Cortot, his pupil my teacher, and me

Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot, pianist, teacher, editor and conductor, taught one of my teachers, Roy Shepherd, at the Ecole Normale in Paris.

As a young pianist studying with Roy, I was lent a copy of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue personally fingered by Cortot, with his large handwriting and iconic French ‘1’s. There are certain moments in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and in L’isle joyeuse where Roy told me Cortot said to play it this way. I still do. My lessons were peppered with Cortot stories; my favourite was the one about the girl who had not been practising Cortot’s exercises from his ‘Rational Principles of Piano Technique’, which occasionally he would demand without prior warning in his classes. He threw her book out of the room. I seem to recall that he then threw the girl out after the book, but I may have got that wrong.

I was told to use Cortot’s editions of Chopin; looking at them now, although over-edited, they are remarkable for the meticulous attention to detail, the many exercises for technical difficulties, the awareness of musical construction, and the illuminating comments.

 His masterclasses were legendary.

As the bicentenary celebrations for Chopin and Schumann draw to a close, it’s good to remember a pianist who championed their music. Cortot was the first to record the complete Chopin Preludes. And, with 2011 in our minds, he was the first to record Liszt’s B minor Sonata.

Here he is in Liszt’s La Leggierezza:

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20 Responses to Cortot, his pupil my teacher, and me

  1. Fran Wilson says:

    We are all standing on the shoulders of giants…,

    I love this sense of “heritage” that is passed down from a great teacher-pianist that continues thro his/her pupils, grand-pupils & great-grand-pupils. We traverse the same musical pathways as these great teachers, and in doing so, their wisdom becomes ours too…

    My teacher was taught by Peter Feuchtwangler, Vlado Perlemuter & George Hadjinikos, amongst others, and although she has her own very distinct style & method of teaching, I know I am also sharing in some of that “heritage” – and, hopefully, passing it onto my students too!

    • cpianist says:

      Yes indeed. How I’d love to talk to Roy now about Cortot; luckily there is so much about him to be gleaned from the internet. And what we pass on is fed and enriched from so many other sources.

  2. Great post!

    One of my teachers, Fernande Kaeser, studied with Dinu Lipatti, who studied with Cortot. So Cortot was kind of my great-grandfather, I suppose.

    Thanks for Tweeting the link. 🙂

  3. Thanks Gretchen – there must be a wealth of musical insight handed down to and through you!

  4. Graham Fitch says:

    Thanks for alerting me to this post Christine! I will add something to my latest blogpost about it…

  5. Pingback: The Study Editions of Alfred Cortot « Practising The Piano with Graham Fitch

  6. Jack Hogan says:

    Lovely blog, Christine. I’m also a long-time admirer of Cortot. Plus, I have a special interest in Roy Shepherd. I wrote his Wikipedia article (and Ian Munro’s too), but I have failed utterly to find Roy’s dates of birth or death. Do you have any information? Cheers.

  7. j.s.m. says:

    Dear Christine, I am a graduate student at Juilliard, and am writing a paper on Cortot’s lineage, and happened to cross your site! I too studied at ENMP, and so reading your blog is a lovely surprise. Would you know where I might find the complete video recordings of Cortot’s master classes? I am particularly interested in whether he gave any on Chopin’s etudes. I can only find audio, and only on other pieces. Thanks!

  8. j.s.m. says:

    Thanks Christine! I am not familiar with Pierre Kostanov, sorry to say, but the forums is a great idea! I’ll let you know if I hear of any of his pupils. Where did he teach?

  9. Hi Christine

    I was also a former pupil of Roy from 1985-87 and loved listening to his stories and anecdotes about life and work in France and Cortot. Thank you for reminding me about Roy with this wonderful blog.

    Kathryn Sander

  10. Kent Holt says:

    What a very interesting conversation! I was browsing the internet looking for comments about Debussy’s Image Book I and happened upon your blog. I meandered through it and had to smile – my teacher at the Kansas City Conservatory was Richard Cass, also a pupil of Alfred Cortot. Mr. Cass told several stories about Cortot. He mentioned that in studio, Cortot would always have him play the Op. 10, #2 Etude of Chopin, which he could do with great ease. Mr. Cass wrote out several of the exercises that were useful in the playing/learning of them. Before the internet it was hard to find materials except in libraries and if you had an idea what you were looking for. These days sites like IMSLP/Petrucci do so much to expand the knowledge base. I especially enjoy the copies that have been annotated by those studying the piece. It’s almost like finding a message in a bottle.

    But back to Cortot. He has edited the Opus 79 Rhapsodies of Brahms, but one of his editorial marks is not explained. He notes with a small circle what appears to be a new phrase, but smaller than what one would consider the sections of the piece. Did he consider this a part of memorization? That’s my intuition, but I wondered if anyone knew Cortot’s views on this. I haven’t seen it written about by him so it’s left a bit of a puzzle.

    How I wish I could go back now and ask my teacher. Youth is wasted on the young in so many ways! Thanks for a very interesting website. Kent Holt, Little Rock, Arkansas USA

    • Fascinating! I wonder what Cortot meant in the Brahms… Thanks for reading my blog, and for commenting 🙂

      • Kent Holt says:

        Cortot has also used the same system of circled numbers in the Salabert reprint of the Chopin Etudes. His notes and exercises are most helpful, but I haven’t come across an explanation or reference to them.

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