Egon PETRI and the PETRIOTS
(by Michaele Benedict)
Egon Petri (1881 - 1962)
The legacy of Egon Petri, who is believed by many to be one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, lives on in his grand-students and great-grand-students, that is, in the students of his own pupils and in the next generation of pianists.
This pianistic legacy is so distinctive that it is easily recognizable in performers, and yet in the absence of description by Petri himself, the legacy has been passed on from teacher to student almost entirely by word of mouth. Is there another example of teaching in any field, which has existed, essentially unchanged, for more than a hundred years without the benefit of a text? One is reminded of Mary Renault's historical novel, The Praise Singer, which describes her idea of the aural tradition of music teaching in ancient Greece, before notation was invented.
Petri's way of playing the piano, and the way he taught, involved a naturalness and an ease which could overcome many difficulties. Instead of technical studies, Petri advocated taking excerpts from the keyboard literature itself, so that the skill served the music, rather than standing alone. Changes in dynamics were achieved by the speed of the key's descent, rather than by weight. "Weight is our enemy", Petri would say. Together with his associate, Alexander Libermann, Petri taught that the proper way to approach the piano keyboard was to "take" the keys rather than pushing or depressing them. This subtle difference involved a grasping movement of the hand, which used muscles rather than brute strength. If one compares the physical approach to the piano by most excellent contemporary pianists with that of piano players two generations ago (videotapes allow us to make the comparison), it is easy to see how things have changed. The tight curved hand has relaxed and extended; dramatic and sometimes histrionic gestures have given way to an economy of motion; greater faithfulness to the source of the music has produced performances with greater subtlety and greater interest.
Much of this change may be credited to Petri and his heirs. Young music teachers today represent about four generations beyond Petri, who died in California on May 27, 1962, at the age of 81. If the father of our father is our grandfather, then the teacher of our teacher can be considered our grand-teacher. The great-great-grand-pupils of Petri are many thousands in number, and yet they are recognizable by theirs orientation and playing. While reading the pages of my colleague Stefan Kutrzeba on the Internet, I thought I recognized some of Petri's principles, and our subsequent correspondence revealed that two of Stefan's teachers were Petri students.
My teacher, Robert Sheldon, studied with Egon Petri for many years and tried faithfully to pass on the Petri legacy. He printed out "Petri-Libermann Notes on the Art and Technique of Pianoforte Playing", a 33-page, single-spaced treasury of wise advice. This reference, plus dozens of tape recordings containing Petri anecdotes and teachings, is the primary source of what I know about Egon Petri. I described some of this material in an article in the American piano magazine, Clavier, in November 1997.
So who was this paragon whose name these days is so little known, but whose method has been so influential in piano playing?
Egon Petri's family was Dutch, but Petri was born March 23, 1881, in Germany, where his family entertained such legendary composers and musicians as Johannes Brahms at their home in Dresden. Petri's father, Henri Willem Petri, became concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra in 1889. Music historians tell us that Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn conducted this orchestra earlier in the nineteenth century. As a youth, Petri played violin in his father's quartet, but according to Sheldon's notes, abandoned a promising career as a violinist for that of a pianist because it gave him more scope. It may well be that this early expertise on a stringed instrument fostered some of Petri's ideas about "bowing" and phrasing in piano music. Piano music should be all curves, Petri said, with no angles, stops or jerks. Petri's teachers were the legendary Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, who was called the "Valkyrie of the piano" and Ferruccio Busoni, a family friend. Petri studied philosophy and earned a doctorate in music from the Manchester Royal College of Music in England, where he taught from 1906 to 19l0. He taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin from 1921 to 1925, and taught in Poland from 1925 to 1939. According to a letter from Forrest Robinson, a Petri student, Petri and his wife left Poland for England in great haste in 1939, leaving his music books and grand pianos behind. Petri's sister was killed in an air raid in Hanover during the war, according to Mr. Robinson. Petri's son became an officer in the British army. Egon Petri was pianist in residence at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, U.S.A., from 1940 to 1946 and in 1947 through 1957 held a similar position at Mills College in Oakland, California, U.S.A. His colleagues on the music faculty were Libermann and the French composer Darius Milhaud. He returned to Europe to teach at the Basel Conservatory in 1957. From 1952 to 1962 he taught at the San Francisco (California) Conservatory of Music. My teacher, Robert Sheldon, succeeded him at the Conservatory.
