Alfred Cortot: The Ideal Teacher

Alfred Cortot, 1877-1962

He might not have enjoyed Liszt's long life, good health or international performing career, but Frédéric Chopin was a pivotal figure in the development of modern pianoforte technique. Consider, for example, the first of the twelve Op. 10 Études, where he extended octave arpeggios by two notes. The fingers alone were no longer enough, and a new rotation technique was required which made use of the wrist and arm. In fact, many of Chopin's études were technically innovative. The chromaticism of the third étude makes great use of the weak fingers, for example, developing independence, strength and legato, while the fifth forces players to adopt a new, flatter hand position, as curved fingers are not possible during extended passages on the narrow black keys.

Chopin was no less inventive in the twelve Op. 25 Études, with the double thirds and sliding fingers of the sixth and the legato octaves of the tenth. Of course, these technical innovations would have been unthinkable without the harmonic developments that he brought to the piano. Early in his career he was influenced by the Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, who was known as the 'Swan of Catania' for the beauty of his flowing, melodic lines. Even at its most virtuosic Chopin's music sings, and even in the études I often think the greatest challenges are found in the accompanying material (particularly the left hand). His innovation extended to pedalling, too. No longer just functional, for example to expand textures or aid legato, they become a source of infinite nuance.

But while Chopin pioneered many of the techniques that we take for granted today, it was the brilliant pianist and pedagogue Alfred Cortot who developed the groundbreaking methods which enabled them to be passed on to future generations. Learning the piano with a former prodigy is not without its risks, as pianists who were formed at a very young age are often unable to explain how they play. Trying to replicate their style can be counterproductive, particularly if they have developed an individual and idiosyncratic technique. Unfortunately, many of the world's greatest pianists have fallen into this category. But Cortot learnt his technique consciously, through careful study. Born in Nyon in 1877, his first piano lessons were with his elder sisters, Lea and Annette.

Having decided that young Alfred was destined to be a virtuoso pianist, the family moved from Switzerland to Paris. But Cortot was not a prodigy; he was fourteen years old when he was admitted to Louis Dièmer's class at the Paris Conservatoire. In his own words, his "hands were flaccid, lacking muscle and rather clumsy. They often let me down, betraying my intentions. It took laborious exercises to loosen them, while strengthening them at the same time." He received the Premier Prix aged eighteen, and was keen to pursue a conducting career. However, he lost a lot of money conducting Wagner's opera Parsifal and was forced to study the piano seriously again for economic reasons. "The pianist paid for the recklessness of the conductor", he later observed.

Rational Principles

Cortot was greatly influenced by Chopin's teaching style, which he absorbed from both his own teachers at the Paris Conservatoire and from contact with former pupils of Chopin. In his book, The Rational Principles of Piano Technique, he suggests nine exercises to be studied for fifteen minutes a day. Cortot likened them to the warm-up exercises used by athletes, as their objective was to loosen up the apparatus of the pianist: the fingers, wrists and forearms (and upper arms, though he did not say this). Chopin's teaching was one source of these exercises. Karol Mikuli, one of his best pupils, wrote: 'Chopin recommended bending the wrists inward and outward and stretching the fingers, but with an earnest warning against over-fatigue'.

Another inspiration for Cortot may have been Tobias Matthay's books on piano technique, The First Principles of Pianoforte Playing (1905) and Relaxation Studies (1908). Cortot refers to this obliquely in his study edition of Chopin's Op. 28 Préludes. Matthay, whose pupils included Harriet Cohen and Myra Hess, also recommended that his 'relaxation' exercises be done every day. Thomas Manshardt, who studied with Cortot from 1957 to 1962, writes in his book Aspects of Cortot (a play on the title of Cortot's own book, Aspects of Chopin): "The pianist must avoid playing the piano with unprepared muscles. No case of muscular impairment, damage, etc. has come to my attention in the case of any pianist who has correctly carried Cortot's principles."

Manshardt pointed out that by practicing in this way, Cortot was able to play large programmes to an advanced age with no physical or technical problems. (While on tour in his eighties, he played Chopin's 24 Préludes and 24 Études as a single concert!) The Brazilian-born pianist Magda Tagliaferro, a pupil of Cortot, toured the United States on more than one occasion in her nineties, to much acclaim. Surely this is a testimony to his teaching, and I think we can learn much from his pioneering methods today. Of the nine exercises Cortot outlined, I would like to consider numbers five and six in greater detail. Both of these exercises should be practiced hands together on a series of semibreve chords, and played in a new key (and on a different part of the piano) each day.

For both, begin with your arms hanging loosely by your side before lifting them directly up on to the keyboard. Keep a relaxed space between your hands, rather than occupying the somewhat cramped space in the middle of the keyboard. Begin by placing your hands on the first five notes of a scale of C major, softly depressing the keys and making sure that your fingers are together. The fifth exercise requires moving your wrist towards the piano (tipping your fingers forward so your wrist is above your hand), then pulling backwards so your fingers are flat on the keys. The sixth exercise is the same, but in the opposite direction: slide your hand down so that the inner surface of the fingers touches the outer case of the keyboard, then return your hand to its original position.

Best Posture

These movements should be repeated back and forth, decisively and with souplesse ('suppleness' or 'flexibility'). Manshardt clarified Cortot's intentions by stressing that there should be constant pressure on the key bed while doing the exercises, and that arm pressure must remain constant. The wrist should be lowered or raised as far as is physically possible, and beginners must avoid all but the gentlest of pressures. (On a good day, virtuosos will be able to press down with sufficient force to register some kilos on a weighing machine!) Matthay suggested similar exercises, but with one crucial difference: the hands rest on the keys, rather than pressing down. I wouldn't recommend this, as it would increase any muscular tension already present in the body.

Cortot wrote at length about playing gestures, movements of the fingers, wrists, forearms and arms that facilitate the playing of particular passages or the creation of certain effects. There is a moment in practicing where each gesture must be thought out. What is so difficult is that these gestures cannot be separated. Each one is continuous, constantly changing as it transforms into the next. Gestures are also often very small, carried out so rapidly that they can hardly be seen. Cortot quoted Rameau's advice: 'Guard against all unnecessary movement. No large movement should be made where a small one if sufficient.' According to Guthrie Luke, who studied with Cortot, one of his favourite maxims was 'find the right gesture, and the passage will play itself'.

With regard to supporting arm weight, Manshardt observed that 'those who play while carrying the weight of the arm must find practicing extremely fatiguing. Anyone expected to hold up their arms for three or four hours would be justified in complaining of being tortured. Yet piano teachers who advocate muscular support of the arm think nothing of prescribing that torture, and it is at this point that some pianists give up playing altogether.' Cortot stressed the importance of sitting at a height ideally adapted to a player's body shape, with the length of their arms (rather than their body shape) determining the correct posture at the keyboard. He wrote: 'The arm must follow a natural line, avoiding awkward angles which might paralyse the muscles in the forearm and hand.'

He also observed that 'as a general rule, the wrist should never be lower than the hand.' By adopting the correct posture, which is determined in part by the height of the piano stool, pianists can avoid exaggerated finger articulation and disabling muscular tension. Manshardt suggested that 'the elbows should be six inches in front of the body, for if they are at the sides only the forearm is brought into play; the advancing of the elbows ensures the participation of the whole arm.' Cortot died in 1962. Near the end of his life, he noted in his diary: 'Appeared, to date, more than six thousand times in concert.' Many pianists with equally long careers have put him on a pedestal. In the words of Claudio Arrau: "Cortot knew how to do everything. He wrote all those exercises."

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