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Wilhelm Bachaus: The Pianist of Tomorrow


Wilhelm Bachaus was born at Leipsic, March 24, 1884, two years before the death of Franz Liszt. Nine years younger than Josef Hofmann and a trifle more than one-half the age of Paderewski he represents a different decade from that of other pianists included in this work. Bachaus studied for nine years with Alois Reckendorf, a Moravian teacher who was connected with the Leipsic Conservatory for more than thirty years. Reckendorf had been a student of science and philosophy at the Vienna and the Heidelberg Universities and was an earnest musician and teacher with theories of his own. He took an especial interest in Bachaus and was his only teacher with the exception of one year spent with d’Albert and “three lessons with Siloti.” Although Bachaus commenced playing when he was eight years old he feels that his professional début was made in London in June, 1901, when he played the tremendously difficult Brahms-Paganini Variations. In 1905, when Bachaus was only twenty-one, he won the famous Rubinstein Prize at Paris. This consists of 5000 francs offered every five years to young men between the ages of twenty and twenty-six.

Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow

“It is somewhat surprising how very little difference exists between the material used in piano teaching today and that employed forty or fifty years ago. Of course, there has been a remarkable amount of new technical material, exercises, studies, etc., devised, written and published, and some of this presents the advantage of being an improvement upon the old—an improvement which may be termed an advance—but, taken all in all, the advance has been very slight when compared with the astonishing advances made in other sciences and other phases of human progress in this time.

“It would seem that the science of music (for the processes of studying the art are undoubtedly scientific) left little territory for new explorers and inventors. Despite the great number of études that have been written, imagine for one moment what a desert the technic of music would be without Czerny, Clementi, Tausig, Pischna—to say nothing of the great works of Scarlatti and Bach, which have an effect upon the technic, but are really great works of musical art.

The Wonderful Efficacy of Scales

“Personally, I practice scales in preference to all other forms of technical exercises when I am preparing for a concert. Add to this arpeggios and Bach, and you have the basis upon which my technical work stands. Pianists who have been curious about my technical accomplishments have apparently been amazed when I have told them that scales are my great technical mainstay—that is, scales plus hard work. They evidently have thought that I had some kind of alchemic secret, like the philosopher’s stone which was designed to turn the baser metals into gold. I possess no secrets which any earnest student may not acquire if he will work in the laboratory of music long enough. There are certain artistic points which only come with long-continued experiment.

“As the chemist finds the desired result by interminable heart-breaking eliminations, so the artist must weigh and test his means until he finds the one most likely to produce the most beautiful or the most appropriate result. But this seeking for the right effect has little to do with the kind of technic which necessitates one to keep every muscle employed in piano-playing properly exercised, and I may reiterate with all possible emphasis that the source of my technical equipment is scales, scales, scales. I find their continued daily practice not only beneficial, but necessary. I still find it desirable to practice scales for half an hour a day.

Bach Musically Omnipotent

“It seems almost foolish to repeat what has been said so many times about the wonderful old cantor of Leipsic, Johann Sebastian Bach. However, there may still be some who have not yet become acquainted with the indisputable fact that the practice of Bach is the shortest, quickest road to technical finish. Busoni has enlarged upon Bach, impossible as that may seem; but as a modern bridge is sometimes built upon wonderful old foundations, Busoni has taken the idea of Bach and, with his penetrative and interpretative ability, has been able to make the meaning more clear and more effective. Any young pianist who aspires to have his hands in condition to respond to the subtle suggestions of his brain may acquire a marvelous foundation by the use of scales, Bach and arpeggios.

The Old That Is Ever New

“I have seen many ways and means tried out. Some seem like an attempt to save time at the expense of thoroughness. Furthermore, the means which have produced the great pianists of the past are likely to differ but little from those which will produce the pianists of the future.

