Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to his Philosophy and Techniques Victoria von Arx
The recorded lessons Piano Lessons with Claudio Arrau: A Guide to His Philosophy and Techniques includes transcriptions of five piano lessons that were given by Arrau. The students who took these lessons tape- recorded them for their own use sometime during the 1960s. The tapes added up to approximately 18 hours of playing time. They included: three private lessons given in Spanish to Mario Miranda, a pianist from Chile; two lessons in a master class setting were given in English to Bennett Lerner, an American.
Transcribing the lessons Transcribing a piano lesson into written words involves special challenges. In a speech or lecture, information comes primarily from the spoken word. Transcribing a verbal communication is a matter of getting the words down. In a piano lesson, communication takes place partially through words; but in addition, there are meaningful gestures, both on the part of the teacher and the student, that convey something about the expressive or technical elements of piano playing. Unfortunately, body language is not visible in a sound recording; yet, with a knowledge of elements of Arrau’s technical principles, one might try sometimes to infer its presence and meaning. Arrau also used various vocal inflections and non-verbal vocalizations that might be termed “piano teacher singing” to convey his thoughts. Sometimes his singing communicated a musical point different from the one he was conveying in words. Capturing Arrau’s meaning is a matter of capturing such things as inflection, choice of vowel sound, and articulation of consonants. Finally, because both Arrau and his student could see plainly what they were doing, they sometimes did not bother to finish their sentences. The challenge in such cases was to use context and the sounds coming from the piano to create a coherent account of words that appear quite fragmentary.
Correlating text and music Each of Arrau’s comments in these lessons had to be connected with the musical passage that it referred to. Since both Arrau and his student had scores in front of them, they did not identify passages by measure number. They could simply point out the passages in the musical score. A listener to the tape recording could locate the relevant passages quite easily if each was played immediately after Arrau spoke about it. At times, however, Arrau gave more extended comments dealing with several different passages in succession, or he skipped backwards and forwards among different passages within the piece. If the student simply listened to the comments without playing the passages they referred to, the passages were difficult to locate. In some cases, Arrau provided clues to finding them by singing some part of passages he was commenting on.
Transcribing lessons given in Spanish Transcribing the three lessons in Spanish was an even more complex matter. The sound quality in these tapes was generally quite degraded so that some parts were unintelligible. Arrau and Mario Miranda seemed on quite familiar and friendly terms. They tended to finish each other’s sentences, and frequently both talked at once or over the sound of the piano. Although this was likely perfectly clear to them, the tape recorder microphone made no sense of it. For a later listener, meaning had to be discovered from the larger discussion, rather than from individual statements, and from evidence provided by the piano playing, which sometimes offered contrasting or differing performances of the same passage. Although Arrau was born in Chile, he grew up and was educated in Germany. Therefore, both Spanish and German were natural to him. He was a proficient English speaker and also seemed to have some competency in French and Italian. But as a result, his speech in a lesson given in one language might include stray bits of the others. At times, when he could not think of a word he wanted, Arrau invented one. Transcribing and translating these unexpected and colorful linguistic devices requires a certain amount of detection.
Chopin Ballade in F major, Op. 38 Claudio Arrau and Mario Miranda Excerpt
Chopin: Ballade no. 2, Op. 38 mm. 51-52. Miranda plays the first, then the first two octaves in the left hand, m. 51. CA: Haber haz. No. Ahí tienes que tomar el quatro, cinco, cuatro. Let’s see. No. There you have to take four-five-four. Miranda plays m. 51, A E G# B, repeating some notes several times in succession. CA: Puedes con el tercero, o no? Can you do it with the third [finger], or not? MM: Hacer en SOL sostenido? [G-sharp] Do it on G-sharp? CA. Sí. Yes. MM: Ah. Miranda begins playing the octaves [A] as Arrau speaks over the piano. CA: Y después entonces viene el problema, [G-sharp] caer [G-sharp, B] en el quinto, [B] eso es, y [G-sharp, B] después [A] cuarto y quinto otra vez. And then comes the problem [G-sharp] of falling [G-sharp, B] into the fifth [B], that’s it, and [G-sharp, B] then [A] the fourth and fifth again. Arrau and Miranda decide the rest of the fingering. MM: [Playing octaves B, A, m. 51 b. 4-5], quinto, quarto. Five, four. CA: [Reciting finger numbers as Mario slowly places the remaining octaves, m. 51-52] Quarto, quinto, quarto, quinto, quarto, quinto, quarto. Four, five, four, five, four, five, four. CA: Y tenemos un saco de arena en el teclado. Que lo que me da miedo, te lo he dicho muchas veces. Aquí más que nunca, si suena TAC TAC TAC, es horrible eso. Suena brutal y es muy feo. Una linea melodica! And we have a bag of sand on the keyboard. What I’m afraid of, I have told your many times. Here more than ever, if it sounds TAC TAC TAC, it is horrible like that. It sounds brutal and very ugly. [It should be] A melodic line! MM: Contrabajo Contrabass [Singing the left hand passage.] CA: Con esos, cincuenta contrabajos. With those, fifty contrabasses.