“Not by Accident”: A Conversation with Madeleine Forte
by Peter J. Rabinowitz, published in Fanfare, July/August 2001
(Reprinted by permission)
Pianist Madeleine Forte may not be widely known, but her recent Ravel recital made something of a splash: Her playing was welcomed on these pages as “vibrant” and “intensely affectionate” by Peter Burwasser (23:1), and her “gorgeous tone and sensuous line” were singled out for praise by James M. Keller in the New Yorker. Her affinity for Ravel is perhaps not surprising. True, she has a wide repertoire that includes such virtuoso blockbusters as the Barber and Liszt Sonatas, and for a while she was even known as a Bartók and Liszt specialist. But as she put it in an interview in April, “I am French, and at this point in my life I think I can bring more to French composers. This is not by accident. Cortot used to quote Debussy as saying ‘On parle mieux dans sa propre langue’ [One speaks better in one’s own language]. It’s possible that Debussy really did say that; he was very nationalistic. And I agree that your country does form you, the literature and so on. That doesn’t mean that you cannot play Brahms or you cannot play Schumann. But there really is a birthright.” No wonder, then, that her orientation nowadays is toward Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen....

And Chopin—for Forte is one of those who consider Chopin part of the French tradition. “Chopin was 19 when he went to Paris. His soul was Polish, but his refinement was definitely French. He was half French, he lived all his adult life in France, he had a French mistress.” If you compare his early music to “the Barcarolle and the Ballades, there is an evolution; it becomes more cultivated. Of course, it is the normal process of somebody growing up, but there is also definitely a culture around it, because he spent his whole life in Paris. So we can claim that Chopin is part of our French cultural background.”

Orientation, of course, is grounded not only in birth but also, as she explains it, in physical and emotional makeup. In addition, it is grounded in training and experience, and Forte has a distinguished pedigree (although it is, significantly, not entirely or unambiguously French). She got her first lessons from her aunt: “She was a wonderful singer, but from a very religious family. They prevented her from being onstage, because only ‘bad girls’ were on the stage at that time. I could hear the operatic works sung by her and her students, oratorio melodies, Mozart, Puccini, everything, so I already had an ear formed thanks to her. We talk about talent and we talk about education. I don’t know how much talent I had, but I definitely had the most wonderful education from her. But she was so smart that she realized her limitations. She wanted me to have great masters, she had high dreams.” In particular, her aunt “dreamed about Wilhelm Kempff.

“I started playing when I was very very young. And I started to have tension in my shoulder and my arms because I was one of those little kids who wanted to impress the other little kids. I was playing the A-flat Polonaise by Chopin and the Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt, and I was probably banging hard. My aunt didn’t know how to take care of tension, so as soon as we could get in touch with Wilhelm Kempff, she brought me to him.” Did she know Kempff? “No, she didn’t know him at all. I was 12; I was already playing the first movement of the Beethoven ‘Appassionata’ and the last movement, so after a concert she brought me to him, and we chatted. She must have said the right word, because there I was sitting, after the concert, trying to impress him with all the grand arpeggios of the ‘Appassionata,’ the first movement. He put his hand on my shoulder—he had wonderful hands—and he explained to me, ‘Madeleine, relax, relax,’ with his German accent. And he waved his arm, he flapped his arm in the air, and said to me, ‘You must play like a little bird.’ That stayed with me my whole life.

“I would not have lessons every week, but every time he was playing a concert we would catch him, and he was wonderful. It was a dream for me. Eventually, in the 60s, he invited me to go to Positano, where he was giving those Beethoven courses, and I was invited among 12 people from all over the world. It was absolutely fabulous; it was a whole Beethoven course.

“My aunt’s next dream was to meet Cortot. She had a connection with Cortot because she was playing with Francis Thibaud, a cellist, and Francis was the brother of Jacques Thibaud. And so, around the same age—I was 13 or so—we went to meet Cortot in Lausanne, because, as you remember, there was an interdiction preventing him from being in France, because he had collaborated with the Germans during the war.” Study with Cortot “was much more serious, because he was much more accessible, since he was not playing as much as Kempff. By then I was becoming a teenager; I was in school of course, but we would go and travel, and Cortot eventually accepted me. I don’t know if it was because he was interested or because of the connection with Francis Thibaud. I went to the École Normale, and he was a wonderful teacher.

