You Are Playing That Wrong

Photo of pianist Harold Bauer

Pianist Harold Bauer had never heard of the young woman dancing at the home of an acquaintance and took no notice of her name. But he watched with fascination as she gestured and posed to the sound of familiar classical music. He had never seen a performance quite like it. Her gestures seemed to illustrate the dynamics of the music, and he hit upon the idea of letting his gestures at the piano bring forth corresponding dynamics in the music.

His first efforts to bring tone out of gesture were ridiculous, but he persisted and eventually used the approach whenever he played.

Thirty years later, after he had given a recital in Los Angeles, his friend, violinist and composer Eugène Ysäye greeted him in the artists’ room by introducing a companion. “Of course you know Isadora,” he said.

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“Isadora who?” Bauer asked.

“Isadora Duncan,” said Ysäye.

Bauer told her how greatly she had influenced his method of performing, and, before long, the two of them planned to give a concert together.

It was to be entirely pieces by Chopin, and while rehearsing the Etude in A-flat, Opus 25, No. 1, they had a falling out.

“You are playing that wrong,” Isadora said. She explained that the crescendo had to continue to the very end of the phrase and be softened later.

With some annoyance, Bauer said that he was playing the piece the way it was printed on the page.

Isadora didn’t care. She said that the music had to build to a climax at the end of the phrase or else she’d have nothing to do with her arms. “Anyway,” she insisted, “you are quite mistaken.”

After a long discussion, Bauer gave in for the sake of allowing her the indispensable dramatic gesture.

Afterward, when he had a look at Chopin’s original manuscript of the piece, he found that it had the precise dynamics the dancer had instinctively required, and he played it that way ever after.