Petri assisted his former teacher, Busoni, in editing Bach's keyboard works. Most of the Bach/Busoni treatments are still in print, and Petri’s own transcription of one Bach work popularly known as "Sheep May Safely Graze" is still in print and is heard occasionally in concerts. I recently played for a wedding where the mother of the bride requested this piece. She proved to have been a student of Claire James, an English student of Egon Petri.
Ferruccio Busoni, whom we know today primarily by his transcriptions of Bach (thus the Bach/Busoni attributions on concert programs) encouraged Petri to play piano and taught him in Berlin, Weimar and Dresden. Recordings of Petri playing Busoni's music as well as performances by Busoni himself have been re-released in recent years, and recordings of Petri playing the major piano literature are once again available on compact disc. Sheldon, however, said that these early recordings, made from 1929 to 1942, are not representative of Petri's playing. Recordings of the day were primitive, to say the least. Tempi were set according to how much music would fit on the disc, there was only one microphone, and often the recording engineer, smoking his cigar in one corner of the room, would wave his arms to urge the pianist to play faster. There was, of course, no way to correct mistakes, so in one sense these recordings may be considered "live", but not necessarily as typical of the artist's playing than concerts where the player could screen out distractions and set his own tempi.
Harold Schonberg wrote in The Great Pianists (Simon and Schuster, New York) that Egon Petri was "a superb technician, and a musician of intellect, refinement and strength." The fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary (1954) says that Petri was "acclaimed everywhere as a superb artist whose works is profound, muscled, and subtle...he brings clear thinking to each composition and the direct action of a pair of wonderful hands which never make an unnecessary movement." (Petri could reach an eleventh on the piano.) Sheldon's notes say "Petri's playing (was always) noted for its breadth and grandeur, power and virtuosity." The late, great Rudolf Firkusny said "Petri was not merely a great pianist, but one of the greatest of all time." An article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981, the centenary of Petri's birth, called him "one of the great pianists of the last generation" and said that he carried the "Liszt-Anton Rubinstein tradition." He was noted, the Chronicle article said, "for the integrity and fantastic clarity of his performances of classical and virtuosic repertory." Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century, often sent students needing technical help to Petri and Libermann. Sheldon's notes say that the main personal difference between the playing of Petri and that of Libermann was the matter of taking jumps and leaps. Libermann believed in preparing everything on the keys, but Petri preferred what he called "the braver way" of slowing the preparatory movement over the key instead of stopping it, and taking the key with a continuous swinging movement from just barely above the key. Libermann's method made for absolute security but tended, Sheldon said, to produce a slight jerkiness of stopping and starting at fast tempos and when exaggerated made for a certain cautiousness in bravura playing.
Alexander Libermann was born near Kiev in the Ukraine. After the communist revolution, he was put in charge of music instruction of Kiev's children. With the rise of the Stalin regime, he made his way to Berlin, where he studied with Petri, but with the spread of Hitler's regime, Libermann moved to Paris. When the Germans occupied Paris, Libermann went to the south of France, where he opened a music school in Nice with the help of Arthur Rubinstein. Once again, however, he had to flee for his life. Egon Petri was instrumental in having the Libermanns settle at Mills College. One anecdote about the move, told by Mr. Sheldon, is nearly as chilling as the many last-minute escapes. Apparently Petri had invited the Libermanns to come to Oakland, but in an absent-minded moment forgot about the invitation. Libermann and his wife had crossed the Atlantic and 3000 miles of the continental United States to arrive in California, speaking almost no English, owning only what they could carry in a suitcase. Libermann knocked at Petri's door. Petri answered and said "Why, Sasha, what are you doing here?"
The following are a few of Petri's teaching principles, gleaned from Robert Sheldon's notes and remarks:
Never try to gain volume by hitting the keys.
Try to find out how little effort you need.
