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Magda Tagliaferro

15 years after the pianist's death, a book gives an account of the artist's history and career

Pianist Magdalena Tagliaferro (1893/1986), who created in the 40’s the public lessons that led many young pianists to face an audience, used to recommend her pupils not to just stay stuck at home practicing piano. Just as important as training and lessons, she would advocate, was the experience of life. “Read, travel”, she would say. She was a women of a tiny build and ginger hair, who used to write letters in green ink, and annotate the scores of her students in blue and red.

Indeed, she said of herself: “I owe much to my parents; the miracles of Nature, flowers, beaches and colors. In music, I am a colorist”, explained the artist, who was friendly with Ravel, Fauré and Poulenc in the French capital. She came to know the city when she was still a girl, when she went to the Paris Conservatory, in those days directed by Gabriel Fauré, to perfect her art. Her teachers there were Raoul Pugno and Alfred Cortot. She had an intense musical relationship with the latter (and the story went all round the world that the married teacher fell head over heels in love with his pupil), of which she said in an interview: “Very instinctive! Cortot opened up for me fantastic horizons of interpretation. It was this, above, that he gave me, was it not? Imagination for the pedal. Fantastic!”

Now, 15 years have passed since the pianist’s death, which happened in 1986, but her legacy – the rigor in interpretation, the talent for teaching, the innovating ideas – remains alive. A proof of this it the book Magdalena Tagliaferro – Witness of her Time, the result of a research project (carried out with the support of FAPESP) by the conductor, organist, teacher and bachelor in law, Édson Leite. He defended his thesis for a doctorate at the School of Communications and Arts, of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP) in 1999, after two and a half years of research, under the guidance of Professor Marco Antônio Guerra.

“I wanted to show the importance that artists can have in society, to show not only musicians in isolation, but their role as cultural agents”, says Édson Leite. “And to bring them up to date with our memory as well, to preserve their memory. Magdalena was a strong figure, who won over those her liked her, and those who did not like her as well. Nobody remained indifferent”. Professor Édson also recalls how modern the artist was, who would be working on her own image, with her very personal attitudes, back in the first decades of the 20th century. As the researcher recalls how, for example, she would often arrive at the public classes using the finest of gloves, which she would take off slowly, theatrically, as she went on playing and commenting on the music.

Another aspect of the sort of person she was: at times, she would arrive to give a concert with a most discrete dress, with a high neckline; but when she sat down at the piano, the public would see her back, and there she would show a very daring, striking low cut back. “This was also part of her policy as well, she knew her onions. She was a fantastic artist and a proud woman, with that ginger hair, her lips always colored. No one ever found her without lip-stick, not even in the morning”, says the researcher.

Girl prodigy
Born in Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro, in 1893, Magdalena was a daughter of French parents (the father, Paulo Tagliaferro, used to give singing and piano lessons). A girl prodigy, she gave her first concert in 1902, and, at the age of 13, she went to Europe with her family. Her father was ill and was going to look after his health, but what really motivated him was the talent of his daughter. Accordingly, he took the initiative of writing to his old piano teacher, Raoul Pugno, asking his attention for Magdalena. After hearing her play, Pugno recommended her to Antonin Marmotel, who had succeeded him in the conservatory class. Magdalena was accepted unanimously and began to study with Marmotel.

Afterwards, she even had lessons with Pugno, who affectionately called her “my little monkey from Brazil”. Her career was sketched out. In 1907, she won the first prize and the gold medal in the competition at the Paris Conservatory. In 1928, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor, and in 1937 she was appointed to the chair of the Paris Music Conservatory. Amongst her historical performances, there is the one at the Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1940, as soloist in Schumann’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, opus 54.

In spite of her intense connection with France, she had to spend almost an entire decade in Brazil. In the early 1940’s, she did a tour of the United States, and, so they say, as a result of the difficulties imposed by the Second World War (1939 – 1945) was no longer able to return to France. It was also at that time that her marriage was coming to an end. So she came to Brazil. And, still in 1940, she created her course of musical interpretation and appreciation, with the support of the Ministry of Education and Health.

She taught in several states, such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and, in 1956, with incentive from Cortot, took it to France. She would plan these courses carefully, from the pieces to be performed in each lesson, to the historical, biographical, stylistic and formal information. Everything was though out so as to provide a coherent and stimulating whole.

