By Don N. Long.
The statement that but few, if any, effective art works for the piano are produced in the busy present has been heard quite frequently of late, and the wail is ever increasing in monotony. It is said that the modern composers, in the search for orchestral color, are treating the piano in a decidedly exaggerated style; that the reaches are impossible for normal hands, and that the dissonances hold out so long that when they do resolve the effect is lost—especially on thin-toned pianos. As is usual in sweeping assertions, there is a shadow of fact for a base. In this case it is but the merest shadow, and it is almost impossible for those who know the truth to stand by in passive abeyance.
Rubinstein is held to be the greatest offender; and yet but few modern writers have created so winning a style as the illustrious Moldavian. Of course, he has committed faults—more, perhaps, than any of his contemporaries. Some of his works are not pianistic; the effects are stretched, or they verge on the impossible for small hands. His style seems to be a continuation of that of Mendelssohn but shows a greater fertility of resource. The effects are alike pleasurable to musician and the general public, as they come from the source of real inspiration and are clothed in broad and beautiful melody. The “Le Bal” suite is charming, especially the polka. The galop is a trifle too “orchestral.” For drawing-room work the “Soirees,” Op. 109 are particularly good. The last number presents the greatest difficulties, which lie in thirds, sixths, and octave progressions. An easier set, suitable for medium grade pupils, is the “Miniature” collection. They are all delightful, and will ground a good taste in the student. For very difficult selections, the five numbers of Op. 69 are to be recommended.
Anton Strelezki, better known by his songs, is a composer that sometimes indulges in wilder vagaries than Rubinstein. Of all modern composers, he presents the greatest power of strikingly original color and effect. His music appeals immediately and powerfully, both to the understanding and to the ear. But he has the fault of writing for unusual hands. The “Galop De Bravoure” and the wonderful “Ballade in B Minor,” Op. 13, for instance, are totally impossible for ordinary pianists—notably the first work. The “Dixiéme Mazurka” is very quaint and effective, but is hard. All the nocturnes, novelties, grand valses, polonaises, études, and ballades are very fine. No collection in existence surpasses the numbers of Op. 60 for music and instruction in an easy grade. The works from Op. 178 to Op. 194 are in general pianistic. Strelezki is a thoroughly cosmopolitan composer; if he leans at all, it is toward Chopin. He never repeats himself; is apparently inexhaustible, and his moods range from the most frantic bravour to the tenderest lied.
Moszkowski, who enjoys a large degree of popular favor, fully deserves all the credit he gets. His works are preeminently pianistic; all the effects are legitimate. The Valses, the “Caprice Espagnole,” and the “Gondoleria” are world-famous. All the numbers of Op. 15, Op. 18, Op. 23, and Op. 38 are very effective, besides, they are not too difficult. Moszkowski belongs to the Schumann school and indulges at times in abstruse and morbid harmonies. But this only gives an individuality of color that is quite alluring on closer acquaintance.
Nothing can be said in detraction of Saint Saëns—at least as regards the fitness of his works for the piano. His concertos are as truly pianistic as Chopin’s, and some of the finest passage writing is to be found in his smaller works. Some critics profess to believe that he is soulless, and that his compositions show scholarship without the spark of genius. The writer however, is not disposed to share this opinion. The most popular works, perhaps, are the “Rhapsodie D’Auvergne,” the three mazurkas, and the six numbers of Op. 72.
Scharwenka offers a mass of varied, beautiful and practical work for amateur and artist. Unfortunately, some of his works require long and strong hands. But these blemishes are trifles in consideration of the whole. His style seems to be the outcome of an extended study of Beethoven and Schumann, with somewhat of Chopin, and a great deal of characteristic grandeur. Poetry and scholarship are blended with perfect art. The Scherzos deserve to be classed with those of Chopin, but are hard—the first two at least. The Valses are effective, but the difficulties are always genial. The numbers of Op. 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, and the Op. 38 of five beautiful pieces, are exquisitely wrought. The invaluable album for young pianists, Op. 62, and the six studies of Op. 27, are too well known to need recommendations.