People are too interested in the beginning of sounds and not in their continuation.
Continuity of movement is one of my obsessions.
Draw your attention to the vibration of the strings rather than the knocking of the hammer.
I know all the rules, but if the rules don't fit, I break the rules rather than break the music.
Think primarily in terms of fingers and keys rather than arm.
What happens at the end of the fingertip is what is important.
When you change fingers unnecessarily, you invite trouble.
In very soft playing, the firmer the hand, the more control you have.
The greatest finger activity is in the knuckle joint. The fingers are prepared for both the black and white keys by the first two finger joints.
At the instant the key reaches the bottom (keyboard), four things happen: You hear the sound, you feel a resistance which stops you, you free yourself (either by releasing the key or by holding the key down lightly. Fourth is the moment you count "one" or feel the beat. This rebound feeling makes piano playing seem to be upwards.
Practice is arranging things in your mind until they become automatic.
Do not try to overcome difficulties; find another approach that causes these difficulties to vanish.
An article in The American Music Teacher in 1939 quoted Petri regarding practice: A pedestrian who was on his way to Athens met a peasant working by the roadside and asked him "How far is it to Athens?" The peasant replied, "Walk!" The man said "I know I have to walk, but tell me how long will it take me to get there?" The peasant repeated, "Walk!" When the third inquiry drew forth the same information, the traveler, giving the peasant up as a hopeless idiot, walked away with great strides. After a few seconds the peasant called out: "Half an hour!" Greatly surprised, the man turned back and said: "Why did you not tell me that at once?" Whereupon the peasant replied, "How could I tell you before I saw how you walked?" So what would be the use of telling a pupil how long to practice without knowing how he practiced? You can't help being your own teacher and pupil when you practice. If you learn quickly and incorrectly, that's bad. If you learn quickly and correctly, that's good. If you learn slowly and correctly, that is also good. But is you learn slowly and incorrectly, that's the worst. If you do the exercises right, you don't need them. If you do them wrong, they may do you harm.
Art consists of a lot of very fine details made correctly.
I am here to defend the composer.
In playing, think everything in curves: no angles, no stops, and no jerks.
This is a principle of life: Calm is based on confidence.
Subtle differences of accent are a case of mental division. Like "men’s wear" as opposed to "men swear."
Meter is something invented by man, like the metronome, the clock, etc.
Rhythm is something in nature, where nothing is quite alike.
Pedal: A very beautiful but dangerous instrument.
Rubato is like a man walking his dog. Sometimes the dog is ahead, sometimes behind, but both go and come back together.
Phrasing in music is like speaking or reading, observing punctuation marks, and dynamics are like voice inflection. Don't overdo or underdo either.
Remember that technique is mental rather than physical. Therefore, it is necessary to will a movement before making it.
Music is so lovely when it's left alone.
Any child can make a loud and nasty sound on the piano.
Most pianists spend their expression in small coin.
People who talk too much about interpretation are apt not to be humble enough. I try not to overshadow the composer.
PETRI ON COMPOSERS
Many interesting thoughts of Egon Petri could be found via this link! Thank you!
The Master with some representatives of First Generation of the Petriots. Standing, from left: Newman POWELL, Leonard KLEIN, Alexander LIBERMANN, Egon PETRI, Lois MAER, Phillip MORGAN, Robert SHELDON, John SWEENEY. Seating, from left: John MORIARTY, Terry WOHL, Alice RAY, Ruth ORR, Ruth PREUSSER, Forrest ROBINSON.
This photo has been taken at Petri's Studio at MILLS COLLEGE, Oakland, California (probably in late 1940's). Click on the picture to see it in the whole extend. Thank you!
Some words about the Author:
Michaele Benedict is on the music faculty of Skyline College in San Bruno, California, U.S.A. She is a nationally certified member of Music Teachers National Association and has written a piano method book, A Workbook for Organic Piano Playing, as well as articles for Clavier Magazine and The American Music Teacher. She studied with Robert Sheldon, a student of Egon Petri, for 14 years after graduating from San Francisco State University. She would be delighted to hear from students and grand-students of Egon Petri. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Actualized on 2007-10-23