Dustin Hoffman's new film 'Quartet'

Post Date: 1 January 2013
Post Type: Piano Things

Dame Maggie Smith: A Master class Artist for Pianists

Truly magical, towering and moving performance from Dame Maggie Smith in Dustin Hoffman’s film Quartet, out today. Below is an article written ages ago by me for ‘Piano magazine’ about her art and how it can particularly inspire student pianists. Billy Connolly also great in the new film, which may lack pace at first and be stilted, but which gradually finds itself. Unique really. Wonderful to see professional musicians whom Kathryn and I have worked with in the cast- including Colin Bradbury and John Georgiadis! A great start to 2013. You can learn so much about piano playing from great artists in the other performing arts. Dancers and singers can inspire and enlighten not only in terms of rhythm and phrasing- to state the obvious- but also with regard to communication, posture, imagination, projection and characterisation- indeed everything that challenges re-creative artists as a group. Whether you use ballet shoes, grease paint, vocal chords or fingers, you are aiming for a common purpose as a performer with colleagues from other disciplines . You are aiming to communicate, reach out and share a more enriched and intensely felt universe through your art. You are taking yourself and your audience away from the petty worldliness of everyday life.

Over the years Dame Maggie Smith has remained a shining light and a huge inspiration to me as a pianist. Her performances on screen and the west end ( and I have seen every one since from her freshly minted 'anti Edith Evans' Lady Bracknell at the Aldwych in 1993 onwards) are masterclasses not only in terms of inspiration and communication, but also in terms of just what it might be possible to achieve -albeit with superhuman effort- via emulation of her extraordinary technique at the keyboard (if you aim for the stars, you may reach the trees!).

In terms of Smith's fiercely guarded privacy, complete lack of interest in publicity and reviews, as well as her perfectionism when it comes to fine tuning her art, she is can be considered as a perfect role model for aspiring student pianists. Young musicians who become swept up with the follies of trying to win prizes at the expense of cultivating deeper values can learn everything from her exceptionally hard working, self effacing and totally dedicated approach to art . Awards for Dame Maggie have come in abundance over the decades (including two oscars) but the impression given is that it is only the acting itself that matters- her 'competitive crowns' seem at best diverting, at worst irritatingly embarrassing.


Dame Maggie has always made the most of what she has been given to do. Her genius for turning slight, potentially insignificant roles into heart-wrenching, timeless performances of greatness reminds one of Busoni's maxim that 'routine is the enemy of art'. Smith has proved to be patholgically incapable of merely coasting through a matinee in a long stage run. Her genius for turning sow's ears into silk purses can be seen in several memorable film cameos from the 1950s and 60s, but her crowning achievement in this sense for me was her role as the secretary to Rod Taylor in 'The VIPs'. It was her pivotal scene in this all star cast film with Richard Burton which won her an oscar nomination: in only a few minutes she completely overshadows everyone else through sheer intensity of delivery. Her all consuming communicative skill poignantly portrays the passionate hopelessness of unrequited love and stands as an example for us all in how to make the most of your chances, now matter how small or apparently insignicant.

Smith's ability as an actress is built on her extraordinary technique. Her biographer Michael Coveney mentions her daily technical exercises (such as rapid fire repetition of 'red lorry yellow lorry')as well as her persistence and insatiable desire for polish, meaning that she continues to refine and work over lines even when well into a long run of performances. Nothing could be more relevant than this for piano students. And the same is true when considering Smith's trade mark armoury of technical devices. This latter includes many features that empower Smith to receive instant applause on stage- often before she has even delivered a single line. I would equate Smith's technique in this sense with the legendary armoury of Vladimir Horowitz. In Smith's weaponary she matches the lightening double octaves and razor sharp passagework of the great Russian with her own extraordinary phrasing, remarkable timing, rapid fire delivery, infallible projection and a whole range of high-wire physical gestures-including rapid fire wrist movements- that make for remarkable electricity in live performance. An excellent example of Maggie on the high wire is her incomparable display of camp virtuosity in her 1988 performance as Judith in 'Lettice and Lovage' (excerpt of this can be viewed on 'youtube').

And in terms of healthy practice, I recall with wonder her perfect posture (surely Alexander technique working at its best?)and effortless movement when playing next to Judi Dench in David Hare's 'The breath of life' at the Haymarket in 2002. This is an actress who has suffered from graves disease (and more recently cancer) but who seems always to be on top form when performing.

Smith's ability to change accent and metamorphosize so convincingly from role to role is a striking phenomenon, and certainly important for pianists to learn from as they attempt to change their approaches from Bach to Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. One need only contrast her Irish brogue in 'The Loneliness of Judith Hearne' with her Morningside middle class Scottishness in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' then set both against the range of rather posh old English battle axes and American monster mother from Edward Albee and Tenessee Williams to see how huge her range is.
And yet one is left with the impression that the public has only seen a fraction of what she is capable of. In Coveney's biography it is mentioned that she knows most Shakespeare intimately- even plays that she has not performed. This brings another parallel with Horowitz, who could play all the Beethoven 32 sonatas in private, but chose to perform only a handful in public.

Space forgives more than cursory mention of Smith's remarkable stage presence, her extraordinary projection, variety of colour in her voice in terms of articulation and sound. She is the master of saving her full tone for the most frightening moments, and this can readily be seen in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' when she unleashes a torrent of pent up passion, indignation and rage in her Headmistress's office. As pianists we too need to know our dynamic scale, and when we can press forward with triple fortissimo in performance. I am reminded of the anecdote about Rachmaninov in which he remarked that every work had only one climax. As master of timing in the micro and macro, Smith is without equal as a performer. Long may her art continue to inspire,illuminate and enlighten. She remains a guiding light for performers of all disciplines. Murray McLachlan