Grieg.—A few people find it hard to appreciate Grieg. As Liebling says, the “unexpected ” is always occurring in his works. This, however, is a great practical virtue, for novelty is the moving principle to the majority of mankind. Nearly all his compositions are easy or only moderately difficult from the mechanical side—the Concerto, Op. 16, the Ballade, Op. 24 and the Sonata in E minor excepted. This is another claim in his favor. The Burlesque Scenes, Op. 6, are well liked in general for drawing-room purposes. They are useful in a technical way also. For pieces containing more color than the above, the “Peer Gynt,” and “Holberg,” suites come in for a great deal of praise. Also the dramatic numbers of Op. 19.
Paderewski seems to be almost solely known as a pianist in this country. This should not be, for he is equally as great as a composer. His very first work, the Minuetto and Prelude, shows the hand of a master. Strikingly original, poetical, and very effective harmonies have sustained him from the first in a clearly defined stream. Like Chopin, none of his works bear the impress of labor at their birth. They have all the freshness of spontaneous inspiration. The sets of Polish dances are fully up to the Chopin content, and are very melodious. Some are very “catchy”—one of them, the B flat Mazurka of Op. 5, is even more so than the well known Minuet. The “Voyagers’ Songs,” Op. 8, are weirdly effective, and the “Album de Mai,” is in every sense delightful. The Love Song has a dainty melody, and the change to the minor is grand. “At Evening” is a wonderful little descriptive sketch, and when the theme passes into the bass near the end, the effect is fine in the extreme. The Scherzino has some very taking sonorities. Op. 14 contains the material for good effects when in good hands, though the technical demands are not many—save in the last two numbers. The three numbers of Op. 16 are also fine, the wonderful “Theme Varie” in particular. Number 2, the “Melodies,” is very beautiful and gives capital practice in managing counterpoint.
Constantin Sternberg is another writer who is better known as a pianist. It is not very easy to define his style, as a pronounced atmosphere of individuality hovers around his compositions. All things considered, it may be said that he is somewhat Schumannesque. The Italian Scenes show a power of concentration that is quite remarkable. In this respect he approaches Liszt. The “Danse Andalouse,” “Grand Polonaise,” and the various drawing room valses give a fair idea of his powers. The “Staccatella ” caprice is a concert study worthy of Chopin. He has not forgotten the young folks, as the “Scenes Mignonnes,” Op. 56, will show.
Max Vogrich is a writer whose fame is rapidly increasing. His work displays a remarkable originality that never palls upon the ear, as he has the gift of fluency to back it up. The most popular pieces are the “Passpied,” “Staccato Caprice,” and valse Brilliante—and all these deserve their position. For the intelligent young student, the album of “Ancient and Modern” dances, and the “Fairy Tales” are very practical. Some of them are not easy, but they have a fascination of melody that induces conscientious effort. The two transcriptions of Jensen’s songs are wonderfully faithful.
Bruno Oscar Klein is another composer of rising note, and he gives every promise of becoming one of the prominent figures of the near future. All his compositions are full of color and effect, and but few of them require a high pressure technic. The numbers of Op. 19 and Op. 20, present a great variety of style; and the two numbers Op. 32, are wonderfully appealing. Op. 37 and Op. 39 are also fine.
Benjamin Godard has written a great deal of very practical music. He has the merit of conceiving rich orchestral effects that call for but comparatively little effort on the part of the performer. Some of his works, in their strong dramatic kinship, show the influence of Berlioz. Every one of the valses, gavottes, mazurkas, and barcarolles, will repay earnest study, as they appeal at once to any audience.
Eugene D’ Albert, the pianist, gives great promise as a composer. He has not written much, but his works can be watched and sought for with absolute faith in their effectiveness. He is fond of telling contrasts, as can be observed in his first work, the suite in D minor. The Musette of the above is a lyric of the most exquisite fancy.
The present article does not begin to exhaust the possibilities of modern pianoforte literature. The names of Rhienberger, Nicodé, Tschaikowsky, Macdowell, Foote, Leschetizky, Jadassohn, Sherwood and others have not been mentioned—as they certainly should be in a comprehensive treatise. Many fine works are appearing from time to time from new pens. And many lie in the undiscovered deeps.