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Musical education is about more than music - An interview with Livia Rèv

Musical education is about more than music - An interview with Livia Rèv

“Very interesting. But not beautiful." Livia Rév is examining some modern art on the main floor of the Institut Hongrois in Paris, an exhibition that was set up between the start of her master class that morning and the lunch break. The Hungarian pianist, who stands barely five feet tall, has hardly finished her pronouncement before she is off again, wandering through the gallery. At age ninety-four, she shows no signs of slowing down, evidenced by a recital and week of master classes at the Institut for students from Hungary and other countries. Her acute observations about music, art, and life, and her dynamism when playing and teaching are remarkable, signs of a brilliant intellect and a life devoted to the best in musical expression.


Born in Budapest on July 5, 1916, Rév began her studies at a young age with Margit Varro, winning a Grand Prize at the age of nine and making her orchestra debut performing Mozart 's Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat Major, K. 365/316a, at age twelve. At the Franz Liszt Academy she studied with Klara Mathe, Arnold Szekely, and Leo Weiner, winning the 1st prize; later (from 1934 to 1936) in Leipzig she worked with Robert Teichmuller and Paul Weingarten.

Like most international concert artists, Rév gravitated to the piano at a young age. "I was five years old when I heard the piano played for the first time, and I was stunned because it was a large piece of furniture for me and there were these extraordinary sounds coming out of it! I was absolutely fascinated, and then I went to listen to a young girl who used to practice, and I loved it so much that I went to listen to her every day, and that was the beginning of my musical education."

The story of Rév's beginnings with the piano and music is quite different from the norm today. "I started playing at the age of six when I received my first piano lesson as a birthday present. It was in the summer—I was born the 5th of July—and I was sent to the countryside after my first piano lesson with some piano scores I had been given. I spent all of my holidays going through these scores to discover the music, without a piano, and when I returned to Budapest, I had read them all and could read music fluently. I don't know how I played them, as I wasn't quite prepared for that yet, but I learned to read music much earlier than learning to read letters at school. Fortunately my education started by reading music because very often the young musicians of today don't know how to do so. Everything becomes easier to do if you can read music properly. I believe this is why a lot of students abandon their musical training at a certain point—the effort gets to be too great." 


When asked about her education, Rév's emphasis goes immediately to Margit Varro above all others. "She should be very well-known, because she was the most marvelous  most gracious teacher in the world. She wrote a book in 1921 called Dynamic Piano Teaching—Methodology and Psychology. Varro translated the book into German, and it is still compulsory reading in conservatories in Germany today. I was taught by her and one of her students and was exceptionally well trained. 

"Then there was Teichmuller in Leipzig, where I stayed for two years before the war, and Leo Weiner in Budapest, who was the chamber music teacher. This was obligatory for all instrumentalists, so all the musicians, violinists, conductors, studied with him. Many of those who became famous had been taught by him—he was a wonderful musician and his only goal was to help nurture good musicians. 

"I had a formidable education, with all my studies in Budapest, and then in Leipzig, and then again in Budapest when I trained as a teacher (I got my diploma in 1938). I had good luck because Madame Varro was a student of one of the best students of Liszt's, Árpád Szendy, so musically I descend directly from Liszt. And Teichmuller, my professor in Leipzig, was a student of Brahms. So I was very fortunate."

Thoughts on performing 

Livia Rév has been before the public for more than eight decades. She is still active as a pianist, and even gave her first performance in Switzerland in September 2009 at the age of ninety-three—the clips that have been uploaded on YouTube show that she retains tremendous interpretative abilities, with a rich tone and beautifully shaped phrasing. While she may not have been the biggest headliner, she has performed far and wide and on auspicious occasions. Having settled in France after the War with her French husband, she was particularly successful in London, where she played with all the major orchestras under renowned conductors such as Boult, Cluytens, Jochum, Kubelík, Silvestri, and Sargent. She also adores chamber music and played for a decade with the famous cellist János Starker. She has made well-received recordings for the Hyperion label of works by Debussy, Chopin, and Mendelssohn; Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe said that Rév "has a strong claim to being the most alluring Debussy pianist alive." Having played for more years than most people live, Rév has been witness to profound shifts in the musical life of the planet, which she speaks about with clarity, certainty, and sincerity. 

