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The Artistry of Josef Hofmann, a Great Pianist of the 20th Century

When surfing the Net, I came across an enticing video link that led to a potpourri of outstanding pianists who hallmarked the 20th Century. Ten minutes into a lengthy You Tube offering, I was bowled over by the artistry of Josef Hofmann who played Rachmaninoff’s austere C# minor prelude like I’d never heard it.

(Hoffman’s only television studio appearance)

To this point, I’d kept a dusty copy of the the pianist’s short volume, “Piano Playing with Piano Questions Answered,” letting it pass into obscurity amidst a pile of old books I’d purchased on the sidewalks of New York. It was one of those editions with archaic syntax and layout, that I’d dismissed as a relic of the past.

Suddenly, as Hofmann became my overnight cyberspace heart throb I felt compelled to read every last word of his treatise on technique, interpretation, and anything related.

But before I had become awakened to this man’s artistry, many prominent musicians had uttered superlatives about Hofmann’s playing:

Piotr Anderszewski:

“Fantastic and beautiful technique.

“He played with complete naturalness, and was at one with the piano–no battle… just total happiness with the instrument.”

Georgy Sandor:

“Incredible pianist–the greatest of all– known for his musicianship, technique and ease of execution.”

From Wikipedia
:

“By his own admission, Sergei Rachmaninoff, in his 40s, prepared for a career as a concert pianist by practicing over 15 hours a day with the goal of attaining the level of Hofmann’s technique. When pianist Ralph Berkowitz was asked if Vladimir Horowitz had the greatest technique of all the pianists he had heard, Berkowitz replied that Horowitz indeed was the supreme master of the technical parts of performance, but one older era pianist was his equal – Hofmann.”

Here are some resonating excerpts I’ve selected from Hofmann’s book that tie directly to his performance:

About phrasing:

He quotes his celebrated teacher, Anton Rubinstein:

“When I played the same phrase twice in succession, and played it both times alike, he would say, “In fine weather you may play it as you did, but when it rains, play it differently.”

Attentive listening:
“Watch well that you actually hear every tone you mean to produce. Every missed tone will mean a blotch upon your photographic plate in the brain. Each note must be, not mentally but physically heard, and to this imperative requirement your speed must ever subordinate itself. It is not at all necessary to practice loudly in order to foster permanence of impressions. Rather let an inward tension take the place of external force.”

The Importance of Spontaneity:

“Do not practice systematically, or ‘methodically.’ Doing so is the death of of spontaneity, and spontaneity is the very soul of art.”

(Hoffman’s reading of the Rachmaninoff Prelude reflected a fresh and spontaneous approach)

“Art belongs to the realm of emotional manifestations, and it stands to reason that a systematic exploiting of our emotional nature must blunt it.”

Never Play with a Metronome

“The keeping of absolute strict time is thoroughly unmusical and dead-like.”

Piano Playing and the Musical Will:

“The musical will has its roots in the natural craving for musical utterance. It is the director-in-chief of all that is musical in us. Hence I recognize in the purely technical processes of piano-playing no less a manifestation of the musical will. But a technique without a musical will is a faculty without a purpose, and when it becomes a purpose in itself, it can never serve art.” (My emphasis)

More on Technique:

“Technique represents the material side of art, as money represents the material side of life. By all means achieve a fine technique, but do not dream that you will be artistically happy with this alone.

“Technique is a chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what he needs at the right time for the right purpose.

“There is a technique which liberates and a technique which represses the artistic self. All technique ought to be a means of expression. It is perfectly possible to accumulate a technique that is next to useless.”

Action of the Wrist:

When playing scales and arpeggios:

“An occasional motion of the wrist , upward and downward is recommended. The arm should be held so that the wrist is on a line with it, not bent, and by concentrated thinking you should endeavor to transfer the display of force to the fingertips instead of holding tension in your arm. The way I suggest will lead to developing considerable force through the hand and fingers alone and leave the arm practically limp and loose.”

When Playing a Tremolo:
Action of the arm: distributed over the hand, wrist, underarm, and if necessary, the elbow.

Chords:

“Chords should always be played with a loose arm. Let the arm pull the hand above the keys and let both fall heavily upon them, preparing the fingers for their appropriate notes while still in the air and not, as many do, after falling down. This mode of touch produces greater tone-volume, causes least fatigue, and will have no bad after effects.”

The Thumb:

“The cause of the hand’s unrest in the passing of the thumb lies usually in transferring the thumb too late. The belatedness causes a jerky motion of the arm and imparts it to the hand.”

To Produce a Good Legato (connected touch)

“The most beautiful tone in legato style is ever produced by a ‘clinging and singing’ gliding of the fingers over the keys.”

Hofmann put his philosophy of piano playing into practice. With the sweep of his arms, suppleness of his wrists, gorgeous tonal palette and more, he became a towering performer of the 20th Century, with a legacy carried forward by his students, and generations that followed.