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Wagner on the Piano

BY W. J. HENDERSON.
 
THE dust and turmoil of another season of music obscure the vision of music-lovers, not too clear at the best of times. Piano-virtuosi ravage the land with fire and the sword of technic, and the people sit upon the housetops and cheer the marauders. Mighty hands wave flaming brands of sixths and octaves and double thirds and hurl crashing bombs of dissonant chords into the midst of the populace, and the people shout encouragement in stentorian tones. It is a time of mad excitement, and no man is willing to pause and think. A pianist who does not play two concertos and a Liszt rhapsody, three or four of Chopin’s most difficult etudes and “La Campanella” or Rubinstein’s study on false notes at his orchestral concert is voted an old fogy and a bore. We seek after strange gods and our souls are thrilled, not by the sonatas of Beethoven or the C-major fantasia of Schumann, but by a prelude by Rachmaninoff or Balakireff’s “Islamey.”

WHY NOT PLAY DIFFICULT TRANSCRIPTIONS OF OLD-FASHIONED AIRS?
Worse than all, it is now the fashion among certain pianists to conclude their recitals with some of the Liszt or Brassin distortions of Wagner. I sympathize with those music-lovers who have few opportunities to hear the music of the Wagner dramas. It is in these days a deprivation to do without it. But I also sympathize with those old-fashioned opera-goers who no longer can hear their beloved “Ernani” or “Puritani.” Theirs is a heavier loss. They never loved any other music but this. To them the symphonies of Beethoven and the oratorios of Bach, the songs of Schubert and the piano-music of Schumann were always a sealed book. Brahms and Tschaikowsky they never knew. For them it was “Norma” and its kind, or “The Bohemian Girl” and a promenade concert. Once in awhile they sat through a performance of “Don Giovanni” for the sake of a big cast. But, when the old operas began to disappear from the stage, their lot became dreary indeed. They have my sympathy. There are not many of them left, but such as do still live find it a bitter and sternly dramatic world.

But why should not these people, rather than the would-be Wagnerites, have their chance? Why should not the pianists decorate their programs with all the wonderful old fantasias on airs from “Norma” and “Sonnambula” and the rest? Why should they not amaze and delight the good, old-fashioned opera-lovers by playing the colorature music of their hearts with about a hundred per cent more colorature than any soprano who ever lived could have thrown into it? Think of “Bel Raggio” in the hands of a Rosenthal, with the cadenza in double thirds, or Josef Hofmann weaving “Casta Diva” into a sparkling spinnerlied beside which Mendelssohn’s would sound like a Mozart cantabile! How the old souls would throb and the old eyes grow dim with unshed tears as memories of Jenny Lind and Grisi and Piccolomini rushed through the refreshed minds!
 
THE DIFFICULTY, NOT THE MUSIC, THE REAL REASON.
There is just as good reason for playing these old fantasias as there is for playing Wagner on the piano. In fact, the reasons for doing the one are precisely the same as those for doing the other. When objection is made to the Wagner distortions on the ground that they are inartistic, the invariable reply is that they give pleasure to so many persons who have no other opportunity to hear Wagner’s music. The obvious rejoinder to this is that these things are not Wagner’s music; they are not even a good imitation of it. They are worse than caricatures. They are cheap and frippery piano-jingles, employing the themes of Wagner’s music as their foundation. They are utterly bad, and to listen to them is to encourage one of the things that ought not to be allowed.

But nine times out of ten the plea that these pieces are excusable because they bring Wagner’s music before unaccustomed ears is an evasion. When young Hofmann persisted in playing the “Tannhäuser” overture at his recitals in Carnegie Hall, New York, he was vigorously applauded by hundreds of persons who were as familiar with Wagner's dramas as the old- fashioned opera-goers were with “Semiramide” and “Ernani.” There was no excuse for these people. And note the fact that they applauded just as vigorously when the young man played the Liszt transcription of certain parts of Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music. They certainly could not plead that this was their only opportunity to hear the wedding-march.

No; the truth is that the performance of these fireworks editions of the masters is intended wholly to astonish the crowd, and the crowd likes to be astonished. When a pianist plays the “Tannhäuser” overture, he is not applauded for the beauty of the interpretation, but for the amazing technical achievement which he just made. When he rattles off Liszt’s dazzling runs and shakes in the Mendelssohn music, he startles his hearers and produces just such an effect as he does when he plays the Tausig octaves in the finale of Chopin’s E-minor concerto. I have seen an audience rise to its feet and cheer Rosenthal for his performance of Liszt’s “Don Juan” fantasia. Surely it was not because of its beauty, but because he did it so fast.

If pianists are going to play Wagner on the piano, why should they not play Liszt’s arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies for two hands? Chiefly because the average hearer would not discern the enormous difficulty of the performance, and therefore would not be properly astonished by it.
 
PAY ATTENTION TO PURE ART.
The literature of the piano is sufficiently rich to make all these affronts to pure art inexcusable. Pianists should from their youth up determine to be true artists, and that means that they should rigorously exclude from their repertoires inartistic works. It is only by vigorous practice on the part of the artists that the public can be educated. The critics may preach till doomsday, but, so long as the public can continually point to authoritative artists who practice contrary to the preaching, they will accomplish nothing. Every piano-teacher should insist upon the laws of art, should peremptorily refuse to teach foolish distortions of opera or orchestral music, and should make a point of instructing pupils in the reasons for such refusal. A good many of us must stand together if we hope to do anything toward combating the pernicious influence of the technical wonder-workers, with their preposterous arrangements of Wagner.

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