By Jill Yris
Concert pianist Sandrine Erdely-Sayo spent fifteen years of
her childhood savoring Bach for breakfast. Her assignment
each week was to memorize a new one of his compositions.
At the same time, she said, she might also have been practicing
one of his fugues. "I couldn't run away from him."
Erdely-Sayo was born in the South of France. By the tender
age of four she was already studying piano at the Perpignan
Conservatory. By age thirteen, she was the youngest recipient
of the French minister of Culture prize, and was awarded
several first prizes and gold medals at international
competitions. She performed at the ChÃ¢telet ThÃ©Ã¢tre,
Salle Cortot and the louvre in Paris. Her Philadelphia venues
have included Mozart on the Square concerts, Bach Festivals
and Jewish Film Festival.
By the time she was eleven years old, she was on tour
performing the Bach Concerto in F Minor, and had to leave
her formal schooling to receive tutoring by mail and from her
mother. Eventually she was able to attend the Paris National
Superior Conservatory where she concentrated on
counterpoint, harmony and fugue, with a specialization in
Though her resume makes her life sound like a sweet dream, it wasn't. As a young teenager, living and
studying in Paris in an intense academic atmosphere wasn't easy. "I was living in a place for musicians
and directed by nuns. I was always hungry and cold except on Sundays when I was going to Hebrew
school," she said. However, she was somehow able to attend the theatre, opera, the Academie
FranÃ§aise, and of course partying before slipping back to the nuns. "What a paradox! People called
me the wandering Jew. You see," she explained, "when one has a will, a goal and a love, one can do
Her reward came in the summer when she was invited to stay in Montfort l'Amaury, an enchanting
country property north of Paris owned by Denyse Riviere (from the Paris Conservatory). She was,
Erdely-Sayo said, a decisive influence on her music and consequently her life. The picturesque summer
heaven's atmosphere cradled her in a creative warmth and artistic security. "It is where I have been
learning my repertoire for more than twenty years," she said. The property was one block away from the
home of Maurice Ravel, and also the place where CÃ©sar Franck finished writing his Beatitudes, she
noted. She still has strong memories - including the fact that Franck once lived with Denyse Riviere's
family and that "Denyse threw his [Franck's] piano away. It was full of worms." Erdely-Sayo also
remembers: "It's where I studied Franck's Prelude, Choral and Fugue. At this young age, I was very
excited to play Franck's music where he lived, and Ravel's music on Ravel's piano. It's awesome."
At the age of seventeen, Erdely-Sayo won the Concours de la ScÃ¨ne FranÃ§aise in Paris and was
subsequently approached to move to the States, a change of direction from her original intention to go to
Italy. She moved to Center City, Philadelphia, at the age of nineteen, and she says that "Americans have
been extraordinary with me. I will never forget."
Her next step to her American career was her introduction to the noted pianist Susan Starr, who herself
debuted at age six with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Starr spoke warmly of Erdely-Sayo, saying she is a
"wonderful pianist who has a very special personality in her playing and her interpretations have some
quality that others don't have. ...Sandrine can inject a very special kind of humor in her playing and she
transmits that when she performs. She is a superb musician with a wonderful ear and great fingers."
Erdely-Sayo credits Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medecine Service at the Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in NY, and former teacher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medecine, along
with clarinet-player Herb Hesh, for their help in facilitating her post-graduate studies a the University of
the Arts with Starr.
At the present time, Erdely-Sayo is single. "I haven't found my charming prince," she says, her accent
pronounced and her speech studded with bon and ooh-la-la. "He probably hides between my notes.
They run too fast to find him."Along with her performomg career, she teaches privately, at the
Doylestown Conservatory and Temple Prep. Speaking of income, she says, "You have little chance to
become a millionaire, but you are certainly richer than most people. You need to have a strong
dedication, a strong mental, physical health and a smile when there is a rainy day... A person who does
music for glory is a neurotic; a person who does music for money is senseless."
She belongs to several organizations for the gifted, but tends to downplay her involvements in these
prestigious associations and prefers mentioning her volunteering with the Children's Advanced
International Learning Institute, a program to help children in developing countries reach their full
About her practice, Erdely-Sayo says, "It is indispensable to organize a day of practice where music will
not be the daily bread but a holiday cake," noting that concentration is more important than the actual
length of practice time. "Many studies have proved that our capacity of memorization declines after
twenty minutes so it's necessary during the memorization work to learn to take small breaks of five to ten
minutes. We could think that it's a loss of time, but it's during this time that our brain organizes and
connects all the given information before storing them in our long-term memory."
Her advice for a musician to survive and thrive through days an days of practicing is: Discipline, discipline,
discipline; proper nutrition; avoid stress and think creatively and critically. And if possible, play on an
instrument one cherishes. In Philadelphia, her choice of piano is a Yamaha, and in France, a
Pleyel-Schimmel. In concert, Erdely-Sayo likes to perform on a BÃ¶sendorfer or a Steinway, aspecially
the Steinway from Hamburg.
She chooses a repertoire "that will seduce the ears of an audience. I want to make the listeners think,
laugh, cry and get in touch with their own emotions. Music shouldn't be reserved for a minority, but it
should be shared and understood by all."
Her CDs include the work of Primitivo Lazaro, a modern-day Spanish composer, including his Rapsodia
Onubense and Suite of the Marvels, the six movements of which were inspired by the Caves of
Aracera, filled with effervescent arpeggios and light-hearted trills. On another recording, Erdely-Sayo
performs compositions written by lazaro in tribute to three composers, which incorporate the
well-mannered and formal aspects of Felix Mendelssohn, the rich warmth and abundant animation of
Robert Schumann and the lyrical, poetic style of Frederic Chopin.
