The Perfect Clara Haskil

Clara Haskil
Clara Haskil Zeichnung von Michael Garady

by Peter Feuchtwanger

As Clara sat down “the music materialized as if from nowhere. Her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without preparation, just as a flat stone skims across the water. This was so typical of her playing; nothing seemed to start or end, and everything became timeless.”

Admiration and international fame came late in life for Clara Haskil, in a career beset by poor health and the adversities of a world war. Dinu Lipatti described her playing as “the sum of perfection on earth,” Wilhelm Backhaus called it “the most beautiful in the world,” Tatyana Nikoleyeva burst into tears when she first heard Haskil, and Rudolf Serkin nicknamed her “the perfect Clara.” Haskil’s close friend, Nikita Magaloff wrote,

“I had the great privilege of hearing her, at her home and mine, thumbing through fingering, deciphering and running over the most diverse works, and that is why the Chromatic Study by Debussy, the Etude Tableau in E flat minor by Rachmaninoff, a passage from the Totentanz of Liszt or a Rondo of Chopin rest engraved in my memory as played so inimitably by her. Never, even amongst my most illustrious colleagues, have I met with that incredible and disconcerting facility and pianistic ease, which a spontaneous, uncalculated, natural flow of the music. That which others achieve by work, research, and reflection, seems to come to Clara from heaven without problems.” (The Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, July-October, 1976)

Clara Haskil
Clara Haskil Clara Haskil's favorite portrait of herself, drawn by Michael Garady

I first heard Clara Haskil’s name mentioned by Dinu Lipatti after a recital he gave in Switzerland. When I congratulated him on his Mozart playing, Lipatti said, "In two weeks’ time you must hear Clara play Mozart. Then you will realize how far the rest of us are from the truth." I was young at the time, but the name stuck in my mind. Who was this mysterious Clara?

Five years later during another visit to Switzerland, the mystery was solved. At a concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich on September 7, 1952, Clara Haskil was the soloist in Mozart’s Concerto in E flat, K. 271. The concert was well-nigh sold out, and the only tickets available were for the cheapest seats in the annex. Mine was behind a pillar, where I could hear well but not see.

The concerto begins with a question from the orchestra that is answered by the soloist in the second bar. The question repeats, prompting the soloist to emphasize the answer. Haskil’s response aroused my curiosity and made me listen. Nothing, though, prepared me for that was to com. After the ensuing tutti, the B flat trill suddenly materialized, and I heard something akin to Mary Garden’s description of Nellie Melba’s top C at the end of the fist act of La Bohème.

The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden: it left Melba’s throat, it left Melba’s Body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever. It just rolled over the hall of Covent Garden. My God, how beautiful it was! Since then I always wait for that note when I hear the first act of La Bohème. (Mary Garden’s Story, Michael Joseph)

Likewise, I now wait for that B flat trill whenever I hear this concerto.

Haskil recorded K. 271, but no recording can capture the consummate musical expression or magic of a great artist, which is something ineffable. Haskil’s performances in the concert hall were often miracles, and miracles simply cannot be reproduced.

Her performance that night was greeted with stormy applause, so I seized the opportunity to look around the pillar to see who was responsible for such divine sounds. Grasping the conductor’s hand as if for reassurance and with a look of disbelief on her face, Clara Haskil acknowledged the audience’s enthusiasm. I glimpsed at the pianist who one London critic described as playing “Mozart for the Gods.” In years to come I heard her many times, both publicly and privately. For theses experiences I remain eternally grateful.

As I left the hall, a friend who knew Haskil offered to take me backstage. She seemed inconsolable and unhappy, excusing her poor performance to anyone who congratulated her. When introduced, I mumbled my admiration, and she asked whether I was a pianist. After hearing such playing, I did not want to talk about my own and said I was a composer. A few weeks later I saw Clara waiting at a tram stop, looking forlorn. “Ah, the young composer,” she exclaimed, and that’s how our friendship started.

