importance can be of great practical use to many.
In order to convince oneself that idiosyncrasy as well as overdone individualism or a combination of both by the interpreter are not a new phenomenon, one need only study the letters of composers from Mozart up until our own time. Again and again, the same complaints arise about carelessness, misconceptions, and lack of ability. Even Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang, in his magnificent Violinschule, in 1756 complains about the irresponsible teachers and the vain players who want to be alone in the limelight and completely forget the composition. It is sad to realize that nothing has changed in the two centuries since Mozart.
I used the term “interpretation technique” earlier, and I would like to discuss it more fully.
Usually the concepts of technique and musicality are played against one another-a player is characterized as a mere technician, but not musical, or else as a good musician, but without technique. Usually the latter is said in praise, as if musicality alone makes the artist, while the term “technician” is an unflattering description meant to disparage the artist. This debate about technique and musicality results in much nonsense and confusion, and what is worse, is aided through amateurism.
How simple it is for the musician who can really do precious little to display an air of authority, in that he boasts about his “musicality,” but consciously demeans “technique” as something inferior, possibly even inartistic. Rating musicality above technique is tempting for many performers as well as for the public, because they can then believe that they are in the upper spheres; this justification is used by many players.
Well-intentioned people believe that through such an underestimation of technique, of basic skills, they can concentrate on more fitting goals in music-the spiritual-when in reality they open wide the doors and gates for those who cannot play; they sanction the desecration of music by these bluffers.
How many good artists would be found among the amateurs and in the audience, if the only consideration were the ability to recognize and comprehend the spiritual, the metaphysical, the technique of writing in music. I myself know hundreds of nonmusicians all over the world who are completely at home-as dilettantes-with either orchestra or chamber music literature, or with the instrumental repertoire, and about whom one could maintain that they have grasped the music.
Nothing is easier to answer than the question why they are not also capable of interpreting the pieces. Because they do not have the ability to direct a symphony or to present a concert on some instrument.
It is therefore useless to praise the musician above the technician; the comparison leads to confusion from which only the fakers and bluffers benefit.
There is little interest taken in analyzing or clarifying the word “technique” when speaking of an instrumentalist. This expression is usually employed to mean facility, secure intonation, and mastery over all the different types of bowing. If this is technique, how should one designate the ability to interpret a piece of music; for interpreting does not mean simply playing through a piece quickly but, after one has grasped the spirit of a piece, the important themes, the musical line and structure, then one has the means for presenting the music as one wishes.
I would say that the word “technique” be used to express mastery over the entire mechanism. When one understands that mastery of the mechanism of an instrument makes the real artist as little as does simple comprehension of the music, can then go farther to say that the combination of these two factors is still insufficient. It is the link between mechanism and music which counts, the application of the mechanism to the music: The technique of interpretation.
The Scale: An Example of Interpretation Technique
When I look around myself among students, orchestra and chamber music players, and concert artists, I realize again and again the amazing fact that interpretation technique is neither known nor developed; at all events, not enough emphasis is placed upon it. We are concerned here that the two spheres the mechanical and the musical-not be viewed as separate entities, but that it be recognized that artistic playing in music can only be reached through uniting the two. The simplest example: a scale.
Is a scale only a technical exerciser? What is practiced in a scale? What can and should be practiced in a scale? The answer to these questions is not as easy as it might appear, at least for me, because I am of the opinion that the real purpose of practice is to change an idea into reality.
Therefore, it is necessary to have some idea beforehand in order to give meaning to the practicing. For me, as for all who consider a scale as something more than a group of consecutive notes played fairly cleanly, the ideal scale would be comparable to a row of pearls of equal size and lustre. Is such a perfectly-played scale only a matter of mechanics? Or is it not rather a musical challenge which must be met if a scale is called for in a piece?
What must be practiced, watched for, and accomplished to do justice to a scale according to the very highest of musical demands?
- Even articulation for each individual note, whether fingering, change in positions, or open strings are concerned.
- As little difference as possible between going up the scale and going down.
- Rhythmical independence of string and position change arranged so that, the notes are played on a string or in a position, groups of two or three note are formed.
- No break in the scale because of bow changes.
- Secure intonation.
- Rhythm: a scale as practiced is a matter of mechanics.
Within a piece of music it is a musical phrase to which one can do justice only if one has completely mastered the mechanics of playing. What that requires, I have tried to show you above. In any case, in order to make the most of a scale, it is not enough to practice only for intonation and facility.
