Stories, Images and Magic from the Piano Literature


So often as pianists our preoccupation with learning the notes and overcoming the myriad technical challenges of the instrument comes at the expense of the music we’re trying to make. A satisfying performance is much more than playing the right notes at the right time. Music should serve to enrich our lives by conveying pictures, stories and emotions.

In many of our workshops and our course on starting new pieces, we highly recommend pianist and teacher Neil Rutman’s book Stories, Images, and Magic from the Piano Literature. The book features a wonderful collection of programmatic, poetic, or imaginative musical images and stories on piano works. In this week’s blog post, we discuss the book and other aspects of piano playing with Neil.

Stories, Images and Magic from the Piano Literature

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Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a pianist and teacher?

I was a late starter in piano at age 11. My parent’s inherited my grandmother’s piano at her death and I asked immediately if I could take lessons. At thirteen I decided I wanted to be a pianist and have been kidnapped by music ever since. I composed avidly between the ages of 12 and 22, and started teaching when I was 14, though I didn’t start my first ‘real teaching job’ in Baltimore until I was 26. 

I have been the Klipsch Artist in Residence in Piano at the University of Central Arkansas for many years, where I currently have a class of students from Bulgaria, Bolivia, China, Germany, Canada and the USA. As a former amateur boxer, I also coach the University Boxing Team on the side.   

In my younger years it was exciting to be a laureate of several International Piano Competitions. It has also been a deep honour to perform in the best venues in London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, along with performances and teaching in multiple other countries. I live in sincere gratitude for these opportunities. But above all the rest, I owe everything to my loving, attentive, and thorough (and strict) teachers! 

You’ve had an impressive list of teachers – we would be interested to hear any pearls of wisdom you have gleaned from them!

Three of my former teachers are devotees of the English Pedagogue, Tobias Matthay. First, Aiko Onishi studied with Dame Myra Hess, second, Ellen Mack studied with Gwendolyn Koldofsky, all who studied with Matthay, and finally the great Cecile Genhart studied with Matthay himself in the 1930’s. While I also had the privilege of studying with Leon Fleisher, much of my thought process is Matthay.

Pearls of wisdom from my teachers? Relax. Make shapes and nuance. And if you play something beautifully, no one will criticise you, even if they disagree with it. 

What inspired you to write this book?  

Originally I resisted writing the book. My former teacher, Aiko Onishi, a student of Dame Myra Hess, had been suggesting for twenty years – literally twenty years – that someone should write a book with poetic imageries, all under one cover, for every piano piece they could find. A resource and anthology for lovers of piano at every level. 

However, I thought I would find puerile stories and naive descriptions of pieces that couldn’t be documented. One day in 2013, the 89-year-old Aiko Onishi said (and I think she put it this way intentionally), “I do hope someone will write this book before I die”. That was enough for me. Once I started the research I was astounded at the wealth of documentable (and I should add, valuable) images both from the pens of the composers themselves as well as their contemporaries and distinguished pianists of later generations.   

So I give credit for the creation of the book to Aiko Onishi. I just did the two years of research, and now, at 96, she smiles when she reads the book. 

How would you suggest pianists use this book?

There is no procedure for using the book. Any image should just spark the imagination, which always changes the way we touch the keys and shapes a phrase. Chapter 1 discusses this (expressed most eloquently perhaps by Cortot) and should not be left unread:

As Alfred Cortot reminds us, the image itself is neither necessary for the audience to know nor essentially connected to the architecture of the piece, but it is essential in unlocking the imagination of the student and performer during the learning and performance experience.

In researching the stories for the book, were there any anecdotes that particularly stuck out or surprised you?

One that moved me deeply was the religious imagery by Timothy Smith for the great C-sharp minor ‘passion’ fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. One can never play it the same after absorbing these images. 

Others were Cortot’s 1930’s imageries for the Chopin Preludes, translated in the book for the first time into English e.g. the imagery of Tristan and Isolde from the first Prelude has never left my mind: “’Attente fiévreuse de l’aimée…’ which translates to ‘Feverish anticipation of the lover.’ Cortot writes, ‘Or, if you prefer, an anachronistic transposition of the scene imagined much later by Wagner which shows us Isolde waving her scarf to hasten the coming of Tristan.’ COPR Preface, CHCO 252.”

There were so many surprises throughout the project, but I was particularly taken with how Chopin described his music in imagery and how attracted to the same Brahms was. 

Are there any works that you wish you could have found information for but simply couldn’t?

Well, I wish Brahms had left stories for his Ballades, Op. 10. And the era of Bach, Haydn and Mozart is lacking in documentation. That could be for two reasons. They didn’t record their thoughts like the Romantics and Impressionists did, but that doesn’t mean that Bach or Haydn did not have images or imagination. Another reason could be the same reason that genealogists find it harder to do research in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fewer documents and more things lost.  

Can you tell us how you approach learning a new piece – what do you actually do?

I could not verbalise it better than Dinu Lipatti did as quoted in Chapter 1 of the book:

What can I tell you about interpretation? I can only recapitulate, perhaps very imperfectly, the method which guides us, in stages to the TRUTH. First one should try to consider the complete emotional content of a work by playing it a great deal various ways before ever trying to play it technically. When I say ‘playing it a great deal’ I mean above all playing it ‘mentally’ as the work would be performed by the greatest of interpreters. The imagination is here required. Having lodged in our mind the impression of perfect beauty given by this mental preparation – an impression continually renewed and revivified by repetition of this performance in the silence of the night, we can go on to the actual technical work….

    Finally…the cold, clear headed detached being who has conducted the practice work on the material on which the music is made takes part in the complete performance together with the imaginative artist, full of emotion, of spirit, of life and warmth. It is the artist who has recreated it in his mind and imagination and who has now discovered a new and greater power of expression.

We are always trying to encourage our readers to pursue a strategic approach to practising rather than simply playing pieces through multiple times in the hope that they will improve. Can you share anything about your approach to practising and problem solving with us?

When you put this in writing I don’t think it is very effective – you need to be in person to explain. But if I had to say anything, and again it may not be of value I would say know what kind of sound you want for any passage, know the character and mood of the passage, and then listen. Listen to your sound and hear if it matches your intentions.  

You must have a vast repertoire of pieces you have performed over the course of your career. Could you share with us how you bring back an old piece you might not have played in some years?  

What a huge question! I try to do what Myra Hess said when asked the same thing. Listen to the piece and play it like you are hearing it for the first time. I also study the score silently with pleasure when resurrecting old pieces. 

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Stories, Images and Magic from the Piano Literature is now available from our store in eBook format here (Online Academy subscribers get a 20% discount!) or in print here.

Other resources on repertoire & interpretation

Awakening the Imagination, Repertoire Ideas & Inspiration

In a set of online workshops from January & February 2023, Graham Fitch explores narratives and imagery to inspire you to create your own artistic image and personal interpretations. He also presents a bouquet of repertoire ideas at different levels, including popular works and hidden gems.

Recordings and resources for these events can be purchased here for the event on 14th Jan and here for 4th February. Alternatively, you can save 20% by purchasing a combined bundle for both events here to save 20% for £80 (£48 for Online Academy subscribers).

Learning pieces

Our highly popular free email course on how to start learning a new piece has been revised with additional examples and materials. The second lesson deals with specifically the subject of narratives and interpretation with a video and suggestions for developing and communicating your musical intentions. Click here to sign-up for the course!

We’ve also created a Facebook group as a complement to the course and will be posting various materials and giving you the opportunity to share your progress.

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