Born in Bucharest on January 7, 1895 of Sephardic Jewish parents, Haskil’s musical talent was evident in early childhood. At the age of three she could pick out any tune that an older sister played on the piano. She was not yet five when a professor at the Bucharest Academy visited her parent’s home and played a Mozart sonata. When he finished she repeated the sonata perfectly, while simultaneously transposing it into another key, all without having had any musical instruction.

After her father’s death, the girl’s uncle brought her to the attention of Anton Door, a celebrated piano teacher in Vienna who had known Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Joseph Joachim. Door described meeting the girl in the Neue Freie Presse in April 1902:

Recently a doctor from Romania came to me, leading by the hand a little girl barely seven years of age. The child, whose mother is a widow, is unique. She has never had any music lessons beyond being shown the value and names of the notes. More did not seem necessary, for every piece of music that is played to her and which she can manage with her small hands she repeats by ear without mistake and in any key one asks. An easy movement from a Beethoven Sonata that I gave her she played at sight without difficulty. One is baffled, for this early maturity of a human brain strikes one as uncanny.

In 1903 Haskil began piano studies with Richard Robert, whose pupils included Rudolf Serkin and George Szell. He took a special interest in the young artist, and soon she created a stir in musical Vienna with a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in A Major, K. 488. Two years later at age ten, she gave her fist solo recital. In 1905 she entered the Paris Conservatoire, impressing the director, Gabriel Fauré, with her musical gifts. Joining Alfred Cortot’s class in 1907, she graduated at age 15 with the Premier Prix. Extensive concert tours to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Bucharest followed.

In Switzerland Ferrucio Busoni, then at the height of his career, heard Haskil play his transcription of Bach’s D minor Chaconne and invited her to study with him in Berlin. Clara’s mother declined the offer on the grounds that her daughter was too young. Instead, further concert tours were organized until the first of many severe physical setbacks brought Haskil’s concert career to an abrupt halt in 1913. In an attempt to delay the onset of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), she spent the next four years in a plaster cast.

Though acclaimed in the later years as the foremost Mozart pianist of her generation, it was in such works as Islamey, The Great Gate of Kiev, Feux Follets, and the Brahms B flat Concerto – learned in two days – that she excelled in playing in those early years. Haskil learned Feux Follets by hearing Vlado Perlemuter play the piece at a private function; then she performed the work a few days later and confessed afterwards that she had never seen the score.

From early childhood Haskil was fond of the violin, especially the playing of Joseph Joachim, which nearly moved her to tears. Peter Rybar, the Swiss violinist, recalls an occasion in Winterthur in 1944 when she picked up a violin during a rehearsal break and began playing the fist movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Rybar could scarcely believe his ears: the playing was perfect, with impeccable phrasing and intonation, and an exquisite tone. She had hardly three years of violin study and practiced only on the day of her lesson. Throughout her career Haskil performed with such great string players as Eugène Ysaÿe, Georges Enesco, Pablo Casals, Arthur Grumiaux, Pierre Fournier, Joseph Szigeti, Zino Francescatti, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Henryk Szeryng, and her sister Jeanne.

The outbreak of World War II once again halted Haskil’s career. Caught in occupied Paris, she escaped to the free zone in the south with a group of musicians from the Orchestre National de France, as recounted by the conductor, Désiré Inghelbrecht:

We left Paris at night from the Gare Montparnasse, which was plunged into murky darkness, and before dawn we left the train at Angoulême. Our luggage had gone ahead of us, since, as we expected to have to do a lot of walking, we did not want to be heavily laden. In the sinister railway station, cold and dark, we huddled together, speaking in hushed tones; then we met the guide who was to lead us through fields and woods to the free zone.

A taxi drove us to the edge of a forest, where we listened to the scarcely reassuring advice of our guide. He was obviously frightened and told us that the prisons in the neighborhood were full of people like us who had been caught. One road was especially dangerous; we had to crawl across it for, not very far away, as we could see, was a German police station.

