Interview with Maurice Eisenberg

An Excerpt from
The Way They Play, Vol. 1
by Samuel and Sada Applebaum©
Published in 1972 by
Paganiniana Publications

Note: Please consider this excerpt as a review of the book, Volume 1 of The Way They Play. This series of books has been out of print for many years, but it is excellent, and may sometimes be found in used book shops. I highly recommend the series, which includes interviews with many cellists, violists, violinists and bassists.

There are many conflicting theories about cello vibrato, and we decided to discuss this important matter with Mr. Maurice Eisenberg. "How soon after a pupil begins the study of the cello should he be taught the vibrato?" we asked.

Mr. Eisenberg answered, "I feel that the vibrato should be taught just as soon as the pupil has a desire to learn. I say this from my experience teaching in Paris as well as in this country. At the beginning of course, the desire is not yet there. Too many other things to think about! Then, soon enough, the pupil begins to question abouat the vibrato.

"Also, I would be guided by their innate desire to beautify their tone. Most of the time, sufficient technical control creates the desire early. A gifted player with a high-strung temperament, has an early interest in a beautiful, natural type of vibrato."

"How would you begin in teaching the vibrato on the cello?"

"The most important thing," he said, "when presenting the vibrato is to develop, impart or create in the mind of the pupil a conception of evenness, an'oscillation which is even."

"Do you mean a slow oscillation?" we asked.

"Exactly. This even oscillation must be developed in a very slow tempo. Thus, the pupil simultaneously develops a keen sense of timing, so that, little by little, he can quicken the oscillation."

"Do you advocate the use of the entire forarm?"

"Yes. From the elbow joint to the very tip of the finger, in one unit, unbroken at the wrist. And of course," he stressed, "vibrating on the ball of the fingers. I cannot express too firmly," he stressed, "that there should be no break in distribution of the pressure from elbow joint to finger tip. It is also important that the top of the wrist should be on the same plane as the elbow joint."

"There is to be a straight line from the top of the wrist to the elbow?"

"It certainly has to be so. The wrist should not bend. The performer has to feel the finger tip pulling back on the string, and must feel that same pull at the elbow joint. Like hanging on a strap handle. If lax, one falls back. In actuality, this is what I mean. We place the second finger on the string. We exert a certain pressure. Once that pressure is made on the string, there must be a proportionate pull at the elbow joint backwards to the shoulderblade.

"Let me put it this way," he expatiated. "As the finger is placed on the string, we must feel that the finger-board is like a spring-board, and that the object is to sink the finger into it. This, of coursse, necessitates the pulling back of the elbow into the shoulderblade. Then there follows a rebound, as though there were springs there."

And he went on to say, "After the fundamentals of the vibrato are mastered, the pupil should try to develop all possible intensities. Naturally, in a crescendo on a long note, the vibrato quickens; the intensity becomes greater until it reaches its maximum height. Also, there is a greater finger pressure. But it is important that the oscillation becomes narrower."

"As there is so much finger pressure required on the cello, I presume it would be logical for the weight of the other fingers to assist the vibrating finger?"

"Absolutely!" Eisenberg said. "Every finger is used to help the finger that is playing. Nature has intended that certain fingers be weak, but this is compensated for by the cooperation of the other fingers."

"Let us assume," I suggested, "that you are using the first finger, for vibrato on a long note."

"Good!" he assented. "I shall describe just what happens with the other fingers. They offer a sympathetic support to the first finger. The feeling the player should have is that they are actually on top of each other. The fingers must develop a feeling of contraction. If the fingers are apart, they become excess weight!"

"What of the vibrato on the open strings?"

"Well, there isn't very much to say about it. But there is something I do feel is quite important. That is the actual motion of the hand itself. When we vibrato in a scale passage, and when every note has its plenitude of vibrato, it is important to keep the hand in motion, even though the finger is not touching the string. Thus, the hand becomes a vibrant bridge. And it would not be possible, if we were to stop vibrating on the open strings. Unless the hand is kept in motion on an open string," he persisted, "the solid note after the open string is bound to suffer in lack of vibrato beauty!"

"What about the thumb in this theory of continuous hand motion? Do you refer also to the thumb?"

