Horowitz’ Voicing

Horowitz’ Voicing


Here’s a curious paradox for you:  often playing the melody with a more percussive, less beautiful, sound creates a more persuasive, beautiful effect.  Horowitz was hands-down the greatest orchestrator-pianist of the 20th century.  One of the main reasons for this is his understanding and embracing of percussive colors and effects.  His language is largely defined by the way he re-defined the piano as a Percussion-inclusive instrument. 

His approach to Percussion is so embedded in his pianistic language that he forces us to reconsider the nature of pianistic sound and of phrasing itself.  Yet contrary to most Horowitz imitators, his Percussion is rarely percussive or heavy – it rings out and soars weightlessly.



Horowitz uses what I call a slap-and-caress approach, both vertically and horizontally.

The best way to get a feel for Horowitz’ technique is to flatten out the hand and fingers and slightly hold the forearms with an expressive resistance.  Don’t be concerned with whether your knuckles collapse – encourage them to.  Show some wrinkles!

Feel an expressive pressure in your finger tips.  They will feel heavier.  And imagine that they are coated in a thin layer of metal, glass, or ice.  Think of your entire finger as a lever, rather than as three joints. 

Horowitz cuts the sound, slicing it like sushi.  He doesn’t force; the shimmer of his tone, especially in the melody, is razor-sharp.  It pierces the texture.  The most common mistake in imitating Horowitz is to force through the texture with a dull mallet.  His touch is much more refined than that; its power comes from its sharpness.

He usually uses the softest part of his fingertip, the fleshy part, to produce sound.  Logically, this would have the opposite effect; it should soften and round the sound.  And it does - it gives the body of the tone a softer, silkier core and a rounded quality.  The cutting quality comes from the speed of the attack, its slapped quality, and the way he compresses his finger and especially fingertip.  As his emotional energy centers in his fingers, they harden expressively, the blood rushing into them, they become heavier, and hyper-sensitive.  They long to cut and sing. 

Remember that touch has three parts – the attack { with a glossy or matte finish }; the body or substance, which is the general quality of the tone, be it water, earth, sand, wood, soft metal; and the release or after-touch, how you release the sound with the finger and with the pedal { separate aspects of after-touch }.

Try the first page of our Prelude or any excerpt you like using these techniques to imitate Horowitz’ sound.  Although at first you’ll feel a need to expressively hold the forearm, don’t tighten or over-do it.  After a couple days, these resisting-and-releasing muscles will have become alive again and you won’t need to consciously hold them.  Also, remember that Horowitz’ is a non legato approach.  He once spent two years playing exclusively non legato – not a single finger-legato!  This can mean anything from staccatissimo to a 99% connection.  Try to be disciplined in this if you desire to unravel some of Horowitz’ great secrets. 

You can spend days or weeks or months on this before reading on if you like …


Continuing with the idea of Slap-and-Caress, Horowitz likes to tease the listener {see Essay on Horowitz in Part III}.  He will often slap a few notes in a phrase to throw out a bunch of provocative energy, often mangling part of a phrase, then retreats subito into a gentle caress, apologizing as it were for his misbehavior.  He doesn’t often punch the keys or force them – he generally either pressures his way in, directly or slitheringly, or slaps from the finger or hand (wrist). 

Slapping implies a quick in-and-out, unforced, open palm approach.  The energy passes through electrically, leaving the hand and arm relaxed and energized.  At the piano, there’s an up quality to it.  Nothing of Arrau’s sinking weight.  When Horowitz wants a pesante effect, he does so with a full-arm expressive pressure-attack.

He also uses slap-and-caress vertically.  His voicings are unlike any other pianist in recorded history.  When you hear a Horowitz recording on the radio, you know immediately that it’s him from his unique phrasing patterns and inimitable voicings.  He generally chooses one note in each hand to center his weight over, often turning the hand slightly in that direction.  These two notes he will either slap or pressure in.  They’re usually not only louder, but also brighter than the rest.  He then grades each of the remaining notes in order of importance.  (This is not new to us.)

He takes particular pleasure in searching out the dissonances, the irregularities, the potential contrasts.  If there is harmonic dissonance within the chord, you can be sure that he’ll zero in on it and point it up for heightened effect.  He will also point up the note that the dissonant note is most dissonant against within the chord, making the dissonant interval hit the ear with greater impact.  While doing this he hides notes of lesser import, caressing them lovingly but peripherally, so that the texture never becomes thick or unfocused.  Horowitz loves transparency. 

What’s fascinating through this approach to voicing is that without necessarily playing any louder, it sounds louder and more electric.  The dissonances and contrasts jump out at the ear with absolute vividness!



In 1928, The Musician published an enlightening article about Horowitz’s approach to practicing voicing.  The following excerpt speaks for itself:


"At first thought, it would appear extremely difficult to sound a chord of three or even five notes with the five fingers on one hand in such a manner that one or even two notes are heard above the others and act as a melody while the other notes act as an accompaniment to that melody.  If one were to do it as Horowitz does it, the difficulty would disappear into thin air.
There are two correct, though diametrically opposite, methods of attacking the mastery of this necessary accomplishment for perfect piano artistry.  To avoid confusion, only one method will be explained at this time.  Experience has shown, however, that when one has become a master of this accomplishment by one method, he is also a master by the other even without practice.
To accent a melody note within a chord or octave: raise the whole arm with as little muscular effort as possible, until the fingers are between three and five inches above the key.  During the up and down movements of the arm, prepare the fingers by placing them in position for the depression of the next group of notes and by holding the finger which is to play the melody-note a trifle lower and firmer than the other fingers which are to depress the remaining keys of the chord.  In first attempting this exercise, there is a feeling of stiffened muscular action.  Such a condition is always present in the early stage of mastering this problem and should not cause discouragement.  Continued practice will remove this feeling, leaving a relaxed though firm muscular action.  Continued development will also remove the necessity for raising the hand so high above the keys.
Without ceasing to retain firm though supple joints at the wrists and knuckles, release all tension from the shoulder muscles, permitting the arm to fall with its full weight upon the predetermined keys, the points of contact being the balls of the fingers { the soft, fleshy part }.
The finger which is held a trifle lower and much firmer naturally strikes the key a much firmer blow than do the more relaxed fingers which do not overcome the resistance of the key as easily as does the more firmly held finger. The tone produced by the key so depressed is therefore stronger than the others. Thus, it is plainly seen that in striking a chord, in which a single note is to be accented, the effect can be produced by holding the finger which is to play the melody note a trifle lower and much firmer than the fingers which are to play the unaccented notes. The reason for holding the finger a trifle lower is only psychological in effect; in actual practice, it isn't altogether necessary. Experience shows that in the beginning it is almost impossible to get a student to hold one finger more firmly than the others unless he is also permitted to hold it in a somewhat different position from the others. Holding it a little lower does not change the quality or quantity of tone produced and does not affect the playing in any way but it does put the student's mind at greater ease.  { Not entirely so: playing the note slightly earlier sets it in a different time dimension, making the effect more orchestral. }
There is one more point of vital importance in mastering this problem. In the beginning the super-firmness with which the lowered finger is held will cause a hard tone to be produced. The hardness of tone will disappear with progress in its mastery and freedom of movement in depressing the keys, leaving as a final result a beautiful, sonorous and velvety tone of the desired carrying power."