I had a wonderful friend, a great lady who grew up in Edwardian England. She loved to recall anecdotes from her childhood, many of which went into the folkore of her family, and turned up over the following eighty years as suitable quotes for many occasions.
One such was the following: a parliamentary candidate came to her family’s town and made a speech in the local hall. When asked a curly question, he responded : “We have a booklet.” ‘We have a booklet’ became the oft-repeated response to difficult questions evermore.
I am reminded of this by a question from my dear friend Zuhair who writes that he wishes to learn ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt‘ from Annees de Pelerinage by Liszt, and is wondering how to approach the first bar. The whole piece is very simple, hauntingly beautiful as Zuhair says, but the first bar does pose a technical question – one in Zuhair’s mind of ‘stretch’ – “my hands are relatively small (maximum stretch = one ninth), making it awkward for me to play the VERY first, arpeggiated, chord (A flat – E flat – C). So I thought it may not be too much of a crime if I omitted the A flat and E flat of this first chord and played only the C of that triplet?”
This is a good question, and one on which I would like to expostulate, as it lies at the heart of all piano technique. It is at the heart of my book on piano technique (‘We have a book’), entitled ‘Mastering the Chopin Etudes‘. Zuhair read this book avidly some time ago, and his response indicated that he had understood its main thesis so well that I placed a couple of his comments on my website (under E-books – ‘Chopin Etudes’), but I can understand the difficulty involved.
I took the Etudes of Chopin as the framework for an examination of piano technique, but I could just as well have used the Etudes of Liszt, Sonatas of Beethoven, Preludes of Rachmaninoff – anything at all (even Bach, though there is little there in the way of chords, and certainly not octave passages).
The reason I could have used anything is that it all boils down to a handful of basic principles - only one handful. And that handful in turn boils down to just one principle – The Philosopher’s Stone of piano technique, you might call it. It’s like Abraham’s revelation in reverse: in order to make it clearer (i.e. that the Universe is bigger than us and our personal desires), Moses separated it into 10 clear rules, but they all really boil down to the same thing, which Abraham came up with in the first place. In turn, Jesus took the ten rules – and those 10 were subdivided into 613 smaller ones (‘we have a book’) – and went back to one basic priniciple: Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself. Get that right and you’ve got everything right.
The basic principle of piano technique (and all physical activity) is: Keep the natural position of the body at all times. The ‘natural position’ means: that in which it finds itself when completely at rest. If we bend over in a way that strains the back, we are putting it in an ‘unnatural’ position. And if we do it repeatedly, we will soon injure ourselves. You get the idea.
The natural position of the hand – that in which it falls when dropped like a dead thing, the way the paw of a cat or dog falls limply when you lift it then take the support away – is the distance of between a 5th or a 6th (a 6th for very large hands), i.e. no more than five or six adjacent notes. Anything more than this span and you have to STRETCH the hand. Stretching the hand repeatedly is like bending the back painfully repeatedly.
This principle is so hard to understand and assimilate because we do seemingly have to stretch ourselves in the course of most, if not all, physical activity: walking or running, bending over to tie our shoe-laces, reaching over to the glove-box from the driver’s seat. And playing a keyboard, which is five feet in width, with an at-rest arm-span no wider than the width of our bodies, and chords and arpeggios of an octave or more with a hand-span no greater than 5-6 notes.
The principle is: Don’t Stretch, but instead move the whole hand, or arm, or body, as gently and smoothly as possible from one position to the next.
Case in point: the first bar of Au lac de Wallenstadt. The first chord, which consists of three notes spread over a tenth (i.e. ten notes) should not be ‘stretched’ in any way – either in whole or in part. As it happens, Liszt indicates that this chord should be arpeggiated, but even if he didn’t, we should still approach this as a chord which has to be played in two go’s, with the hand moving from the first bit to the next, easily, gently, and without stretching. You leave the first bit behind, and don’t worry about tying it to the next bit, physically or acoustically. It will be more or less non-legato, but that’s fine, even preferable, because the amount of reverberation going on (there’s always reverberation) will cover the gap.
Next point (much more serious than Zuhair’s concern about the first chord):
At the end of this first bar, and in every bar henceforth – as this figure repeats constantly as an ostinato accompaniment – the last note asks to be played by the second finger, as that finger lies in-between the third finger, which played the preceding note, and the thumb, which plays the following note – the first note of the next bar. Wrong! By playing the last note of each bar with the index finger we unavoidably stretch the hand at the junction of the third finger and the index finger - very strainingly on this ligament. The interval of a fourth simply cannot be handled by 3-2 without stretching this ligament to an nearly injurious level. And this motif is repeated in every bar of this piece! Just imagine what’s going to happen.
Although it seems as if you are ‘cheating’ the legato demand of this accompaniment, you must play this last note in each bar with the thumb. 3 – 1 on an interval of a fourth is not a stetch or a strain at all. It is in fact it is the most natural distance for the third finger and the thumb - which, if allowed to fall with no pressure or effort whatsoever, will fall exactly on an interval of a fourth.
The ‘cheating’ that may seem worrisome would, of course, be at the next juncture – from the last note in each bar to the first note of the next bar – which also has to be played by the thumb. The thumb has to hop over in each case – in every single bar - from one note to the next. If you don’t hop nervously or jarringly, and just move the hand gently and easily from each thumb-played last note to the next, thumb-played, first note, the elision will be smooth. Smoother than smooth. Acoustically as well as physically it will be ideal because the hand will remain at the same angle in the course of this join; with the stretched 3 – 2 version, the hand would twist around in order to accomplish the stretched and strained passage, and this twisting would interfere with the sound, causing a ‘gulp’ every time.
Smoothness is of the essence in this accompaniment, which creates a backdrop of the gentle murmur of lapping water (smoothness is always of the essence):
Au lac de Wallenstadt (At Lake Wallenstadt) – Liszt’s caption is from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto 3 LXVIII – CV):
“Thy contrasted lake
With the wild world I dwell in is a thing
Which warns me, with its stillness, to forsake
Earth’s troubled waters for a purer spring.”
P.S. The lady I spoke of at the beginning has been immortalized in ‘Rose and Henri‘, available from email@example.com