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#1963654 - 09/24/12 12:18 PM Is the word 'musical' really code for 'technically lacking'?  
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I finally had the pleasure of reading Harold C. Schonberg's "Horowitz: His Life and Music" while on vacation. Early in the book Schonberg quotes Horowitz regarding Alfred Cortot's playing.

Quote
His Chopin and Schumann were for me the best. His Schumann was fantastic. He had good taste and a good but not great technique, though he lost his technique in the last years of his life. He played a lot on the radio. I remember hearing him in many things. Once I visited Rachmaninoff in Switzerland at his house. When I walked in he was laughing so loud his false teeth were coming out. I asked him what was so funny.

"I have just been listening on the radio to Cortot playing all the Chopin etudes."

"That was so good?" I asked.

"Wonderful. But, you know, the most difficult of the etudes were the ones he played most 'musical.'"

Schonberg himself then goes on to elaborate on Rachmaninoff's use of the word "musical".
Quote
The word "musical" applied by virtuoso pianists to other pianists is often a code word meaning good musician, not so good fingers or, in baseball lingo, good field, no hit. Rachmaninoff was so amused because Cortot covered up his technical deficiencies by playing slowly in the hard passages. Critics and connoisseurs, taken in, automatically hailed the slow passages as "musical." So the more Cortot slowed up, the more everybody would say "How musical!" (When Horowitz told the story a sour look came over his face. "Today," he said, "that has become the thing. Everybody plays slow, pianists, singers, everybody, and that shows how musical they are. It is crazy, I tell you.")

So what think you? Were Rach and Horowitz being a bit smug, given their own prodigious technical abilities? Are you able to determine whether a pianist is playing a difficult passage slowly because he must, or because he's made a musical choice? Does it even matter to you? Do you agree with VH's comment (made many years ago) that everybody's playing slow? If you do, do you think this trend continues today?

I would find comments on any of the above most interesting. But, as always, feel free to digress. smile

Last edited by Old Man; 09/24/12 01:22 PM.
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#1963663 - 09/24/12 12:35 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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I disagree with how you seem to be reading these things. I don't think there's anything at all in there that suggests they were thinking of "musical" as "code" for "technically inept," and I really don't see how you're getting what you seem to be getting.

I can also say that I've never had any hint of the word being used that way in anything I've heard or read. Sometimes I've heard the word "musical" said (and used it myself) to describe someone who is very musical despite obvious limitations of technique, usually because of not having had much training or serious study in playing the piano, but it wasn't code; it was a recognition of the person's fine musicianship. And I've certainly heard a lot of technically proficient pianists (especially amateur) rightly described as not-very-musical. But either thing being a code word or euphemism for the other? Not as far as I've ever come across. I think the words are generally used for just what they are, and pretty fairly.


P.S. Pardon this digression.... grin ....just a hint about "quotation marks" in titles of threads:

It's best to avoid them if possible, because they interfere with the navigation of the thread. Usually when we click on a thread, we are put to where the new posts begin, but if the thread title has quotation marks, we always keep getting put to the first post of the thread. (I think Damon was the one who figured out that quotation marks are the culprit; there might also be other things that can interfere with the navigation but "quotes" is the only thing I know of specifically.) The way I get around this is by using 'single quotes' in the titles. That doesn't seem to mess up the navigation. Why "quotes" would do so, I have no idea, but they do. smile

Last edited by Mark_C; 09/24/12 12:45 PM.
#1963674 - 09/24/12 12:48 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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I agree that people usually refer people who have good ideas and musical but lacking of strong technique as musical pianists. Most of the people will just stop at that, and will not say "BUT", because people do not want to sound negative. People refer to a person who is strong technically and musically etc as good pianist/excellent pianist, and very rarely do they add additional qualifications in their statement.

#1963680 - 09/24/12 01:02 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Mark_C]  
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Originally Posted by Mark_C
I disagree with how you seem to be reading these things. I don't think there's anything at all in there that suggests they were thinking of "musical" as "code" for "technically inept," and I really don't see how you're getting what you seem to be getting.

