Ten Essential Attributes of Artistic Accomplishment

Sergei Rachmaninoff

In March, 1910, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote an invitational article on the “ten beautiful attributes of pianoforte playing” for the musical magazine The Etude, founded in 1883 by Virginia’s Theodore Presser, also the founder the Music Teachers National Foundation and published in Philadelphia till 1957. Large excerpts of the magazine have been digitized by New York musician Mark Thomas.


The Etude – the first cover.

Rachmaninoff was 36 when he wrote this article, when he was dividing his time between Dresden and his family’s Ivanovka summer estate near Tambov, some 500 kilometres south of Moscow. It was at Ivanovka that Rachmaninoff composed the first three of his piano concerti. In 1909-10, before the writing of the article, Rachmaninoff played and conducted 26 performances on his first tour of North America, including the première of the Third Concerto at a concert of the New York Symphony Orchestra, which merged with its rival New York Philharmonic in 1928. It was for the New York Symphony Orchestra that Andrew Carnegie in 1891 built Carnegie Hall.

The article has as its subject what is required to succeed as an artist.

The Architecture of Art

Rachmaninov’s observations begin with the statement that in “undertaking the study of a new composition it is highly important to gain a conception of the work as a whole. One must comprehend the main design of the composer. Naturally, there are technical difficulties which must be worked out, measure by measure, but unless the student can form some idea of the work in its larger proportions his finished performance may resemble a kind of musical patchwork. Behind every composition is the architectural plan of the composer. The student should endeavor, first of all, to discover this plan, and then he should build in the manner in which the composer would have had him build.”

By extension, this applies to the other art forms, such as literature and theatre (and its close cousins, dance and cinema). It is in effect a distinction between art and entertainment. Art is of the culture of societies, entertainment is for the culture of societies. One is not the lesser of the other; they are simply different manifestations. But the implication is that, at the level of the individual, it is art that provides more for consideration and the development of rational thought. Understanding art is active work, and it should not be thought that immediate understanding of the whole can be grasped. There is the value of life in art, and it takes a life to interpret and incorporate the value for one’s own life.

A remarkable example of how art guides its own architecture is Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio; in particular the opening of the second act, where the depiction of imprisonment is intensified to the point of the individual, after its initial depiction by the chorus of prisoners in the first act.

Technical Proficiency and Technical Study

Second, technical proficiency is required, which requires the third, technical study. “The technical ability of the performer should be of such a nature that it can be applied immediately to all the artistic demands of the composition to be interpreted. Of course, there may be individual passages which require some special technical study, but, generally speaking, technic is worthless unless the hands and the mind of the player are so trained that they can encompass the principal difficulties found in modern compositions.”

In the creation of literature, one must have an awareness and understanding of language; its sounds; its prosody; how it is read or heard; how it is coherent and cohesive. One ought to be able, as Marcel Proust puts it in Swann’s Way, “as a man of letters, merely by reading a phrase, [to] estimate exactly the literary merit of its author.” The proficiency ultimately must become qualitative and self-assured, the proficiency achieved by the necessary quantity of technical study, as it relates to the artistic discipline concerned.

Awareness of the Artistic Components

Fourth, proper phrasing. “An artistic interpretation is not possible if the student does not know the laws underlying the very important subject of phrasing.”

The work must engage breath and pulse. And how the motion of the communication is moulded in its parts to achieve the greater whole.

This is heard convincingly in Vladimir Horowitz’s impeccable realization of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, live at Carnegie Hall on 23 April 1951.


The Pace of Interaction

Fifth, regulating the tempo. “If a fine musical feeling, or sensitiveness, must control the execution of the phrases, the regulation of the tempo demands a kind of musical ability no less exacting. Although in most cases the tempo of a given composition is now indicated by means of the metronomic markings, the judgment of the player must also be brought frequently into requisition. He cannot follow the tempo marks blindly, although it is usually unsafe for him to stray very far from these all-important musical sign-posts.”

Each discipline has its own rhythmic character. Improper or irrelevant velocity impairs the shaping of the communication of the piece.

An exceptional example of mastery of tempo is found in the 29 December 1951 broadcast, from Carnegie Hall, by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra of the prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The Character of an Artwork

Sixth, character in playing. “Every piece is a piece unto itself. It should, therefore, have its own peculiar interpretation. There are performers whose playing seems all alike…. Of course, a successful performer must have a strong individuality, and all of his interpretations must bear the mark of this individuality, but at the same time he should seek variety constantly…. Each piece must stand apart as possessing an individual conception, and if the player fails to convey this impression to his audience, he is little better than some mechanical instrument.”

A work of art is beyond its creator. Therefore, each interpretation, each reading, each recital, each dancing of it will always vary; but must vary convincingly.


Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ivanoka, Russia, 1910, proofing the publication of the third piano concerto

The Significance of Components

Seventh, the significance of the pedal. “The pedal has been called the soul of the piano… The pedal is the study of a lifetime. It is the most difficult branch of higher pianoforte study. Of course, one may make rules for its use, and the student should carefully study all these rules, but, at the same time, these rules may often be skilfully broken in order to produce some very charming effects. The rules represent a few known principles that are within the grasp of our musical intelligence. They may be compared with the planet upon which we live, and about which we know so much. Beyond the rules, however, is the great universe—the celestial system which only the telescopic artistic sight of the great musician can penetrate. This, Rubinstein, and some others, have done, bringing to our mundane vision undreamt-of beauties which they alone could perceive.”

