Pianists From The Past: Blanche Selva

Pianists From the Past is garnering a steady readership and taking on a life of its own. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed publishing the many interesting and informative articles so generously written by a host of eminent musicians. Today’s superb offering, featuring French pianist, pedagogue and composer Blanche Selva (1884 – 1942), has been written by Professor John Thwaites who is Head of the Department of Keyboard Studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Blanche Selva (1884 – 1942)
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I’m delighted to say that all the wonderful pianists and pedagogues who have been so important to me as teachers are still alive, except for the Austro-Hungarian pianist Edith Vogel. I have relished recalling her classes at Guildhall, as I know many others will (her love of hemiola, and her rich vocabulary – to this day I often wonder if I could begin a movement in a more “inveigling” manner) and there are some marvellous Youtube recordings.

But I would like to speak now of the French pianist Blanche Selva. After some years looking at figures like Ilona Eibenschütz and Adelina de Lara as part of Historically Informed Performance studies in Brahms, I’m now looking into important figures in French pianism.

Blanche Selva (1884-1942) made recordings in the 1920s of Franck’s Prélude, Chorale and Fugue and of his Violin Sonata in A (with Catalan husband violinist Joan Massia) which are contemporary with the legendary recordings of Alfred Cortot and should be considered their equal. But just as her recording career was taking off, she had a stroke (in 1930) which ended her performing career, and she settled in Barcelona, founding a music school there. She was at the heart of the circle of Franck disciples, having studied composition with d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum, where she then taught for 20 years.

Blanche Selva with a class in 1926

The playing is full of colours, flexible and free. Whilst emotionally compelling, it has also a lack of heaviness, and a lilting freedom in rhythm which is buoyant and endlessly creative, lacking any pedantry or squareness. Currently I’m preparing to record (with the Primrose Piano Quartet) the great piano quartet by Chausson, another Franck pupil, and I’m also preparing to video-record the Franck Sonata with Alexander Baillie. So the true largamente in the opening piano solo in the first movement of the Franck Sonata (and yet flowing semiquavers in the left hand just thereafter), the virtuoso tempo of the second movement (so that the second subject also sweeps along), the flowing triplet accompaniment to the main material in the third movement (where arguably many people play too slowly) and indeed the flowing Finale and inflected quavers (although for the most flowing and freely inspired Finale go to the earlier of the Cortot recordings, from 1923) all mean a great deal to me.

There is also a point of text that has come to obsess me a little: the C flat that is the first quaver in the right hand, second movement, bar 27. As the theme moves between bars, it drops a semitone (as it does in the recapitulation, where a C flat is notated). A C natural certainly doesn’t sound wrong–most people play it, and it’s been notated that way in the available editions since publication. Also, we don’t have the original manuscript, although we do have two manuscript copies. When I ask colleagues if they believe it’s a C natural or flat, it divides opinion. Only the latest Henle edition has a C flat in editorial brackets, by analogy with the recapitulation (but Henle being Henle, C flats might now begin to proliferate!). The most recent Bärenreiter and Wiener Urtext editions continue to print the C natural, and don’t even flag any issue. But, now that my attention has been drawn to it, I’m a believer in C flat, and so, of all the hundreds of recordings on Youtube, I’m fascinated that a very small number of pianists play this C flat. It’s almost a roll of honour, if you’re a believer, and they are: William Murdoch, Rosa Tamarkina, Martha Agerich, Kevin Kenner, and yes, you’ve guessed it, Blanche Selva!

Blanche had an enormous repertoire. She played all Bach and Beethoven, and she was well known for championing Czech repertoire. Janáček wrote of her: “her fingers sow the wind, diffuse perfume, produce mist and weave the sun’s brilliance”. She wrote books on piano teaching, and also a lot of music. She was clearly a wonderful and widely influential and important pianist.

Research Assistants: Beth Haughan and Edward Leung

Head of the Department of Keyboard Studies,
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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