It was the end of march. The wind was cold but spring had come; there were violets in the woods and birds were singing, but we were not in a mood to enjoy that particular morning walk. On every signpost was a skull and crossbones and a menacing warning to anyone who ventured into this forbidden zone. Our guide wheeled his bicycle ahead of us and we followed in a single file. Le Guillard carried his viola and Clara’s suitcase since she, after a night without sleep, was physically and emotionally exhausted. Each of us wore several overcoats and my wife carried our cat in its basket. Our hearts beat wildly; at last we had crossed that terrible road. I remember that at the exact moment that our cat started miaowing our guide showed us the road we should take to rejoin the railway; he claimed his fee, mounted his bicycle and rode off as fast as he could.

Relieved and reassured at having survived this disagreeable experience we soon found a farm whose hospitable owners were used to groups of people in our situation and gave us something to eat. We slept at Limoges and reached Marseilles the next day. Clara, during the whole of this adventure, showed great courage and reserves of energy, which enabled her to overcome her exhaustion in spite of the precarious state of her health. (The Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, July-October, 1976)

In Marseilles in 1941 Haskil began to suffer from double vision accompanied by severe headaches, which turned out to be a tumor pressing on the optic nerve. A doctor was smuggled out of Paris to perform an operation, which against all odds worked. When news came that the Germans were about to occupy to Switzerland with the help of admirers.

Clara Haskil’s first performance in England took place in 1926 with Sir Hamilton Harty and the Hallé Orchestra. Her next appearance on those shores was 20 years later in 1946 at the Wigmore Hall to great acclaim. Sir Thomas Beecham heard some of her six recitals for the B.B.C. the same year and immediately engaged her to play several Mozart concertos with him. Six years elapsed before she appeared in London again, this time with the London Mozart Players conducted by Harry Blech, followed by many other performances there. Particularly noteworthy were the four concerts she gave with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1958-59 season, conducted by Colin Davis and Carlo Maria Giulini.

In the last ten years of her life Haskil performed the world over with leading conductors at the most prestigious music festivals. At the Casals Prades Festival in 1950 she met Eugene Istomin, a young American pianist, who convinced her to tour the United States. Haskil had already visited America and Canada in the 1920s and 30s, where she played under Leopold Stokowski and took all the Beethoven piano and violin sonatas on tour with Ysaÿe. Her return visit surpassed all expectations. A series of concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch and an appearance at Carnegie Hall created a sensation and were reported in Time magazine. Rudolf Eli wrote in the Boston Herald, “One of those most magical revelations that occurs in music once in a generation ... the most beautiful performance of Beethoven’s Third Concerto I have ever heard or expect to hear again.”

Clara made her only appearances at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957, giving one recital and two orchestral concertos under Eugen Jochum and John Barbirolli respectively. Later that year Christopher Grier wrote in Musical Events that “Clara Haskil made other excellent pianists sound like mere beginners.” The French government appointed her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Bemused by all the attention, she would ask, “Why does everyone want to hear me suddenly? I don’t seem to play differently from before.” I could imagine her adding modestly, “In fact, not as well.”

After hearing her at the 1954 Salzburg Festival, Hans Keller wrote: “Haskil played Mozart’s great A major K. 488 without showing off either her virtuosity or her lack of exhibitionism: the rarest of achievements in a solo artist.” When she performed the same concerto in 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Times critic observed that “she simply expunged from the concerto what was eternal.”

Those who heard Clara Haskil perform will never forget the audience hush to a silence as she bowed and approached the platform with almost a floating step, then crouched over the keyboard to coax sounds of unearthly beauty from the instrument. It is a miracle that this frail woman, despite so much suffering and so many setbacks, reached the pinnacle that she did.