“Cortot was a great, great friend of Casals and Thibaud, and there was a phrase he used which was most wonderful. After I had become his student, he said he had practiced the whole day by himself in order to prepare himself ‘in front of the altar of music.’ Because that same evening he had played with his friends Pablo Casals and Jacques Thibaud. And I thought that was very, very beautiful: He was preparing, practicing, cleaning up his playing ‘in front of the altar of music’ in order to play chamber music with his friends. He was in a sense very humble. Another phrase—he would say it not just to me but all the students: ‘You must be convinced even if you are wrongly convinced.’ He would tell us a bunch of stories about each Prelude of Chopin. He had a wild, wild imagination, so it was not really a piano lesson, it was a lesson in poetry, a lesson in philosophy. We were so young that probably half of the stuff went in one ear and out the other. But we were in awe.”

This was all in the last three or four years before Cortot’s death in 1962. “He was not playing very well anymore. But they were very serious lessons. I owe him my technique. He was very stern, but he was very respectful, principally of girls. He called me ‘Mademoiselle Madeleine.’ He was very respectful of your sincere desire of improving, and we were in awe; we were frightened. He looked like a scarecrow, he had hardly any hair, but what was left was parted in the middle, long hair. He was extremely thin with huge glasses, and I remember as a child, as a young lady, that those glasses made his eyes twice their size. They were quite frightening. He was very, very pale also, pale with a kind of yellow complexion; he never smiled. And at that time he had large, large pants, and they were floating around what were probably just bones. He was frightening, but in another sense he was like an old philosopher. He looked like an old woman, actually, an ancient.

“He would sit very, very close to you, pushing on your shoulder. When he would push you away and give you an example, he would look at you with his huge eyes, and the notes were wrong because he would not look at the keyboard. But you would understand it; it was wonderful. And he had all those grand ideas about being convinced even if you were wrong and so on, and he said you have to have your imagination. But, going back to some more precise things: His technique was very demanding. You’ve probably seen him in photos, his hands: the vault is up and the fingers are very flat. It looks crazy. He did not ask us to copy his hands. But he did transform my hand, because my aunt was quite old by then and she had more the old French technique, which is the harpsichord technique. And my aunt taught me that for a while, but it was dry, and Cortot transformed my technique.

“And, of course, he was demanding, but he was patient. For example, the legato was never legato enough for him, it had to be legatissimo, with overlapping, so the legato I really owe to Cortot. And also, for example, he spent time and time to explain to a group of five of us the double escapement of the Steinway, because everybody had a Pleyel or Érard or Gaveau piano in France, and of course we didn’t have three pedals either, so he would spend time. The time spent on sound and pedaling! He said you must spend a third of your life at the pedal, which I probably did. And the soft pedal can be worked just the way the right pedal can be worked, with different levels. So that was really wonderful.

“We never argued with him. When I was a professor at the university, the students would argue, but it would have been a crime to argue with the Master.” He put particular stress on chamber music. “He wanted us to be well-rounded musicians. He hated virtuosos; he detested those people. He wanted us to be musicians; we could not show off. Anything that was showing off in our music he would eliminate. He didn’t want that. It had to be deep conviction, the sincere desire, respect for the composer, and for the thought of the composer.”

What interpretive qualities did she pick up from Cortot? “For example, the scale had to flow like water. You know, when Chopin would write to his family he would always make fun of the phrase ‘like water.’ At the end of his life he was in England, and everybody said, ‘like water, like water.’ So he would write to his family in Poland about those comments.”

Of course, Forte’s description of Chopin—“his soul was Polish but his refinement was definitely French”—reminds us of the duality in his music. And Forte’s background may give her special insight into the Polish side as well. “I was in Poland, and I worked for 15 months with Zbigniew Drzewiecki. I went on a grant, because, like all French people, we are just Russian crazy or Polish crazy. I had applied for a scholarship, and it arrived. So I took it. I arrived in Poland—it was freezing; I thought I would die. I was arriving from the very sophisticated life of Paris. My father was a lawyer; we had all the luxuries. But it was in the 1960s, and Poland was communist then, so I really suffered. There was nothing: I had to exchange my clothes for meat. It was a complete shock, but I was daring. I was very young, and it was an adventure. I went on a train Just to feel the distance between Paris and Poland. There was a lot of dreaming about Chopin.

