Dinu Lipatti was born in Bucharest on March 19, 1917, in unsettled times of war and in a country under German occupation. Bringer of peace and hope, the infant grows up surrounded by affectionate love while the family’s long-standing artistic ambiance enables him to develop, quite early on, his own exceptional musical talent.
His parents, skilled amateur musicians (his father played the violin, his mother was a pianist), decide their sun should be committed to the study of music and so, at the age of eight, after having learned the basics in the family, little Dinu is entrusted, for serious and methodical education, to eminent professor and music celebrity Mihail Jora.
The child learns thus piano, solfeggio and harmony. After three years, having already attained the level required by the National Music University of Bucharest – then the Academy of Music and Drama – Dinu enters the class of famous professor Florica Musicescu. His lessons with maestro Jora continue, but they include, this time, notions of composition as well. The young student makes quick progress: in 1932 he graduates, after only four years of study, with honours, and at the gala concert he performs Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor. This, though, would only be the prelude to Lipatti’s career as a pianist: he makes his official debut a year later, when he plays, with the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Alessandrescu, Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat major.
1933 saw the sixteen-year old pianist participate in the International Piano Competition in Vienna. Remarking Dinu’s talent, jury member Alfred Cortot expresses his enthusiasm, declares he is convinced it was the first place that Lipatti "by far” deserved – the Romanian pianist had been awarded second prize – and invites him to come to France to perfect his playing. Consequently, 1934 represents a new beginning in Lipatti’s life – the studies in Paris. Accompanied by his mother and his younger brother, he leaves Bucharest for the French capital and its Ecole Normale de Musique, where he is welcomed by Cortot and his assistant, Yvonne Lefébure, and where chooses the composition class of Paul Dukas as well (Dinu had by now began to write, and three of his works had been granted awards at the "George Enescu” National Composition Competition in Bucharest: first mention for Sonata for piano solo, in 1922, second prize for Sonatina for violin and piano, in 1933, and first prize for the symphonic suite Les tziganes, in1934; this latter award would establish the artist’s reputation in the field, but composition, even though so dear to him, would have to remain secondary).
Lipatti’s first teachers in Paris immediately realise that it is not a student they deal with, but an already well-informed and initiated musician, whose qualities they will only have to render evident. It is worth mentioning that the exceptional praise the teenager received was praise for the Romanian pedagogy too, after our country had come to international attention through the work of brilliant local composers and performers, with George Enescu in the forefront. Without wishing to diminish the importance of Lipatti’s being strongly influenced by the French and Western music celebrities he had contact with, we can nevertheless affirm that the basis he built his artistry upon, both as a pianist and as a composer, had been laid while under the guidance of Romanian teachers.
In addition to allowing us to learn about the rich artistic ambiance of the Parisian 1930s, Lipatti’s abundant correspondence with his professors at home enables us to follow the evolution of this uncommon talent, and also makes it clear that Lipatti felt the French teacher he had the most to learn from was Nadia Boulanger: indeed, the distinguished pedagogue (who also replaced Paul Dukas after the latter’s death) helped release all the young pianist’s special affective and artistic potential, thus assisting in making her student a place among the most outstanding pianists of the period.
During his studies Lipatti works enthusiastically (and with much modesty), his touch developing, in his own words, more "colour”. Alfred Cortot presents him as the second Horowitz, he plays to great acclaim in France and Switzerland and makes his first recordings, right there at the Ecole Normale de Musique. His repertoire becomes wider and more diversified and he turns to orchestral conducting as well, studying with Diran Alexanian and Charles Münch. Composition is still not forgotten, so Lipatti’s famous Concertino in classical styleor his Symphonie concertante for two pianos and strings are no longer "school works”, even if their author is obviously influenced by either his teachers or the music of his time (especially Stravinsky), and still struggles to find his own, personal, means of expression. Often invited to join private music circles, Dinu also follows closely the musical life of Paris; a series of his concert reviews, published in Libertateanewspaper in Bucharest between 1938 and 1939, reveal the same keen sense of observation, real maturity, and underlying integrity which characterise all of his activities.
In 1939, after five years in Paris, having obtained his concert licence and having seen, by the end of his studies, his teachers turn into distinguished friends and music fellows, Lipatti returns to Romania. He becomes more and more of a presence in the music life of his home country, repeatedly tours with the Bucharest Philharmonic and, as a result of an extraordinary artistic partnership, becomes closer to his godfather George Enescu. The young disciple follows ardently his maestro’s counsels, studies his oeuvre and plays chamber music recitals with him. As a composer, though, Dinu evades the inevitable enescian influences and is clearly nearer to creating, by writing Romanian folklore-inspired music and using up-to-date composition techniques, an individual style; thus, the original Concerto for piano and organ, his Fantasie for piano, Sonatina for the left hand or Dances roumaines for two pianos among others are much appreciated.
