Recollections of Edwin Fischer

Recollections of Edwin Fischer
by Joan Benson (as told to Timothy Tikker)
Journal of the American Liszt Society; Volume 21/January-June 1987

“Edwin Fischer was born in Basel on 6 October 1886. His father was born in Prague, where his ancestors had been manufacturers of musical instruments. Both parents of this great pianist loved and practiced the art in which their son would distinguish himself. It was in Basel that Edwin had begun his musical studies, first at the Municipal Gymnasium, then the Conservatory – studies in piano and composition.

“Upon the death of her husband in 1904, Frau Fischer moved to Berlin, where Edwin became the student of Martin Krause, former secretary and disciple of Liszt and Eugene d’Albert. Upon completing his studies, Fischer began a rapid and brilliant career. Professor at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, accompanist to the famous singer Wulner, he was heard as soloist and recitalist by the great concert associations of his time. He played under the direction of the most famous conductors, such as Nikisch, Weingartner, Walter, Mengelbuerg, Beechum, Furtwangler, and so on.

In 1926, Fischer became orchestral conductor of the symphonic concerts of Lubeck and the Munich Bachverien: at the same time, he founded his chamber orchestra. Following the classical tradition, he played the concertos of Bach and Mozart with this ensemble, taking the double role of conductor and soloist. Until 1933, he taught piano at the Berlin Conservatory, where he organized an international mastercourse. It was this course that he reestablished at Lucerne after 1945. Editor of works by the great classical masters, Fischer was also the composer of a series of “Lieder:” and sketches for piano. His recordings are quite numerous… Since 1942, Fischer lived in Switzerland, the land of his birth.”

The date 6 October 1986 marked the hundredth birthday of Edwin Fischer, one of this century’s greatest interpreters and pedagogues of the piano. This past year, much has been written about him in Europe. However, because Fischer never traveled to the United States, he is less well known in this country, except through recordings and the work of his students. And so, on this occasion, clavichordist Joan Benson recalls her experiences with Edwin Fischer:

JB: I first heard about Edwin Fischer when I was a teaching assistant in piano at the University of Indiana. When a colleague from Germany mentioned Fischer’s name to me, I knew by the tone of his voice that this was the teacher I had always been seeking. With money from the University’s Kate Neal Kinley Award in Performance I went to Europe, hoping to have the opportunity to study with Fischer. While in Paris, I received a letter saying that Fischer would be playing in Rome in a few days. Through an acquaintance, I made arrangements to meet with him after the concert.

I was completely overwhelmed by his playing. I knew immediately that this was the teacher I had always wanted. I met him, and simply asked if I could study with him. I still remember how he then looked at me in a very penetrating way, for several minutes, without saying a word. Finally, it seemed that he had found what he was looking for in me: he said, “Yes!” I found out later that I had received unusual treatment. Fischer often screened unfamiliar students by studying a sample of their handwriting!

That summer I arrived in Lucerne for his classes at the Conservatory. There were some twenty-five students in the class, from all over Europe, the United States, South America, and Australia. Many were accomplished professional pianists. I was somewhat surprised to be chosen to play in the class, as I had not had the extensive technical training of some of the others. But Fischer liked the emotional completeness of my playing, which he felt was of concert quality, and I was privileged to be singled out by him as his protégé.

Fischer came to class wearing a black artist’s smock. Clearly he was the Master and we his apprentices. And yet, his intent was to bring out the individual in each of his students, helping each to play with his or her complete being. His style was the antithesis of the conservatory “cuisine,” in which piano students seemed to be poured into muffin tins and baked into identical miniatures of their teachers. This was no doubt why Fischer attracted such excellent students from so many countries. Alfred Brendel and Jorg Demus had studied with Fischer before me, and Paul Badura-Skoda assisted Fischer in his classes, also taking careful written notes on each class session.

Being in Fischer’s class was like being part of a large family. Fischer had a way of uniting the class, setting aside the differences of otherwise often competitive musicians. He had once remarked, “Here, we’re all students together!” Some of the closest and longest-lasting friendships that I have ever enjoyed began in his class.

The classes assumed an “open-lesson” format, Fischer working with one student in front of the others. He spoke several languages and used them all among this international group; he spoke to me in English. A wide repertoire was examined, reaching back before Bach and up to our own century. I played such pieces as Schumann’s F-sharp Sonata, Beethoven’s Sonatas, Op. 101 and 110, Chopin’s Fantasie, and Bartok’s Bagatelles.

Fischer sought interpretations that were consistent within themselves, yet he would not insist that a student’s interpretation agree entirely with his own. In fact, I was struck with how little the students could be said to have actually sounded like Fischer but, rather, were led to play in their own individual styles. Perhaps ironically, by helping me find my own style, he eventually led me to the clavichord, which disappointed him. Although he appreciated the clavichord’s singing sound, particularly its capability for “vibrato,” he felt that it was obsolete as a concert instrument.

Fischer’s approach to music was balanced and complete, including the emotional/psychological form of a work as well as the intellectual. He would never dissect a piece and regard it from a detached, cerebral perspective; instead, he treated a piece of music as a living thing – supple, changing, alive, and free. A performance could then be expected to evolve with the performer over a period of time, adapting to different circumstances and audiences.

While he would usually begin each class by playing a piece for us, he would not usually play examples during lessons for students to imitate. Rather, he would describe what he wanted to hear, often with vivid metaphors. For instance, he once told a student to make the piano sound “as if it were fire—going up in smoke!” An important part of his metaphoric vocabulary was orchestral color, and he encouraged students to think of the piano as a complete orchestra (a contrast to the more homogenized sound that is so common today).