“The ultra-modern teacher who is inclined to think scales old-fashioned should go to hear de Pachmann, who practices scales every day. De Pachmann, who has been a virtuoso for a great many years, still finds daily practice necessary, and, in addition to scales, he plays a great deal of Bach. Today his technic is more powerful and more comprehensive than ever, and he attributes it in a large measure to the simplest of means.

Difficulties in New Pianoforte Compositions

“I have often been asked if the future of pianoforte composition seemed destined to alter the technic of the instrument, as did the compositions of Liszt, for instance. This is a difficult question, but it would seem that the borderland of pianistic difficulty had been reached in the compositions and transcriptions of Busoni and Godowsky. The new French school of Debussy, Ravel and others is different in type, but does not make any more severe technical demands.

“However, it is hard for one to imagine anything more complicated or more difficult than the Godowsky arrangements of the Chopin studies. I fail to see how pianoforte technic can go much beyond these, unless one gets more fingers or more hands. Godowsky’s treatment of these studies is marvelous not only from a technical standpoint, but from a musical standpoint as well. He has added a new flavor to the individual masterpieces of Chopin. He has made them wonderfully clever and really very interesting studies in harmony and counterpoint, so that one forgets their technical intricacies in the beauty of the compositions. One cannot say that their original beauty has been enhanced, but he has made them wonderfully fascinating compositions despite their aggravating complications for the student.

Mere Difficulty No Longer Astounds

“The day when the show of startling technical skill was sufficient to make a reputation for a pianist is, fortunately, past. The mechanical playing devices have possibly been responsible for this. The public refuses to admire anything that can be done by a machine, and longs for something finer, more subtle, more closely allied to the soul of the artist. This does not mean, however, that the necessity for a comprehensive technic is depreciated. Quite the contrary is true. The need for an all-comprehensive technic is greater than ever before. But the public demand for the purely musical, the purely artistic, is being continually manifested.

“Modern composers are writing with this in view rather than huge technical combinations. The giant of today, to my mind, is indisputably Rachmaninoff. He is writing the greatest original music for piano of any living composer. All of his compositions are pianistic and he does not condescend to pander to a trifling public taste. He is a man with a great mind, and, in addition to this, he has a delightful sense of proportion and a feeling for the beautiful, all of which makes him a composer of the master mould. His compositions will endure as long as music.

Modern Compositions

“For others of the type of Scriabine I care less, although I am sensible to the beauty of many of their compositions. They have not, however, the splendid mould of Rachmaninoff, nor have they his vigorous originality. Doubtless some of these men will produce great original compositions in the future. Compositions that are simply not bad are hardly worth the paper they are written upon, for they will not last as long. The composition that will last is a great, new, original thought, inspired, noble and elemental, but worked out with the distinctive craftsmanship of the great master.

“I am very partial to Debussy. He has an extraordinary atmosphere, and, after one has formed a taste for him, his compositions are alluring, particularly his Homage à RameauJardins sous la pluie and D’un cahier d’esquisses, which I have been playing upon my American tour.

The Most Difficult Compositions

“I have continually been asked, ‘What is the most difficult composition?’ The question always amuses me, but I suppose it is very human and in line with the desire to measure the highest building, the tallest mountain, the longest river or the oldest castle. Why is such a premium put upon mere difficulty? Strange to say, no one ever seems to think it necessary to inquire, ‘What is the most beautiful piece?’

“Difficulty in music should by no means be estimated by technical complications. To play a Mozart concerto well is a colossally difficult undertaking. The pianist who has worked for hours to get such a composition as near as possible to his conception of perfection is never given the credit for his work, except by a few connoisseurs, many of whom have been through a similarly exacting experience. Months may be spent upon comparatively simple compositions, such as the Haydn Sonatas or the Mozart Sonatas, and the musical public is blind to the additional finish or polish so evident to the virtuoso.

Praise That Irritates

“The opposite of this is also true. A little show of bravura, possibly in a passage which has not cost the pianist more than ten minutes of frivolous practice, will turn many of the unthinking auditors into a roaring mob. This is, of course, very distressing to the sincere artist who strives to establish himself by his real worth.