Practice and Teaching
One of the most interesting topics in music and the teaching of music is practice. Here, as in everything, lack of forethought and interest commonly dominate. The pupil receives his assignment, he returns for the lesson, the teacher points out false notes here and there, changes a few fingerings, perhaps suggests more freedom of playing or scolds because the pupil has not given enough time to his lesson, and with this it is over. Even an untalented pupil will with this customary kind of instruction make progress over the years and reach a certain degree of facility.
Counter to this way of teaching is one in which one single method dominates. One teacher constantly emphasizes “technique;” the pupil must practice long hours; above all he must practice difficult pieces, must concentrate on intonation and speed. The mechanism which is so necessary for the beauty and elegance of music is not practiced, but it must be played quickly and clearly. Its melodic qualities and its phrasing are hardly touched; and the real precision work on the instrument, which is as enduring and gratifying as the inside of a watch or as the work of a smithy, does not exist.
Sevek, the famous violin teacher, said once in my presence to a pupil, after he had completed the first movement of Mendelssohn’s concerto: we can go on to the third movement, the second you will play well later on your own.
Another form of teaching, found mostly in Germany, is one in which music is considered a holy matter, so metaphysical-not of- but above-the-earth-that it would be a sacrilege even to hint at anything resembling technique within music.
During the lessons the student will be constantly reminded of the seriousness, the majesty, the nobility of the artistic profession. Technique or mechanism will be regarded with contempt, with the result that after years of such instruction, the young person, who believes himself an artist, an exceptional person, is sent out into the world, often conceited and arrogant, without being capable of conveying even a vague notion, whether true or false, of art.
Then there are other methods of instruction, which emphasize various specific elements: one teacher insists on a high elbow in the right arm; the other points out that the wrist must be thrown forward when in an up-bow as the frog nears the string; and still another maintains that the fingers must be placed perpendicular to the string; while a fourth is dominated by the thought that each bow that is drawn must include a crescendo and decrescendo; the other tries to allow as much racing around on the “A” string as possible, while for still another the thumb position, as used or not used, alone represents the “soul-saving church,” etc., etc.
I wanted to speak of practicing, but instead I have been preoccupied with my knowledge of teachers and pupils. How is painting taught? A master lets his pupils work in a studio and they are always under his supervision. No time is thus lost as often happens with us-for example, a pupil who misunderstands the teacher and works incorrectly on one specific thing for a week. He must then return home and unlearn what he has practiced. In the former method, the results will not be demonstrated to the teacher during the lesson, rather the teacher can witness and follow at first hand all the phases of the student’s progress, his talent, his diligence, and can therefore pay more attention to the student’s personality.
How different it is with us! Usually one hour a week is reserved for the lesson-and what are sixty minutes?-the student has time to play a little for the teacher, correct a little, and say: I will come again next week.
It is also necessary to have time to treat the pupil as a human being, to show him the problems and a way to solution. How often does it happen to me that at the beginning of the lesson a question comes up which brings up other questions along with it. I try to explain, to demonstrate how it should be done, while others pupils who are there come in with their problems. Before you turn around, the hour is over and the pupil has not had time to play what he had prepared during the week. I am very sympathetic towards a pupil who has not only done his homework obediently, but who has concerned himself with all the thorny problems. He has a right to question this “one lesson a week” system, which hardly gives the teacher time to teach his student, let along influence and enlighten him.
My ideal is for the teacher to watch the student during practice. Where would the comparison to painting lie? How and where would it be possible to carry over the art of teaching painting to music? The teacher could work with his students in the same building; in this way students could always have their teachers as “ears” and the teacher could go from room to room, correcting pupils while they are practicing. This would be Utopia! Not only because of the question of room. Candidly, teachers are not always inclined to lend their ears to their pupils for any longer than thirty, forty, or sixty minutes. A significant question remains, whose answer is hardly in the affirmative: how intensively or meaningfully do the teachers themselves practice?
As I have said above, the lesson for the most part goes as follows: from one lesson to the next the student must complete a certain amount of work: perhaps a scale, an etude, and a section of some piece. If the student is diligent he will practice his lesson, that is, he will repeat what he will have to play during the lesson numerous times, so that he can play the scale, etude, and piece fairly cleanly and up to tempo. The teacher is satisfied, corrects a wrong note here and there. Possibly in the piece he will suggest a ritardando at some point (that may not even belong there), at another point he may speak about poetry (without being able to explain how poetical feelings can be translated into reality on an instrument), and the student gets a new assignment for next week, which he practices just as faithfully. Thus the lessons go throughout the year until the student reaches a point where he can play fairly cleanly and quickly, attain a beautiful tone (it is to be hoped), and gain mastery over the cello repertoire or at least be acquainted with it.