Later on, in São Paulo, she founded the Magda Tagliaferro School, and continued to carry out the public classes, which allowed the pupils to show their art to the public, with all the responsibility that this implies. Pianist Fábio Caramuru, one of her former pupils in Paris in the 80’s, who nowadays publicizes the work of his mentor and is the artistic director of the Magda Tagliaferro Foundation, attended one of them at the Masp, when he was only 16 years old. “On that day, a girl played very well, itwas exquisite. When she finished, Magda said: ‘My dear, you are 19 years old, have you ever loved anyone in your life?'”, recalls Caramuru. “That question says it all. In spite of being perfect from the technical point of view, there was a lack of experience, something she regarded as essential”, he said. The advice that she gave her pupils she would take from her own life. A much traveled and very proud woman, she loved going to the beach, to the mountains, and to parties.

Cultural projects
The Magda Tagliaferro Foundation is an institution that carries out cultural projects, offers scholarships to new pianists of talent, and does publications and remasterings of the artist’s recordings. It also has good biographical material on the pianist – texts, books, photos and records. One of the books that can be consulted there is Magda’s autobiography, Almost Everything, out of print, which was another of Leite’s sources in his work.

Another of the foundation’s ventures is the launch of the second edition of the 1991 CD Revival, which won the grand prize of the critics from the São Paulo Association of Art Critics (APCA) in that same year. Produced by Caramuru, Revival follows, according to him, a solely musical criterion for selection. With 5,000 copies made under the sponsorship of the National Foundation for Culture, the CD includes compositions like Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve: 1st Dance; Isaac Albeniz’s Spanish Suite: Seville; César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue; Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamesque, Clair de Lune; and Francis Poulenc’s Toccata.

The scholars agree: Magda’s importance is unquestionable, since besides being a concert pianist of an international level, she was also a teacher, transmitting what she knew to the generations that follow. A rare case in her métier, because artists usually either dedicate themselves to recitals and concerts, or they are teachers. Much of this talent and creativity, she refined during the golden years at the beginning of last century, becoming familiar with impressionism and with symbolism as well. “Like Paris, Magda is art in renewal”, says Leite.

The Parisian airs and life were also reflected in the major Brazilian cities. In his thesis, researcher Édson Leite recalls, for example, that it was France (with the literature of Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Anatole France) that set the tone for artists and intellectuals. In São Paulo, uplifted by coffee fever, one would read Machado de Assis and Coelho Neto and “the craze for the piano took hold of society under the guidance of Chiaffarelli”. Brazilianism, in modern hues, was to be presented a little later, with the 1922 Week of Modern Art, and, in the following decade, the publication of such works as Casa Grande e Senzala, by Gilberto Freyre ,Evolução Política do Brasil, by Caio Prado Junior and, later, Raízes do Brasil, by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda were to suggest a re-reading and rediscovery of the country.

In the preface to Magdalena Tagliaferro – A Witness to her Time, Maria de Lourdes Sekeff observes: “If Chiaffarelli (1856-1923), who had been a teacher of Antonieta Rudge, Guiomar Novaes e Souza Lima (…), had made São Paulo the most advanced musical center in Brazil, it was to be up to Magda Tagliaferro to deal with the question of musical modernity, as represented by French music, to deal with the importance of Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, putting them side by side with the new esthetical and musical directions”. And she captured very well and to the life all the musicality of France.

Nor could it be otherwise. After all, the Paris Conservatory, founded in 1795, was the hothouse for practically all French music of modern times. “Magda was able to breath the same air that the great masters of French music breathed, to take part in their classes, to get to know their histories closely, and sometimes even to be a part of them”, says Leite.

Musical people
An interpreter famous for her European tours, as a teacher she was always attentive to the technical aspects, to the execution, but she did not neglect the musical effect that she could achieve in some phrase, at a given moment in the music. She wanted a differentiated result that would reproduce the music of the period with characteristics of the interpreter. She thought that the most important thing for the pianist was to show his musical personality and to develop his specific character”, recalls former pupil Caramuru. Because, as she would say: “The Brazilian people is the most musical one there is in the world, with a natural musicality that beats the Europeans ten nil”.

The project
Magdalena Tagliaferro: witness of her time (nº 97/01702-4); Modality Grant for Doctorate; Coordinator Marco Antônio Guerra – ECA/USP; Investment R$ 43,439.00