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Five Minute Talks With Girls, By Helena M. Maguire

By Helena M. Maguire

The Art of Fingering as Applied to the Pianoforte Legato.

“It takes the art instinct to make sufficient account of the very small things in the study of music.”

In the March Etude Mr. Louis Arthur Russell, in writing of the different touches used on the piano­forte, spoke of the Legato as the “fundamental touch, the normal quality of piano-playing.” It may be said to stand for all that is most serious in music, into which the staccato enters only as the points of punct­uation, the commas and colons. The legato is the wise, the deep, the thoughtful, whereas the staccato is the sparkle, the unexpected, and, even, sometimes the absurd. The legato is the pure umber, the gloomy dun, the broad and sweeping azure of music, while the staccato is the high-light, the flecks and points of concentrated brightness. It would be as impossible to imagine music without staccato, as a language without punctuation or emphasis. Yet the staccato is generally subservient to the legato, and its fingering is not nearly so arbitrary, it being often accomplished by clever “tricks and manners.” Not so of legato. The legato of the pianoforte is a com­paratively modern substitution. Its growth followed the growth of the instrument, and a glance at the evolution of pianoforte legato proves that musical minds, in striving to express all that humans know of the beautiful in music, have not lost sight of the fact that this can only be done by means of the most practical aids, in the daylight of common-sense, and by the drylight of reason which bring it out of its dim and awesome obscurity and strip it of vague­ness. “It may be true that music is born of moon­shine and fragment memories, yet its expression is one of the most exacting of sciences.” Thus, if legato is to express a grand mood, a noble aspiration, or a dream of things beyond, it has got to do so by a system of fingering, and a manipulation of the fingers which will bring about the desired continuity, the necessary binding together into groups suffi­ciently definite to express a thought. The curved line over a phrase which we call “a slur” is much better named by the Italians, who call it “a liga­ture,” a bind. We need just such a metaphysical ligature to bind brain and ears to the fingers; for without this union our physical parts can never be­come well enough trained to be the means of the expression of our spiritual selves.

First instruments staccato.

The forerunners of the piano, the spinet and harpsichord, were staccato instruments; that is, having plucked strings, they were incapable of continued vibration, so that for these instruments any fingering would do; and mu­sicians applied that which was nearest, the violin; one, two, three, four, with the thumb hanging down quite idle and at ease, the drone of the finger family. Scales and running passages were as often fingered one-two, one-two, one-two, as any other way; fingers went straight down without ever a curve or an angle, and keyboards were as often as not quite on a level with the player’s chest.

But when the clavichord came, Early legato. with its tangents close pressed against the strings in such a way that the player could fairly feel the vibration in the fingers, making it what has been called “the confi­dential instrument,” then came the need for a dif­ferent fingering. All five fingers were found to be none too many to bind together these delicious vibra­tions; so the thumb was brought up out of idleness and called “zero.” The zero, looking like a note, and so occasioning many mistakes, was changed event­ually to a cross; and here you have your so-called “American fingering,” which really is not American at all, but the old, original violin-fingering with cross attached which came to us, as has almost everything else of the sort, by way of the English Channel.

The art of keyboard fingering now became a matter of importance. Pasquali in Italy, Hasler and Schultz in Germany, were the first to write upon the subject. Others soon followed them, and very funny, indeed, were some of the ideas expounded; but the impor­tant point is that out of it all came our modern legato-fingering, by means of which the most sublime results are obtained in the simplest way.

Modern legato.

So much for the past of legato- fingering. At present we under­stand that legato is gained as much through repose as through action. Just as the artist’s whole success with his picture lies in the preparation of his palette of colors, so does the whole beauty of your legato depend upon the preparation of your fingers for the tones you are to bring forth. And as the artist cannot prepare his paints all at once for the work he has to do, but must mix them anew each time he sits down to his easel, just so you cannot take a course in hand-culture and say that you are ready to play the legato-touch. It must be a constant preparing; every time that you lift a finger from the keyboard you must prepare it for its next stroke; and you must do this consciously until it becomes so much of a habit as to be matter for your subconscious brain. This is the secret of a beautiful legato, a constant preparing or bringing the fingers into proper readiness for play. You can­not let a finger lie on the key which it last struck until its turn comes to play again and have a smooth gliding from key to key. The fingers, when not play­ing, must be off the keys. Hand-position for legato-work is not fingers on the keys; it is four fingers in the air, one finger down; and this is true for all legato scale and running work. For smooth tones, pure unmixed vibration, and continuity, the fingers must be in the air, in readiness; free of the keys when not in actual motion.

Repose in legato.

Professor Barth said to a young lady who went to Germany to study with him: “You jigger; all Americans jig­ger!” While it is hardly possible that the professor ever heard the very American phrase, “Well, I’ll be jiggered,” he nevertheless seemed to think that the term expressed very well that jar of the hand so common among us. You know if, walk­ing in the dark, you come to a step which you think is twelve inches deep, and you make the impulse to send your foot down that far and it only proves to be three inches deep, you receive a jar which goes right to the top of your head. In the same way if you try to play a legato-passage with fingers down on the keys, the force of the impulse and the contact together send a jar back into the hand, and you do most certainly “jigger.” The fingers must be pre­pared in order to be ready to perform an action; you must pull back the trigger before you can discharge the pistol, and you have got to lift your fingers in order to drop them.

Properly lifted fingers, fingers in readiness promptly to supplement their fellows, and carefully measured distances will enable you to draw from the piano legato passages as smooth, even, and “well con­tinued” as those which issue from Melba’s throat.

The aim of a performer should be not to render the entire time-value of a musical thought, but to determine the differences of time between the sev­eral notes contained in the thought according to his own best judgment. Herein lies the whole art of rubato playing. On coming to the end of a musical thought thus rendered the time-value of the entire thought, of course with the corresponding tempo, should tally precisely with the time-value of such a thought played throughout rhythmically. This should be the real touchstone for an esthetical rubato performance kept within normal bounds.—Josef Hof­mann.

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You are reading Five Minute Talks With Girls, By Helena M. Maguire from the May, 1902 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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