Piano Technique and Education with Hans von Bülow


Those who had the chance to watch Hans von Bülow on his American tour in 1876 listened to a very convincing piano performance.

Just a few years ago, in 1872, Rubinstein had arrived and conquered the continent. Its magnificent soft playing, powerful crescendos and whispering diminuendos, generous tonal richness. It was all in the nature of an enlightenment. The American audience admired him immensely.

In Von Bülow, on the other hand, they found a performance with a different talent and quality. He had such a crisp touch that critics called him "cold", and a careful precision in minute detail.

The artist had a deep-thinking and analytical nature. Every note, theme, and expression was in his playing in perfect order and could not be skipped.

Those returning from the Rubinstein recital are in a calm, impressed, inspired and enthusiastic mood, but are reluctant to open the covers of their pianos.

Those who listen to Von Bülow, on the other hand, rush to their pianos and want to produce the very logical and clear tones they have just heard, with the same accessibility and simplicity.

Playing the piano shouldn't be that hard!

In his own words: “Anyone can play the piano like me. The only rule is that you can give the time and work that I gave you. Listen and I will teach you!”

Von Bülow was a well-informed student of Beethoven's works. Sonatas in his edition contained profound teaching, clarity and precision in the smallest detail.  

In his recitals in America, he worked hard to make these works more understood. Of course, he did not neglect Chopin either.

Even if the way the Great Pole recited his music was somewhat lacking in emotion, his performance was always logical, healthy, and beautiful.

Towards the end of the season in the 80s, it was announced that von Bülow would come to Berlin to give a master class at the Klindworth Conservatory. It was quite an extraordinary opportunity to be able to take lessons from a famous musician and pedagogue at this level; Twenty pianists attended.

Carl Klindworth was a pianist, teacher, critic and editor of Chopin-Beethoven. He later became the school's director.

Von Bülow's suggestion of the Klindworth edition of Beethoven, although many of his edits were his own, proved that the two were close friends.

On a bright May morning, the director entered the classroom and introduced his guest. The students met von Bülow, who was of medium height, with glasses and a large intellectual head.

They worked together with the class four days a week. Lessons lasted from 09:00 in the morning until 13:00 in the afternoon. Only Brahms, Raff, Mendelssohn and Liszt were taught and played in the lessons.

The most useful times for the students in the past hours were the suggestions of this great pedagogue on technique, interpretation and music.

Von Bülow spoke quickly and in a tense tone. He did not take into account the presence of American and English pianists among the participants, sometimes speaking in German.

While teaching, he sought the quality of his playing style in the student as well. A clear touch, precision in interpretation and performance, correct finger numbers… All these were his first conditions.

He was very strict about the execution of the composer's ideas and feelings. He would never allow free interpretation except on the written note.

He had a very honest and sincere attitude towards quality and beautiful music composers. His eyes would shine as if he had sinned at the slightest flexibility or modification in the notes.

He was open to sentence interpretations and signs, which he believed would shed light on the composer's intended meaning.

In everything he said, he would make him feel that he understood the subject in an intellectual context, and he would seek the same intellectual perception in the student.

In this context, the slightest mistake would anger the sensitive and nervous teacher and cause him to walk around the class with hasty steps. In this mood, the smallest mistakes of the student were examined with a magnifying glass, and successful sections were dwarfed!

He was not a teacher who was very obsessed with his technique; Of course, those who attended the master class were expected to be at a certain level. His only concern was that the composition should have a clean content and interpretation.

In the lessons, he would show the independent passages of the piece by playing both for the student and with the student, but he would never play the whole piece.

One of the most remarkable qualities of this unconventional teacher was his memory. He played almost all works for the piano from his memory and without notes.

He often repeated his view that "a pianist who cannot play at least two hundred pieces from his heart can never be an artist".

He was someone who did this not only for piano but also for orchestral works.

While he was the conductor of the famous orchestra of the period, “Meiningen”, von Bülow did not use musical notes for any of the works he directed. It was a skill that was highly appreciated at the time.

The results from the Berlin master class can be listed as follows:

“To play correctly is of primary importance, to play well is of secondary importance. A healthy touch is the main issue. Some pianists play the piano as if their fingers are migraines and their wrists are rheumatic. Never play with the edge of the fingers; such presses produce powerless and uncertain results.”

“Clarity is the first virtue we should have. Every measure, line, and note should be analyzed in terms of touch, tone, and content.”

“The first person to listen to you will be yourself; Being your own critic is very difficult but necessary.”

“When a new theme comes along, you should be able to express it simply to the listener. Glory and brilliance depend on clarity, not speed. Anything that is not clear and intelligible cannot shine.”

“Use your strongest fingers in important passages, eliminating the fourth finger as much as possible”

“A great scale play shouldn't be too fast. Each note should be round and not too legato. Mezzo-Legato is a more accurate touch.”

“One of the most difficult situations in rhythm is when two notes coincide with a trilogy. Scales can also be practiced by playing two of the three notes to replace them.

We have to make sure everything sounds good in a way that is admirable. Desonance chords should be practiced until they sound good. Remember the instruments in the orchestra. Each has a different color tone, try to imitate them on the piano. Consider that each octave is in different colors, and use these colors and tones in your performance.

If Bülow's holy trinity is Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, then to add a fourth, it would certainly be Liszt.

The first day program included Liszt's scherzo, marches and ballads. He advised the pianist playing the Scherzo to work the octaves with a flexible and light wrist.

He recommended Kullak's book “Octave School – 3”. He particularly emphasized passing the easy exercises and spending time over the difficult ones.

Années de pèlerinage (F.Liszt) attracted a lot of attention during the lectures. Les cloches, Chasse neige,Eglogue,Cloches de Geneva,Eroica,Feux follets and Mazeppa. The Great Polonez (Mi) and two etudes were also played. “It has been 30 years since these works were composed, but people are only just beginning to understand their value,” Bülow complained to the students.

“Don't our lips move differently for each word as we speak? So when playing certain melodies, you should raise your hand after each note. In addition, in order for the piano to speak clearly, one should be very careful while using the pedals.

His comment, “Those who want to learn the place of legato and staccato in our lives, should go to the zoos and watch the kangaroos” brought smiles to the faces of the students.

If only a picture could be drawn expressing these lessons…

This music room in Berlin, all its large windows open towards the garden… Two grand pianos in the middle, the May sun seeps into the room in beams…

Tense students sitting side by side on one side, our little doctor on the other… He walks around the hall with small and hasty steps. Sometimes he tells first, then he expresses himself by sitting at the piano.

These moments have been a lifetime experience for all pianists who had the chance to attend that master class.

Bülow's essentials can be listed as follows; Artistic accuracy, quality in interpretation and precision in notes.


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