An untalented or lazy pupil practices little, gets stuck in his lesson, the teacher scolds, the pupil needs two weeks for a lesson instead of one, and reaches that final point mentioned earlier after a much longer period of study, perhaps even never.
I have played cello for thirty years. My experiences with my own teachers and reports given me by many of my pupils about the lessons they had had up until then, have convinced me that with certain positive and negative exceptions, in general, the lesson proceeds as described above. And
I also know that piano and violin are taught in the same manner, but with the difference that there have been many great masters in both, and there has always existed an elite of teachers who have taught in a way which I would like to see developed on the cello.
PART TWO, THOUGHTS ON TECHNIQUE AND INTERPRETATION
Musical life attains its height in the great talents and in the few rare geniuses, but is sustained by the less talented, “the middle class and the masses.” Therefore it is necessary to change the way of playing of the masses. As a sign of poor teaching and of difficulties common to all, most of the mistakes, those that are most fundamental, are committed in smaller or larger proportion by all players.
There is the instrumentalist who, when he sees dots over notes, forgets the music and its contents and concerns himself solely with playing the notes short. Yet there are dozens of different ways of interpreting such [a] symbol, and the performer must discern from the character of the piece which method the composer may have preferred.
There can be differences of opinion about how to interpret a dot, not however about the fact that a symbol can be presented in different ways, and one must be chosen. In contrast, there are those who do not even see the symbols.
Bad: the absolute lack of rhythmical sensitivity to the rests within a phrase, i.e., short pauses. As if the length of the note received more of the player’s attention than the rest.
Very bad: reading of music…..
Commitment to only one method: according to one principle, the fingers of the right hand must always be held in a certain position, let us say rounded at the frog. According to another principle, the fingers are held parallel to one another. They cannot always be held so, since forte and piano demand different things of the bow hand and will require different adjustments. Some methods go so far as to urge pupils to draw out the peg to a fixed length. The drawbacks of this are the following: 1) the height of the cello has to be adapted to each player individually because there hardly exist two exactly equal human bodies, and the position of the cello has to fit in the player, not vice versa, and 2) one can remain independent of the peg’s height by drawing the cello in or pulling it out.
In any physical activity, an individual’s achievement is heightened the more his muscles are used to advantage and the more comfortable he feels. This generally acknowledged theory has not yet made its way into cello lessons. As calmly and well balanced as a cellist may sit with his cello, the moment he starts to play, a change takes place in his body; suddenly his head sits lopsided on his shoulders, one shoulder is pulled up, the elbow is stretched out in a pointed angle, and the wrist of his right hand becomes stiff, like a board, or his hand dangles about as if it were drunk and the left hand assumes a position that causes one to ask how it is possible even to strike a note, to vibrate, to move from one position to the next.
As in driving a car, so much has to be done at one time that it seems impossible that it could ever be done mechanically, without deliberating about each movement beforehand.
What is talent? Desire to make sounds? Desire to create something beautiful? Vanity? A longing for something inexpressible? The fingers? The powers of concentration? Talent is composed of many talents and is dependent on fate. One likes serious music, another likes lighter music; one likes classical, the other modern. Speaking of the purely physical aspects, one may have a better left hand, the other a better right; one may have faster fingers, yet many have difficulties with trills; staccato and spiccato are also accomplished differently by each player. The greater the talent the greater the number of these qualifications the performer will be able to accumulate.
Even perfect pitch does not predestine one for music.
The really important factors are a feeling for form, perseverance and patience, thoroughness and lust for discovery. Many are destined to become musicians even when they are still too small to have anything to say about it themselves. It is often said of the great ones that they are involved in a one-sided and unrequited love.
There are specific musical attributes and also attributes that music has in common with other artistic professions. And when one looks more closely, there are but a few attributes which are peculiar to music. The relaxation of certain muscles and tendons and at the same time the stretching of others, the balancing of weight to make the most of the physical equipment, the distribution of weight on the bow, the determination of fingering, of crescendo and decrescendo, accelerando and ritardando, i.e., feeling for form. There are comparable attributes for all these in sports and in business life. For the musician alone is reserved the metaphysical province of predestination for music, which includes such physical matters as flexibility of the fingers and coordination of both hands and arms.
A composition is written, conceived, and, except for those experts who can read music, it is dead, does not exist, if it is not reproduced by a musician. The situation would be very simple if a machine could do this work; then a way would have been found over the centuries to pass on to the listener the composer’s intention to a hair. Instead we have humans, who act as mediators; and since no two people are alike, the reproduction of the music depends on the respective performers.
In the beginning, the composer was also the player; it was more or less one profession. Then came a separation, and gradually the role of mere reproduction became all the more important.
