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The Choice of Technic for a Composition

[The following rather comprehensive query was referred by the editor to Mr. Sherwood. His reply contains much suggestive thought as to the training in higher musicianship such as leads to independence on the part of the player. It indicates a course of training which will make it possible to discover in a composition itself certain clear indications as to interpretation and the choice of technical means to express that interpretation. The best educators in music recognize that the player who will interpret a work of art must learn the principles of art-construction. The student of piano-music should also study composition, not to compose, but to help him to interpret.—Editor.]

“Will you kindly express your views on the following questions: An artist takes a composition that he has never seen before and prepares it for a recital. In doing so, he naturally gives it an interpretation; this interpretation is dependent upon a number of things which are only in part indicated by the so-called ‘expression-marks’ as suggested by the composer. Our query is: What is it that guides an artist in his choice of different touches, or in his selection of certain effects that demand certain touches in order to realize them? There must be some system upon which he works, something that gives reason for his selection of legato in one place, staccato in another, portamento, arm-stroke, wrist-stroke, or finger-action, and in the possible varieties of touch and rhythm and of tempo. There must be something in the music, in its apparent character, which suggests certain styles of execution.”

The reply to this amounts to almost an entire musical education, and can be answered by an enlightened and highly-trained teacher in modern methods of music-study and analysis, and technic, by giving a long course of lessons to an intelligent pupil. There are so many sides involved in such study that the average teacher scarcely covers them all. He may be great in a few things and unfortunately deficient in others necessary to form a well- balanced, artistic whole. I am reminded of one of my visits to Liszt by this question.

A young woman, I regret to say an American lady from New York, was playing the “Soirée de Vienne” to the great master, or, rather, she was playing at it. She had an abundance of strength, and while bringing out all the themes for the right hand, generally with much more energy than taste or artistic feeling, she was spoiling the entire composition with slovenly and undeveloped accompaniment with the left hand. Liszt sat down to the piano (after he had considerably amused those present with various shrugs of the shoulders and sarcastic remarks behind the young lady’s back) and played the part written for the left hand through some two pages. His grouping of bases (generally consisting of one note each measure) into phrases, making thereof expressive melodies, and his touch, piquancy, and blending of the harmonic parts played in chords by the left hand, was such a thing of beauty and artistic interpretation in itself that an ideal musical performance was the result. The master’s imagination and musical feeling were shown in this performance to such a degree that no one missed the principal parts of the composition as written for the other hand.

And herein lies a great secret. The music-student who would really interpret music well must study the rhythm and accent, the harmony and phrasing, the melodic designs, the relative values and proportions of all parts of the composition to be rendered. Many music-students of my acquaintance have taken diplomas in the study of harmony at various musical institutions both at home and abroad. These same students appear to be unable or unwilling to investigate the harmony and other theoretical elements as used by the composers of the music they would perform. They do not stop to think how this kind of analysis, properly developed, helps the student to construct and to outline the composition he plays, as if created by himself; how that, in finding out the processes, the symmetry and methods generally of the composer, he first understands the true outline of expression; he learns what to accent and how to accent; he helps his memory amazingly and develops an inner consciousness of the art-elements in their true nature in the work before him.

This kind of study, leading, as it does, to a real awakening of one’s musical nature, is the best guide to that “will-of-the-wisp,” TECHNIC! Such music- study, more than anything else, has enabled me to distinguish between the employment of different methods of action and varieties of touch.

The various modern uses of the arm, wrist, hand, and knuckle-control, as related to the use of the fingers, involve a dozen opportunities where the old methods would yield one. The analysis of interpretative elements in music, as shown by such theoretical works as those by A. J. Goodrich and “Pianistic Expression,” by Adolph Christiani, are very practical and useful works in this most necessary line of study. The two hundred canons by Kunz, in the Schirmer edition, with a long preface, containing theoretical explanations, can be recommended to every genuine music-student who would know the truth.

I have endeavored, in editing the following list of publications (Theodor Kullak, “Seven Octave Studies,” Op. 48; Henselt, “If I were a Bird”; Chopin “Etudes,” Op. 25, No. 1 and No. 9; Moszkowski, “Musical Moment,” Op. 7, No. 2; A. Hollaender, “March in D-flat,” Op. 39; Grieg, “Ase’s Death” and “Anitra’s Dance” from “Peer Gynt,” Op. 46; W. H. Sherwood, “Coy Maiden,” Op. 10; “Gipsy Dance,” Op. 11; “Medea,” Op. 13; “Buy a Broom,” “Ethelinda,” “Exhilaration,” “Caudle Lecture”; “Christmas Dance,” Op. 14; “Allegro Patetico,” Op. 12; “Autumn,” Op. 15; Rheinberger, “Fugue in G-minor”), to throw some light upon interpretative technic, etc., with a view to helping out in this line. The suggestions, particularly in the “Octave Studies” and the use of the damper pedal, will probably be objected to by those who only half-understand them, or who do not give them a fair trial.

My own course of instruction, with the aid of assistant teachers, is permanently outlined to cover such theoretical and analytical points, comprising the analysis of music in its simplest elementary form and continuing through a course of harmony as related to expression in the performance of the student’s pieces; continuing through the different kinds of analysis as suggested above, and including interpretation and recital classes in addition to private lessons in piano-playing. Such a course is calculated to look after the student’s musical advancement from a sufficient number of sides to avoid narrowness and the pitfalls of the average music-student. A pupil working on such lines ought to be able to tell at all times what key he is playing in, what harmony he is reading, which notes belong to that harmony, and otherwise. He ought to train the ear through the habit of listening to his own work, coupled with such intelligent analysis as would enable him to remember the accidentals throughout the measure, on account of their sound and natural relation to the design of the composer. He should actually be able to correct wrong notes, if he finds them in print; to know where to accent and in what proportion; to manage the damper pedal rightly, and select appropriate movements of the hand and qualities of touch.

This subject admits of unending remark and study. It is as broad and many-sided as music itself—its resources almost infinite.


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