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Thoughts On Expression.


“If no have handsome, how can?” was the blunt and unconsciously sarcastic rejoinder of an enterprising Chinaman who had started up in the crayon portrait line, in the Bowery district of New York, in response to the indignant comments of one of his fair customers who found John’s efforts to reproduce her fair features anything but satisfactory.

Just so it is in music. If a performer does not feel the music he is trying to interpret in his inmost soul, what has he got to express. “Play with expression! play with expression!” is the parrot-like refrain of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of parents all over this bright land, while the number of young and even advanced students who have the slightest conception of what is meant by the oft-repeated refrain is very, very small.

Alas, playing with true expression is a very, very rare art, even among professional musicians! Many believe they have it when they have it not. True expression is the magic touch which distinguishes the artist from the artisan. Expression blows the breath of life into the composer’s creation, while the merely mechanical performance of it is like a lay figure or a dummy of wax: a thing with the outer semblance of a being truly, but dead and cold. Or, mechanical playing is like artificial flowers,—hard, stiff, and without perfume,—compared with the sweet, fragrant production of nature,—the flowers of art,—such as bloomed in the heart of the tone poet who produced them.

How many pupils and teachers, too, blindly stumble through the sublimest tone poems, banging down the keys with great force when they see f in the music, still harder when they see ff, softening down at the p’s and pp’s, hastening at the accel.’s, and retarding at the rit.’s; but all in so mechanical and clumsy a manner that the most ignorant listener hears at once that the performer is only “obeying orders,” as indicated by the signs on the printed page, and without the slightest conception of the artistic necessities for these changes in musical light and shade.

In other words, such a player is no more than a flesh and blood Æolian or orchestrion, which merely reproduces the notes in a stiff, mechanical manner, without feeling a note of it.

What can our teachers do to breathe the breath of life into all this expressionless playing? With many pupils we know it is a hopeless task. “Temperament,” which marks the difference between success and failure in a soloist, is a gift from on high. It is impossible to produce a poetical nature in a clod-hopper. A large majority of pupils who offer can not be helped very much in the matter of real expression. The most that can be done with them is to compel them to observe the printed signs in the music and to render the notes in as correct a manner as possible. Such pupils lack imagination, temperament, and poetry, and unless their nature could be radically changed they could never become anything more than human grind-organs, without the accuracy of that instrument.

There are a great number of pupils, however, who can be wonderfully improved in this matter of expression if the teacher will but go about it in the proper manner. The pupil must first be made to understand what “playing with expression” really means; that music is the language of emotion; and that the light and shade and various nuances simply correspond to the various emotions which the composer intended to portray in his compositions.

Teachers often give their pupils credit for possessing more intelligence in the beginning of their education than they really possess. I have found many and many a young pupil who supposed that the p’s, f’s, sfz’s, rit.’s, etc., were merely arbitrary marks put in the composition by the composer, and had no idea that the observance of these signs had as much to do with a really intelligent reading of the composition as the observance of the sense in reading a poem, to say nothing of the observance of the accents, punctuation, etc.

How many thousands of teachers are there who are content with a more or less accurate rendition of the notes of a composition, pitched in a monotone, and with as much expression as the drone of a saw mill? I have found that if the teacher permits it, ninety-nine out of a hundred pupils will play in just this fashion, without the slightest effort to rise above it.

So many teachers fail to explain to pupils the inner meaning of a composition. They will give a young pupil a spinning song, for example, without explaining what a spinning song is, when the little pupil has probably never seen a spinning wheel, and has not the slightest conception of what it is like. Now, what the teacher should do is to make an interesting explanation of what the composition is intended to represent, and show the pupil where the composer has imitated the rapid whirring of the wheel with rapid passages of notes, played smoothly and legato. With this explanation, the pupil will have an entirely new idea of the spinning song, and every time he plays the passages which imitate the wheel, he will acknowledge what they mean and play them intelligently.

A teacher should make it a point never to give a composition to a pupil unless he can explain what the composition is intended to portray. If you give a pupil a ” Frühlingslied,” by all means hunt up the meaning of the title in your dictionary if you do not know it, and be able to tell him that it means “Spring Song,” and is intended to portray the birth of the new season of birds and blossoms and gladness. If you give a pupil a “Tarantella,” explain that the title comes from “Tarantula,” a species of hideous spiders which inhabit tropical countries, and that the name “Tarantella” was applied to certain forms of very fast dance music in 6/8 time, because these dances were supposed to cure the bites of these terrible spiders.

