Arnold Schultz on Legato

The Riddle of the Pianist’s Finger

Arnold Schultz wrote this book in 1936, and it still makes excellent reading. His penchant to wax poetic about the advantages of legato are so captivating that I quote several paragraphs verbatim here. You can’t say it better than this!

Legato the basis for good piano tone

“The absence of a true legato is by far the most important factor in what is popularly designated as bad piano tone. The objection will be raised, no doubt, that such a statement exaggerates the significance of close tonal connection. I think, however, that the matter stands the other way around, that the greatest single point of neglect and inattention in modern teaching and playing relates to the manner in which tonal units follow upon one another.[Remember, this is 1936, but I think it applies just as well to 2003! What have we been doing for the last 65 years?]

The sheer sensuous pleasure of a true legato

‘Too often legato is taught as an academic duty owed to a phrase mark rather than as one of the chief joys which a tonal succession, regardless of the instrument producing it, can give to the human ear. The moment of union between two tones of different pitch constitutes a high aesthetic pleasure, an instinctive craving being satisfied when a given vibrational rate is merged with, or – to put it metaphorically – is born out of, another vibrational rate. The singer who failed to connect his tones would rob his audience of much of the pleasure they might otherwise have in the beauty of his tone. He is taught, as a matter of fact, to take consonants, the necessary interruptions of tone, as swiftly and as unobtrusively as possible. The violinist, too, produces some of his most compelling effects as he causes one tone to melt into another. Similarly, at the piano, legato must be employed not merely to conform to a set of musical rules, but rather to produce a vital and highly attractive sensuous beauty.

Non-legato often ruins piano tone, but is not perceived as such

‘It is the absence of this beauty which is so often misconstrued as ugly piano tone. The want of satisfaction which the listener experiences between any two tones of a series he assigns to the tones themselves, the error being easily made for two reasons. In the first place, an unsatisfactory legato is almost always encountered in successions so rapid that anything like analytical hearing is impossible. That is to say, no performer has any slight difficulty in binding the tones when the succession is slow – even a child can merge the tones of his first exercises quite successfully [but do we?]. It is in moderate to rapid successions that the technical incompetence resulting in unsatisfactory legato always occurs. In the second place, an unsatisfactory legato is usually a non-legato, not a staccato… The very nature of a non-legato… keeps it from being readily distinguished. Standing in a shadowy neutrality between legato and staccato, it approximates both without being either. When it is used with moderately rapid succession, the ear cannot recognize it for what it is, and, in attempting to define its dissatisfaction with the absence of a real legato, follows the line of least resistance and regards the tone-quality  of the entire succession as unpleasant…”