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Discouragements of Piano-Playing.


To one with sufficient character to profit by it there is in piano study development for all the cardinal virtues— neatness, thoroughness, persistence, patience, endurance, honesty, horror of falsehood, self effacement, largeness, stability—enough to make a noble man or woman of the veriest slattern.

Of course, no human means can create characteristics, any more than a gardener can differentiate the rose from the chrysanthemum; but as an educator there is nothing equal to self study of the piano under the suggestion of an honest influence.

One must feel a sort of reverence for a pianist such as no singer, however good, can inspire.

There is something almost like martyrdom in the devotion to an instrument that takes so much and gives so little personally; in the following of an art that is like catching colors in a sunbeam and with them painting a picture before an indifferent spectator; for a piano audience must always be an indifferent one till made otherwise.

What an inattentive, indifferent thing a piano audience is!

To begin with, there is no nerve appeal in piano flavor. The instrument is raw, thin, insipid, and insincere intrinsically. In addition, it has been vulgarized, ridiculed, travestied, and made common and horrible by stupidity and cleverness combined. To the average ear it is the same old boarding-school, boarding-house pan, no matter how dignified the stage setting. It requires a connoisseur or a student to catch the soul glimmer cast upon it by a real player. All that the general public gets is this reflection cast back from the connoisseur. Till this is acquired, Heaven help the poor pianist!

Then there is something in the very position of piano playing that is unstimulating to minds that need sight to aid mental operation. Personality is given wholly to the work in hand and away from the audience. An audience unsconsciously (sic) resents the fact.

A woman with a voice like a polished wooden poker and sentiment to match is singing a mess of words that even waiting for a train at the depot you could not bring yourself to read. Fifty persons pass into the hall, and very few people turn their heads. Let the door but creak during the performance of a pianist, anything short of a crowned head, and see the white shirt fronts and feather boas twist and turn! Listening has been mechanical and the slightest whiff has been sufficient to break the thread.

But it is all different from the peculiar bent of the mind necessary to penetrate the soul of a tone-picture on a piano. And the work of creating it is too serious, too grave, too difficult a task to be popular with the average feminine mind.

Piano interpretation, including, of course, its technic, necessitates a greater amount of dead, dry, hard work that never shows than any other science on earth, except perhaps chemistry. And the worst of it is that points of profoundest difficulty, costing four and five years for accomplishment, are whisked past the sight in four or five seconds at the concert performance, when the keenest ear can scarcely seize them. Really, the only way to be able to do the player justice would be to go over the same ground one’s self, or to have listened to the five years of practice. Then, too, in regard to a woman player. Until a woman can play like a man she is treated as a musical puppet, no matter how solid her art motives may be. And the instant she does play like a man she loses a large part of that peculiar charm for both sexes which is the reward of her being exclusively feminine. Not that she loses the qualities, necessarily, but that she forfeits the privilege of profiting through them.

Besides, the best music is seldom dramatic—that is, continuously dramatic. The very best compositions are subject to apparent holes and vacancies, more or less necessary, but by no means inspiring. To musicians even more or less effort of will is necessary to keep the attention through a classic sonata of three, four, or five stories, depending on the bearing of the whole and on the symmetry of their construction for intelligent apprehension. Masterly, indeed, the composer, and powerful the player, who can compel this attention without the effort of the listener!

People will not allow an unidentified player to play these long novels. And until he has played them how can he become identified? A woman without a big personal reputation dare not attempt the task. And where is she going to get her big reputation? People do not become inspired by conquered difficulties, by restrained powers, by conscience in study, or even by symmetry of form.

They become inspired by being inspired either by a brilliant dramatic or sensuous appeal, or by being convinced that it is the right time for them to appear to be so. Merit, undiluted, unadulterated worth on the piano never did it on the face of the earth and never will. And piano art is an art of merit more than any other attempted by finite power.

There are the matters of pedal sense, hand formation, muscle obedience, memory, sight reading, sense of absolute pitch, nerve power to control the shifting paralysis of excitation—think what it means to be a pianist! It requires the courage born of colossal instinct, of an incontestable conviction, to attempt the task of achieving. It requires gifts of divine origin to succeed in the attempt. Few there be that find it. Little wonder that so few women are found in the course!