"I most certainly do! If I were using my first finger, the thumb would still be vibrating, prepared at all times to give sympathetic support to that finger. In a scale passage, even though playing with the first, second and third fingers, my thumb is constantly vibrating throughout-which gives uniformity and intensity throughout each note.

"The thumb, because of its peculiar physical handicap as compared to the cushioned fingers, must be specially trained to be as sensitive and as vital as the other fingers. The object should be perfect legato and continuity of tonal beauty," he maintained.

We discussed the thickness of the cello strings and clarity of enunciation. "This brings us to the fundamental finger action," he said. "The skill for the development of left-hand finger action must be accomplished through the use of left-hand finger pizzicati. To put it differently, left-hand pizzicato on the cello is a basic approach to left-hand technic.

"As the finger comes off the string, there must be an element of left-hand pizzicato, an actual plucking of the string. This action has a beneficial efffect in developing the vitality of the finger-and gives a tremendous strength.

"The finger must leave the string with precision and sprightliness. Casals," he told us, "referred to it as the 'key to left-hand technic.' And Ysaye played that way. To sum up the matter," said Eisenberg, "I would say that in practicing a scale passage, slowly, without the bow, we cause an actual vibration of the string through the energy of the stroke of the finger. Descending, we cause a slight plucking of the string by each finger as it is lifted with a pizzicato-like effect."

"I suppose this pizzicato principle can be helpful even with an open string?"

"Definitely! If I wish to play an open string in a forte, the string will be set into motion by the simultaneous use of the bow and a plucking of the string with the first finger. A very beneficial way to practice," he offered, "is to play on an imaginary string about an inch above the regular strings, using full bows. Here, let me demonstrate...the same distance above the strings," he pointed out as he drew his bow, "must be maintained throughout.

"Another important element of left-hand technic-make mental preparation for the ensuing note without impairing one iota the quality of the note you are playing. In other words, the fingers will be prepared for the next note. The next finger may be a slight distance away, or it may involve an extension, but it is possible to always be ready. This will take a little practice."

"I know you covered these and innumerble other matters fully in your outstanding book, 'Cello Playing of Today.' I hear it alluded to on all sides as probably the most comprehensive analysis of its kind to be compressed into a single volume to appear during the last half century. How did you ever get time to plan and write it when you were leading such a busy life as concert artist and cello professor?"

"It was quite a problem," he replied. "When Eric Lavender of 'The Strad' music journal commissioned me to write it my summers were free. But almost immediately I found I was engaged each year to give Master Classes and direct Summer Schools in England and on the Continent. This, in addition to my regular schedule of concert tours in this country and abroad during which I was appearing both as soloist with leading orchestras under the foremost conductors and as recitalist at music societies, while also holding teaching appointments in New York, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass., slowed up the book terribly. Luckily I had finished the actual writing by 1953 when at Casals' request I founded 'The International Cello Centre' in London, where I subsequently taught, lectured and gave Master Classes for three months every year. 'Cello Playing of Today,' as you know, was never meant to be a 'method,' simply a treatise on the art and technique of cello playing written in a way that might encourage cellists of all ranks to improve their playing."

"Did Casals, to whom it is dedicated, ever mention which features in it he found the most impressive?" inquired Sada at this point.

"Well, in conversation he singled out the example of the first two octaves of C minor scale, melodic form, ascending, with the four plates on pages 14 and 15, which illustrate the different finger placings on each string, according to where the semitones occur. This, he claims is the most important basic principle of left hand cello technique. As the hand is moved up the strings into the thumb positions where the thumb acts as a movable Do on each half tone and takes the place of the open strings, the same principles apply as in the first postion. So one can realize the tremendous importance of this disciplined planning ahead according to the note grouping, form the lowest to the highest positions. Casals also said he particularly liked my definition of the 'living hand.'"

"He wrote such a wonderful 'Forword' to the book. It reflects his and your artistic priorities so clearly that with your and 'Lavender Publications' permission, I would like to quote it here in full":

THE PUBLICATION of this excellent work on violoncello technique will, I am sure, be warmly welcomed and deeply appreciated by the professors and students of our instrument.

