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The Musical Listener.

In this day of method frenzy when a new crook to the little finger is a forerunner of the latest high-sounding method, perhaps the readers of The Etude will not countenance with pleasure a reminiscence of student days with “the lion of the piano,” who had no method higher than inspiration can teach. But to prove that my own words ring false and that my faith in the common sense of the majority is abiding, The Musical Listener initiates a column of what he hopes will prove interesting observation, by reporting a delightful conversation he recently had with one of the few pupils of Liszt who now reside in the United States. Miss Amy Fay, Madame Rivé-King, Mr. William Sherwood, and Mr. John Orth are those who represent the Liszt idea among us.

Mr. John Orth is the fellow-student mentioned by Amy Fay in her interesting reminiscences. He resides in Boston where he is a forceful worker in the field of piano teaching, ever open to the advance of ideas but at the same time insisting upon individuality without which no talent can be vital. I found him in his studio rather worn after a long day of giving out, but when I mentioned Liszt and a desire to hear more about his student days his eyes brightened; his whole body came to life under the mere thought of that fountain-head of inspiration.

“How did Liszt teach you?” said I. “Can you sift down his method into a tangible form?”

“No, I can’t,” replied Mr. Orth. “For the simple reason that he had no method according to the accepted meaning of that objectionable word. He stood alone separating himself from choice from all schools or cults. Teacher is not the word for him; he was an inspirer, he compelled “the best from one or he wished for nothing.” He never gave a lesson in technic; to be sure we were all supposed to be approaching virtuosity, or at least aspiring toward it when he accepted us. He never took a cent for what we got from him nor would he accept a present of any kind. He looked upon his own gift and marvelous personality as something great and fine loaned him to pass on to the deserving. I went to him directly from Kullak, with whom I had been doing technic and teaching in the family of a Baroness to help myself along, being at that time but a youngster of nineteen or twenty. My letter of introduction he read, then talked in his kindly way for a while of other things before asking me to play for him. This I did in an ague of nervousness,—all quite unnecessary, for ‘the master,’ as we all called him, had nothing of the carping critic about him. When I finished he said, ‘Bravo! well done! Perhaps you would like to come and play for us sometimes on Tuesday and Friday afternoons?’ This meant the invitation I was about ready to give my life for in my enthusiasm over him. At these afternoons we were expected to reach his house along about half-past two o’clock, giving him a chance for the afternoon nap he always took after the midday meal, it being his habit to rise with the sun and spend those early hours entirely in composing. Each one went prepared with something to play, although no one knew when his turn would come. Each laid his or her music on a table near the door, passed on to greet the master, then entered into social converse with those about. Sometimes we would smoke and talk for an hour before a word would be said about playing. Liszt was such an all-around man in his education and tastes that he enjoyed drawing us out along many lines of thought. He held that a musician should know more than music; every experience of his own was reflected in his creations or performances.

“Finally, he would go over to the table, look over the music, and select what everseemed to fit his humor of the moment. ‘Here is something good!’ he would say. ‘Who brought this? I must hear this!’ The guilty party would make himself known, seat himself at the piano, and play the composition through without interruption. When he had finished, the master took the seat he vacated, turned to some particular passage, and said in the kindest way, ‘Now listen to my way and tell me what you think of it.’ Then he would give his own interpretation, not only of the one passage, but of the entire concerto or whatever it happened to be. As the pupil played he would say, ‘Well done!’ at any exhibition of originality or strength of interpretation in the performer, looking at the rest of us for sympathy, nodding and smiling his approval. Strange as it may seem he hardly noticed the playing of wrong notes, or what would be called slovenly execution nowadays, provided the phrases told their temperamental story.

”One day the latest addition to our circle, recently from a German conservatory, gave us the Apassionata, in which, if you remember, there is a passage repeating a full, sonorous chord several times and scored forte. Well, the young man either from inability or nervousness failed to give it any meaning or effect, and then you ought to have seen the master in his fury! He walked up and down, railing at conservatories, Philistinism in Art, the dried-up results of systems, etc., until the poor fellow at the piano was almost in tears. Seeing this the master’s mood changed instantly; his great heart recognized the misery he was causing, and going over to the player he put both arms around his shoulders, saying: ’ I do not mean you! Do n’t you understand? It is the system of suppression, the dearth of originality, which gives me such a temper; you are not to blame! Be yourself—do n’t be a conservatory.’ We had a young lady among us (pretty well known in the musical world now), who was of the spongy tendency especially objectionable to Liszt. Her idea seemed to be ‘absorb, but give nothing in return.’ When called upon to play she invariably had a headache or some other kind of preventive ache. The master stood this as long as he could.

One day he said: ‘Now we will ask Miss _____ to give us something.’ She begged to be excused, she had such a headache. ‘Ah,’ he replied, ‘what have we over there on the sofa? It must be a little parasite!’