Mark, I'm not the one "reading these things" this way. I'm quoting Harold Schonberg, who's explaining to the reader how the term was used among "virtuoso pianists", as he calls them. In fact, I was quite taken aback by Schonberg's statement, and was simply interested in learning how today's pianists would react to his description. (Although the book's not that old. Published in 1992).

Personally, I'm much more inclined to be put off by works that are played too fast, rather than too slow. I prefer to have a chance to savor the melodies and harmonies within music (within certain acceptable tempo boundaries, of course), and too fast a reading can sometimes obscure the true beauty of a passage. So you would never hear me saying that "musical" was code for "technically deficient". But Schonberg (and apparently Rach and VH) did. And I found that interesting.

Last edited by Old Man; 09/24/12 04:43 PM.
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#1963686 - 09/24/12 01:06 PM Re: Is the word musical really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Mark_C]  
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Originally Posted by Mark_C

P.S. Pardon this digression.... grin ....just a hint about "quotation marks" in titles of threads:

It's best to avoid them if possible, because they interfere with the navigation of the thread. Usually when we click on a thread, we are put to where the new posts begin, but if the thread title has quotation marks, we always keep getting put to the first post of the thread. (I think Damon was the one who figured out that quotation marks are the culprit; there might also be other things that can interfere with the navigation but "quotes" is the only thing I know of specifically.) The way I get around this is by using 'single quotes' in the titles. That doesn't seem to mess up the navigation. Why "quotes" would do so, I have no idea, but they do. smile

Ooops. Sorry, Mark, I just noticed your addendum. Didn't know that quotes would cause these problems. I wish there was a way to edit the Subject. Thanks for the heads up.

#1963689 - 09/24/12 01:11 PM Re: Is the word musical really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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I get told all the time that my playing is musical and that I have good interpretive skills, and to be honest, I've always just assumed they meant my technique was lacking! (and it is)

#1963691 - 09/24/12 01:16 PM Re: Is the word musical really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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Originally Posted by Old Man
[...] I wish there was a way to edit the Subject. [...]


If you are still within the time allowed to edit your post, you can also edit the title.

Regards,


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#1963692 - 09/24/12 01:17 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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Originally Posted by Old Man
....I'm not the one "reading these things" this way. I'm quoting Harold Schonberg, who's explaining to the reader how the term was used among "virtuoso pianists", as he calls them....

Oh OK -- I had sort of missed this part in the quote from him:

"The word "musical" applied by virtuoso pianists to other pianists is often a code word meaning good musician, not so good fingers...."

....and so that means I'm disagreeing with him!
Which I don't do lightly because I was and am a huge fan of his.

I simply don't read the quote that he uses as his data base as suggesting this, and as I said, I've never experienced anything suggesting that kind of usage.

Quote
In fact, I was quite taken aback by Schonberg's statement, and was simply interested in learning how today's pianists would react to his description. (Although the book's not that old. Published in 1992).

BTW the original edition (which I think would have had the same thing) is about 30 years older. And BTW I'd guess that "yesterday's" pianists would have felt he was mistaken too.

Quote
....you would never hear me saying that "musical" was code for "technically deficient". But Schonberg (and apparently Rach and VL) did....

I don't see that they did, and I don't think they did, at all.


BTW, I'm pretty sure you CAN go back and edit the thread title! (As I see Bruce also said.)

edit: Nice -- you did it! smile

Last edited by Mark_C; 09/24/12 01:24 PM.
#1963705 - 09/24/12 01:47 PM Re: Is the word 'musical' really code for 'technically lacking'? [Re: Old Man]  
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Looking at what Rachmaninoff and Horowitz said, and why I think Schonberg was mistaken:

First, the quote from Horowitz:

Once I visited Rachmaninoff in Switzerland at his house. When I walked in he was laughing so loud his false teeth were coming out. I asked him what was so funny.