Its author, Maurice Eisenberg, is one of the most distinguished figures of the younger school. An outstanding concert artist and teacher, he is exceptionally well qualified for such an undertaking in which he assembles logically and harmoniously the extensive knowledge gained by his studies-how well do I recall those happy summers when he was working with me at San Salvador-and the fruits of his personal experiences.

In the various chapters of the book each aspect of his subject is treated with a profundity that accords with the difficult art of performing a musical instrument. He addresses himself first to those who are commencing their studies, thus drawing attention to the vital importance of the basic principles. And with what reason! The consequences of a neglected or careless start, as one finds only too often, can be felt throughout an entire career, even with very gifted players. It is therefore absolutely necessary to build on a sound foundation.

The author has been wholly successful in his initial analysis and descriptions of the position and free movements of the arms and hands, the development of strength and flexibility in the fingers, percussion, relaxation, tone production, intonation, changes of position-all essential elements of a fine technique as it should be accepted, talented students, who will find within its pages much that will help them to comprehend the reasons for actions, which although, perhaps, are accomplished by them instinctively, require conscious understanding if they are to be applied to the utmost advantage.

I have read this book from the beginning to the end with keen interest and approval. I like especially the way in which the technique is considered in relationship to interpretation, the recurring emphasis laid on such points as phrasing and vocalization, and the use of the ullustrations to clarify details without unnecessary verbal explanation.

My advice to students and professors is: Read this book slowly, a little at a time.

Consult it frequently, and always on the precise point about which you need help at the moment.

PABLO CASALS, November, 1953.
Prades, P.O, France.

Drawing on his varied experiences, Eisenberg can tell many a fascinating anecdote. We particulary enjoyed one about Glazonouv.

Eisenberg recalled: "The last work that Glazonouv wrote was a cello concerto. I shall always remember his coming to see me about it, his puffing up to my seventh floor duplex apartment in Paris, as the elevator unfortunately was out of order, and gasping for breath when he finally arrived. He was already very ill at the time. Glazonouv showed the concerto to me, and explained that Casals had written to him that I would be able to play it at its world premiere with the Pasdeloup Orchestra in Paris four weeks later. I told him it could not be done! I was leaving for a tour in England the following day!

"He was so persistent, however, saying he was a dying man, and that it was his last wish on earth, for me to play it under his direction. Of course, I yielded. He was right. It was his last public appearance. By the time I performed it for the first time in England the following year with the British Broadcasting Company Orchestra, Glazonouv had passed away."

Maurice Eisenberg's early environment was musical. His father was a cantor and the boy was steeped in the tradition of the art. "I turned to the cello from the violin because it was so much more lyrical and sutied to the temperament of a singer," he told us.

At thirteen, Maurice was awarded a cello scholarship at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Stokowski heard him play there two years later and engaged him to become a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Not long after, he went to New York to become first desk cellist under Walter Damrosch, with the New York Symphony Orchestra.

The youthful cellist's dream was to study with Casals. And since Casals was in New York at the time, young Eisenberg went hopefully to see him. But because of the exigencies of his concert work, Casals, at that time, was not accepting pupils. However the spark was set off! Shortly afterwards Maurice sailed for Europe. Casals heard him again in Paris, London and Berlin and invited him to come to Spain where for years he spent his summers, studying, working and discussing details with the older Master.

Until the outbreak of World War II, the Eisenbergs lived in Paris where Maurice made his debut and subsequently succeeded Alexanien as Director of the Casals Class at the Ecole Normale de Musique. His concert tours, recording sessions with Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin for H.M.V. (now the Gramophone Company), appearances at international music festivals and the creation of new works made up a vital musical life and it was only in 1940 that he returned to make his home in this country. Many years later he resumed his links with Paris, both as concert artist and as the United States representative on the International Jury for the first Casals Violoncello Competition. This role he fulfilled again later at the Casals contests in Mexico, Israel, and Hungary.

Since I had first heard Maurice Eisenberg play one of Bach's Suites and was tremendously impressed by the nobility of his performance and the manner of his architectural fulfillment of the composer's plan, I wanted to discuss the great German, Johann Sebastian Bach, with Mr. Eisenberg.