Among the changes Rév discusses are those relating to performance. "Each period or era has a different style. When I was quite young, great Romantic liberty was in vogue—but only if it was authentically felt. And then there was a period after the war when everything was awfully metronomic. After this period there was another period of great liberty, but not by feeling it—simply by distorting the rhythm." When I chuckle at the sad truth that she articulates, her voice becomes very serious. "Please don't laugh," she scolds. I assure her that is a laugh of resignation and understanding, and she continues with an even more astute observation. "Performers give the impression of feeling something that they have never truly felt—and we can sense it right away. 

"Pianists now play so well, quickly, softly, loudly, all one could hope for, but they are often not making music. They are not free to express themselves, or they have nothing to say. As my teacher Madame Varro said, 'All is well done, except for the music.' All these big international competitions, which are unfortunately necessary nowadays, as without them the impresarios wouldn't know whom to introduce to the concert societies, reduce the musical plane to what we can measure: force and speed. The talent, and all the rest, we cannot. Musical expression, inspiration— we can't learn it, we can't grade it. We can give a score for speed and force, but for the rest, we can't. And then there are juries who are generally made up of former competition winners. I am very proud that I never entered a competition—and now I wonder whether I would have won if I had! 

"All the work that one does at the piano will only take you to a certain level, but there is something else that we cannot really teach: the spirit. If we are not born with it and we don't cultivate it afterwards, then it is missing." Rév tells the story of a young pianist sent by a French impresario to play for her. "I was to give my opinion what I thought of him. Well, I thought that my Steinway would crumble to dust because he played so hard on it, and so I had no idea if he had talent or not. I asked him if he could play me something classical, by Mozart, or Beethoven, or Brahms, and he said, 'I don't have them in my repertoire—what do you play?' And I replied, 'Well, in fact those are the composers that I play,' to which he replied, 'Oh, so you only play easy music...' So how is it that this 'easy' music is so difficult for others? They play Stravinsky and Prokofiev and all these pieces that are difficult so well, but when they get to something 'simple' there is very little going on."

Thoughts on teaching and repertoire

For this reason, Rév is particular about what her students play. For the master classes in Paris, she asked them to prepare a Beethoven Sonata from the first ten, as they are more classical and 'simple' and yet, as she explained, 'simple' is not easy. While teaching, Rév will not play more than a few measures to make a demonstration, something she learned in her own training. "Madame Varro avoided as much as possible playing us anything, and, if she did, it was only a tiny little excerpt of a piece, but never a whole piece, because she wanted us to avoid copying her. This helped each student to find her own nature, her own voice." Rév sits attentively or walks near the student, making observations, for example, about accents fitting within the structure of the work, and how patterns repeat themselves and how to highlight them. When I mention these comments later on, she is quick to point out, "Anything I say about structure isn't really about the structure. It's about how to get students to breathe life into the music, how to express the richness of the composer's emotions." A structure is a structure, but it needs to be filled with something—something, as she stated earlier, which competitions cannot measure.

Which brings us to another topic that has changed over the course of her career: fidelity to the text, which is less the point for her than the music that it reveals. "Today we have thousands of pianists who play a thousand times better than others in the past, and me for example, but they forget that we represent the music and not only the notes. And that is a shame, as the musical level of performances has fallen. One hopes it will go up again, which it should, as it has gone so far down it has no other choice!"

As for her own preferred composers and repertoire, "Naturally we would start with Bach, and then there's Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy. Of course there are all the others, but one has to keep in mind one's physical and technical capabilities. As I am so small, and have such small hands, I couldn't simply play anything. I played lots of Liszt nevertheless, which already gave me some problems to resolve, physically. I could never play, for example, the great concertos of Brahms, which I adore and know very deeply, but which would be impossible for me to play. When we're not at ease and we force ourselves, we can't really play."