"I have just been listening on the radio to Cortot playing all the Chopin etudes."

"That was so good?" I asked.

"Wonderful. But, you know, the most difficult of the etudes were the ones he played most 'musical.'"


Later, Schonberg's comment:

....Rachmaninoff was so amused because Cortot covered up his technical deficiencies by playing slowly in the hard passages. Critics and connoisseurs, taken in, automatically hailed the slow passages as "musical." So the more Cortot slowed up, the more everybody would say "How musical!" (When Horowitz told the story a sour look came over his face. "Today," he said, "that has become the thing. Everybody plays slow, pianists, singers, everybody, and that shows how musical they are. It is crazy, I tell you.")


That first story can be seen various ways, none of which IMO much suggest what Schonberg is gathering. I think mainly Rachmaninoff was just having fun with it and getting off a good line -- yes indeed, involving some disdain about Cortot's sloppiness but little if anything more in terms of any specifics about reality. (And BTW, a little off the subject but I also disagree with what seems to be a basic premise here about Cortot's "technique": I don't agree that his technique was deficient; what was deficient was his practicing, and so during much of career his playing was full of inaccuracies. That's different. In fact, Schonberg talks in the book about this being the basic thing, but I guess he either forgot about that grin or just didn't recognize this distinction.)

About that last quote from Horowitz: I've seen that quote in various places and may have also seen video of Horowitz saying basically the same thing -- and I don't think the quote had anything at all to do with technical deficiencies on anyone's part. Of course I see how the quote can seem to be about this same thing, especially in the context where it's being put here -- and in some instances Horowitz may have even said it consecutively with some of the other stuff, but IMO in that case it would have been a slight digression from the other thing.

He was just expressing his feeling about how in some circles, slow playing sometimes seemed automatically to be equated with greater musicianship (or really more accurately, profundity), which did go on for a time -- especially, I think, among "the Russians" and their devotees, and perhaps especially in Schubert and Beethoven, and especially in slower movements -- and which had nothing to do with technical deficiency.

#1963707 - 09/24/12 01:49 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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Horowitz of course said that if you want to be more than a virtuoso [= musical?] , then you have first to be a virtuoso.

I'm with Lady Chen re my own playing: hopefully musical, because I'm certainly not a virtuoso. Given the choice between the two, I'd rather be regarded as musical but with limited technique, than having a marvellous technique but not a great deal of musicianship.

Then again, I may be neither.

Re professionals, I'd also rather hear a professional pianist thrill me musically with a few wrong notes or signs of strain (rare these days), than a flawless performance that leaves me cold. I also prefer to hear live performances than recordings.

On topic (?), I imagine that some virtuosi may look down on those with lesser techniques and damn them with the faint praise of being musical.

Re Cortot, nearly on topic, one of his pupils despaired of playing Cortot's piano musically as it was in such a bad state, then listened in amazement as Cortot conjured beautiful sounds from it.

#1963718 - 09/24/12 02:11 PM Re: Is the word 'musical' really code for 'technically lacking'? [Re: Old Man]  
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Another key point is that good technique and musicality are intimately intertwined. Good technique is often needed not just to play the notes correctly and at the right tempo but also to play in a musically expressive way. When you hear a really good pianist play a piece, a key reason the pianist can make the piece sound very expressive musically is a result of having superior technique and a proper knowledge of how to apply it to the piece at hand.

#1963724 - 09/24/12 02:21 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: sandalholme]  
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Originally Posted by sandalholme


Re professionals, I'd also rather hear a professional pianist thrill me musically with a few wrong notes or signs of strain (rare these days), than a flawless performance that leaves me cold. I also prefer to hear live performances than recordings.


Professionals do not do unprofessional things such as strain, uneveness. People can only play musically when they play within their capacity. If one struggles with the technique, one will have problem to play musically. Don't consider small mistakes here and there as technical problems. It is just an unclean playing.