Speaking of the technical skills required of virtuosic performers (such as those exhibited by Erdely-Sayo),
Homer W. Smith, a physiologist, states (Introduction to Music, by Martin Bernstein and Martin Picker,
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966) : "perhaps in no other human activity do memory, complex integration, and
muscular coordination surpass the achievements of the skilled pianist." Smith gives an example of velocity
in numerical terms: if a pianist played Schumann's Toccata in C Major in four minutes and twenty
seconds - a feat which has been successfully accomplished without sacrificing clarity- 24.1 key
depressions have occurred, with a total of 6,266 depressions in the composition - an astounding
virtuosity of rapid octaves and sixteenth-notes.
Erdely-Sayo's next CD will include music by Franck, Ravel, Messiaen and Poulenc. "I am profoundly
attached to French music," she said, "not because I am French, but because this music is refined. French
composers wrote in a very sophisticated way and I am very sensitive to the clarity of writing. She credits
the French with teaching musicians harmonic sensitivity, magical modulations and voluptuous sounds.
In her ten to fifteen-hour work days practicing and writing (poetry and several musical pieces),
Erdely-Sayo also includes studies of literature, mathematics, philosophy and physics. "Knowledge
completes an artist, enriches his horizon and refines his sensitivity. The more we learn, the better chance
we have to see things clearer and to have a higher degree of humanism. Intelligence should be cultivated
and eduction protected."
She continues: "A sound is nothing if it is not opposed to another - the ricochet movement consequently
creating music, which expresses and externalizes emotions while being capable of communicating thought.
It bring us to the road of reflection and philosophy, but also the road to poetry, art and colors."
For example, she explained: "There are seven musical memories (analytic, auditory, muscular or tactile,
nominative, numeral, rhythmical and visual); seven notes in a scale; seven primary colors and seven colors
in a rainbow." She used as an illustration Claude Debussy's sensitive compositions, which reveal prismatic
auras through his use of coloristic effects and parallel chord movements. "How can we play Debussy
without thinking of Baudelaire or Verlaine's poetry? Chabrier without mentioning Manet? Can we talk
about Chopin without thinking about poetry or revolution or Granados without mentioning Goya? The
history of humanity is not only political or economic, it is also artistic and even more musical."
Erdely-Sayo's thirst to find solutions encourages her studies of mathematics and physics, which in turn
provide concrete evidence for generally recognized concepts. "Everything abstract," she says, "whether
music, the universe, God, infinity, has a frame or a logic. To be able to understand its logic and its
complexity, and to articulate an idea or an explanation, it is important to put as many tools as possible in
the brain. The structure of mathematics leads to understand logic.
Music and mathematics are two inseparable sciences, and of course, I will think right away about the
treatise on harmony by Rameau and also the two treatises of Boece about arithmetic and music which
complete each other.
But the 'Father' of 'mathematics-music' is probably Pythagoras. Around 550BC, Pythagoras discovered
the relationships between intervals, mathematical ratios and degrees of consonance or dissonance,"
Erdely-Sayo continued. "Pythagoras was convinced that the laws of harmony were the same as the ones
which govern the constitution of the worlds and the planets, thereby gaining access to the knowledge of
the microcosm which is the universe. Physics did an intrusion into mathematics and music became a
Descartes wrote:'The object of music is sound; its end is to seduce and to excite in us diverse passions.'
Physics studies the relationship of sounds or intervals. You see, again, music brings you to everything."
Her insatiable scholarly curiosity led Erdely-Sayo to substantiating an important observation involving a
composition by Francis Poulenc, reportedly a member of Les Six, of neo-classical orientation - his work
sometimes serious, sometimes satirical. "Poulenc is for me the most mysterious and spontaneous
musician," said Erdely-Sayo, who spent her childhood studying his improvisations and playing much of his
music in concert. "His indications used to make me smile," she said, giving as example 'doucement
baignÃ© de pÃ©dales,'
loosely translated as 'gently bathed in pedals.' "In 1995, Dr.Carl Schmidt, a great scholar who wrote
many books on Francis Poulenc, asked me to give the world premiere of a recently discovered
piece:'Les Trois Pastorales'. I was very honored and it was a real pleasure to discover and learn a
pieace that was lost for many years.
"As a French pianist, I did the world premiere in America, and Noel Lee, an American pianist, did the
French premiere in Paris. In 2001, I decided to learn his Intermezzo in A flat Major (Max Eschig
Edition). While I was learning it, a note was bothering me and I thought: it must be a mistake!" After
buying several different recordings, she recognized that certain artists played the intended notes, while
many continued playing D flat. "People thought I was thinking too much and said:'play what's written!'"
Amid the ridicule, she was still not convinced. "Then I heard a recording of Rubistein and he was playing
D natural. the best [way to settle it] was to call Dr. Schmidt" a professor of musicology at Towson State
University, Maryland. "With his help, I had access to a copy of the Vladimir Horowitz's score (Signed
and) corrected by a pencil mark by Poulenc which confirms that on the third page, last line, first measure
all the Ds except the first one are natural (same thing for the second measure). You see, there is always a
story with Poulenc!"
The author wishes to thank Barbara School for her help with the French-English translation.
To contact Sandrine Erdely-Sayo, email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her CDs can be found at Tower
Records or online at her website: www.erdelysayo.com