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Pianism According To Modern Requirements.


A couple of years ago Moritz Rosenthal wrote in a Vienna paper that “the dualistic division of the art into technic and musical meaning is a master-stroke of modern times,” which in other words says very plainly, that while the performance of a composition may be technically perfect, it may fail to arouse the sympathy of the listener, or vice versa.

It is with particular reference to the “musical meaning” that I wish to speak. A piano player possessing the gift of interpreting a work esthetically will have invariably the undivided attention of the better part of his audience, while practically a deaf ear will be turned to the one not having this requirement.

Many follow the art as a trade; with others it is a mission, but the former are the most numerous, though nearly every town of any size boasts of several belonging to the latter class; to hear them is to recall the famous utterance of Hector Berlioz, that examples can serve a musician to learn what is rhythm, melody, expression, or instrumentation, but that successful manipulation of all those features comes only to one specially disposed. Now rhythm, an appreciation of melody and expression—which embraces phrasing and time—form the principal points in the art of interpreting (imbuing a work with a certain meaning), always provided the executant has the technical training, and—culture!

The Greeks, who sought beauty in order rather than in richness, in calm and repose rather than in dramatic intensity, in purity rather than in contrast, gave prizes to young flute players, and even erected statues to them, because that instrument adapted itself best to their views on melodic music; many centuries later Beethoven grasped the mystic power of that instrument which he uses most admirably in his symphonic works. Since then, and especially through the influence which Schumann exercised over art, harmony is used in central Europe much more than melody as a means of expression, while in France and Italy the melodies abound in grace and airy suavity which is positively charming; in eastern Europe we have also melody, but it is melody that has been born, not made, and it is the kind that will live the longest.

Here is a composer who, by means of certain chords and their harmony, acts upon our nerves and appeals at the same time to our heart by their expression; if the chords are broad, the effect would be totally lost if they were not played in a sustained manner, with a certain degree of accentuation. To play the chords in C major in part of “Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1,” or in the trio of “Karganoff’s Second Scherzo,” in a broad manner, cannot fail to reveal the art of the interpreter, and the beauty of the compositions, while an attempt at “playing them with expression,” as I have heard it done not long ago, displays an amateur lacking musical understanding, hence intellectual training.

Take again the three opening notes of the “Prelude, Op. 3, No. 2,” by Rachmaninoff; if each one of them was produced individually by a stroke of the finger, an iron bar, or a broomstick, it would not produce the slightest difference in the tone, nor would these or any other single tones judged by the ear be either gay or sad; they would be simply agreeable or disagreeable; but how about the three played in succession? And in this opening phrase, composed of the supermediant, dominant, and tonic, everything depends on the continuity and regularity of the three successive notes, while the individuality and character will be shown by means of the relative intensity of the various grades of accents, as the theme repeats itself and is blended with a series of harmonic combinations which show the fertile imagination of the composer, and call for the broadest kind of reading on the part of the interpreter. The comparative beauty of touch and tone in this, as well as in any other piece, will depend upon the relativity of each note to all, and of all to each. In past times music contained only the notes with the most essential marks for the variation of tone and time; now we have full and explicit fingering throughout, directions for the minutest shade of expression, and annotations that ought to guide our mind into the right channel for the interpretation of the most important passages, not to mention editions that contain elaborate analyses of every movement, but, unfortunately, no printed rules, however carefully they may have been considered, can form either a player or a singer; good and useful as they may be, something more is required, and that something is intellect. To indicate a fixed and unaltered standard of loudness or speed for any composition or passage whatsoever would be an absolute destruction of all art.

It is barely necessary to dwell on the universally acknowledged axiom that brain and fingers must be so worked by endless correct repetitions of a piece that the moment it is suggested its rendition becomes almost an automatic process; I say “almost,” because without taste (expression) and imagination it really becomes a merely mechanical exhibition. Now, as to expression and imagination; with some players expression means impression of one’s own individuality upon the work, which is a great mistake, because what we look for almost invariably is the revealing of the beauties of the rhythm inherent in the work. Imagination being much more plentiful than taste, many earnest workers allow their artistic efforts to be governed solely by the former, and the result is a meaningless reproduction of standard and other works which are full of beauties; neither can they be absorbed by the student in a day and a night, for art-life is everlasting, while that of an artist is short even at the longest. A Beethoven Sonata, or a Nocturne by Chopin, are poems, but no intelligent listener will enjoy them if they are played merely correctly, with a flawless, cold manner. It is here that culture plays an important part, for while there is no doubt that the artist must devote the best part of his life to his chosen branch, it does not follow that he must live in ignorance of everything else which does not pertain directly to his art; culture is literary mental discipline which wakes up our latent thoughts, develops originality, and clears the brain for active work.

In sculpture and in painting we find a combination of form and color, so in music do we find a combination of sounds; but while the former remain unchangeable in their beauty, a musical work is the exemplification of motion, and while the sounds please the ear, the dynamics, rhythm, the harmonies and modulations take possession of the mind which seeks the hidden meaning in these tone-commotions. It creates a sonorous world where reigns order for long ago, all mankind made a record of the laws of nature, and set up this record as an esthetic standard to which all works of art must conform. This very same art finds varied and powerful means of expression in harmonies and contrasts presented by those same harmonies, always, however, subject to the tyranny of measure and of rhythm; see for example Stcherbatcheff’s “Choeur Danse,” from Op. 8; no player deficient in rhythmical feeling could do it justice, and for the benefit of all such I can only repeat the words of Molière: “Strike the notes at the right moment, with the right amount of force, and sustain them for the right length of time. Voilà tout!”

The executant should make legitimate use of all the means to bring a composition to the most careful attention of his hearers, for it is the manner in which a piece is played that appeals to the listener and unfolds to him the hidden beauties already studied by the performer; oftentimes the interpreter has failed to grasp its meaning, or possibly has played it so much that the innocent listener wonders at the merciless grinding of music which is said to be very classic, hence quite correct! Of course the use of mechanical as well as intellectual means enhances the value of an interpretation, and, just as the painter must know how to blend his colors, so must the player understand the technical as well as intellectual forces at his command, their use and abuse. A crescendo or a diminuendo call for a distribution of force thoroughly well graded, while accents depend on their surroundings for the grade of strength or weakness required. There are many ways of playing a piece, but only he who is endowed in equal measure with the faculty of imagination and the sensibility of taste will keep the undivided attention of his audience, and deserve the name of artist.

Czerny—he of the velocity-studies fame—one of the greatest pianists of his day, wisely declined Beethoven’s invitation to play his “E flat Concerto” in public, because teaching and writing music had unfitted him for public playing, and his practice was at best but desultory. This happened in the early days of the piano, and when our modern technic was still in embryo, yet he recognized the difference between the playing of one who earns his living by teaching twelve hours a day, and the performance of a player who devotes from four to six hours daily to playing and keeping his intellect and nerves strung to their very highest pitch, in sympathy with the individual pieces of his large repertoire (which is large or small according to his temperament), and playing them always, or as nearly as possible, with the same appreciation of the beauties as when they first dawned upon him. Czerny’s music is no longer a necessary adjunct to our musical education, but Beethoven’s is.

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