My teacher always points out the unprofessional things in my playing, and tries to get rid of them if possible. He always said those unprofessional things that most likely prevent me/people to advance to the second round. Incorrect musically is a debatable thing but unprofessional technique (uneven scale, dirty pedalling,etc) is fact.

#1963726 - 09/24/12 02:22 PM Re: Is the word 'musical' really code for 'technically lacking'? [Re: Old Man]  
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Not everyone use "musical" in the same way. In the case of the Horowitz quotes, I'd guess he was just throwing in a little jab at Cortot in his line about the Chopin Etudes. For some, "musical" implies perhaps lacking in technique and for others this is not the case.

What I find annoying is the opposite side of the coin where many seem to imply or assume that having fantastic technique means a lack of musicality.

I don't think there were any great pianists who didn't have an enormously high degree of both technical ability and musicality. I'm not that interested in whether a pianist is a 10 on the technical scale or only a 9.5.

#1963731 - 09/24/12 02:35 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Mark_C]  
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Originally Posted by Mark_C


P.S. Pardon this digression.... grin ....just a hint about "quotation marks" in titles of threads:

It's best to avoid them if possible, because they interfere with the navigation of the thread. Usually when we click on a thread, we are put to where the new posts begin, but if the thread title has quotation marks, we always keep getting put to the first post of the thread. (I think Damon was the one who figured out that quotation marks are the culprit; there might also be other things that can interfere with the navigation but "quotes" is the only thing I know of specifically.) The way I get around this is by using 'single quotes' in the titles. That doesn't seem to mess up the navigation. Why "quotes" would do so, I have no idea, but they do. smile

Pardon this perpetuation of a digression...

This thread navigates perfectly for me. I think this theory of quotation marks needs more work.

I have noticed that some threads don't navigate properly but I've never noticed a common factor between them. I think it's some kind of database error when the post is first submitted.

#1963733 - 09/24/12 02:38 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Otis S]  
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Originally Posted by Otis S
Another key point is that good technique and musicality are intimately intertwined. Good technique is often needed not just to play the notes correctly and at the right tempo but also to play in a musically expressive way. When you hear a really good pianist play a piece, a key reason the pianist can make the piece sound very expressive musically is a result of having superior technique and a proper knowledge of how to apply it to the piece at hand.


This is key to me. You need to be musical to be able to hear how a phrase should sound in your mind's ear, but if you don't have the technique to bring what's in your head into reality and execute it physically, no one is going to know how musical you are.

#1963734 - 09/24/12 02:38 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: ando]  
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Originally Posted by ando
....This thread navigates perfectly for me. I think this theory of quotation marks needs more work.

No it doesn't -- you missed some stuff here. ha


(It's working right because he fixed it after I pointed it out.)

#1963768 - 09/24/12 03:39 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Mark_C]  
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Originally Posted by Mark_C
Originally Posted by ando
....This thread navigates perfectly for me. I think this theory of quotation marks needs more work.

No it doesn't -- you missed some stuff here. ha


(It's working right because he fixed it after I pointed it out.)

You're right. I did. Thanks to BruceD and yourself.

#1963772 - 09/24/12 03:47 PM Re: Is the word 'musical' really code for 'technically lacking'? [Re: Mark_C]  
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Originally Posted by Mark_C

About that last quote from Horowitz: I've seen that quote in various places and may have also seen video of Horowitz saying basically the same thing -- and I don't think the quote had anything at all to do with technical deficiencies on anyone's part. Of course I see how the quote can seem to be about this same thing, especially in the context where it's being put here -- and in some instances Horowitz may have even said it consecutively with some of the other stuff, but IMO in that case it would have been a slight digression from the other thing.

I agree. I shouldn't have described Horowitz as equating slower playing with deficiencies. But I do think one could infer that, based on Schonberg's arrangement of these various quotes plus his own commentary. This led me to think that perhaps he (Schonberg) had some firsthand knowledge about the prevailing attitudes of that time.

