Notes from a pianist: The unkindest cut of all

The technical work of becoming a pianist of professional level is unremittingly hard. Most begin with some level of natural facility, but refining this into a flexible and reliable technique is work that demands great concentration and dedication. As a student, I usually put in four hours practice a day, which generally achieved what I needed to do without becoming stale or unduly fatigued.

It never occurred to me that there were any short cuts to the goal of a comprehensive technical command. There was no substitute for putting in the physical work, and above all you had to learn how to work not just hard but smart. Progress resulted, and eventually you reached the goal of being able to perform a work not only to a professional standard but in the way that you believed it should be played.

And yet there were always limitations. The most obvious is a natural limitation on the size of the hand and to some extent its flexibility. There are techniques that can be learned to overcome many problems in piano playing. Nevertheless, there are some works that will never lie entirely comfortably under the hands. It is a rare pianist who can, for example, play all of the Chopin Etudes to the same high standard, since they expose different facets of technique mercilessly. Differences in technical emphasis among composers is also a major factor that leads to pianists specializing in the repertoire that best suits them. I remember as a student some pianists whose physique and temperament best suited them for Mozart rather than for Rachmaninoff, and others for whom that position was reversed. What I was taught was that you accepted what nature had given you and did your best with the result, and that in the vast majority of the standard repertoire there were solutions at hand that were interpretatively satisfactory.

But some pianists cheat. It seems, at least according to the internet, that Beethoven and Chopin, as well as some famous pianists of the modern age, all underwent a physical operation in which the webbing between some or all of their fingers was cut. If successful, this meant that the stretch of the hand would increase dramatically as well as aiding its flexibility in certain figurations. If unsuccessful, I suspect it would damage the hands beyond repair.

According to Alan Walker’s biography of Liszt, this practice had become fashionable in the late 1860s. Writing to his student Johanna Wenzel in 1872, Liszt counselled strongly against it,

“My dear young lady,
In reply to your friendly lines I earnestly beg of you to think no more of having this barbarous finger operation. Better to play every octave and chord wrong throughout your life than to commit such a mad attack on your hands.”

Liszt was correct to think of such practices as entirely alien to the pianist’s art. Those who knew Liszt uniformly refer to the nobility and artistic integrity of his interpretations and his teaching. Subordinating such values to a diabolical (and medically risky) compromise would be an unforgivable interference with nature.

Walker also tells us that by 1885 the tendons themselves were being cut, and that a description of the procedure involved had appeared in the British Medical Journal. In the United States, surgeon William E. Forbes specialized in the procedure, which was completed in fifteen minutes, and by 1898 estimated that he had performed it 2,500 times.

What of today? I am not aware of any pianist who will admit publicly to having undergone this or a similar procedure. Yet the internet suggests it is rife, both in Europe and in Asia, and the contemporary classical piano world’s emphasis on shallow virtuosity would tend to provide an impetus for such things. Who are the surgeons who (presumably privately) are doing this? Is it ethical for them to do so? In the already mired and corrupt world of piano competitions, should we not be separating those who have given themselves an unfair technical advantage from their uncut peers in the same way as the sports world bans doping? Is it not time to reassert the position that piano playing depends for its very essence on the integrity of the interpreter, both musically and personally?