In speaking of her own work, Mme. Bertha Marx-Goldschmidt says that the most difficult class of music to play is not the Liszt-Tausig firework, but the Haydn and Mozart poems. Musically speaking, nothing but force is required in the Wagner-Tausig Chévanchee; anyone who can do it does not mind it. The restraints imposed by a Mozart interpretation are exhausting to a degree.

To play Mozart means Mozart obsession for the time being. It means transferring the mind back into Mozart’s time, becoming imbued with his spirit and thought, which means first of all a detailed knowledge of his life. It means transforming the piano into a spinnet, making the imagination play the part of time and manufacture. Scores of faults and weaknesses may be hidden in a rhapsodie. A single flaw in a Haydn interpretation is like a missing tooth in front of a mouth; a disfiguring space is made impossible to conceal. The points are so manifold, the shading so fine, the equality must be so unbroken, the escape from falsehood is so impossible, that one scarcely dare breathe through fear of altering the touch, hastening the tempo, or making false accents. This restraint, this fear, this conscience is what wears, and not mechanical difficulty.

The most trying part of the pianist’s profession is the struggle between sensational effect and true artistic values, the former being the lever by which success is raised, the latter being the musician’s religion. Added to this struggle with self is the sight of others gaining ground through the false methods—something that must always be painful to the human side of the artist. It requires great moral courage to be a noble pianist.

As to the accusation that women cannot manage the pedals, Mme. Goldschmidt says with as much sweetness as conviction, “Many men cannot.”

The knowledge of pedal effect and ability to exercise it is altogether a question of temperament or gift, like sight reading or sense of absolute pitch, and that permeates playing as does conception itself. One who has to cultivate pedal is never sure in the moments of oblivion that come to all true interpreters what is being done with the feet. Better a pedal never touched than a medley of chords. Women usually press the pedals instinctively to supplement the weakness they feel, and many men do the same. Others do it to cover faults, which in case of nervousness or excitement occur through disabled fingers—a sort of cache-misère, as it were. One must be able to separate the functions of foot and mind muscle in piano playing, or there is in it so much failure.

Touch is also temperament. It is to the fingers what quality is to the voice. It cannot be created. A disagreeable touch may be modified by practice, thought, development of conception, but although there are many well-trained singers, there are few soul-stirring ones, and the same with finger impression on the piano. The pianist, too, must have a dramatic element. There is an element of dramaticism in the simplest composition. Interpretation is always impersonation, on the piano as elsewhere. Simplicity never means flabbiness or negligence; it means a concentration of force. This element, besides being used in playing, must also be exercised in selection. One can play a perfectly classic programme that has not in it a ray of appeal or a reflection of response, and one can make selections from the highest standards that appeal to the benefit of music, the players, and the audience.

Imagine the immense stock of musical literature that one must have in hand in order to select therefrom. To find three good sonatas one must know all the best. When, as in the Goldschmidt case, for example, everything is memorized as learned, think what a library in the head! Memory, however, with this remarkable musician is a gift, pure and simple. It is no effort whatever for her to memorize the most difficult compositions. Conception prints the notes as it goes along. It has been so from childhood. And she has the two memories—of learning and of keeping. Without any apparent effort she can recall pieces learned in childhood, and there is no nervous fear of forgetting. This is how it is possible for her to play the classic libraries that she has, in the three most severe musical centers of the world, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, and win the sincere respect of their musicians. In a sense she does not need the sympathy we have bestowed upon her in thinking of the colossal repertoire, and in another sense it is more marvelous.

One would imagine that she would be obliged to spend all the time between the concerts in refreshing and making sure of the memory. Except a few mechanical exercises to keep the fingers in trim she does not touch the piano between the concerts. She selects her repertoire in summer, and that ends it. The exertion of playing the programmes is all that strength will allow anyway. The rest of the time goes in repose.

What a blessing this faculty for a pianist! For of all the damning practices in music is that of gluing the eyes to printed pages, and then trying to persuade onlookers that one is stirred and moved by what is in them. It is not in human nature to believe it, let alone to be stirred and moved in turn.—Musical Courier.



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