#1963777 - 09/24/12 04:00 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: LadyChen]  
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Originally Posted by LadyChen
This is key to me. You need to be musical to be able to hear how a phrase should sound in your mind's ear, but if you don't have the technique to bring what's in your head into reality and execute it physically, no one is going to know how musical you are.


One may not be technically good, but he is able to kind of expressing good musicallity and beautiful ideas, and people are usually able to notice the intentions. This is when people will say that the playing is musical....blah...blah..blah. Basically, they are saying we understand your intentions but you just cannot do it well. The good thing is that people still can recognize the intention. It is much better than if people say that we have no musical sense whatsoever!

#1963791 - 09/24/12 04:28 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: LadyChen]  
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Originally Posted by LadyChen
This is key to me. You need to be musical to be able to hear how a phrase should sound in your mind's ear, but if you don't have the technique to bring what's in your head into reality and execute it physically, no one is going to know how musical you are.

You describe me perfectly. Everything remains in my "mind's ear" but can go no farther. But I swear I'm a very musical guy. grin

Seriously, I sometimes read in this forum how the technical aspects are not what makes a piece difficult, but playing it in a musical way. Bah, humbug! Wouldn't I love to be able to play the Chopin etudes, only to sweat bullets over "Der Dichter Spricht" because I must make it "musical". I'd give away all my earthly possessions to be plagued with such a problem.

#1963804 - 09/24/12 04:56 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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Haha, I'm with you, Old Man!

#1963826 - 09/24/12 05:38 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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If a very high level technique was necessary to play musically, then no one could use "musical" to describe someone with musical understanding but less than ideal technique.

I think one can judge a person's musicality quite well even if they're technique is lacking. This is not the same as saying someone lacking in technique will be able to perfectly express all their musical ideas. Nor is it the same thing as saying that if someone's technical level is tremendously below what's needed for a particular piece, one will be able to judge their musicality.

I think Cortot is a good example of all this. Most seem to agree that he had very good technique, but due to lack of practice or the smaller emphasis on note perfect playing during his lifetime his recordings can show some technical weaknesses. But most praise his musicality very highly.

If course, if a beginner is attempting to play the Liszt Sonata, one probably wouldn't be able to judge their musicality.


Last edited by pianoloverus; 09/24/12 05:46 PM.
#1963841 - 09/24/12 05:52 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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If the statement

"If a person is musical, then he is technically deficient."

was true, then the statement

"If a person is not technically deficient, then he is not musical"
would also have to be true.

I don't think either statement is true.


#1963849 - 09/24/12 05:59 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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Originally Posted by Old Man
Wouldn't I love to be able to play the Chopin etudes, only to sweat bullets over "Der Dichter Spricht" because I must make it "musical". I'd give away all my earthly possessions to be plagued with such a problem.


The Chopin Etudes require great musicality in addition to superb technique to really sound good. Many of them (if not all) arguably present more musical difficulties than Schumann's "Der Dichter Spricht". A purely mechanical interpretation playing all of the notes correctly at a fast tempo will not result in a satisfying performance of the Chopin etudes. A key aspect that makes Chopin's etudes so amazing is that Mr. Chopin was able to produce great music out of a form that had previously focused almost purely on building technique. This is particularly evident when one compares Chopin's etudes to those of Carl Czerny, for example.

Of course, there are also many great works by Schumann (e.g. Fantasie, Carnaval, piano concerto, etc.) which require both great technique and a good musical sense to play well.

#1963878 - 09/24/12 06:44 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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I agree with the thoughts presented by the original poster. Many of us tend to fixate on the coldness of technically perfect artistry (Pollini et al.) while longing for just a tad more imperfection which is often perceived as musicality.

It's more than just rubato that we want, although we are acutely aware of imperfections in tempi.

Somehow emotions are heightened by imperfections. A little bit is necessary for the most satisfying performances while too many make for an abject failure.

It's a fine line.

I pity and admire those pianists who have found a happy medium. They are putting in long hours, for sure--a lot more than what I can put in.