“So I, arrived there, and my teacher was Drzewiecki. He was much stricter than Cortot. He was very difficult, but he had a certain sense of dry humor, and, when you got used to it, it was all right. He spoke French with me, which helped, but I also learned Polish at the university. His approach was: A priori, it was not good. You could never please him. He saw me at the movies one day at 8 p.m., and then the following day at 8 a.m. I was supposed to have a lesson. He said it was atrocious, just because he disliked the idea of me being at the movies 12 hours before.

“But he would dance with me. He was quite old, another antique. I think it was nice for me to have all those antique teachers, definitely the foot in the other century. Even my aunt was from the other century. Drzewiecki wanted to explain to me the Polish rhythm of the mazurka and the polonaise because he felt that, as a French person, I didn’t understand anything. He used a cane because he had a bad leg, but he danced with me with the cane, and I was more worried about the cane than about the rhythm, but I got it. He made me dance the mazurka and the polonaise, and I felt it in the body, just like people use it for little children. He always wanted a deeper tone: He said the French were too superficial. And of course at that time I was very young, and I had very fast fingers, and it is possible that I was playing too fast. It got in the way a little bit once in a while, and he didn’t like that at all.

“I remember one day, before a very important performance I had in Poland.... I was quite famous, the French girl coming to Poland. I spoke Polish and I had friends and I was very, very social and gregarious. So I had a very important performance coming, but I had a fever. But you know what it is when you’re an artist: Whether you have a fever or not, you go. So I went to play the whole program for him, and he asked me how I felt, and I said, ‘Not too good, Professor, Master, I think I have the flu.’ And he said ‘Today, you are very good. From now on, I want you to be sick before you play concerts.’

“Also, I was learning a lot of Polish, and he was impressed, but he was so nasty. He managed to say, ‘If you do not learn a lot of great Polish piano, at least you are learning a lot of the Polish language.’ He was very sharp, and he made me mad. Once I didn’t go back for a whole month because I was really furious. But right now I am really grateful, because I cherish that memory; I learned a lot from him the hard, European way, that Russian, Polish school where, you know, you never hear about any problem, any indisposition. It was tough but it was great. And when I came back everyone felt that I had improved a lot. They really work on your ego, and you become more and more humble.”

At the time of the interview, Forte was a few weeks away from a private Chopin recital for trustees and associates of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, playing on an Érard and a Pleyel from the collection—and her interest in those instruments adds yet another dimension to her perspective on French music and on Chopin more particularly. “I was raised on those pianos; this is part of my background. We never had the third pedal, we didn’t have the huge resonances and harmonics of the Steinway.” To return to Cortot’s insistence that the scales must flow like water: “When we talk more precisely about how the scales flow like water, what I’m going to tell you now applies to Chopin and to French music: It is due to the pianos. You see, when I play my double notes on an Érard or a Pleyel, I can play them legatissimo. But if I play double notes on a Steinway I have to work hard to do them legatissimo because they will sound more staccato. There is an ease on the Érard and Pleyel, the French pianos, it flows. You have more speed, you have more lightness, you have more clarity of sound because we don’t have the rich harmonics of the Steinway. And Chopin never wrote for a Steinway. Liszt had a Bösendorfer and all those big pianos. I would not want to play Liszt on a Pleyel, for example. I could play Liszt on an Érard, but of course Liszt planned such a big, huge sound, and you are really more rewarded on a German piano like a Steinway or a Bösendorfer.”

In addition, on the Érard and Pleyel “you have a wood sound board; everything is wood on those French pianos. And another thing: The strings are not crossed. The sound is minimized, but you gain clarity. In addition, you play in a smaller hall. I will be playing in the museum, which is probably 100 or 125 people. So we are going back to what it was in the 19th century, to a salon. When you play on those instruments, you go back in time; you definitely go back in time.

“I am sure that Chopin would have detested the Steinway or the Bösendorfer. You never hear of Chopin playing on a Bösendorfer, although it was accessible to him. He concentrated on Érard and Pleyel, but he liked Pleyel more. He said that, when he was in a great mood, he liked to play on the Pleyel. When he was under the weather, he played on the Érard, because the Érard produces a better sound without working hard.”

