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A Talk With Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Part II.

 

The Making Of An Artist.
 
ossip-gabrilowitsch.jpgLike a number of other noted pianists, Ossip Gabrilowitsch could have recourse to another profession if the necessity should arise. Educated in the law, much of his spare time in Russia is spent in the courts, where his father is recognized as an eminent criminal practitioner. Another phase of his mental equipment is the mastery of languages.
 
Here, again, it is curious to note that, of the soloists coming to us, the pianists have, so far as knowledge of English goes, distinctly the advantage. On the other hand, vocalists, who come to us year after year, are completely ignorant of English. This fact is all the more remarkable in that they leave, at the end of the American season, to sing in London, spending but a few weeks in their respective countries, whose language, beyond a more or less turgid French, is the sole one which they command. Madame Schumann- Heink, Madame Calvé, Mr. Plançon, and Mr. de Marchi are among the many vocalists who speak no word of English. On the other hand, Hofmann, Zeldenrust, Bauer, Hambourg, and Carreño converse in English fluently and well. Some of these named have spent years in English-speaking countries; but with the vocalist parallel circumstances carry no weight. Madame Schumann-Heink, indeed, sings several oratorios in an English which neither she nor her auditors understand, and Mr. Plançon has learned by rote the role of Herman in "Tannhäuser." But these exceptions are neither here nor there.
 
The fact remains that among instrumentalists in the class of pianists—a class of whom is demanded more actual time in daily study than the vocalist—there is a higher degree of mental cultivation. Whether this is due to absence of will or presence of laziness is not a question to be entered upon here; but curious it is, especially in view of the fact that in printed interviews, in which the artists' advice to students is given, the study of languages is so universally commended, and is assuredly so needful an adjunct of the singer's art.
 
These facts sprang in my mind, and with a sense of gratefulness to yet another pianist, when Mr. Gabrilowitsch greeted me, not in German or French, but good, crisp English, in which his vocabulary is never missing of an apt word in expressing his meaning.
 
The Study of a Composition.
"How do I study a composition?" he began in that same crisp English, looking out of the window for a moment and across the North River, shimmering faintly through the gray haze resting over the city. How do I study a composition? Well, first, of all, by memorizing it. That in itself is an easy thing for me to do, for after reading it through for a few times I remember it. In those difficult technically I then take out the intricate passages, studying them in the beginning very slowly. After that comes the most difficult part of all: the intellectual side. Oftentimes it is impossible to get at the idea of the beautiful things suggested, and then there is no other way but to put them aside for awhile and return to them. It may be away from the piano—and, indeed, often is— that I feel myself to have grasped the truth of those suggestions in their fulness. With the passage of time one thinks differently in this matter of interpretation. Laying a composition aside, we take it up at the end of a year, and find that development and mental growth have altered our conception of it entirely. Especially is this the case with the sonatas of Beethoven, who presents to the musician the intellectual strength and finesse of Shakespeare. A great mistake with the pupil is the undertaking of compositions beyond his mental development.
 
Technic First, but Intellect a Final Demand.
"Another great mistake is that he holds too often the point of view of mechanism. 'How many hours do you study?' is a question that betrays it. A student may practice four or five hours every day for a week and gain nothing. It is well to remember that we may frequently learn in thirty minutes properly directed more than in a whole week of sitting at the piano. How to study is as important as natural talent; for, without knowledge of this, no gift will carry us far. A master cannot teach a pupil to play like a great artist, but he can give him a method and teach him to work up a composition. Therein lies the success of Leschetizky above all others, to my way of thinking. He does not force his ideas of interpretation upon a pupil, but urges, instead, that pupil to show his own understanding and develop it. The entire class is assembled at certain intervals, and the way to interpret some composition of Beethoven or Chopin is discussed.
 
"The man who says 'my way is the only way' is incapable of further progress; for he has no mental development, and mental development means change of ideas and the point of view. It is my privilege to know Count Tolstoi and to have talked with him. We know that from year to year he has changed his opinions on many things. These changes have been due to his mental development, changes for which he has always frankly given his reasons. This change of the point of view must come in every walk of life if there be mental development, whether we follow music, painting, or literature.
 
"In the field of piano-playing a pupil must of necessity listen to his master until he gets a good technical method of playing, and has learned how to get at the inner meaning of things. It is technic at first, and then the intellect in music as well as in everything else.
 
