By Edward Baxter Perry
The peculiar aptitude required for successfully rewriting a song or orchestral composition for the piano, so that it shall become, not a mere bald, literal reproduction of the melodies and harmonies, as in most of the piano-scores of the opera, interesting only to students, but a complete and effective art-work for this instrument, may be a lower order of genius than the originally creative faculty, but is certainly more rare and almost as valuable to the musical world. It demands, first, a clear, discriminating perception of the essential musical and dramatic elements of the original work, in their relative proportions and degrees of importance, distinct from the merely idiomatic details of their setting; second, a supreme knowledge of the resources and limitations of the new medium of expression, so as at once to preserve unimpaired the peculiar character and primal force of the original composition, and to make it sound as if expressly written for the piano.
Pianistic Quality of Liszt’s Transcriptions.
It is one thing to write out the notes of an orchestral score so that they are, in the main, playable by a single performer on the piano; but it is quite another thing to readjust all the effects to pianistic possibilities, so as to produce in full measure the intended artistic impression. There is practically the same difference as in poetic translation, between the rough, verbal rendering of a Latin exercise by a school-boy, and the finished, artistic English version of a poem from some foreign tongue by a gifted and scholarly writer like Longfellow.
Whatever may be thought or said of Liszt as an original composer, in his piano-transcriptions he has never had an equal, scarcely even a would-be competitor. His work in this line is of inestimable importance to the pianist, both as student and public performer, and forms a rich and extensive department of piano-literature. Think what a gap would be left in any artist’s repertoire if Liszt’s transcriptions, including the rhapsodies, were struck out of it; for the rhapsodies are only transcriptions of gypsy music. Practically all of Wagner’s music that is available for the pianist he owes to Liszt’s able intermediation.
True, Brassin has done some commendable work in his settings of fragments from the Nibelungen operas, but of these the “Magic Fire” music is the only really usable number, and this, though playable and attractive from its own intrinsic merits, is hardly satisfactory, either as a genuinely pianistic setting or as a reproduction of the artistic effects of the original. One feels that it is an interesting attempt, not a complete success; and the “Ride of the Walkyrie,” which ought to be the most effective of all the Wagner numbers for piano, is wholly unusable for concert purposes. One is practically restricted to Liszt in this direction, but finds in him a mine of highly-finished, admirably-set gems, accessible, though technically not easy to appropriate.
Take, for example, the familiar and ever-enjoyable “Spinning Song” from the “Flying Dutchman,” definite and symmetrical in form, perfect in every detail as a piano-composition, eminently playable and pianistic, yet preserving the original dramatic intention with absolute completeness and integrity.
Story of the “Spinning Song” from the “Flying Dutchman.”
Those who are familiar with the opera will need no explanation of its contents; but for the many piano-students who are not, I give a brief synopsis of the scene of which this music is at once an accompaniment and a picture; for Wagner’s music is all intended to intensify, by reduplicating in tone, scenes and moods represented on the stage.
A little company of village maidens in a sea-port town in Holland is assembled of a winter evening to spin. It is to be a semi-social, semi-useful gathering, much like the old quilting parties of our grandmothers’ time, and they are all in the best of spirits. They start the wheels, but something is wrong apparently: the thread breaks or tangles, and two or three times they are obliged to stop, wait a moment, and recommence, till finally the buzz and hum of the swift-rolling wheels become continuous.
This orchestral imitation of the spinning-wheel is a piece of very graphic realism, and in the piano- arrangement is given almost equally well in the left- hand accompaniment, while the right hand carries in chords the chorus of the spinning maidens, as they sing at their work, a bright, joyous, rhythmical song, full of gayety and wit, as shown by the occasional interruptions by a burst of merry laughter.
In the very midst of their jollity they are startled into an abrupt silence by the ominous sound of a single horn close by, and they suspend their work to listen. The horn rings out, clear and strong, a peculiar impressive signal, which they know and dread as that of the “Flying Dutchman,” the terror of those shores, the fated commander of a phantom ship, manned by a specter crew, who sails the northern seas eternally, in winter storm and summer fog, condemned forever to this ghastly isolation from his living fellow-men, and striking terror to the hearts of all the simple fisher-folk, whenever the dim outlines of his ship are seen in the misty offing; and especially when his signal horn is heard; for it is known that he does sometimes land. His only possible chance of escape from the awful curse upon him is that once in a hundred years he is permitted to spend a few brief days on shore and mingle with his kind, and if, during that short period, he can win the love of any true maiden so completely that she will voluntarily give her life for him, then the curse is ended and both may rise to the realms of the blest together. It is a grand opportunity for generous self-sacrifice on the part of some noble girl; but naturally all shrink from it, and are panic- stricken at his approach.
But the horn dies away. Echo repeats the notes and drops them. All is still. They think he is merely passing, as he often does, and has no intention of landing here at present. So, after a little timid hesitation, they resume their work and their song, become as hilarious as before, even more so, going off at last into a perfect gale of laughter, in the midst of which the horn sounds again; this time nearer, louder, more importunate. Surely he is about to land, perhaps is already on shore and approaching; and then there is a frenzy of panic; work is flung aside, wheels are overturned in the confusion, and the girls scatter in mad terror in all directions; and with this flight the scene closes, and this transcription for the piano ends.
I will add, however, for the completion of the story, that one of the girls, the heroine, her woman’s heart touched to pity by the awful destiny of the curse-laden commander, remains, half in eagerness, half in fear, to meet him at his entrance and to become the willing sacrifice for his redemption.
The key-note of the whole opera is found in that sublimest of all facts—human love triumphant over fate.
With this story in mind, even those quite unfamiliar with the music cannot fail to recognize and follow the successive details of the scene described: the whir and hum of the spinning-wheels, the chorus of singing maidens, the entrance of the signal horn, with its echo and the terror that follows; the repetition of these incidents in growing climax, and the mad confusion and scamper at the close.