At her upcoming recital, Forte said, she was planning to play the Prelude, op. 45, on a Pleyel: “It’s an 1842 piano from the time of Chopin, although not Chopin’s piano. Mazurkas work very well on the Pleyel: It has a quaint, lovely sound, a little bit like a music box. It doesn’t have too much legato, so you have to be very careful and use your pedal accordingly.” But the instrument is “a little bit old,” so she planned to play the rest of the recital (six preludes, the Barcarolle, some études, the Ballade, op. 52, a couple of nocturnes, and “the big Polonaise of Rubinstein, the A-flat”) on an 1881 Érard, “because it is in better condition. It has not been rebuilt; it has been kept in perfect condition.”

How different is the experience at the keyboard when she is playing on an old Érard or Pleyel, rather than on a Steinway? “It feels better. I played a whole Ravel program for them in 1995. I was teaching full-time then and I was surprised by the speed that I got. You know the Sonatine—it was just SO fast, my fingers got away a little bit. I hadn’t had much chance to rehearse. Just once. It was a wonderful experience, but at that time I realized, oooh!, I have to be very careful, because you don’t have anything to hold you back, like on the Steinway. And if you a tendency to have fast fingers, you have to be very careful. Now it feels wonderful. Everything that I do on the Érard and the Pleyel is just 20% lighter, easier, you have speed, it is clear, you work on your pedals … everything seems delightful, that’s the word I would like to use.”

Forte is married to the musicologist Allen Forte—and I asked her what it’s like as performer to live with a musicologist. “It is absolutely fabulous. I have to say that this is my third marriage, but I think to be married to Allen Forte, it is definitely ... we have been married three and a half years. He was my son’s advisor, and it has been absolute hasard [fate]. To be married to Allen Forte is absolutely prodigious, because we talk; we just share everything. To be able to share ideas about music and be married to a scientist—he is a real scientist of music.... We are opposites: I am the more instinctive; he is the scientist. It works very well. I have been waiting all those years for the right one.”

One certainly senses her “instinctive” quality when listening to her Debussy: “In Debussy I feel that I should not be rushed. My tempo should feel comfortable to me and somewhat lazy. You see, I have a concept of Debussy as a man of great genius, a dreamer as we all know, and of somebody very lazy, lazy in the sense that he did only what pleased him, le plaisir. He always talked about ... you know those stories about chords, when he was a young student at the Paris Conservatory, he would drive his teachers crazy. Every time after the class he would play those chords, and one of the teachers said, ‘Oh, but this is awful, this does not exist; why do you do that?’ He said, ‘Pour mon plaisir.’ So, for pleasure. And coming from that—it is very French—le plaisir du vin, le plaisir du fromage—so I think that you have to feel it in your system, which is what I tell my students. Feel it in your system so you are not rushed into it, so you enjoy it, and the tempo will flow according to your system. This is the way I do it. Reflets dans l’eau: You are there, I am there, by the water, and I am enjoying the water and I have pleasure looking at water, and then it flows according to my own system. And in Poissons d’or, I see those fish.”

That visual emphasis points to yet another dimension of Forte’s very special way with French Music: “I am very visual. My grandfather was an Italian designer, and my son now is an American sculptor. And I feel sometimes there’s a line, but who knows about heredity? But I am very visual, and when I go to a new town, you won’t believe it: I don’t go to a concert, I go to a museum. I need nature, I need colors. This is probably one of the reasons why I concentrate on Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen: Those people are visual. And Chopin is very colorful. It may be my nature, my personal attraction to sound. Sound is very important to my ears. If I had not been a pianist I would have been a violinist or a singer or a harpist—or maybe a painter. But color is necessary for me, for my peace of mind, for my personal enjoyment.”

Future plans? She’s just about to release CD devoted to Messiaen, the composer on whom she wrote her dissertation. He was actually her third thesis topic—after Barber and Boulez—but she quickly “fell in love” with his music. “I started to work in 1979, and I got in touch with him, and I eventually I got a sabbatical leave, and I coached with Yvonne Loriod.” In fact, this CD has an endorsement from Loriod. The disc grows out of lecture recitals Forte had been giving with her husband, who’s also deeply involved in Messiaen; and it contains his spoken commentary along with 11 of Messiaen’s pieces (five Preludes, six of the Vingt regards). More Messiaen is a serious possibility (as she puts it, “I’m working my way up slowly to the Vingt regards”), possibly in the form of another lecture recital. A CD of Chopin on period instruments may be drawn from her recital at Yale. “After that, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. . . .” Whatever it turns out to be, though, it will undoubtedly be well worth hearing.

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