The Leschetizkianers


In the first quarter of the twentieth century, was dominated by Liszt and Leschetizky. In comparison, Leschetizky has equal if not more impressive list of pupils. Paderewski who put Leschetizky successfully and securely on a map as a teacher. Paderewski was certainly not the best student of Leschetizky’s, but he is the most famous one.

Arthur Schnabel

Almost all of the pupils of Liszt and Leschetizky were romantic pianists except Arthur Schnabel and Horowitz, who were two important exceptions. They specialized in literature from Beethoven and played Bach generally from transcription by Liszt, Tausig or d’Albert. They are the pianists who delivered the big line, grand effect and tempo rubato. Constantin von Stenberg in his little book ‘Tempo Rubato’ described that no one understood tempo rubato as Chopin did. Only the Poles can play Chopin and no one else could. Stenberg believed that no artists from Bach on or before for that matter could play in strict metronomic tempo even if they wanted to. Years before writing his book, he studied with Mocheles, the classicist, who once sat down to show him.

Vlamidir Horowitz

Stenberg’s advocated for ‘balance’ in rubato – what is to be taken away in one place is be added in another. What is stolen is to be restored. The word rubato derived from ‘rubare’ – to rob. Paderewski, the great Polish master thought that the concept of stealing followed by restoration was nonsense. The value of notes diminished in one passage through accelerando and cannot always be replaced in another by a ritardando. What is lost is lost.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the arguments continued but in a less heated manner. Rubato was one of the many questions that agitated the theorists of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Theorists were interested in the muscular mechanics that would lead to the relaxation and production of tone. Ludwig Deppe advocated the principle of ‘muscular synergy’, in which the hand must be freed of the hampering weight of the arm. Though Mocheles had hinted years before that ‘the arm should be like a lead and the wrist a feather’. Deppe, who had considerable influence during the period after 1870 found some of his theories adopted by Leschetizky and also by Rudolf Breithaupt.

Most modern theoreticians ridicule the ideas of Matthay and Breithaupt and other nineteenth century weight-relaxation specialists. Otto Ortmann stressed the need to partial return to the older school, referred to Czerny’s. He wrote that ‘undue stress and relaxation has seriously restricted velocity and technical brilliance’.

Tobbias Matthay

Tobias Matthay, who was in England, wrote books such as ’The Act of Touch and The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique’. There are six ways of the arm functions: poised arm element, the forearm-rotation element, forearm weight, whole-arm weight, forearm down-exertion, upper-arm forward drive. We also learn about touch, weight-touch, touch-construction, weight-transfer, rotary relaxation, rotation-stresses, and duration-inflection.

For several decades beginning around 1880, there were all kinds of discussion on this subject matter. The new words were weight and relaxation. There is nothing much that can be done until the pupil learns the principle of relaxation of the shoulder, arm, wrist, and the firmness of the hand.

Much consideration was also given to ‘Leschetizky’s System’. Leschetizky was born in Poland in the 1830 and had studied with Czerny in Vienna, concertized, then had settled in St. Petersburg as a teacher. He could be quixotic, generous, kind, sweet, sarcastic, and explosive. His pupils never knew what to expect of him. He only took advanced students. If a prospective students had less than what Leschetizky considered as the minimum requirement, the student would have studied with Vorbereiter – an assistant who would prepare the pupil in Leschetizky’s basics. The basics included a good deal of technical drill, a curved hand position and a relaxation of the muscles. Pupils would be eager to commit to the preparatory drill as they considered themselves Leschetizky’s prestige.

Ethel Newcomb, another assistant gave an account of what Leschetizky taught. She wrote that the secret  was in the hand and the master would discuss the hand from every point of view; what this sort of hand should do and why another kind of hand should be held differently than otherwise required. There are really no methods. Fannie Bloomfield wrote that during the five years of studying with Leschetizky, he made it very plain that there are simply no fixed methods. Just as any good teacher, he studied the individuality of each pupil and taught him according to that student’s individuality.