"Now I must tell you a little story, something which took place when I was preparing my recording of Chopin Nocturnes. While I was playing, at a certain moment, I had the impression that my soul had met Chopin's— that they were in contact with each other. It was something so bizarre, and yet from that moment, I had the sense of a freedom of expression. I had the impression that I could now express myself as I wished, as I felt. Whether this is true or not is up to you to decide. Whether it was real or imagined, the impact was profound." Indeed, her commercial recording is imbued with a sense of authority and freedom, and her 2009 Lausanne interpretation of the Nocturne in B-flat Minor Op. 9, No. 1, is remarkable for its singing line and balanced Romantic expression. 

Career and family 

I asked Rév about her own experience making a career as a pianist. "There are people who decide 'I want a career, and I will do whatever it takes.' I had a friend at the Academy in Budapest who was trained to have a career in America. Once she finished her studies in Budapest, she went off to America to start her career.We never heard anything of her again.We cannot decide our careers— they come or they don't come. It's not we who decide. It's the public. In any field, we cannot ultimately decide on our careers. Did Mr. Sarkozy know as a child that he was going to be President of France?" 

While much is often made about women not having had the same chances as men, Rév herself did not experience this. "I never came across anyone who gave me the impression that I couldn't have a career because I was a woman. I was married, and I had children, luckily for me, and by chance I had my children between seasons, so I never missed a season! And now I have two wonderful children who help me with everything and who are happy, and they make me happy. There were a number of pianists who didn't want to marry or have children because of their careers. I am very happy that I was able to create with my husband a warm family atmosphere for my children, and I don't feel that I sacrificed my career for it. In fact, I didn't even really live for my career—I lived to play the piano. That was my goal, not my career." 

When talk turns to pianists she admired, Rév is quick to praise Annie Fischer as not only one of her closest friends, but also as one of the most impressive pianists she has heard. "When I heard her play, it was possibly the first time that I didn't miss a single note, it was so fascinating. From the first note, she took us and didn't let go until the last note—that was my impression; it was such passionate and intense playing." The other pianists that Rév says had the biggest impact on her were Ernst von Dohnányi and Sviatoslav Richter. 

A career as long as hers is surely filled with interesting concerts and experiences.When asked about some highlights, she responds, "An impressive concert with the great Charles Grove in London, when we played the First Concerto by Bartók. And then a performance of the Chopin E Minor Concerto with Rafael Kubelík when I was seven months pregnant with my first daughter. And then there was a concert at Buckingham Palace—I was invited by the Queen of England, and there were 1,500 people. I had played for the Royal Family several times when there were gala benefit concerts, and there was always a member of the entourage who was present to accompany me and hold my hand as I took a bow. Because this time I was in front of the Queen and the Queen Mother, there was no one there. And when I went to bow, as deeply as I could in order to respect the Queen, the heel of my shoe got stuck in my dress, and I fell backwards. It threw me completely off guard, and I wanted to laugh, but I didn't know what to do, so I bit my tongue. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before and it hasn't happened since—it just had to happen on this occasion! It was so funny to me. One of the members of the court came to me and said, 'You played so beautifully that we were more than willing to forgive your gaffe.'"

Music is not just about music 

Today, Rév continues to balance her good humour and direct views of music making with a gentle disposition and generous nature. Awarded the Legion of Honour by President Sarkozy on July 14th last year, she is remarkably free of pretension. When I first meet her in the lobby at the Institut Hongrois, she is sitting with a gentle smile. She cordially invites me to join her for breakfast— she had not had time to eat before coming from her home in the suburbs. We sit in a small area up a flight of stairs, which she navigates remarkably well, eating French bread with jam and drinking coffee. She looks at her watch in horror when she realizes that she is still eating forty-five minutes after class was scheduled to begin—but she needs to eat and so her students must wait, and she continues to eat. She will not be rushed. Whatever she does, she does it fully. Once in class, she is completely focused on her students. 

On the lunch break, she invites a member of the public to join us and her students, and we walk around the corner where we pick up some quiche and other baked goods, which she insists on paying for herself, and we all head back to the Institut kitchen. As she speaks, her blue eyes sparkle and she is very animated. Her small stature and advanced age may initially belie the depth of her energy, but her wisdom and dedication are apparent in all interactions. Music is but one way in which she expresses herself and through which she enables others to do the same. Just as she stated that structure is not about structure, the music is not just about music. "The only truly important thing in life is love. That's what I aim to give my students. That's all that I can do."

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