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Conservatism in Piano Program Construction

BY W. FRANCIS GATES.
 
To anyone who has attended a number of artist piano recitals during a given season, there must come a suspicion that the performers are in league to keep the formal construction of programs and to maintain the style that has obtained for the past half century. Recital after recital the same general outline is preserved, and almost the identical composers and compositions presented.
 
One may read that a certain artist is to play at a given time, but it is hardly necessary to look up his program. It is sure to be a Bach fugue, given as a matter of duty and to prove he can play polyphonic writing, a dash of Schumann and Mendelssohn—a very little of the latter—then a group of Chopin, a waltz, a nocturne, and possibly a ballade, and finally, and more than a matter of course, a bombardment of Lisztian fireworks with perhaps a Liszt or Tausig arrangement of Schubert.
 
There you are. This is the menu, with slight variations, for twenty different recitals by as many pianists. There may be a Rubinstein number, a Beethoven sonata or a Scarlatti piece given in addition to or in place of some of the above by way of variety; or, in rare instances, a modern composition, generally of the Russian school. They have so many consonants in their names, you know, and one Tartar caught gives such an appearance of up-to-date-ness!
 
This is an indictment that may be brought against even such artists as Carreño, Gabrilowitsch, Hoffman, Hambourg, Rosenthal, and others. And the worst of it is that all the smaller fry feel that they must step in the footprints of these greater players and present practically the same composers in the same order. Should any brave artist step out of the beaten path long enough to find a novelty that is worthy a place on his program and play in such a manner as to make a "hit" with it, at once that particular number is featured all over the country by a dozen or a score of players, each seeking for the same applause. They never think of getting into the realms of compositions just as good and picking out a new thing on their own initiative.
 
* * *
 
There may be a reason for beginning a menu with soup, but why should Bach be tied to that place on the concert bill of fare? There is nothing so very diluted about him. There is more reason for giving Beethoven a place ordinarily assigned to the roast beef; but why, as a dessert, must we have skyrockets, bombs, and spit-devils? Or is Liszt to act as a sort of musical pepsin to aid in the digestion of the more solid food?
 
If a piano recital is announced as an anthology of pianistic literature, if it is intended as a historical outline of the development of piano composition, all well and good. Bring in the composers in the order in which they wrote and present their works in chronologically correct arrangement. But surely, every recital is not intended as a lesson in musical history. Should every elocutionist begin his program with a recitation from Genesis and wind up with Kipling? Must every politician begin with Cæsar and wind up with Roosevelt and Bryan?
 
But a history lesson our piano recital must be, so Bach or Scarlatti opens the bill, played in such a manner, perhaps, as not to lead the listener to suspect there is anything interesting to follow. That gives one a chance to surprise him later on, you know.
 
Then comes Beethoven. Now, Beethoven wrote several sonatas, but to hear a season of piano programs one might think he wrote perhaps four: the "Moonlight," the "Appassionata," the "Waldstein," and the "Hammer Klavier." The other thirty-four are relegated to the class room, many of them, of course, deservedly so, but a dozen more might be given a hearing.
 
Then comes the inevitable Chopin group. A piano recital without Chopin would be "Hamlet" without that melancholy individual. And what pieces of the consumptive Pole are offered? You may wager the price of admission on hearing one or more of the following from Chopin: Waltz, Op. 34 or 42; Nocturnes from Op. 9, 37, or 62; B-flat and G minor Preludes; Etudes in F major and minor and D-flat; the Cradle Song, Ballade in A-flat, Impromptu, Op. 36, the "Fantaise Impromptu"; the Scherzo in B minor and C-sharp minor; the Polonaises in A and A-flat. That is the sacrificial list. There are about 150 other piano works of his to choose from.
 
Mendelssohn is known by his "Serious Variations" and "Rondo Capriccioso." Schumann by his "Symphonic Etudes," the "Carnival" set, and his "Fantaisie in C." But Mendelssohn and Schumann are being seen on programs less and less. Perhaps it is just as well, if it gives later writers a chance. These two composers will have their resurrection. Grieg used to have a pull with the pianists, but of later years northern "atmosphere" has had to give way a little to Bohemian and Russian "color." Brahms is not played as much as his works deserve. He is a mine largely unworked. Rubinstein, too, is less in vogue than formerly. His works have less of virility than those of Brahms, and it is more natural that he should gradually disappear. But it is not to be thought that they are permanently laid on the shelf. Brahms will be heard from "Anon, anon, sir."
 
As the penultimate group there will be found, probably, one of the composers last mentioned, and, if the program maker is of eclectic tendencies, a tune from Henselt, Tschaikowsky, or Balakireff; and if he is the wildest sort of an eclectic with an insane idea that Americans can write music, then there may be heard something from Macdowell or Kroeger, or Foote, or some other American that has ventured to publish his compositions or has persuaded a rash publisher to do it for him.
 
What hero of the ivories would dare send an audience away without a strong dash of the white-haired Abbé. Liszt used to love the girls, and they have reciprocated his affection ever since. So Liszt it must be with whom to close the program and send the matinee girls home happy. And generally it is not simon pure Liszt, though the Rhapsodies are worked to death, but some Liszt disarrangement of Wagner, or Schubert, or Paganini. Once in a while Tausig is allowed to put the period to a program in one of his Lisztian arrangements, but that is seldom.
 
Such is the construction of the piano program.
 
* * *
 
Some day there will arise a pianist who will say, "Go to, now. I will make up my list without a Liszt. I will go back on Bach. I will make a program as one makes a bouquet. I will pick my flowers here and there without regard to which flower the botanist says was discovered first. I will build my program out of delicate, yet contrasted, shades in which the central thought will be beauty, not chronology. I will not freeze my audience at the beginning in order to show them how hot a fire I can make at the end. I will throw conservatism to the winds and make my program according to the dictates of my own æsthetic feeling, not according to that of a pianist fifty years dead."
 
Soon a pianist will set a style of freedom that will be delightful when exercised by a fine, artistic taste, but one that doubtless will be carried to an extreme of formlessness by his copyists—for of these latter he will soon have many. But an out and out tangle of wild flowers has more of real beauty in it than the artificial and mathematical Italian garden.
 
Speed the day when the public can feel that it is going to a piano recital to be presented with the most beautiful flowers known to the recitalist, laden with the sweetest perfumes, colored with the most delicate tints, all in harmony yet bearing sufficient contrast to properly display the beauty of each. When this is realized by the public and it knows that there is no half-hidden element of musical mathematics or musical history to be endured, then will the piano recital become less of a technical function attended only by those interested in the mechanics of the art, and more of an hour for the enjoyment of musical æsthetics.

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