Last edited by dsch; 09/24/12 06:45 PM.
#1963891 - 09/24/12 07:03 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: dsch]  
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Originally Posted by dsch
I agree with the thoughts presented by the original poster. Many of us tend to fixate on the coldness of technically perfect artistry (Pollini et al.) while longing for just a tad more imperfection which is often perceived as musicality.
I don't think technical perfection implies coldness. Most, or at least the big majority of the great pianists were technically perfect or close to it and not all of them were I'd call cold.

I do think that technical perfection combined with an apparent effortlessness can, for me, sometimes give the impression of coldness.

Last edited by pianoloverus; 09/24/12 07:06 PM.
#1963894 - 09/24/12 07:12 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: pianoloverus]  
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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
....I think Cortot is a good example of all this. Most seem to agree that he had very good technique, but due to lack of practice or the smaller emphasis on note perfect playing during his lifetime his recordings can show some technical weaknesses....

I'm glad to see you saying that (it's what I think), but my impression has been that it's a pretty widespread (mistaken) belief that his technique wasn't very good.

Quote
If the statement
"If a person is musical, then he is technically deficient."
was true, then the statement
"If a person is not technically deficient, then he is not musical"
would also have to be true....
I don't think either statement is true.

Cool -- the contrapositive!! smile

I don't think I've come across anyone giving such an example since high school.

Apparently it's such a rare term (oddly) that my Firefox spell-check doesn't even recognize it!

#1963909 - 09/24/12 07:51 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Old Man]  
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Going back to the original post, sounds to me like Horowitz was being ironic. Simple as that.

Tomasino

Last edited by tomasino; 09/24/12 07:59 PM.

"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do so with all thy might." Ecclesiastes 9:10

#1963942 - 09/24/12 09:24 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: pianoloverus]  
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Old Man Offline
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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I don't think technical perfection implies coldness. Most, or at least the big majority of the great pianists were technically perfect or close to it and not all of them were I'd call cold.

I do think that technical perfection combined with an apparent effortlessness can, for me, sometimes give the impression of coldness.

I couldn't agree more.

A perfect example being Mr. Horowitz himself. My favorite pianist of all time. Yet, some critics (including my parents) termed him a mere technical wizard, a machine. I never understood that, even as a teenager. His music making spoke to me more profoundly than anyone else's. Not that his contemporaries were any less "great", but personally, I found his playing to be as near perfect as we mortals can aspire to, both technically and musically.

#1963959 - 09/24/12 10:13 PM Re: Is the word "musical" really code for "technically inept"? [Re: Otis S]  
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Originally Posted by Otis S
Originally Posted by Old Man
Wouldn't I love to be able to play the Chopin etudes, only to sweat bullets over "Der Dichter Spricht" because I must make it "musical". I'd give away all my earthly possessions to be plagued with such a problem.


The Chopin Etudes require great musicality in addition to superb technique to really sound good. Many of them (if not all) arguably present more musical difficulties than Schumann's "Der Dichter Spricht". A purely mechanical interpretation playing all of the notes correctly at a fast tempo will not result in a satisfying performance of the Chopin etudes. A key aspect that makes Chopin's etudes so amazing is that Mr. Chopin was able to produce great music out of a form that had previously focused almost purely on building technique. This is particularly evident when one compares Chopin's etudes to those of Carl Czerny, for example.

Of course, there are also many great works by Schumann (e.g. Fantasie, Carnaval, piano concerto, etc.) which require both great technique and a good musical sense to play well.

Well, actually I was musing out loud, expressing my envy for those of you who have the luxury of even considering things like interpretation, while I'm still stuck on how where to place my posterior on the bench. grin

But I agree with you about the Chopin etudes. They are musical masterpieces unto themselves, and not mere studies, or exercises. And I thought that long before I ever discovered what the word "etude" meant.

I might cut poor Czerny a wee bit of slack, however. Compared to Hanon, he's Beethoven. laugh

Last edited by Old Man; 09/24/12 10:13 PM.
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