Josef Hofmann

Josef Hofmann. Biographical. Josef Hofmann was born at Cracow, Russia, January 20, 1877. His father was an exceptionally successful teacher and was for a time Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Warsaw Conservatory. The elder Hofmann’s talents were by no means limited to teaching, however, since he conducted the Opera at Warsaw for many performances. He undertook the training of his son with great care and since the child showed remarkable promise the musicians of Russia took an extraordinary interest in him.

He appeared in public at the age of six and before he was ten years of age he was the most celebrated child prodigy of his time. He traveled thousands of miles, including tours of America, playing complicated classical compositions in a manner which surprised musicians everywhere. Fortunately for his health and education his tours were terminated in time for him to study for the advanced work of the more mature artist. Accordingly he was placed with the great Anton Rubinstein with whom he remained for two years. At seventeen he resumed his concert work again appearing in Dresden in 1894. By thoroughly dignified methods, scholarly analysis, and his natural poetical sense Hofmann introduced new ideas in virtuosoship which made him immensely popular at once.

Josef Hofmann: Progress in Piano Study

The question of progress in pianoforte playing is one that admits of the widest possible discussion. One is frequently asked whether the manner of playing the pianoforte has undergone any change since the time of Hummel, and, if it has advanced, of what nature are the advances, and to what particular condition are the advances due. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, it will be remembered, was contemporary with Beethoven, and was, in fact, a kind of bridge between the old and the new. He made his début at a concert given by Mozart at Dresden. For a time he was a kind of assistant kapellmeister to Haydn, and indeed many at that time thought his works were quite on a par with those of the great master, Beethoven. Hummel was a really great virtuoso, and was noted for his remarkable improvisations. His style of playing was taken as a model in his time, and consequently we may safely start with this epoch by way of example.

Josef Hofmann: What Determines Changes in Playing

It is sometimes said that the changes in the construction of the piano have caused a different treatment of it, but this reasoning is superficial, inasmuch as the structural changes of the instrument itself are called forth by the ever-increasing demands of the composer made upon the instrument. So long as the tone quality, action and nature of the instrument sufficed for compositions of the type of those of Domenico Scarlatti, or François Couperin, or Rameau, there was little need for change, but as the more modern composers longed for new and more comprehensive effects, the piano-makers kept up with their desires and aims. Thus it is that after all is said and done, the composer, and the composer only, is responsible for the changes. The literature of the piano determines them. It is the same in the advancement of piano technic and interpretation. The composers conceive new and often radically different musical ideas. These in turn demand a new manner of interpretation. This kind of evolution has been going on continually since the invention of the instrument and is going on to-day, only it is more difficult for us to see it in the present than it is to review it in the past.

The general mental tendencies of the times, the artistic and cultural influences of the world taken as a whole, have also had a conspicuous though somewhat less pronounced share in these matters since they inevitably exert an influence upon the interpreter. Speaking from a strictly pianistic point of view, it is the player’s individuality, influenced by the factors just stated, which is the determining element in producing new pianistic tendencies. It is thus very evident that progress in piano playing since the epoch of Hummel has been enormous.

Josef Hofmann: The New Technic and The Old

You ask me what are the essential differences between the modern technic and the technic of the older periods? It is very difficult to discuss this question off-hand and it is one which might better be discussed in an article of a different character. One difficulty lies in the regrettable tendency of modern technic toward being a purpose in itself. Judging from the manner in which some ambitious young players work, their sole aim is to become human piano-playing machines quite without any real musical consciousness. Before radically condemning this tendency, however, it should be remembered that it has brought us many undeniable advantages. It cannot be doubted that we owe to the ingenious investigators of technical subjects greater possibilities in effective polyphonic playing, economy of power and arm motion, larger participation of the mind in the acquisition of technic, and numerous other praiseworthy factors in good piano playing. In the olden days, while technical exercises were by no means absent, they were not nearly so numerous, and more time was given to the real musical elements in the study of the musical compositions themselves. If the excellent technical ideas to be found in some of the systems of to-day are employed solely to secure real musical and artistic effects—that is, effects based upon known æsthetic principles—the new technic will prove valuable, and we should be very grateful for it. However, as soon as it becomes an objective point in itself and succeeds in eclipsing the higher purposes of musical interpretation, just so soon should it be abolished. If the black charcoal sketch which the artist puts upon canvas to use as an outline shows through the colors of the finished painting, no masterpiece will result. Really artistic piano playing is an impossibility until the outlines of technic have been erased to make way for true interpretation from the highest sense of the word. There is much more in this than most young artists think, and the remedy may be applied at once by students and teachers in their daily work.

