The question of nationality plays a curious rôle in the history of pianoforte playing. For a long time most of the great pianoforte composers and players—the Bachs, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann—were Germans. But with Schumann the list of Germans great in this department practically came to an end (unless we except Bülow and Brahms), and the field was left open for Slavic and Hungarian competitors. Russia gave us Rubinstein and Pachmann; Hungary, Liszt and Joseffy; Scotland, D’Albert; but the land preëminent for pianists is Poland. Chopin was a Pole, and so was the brilliant young Tausig, who, had he not died at the age of thirty, would, in the opinion of his pupil, Mr. Joseffy, and many others, have surpassed even his master, Liszt. Rubinstein, too, was half a Pole by descent. Little Josef Hoffman is a Pole, and now, to cap the climax, Mr. Paderewski has appeared; so that musically speaking, at any rate, it is safe to say, “Noch ist Polen nicht verloren.”
Poland will some day honor Paderewski as it now honors Chopin; but in order to win the great fame and wealth which have fallen to his lot at the early age of thirty-two, he was of course obliged, like Chopin, to leave his native country and seek the great musical centres of the world. Three years ago he played in London to a $50 audience. To-day he often makes $5,000 in two hours, with $7,000 for the high-water mark. This profitableness of his art is a phenomenon worth mentioning, because he never resorts to clap-trap, trickiness, or sensationalism in order to win success and applause. In this respect he is superior to Liszt, who, in his early period, did sometimes resort to sensationalism, which, however, was less a sign of immature taste than the wild exuberance of technical mastery bent on a frolic, and therefore not to be judged more severely than young Mozart’s feat of playing on a piano the keys of which were covered with a cloth. The conditions in those days were not the same as at present. How eager the world was for Liszt’s show pieces may be inferred from the fact that when, in the pressure of concert-giving and traveling, he sometimes kept his operatic arrangements in his head a few months before writing them down, the publishers pursued him from town to town urging him to put them into shape for the printer.
To offset this early sensationalism, Liszt did more than any other musician to popularize the best music by playing his later splendid and thoroughly artistic arrangements all over Europe. To us it seems strange that he should have played Beethoven’s symphonies on the piano at Viennese concerts; but the truth is that the orchestras and conductors of that time were unable to interpret those symphonies satisfactorily, and many persons exclaimed, after hearing Liszt’s inspired performance, that now for the first time was Beethoven’s genius fully revealed to them. Mr. Paderewski would never imitate Liszt’s example of playing a Beethoven symphony on the piano, for the simple reason that such a thing is no longer necessary. Our instrumentalists have improved immeasurably since the time—not much more than a century ago—when the leading orchestra in Vienna put aside Schubert’s ninth symphony as too difficult to be played. But Mr. Paderewski does play, and most properly, Liszt’s superb arrangements of songs and operatic melodies. Schumann once said of Thalberg that he had the gift of dressing up commonplace ideas in such a way as to make them interesting. Liszt had the higher gift of taking the ideas of the greatest composers and transcribing them for the piano in such a way as to make them even superior to the original. Thus he succeeded in doing with music what no poet has ever succeeded in doing with poetry—translate it successfully into another language. His happiest translations were the Magyar melodies, with their Asiatic gypsy ornaments, which he welded into his Hungarian rhapsodies for the delight of all whose musical enjoyment does not consist in the pedantic analyzing of sonatas, but who take pleasure in the spontaneous melodies in which the naïve populace, in its moments of poetic emotion, has embodied its joys and sorrows. Mr. Paderewski has revealed to us the true spirit of this delightful Hungarian folk-music as no pianist or gypsy band has ever done.
Liszt had the mocking-bird gift of imitating the style of all the great pianists, and generally surpassed them on their own ground. Mr. Paderewski has inherited this trait, as well as Liszt’s amazing and unobtrusive technic and the art of getting orchestral effects from the piano, while in the magic of producing exquisite tone colors he even surpasses Liszt. In regard to their early career these great pianists present a considerable contrast. Mr. Paderewski was almost thirty before he won universal fame, while Liszt was the pet of all Europe as a boy. At nine, if he was asked to play a Bach fugue, he would boldly ask, “In what key?” At sixteen he had earned $20,000. But at present Mr. Paderewski is undergoing the same experiences that Liszt did, in the way of artistic, pecuniary, and social successes. That some foolish persons participate in the new “cult” is not his fault, nor is it gallant or just to sneer at it as a feminine fad. Were it not for the women, music in America and England would soon come to an end. Wagner understood this when he wrote: “With women’s hearts it has always gone well with my art; and probably because, amid the prevailing vulgarity, it is always most difficult for women to let their souls become as thoroughly hardened as has been so completely the case with our political men-folk.”
In local musical annals the season of 1892-1893 will go down as the Paderewski year. The Polish pianist will take his farewell of New York next Saturday, not to be heard again for several years, as he intends to devote his time to composition. No doubt it is more important for the cause of music that he should do so than that he should continue playing ; yet it would be an incalculable loss if he should present one more parallel to Liszt by abandoning public playing altogether while he is the greatest living interpreter of the genius of the great masters. It is to be hoped that he will combine the functions of composer and pianist, giving concerts when his brain needs time for the maturing of new ideas.—The Nation.