Technical proficiency, furthermore, requires an understanding, and an ability to execute, the lines of a work so that it is presented as a whole.

The Danger of Convention

Eighth, the danger of convention. While we must respect the traditions of the past, which for the most part are very intangible to us because they are only to be found in books, we must, nevertheless, not be bound down by convention. Iconoclasm is the law of artistic progress. All great composers and performers have built upon the ruins of conventions that they themselves have destroyed. It is infinitely better to create than to imitate. Before we can create, however, it is well to make ourselves familiar with the best that has preceded us. This applies not only to composition, but to pianoforte playing as well.”

It is, however, necessary to understand the conventions before abandoning them to create new ones.

Understanding of the Work

Ninth, real musical understanding. It is a mistake to suppose that the knowledge of the fact that Schubert was inspired by a certain poem, or that Chopin was inspired by a certain legend, could ever make up for a lack of the real essentials leading to good pianoforte playing. The student must see, first of all, the main points of musical relationship in a composition. He must understand what it is that gives the work unity, cohesion, force, or grace, and must know how to bring out these elements. There is a tendency with some teachers to magnify the importance of auxiliary studies and minimize the importance of essentials. This course is wrong, and must lead to erroneous results.”

A person’s life guides the creation of the artistry; but these are not, if fact seldom, coterminous.

Educating the Public

Tenth, playing to educate the public. “The virtuoso must have some far greater motive than that of playing for gain. He has a mission, and that mission is to educate the public. It is quite as necessary for the sincere student in the home to carry on this educational work. For this reason it is to his advantage to direct his efforts toward pieces which he feels will be of musical educational advantage to his friends. In this he must use judgment and not overstep their intelligence too far. With the virtuoso it is somewhat different. He expects, and even demands, from his audience a certain grade of musical taste, a certain degree of musical education. Otherwise he would work in vain.… The virtuoso is expected to give his best, and he should not be criticised by audiences that have not the mental capacity to appreciate his work. The virtuosos look to the students of the world to do their share in the education of the great musical public. Do not waste your time with music that is trite, or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.”

Without education, the public is nothing. In this, the artist has a responsibility that equals that of the teacher.

A second, and equally important, aspect of this is the selection of communication methodologies by which to educate the public.

If one decides to be an artist, then as an artist one should pursue the making of a sufficient livelihood from that artistry. Otherwise, one remains the amateur; or worse, the dabbler or an indifferent or occasional dilettante. I express it this way in the beginning stanza of my poem “Reconsiderations,” which is central to Caravaggio’s Dagger:

Citing the cantatas of Bach,

The musicologist  offers

That the power of an art that pays necessity

Can equal

The power of an art that must create:

In the case of literary activities, it is increasingly clear that the old ways are insufficient. This applies to publishing, public presentations, and government support. As example, organizations that present literary readings need to be more realistic about what they purport to offer. The public recital of poetry and prose is in significant decline of interest to a public who prefers a digital experience to which it needs not to travel. Unnecessary competition, such as recitals on the same day and on the same street, only blocks apart, assure the failure of at least one, invariably the one with less name recognition, if there has been no promotion of the content of the event. Typically, as well, the organization that presents the a better known writer, understand it needs a better venue, and, to attract a larger pool of potential audience, runs its series with an acceptable frequently, say, monthly.

The promotion of content is important. Musical recitals, for instance, depend more and more on the name recognition of the performer than on the work that the performer will present. This remains effective if the performer is András Schiff and his programme comprises the last sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert; less effective, even for a group as musically eminent as the Borodin Quartet, when it presents a Shostakovich cycle without an explanation to the public why the cycle is consequential. Many musical organizations, symphony orchestras, for example, will market evenings of Disney excerpts, with success, but which orchestra effects the performance is largely consequential. The marketing brings in revenues, but does nothing to educate the public.

Less effective organizations need to recognize that if they are not competing effectively, they may be running too many events, and too frequently (such as weekly); and though they still attract good speakers, these same speakers will not tend to repeat in the future because their effort does not warrant the response. And, of course, a few lessons in basic marketing would hardly be amiss—for all such recitals in a given geographical area of activity—because in effect the norm is that no marketing of any consequence at all is conducted. When such unnecessary competition for live audience exists, it becomes time for series organizers to understand that serious artists are not enamored by the use for free of their creativity, time, and energy. It’s time for organizers to put aside notions of professional vanity and independence, and, through cooperation, focus on the presentation.

Then there is the matter of government grants. If an artist who submits a proposal looks at who comprises the juries, it’s no small wonder that a lack of success is assured, as many of them have no interest in the work of those who submit, and those who submit have no interest in theirs. The entire process has too much sham, too many acrobatics, and much shallowness of depth. Given the quantity of time and effort required in the preparation of requests, to the point of absurdity for many competitions, unless one wants to put in the political time to fraternize with such jurors, there is little point—perhaps none—in pursuing this line of fiscal endeavour, which, in almost every instance when successful, delivers very little in the way of cash.

By extension this applies to the endless proliferation of competitions sponsored by periodicals—essentially really revenue flows to sustain the periodical—and in effect no more than preferential decisions by judges who bring to the process an inescapable aesthetic bias and a craving for the linguistically unusual, however incoherent.

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