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Expression and its Conditions

BY EDWARD DICKINSON.
 
One of the most interesting questions in musical study and criticism is, What is the basis of expression? In other words, what is the essence of that quality by which one player makes a deeper impression upon an audience than another of equal technical skill? and how can this quality be taught or acquired? The question practically stated is this—is expression a matter of preliminary study, or are the strongest effects upon an audience the result of the heightened feelings of the moment? And also, how far can the art of moving the emotions by a musical performance be taught by definite rule and precept? The opinion widely prevails that expression is mainly or wholly a matter of "inspiration," as it is called; the player that sways his audience is supposed to be profoundly stirred by some uncontrolled excitement, forgetful of himself, forgetful of his hearers, thrilling them with the electrical intensity of his mood. One that does not almost repeat the achievements of Timotheus in "Alexander's Feast'" is by many pronounced cold and mechanical. But I am sure that every interpretative musician will agree with me in saying that expression in playing is, a large part of it at least, a matter of foresight, of careful study, of cool, intelligent design.
 
There is a close parallel between the art of a musical performer and the art of an actor. A first-rate actor leaves little or nothing to chance. The most impressive performances upon the stage are not those in which the actor is so carried away by the emotional excitement of the situation that he loses consciousness of the means he has to employ. It is said that the elder Booth often imagined that he was actually the character that he was personating, so that sometimes it was dangerous to fence with him. But Booth was not at his greatest in such moments. Acting, although a semblance of life, is not actual life—it is an art, and shares the law of all art, that emotion must never go to the point where it overleaps the bounds of order and beauty. A famous English actor, I think Macready, was once asked, "Do you play best when you lose yourself in your part?" and he replied, "No; because then I forget to perfect the part."
 
All this applies equally to musical performance. The greatest rendering upon the piano is that in which the technical powers are held under the control of the reason, guided by the player's knowledge of the laws of musical effect. A player is certainly often inspired by his audience to achievements that he cannot equal in his calm practice hours, but that is because the excitement of the occasion lends him an unusual and temporary nervous and muscular vigor which enables him to heighten the effects that he has previously planned. A calm and thoroughly self critical performance does not exclude emotional fervor, for those beautiful, soul-moving qualities that we often perceive in the work of great performers are not only mainly studied and calculated, but are also often automatic, independent of the will. How often has Edwin Booth played Hamlet? I would not undertake to say, but certainly most of the tones and gestures have become a second nature to him. He was one night playing "Hamlet" at the Boston Theatre. In the grave-digging scene he recognized the skull as one of the antique properties of this establishment, and threw in this aside to his companion: "Alas! poor Yorick! (the same mouldy old skull) I knew him, Horatio," and so on; and this without disturbing the thrilling pathos of his tones with which in this scene he always brings tears into the eyes of his hearers. This grotesque illustration simply shows that the most moving expression may be and usually is dependent, not upon impulse, but upon careful study and confirmed habit. In reproductive as in productive art, effect is the result of obedience to law.
 
The prime condition of beauty in instrumental performance is correct tone, and this is mainly a matter of study. Many think that a good touch is a gift. To some extent it is so, but it is very largely a matter of intelligent instruction and intelligent imitation. The proper action of finger and hand, shading and tone-color, are based on established principles. Rhythm and phrasing have been subjected to the most refined scientific analysis and their laws established. The searching out and bringing into relief of the leading and the subordinate melodies, the proper use of the pedal, the balance of parts, the determination of tempo as indicated by the general character and the changing phases of the piece—all must be reduced to the closest scrutiny in the quiet of the study, and when the player comes before his audience every difficulty has been considered and every possibility of accident guarded.
 
All this concerns the technical part of performance; how about that subtle, evanescent, indescribable thing called sentiment?
 
We must always bear in mind that the player has not to put something into the piece that was not there before, but he has to bring out something that the composer has hidden there. For the beauty of a work of art is not a general, universal beauty, but a particular, characteristic beauty; and the player's task is to discover the characteristic beauty of the piece and present that to his hearers. The beauty of a prelude of Bach is not the beauty of a nocturne of Chopin. A Mozart rondo calls for one style of rendering, a Beethoven adagio another, a Schumann fantasie another, a Liszt rhapsody still another. Caprice, the impulse of the moment, has nothing to do here, but reason, intelligence of the broadest kind. We commonly speak of a musical performance as an interpretation. What does the player interpret—himself? By no means. He must interpret the composer, learn as best he can what the composer intended, become imbued with the master's whole spirit as shown in all his works, put himself en rapport with the traditions of interpretation, avoid obtruding his own fanciful and egotistic readings in place of the plain indications that have come down to him.
 
So much we can analyze and define, and I have but mentioned principles to whose working out volumes have been devoted. But another element calls loudly for consideration and must be heeded, for it colors and pervades the whole, yet is so subtle and mysterious that it mocks all precept and fine-drawn distinction. That element is—personality. The soul of the performer does and must reveal itself in the performance, and the soul is something that we cannot sound with our little intellectual plummets. Sometimes, in teaching a pupil all that I knew in respect to tone-coloring, rhythm and all the rest, and when my instructions have been scrupulously followed, I have heard an indefinable something deeper than all I had told, resounding through the tones; an individuality, a personal magnetic thrill that enchanted me because of its mystery and its magical grace. I try to resolve this bewildering charm into its elements, and I find at the bottom of my crucible an unknown and irresolvable ingredient called personal power, character, soul. The conscious, technical elements were all there, but they were informed by a spiritual presence, transfigured by sympathy and God given insight
 
It follows, then, that to produce music that is truly expressive both the intelligence and the sympathetic emotion must be disciplined and cultivated. To produce beauty one must be able to perceive beauty; he must love it with all the heart and soul and mind and strength. Only passion can excite passion, in art only love can arouse emotion. As Faust says to Wagner:
 
"Never from heart to heart you'll speak inspiring, Save your own heart is eloquent."
 
The great performer, therefore, must have a mind that kindles at the touch of everything that is profound and noble in his art; he must have an imagination developed by the study, of what is beautiful wherever he finds it; he must be able to see keenly into the very spiritual kernel of the work that he interprets; then, with an easy and complete control of all the technical means of performance, his rendering will be true and expressive. With his emotional nature developed and refined by long familiarity with the most perfect models he can safely trust himself at times to the inspiration of the moment— for it will not be literally of the moment, but it will actually be the resultant and consummation of long processes of patient toil, although it seemed to him a sudden and unaccountable illumination from a higher sphere.
 
Here, then, is the conclusion of the whole matter: nothing permanently good and fruitful can come from mere impulse and a reliance upon chance stimulus. As every great art creation has come from toil, often exhausting and full of pain, so is the same law laid upon those that are the re-creators, by voice or fingers, of the works of the masters. First, patient mastery, through wearisome days and nights, of the recognized means of artistic effect; then the constant purification and renewal of the emotional faculty by a reverent surrender to the influence of all that is beautiful in art and in life.

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