A new documentary film directed by Antongiulio Panizzi
By Hannah Reimann
On rare occasions, while we listen to the beautiful music of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach and Beethoven, life transcends music and we realize that the true meaning of music is people, relationships, life, history and the depth of feeling life lessons bring. I recently had the great fortune to attend the New York premiere of the documentary film, Piano Lessons: The Life and Art of German Diez, at the IFC Center. The room was filled with his former piano students, all of whom are now professional musicians pursuing lives of performance, music education and composition. There were also more than half a dozen members from the Cuban Diez Nieto family present.
Francesca Khalifa, a pianist and entrepreneur of Italian and Egyptian origin, partnered with filmmaker Antongiulio Panizzi to create this moving portrait of Diez Nieto. I shall heretofore refer to him as German (pronounced “hAIR-mAHn”), simply because he was my piano teacher, too, and I want you to know, first-hand, the feeling of his extended, non-blood musical family as you read this. Everyone who worked with Diez Nieto called him German.
The film is based on Khalifa’s research about German, a clear and concise audio-visual portrait, with interviews and on-camera playing by some of his most accomplished students, among them, Erika Nickrenz, Jeni Slotchiver, composer Joan Tower. Known to all of his pupils as the most generous and fatherly pedagogue in their and other lineages, German taught thousands of piano lessons for more than six decades, including long tenures at Greenwich House Music School, Hunter College, Bard College, Brooklyn College and SUNY Purchase, plus innumerable non-matriculated students until his death in 2014. He left a legacy of musical and technical knowledge of piano playing that traces from his teacher, Claudio Arrau, to Arrau’s teacher, Martin Krause, to Franz Lizst, Carl Czerny, Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven’s teachers and beyond, to the very beginning of piano playing.
This kind of legacy is not uncommon in classical music, however, it’s rare to see it treated with the charm and intimacy of a large musical family like this one. These pianists are not falsely glorified or bowed down to—all of them including German are portrayed simply and elegantly as people with hearts, intelligent minds, and vulnerabilities who have devoted much of their lives to passing on a tradition that can only be communicated person-to-person at the piano keyboard. They all have had their own unique journeys of great and challenging times in New York City and abroad. You can see this in their faces and hear it in their voices as they speak lovingly and reverently about a man they routinely met, taking on their most important goals with his guidance, encouragement and steadfast wisdom.
German’s relationship to his older brother, Alfredo Diez Nieto, a renowned Cuban composer who was also German’s first piano teacher, Greenwich House Music School, his son, Alex, wife, Doris, and even his Steinway grand piano are examined through the friendly lens of the fellow non-American Panizzi, interwoven with vintage footage of New York City, historic stills and clips of German, Alfredo and Arrau, plus watercolor and ink-blot visuals by artist Elena Ricci based on photos of Cuba that have been animated in post-production. These pair well with the flowing piano music which comes in and out of being in sync to shots of the performing pianists and complementing the B-roll. The film feels American and foreign at the same time. American English is always spoken, however, its narrator and protagonist, Khalifa, has an accent. We get the sense that she is making an international exploration similar to what the young German did when he came from Cuba to the States. She also does detective work, playing for the 100-year-old Alfredo in Havana to dig deeper into the family’s ties and talents, and to study a piano toccata that Alfredo wrote for German.
I don’t want to give too much away—part of the victory of this film is its unfolding and the process of discovering German as the subject of the documentary in his students’ eyes. The unfolding has different dimensions and revelations. Some are historic, like his years studying with Arrau and some are deeply personal, such as his attitude towards Cuba and the political situation there (secretive to protect the family).
German’s work with his pupils consisted of his setting a chair next to the piano bench from where they played difficult passages of music, hour upon hour, listened to with precision by him six days a week or more, holding or waving a conductor’s baton. Their time together was about the developing artist, what German gave to them and how they mastered their art. We receive a practical view into the technique he taught—there are no secrets here. All the pianists are candid and certain.
The film allows us to see much further into German’s musical development as a performer and his peculiar journey to become a teacher than his students ever saw in person. Born in 1924, he came to New York City from Cuba when he was twenty years old and received a full scholarship to study with Arrau who considered him to be extremely gifted. In 1959, right after the Cuban Revolution, when he needed to earn money to support his wife and young son, German’s concerts decreased in number and his teaching hours multiplied. Most of his students in the film never heard him play. There are many teachers of virtuoso classical music who do not perform even if they once did—they leave that behind and invest their skill in their pupils. To play an instrument excellently usually requires a person to spend the majority of his or her quality hours of the day practicing. Many piano students wonder, silently and respectfully, “How would my teacher sound playing a concert?” At one point, the filmmakers choose to present an example of German’s playing to his students. It’s as if they’re invited to peer straight into his soul for the first time.
The expressions on the faces of those interviewed while listening to one of the few recordings of German when he was a concertizing virtuoso are the most moving moments of the camerawork and storytelling. His rendition of Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C# Minor from the early 1950’s for The Baldwin Hour at WQXR Radio is exquisite, saturated with deep feeling and the complexity of dynamic expression, phrasing, clarity and control that all pianists aspire to. These are moments that go far beyond words and honor both music and film in the purest sense. We feel at one with the music and the listeners on screen. And we are listeners viewing them, bearing witness to their wordlessly looking back to a time before they knew him, and, at once, knowing they are carrying on his unique legacy.