Simply Madeleine: A Conversation with Madeleine Forte
by Peter J. Rabinowitz, published in Fanfare, March/April 2012
(Copyright © 2012 by Fanfare, Inc.; reprinted by permission)
Most pianist interviews I’ve conducted for Fanfare have been either with young performers launching their careers or with midcareer artists engaged in some new recording project. This return visit with Madeleine Forte is something different. She has finished with public performance and with recording. What generated the interview, rather, was the publication of her memoir, Simply Madeleine—clearly a valedictory event.

Simply Madeleine had a poignant origin. “A year ago,” she says, “I suffered a blow in my personal life. I had a deep sadness in my heart, and I had to recover on my own, without telling much to anybody. While I was meditating, beyond my large windows and beautiful trees, I had a vision of my dad, who had always been for me the Rock of Gibraltar.” In a way, this was not unusual: “Every time I have been in difficulties, my dad has appeared, either in reality or in a dream or in memory.” This time, though, something different resulted: “I started to write about him and then about my wonderful aunt Sonia (who was my earliest musical inspiration), my mother, my brother, my maid … . My whole life came in front of my eyes like in a movie.”

Except for brief periods in her life, Madeleine hadn’t kept a journal. (I use her first name on her recommendation. As she puts it, “considering that I went through three husbands who wanted me to use their name, the most appropriate is ‘Madeleine’.”) But she has an excellent memory: “I can go back as far as when I was three, when my grandma died and Aunt Sonia came.” She ties this to the force of her emotions: “My emotions were so strong, even as a very little girl. I kept everything inside. The emotions were so strong that it probably helped me remember everything.
“From December 2010 to March 2011, I just wrote, wrote, wrote. You know, I am not a writer but a pianist. So I would send my snippets to friends and neighbors and get their impressions. They loved them, and that built my confidence.” The readers encouraged her to continue, but also encouraged her to compress. “Critical friends helped me with my prose, suggesting that I delete entire pages, my precious lines, for the benefit of the entire memoir. I learned to be selective. And after a few rejections from major companies—I was brave enough to send my stuff to Michigan and California—I decided to follow the advice of my CD producer from Roméo Records, who himself self-published two books with AuthorHouse.”

I suggest to her that one of the most striking qualities of her life, as portrayed in the book, is her devotion to her vocation as an artist—an unsentimental devotion that transcends her commitments to traditional bourgeois notions of family, and especially of proper motherhood. “You are right, it is a totally unsentimental choice,” she says. “I am actually going to give a lecture on ‘What is a Vocation?’ in New Haven. Let me tell you what I think a vocation is: It is a burning desire to do something. This something is beyond the self, you have to do it.” An artist with a vocation, she says, is therefore different from “a gifted child who likes to play because he gets chocolate or because he gets little rewards, because he wants to show off. No, it has never been that for me. This is beyond myself in a sense. I am pushed by that idea that I have to do it. I think you are born a performer, and a real performer is not the one who gets the reward from money, from chocolate, from clapping.”

Is there something special about an artistic vocation that makes it different from a drive to be a scientist? “A drive is a drive. A scientist like Pasteur was pushed to do it; Marie Curie was pushed to do it, beyond her own person. The drive to be a great doctor is probably the same. We go beyond the person, I think, beyond the self. It is something higher. I don’t want to say that artists are special. But the person with a drive is special.”

But, I ask, aren’t there plenty of professional pianists who don’t have that drive? Yes, she says; but not plenty of great pianists. She returns to the example of the precocious child: “A child who is gifted and has great hands and who likes to perform: We have to be careful. It might not be because he has a drive. It might be because of the reward, and then it will collapse.” So you can’t be a great pianist without that drive? “I don’t think so,” she says. “All the great pianists have that.”

Madeleine has had that kind of drive since she was a child. “I want to give you a little example. When I was 13 I had a debut in Vichy. I would go practice even after the concert. And some people in the hotel said, ‘But why is she practicing? Why are you practicing? You are so good!’ I was 13, and I would tell my Aunt Sonia, ‘But they are stupid, Tatoune Sonia, they are totally stupid. They don’t understand.’ You see, I thought they were stupid to tell me that I was so good that I should stop practicing. At age 13 I knew that I had to practice because I felt the need to perfect myself.”

Aunt Sonia, encouraged by Reynaldo Hahn and Camille Saint-Saëns, had been at the start of what might have been a great operatic career in France—but under pressure from her mother, she abandoned it and returned to Algeria, where she had been born. (Although Madeleine may not have been conscious of it at the time, she learned from Sonia’s artistic sacrifice: “I decided not to fall into the same trap,” she says, of abandoning her art “for family reasons.”) Sonia moved in with Madeleine’s family when Madeleine’s grandmother died. “Aunt Sonia was a great, great artist, and what she gave me was that humilité. There has to be a combination of humilité as an artist, and self-confidence to be able to do it. You do have to believe in yourself to go on stage, you know. But if you don’t have the humility, you can’t be a great artist. You can be an artist, but you can’t be a great one. Look at Mme. Rosina Lhévinne: She was pretentious, she was a pain, but she had that humilité.”

