Heinrich Neuhaus and his ‘Art of Piano Playing’

6th November 2023 | Books, Inspirations, Teaching | 0 comments

At a book sale at the weekend I picked up a copy of Heinrich Neuhaus’s book The Art of Piano Playing. Neuhaus, who devoted the main part of his career to teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, was the teacher of Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu among others. His book, written in 1958, is a wonderful compression of his thoughts about music and musicianship, full of practical suggestions as well as overarching philosophy.

He often refers with admiration to particular pianists of his day, and it’s interesting to me that all of them are Russian. There must have been unending numbers of talented and serious-minded pianists passing through his class in Moscow. Richter is the one he most often praises for his instinctive grasp of the character of each piece he played, and for the powerful technique which allowed him to bring that character vividly to life.

In these days of accessibility and outreach, when we all bend over backwards to try and convince people that classical music is approachable, I found it rather refreshing to read Neuhaus’s words about piano literature:

‘I know too well how often even talented pupils, able to cope with their task, fail to realize with what tremendous manifestation of the human spirit they are dealing. Obviously this does not make for an artistic performance; in the best of cases they stagnate at the level of good workmanship.

‘….We know too well that the so-called great man is just as much a product of his time as any other man but we also know that if such a ‘product’ is called Pushkin or Mozart, he belongs to what is highest and most treasured among all our sinful earth has borne. Moreover, there is in the whole world nothing more complex than this ‘product’. It is more complex than the structure of the galaxies or of the atom’s nucleus.

‘In saying this, I want to emphasize the importance of impressing upon every pupil from the very beginning, just how precious is the stuff with which he will be dealing all his life if he really devotes himself to the service of art. I never fail to feel that I am in the presence of a miracle as I explain to my pupils the works of genius of the great musicians, and we strive together to the best of our abilities to fathom their depth, probe their mysteries, understand their structure and raise ourselves to their lofty heights. I know that it is this awareness of the miracle and the joy it brings – the joy of sensing it and knowing it for what it is – which gives a meaning to my life, which forces me as a teacher to work much harder than ‘staff regulations’ require and to give of myself without stinting.’

Bravo!

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