Clara Haskil never taught and often insisted that she would not know how. In the few times she heard me, I learned more from her than from any other teacher before or since. On one occasion I had difficulty starting the Mozart G Major Concerto K. 453 and was never satisfied with the Eingang. She impatiently pushed me from the chair, and said, “But it doesn’t start ... .” As she sat down the music materialized as if from nowhere. Her arm seemed to glide over the keyboard without any preparation, just as a flat stone skims across the water. This was so typical of her playing; nothing seemed to start or end, and everything became timeless.

On another occasion I played the first movement of the Schubert B flat major Sonata, D. 960 for her. Throughout the movement the chord above the bass trill ends in an eighth note, the same value as in the bass. However, five bars from the end Schubert writes a quarter note in the right hand while retaining the eighth in the left. Almost every pianist ignores this subtle change an releases the right hand with the left, but not Clara Haskil. “You played the chord an eighth too short,” she exclaimed. “So” I replied. “After all, it’s only an eighth.” “Ja, aber ein Achtel Ewigkeit ...” (“Yes, but an eighth of eternity ...”).

Clara’s playing was intriguing to watch. Her very large hands, white as alabaster, skimmed over the keyboard with consummate ease. I have never seen a thumb as long as hers; some of her colleagues nicknamed it “the fastest thumb in the West.” She could easily strike a 13th simultaneously or a 12th with 5-2. On one occasion Dinu Lipatti listened to Clara read through the slow movement of Schubert’s A Minor Sonata, D. 784, which has several large chords, including 13ths, that Schubert asks to be arpeggiated. Lipatti said he couldn’t understand how she arranged the chords so as not to have to spread them. She replied, “But I don’t arrange them. I take all the notes with the left hand,” whereupon Lipatti exclaimed, “Clara, your hand is larger than any man’s.” She was so embarrassed from thereafter she always arpeggiated the chords.

Even though stories of Clara Haskil’s phenomenal memory came from such famous conductors as Hermann Scherchen, Hans Rosbaud, and Herbert von Karajan, I often thought they must be exaggerated. However, a personal experience convinced me that all these stories were true. In the summer of 1957 she was to come to my home in London to practice at 11:00 in the morning. I sat at the piano playing through the first four pages of a new composition of mine, adding a few touches here an there, when a silhouette appeared against the window. It was 10:40, so I thought it could not yet be Clara. However, when I peeped through the lace curtains to see the intruder, it was Clara, looking lost. She apologized for being so early – her hotel was closer to my house than she had realized, and she arrived early. She had agreed to the visit on the condition that no one else would be in the house except a young artist, Michael Garady, whose drawing of her was her favorite. I’d agreed to her stipulation, although many of my pianist friends would have given anything to stand outside the door and listen to her practice.

“What were you playing?” she asked. I told her it was the beginning of a new composition. “It sounds interesting,” she commented. “Show it to me when it’s finished.” She came to my house two years later and asked, “By the way, whatever happened to the piece you were composing a few years back?” With that she sat down and performed those first four pages with every detail and nuance as I had played it, not knowing, of course, of the few changes I had made since. I couldn’t believe my ears. Later, other pianists took months to learn this complex piece in an Eastern idiom. Clara could not have seen the music because I had removed it from the piano before the first visit. The piece was completed and published only after the second visit.

Haskil traveled to Brussels with her sister, Lili, in December 1960 to begin a concert tour with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, arriving a few days after a triumphant concert with him in Paris. She lost her grip and tumbled down a steep concrete stairway at the railway station. Rushed to the Clinique Longchamps, Clara was unconscious. Doctors fought to save her life; she came around briefly and spoke to Lili and her younger sister, Jeanne, who had been quickly summoned from Paris. She asked them to tell Grumiaux how sorry she was not to be able to play with him the next day. Holding up her hands weakly, she whispered with smile, “At least I didn’t damage these.” In the early hours of December 7, 1960, exactly one month before her 66th birthday, Clara Haskil died.

first published by Clavier® Volume 39, No. 7, September 2000, p. 25 f.