I ask her how a vocation as artist relates to a vocation as teacher. “I think it helps a lot as a teacher,” she says. “Again, I thank the influence of my darling, dear, wonderful Aunt Sonia. She was a great teacher. And she had that need to transmit. I don’t know if I had it or if I copied her, but I also had the need to transmit. When I was working at the university, I read The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet. I loved this book.” Among other things, Highet taught her to take the enthusiasm generated by her research and link it to her teaching. “I learned that the more interested I am in my own subject, the better a teacher I will be. So, for example, I would work on Scriabin and I would have my students do a concert on Scriabin, and we would read books and analyze and so on. The more interested I was in my research, the better a teacher I was for my students.”

Forte’s teaching was also, no doubt, influenced by the superior teachers she had herself, the first (and perhaps most powerful) of whom was her Aunt Sonia: “Yes, I started at the age of three and a half, and my aunt Sonia gave me all the exercises. I had Cramer, I had Czerny, I had Tausig, I had Philipp, I had Roger-Ducasse. She also went into the physiology of the piano. She had the books of Blanche Selva and of Marie Jaëll, who was a friend of Liszt—books about the physiology of the piano. For instance, your hand has to be in a very good position in order to play well; if the hand is distorted, then it will be the wrong way to attack the key. Aunt Sonia was extremely bright, and she was researching constantly. And she also gave me and her other students physical exercises like when you swim—you know, gymnastics, also from the book by Blanche Selva, Gymnastic of the Piano—to work on your shoulder and your elbows and your relaxation. You know, like sitting in the chair, contracting and relaxing. So I did all that for so many years, by the time I was 12 I had acquired a pretty good technique, although I was playing fast. And of course she was extremely musical, she was a contralto. She had been a student of Reynaldo Hahn in voice and composition. She had a wonderful voice, a voice similar to the one of Marian Anderson, but in a slightly lighter timbre. She would sing Mozart, she would sing the prayer of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, she would sing in Russian. So I had that music in my head. It was not a lot of teaching—it was only one hour every day—but it was concentrated. One hour every day for so many years. I was in school and she was teaching others, so the piano was not available. But that wonderful coaching and her wonderful musical talent created my ear. I owe her everything, there is no doubt.”

Madeleine also studied with both Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff. They were obviously very different pianists, and I ask her whether she thinks it was an advantage to have this kind of diversity. She responds by pointing to the different kinds of things she learned from each of them. “I was very young for Cortot and he cleaned up my technique. He was very specific, very detailed. As a human being, eventually, I didn’t appreciate what he did”—a reference to collaboration with the Nazis. “But as a teacher, he was spectacular. It was in the ’50s—1952, 1953. He was very specific. We had technique class. It was very detailed. I really owe him my technique, and the flexibility and the precision of the fingers. He was humble in his music, very humble. And I quote him saying he had to practice before he would meet his colleagues Casals and Thibaud, he would practice in order to clean himself up, so he could be in front of the altar of music. He would make the music so sacred when he played chamber music. He was a wonderful teacher.”

And Kempff? “I enjoyed Kempff very very much,” she says. “He was more philosophical. It was larger ideas, it was grand. The phrase—he would go back and improve your phrase. But it was not detailed like Cortot. You would arrive at Kempff when you were already quite good. I think that, eventually, if you are a good artist, you make a synthesis of all that.”

Messaien’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, was also an inspiration. “She was spectacular! She was a great teacher, detailed, talking a lot, of course, about Messiaen, talking about what he would want in her, how to play staccato, what kind of staccato will do, which kind of aggressive playing in certain chords. She was spectacular. And very charming. It was a big loss when she died.”

Madeleine was born in 1938—yet she made her first commercial recording 60 years later, and her total discography (including a three-disc set of duo-piano music recorded in concert) includes only seven releases. Why did she record so late and so little? “I didn’t record before,” she says, “because I didn’t have the opportunity, I was teaching too much. I was a professor until 1997; I was on the faculty for 26 years, lost in the wilderness.” Even when she came east after leaving Boise State, she didn’t plan on recording. “When I came east, I came to retire. But I got involved with theorist Allen Forte and we got married. I had to be doing something, I had plenty of time to practice, and I could concentrate—that’s the difference. When you are a teacher for the whole week you don’t really have much time to do your own. I had come to retire.” But she soon found herself pulled out of retirement, partly because of invitations to engage in lecture-recitals with her husband. “People said, ‘You are a wonderful team, Allen Forte and Madeleine Forte, why don’t you do some lecture-recitals?’” One of her CDs—music by Messiaen—is, in fact, one of those lecture recitals.

It’s a small recorded legacy—but Madeleine is firm in her insistence that there will be no new recordings in the future: “Knowing when to stop: I say it in my book. When Allen and I had a gig in China, in 2009, I thought, ‘This is it.’ It was so wonderful, it was a kind of apotheosis of our career. Now Allen is almost 85. So 2009 was the right time for him to stop. And I thought it would be fair that we stop together. It would be easier. It is very hard to stop. Allen taught until 2004 at Yale. When is the time to stop? I was guiding our couple in that. I want to have a good remembrance of our performances and lectures, in contrast to many people, who don’t know when to stop.”

She’s quick to point out that stopping doesn’t mean abandoning the piano: “I didn’t stop in my practicing, in my thinking, in my joy of music. As Robert Schumann said, ‘There is no end to learning.’” But as far as performing and recording go, she says, “We have to leave room to other, younger … That’s my idea. Let them have the glory, the joy. It’s better to stop when you remember you were good. I think it is a little bit of wisdom given by old age.”

Read Peter J. Rabinowitz's review of simply madeleine here.

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