Piano Technique and Education with Wilhelm Backhaus

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Wilhelm Backhaus (referred to as 'Bachaus' on some of his records) is a German pianist. Although the adjective "Pedagogue" is included in searches on the Internet, he is not a "pedagogue" in his own words.

Born in Leipzig, Backhaus received his first piano lessons from his mother when he was 4 years old.

When he was found to be talented, he was enrolled in the Leipzig conservatory, then took private lessons from Eugen d'Albert in Frankfurt.

He listened to Brahms' piano concerto from his teacher Eugen d'Albert when he was only 9-10 years old. Brahms himself conducted the orchestra in this performance.

He went on his first concert tour at the age of 16 and won the first prize in the Anton Rubinstein competition in 1905, where Béla Bartók came second.

He is known for his interpretations of Beethoven and Brahms.


On Technical Problems

“How can I reproduce the effects I get from the piano?”

Young German artist Wilhelm Backhaus was sitting comfortably in his spacious Ritz-New York apartment when this question was asked.

As he spoke, he ran his fingers over the keys of the grand piano opposite him, sometimes pointing out important technical points.

“My response will be to be able to produce these effects by listening, criticizing, judging, and working until I get it where I think it should be. Then I can repeat the same effect as I want. I change these effects from time to time and try different ones.”

“I pay attention to certain points about the stool I will use on the piano. In general, I sit lower than many amateur pianists, who tend to sit high. I'd like to show you my piano stool level but it's in repair.

I'm old-fashioned enough to believe in the importance of scales and arpeggios. Today's performers are hardly interested in this detail, but I find these two concepts very important.

The fact that I find the scale studies important does not mean that I go over all of them every time; I choose a few and work on them.

I work in absurdly easy patterns. For example, crossing the hand over the thumb or vice versa, especially for arpeggios… A few doses of these studies bring the hands back to a dynamic level.”

Backhaus turned to the piano and demonstrated the principles he talked about very clearly at the keyboard.

“You see, I use my hand quite inclined on the keys” dedicate.   

“This reclined position is very comfortable. The hand becomes self-sufficient in arpeggio intervals and scale transitions of the thumb. Some may think I'm sticking my elbows out too much, I don't mind, that way the scales are even-toned and flowing.”

Technique Review

“Once or twice a week I review my technique and make sure everything is okay. Of course, scales and arpeggios take their share in this critical and evaluation. I use legato, staccato and other touching techniques while working. However, I prefer to play legato intensely. This one is more difficult and beautiful than the others.”

“Maybe I have a natural technique; Since I have an innate talent, I can have the technique easily and it stays with me.

Both Hofmann¹ as well as d'Albert² had such a natural technique. Of course, I do technical studies; I can't let it be wrong. I love the piano too much to ignore such an important part as technique. It is the responsibility of an artist to both himself and his audience to keep himself and his technique at the highest level. The artist must always give the best to his audience on stage.

Here's what I'm trying to say about my technique: I don't need a grueling work routine like the others. However, I do daily technical work, so I can travel a lot in a short time.

During a tour, I don't practice more than an hour a day technically.”

Mr. Backhaus continued his views with finger gestures:

“You will ask why I only lift my fingers where and when necessary, and never otherwise? Do you know Breithaupt³? Technical exercises by holding down some keys and raising others (pointing at the piano..) would not approve, but I consider it necessary.

As for the metronome, I find it useful for those who have not developed a sense of rhythm. There are times when I use it, especially to hear the difference between mechanical rhythm and musical rhythm – because the two are not always the same.

Do you know Brahms' technical exercises? I like them very much, I always carry them with me. I think they are perfect.

You asked about octaves. They are very easy for me right now, but I don't remember the days when it was difficult. Your only alternative is to constantly work on them. It is difficult for small hands, so be careful not to cause permanent damage to your hands with long work.

Proceed little by little but with frequent practice. You will see the result in six months. Rowing will help strong wrists for octaves.”

“You asked how I got the power. A very difficult question. One little child learns to swim quickly, while another takes a long time, so why? The first answer that comes to mind is 'natural talent'. I'm talking about quality power. Not physical brute force. That power produced as a result of being flexible and comfortable at the piano.

Let's take the issue of speed. I've never done any special work for speed. I rarely do my work at high speed. I work slowly, trying to tone and produce a clean sound. When I followed this path, whenever I needed speed, I had no problem with it.

“I am not a pedagogue, nor do I have time to be a teacher. My own work and concerts take up all my time. In my opinion, a pianist cannot be both a successful teacher and a successful interpreter. If I were teaching, I should have a disposition to analyze and criticize the works of others. However, I am not a critic or teacher, so how I make my effects is not always a question I can answer.

As the old German song sang "I play like a bird's song"

Modern Piano Music

“Your MacDowell has composed some beautiful pieces. I know his concerto in D minor, a few short pieces and sonatas. It is true that there are not many modern piano concertos.

Rachmaninoff, MacDowell, Rubinstein's D minor and Saint-Saens' G minor.

Neitzel ⁴ has an interesting concerto. I don't remember it being played in America, but I do. This concerto is a beautiful piece. The composer conveyed all his feelings, thoughts and feelings.”

A Brahms Concerto

While listening to Brahms' second poignant concerto, played by Mr. Backhaus with the New York Symphony, a memory came to mind from my student days in Berlin.

This was a private concert. The guest of honor and soloist was Brahms himself! Von Bülow conducted the orchestra, Brahms played his second concerto.

The Hamburg master was not a virtuoso, his touch on the piano was dry and harsh. However, he played with dexterity that deserves applause. He was a catchy figure with his big head and long beard at the piano.

Of course, his performance created a great excitement and interest, the shouts and applause never stopped.

I told this memory to Mr. Backhaus;

“I played my first Brahms concerto in Vienna under Hans Richter. He also wanted me to work on this work. Americans were just beginning to admire and listen to Brahms. Richter's contribution to this is enormous.

When working on such a piece, you need to know the notes of the whole orchestra, not just my own score. When I'm working on a concerto, I always work on the whole orchestration so I know everything in front of me."

¹ Josef Casimir Hofmann [1876-1957]

² Eugen d'Albert [1864-1932]

³ Rudolf Maria Breithaupt [1873-1945]

⁴ Otto Neitzel [1852-1920]

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