Still, as always, it is the pianist who surpasses the composer, as amply demonstrated by several valuable sound images from that period (works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt or Johannes Brahms, the second and third violin sonatas by Enescu in the company of the composer himself, and Lipatti’s own Concertino).
The time of these recordings would prove, retrospectively, to be both meaningful and sad: in early September 1943 Lipatti and his fiancée, pianist Madeleine Cantacuzino, leave for what would be his last musical pilgrimage. The tour should see them first passing through Vienna, Stockholm, Helsinki, Goteborg, Malmo, Zurich, Geneva and Bern and then, by the middle of October, lead them back to Bucharest. They were able to stick to the planned route despite the many adventures caused by the on-going war – except for the very last point, for which destiny had chosen otherwise…
But for the moment we are still in 1943, in the month of October. The young couple decides to settle in Geneva, and even if it was easier said than done, the difficulties they encountered were balanced by the warm reception they were given; a group of sincere, admiring, sympathetic friends and their families – Ernest Ansermet, Frank Martin, Igor Markevitch, Nikita Magaloff, Hugues Cuenod, Paul Sacher and many other Swiss or foreign artists – were there to help them in tough times.
Shortly after Lipatti’s first concerts in Geneva, Henri Gagnebin, the director of the Music Conservatory, offers him a position, and so, for five years, the Superior Course and the Virtuosity Class would benefit from the work of an enthusiastic Lipatti. Maintaining a certain reserve at first, without wanting to impose his knowledge, but rather to propose and guide, he quickly becomes his students’ idol.
Lipatti is on a sure path of establishing his name as a great pianist and teacher whose fame grows by the hour. Unfortunately, signs of a mysterious malady (fever, painful nodules, fatigue) appear, forcing the young pianist to cancel concerts, to remain, sometimes for weeks, indoors, or to go on long breaks in the mountains. Whenever his illness allows him, Lipatti, despite his doctors’ interdictions, courageously resumes his tours and gives high-sky performances even in the smallest of towns, where he is greeted with much affection.
A steady increase in requests to play not only in Europe, but also in the United States, in South America, and in Australia, follows (sadly, though, Lipatti would never be able to go beyond the borders of Europe), and the pianist makes friends wherever he goes. In the studios of Columbia Records in London he befriends artistic director Walter Legge. In The Netherlands he is offered a second home, and a completely furnished train wagon all to himself for the journey. In France, after listening to Lipatti, Pierre Guitton titles his review "I heard Chopin playing his B minor sonata!” (and this is just a taste of the kind of praise the pianist received). Finally, in Geneva a group of friends present him with a superb Steinway. Indeed, that original list of close acquaintances and musical partnerships expands at a tremendous rate, adding such names as Clara Haskil (with whom Dinu shares a close and moving artistic friendship as well as a consistent correspondence, began during his studies in France), Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Backhaus, Antonio Janigro, Herbert von Karajan, Paul Hindemith, Charles Münch, Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Schnabel, Walter Gieseking, André Marescotti, without forgetting his beloved teacher Nadia Boulanger or Dr Henri Dubois-Ferrièrre, who initiated, in 1970, the foundation dedicated to fighting against blood diseases and which bears his name associated with that of Lipatti.
To support Dinu, whose increasingly precarious health is evident, the Conservatory suggests he employ an assistant; younger colleague and remarkable teacher Louis Hiltbrand takes, with Lipatti’s hearty approval, this position, but it doesn’t help much: in 1949 Dinu decides to give up teaching, and the Conservatoire announces with great regret the resignation of "this eminent teacher and artist, one of the greatest of our times”.
Lipatti wouldn’t stop performing, though; nobody, except his wife and some very close friends, is able to realise the dimension of the tragedy unfolding under their very eyes – the pianist’s amazing personality and the perfection of his artistry are too amazing to let anything else transpire. Between crises, transfusions and the so wearisome X-ray treatment, Dinu continues to practice, altering his technique and adjusting it, so as to sidestep the difficulties – swollen ganglions, a thickened left arm, pain whenever he moves – caused by his illness He now knows he suffers from malign lymphogranulomatosis, or Hodgkin’s disease, and that the chances of a recovery are minimal, but he doesn’t lose heart. On the contrary, he keeps his sense of humour, encourages his family back home, and when he is not able play he writes, even while confined to bed; after the Mélodies setting several French poets and the transcription for piano and orchestra of his own Dances roumaines for two pianos, Dinu completes what would be his last composition, the Aubade for woodwind quartet.