Since composer and reproducer are no longer the same person and since the composers whom one is interpreting have been dead for centuries, the reproducer has become independent and autonomous. In my opinion the relationship has been disarranged to such a degree that the performer has become less the mediator between composer and listener and more the handler of raw material, who gives it its final form. This development was inevitable, for we are dealing with a human being, whose natural impulse is to place his own personality in the foreground.
Even Mozart complained that his music was being desecrated, but it cannot have been as bad then as in the nineteenth century, in which liberalism led to the false admiration of one’s personality.
We must make it clear to ourselves that it would do great harm to Beethoven’s music if each musician were allowed to maintain the essentiality of his own personality for the shaping and molding of Beethoven.
This arrogant attitude does great damage to both music and public. The personality cannot be excluded, but the musician must try to live up to the composer and not bring the composer down to his level. We must take it for granted that of the two, the composer is the greater. The goal which I consider as the most important for the player is: abandon vanity, and ability, if there is any thought behind it at all, will come forth.
Mechanics, Musicality, Technique-a Tripartite Analysis
Here technique, there musicality-an ancient comparison which is senseless and has done great damage to the perfection of playing. There should be a three-part division: mechanism, musicality, and technique, which when used musically is the mechanism.
It is the mechanism alone that is necessary-for the juggler, sharpshooter, or maker of fine instruments; on the other hand a “musical” person-because of his musicality, his knowledge about the music, or his love for music-is still not necessarily an artist.
There are many amateurs who have more sensitivity to music than some artists. There are nonprofessional people who are experts in the field of music. I knew a French general who had the most amazing knowledge of Bach.
If there is no fitting definition for talent, there is also none for an artist. I believe that an artist is a person who has an inexplicable longing for music, who has a knowledge of the music, combined with mastery of the mechanics of his instrument. Each of these components consists of a combination of innumerable items. In the case of music, come the different styles. In the case of man, there is temperament, education, dependence on physical conditions (which only to a certain extent coalesce in the same person, resulting in better or worse players), and even a predilection for specific periods within music.
A person with extroverted, that is, uninhibited temperament will not be able to render well the great passion of Mozart, his most daring ideas, his wit, longing, heroism, and beauty in as representatively idiomatic or compelling manner as might have been possible in Mozart’s time.
On the other hand he may be a born interpreter of Tschaikovsky.
Much nonsense is expounded because art has been misplaced in the spheres, as if nothing solid or craftsmanlike exists. How wrong this is. The great composers and interpreters were scornful of this view of art. Even a Beethoven had, even as his first works had already come out, continued studying counterpoint, and I myself have seen a manuscript of Beethoven’s in which he had written counterpoint studies; and at the end he says, if I remember correctly: it could be done correctly another way as well. Leopold Mozart in his Violinschule scolds the musicians who use the word “artist” loosely, yet cannot even keep time.
The position of the interpreter is highly individual because he can very easily become identified with the composition he is performing. The audience, because of the presence of the artist and the absence of the composer, will be given an incorrect impression of the piece-and so will the artist.
What is the interpreter’s actual place within music? There is no doubt that music is written to be heard, and by as many people as possible. A composer is, after all, only human and since the time that there has been a concert life the composer has been described as having never derived pure artistic satisfaction from what he has written, be he a Mozart or a Wagner.
Music appears to be dead on paper, and each time it is played, it is revived. Scores are a delight for the expert, but they are not written for him, and the number of experts is small indeed. The importance of the interpreter cannot be valued too highly. The more important a position or a person is, the more depends on him. Even if the question of interpreter is easy to answer, the question of interpretation presents greater difficulties.
The interpreter is a person, not a machine, which means that the composer only indirectly addresses his listeners. Every performer is different, and it is inevitable that no two interpreters will present a piece alike.
And now I come to the most important question for the practicing artist: is a piece composed to give the interpreter the opportunity to express himself, or should the interpreter perceive that it is his task to subordinate one’s talent and ability to the composer?
An interpretation, because it is performed by a person, can never be impersonal, whether intended or not. To give an example: if one examines a composition as something written in an unintelligible language and considers the interpreter a translator, should he render a literal or a free translation?
In my opinion the player should try to extract from the very incomplete score what the composer could only indicate in his writing. He should place his personality and his ability at the disposal of the composition. Every intentional emphasis of one’s own personality is an offense to the composition, in which only one personality should be expressed intentionally-that of the composer.
Students, Prodigies, and Teaching
Earlier I gave several examples to prove how generally the most obvious, and at the same time most important, things are neglected. In the course of the book I shall give many more. What I regret most is not so much that the cellists do not play to my taste. Even if I have to hurt people I have to tell these cellists that they have not had the proper guidance. Very little responsibility has been shown towards either the students or the music.