We were quick to note his reaction to the suggestion, for when we said we would like his analysis of Bach's works for the cello, his keen eyes glistened and his normally intense, earnest demeanor immediately was roused unmistakably.

"To play Bach may seem simple to some," he said, "but if we consider further, it is amazing-perfectly amazing-how much thought and study, how much knowledge, is involved in order to perform his works intgelligently. It is of course assumed that one of the requisites is an understanding of the harmonic and structural background suggested by the composition under consideration; the player must understand the idea of the composer in the suspensions and the leading-up, or anticipations which resolve themselves in the phrasing-he must be able, theoretically, to make an analysis of each part of every movement.

"Bach sometimes appears to demand something that seems impossible to deliver! As though a quarter of voices should be at the command of one performer! His methods of procedure exhibit a wonderful fund of ingenious inventive ability. He proceeds in continuous movement, harmonic changes, unique accentuation, suggesting that which is to come by the use of chords and chord progressions."

I noted: "It is wonderful to note his way of employing the different strings to subtly prepare the contrapuntal development by which the listener obtains the impression of the whole!"

"Ah, yes! If we consider, as an example, the Bach Suites for viloin, there are many movements which do not seem to offer major technical difficulties, yet there are many violinists who find it beyond them to play them interestingly. Why can so few take a Prelude, or an Allemande, and make it live? Suppose for analysis, we consider the medium of the tenuto, so important in interpreting Bach's intentions to bring meaning and contour, yet demanding that the greatest caution must be exercised in employment. An apt comparison may be suggested with the subtleties of enunciation which make the reading of poetry either rich to the ear or flat and meaningless. Indeed, it must always be recalled that Bach's work is of poetic structure, constantly demanding that certain parts be stressed, others subdued. In thus portraying the scheme, notes will be found in scale passages, or arpeggios, interspersed here and there, which require more or less accentuation to tell their meaning and which, often, if removed from the phrase and played separately, are found to form a melody, or the theme about which the other notes are woven. The sense of perfect rhythm is an important requiirement, particularly to correctly interpret Bach's use of the dance forms.

"I will go so far as to say that one must possess a strong sense of basic rhythm, we might say as in the modern dance forms. The rhythm must be practically metronomic, and yet, paradoxically, the performance must contain much rubato, freedom, as well as the expression of fantasy and rhapsody!

"Another point: I feel that intonation is often sorely neglected in the playing of Bach. I do not mean to say by this that I refer merely to playing 'in tune.' Nor do I mean necessarily, tempered intonation. Rather, something which might be termed 'expressive' intonation.

"At the piano, each note is tempered to the other. By expressive intonation, we raise or lower notes which are modulatory, such as sevenths, and minor thirds, which should be lowered. Thus, we present a certain character, quality or color-a really difficult thing to attain. For instance, one can play Paganini with piano accompaniment without finding fault with the intonation. Yet, play Bach, and the intonation often fails to be quite good enough!

"What the performer is obliged to do, is to prepare the listener for an approaching change of key, and to do so by anticipation. In one measure an A flat is played and will sound a certain pitch. Two measures later, the A flat may have to be made a little lower because of a change of key."

"This element of intonation you speak of has not been sufficiently stressed," I put in, "Whereas it should be really an important part of one's training."

"Of course it should," he assented. "I have a feeling that many musicians lose this sense because they become too concerned with mechanical perfection. But of course, teachers must be careful in cultivating this subtle sense. It should not be presented before the pupil is capable of discerning it, lest there be too strong a tendency to exaggerate. There are some methods, old-fashioned of course, which teach the principle of equal distance between every half tone.

"In olden days, players were even instructed to practice with corks between the fingers in order to place the notes in a tempered manner. As you will understand, this mechanical progress could hardly stimulate beautiful, sensitive playing!"

After a few moments, Eisenberg reiterated, "Yes, for Bach one must posses a tremendous amount of imagination. So that the player will take a three-fourth movement not in an ordinary manner, but with subtle changes within a set tempo. Imagination enables one to play with life and significant profundity!"