The rhythm of various dances—waltz, polka, galop, bolero—should be thoroughly explained to all young pupils if they are to intelligently render compositions in these forms. I remember the first minuet I ever had from my teacher. He was a teacher of the right sort, for before I had played a note he got up and showed me how to dance a minuet. He went through 32 bars of the dance with stately grace, humming the melody which I was to play. He then hunted up some pictures of the time of Louis XV, showing the court dancing a minuet. It is needless to say that I never forgot that lesson. The same teacher showed his pupils what a piece was intended to represent thoroughly, before they played a note. On another occasion, I remember that he stopped me and complained of the way I was rendering my accents in a Polish dance. “My boy,” said he, “when they do this dance in Poland, they bring out these accents you do not make, with their wooden shoes. Now, after this, when you are playing it, try and hear those wooden shoes, and you will get the proper effect.” I never played the composition after that but what “I heard those wooden shoes,” and accented accordingly.

There is so much that a teacher can tell the pupil of the inner meaning of a composition which will help him to a proper rendition of it. The music of the masters is full of numerous imitations of every sound in nature, and of every tone in the gamut of human emotion. Here is a trumpet call; there a bit of chromatic, representing the howling of the wintry blast; here a thundering passage in the bass representing a stormy effect; there a rippling scale, suggestive of a mountain torrent. Who, for instance, could play Schubert’s “Erlking” without being familiar with the legend from which it is taken, and recognizing the various effects by which Schubert has depicted the main points in Goethe’s immortal poem —the rush of the wind through the forest, the father madly galloping to reach home and safety and holding his son tightly in his arms, the voice of the Erlking luring the boy to his shadowy kingdom, and the frantic cry of the boy as the Erlking seizes his young spirit.

If a pupil understands a composition thoroughly, he will have some basis for its expression.

Many teachers are, unfortunately, themselves very lax in studying the analyses of the classic compositions which have come down to us from their composers, and from the great executive artists who have performed them, and hence are unable to give their pupils any key to the emotional meaning of what they are playing.

In the case of operatic music the teacher should make it a point to be familiar with the plots of the various operas. He will then be able to indicate to the pupil the meaning of the various selections he is playing.

If the pupil who is studying an operatic fantasia or selection, will but attend a performance of the opera once or twice, he will play it with entirely different expression and added intelligence, for he will then understand the emotion with which the composer has sought to imbue each theme. How could any instrumental performer give the proper expression to an anvil chorus, or a love duet, or a duel scene, or a rustic dance, or a defiance, unless he had seen the opera or had the meaning carefully explained to him. Of course, a cultivated musician would deliver the passages with more or less of the proper expression, but they would invariably lack the accuracy and peculiar adaptation to what they were intended to express.

In addition to explaining the meaning of the composition in hand, the teacher must, of course, insist from the first on the observance of the various indications of nuance and light and shade in the music, the pp’s and f’s, accel.’s, etc. The pupil should, of course, be provided with a musical dictionary, and be required to learn the meaning of all the expression marks in the music. The teacher should rigidly insist on this from the very beginning, for if this is done the pupil gradually acquires the habit of playing in an expressive manner.

One thing the pupil must be kept from, and that is “false expression,” which is infinitely worse than no expression at all. Many ignorant teachers and musicians seem to possess an idea that “expression” means a ritard in every other bar, accelerandos where there are no ritards, sfz’s in the most unlooked-for places, exaggerated pianissimos, and the whole interpretation a sickening hodge-podge of “fits and starts” without “rhyme or reason.” Every reader can remember musicians and students of this type. There are some even in high places.

This it was that used to drive Beethoven to perfect fury, this “false expression,” like an actor bellowing every other word and whispering the words he did not bellow, whether the sense of the passage called for it or not.

Let a pupil be made to understand that one must feel in order to express. The actor who weeps real tears is the one who moves others, and the musician who feels what he is playing is the one who will properly “express” the intentions of the composer.

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