When instructions were not spoken, they were often gestured. Fischer would conduct students as he did his orchestra. His conducting nuances were always perfectly clear and conveyed his meaning in a way that was impossible in mere words. He would also sing or hum, a reflection of the singing, rich melodic quality of his own playing.

He spoke little of technique, as musical understanding was his first concern. However, his own technical apparatus was formidable. He was a stocky, sturdily-built man of great strength, his hands were large and strong, yet gentle and sensitive, and his fingers were large and well-cushioned. These features, matched by his uncanny musical sense and sensitivity to color, gave him an extraordinary technique from the emotional standpoint: he could project eloquently any mood he wished to express musically. However, his emotional involvement was so intense that performances could be less than note-perfect. But priorities were different then and audiences overlooked the occasional mistakes.

Once, during a class, I was performing a Bach fugue from memory. Suddenly I had a memory slip; yet, somehow, in a fit of inspiration, I kept playing, continuing and finishing the piece in a Bach-styled improvisation. Fischer as more pleased that I had been able to do this than if I had played it as written!

Freedom was central to Fischer’s approach to music. His technique was very relaxed, and he urged students to find how to be free of tension. He grew furious at fixed or rigid ideas and, for instance, would not let students write down recommended metronome markings. The first time she heard him, my friend and fellow student Irene Schreier-Scott was surprised by the liberties Fischer took when he played concertos by Beethoven and Mozart with some octave doublings of bass lines. Yet she was overwhelmed by the power of his playing. However, Fischer still had utmost respect for the composer’s score. Irene recalls how once, after a student played a Beethoven work, he announced: “Here, Beethoven has written ‘piano’ – but Lila plays ‘forte’!”

Fischer was a simple, unpretentious man, fully in touch with his childlike side, blessed with a sense of humor and whimsy. He was powerfully emotional and profoundly intuitive, yet always attentive to the needs of other people. There was a grandeur in his way of interacting which was part of his beauty as a teacher. He had a way of being very close to a student without invading that student’s privacy and without being manipulative in any way. His performances reflected this integrity, sincerity, and lack of pretense. He would never indulge in technical display for its own sake; at the same time, his face would often reflect the music’s moods as he played.

Fischer was part of a milieu in which the great artists were an appreciated and integral part of life. There was an intense rapport between audience and performer, in which the audience, by listening, contributed as much to a performance as the performer did. The performing artist was a sort of guru – or, as Fischer himself said, medium or mediator—who expressed the experience of life, which the audience took to enlighten their own experience. Art was not unnecessary or peripheral, but essential and spiritual. The artist, nurtured by culture, bloomed for the public and enjoyed the admiration and acceptance of a wide cross-section of society. Great artists like Fischer never misused their position, but served their audiences with integrity.

Fischer was called “the Lion” in his youth, and there was certainly fire in his personality. Yet he was changing by the time I was with him, becoming gentler and more philosophical. The illnesses that came with old age took their toll on his playing, and with the death in 1954 of his close friend Wilhelm Furtwangler, he was confronted with the almost overwhelming fear of his own death.

The sorrows that overshadowed his last years expanded the spectrum of the emotions he expressed in music, in extremes of light and dark. Unfortunately, his increasing physical frailty limited his technique. I recall once when I was invited to visit him when he was staying at the home of a wealthy patron. By that time he had suffered a heart attack and other ailments, and playing was becoming difficult for him. As we sat together at the piano, his fingers moving slowly over the keys, he said, “Just when I’m beginning to understand!”

The last time I saw Fischer, I had been asked to come and visit him by his housekeeper, Fraulein Lena. They were staying at a hotel in Baden-Baden, where he must have been undergoing some treatment for his illnesses. I walked into his hotel room and saw him, sitting alone, completely withdrawn and deeply sad. After a moment he saw me and came to life, as it were, and we talked for some time. I was deeply impressed with how terribly alone he had become, no longer able to play, without family or audience to support him. No one had any idea of what he was going through then. He died not long after that, in 1960.

Fischer was very human. Besides his fear of death, he was very fearful of machines, and he worried that they might eventually remove man from nature and from his feeling side. This was why he never traveled to America. Not only was he afraid of airplanes, but he also feared what he perceived as America’s mechanistic, materialistic culture.

Fischer was very close to nature. He especially loved the flowers around his home in Lucerne. Nature was central to his understanding of art and music:

What is it to play the piano without creating anything? And what is it to create, if not to imitate nature? Art and life are not separate things, but united and interdependent.

As I had sensed so deeply, from the first moment I heard his name, from every lesson and performance I attended, I knew that Edwin Fischer was the ideal teacher for me, one that would influence me my whole life long. As I reread the following quotation, I understand why I was drawn to this man and his wholehearted devotion to his art:

“I believe that the most arduous studies, the most authentic talent, the most serious application, is not enough, if one’s entire life is not oriented in the direction of meditation. Each action, and even each thought, leaves an impression on the personality. Let the purity of life extend to the gulp that one brings to one’s mouth! Then music is rediscovered in its original youth, then it speaks its true language. A current traverses you, you let yourself be carried away by this current, and you possess in all humility the greatest happiness of the recreating artist: to be no more than medium or mediator between the divine, the eternal and men. (1)

(1) Quotations at the beginning and end of this article have been adapted by the author from Bernard Gavoty, Les Grands Interpretes: Edwin Fischer (Geneva: Editions Rene Kister et Union Eurpeenne d’Editions, c. 1948).

“Recollections of Edwin Fischer”
by Joan Benson (as told to Timothy Tikker)
Journal of the American Liszt Society; Volume 21/January-June 1987

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