“Of course, there are some compositions which present difficulties which few work hard enough to surmount. Among these might be mentioned the Godowsky-Chopin études (particularly the étude in A flat, Opus 25, No. 1, which is always especially exasperating for the student sufficiently advanced to approach it); the Don Juan Fantasie of Liszt; the Brahms-Paganini variations and the Beethoven, Opus 106, which, when properly played, demands enormous technical skill. One certainly saves a lot of bother when one discards it from one’s repertoire. If these four pieces are not the most difficult pieces, they are certainly among the most difficult.

Why Not Seek the Beautiful?

“But why seek difficulty when there is so much that is quite as beautiful and yet not difficult? Why try to make a bouquet of oak trees when the ground is covered with exquisite flowers? The piano is a solo instrument and has its limitations. Some piano music is said to sound orchestral. As a matter of fact, a great deal of it would sound better with the orchestra.

“Real piano music is rare. The piano appears to be too small for some of our modern Titans among the composers. When they write for the piano they seem to be exhibiting a concealed longing for the one hundred or more men of the modern orchestra. One of the reasons why the works of Debussy appeal to me is that he manages to put so much color into his piano pieces without suggesting the orchestra. Much of his music is wonderful in this respect, and, moreover, the musicians of the future will appreciate this fact more and more.

Exercises That Give Immediate Help

“No one exercise can be depended upon to meet all the varied conditions which arise in the practice of the day, but I have frequently employed a simple exercise which seems to ‘coax’ the hand into muscular activity in a very short time. It is so simple that I am diffident about suggesting it. However, elemental processes lead to large structures sometimes. The Egyptian pyramids were built ages before the age of steam and electricity, and scientists are still wondering how those massive stones were ever put in place.

“The exercise I use most, apart from scales, is really based upon a principle which is constantly employed in all scale playing and in all piano playing, that of putting the thumb over and under the fingers. Did you ever stop to think how continually this is employed? One hardly goes one step beyond the elemental grades before one encounters it. It demands a muscular action entirely different from that of pressing down the keys either with the finger, forearm or arm motion.

“Starting with the above-named principle and devising new exercises to meet the very human need for variety, I play something like this:

“The next form would employ another fingering—

“The next form might be—

“These I transpose through several keys, for instance—

“Note that I am not giving an arbitrary exercise, but simply suggesting the plan upon which the student may work. There is a great deal of fun in devising new exercises. It assists in helping the student to concentrate. Of course, these exercises are only attempted after all the standard exercises found in books have been exhausted.

Avoid Too Complicated Exercises

“I often think that teachers make a great mistake by giving too complicated exercises. A complicated exercise leads away from clear thinking and concentration. The simple exercise will never seem dull or dry if the pupil’s ambition is right. After all, it is not so much what is done as how it is done. Give less thought to the material and more to the correction of the means with which one plays. There should be unceasing variety in studies. A change at every practice period is advisable, as it gives the pupil new material for thought. There are hundreds of different exercises in the different books, and the student has no reason for suffering for want of variety.”

Questions in Style, Interpretation, Expression and Technic of Pianoforte Playing

  1. Does the technical material of to-day differ greatly from that of forty or fifty years ago?
  2. State something of the efficacy of scales.
  3. State three sources of technical material sure to interest the student.
  4. Do celebrated virtuosos use scales regularly?
  5. State what else besides technical skill is required in these days to gain recognition as a virtuoso pianist.
  6. Why does Rachmaninoff excel as a composer for pianoforte?
  7. State what may be considered the most difficult of piano compositions.
  8. Wherein does the appeal of Debussy lie?
  9. Give some simple exercises suitable for daily practice.
  10. Why are too complicated exercises undesirable?

Reproduced from “Great Pianists on Piano Playing” by James Francis Cooke.