At that time, Lipatti’s official repertoire included sixteen concertos – from Johann Sebastian Bach to Béla Bartók – and six different recital programs. The actual stock of works he could play was much bigger, as he had reached an amazing knowledge of the piano literature, but his wish for perfection pushed him to consider mastered only a fraction of it. Had Dinu given in to that simplistic attitude towards music, so habitual nowadays, he could at any time have played Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete preludes and fugues, Frédéric Chopin’s or Claude Debussy’s mazurkas and etudes, and even Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas – which, as witnessed by his students, he could transpose, on the spot, in any tonality!
The year 1950 finds him exhausted but, after some months’ treatment and a long sojourn in the mountains, at Montana, in Switzerland, enjoying a relatively stable health. He is finally able to return to Geneva and to play again, at Victoria Hall, Robert Schumann’s Piano concerto in A minor, with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet. Be it in Geneva, in Zurich (with Chopin’s E minor concerto), or in Bern (playing a solo recital), both public and press can barely contain their excitement.
That summer brings great hope: cortisone had been discovered, and with its help Lipatti miraculously regains his strength. Informed by Dr Dubois-Ferrière, Walter Legge isn’t late in arriving to Geneva, riding Columbia Records’ bus and accompanied by several technicians, to make those so long-awaited, many times postponed recordings. From July 2 to July 12, with an extraordinary enthusiasm and an incredible force, Lipatti secures most part of his artistic testament – Bach, Mozart, Chopin. He was so happy! And what an effort he had to put into these recordings! We should turn to Legge’s impressive memoirs if we were to be able to realise the full extent of his commitment…
The most touching work from that recording session remains the chorale "Jesu bleibet meine Freude”, Lipatti’s favourite encore and the piece which had marked his existence and followed him, like a pathetic leitmotif, everywhere he went (and it is a well-known fact that the pianist recorded the chorale a number of times before he agreed for the last version to be released).
Dinu’s friends had provided him with a villa in the middle of the small park of Chêne-Bourg, on the outskirts of Geneva and in what is now the "Dinu Lipatti Park” quarter; there, quiet, steadfast and focused even though he feels his vitality begin to falter, he practices in view of future engagements.
August 23 finds Lipatti in Lucerne, joined by the Festival’s Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan for Mozart’sPiano concerto no. 21 in C major, K. 467, and then the pianist prepares for his next stop – in Besançon, where he would hold his last, legendary recital. On the afternoon of the performance, on September 16, Lipatti, overcome by another bout of fever, feels he is unable to play. Supported by his doctor, he eventually decides to make that great effort and, as a sacrifice on the altar of Art, he chooses to perform. "Music is not your servant, but it is you who must be the servant of music!”, the great artist had said, and the great artist serves the music for the last time: after two months, on December 2, 1950, Dinu Lipatti would leave us forever…
Both in Romanian culture and outside our country Lipatti’s personality has its well-deserved place, alongside George Enescu, Constantin Brâncuși, or Mircea Eliade. The pianist was universally acclaimed as one of the greatest performers of the first half of the 20th century – even on those continents he was unable to visit in his short life. After his death, which arrived just when the LP disc had been discovered, his name, as circulated by the 33 rpm and the 45 rpm records, continued, quite unusually, to steadily grow, and since the last decade of the century Lipatti’s complete recordings are also available in the compact disc digital audio system.
We may quite rightfully ask ourselves what the "secret” of his art was, and in what way did he differ from other maestros of the piano.
First of all, Lipatti’s artistic training was done, from the very beginning, at an outstanding level. His precocious, exceptional talent merged with an unusual capacity for hard work, with a gift for understanding and internalizing the music he practiced and with adequate physical traits – his supple hands’ size, particularly. This conjuncture of innate abilities, almost destining him to become a pianist, had the best of conditions to develop – a music-friendly environment at home and the guidance of esteemed teachers at school. Over the years, through contact with the great names of the time, Lipatti gained wider and wider experience – and so he evolved, reaching quite early on a mature, visionary conception on art and musical performance which brought together all the diverse, complex qualities of the contemporary piano player.