"Bach gave us six suites," he went on, "each in a different mood and I feel they can be likened to the symphonies of Beethoven. First, is the G major, on the light side; then the second, a deeper work; then the C major, the third, which reverts to the mood of the first yet is more brilliant; then the fourth, which is more expressive, grandiose, and in a larger style. The fifth is the most profound of all, the C minor, and is much more daring in its tonality. The last, the sixth, is the great suite for cello. This was written with the thought of being performed on an instrument with five strings. In this suite, Bach dared to go into fields considered impossible at that time!"

"It is amazing, how much variety there is in these works, considering that they all are in dance form!" I interjected.

"Yes," Eisenberg concurred, "One would fear they might be monotonous, but their contrast in moods, their wealth of contrasting styles, is to me one of the miracles that Bach has achieved."

He walked about the room. Then he turned to us and added forcefully, "I am a great believer in teaching Bach not only to those capable of understanding him from a profound musical point of view, but as a means of cultivating the Bach line and his style of phrasing.

"Let us take the first movement of the first suite, for example. Let us for a moment ignore the fact that this movement, which is a series of broken chords, is so beautifully conceived that from it we can draw a melody of great nobility, akin to the melody which inspired the Ava Maria from the Prelude in C major (Well-Tempered Clavichord). Here we have a series of broken chords, arpeggios and scales which contain a very rich melodic line. In order to bring out the melody, the tendency is to exaggerate and distort the actual written value of the sixteenth notes.

"Needless to say, this movement is a wonderful study for string crossings, for string changing and for the distribution of the bow. From this study, one can also develop a skilful and co-ordinated use of the wrist and finger stroke. The idea is to have the bow cross from the middle string to the lower and upper, with the wrist and fingers."

"What about the editing of the six suites?"

"Well," he replied, "the impression one gets from the editors of the past is that they were too engrossed with the instrumental phase of the music-they do not evoke the spiritual and aesthetic beauty of these suites. Today's mechanical age calls for perfection in every detail. Musical taste has progressed to a very high degree. When these works were edited, taste was not so developed as today, nor was the actual technique of cello playing so advanced.

"In those days, faulty intonation and coarse tones were more readily acceptable. This was so because of the size of the cello, and also because of the lack of modern technic, the technic which Casals has done so much to cultivate. Therefore the fine musicians who edited these works were too concerned with the then-existing technical problems.

"For example," he analyzed, "let us take the initial movement of the first suite.

"Example A is the bowing used in many older editions. This is purely an instrumental bowing. Example B, however, as well as in the example C, are more musically expressive bowings; but I favor the number B because of its variety.

We must avoid holding certain notes longer than the written value for mechanical convenience," he cautioned. "For example, in the Allemande of the first suite, we have a sixteenth note up-bow as the first note, followed by a chord. The tendency is to make the sixteenth note longer to give plenty of time to prepare for the chord. By making this sixteenth note even slightly longer, we unfortunately rob the opening of that tremendous force and majestic declamation which expresses the mood of this opening. Yes, we alter the emotional message when we give the first sixteenth note more length.

"Suppose, though, we do this. Play the two notes on the cello without the chord, in a very heroic manner. Then play the two notes and add the chord. Can we play the chord without disturbing the rhythm of the melody? And there are numerous examples of this in the Bach Suites," he reminded.

Then he said, "When we play an unaccompanied Bach suite we may compare ourselves to an actor in Shakespeare's day, creating scenery which did not exist at all, through the power of declamation and suggestion! So in Bach. There is but one voice-and many voices have to be suggested!"

Maurice Eisenberg now concentrated his teaching into two main spheres: his professorship at the Juilliard School in New York, and his private pupils in the United States, and on his Master Classes for young professionals given during August and September at the International Music Courses in Cascals-Estoril, Portugal. In appreciation of his annual master Classes there the Minister of Information, the Gulbenkian Foundation, and the President of Tourism sponsored the "Maurice Eisenberg International Cello Competition" in Estoril on the occasion of its tenth consecutive Summer School. At its close he received a silver plaque bearing the inscription: "Gratitude to the man; honor to the artist."

At an early age he married Paula Halpert, a brilliant and talented American girl who was a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Art. They have two children, Pablo, once s prominent U.S. tennis player and now a specialist on Urban Affairs; and Maruta, (Mrs. John Friedler), a gifted painist and dancer. There are three delightful grandchildren who are already planning to form a trio when they are older.

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