“But with these exceptions of just wrath I never saw the master, in the two years of my life with him, anything but kind, charitable, and forgiving. His personality radiated like the sun. If we caught a beam every day we were thrice-blessed; if we did n’t it was our own fault, for they were always there to catch.”

Just then Mr. Orth’s charming wife (also a musician) came in, and, hearing the subject of our talk, exclaimed: “Did I ever tell you how he greeted me when we visited him on our wedding trip? You see Mr. Orth had been away from him for years at that time, but if the master once conceived a liking for one of his followers it was indelible. We journeyed to Weimar a bride and groom, and when he saw Mr. Orth he came rapidly forward, put his arms about my husband’s neck, exclaiming: ‘I’m so glad to see you! I’m so glad you came! And the new wife too! I’ll have to show her how much I think of you,’ and he put his arms around me and kissed me. He was as demonstrative as a child. At first I was disappointed in his appearance, because he seemed short and small, almost to insignificance, but after five minutes in his presence I forgot everything but my feeling of being drawn by a magnet. Liszt seemed to be more alive than other people. Life, activity, and enthusiasm seemed to ooze from every pore.” “Yes,” said Mr. Orth, taking up the theme, ”and he demanded the same thing from you. He seemed to penetrate immediately beneath one’s conventional exterior; peering about under the surface he probed for the qualities he loved; if you were found wanting you were not for the master.” He seemed to feel that a real musician, once started, would work out his technic for himself. He cared not how you leaped the fence provided you got over with safety, ease, and credit.”

And so ended a fleeting vision of one of the greatest personalities the world has known which must surely interest even those who prefer “a cut and dried” master.

* * * * *

Apropos of this spirit of interpretation, I heard the other day a concise definition of accent as applied to the expression of musical thought. “I tell my pupils,” said the teacher from whom I quote, “that the accenting beats of a measure or several measures are the subject, predicate, and particular modifiers of a sentence; when they stand out boldly the story is told rhythmically and clearly. When they conceive that a musical phrase has a purpose as well-defined as a lingual phrase light seems to dawn upon them.

”Mr. William Apthorp, the celebrated musical critic, agreed with me in thinking this a capital definition of phrasing, but afterward, in a personal letter on the subject, added an exception where vocal music is concerned. He wrote, ‘As vocal music goes, the musical phrasing is really so often at odds with the rhetorical phrasing. One should always be careful to discover exactly what ground the composer takes: whether he throws his greatest weight upon the musical or the rhetorical phrase. If the musical phrase is plainly the principal thing in his eyes, and he happens to make a bad rhetorical accent, I have always thought it the singer’s duty to follow the musical phrase and charge the rhetorical error to the composer’s account.’

“But only the singer has words misplaced to contend with; all instruments give out ‘rhetorical phrases’—that is, objective sentences expressing emotional thought—and unless the subject and predicate are accented they sound like a child’s reading of a verse—all mumbled and senseless.”

* * * * *

Few people outside of Cincinnati realize what a really musical place that city is growing to be with its excellent May Festivals every two years, and its standing orchestra, at whose leader’s desk stands Frank van der Stücken, full of enthusiasm, capability, and ambition for the success of his new undertaking. Possibly owing to the large German element in Cincinnati, there seems to be more genuine enjoyment of classic music in that city among the masses of people than in any other American city outside of Boston. Only in these two places have I ever heard Handel’s Largo whistled on the street. This interest is slowly creeping in among the rich westerners without whom nothing can be accomplished as matters of art stand with us now in America. If enough money interest is raised in Cincinnati to support the universal inherent feeling for music, there seems every possibility of a great musical future for that place.

* * * * *

Whether or not music is gaining recognition in America among the people as a force for good cannot yet be determined, but it can be safely asserted that, day by day, as this art becomes more the fashion among the rich and influential, it at least rouses the curiosity of, and desire for, among the great majority even in the most sequestered rural districts. Last summer a quaint old maid of over fifty years who had never been away from her birth-place, a Rhode Island farm on the sea-coast, took me aside and with some timidity asked, in her New England vernacular, ”ain’t there some kind of a pianner in the big cities that will play itself or I can learn on by myself? I’ve heard tell o’ such an’ I’d like to buy one; it would be kind o’ sociable, livin’ all alone here, to play some tunes of an evening—I do love music.”

A piano teacher was telling me the other day of a pupil of hers, a woman fifty-five years old, who had never taken a lesson in her life until last year, when she insisted upon studying the piano as a diversion, if only to be able to play hymns. Up-hill work as it has been for the teacher, the pupil seems to have got real pleasure from the undertaking and certainly her inherent craving for what musical sounds can tell must have been impelling to bear her out in so arduous a task.

 

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