Hundreds of cellists have played for me and some of them have become my students. I almost always ask two questions: why they have come to me and where do they feel they are lacking. The answers are chiefly: faulty technique and depleted repertoire. Thus the cellists who come to me have all completed their formal musical training, many of them have positions with orchestras either as first-desk solo cellists or in the section, of with quartets. They are persons one could call accomplished and expert in music.
What has always amazed me is that not a one has even come close to saying: I realize that I do not play that badly but I find it impossible to express that which I have in my mind; or, I have a certain idea of how the cello should sound, but I cannot achieve it alone. This has led me to the conclusion that most instrumentalists, at the stage when they are allowed to become independent by their teachers, should therefore be able to think independently. They should be clear about their instruments and their music. Yet they are not prepared for such a situation, and are therefore hardly capable of developing alone. As sad as this may be, I can only thus explain to myself the standstill most musicians come to at a certain age and level. They feel that as soon as they leave the school or the teacher they have reached the height. But is not this the point at which the development begins.
The most blatant example is the prodigy. The prodigy is usually the performing voice of a good teacher: he is soft putty in the teacher’s hands. I am of the opinion that a prodigy is not even destined for music, but that is another matter. In any case, it is a fact that most prodigies do not develop into artists, but at that moment when their own personality should make its appearance, they fail completely. Many reasons have been advanced for this and each case is different. Probably common to all is that, as long as they are under the influence of teachers or their often profit-seeking parents, they are treated as machines. No one tries to influence and develop their personal lives as musicians and people. On the contrary, in order to get the most out of the object-the prodigy-it is necessary to keep under strict control whatever appears to be the most advantageous as a momentary goal. But the prodigy is completely unprepared for the future as an independent, thinking human being; he is completely defenseless.
This development, which is considered normal, is similar for most musicians. I intend to write neither a theory nor a method. I do not even know if this will be a thick book or a small pamphlet. I think that the title “Words of Advice” approximates what I want to say. I might say that a method describes how something should be accomplished. There have been many methods written with the best intentions and with much success. There will be directions for how one should draw the bow, what the different keys are, and surely some progressive exercises, so that the student achieves a certain facility and precision in his intonation, and if he is talented and has a good teacher, he will play fairly well up to a certain point.
Because of my experiences with musicians on my own instrument, and with violinists and pianists as well, I would maintain that the most important point, the most important goal, has been ignored. Only thus is it understandable that good players, if there were an attempt made to explain to them the goal and the route to accomplishing it, could without much effort improve their playing to an amazing extent. I would like to say that it must first be clear what one wishes to reach and the how will play a secondary role.
Musicality and Technique
What should the goal be for a performer, that is for the interpreter of a composition, i.e., the musical expression of another person? To interpret as closely as possible the composer’s intentions, at least what the player believes are his intentions. How can one best accomplish this goal? First one should recognize this goal as such and then control the means that are absolutely necessary for its accomplishment.
In my opinion, a war exists between technique and musicality. It brings with it only confusion, and makes a great performance virtually impossible. If one understands that by musicality is meant that one recognizes the intentions of the composer, then the other half of the term-“technique”-can be explained as possessing the real means necessary for bringing these intentions to fruition.
It is clear that musicality has priority; but for that very reason one should value technique even more highly, because it alone makes it possible to do justice to a composition.
I fear that the words “virtuoso” and “technique” will be falsely understood and misused. The word “virtuoso” comes from virtus which means ability and should also characterize one who possesses the ability that is necessary for the interpretation of music. Virtuoso should be a title of honor, and I believe that even among the greatest names on the stage, only a few deserve it.
Virtuoso includes: the greatest ability, respect for a piece of art, and the ability to fit one’s personality to the art work. How many of us have this? How many of us believe we have it, and are mistaken about it? And how many could have it if they were guided properly during their development?
The word “technique” is misused and misunderstood. I do not believe that I am mistaken when I maintain that technique means something entirely different: on a stringed instrument it usually means speed and intonation.
Proof that clarification of these terms is almost an absolute necessity is the fact that one always hears: X has a great amount of technique, but he is not a good musician, or: Y is a good chamber player, but he does not play violin, viola, or cello, as the case may be, well. What is really meant by such claims? Usually they mean something entirely different from what the words convey. If one maintains that someone has good technique, but he is not a good musician, then one must mean that the player can probably play quickly and clearly, but that he has no feeling for the music. Thus two or three or four factors are being taken into consideration which constitute only a small part of technique and…. (Here Feuermann’s notes come to an end.)