If we were to attempt a brief characterization of Lipatti’s art, the first word that comes to mind is "equilibrium”; that the description fits very well becomes evident every time one listens to his recordings. Reason and intuition, unit and detail, simplicity and expressive force – all spell "balance”; those traits are the result of an amazing understanding of musical phenomenology, and this ensemble explains Lipatti’s uncommon freedom of playing. His pianism is authentic, eloquent and intensely persuasive, making him instantly recognizable and enabling us to speak about a lipattian manner of expression.
Secondly, we have to acknowledge the pianist’s capacity to play with equal competence the most diverse styles and genres. Being familiar with his conviction that it is not enough to "love” a work in order to approach it, but one must "be loved” by it, we can tell that Dinu’s far-reaching possibilities were deeply-rooted. His improvisations, which, as his audience often testified, seemed to be authentic works by the composers he evoked, confirm the level of craftsmanship in mastering different eras’ idioms. Thus, Lipatti is the embodiment of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s famous "performer as re-creator”.
"The ideal he was pursuing as re-creator-pianist”, his pupil Jacques Chapuis says, "can be summarized by a phrase Lipatti often bitingly repeated: «The perfect pianist – and how I should like to be able to miraculously draw such a person out of my pocket! – should have Alfred Cortots’ imagination and singing tone, Vladimir Horowitz’s éclat and zest, Walter Gieseking’s colours, Wilhelm Backhaus’s skilled and supple hands, Edwin Fischer’s flame and tenderness». We may mentally add: and the modesty and temper of Dinu Lipatti, who often incarnated himself his own ideal pianist”.
If Lipatti’s heritage is not lost today, this happens also due to his prophetic vision on music, by which he anticipated the evolution of the piano technique and of the art of the performer. Lipatti brought forward, without the aid of historical reconstruction, Bach’s profoundly human content and elevated spirituality; in Mozart he stressed the contrast between drama and serenity – the very germs of Romanticism as foreseen by the Austrian genius; he played Chopin as if the composer had stemmed from the classical era, rendering evident his "apollonian” side and revealing, with his own characteristic sobriety and simplicity, a whole world of affections; he felt in perfect harmony with the visionary, presentient innovations of Liszt; Ravel and the Impressionists offered him the possibility to perfect his research on how piano can change its tone depending on the manner of attack…
In some of his letters Dinu Lipatti, writing to his teachers, speaks about "the vulture-pianist” of the future, in whom such qualities as listed would all congregate; the draft he wrote in preparation for his class at the Geneva Music Conservatory just a few months before his death is still touchingly fresh. Arguing that some musicians’ efforts to recreate the characteristics of older eras are pointless, he says: "Let us not forget that the true and great music is always ahead of its time; what is more, it never actually fitted in with neither the frame, nor the forms, nor the regulations effective at the moment of its birth. Bach calls for the electric organ and its myriad aural possibilities in his organ works, Mozart calls for the piano and steps determinedly back from the harpsichord, Beethoven urgently calls for our modern piano to which Chopin, by then having the benefit of it, is the first to give colour, and Debussy goes even further, letting us catch glimpses, in his Preludes, of the future ondes Martenot. Thus, to want to restore the music the context of its epoch means to want to dress an adult in the clothes of a teenager. […] Stravinsky was right in stating that «music is the present moment itself!» […] Never look at a work with the eyes of the dead, the eyes of the past – all you are likely to get is an image of Yorick’s skull; as Casella with good reason said, we must not content ourselves with respecting the great music – we must love it.” Lipatti explains elsewhere that "respect is what that which is dead and gone is worthy of receiving – but great music, great music is forever alive”.
Such attempts by Lipatti (surviving only as brief notes scattered throughout letters and interviews) to formulate and reconstruct in writing his guiding principles, reveal another side of his personality: pianist, composer, teacher, and music aesthetician as well. As professor Dragoș Tănăsescu remarked, we cannot really speak about a philosophical and aesthetical system per se, or about a real teaching method; nevertheless, these ideas are essential in helping us learn about Lipatti’s artistic credo, about his scruples and aspirations, about his efforts to create a theory which would help him organise and clarify what he intuitively felt.
Dinu Lipatti’s fame is due to his thoroughly exceptional artistic and human qualities, made prominent by an assiduous, methodical, deeply committed work. The pianist had a brilliant, prophetic vision of the evolution of the piano technique and of the art of the performer. The composer is clearly a continuator of George Enescu, creating a music which displays to advantage the Romanian folklore while bearing the strong, revitalising mark of modernity.
The memory, equally bright and legendary, of Dinu Lipatti’s presence on the firmament of music is living and persists still; to express how alive and enduring this memory is would be beyond the power of words.
(English version by Maria Monica Bojin)