Josef Hofmann: Technic Since Liszt

Again you ask whether technic has made any significant advance since the time of Franz Liszt. Here again you confront me with a subject difficult to discuss within the confines of a conference. There is so much to be said upon it. A mere change in itself does not imply either progress or retrogression. It is for this reason we cannot speak of progress since the time of Liszt. To play as Liszt did—that is, exactly as he did, as a mirror reflects an object—would not be possible to anyone unless he were endowed with an individuality and personality exactly like that of Liszt. Since no two people are exactly alike, it is futile to compare the playing of any modern pianist with that of Franz Liszt. To discuss accurately the playing of Liszt from the purely technical standpoint is also impossible because so much of his technic was self-made, and also a mere manual expression of his unique personality and that which his own mind had created. He may perhaps never be equalled in certain respects, but on the other hand there are unquestionably pianists to-day who would have astonished the great master with their technics—I speak technically, purely technically.

Josef Hofmann: Definite Methods Are Little More Than Stencils

I have always been opposed to definite “methods”—so- called—when they are given in an arbitrary fashion and without the care of the intelligent teacher to adapt special need to special pupils. Methods of this kind can only be regarded as a kind of musical stencil, or like the dies that are used in factories to produce large numbers of precisely similar objects. Since art and its merits are so strangely dependent upon individuality (and this includes anatomical individuality as well as psychological individuality), an inflexible method must necessarily have a deadening effect upon its victims.

The question of whether special technical studies of an arbitrary nature, such as scale studies, should be extensively used is one which has been widely debated, and I fear will be debated for years to come. Let us understand first, there is a wide difference between studying and practicing. They resemble each other only in so far as they both require energy and time. Many sincere and ambitious students make the great mistake of confounding these two very essential factors of pianistic success. Study and practice really are quite widely removed from each other, and at the same time they are virtually inseparable. The real difference lies in the amount and quality of the two elements. Practice means a large number of repetitions, with a fair amount of attention to mere correctness of notes, fingering, etc. Under ordinary circumstances and conditions it usually means a great sacrifice of time and a comparatively small investment of mentality.

Study, on the contrary, implies first of all mental activity of the highest and most concentrated type. It presupposes absolute accuracy in notes, time, fingerings, etc., and implies the closest possible attention to those things which are generally, though erroneously, regarded as lying outside of technic, such as tonal beauty, dynamic shading, rhythmical matters, and the like. Some have the happy gift of combining practice with study, but this is rare.

Hence, in the question of scale exercises, etc., if the word “study” is meant in the true sense, I can only say that the study of scales is more than necessary—it is indispensable. The pedagogical experts of the world are practically unanimous upon this subject. The injunction, “study,” applies not only to scales, but to all forms of technical discipline, which only too often are “practiced” without being studied. I will not deny that mere practicing, as I have defined it, may bring some little benefit, but this benefit is gained at an enormous expenditure of time and physical and mental exertion. Oh! the endless leagues that ambitious fingers have traveled over ivory keys! Only too often they race like automobiles on a race-course—in a circle—and after having gone innumerable miles, and spent a tremendous amount of energy, they arrive at the same point from which they started, exhausted and worn, with very little to show for their work, and no nearer their real goal than when they started. The proportion in which mental and physical activity is compounded, determines, to my mind, the distinction between practicing and real study. One might also say that the proportion in which real study enters into the daily work of the student determines the success of the student.

Josef Hofmann: The Study of Details Imperative

Study demands that the student shall delve into the minute details of his art, and master them before he attempts to advance. Only the most superficial students fail to do this in these days. All of the better trained teachers insist upon it, and it is hard for the pupil to skim through on the thinnest possible theoretical ice, as they did in past years. The separate study of embellishments, for instance, is decidedly necessary, especially in connection with the embellishments introduced by the writers of the early eighteenth century.