It might almost be said he had a different method for each pupil – different strokes for different folks. Leschetizky showed pupils exactly and clearly how to produce effects which the composition demanded. He found the student’s restrictions and gave them remedies. He went into great detail to describe the art of obtaining and developing beautiful singing tone, to produce the big tone without harshness and to execute the pianissimo tone that can carry it to the last row of the top gallery. Contrary to Leschetizky, Liszt, he was an inspirational coach. He described the music with metaphors.

Leschetizky inculcated unilaterally in all his pupils to evoke fine tone and not noise from the instrument. His student, Gabrilowitsch says all Leschetizky’s great pupils were individuals. He succeeds in developing each of their musical and pianistic gift without destroying the art! He addressed each personality with imagination and taste. There is no shortcut or blueprint to the success and definitely not a prescription but a task.

An anonymous student described in the Musician periodical:

Leschetizky teaches his pupils to save their bodies from fatigue by devitalizing the muscle not called into play. Let anyone support the extended arm of another, and then at a given word allow the arm to drop. If it falls to the side instantly and quite limp, it is said to be devitalized. But many people will find difficulty in letting the arm go entirely in his way with all their muscle relaxed.’

He himself denied that he had a method and in fact in his letter dated June 5, 1915, he wrote that he was against a fixed principle in instruction. Every pupil must in his opinion be treated differently according to circumstances. No printed method is effective until a teacher can demonstrate the ability to work with the student’s potential.

In his piano studio, he has two pianos: Bechstein and a Bösendorfer. He illustrated at the second piano. He does not believe in practicing six, seven or eight hours a day. ‘No one can do that without being mechanical. Two hours or three at most, is all anyone should require if he will only listen to what he is playing and criticize every note.’ He maintained that there were three indispensable characteristics to pianistic greatness and would ask his prospective pupils three questions: Were you a child prodigy? Are you of Slavic Decent and are you a Jew? If all three of these attributes came together, he would rub his hands with a glee.

Tone was all that Leschetizky concentrated on. When Leschetizky heard Julius Shculhoff around 1850 in Vienna:

‘Under his (Julius Shculhoff) hand, the piano seemed like another instrument. Seated in a corner, my heart overflowed with indescribable emotions as I listened. Not a note escaped me. I began to foresee a new style of playing. That melody standing out in bold relief, that wonderful sonority – all this must be due to a new and entirely different touch. And that cantabile, a legato such as I had not dreamed possible on the piano, a human voice rising above the sustaining harmonies! I could hear the shepherd sing and see him. Then a strange thing happened. He had finished and had awaked no response. There was no enthusiasm! They were all accustomed to brilliant technical display that the pure beauty of interpretation was not appreciated. Dessauer, coming towards me, a slight sneer of disapproval on his face, asked me what I thought of it. Still very much moved, I answered: ‘It is the playing of the future.’ Shculhoff’s playing was a revelation to me. From that day I tried to find that touch. I thought of it constantly and studied the five fingers diligently to learn the method of production. I practice incessantly, sometimes even on the table top, striving to attain firm fingertips and a light wrist, which I felt to be the means to my end. I kept that beautiful sound will in my mind and it made the driest work interesting. In the meantime, Shculhoff had conquered Vienna. He was heard in large halls; his playing produced the proper effect.’

All of Leschetizky’s pupils all unanimously agreed that he focused more on tone than anything else. Paderewski, Schanbel, Hambourg and Gabrilowitsch testified that Leschetizky could not stand an ugly sound. Hambourg says: he focused his teaching largely on the quality of sound to be produced.’ Leschetizky, according to Hambourg had suffered his entire career as a concert pianist from the disability of having had  thin and bony hands. Leschestizky observed that the pianists with fat hands, such as those of Jaëll and Rubinstein both had the most beautiful tone. He had also observed that Liszt had the best agile hands to produce brilliance and lightness of tone. His concluding thought was that for thin hands, it required considerably more key pressure whereas fat and heavy hands had to be trained with the least amount of pressure.

The secret of Leschetizky’s teaching was his ability to make his students hear themselves and the tone they produced. Pupils can make the teacher as much as a teacher can make the student. If the pupil is to produce comets, Leschetizky is to produce meteors.

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