The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music question: How did pianist Vladimir Horowitz play octaves so fast? Take a look | June 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The story goes like this: Someone once asked virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz why he plays octaves so fast.

“Because I can,”” he is supposed to have replied.

Sounds like Horowitz, no?

Anyway, it is a questions a lot of pianist and piano students want to know, epsecially since Horowitz was one of the few greats, along with Glenn Gould, who played flat-fingered.

Myself, I always found Van Cliburn’s octaves in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1 just as electrifying as his. But Horowitz was the indisputable King of Octaves.

So, first: Here is a sample of Horowitz playing octaves as he would have — and did do — normally.

And now, here are some of the slow-motion samples you can find on YouTube of Horowitz playing octaves (the pitch and sounded has been altered with the video changes).

So here’s what so many pianists and others want to get a close look at, complete with commentary from other pianists and Horowitz himself playing Scriabin’s famous etude for octaves:

And here is his performance of Chopin’s octave etude — the supreme test of octave technique —  that Horowitz did in Japan:

And here is an except for the fiendishly difficult first-movement cadenza, ocmpelte with octaves and those trademark “elephant chords,”of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3:

There is more you can find at YouTube, including his flashy trashy “Carmen” Fantasy.

I wonder how I would react if I taped myself playing the piano and then played it back in slo-mo?

Would my fingers look like a race horse, as one observer remarks.

Could be reassuring.

But it would probably be scary bad and disheartening.

Have any one you done that or intend to do it?

What did you learn?

Anyway, happy viewing.

And happy practicing — especially your octaves.

What do you think was special about Horowitz’ octaves?

How do you think he did it? Wrist, arm or fingers?

Do you think he had a secret, or he just did it the right way you are supposed to and are taught to, only better?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

8 Comments »

  1. Thanks Glenn for your comment, there is however one more piece of information neccessary to actually play like he did … he had his grand adjusted to play extremely lightly, this is how he was able to produce soft and loud seemingly effortless from a Steinway.

    Comment by Stefan — November 9, 2015 @ 8:24 am

  2. It has nothing to do with the flat fingers, thats just his preference. I studied under a friend of his here in calif. she also was a graduate of the Leningrad conservatory of Music, and taught me this technique as well, I can tell you it takes time to develop and almost seems contrary to what teachers in America push.

    As difficult as it is to describe it in a post I will try.
    It comes from weight of the arms and a slight pushing into the key from that weight which makes it actually easier and much less tiring to play, it also gave me more control.
    Inessa (my teachers name) explained it like this and I remember it well because it took me a good many years to capitulate.
    She would insist I be proactive on finger placement always touching the keys before you play them and constantly thinking to move your fingers and hand in anticipation of that.
    When you first sit down at the piano place your hand on the keyboard and completely relax your arms so the weight of your arms actually pushes the keys down and your fingers play into the keys, think of it as trying to push the key to the floor. By using the weight of your arms and not muscles playing will be more effortless and control will increase along with a much richer sound. Dont develop this as a bad habit but try just playing chords with the left hand,think of Chopin – Prelude in E-Minor relax your fingers and use the weight of your arm repeatedly pushing into the keyboard, (exaggerate moving your arm up and down and pushing into the keys) if this is at all understandable here in a post you should find your ability to play chords repeatedly without falter or lag much easier, Remember use the weight of your arm and take the key all the way down push off with your fingers, its almost as if your bouncing your fingers off from one resting place (the key all the way to the sound board) to another resting place with the weight of you arm doing most of the work and your fingers only doing what they must always looking ahead for the next note. You can also practice just playing one note with this technique, try to play at different levels of loudness without any extra effort, all you need for pianissimo, fortissimo, staccato or legato is in the weight of your arm you shouldnt even need to move your finger

    An exercise that can help
    play with the right hand c d e f g starting with the thumb legato going up, as your doing that play g staccato with your 5th finger every note you play going up, once you get to g reverse it play g f e d c legato going down while playing c staccato with the thumb every note, Try this with both hands it forces you to use this technique and as it is difficult to do.

    Comment by Glenn Monson — October 12, 2013 @ 3:28 am

    • At LAST! Conversation exploring the mechanics of Vladimir Horowitz’s exquisite technique. I’m not a musican but his playing is so enchanting. Every single note is given the exact touch to bring fiery precision & passion to my enchanted listening experience. Thanks to the masters of music to put into words the technical professional explanation so that I have a clue “How did Horowitz do that?”

      Comment by beverly thompson — November 30, 2014 @ 11:09 pm

  3. Horowitz was able to obtain such power through the coordination of his whole body. He got his power from his core (abdominal muscles) and siphoned the energy created through his upper body and out his arms. His forearms, wrist, and fingers manipulated the energy into whatever shape he wished. This can explain why he was such a diverse, yet powerful pianist. He did not only use his arms and hands, but his whole body was incorporated.

    Comment by Nick — October 25, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

  4. His whole arm seems to be involved in some fashion or other; an intense arm vibration and a whipping wrist.

    Comment by Dexter — August 15, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  5. it looks to me like he’s slapping the keys from the wrist to get his power. The speed of the octaves might be more or less a different thing. Don’t ask me. Horowitz has such a bizarre technique. It would take thousands of hours of analysis to figure out how he pushes even one key down!

    Comment by D.Ruff — June 20, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

    • Right you are. His flat-fingered technique does seem weird.
      But it is also weird that two of the last century’s greatest pianists — Horowitz and Glenn Gould — both used that technique.
      Let’s keep thinking and hearing from others.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 20, 2010 @ 10:09 pm


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