In the study of embellishments it is vitally important for the student to remember one or two very important points in connection with his investigation. One point is the understanding of the nature of the instrument for which the composer wrote when he had the embellishment in mind. The instruments of the early eighteenth century were characterized by a tone so thin and of such short duration that the composers and players (and it should be remembered that in those days practically all of the great composers played, and most of the great performers were composers) had to resort to all kind of subterfuges and tricks to produce the deception of a prolonged tone. For instance, they had a method of moving the finger to and fro (sideways) upon a key after it was struck. Thus they produced a sort of vibrato, not unlike that of which we have received an overdose in recent years from violinists and ’cellists. This vibrato (German, Bebung) was marked like our modern “shake,” thus,

but if we interpret it as a “shake” we commit a grave error. We ought never to regard it as a “shake,” unless it is obviously an integer of the melody.

The other point to be considered in the study of embellishments is taste, or rather, let me say, “fashion,” for the fashion of those times which over-indulged in ornamentation and over-loaded everything with it, from architecture to dress, was by no means an insignificant factor in music. The point is important because it involves the element of “concessions” which the composers, voluntarily or from habit, made to the public of their day. I seriously question the necessity of retaining these often superabundant embellishments in their entirety, for I contend that we study antique works on account of their musical substance and not for the sake of gewgaws and frills which were either induced by the imperfections of the instrument or by the vitiated taste of times to which the composer had to yield willy-nilly.

It is, of course, a very difficult and responsible task to determine what to retain and what to discard. This, to a large extent, must depend upon what part the ornament plays in the melody of the composition, whether it is really an integral part or an artificial excrescence. By all means never discard any embellishment which may serve to emphasize the melodic curve, or any one which may add to its declamatory character. A well-educated taste assisted by experience will be a fairly reliable guide in this matter. However, it is hardly advisable for amateurs with limited training to attempt any home editing of this kind.

Those embellishments which we do regain should in all cases be executed as the composer of the piece would desire to hear them executed if he could become acquainted with the instruments of to-day. This, of course, places the study of ornamentation with the many auxiliary musical branches which demand special and separate attention. Johann Sebastian Bach’s son, Phillip Emanuel Bach, realized this, and gave years to the proper exposition of embellishments. However, the student should realize that the study of embellishments is only a part of the great whole and he should not be misled into accepting every little shake or other little frippery, and then magnifying it into a matter of more vital importance than the piece itself.

Josef Hofmann: Well-Meaning Advisers

The student should form the habit of determining things for himself. He will soon find that he will be surrounded with many well-meaning advisers who, if they have their own way, may serve to confuse him. Some virtuosos regard their well-meaning admirers and entertainers as the worst penalties of the virtuoso life. Whether they are or are not must, of course, depend upon the artist’s character. If he accepts their compliments and courtesies as an expression of the measure of pleasure they derived from his playing, he has tacitly allowed for that share in their pleasure which is due to their power of appreciation, and he can therefore only rejoice in having provided something worthy of it. The manner of their expression, the observations they make, the very wording of their compliments will reveal, quickly enough, whether he has a case of real appreciation before him, or a mere morbid mania to hobnob with celebrities, or at least with people who by nature of their professional work are often compelled against their own desires to hold a more or less exposed position in the public eye. If he deals with the latter and still allows their compliments to go further than the physical ear, he must be a man of a character so weak as to make it doubtful that he will ever produce anything worthy of sincere and earnest appreciation. More young students are misled by blatant flattery than anything else. They become convinced that their efforts are comparable with those of the greatest artist, and the desire for improvement diminishes in direct ratio to the rate in which their opinion of their own efforts increases. The student should continually examine his own work with the same acuteness that he would be expected to show were he teaching another.

Josef Hofmann: Questions in Style, Interpretation,

Expression and Technic of Piano Playing

1. Has piano playing progressed since the time of Hummel? 

2. How have the changes in the structure of the instrument affected pianistic progress?

3. Why should students avoid becoming “piano-playing machines”?

4. What must be the sole aim in employing a technical exercise?

5. Will the technic of Liszt ever be excelled?

6. Why are stencil-like methods bad?

7. Is scale study indispensable?

8. Must the student know the characteristics of the instrument for which the composer wrote?

9. What part did fashion play in the introduction of embellishments?

10. Why should the student determine problems for himself ?

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