Music and Poetry.
"Literature has, of course, more influence on music than has painting, for music and poetry are so closely related. The study of Chopin is, I am sure, made clearer by a knowledge of the poems of Miczkiewicz. How much better, indeed, would these ballads help a man to play Chopin than the continual practice of his scales by one who is so anxious about his technic!
 
"It is a pleasant thing to know that the intellectual standard of the musician has been so immensely advanced above that of fifty years ago. So much is, indeed, demanded of the thoroughly equipped musician of to-day that I believe the world in general does not comprehend the scope of it. To the mentality of Liszt I believe a great deal of this intellectual advance of the executant is due to-day, and, once having attained to it, retrogression as a class is impossible.
 
Program-Making.
"In the matter of program-making for pianoforte- recitals I have found a decided change in Europe, especially in Germany. In Berlin there seems to be a desire to keep up a central idea, programs quite unusual, and made up entirely of Brahms or Liszt. This is a wise course to follow as far as the musicians are concerned, but not in its relation to the general public. The old class of pianoforte-recital program, beginning with Bach and ending with Liszt, may be called the cast-iron one; but, nevertheless, it is, as far as the general public is concerned, the best, after all. To begin with Bach and Beethoven is well for the pianist, for they hold the most serious demands upon him. As he grows tired toward the end of the recital the lighter exactions of Liszt prove less trying to him. Between these two portions of his performances there may be wide variety. So far as the general public is concerned, however, I must repeat that the conventional beginning and ending of the recital progam (sic) is, after all, the best, even though it be the one made by Liszt and followed by people who have been imitating him for the last thirty years.
 
Russian Composers.
"In the building of programs there are many compositions by Russian composers which furnish an excellent element of novelty. In the field of composition Russia has to-day more gifted young writers than either Germany or France. While to Glinka belongs the title of Father of Russian music so far as opera is concerned, to Rubinstein must be accorded the honor of leading the way for the present national movement. To me Tschaikowsky appeals more strongly than any Russian composer, and it is with his smaller pianoforte pieces that it seems to me wiser for the student to make his beginnings in the Russian literature of the instrument. Rachmaninoff, Balakireff, Liadoff, and Arensky have all contributed beautiful compositions, and ones of novel interest to the pianist's repertory.
 
"In studying the compositions of Russian writers German ideas of interpretation must be set aside. The Bohemian and Polish music is much more closely allied to the Russian, which also shows the influence of the French composers.
 
"Two Germans have, on the other hand, had strong influence on the modern Russian writers, Schumann and Liszt, the former on the introspective, the latter on the technical side.
 
Some Rubinstein Reminiscences.
"It was my privilege to be a good deal in the society of Rubinstein at Peterhof, in the later years of his life. His ideas of the interpretation of Beethoven were unconventional, and on that account he was frequently taken to task by the German critics. To him must be accredited the movement for freeing the compositions of this great master from that convention in performance which had so dominated them.
 
"Many have formed the idea that Rubinstein was careless in his performances, but that is erroneous. No man could have been more careful in study. When, however, he was before the public and in the moment of inspiration, technic was forgotten, many false notes entered into his performances, but the spirit and intensity of his utterances caused his hearers to lose sight of mechanical short-comings. He had his imitators,—all great men have,—and they seemed to think that the playing of false notes meant a part of their aped resemblance; but, lacking the inspiration of Rubinstein, they lacked also his power to carry even blemishes to success.
 
"At Peterhof my talks with Rubinstein were on the intellectual side of music alone, it would have been a stupid thing to have asked him how he did this or that; he did not know, but he knew how it ought to be. He never played twice alike. The character was the same, the mood the same, but the means were different.
 
Study with the Ear.
"The only way to study is to study with the ear, which must control the fingers. Listen always to what you are playing, to the color of the tone, and the effect that you produce. The ear cannot stand too long a strain, and when it is tired you must stop. When people go on practicing while the ear is not engaged, they gain nothing. There is no apter parallel to illustrate the situation than that described by Loewe, who tells of a painter full of enthusiasm who goes to his work in the morning and paints passionately until after dark, and awakening the next day finds that the final touches of his brush, done without light, have ruined all.
 
"Train the ear to listen to everything you play, for tone-color may be gained in a five-finger exercise quite as well as in a melody. Work a few minutes in this way, rest, and then return to it. Use concentration of thought; listen to what you are doing always. These two points seem to me the most important in practice for every student."
 

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