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The Musical Listener

The Rhetorical Value of a Rest.

More this past winter than ever before have I been impressed, while listening to a large number of piano recitals every week, good, bad, and indifferent, with the value of the pause in the rhetoric of musical interpretation. When piano playing is poor, one of its salient defects is invariably a wretched, unintelligent handling of rests.

Just as the orator makes his great effects by pauses, so does a musician convey a whole story in a rest—provided he knows how. This knowledge is one of the self-evident distinctions between the amateur and the professional in all branches of expression, and even more of a difference does it show between the artist and the mere performer. To the uninitiated it sounds like a paradox or a stupidity to a call a rest crisp, but I assure you The Listener has enjoyed crisp rests as well as sentimental, serious, grave, or gay rests in the work of a few great orchestras and in the piano playing of men like D’Albert, Rosenthal, Franz Rummel,—whom we are hearing again after many years, to our great edification as well as satisfaction,—and a dozen others. Raphael Joseffy is as great an adept at eloquent “resting” as he is at eloquent pedaling. Each man has his own method of “resting,” but the true effects and nuances are always obtained by them all, no matter how, because in the mind and heart of the rounded-out musician there is a wonderful instinct for dramatic effect, and the pause is essentially dramatic.

Amateurs, unless born with these same dramatic instincts, seldom make a clear-cut pause—they end a phrase after the time and begin ahead of the beat; their rests are consequently slovenly and without meaning. The pause, in all rhetorical utterance, from the early Greek and Roman days, has been treated not only as a punctuation, but also as an instrument to conviction. The orator knows the power of his periods, commas, and semicolons. Why should not the pianist likewise reveal the strong significance of his whole-rest, half-rest, quarter-rest, and so on, through the whole gamut of musical rhetoric?

In the German school of piano teaching the rest is emphasized as of great importance as a medium for the truthful interpretation of a composer’s ideas, but our loose American tendency to do away with precision entirely in the development of individuality causes a growing laxity in this direction—most reprehensible, according to The Listener’s view of artistic futurity.

I hardly know when I have found a young amateur struggling with “expression” who had the faintest valuation of a rest outside of its time value. They rarely know what rests are for, except in their capacity of torments to those whose ideas of time are not instinctive.

My dear young musicians, remember that rests are punctuations of musical phrases, and give them their due.

An American Youthful Prodigy.

We hear of, and occasionally hear, European musical prodigies; but so far, as a nation we have produced few worthy to stand in that category. But now there comes to light in the city of Boston a youth of barely eighteen years with a technic bordering on to Paderewski perfection, and with a musical intelligence at least a hundred years old—so mature, ripened, and deep is it. He also bears some of the birthmarks of prodigious genius. His mother was Madam Strong, now deceased, a German pianist and teacher, for many years a resident of Boston. She was the source of her son’s great musical faculty, and to her, doubtless, is due the marvelous possibilities of his fingers. Nothing musical was evinced from this child until he was four years of age, when one day Madam Strong, who had just finished giving a pupil a Haydn sonata, heard some one playing the sonata through perfectly, as to notes, with the right hand. In surprise she returned to her music room, to find four-year-old Willie performing on the piano in this wise. He introduced himself to the musical world thus, and if it were not that he has inherited from his father’s family abundant means, The Listener, for one, would expect to know of Mr. William Dietrich Strong as not only a musical lion, but as a musical artist within the next ten years. But unfortunately pecuniary affluence is destructive of talent, if anything can be.

I print the program this lad gave recently, to show you what he attempted and what he achieved phenomenally; also as a suggestion in the way of program making, some readers having expressed a desire for an occasional program from the centers of musical doings.

Variations Serieuses, Op. 54, Mendelssohn.
Sonata, Op. 31, No. 3, Beethoven.
Molto agitato, G minor, Schumann
Andante e molto Cantabile, B-flat major, Schumann
Rhapsodie, Op. 79, No. 1, Brahms.
Ballad, G minor, Op. 23, Chopin.
Phantoms, A major,  Mrs. Beach.
Two Etudes, from Op. 27, Arthur Foote.
Valse de Concert, A major, Clayton Johns.
Etude, C major, Op. 34, No. 2, Moszkowski.

This was one of the few opportunities there have been to hear this lad, who wisely holds himself in the background until he is assured of his own self-mastery, something more important than prodigious virtuosity, it being the corner stone of the edifice where all genius is concerned.

I believe that some day you will all hear Willie Strong, as he is still familiarly called.

Franz Rummel.

Another program I have for you is one of exceeding interest, played by Franz Rummel at one of his first recitals among us, after a long absence. Rummel exhibits all of his previous perfections, fewer of his faults, and most of the elements of greatness in his field of achievement, patent to those who heard and knew him formerly. His program reads as follows:

Andante con variazione, Haydn.
Sonata, Op. 110,  Beethoven.
Phantasie, Op. 17, Schumann.
Barcarolle, Op. 60, Preludes, Op. 28, Nos. 3, 4,6,  Chopin.
Capriccio, Op. 76, No. 2, Intermezzo, Op. 76, No, 3,  Brahms.
Nachtfalter (Valse Caprice), Peters, Strauss-Tausig.
Nocturne, Op. 17, Brassin.
Rhapsodie Hongroise, No. 12, Au Bord d’une Source, Liszt

Our Artistic Wings.

Mr. Damrosch says that “art is a necessity for the poor”; that “it is necessary to stimulate the mind engrossed with the sordid care of eking out a material existence.”

If he would change the word art to music, The Listener could agree with him; but among the great masses of human beings art, as that word is generally understood, has no acceptable place, unless we make a distinction between high art and low art—something The Listener can not admit. Can such a thing as low art exist? Art has in it an element of instruction and education not acceptable to the masses, who, wearied from a day’s toil, want beauty that pleases and relaxes, not beauty that forces voluntary thought. So long as music is confined to emotional expression, it is desired and appreciated more than any other general form of utterance; but once let music take on the features of intellectuality, and the humble mind goes to sleep or is bored to death. But a good half of the music published, like the same number of books, has no art in it, and at the same time has a great mission among just those people to whom Mr. Damrosch referred, bringing into toilful, material lives a bit of gaiety, recreation, or enjoyable sentimentality.

For instance, The Listener knows of a woman who is a fashionable dressmaker in one of the great cities of America. She is a woman between thirty and forty years of age, and still at that time of life her chief pleasure is to take piano lessons and to practice an hour every night, arising at six every morning for another practice hour before she begins her most material day. Hers is not great talent thwarted by circumstances; she plays very badly; but, just the same, nothing else makes her so happy as this diversion, which to the majority would be a punishment. No doubt she hears in her imagination a beauty that her fingers will never express, and to her the commonplace music she performs is an inspiration and an outlet. Only in Germany do the masses find solace in art pure and undefiled. It is impossible to predict for America’s future, but I am forced to believe that hundreds of years will pass over our heads before the American laborer, returning from work, will whistle Händel’s Largo, as has been known to be the case in Germany, or a father and son, in artisan blouses, will walk side by side on the streets singing male duets from grand opera, as I once heard two men do in Paris. Each year the universal taste is urged upward by just such men as Mr. Damrosch, but there is no hope that the masses will ever attain one high level of appreciation of music, any more than they now give equal valuation to the art of literature—the oldest, most convincing of all arts. Even in our day the majority prefer to read absorbing, diverting novels to perusing Shakspere or Dante, and so it will be to the end; the majority also prefer waltzes and “coon songs” to a Beethoven or Brahms symphony, and so it will be to the end. A great mind produces that which comes only within the grasp of those large enough to receive the thought. There never will be a level of musical understanding, any more than there will be one level of moral equality for man—at least, not until he puts on wings. When we all put on our musical wings we will fly side by side with the prophets of the musical art, but not before. All we can do is to step as high as possible each day, waiting and hoping for the day of universal wings.

 

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