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The Necessity of Contrast in Art

BY EDWARD BAXTER PERRY.
 
One of the commonest of the many misused stock of phrases so often heard is, "So and So has a lovely tone, a beautiful touch; I should know him by it anywhere." As is usual with such phrases, those employing it seem to have not the smallest idea what a more than doubtful compliment it implies. Imagine one's saying of a painter, "He has such a beautiful color; you may recognize all his pictures by it." Nothing could be more absurd, unless it were the actual attempt of the painter himself to portray a pastoral landscape, a battle scene, and a storm at sea with one and the same color, however novel, beautiful, or enduring that color might be.
 
It is equally absurd to suppose that anyone ever does or could properly interpret even a single movement of any composition, still less a whole program, with one kind of touch or tone quality. Of course, in a sense, it is tone quality in the pianist and coloring in the painter, that go far toward stamping the true artist; but not one tone quality, or one color, rather a mastery of all.
 
This idea seems so obvious that one is almost ashamed to write it down; yet there are hundreds of teachers and thousands of pupils of the piano, upon whose self-satisfied mental horizon it has not yet dawned, if one may judge by their work or their conversation. Just here lies the defect in most so- called pianoforte methods. They all tend to inculcate and emphasize more or less narrowly one special touch, hence one kind of tone, to the entire or partial exclusion of all others; as who should say red is the proper color to paint with.
 
"Study my method and you will learn how to use it correctly." Students, beware! Methods are the pet fad, the pet humbug, the most seductive snares in the musical life of this country. They are practically unknown elsewhere. The very men who are supposed to have fathered them across the water being the first and the loudest to disown and denounce them. But here they thrive on ignorance, inexperience, monomania, and charlatanism, and upon our national madness to get there quickly no matter by what road. They are like rank weeds in newly broken soil, which wise cultivators will later eliminate, but which we Americans value now because they promise new and impossible results in the line of large crops in a short time, forgetting that the best fruit trees are slow growers.
 
Art is a development, not a manufacture; a soul growth, not a mechanical device. Above all, art is varied, multiform, full of kaleidoscopic changes of striking contrast.
 
There is no such thing as a "correct piano touch," or a "good tone"; that is to say, correct and good for all occasions and all purposes. There are as many kinds of tone, and necessarily of touch to produce them, which are essential to the well- equipped pianist, as there are colors on the painter's pallet, or shades of emotion in the human heart to be expressed. Under the hand of a master the tone is at one moment bright, clear and incisive as the edges of cut glass; the next, soft and warm as the touch of velvet; now it rings sharp and hard as steel on steel; again, murmurs like the flow of distant water; now it voices the inarticulate thought of defiance or victory; now the sigh of love or the moan of despair; now it sings with the skylark; now sobs with the ocean surge. It should embody every passing emotion of the player, suggesting every changing tint of the tone picture he is producing; and just as the tones of the human voice express as much, even more, of the feelings of the speaker than the words uttered, so the tone of the pianist should indicate the mood and meaning of the, music he plays as fully and surely as the harmonies he produces, as the melodic phrases he enunciates.
 
There is no surer test of the true artist than his ability to obtain at will, and to select and utilize judiciously, the widely different qualities of tone needed for his various desired effects. Among these, contrast, both in tone quality and degrees of power, is one of the most vitally essential. Contrast is to music what light and shadow are to painting; what the rising and falling inflections of the voice and the accented and unaccented words and syllables are to speech; its vital principle without which it would be flat, monotonous, dead. It is the element which catches and holds the attention of the listener; keeps his faculties awake, his perceptions keenly alive to every impression.
 
No amount of accuracy or sensuous beauty will redeem a performance which is lacking in this regard from being tame, stupid, and wholly uninteresting, like that of some very accomplished and famous pianists I have heard, who played so well technically that it was an intolerable exasperation that they did not make more of their resources and put some life into their work. It was like listening to a very musical and cleverly harmonized snore.
 
The artist should be thoroughly awake and alive to his finger tips, and arouse in his hearers an answering thrill of awakening vitality that shall quicken the pulse, deepen the respiration, and tingle along the nerves in a pleasurable sense of increased consciousness of being and feeling. What says Tennyson: "'Tis life, not death, for which we pant; 'tis life of which our nerves are scant; more life and fuller that we want."
 
Contrast is the very pulse-beat of life. Our whole existence is made up of it. Hence in art it is the most direct and forceful manifestation of vitality. To illustrate this necessity of contrast in music, and at the same time to show the wide variety of tone quality demanded by a single composition, let us examine the familiar "Aufschwung," by Schumann, Op. 12.
 
The name "Aufschwung" has been inadequately translated "soaring"; but it implies something far more forceful, heroic, majestic. We think of soaring as of a bird rising lightly, freely into the blue; but "Aufschwung" is the resistless upward impetus of something of might, breaking all bonds, scorning all obstacles, forcing its way by dint of its own inherent strength, though the weight of a world were crushing it down. The idea expressed in this work is almost exactly paralleled in Longfellow's well-known poem, "Excelsior," which should always be carefully studied in connection with it. The "Aufschwung" of unconquerable ambition, struggling gallantly up toward the distant heights, resisting all the allurements of temptation by the way, fighting down the natural longing for rest, peace, and love; scorning fatigue and hardship; daring the manifold perils of the path; answering all pleading, and all remonstrance, and all warnings from within and without with one inspiring watchword, "Excelsior"—the cry of human aspiration, common in its essence to all languages, races and epochs.
 
The composition opens with this thought expressed in a brief, but forceful theme in B-flat minor. It is the ruling motion of the whole work, and is constantly recurring. It must be given with the greatest power and boldness, though with a certain dignity and nobility, with a tone possessing at once the richness and the solidity of bronze. This is best produced with a firm hand, a high wrist, and a downward and somewhat forward pressure of the arm. The antithesis, which is equally brief, should be somewhat softer, but still full and warm; the melody expresses longing and hope, and the tone should be mellow but glowing, suggesting the color of red Roman gold. The best touch here is a drawing pressure from a lowered and half relaxed wrist and partially straightened fingers.
 
The second subject, in D-flat major, is a radical contrast. It suggests the allurements of love, tempting the hero aside from the upward path of ambition. It should be soft and sweet and pleading, rising and falling like a lover's sighs, and with the silvery sheen of moonlight in the tone, best obtained by a clinging, elastic pressure of the fingers and a wholly relaxed wrist.
 
After a startling abrupt negation by means of a repetition of the first subject somewhat further developed we come to an organ-like strain composed of grave, tranquil chords, telling of the consoling power of resignation to the inevitable, of the futility of human effort and the restful calm of faith and   submission. The tone needed here requires a yielding, flexible hand, and an easy dropping of the wrist for each chord, "the down-arm touch," as some call it.
 
Then follows a curious, thoroughly Schumannesque passage beginning in B-flat major. It is serious, reflective, introspective, giving us a touch of that vague, mystical vein in which Schumann sometimes indulges. The tone should suggest that veiled, mysterious effect in the orchestra when the wood-wind is used alone in the lower register; firm but gentle hand pressure is needed here, and a velvet touch, but with life and will behind it.
 
This leads abruptly into a sharply staccato passage as hard and cold as steel, full of vigor and defiance and the exhilaration of strife, suggesting, too, it may be, the brittle snap of ice and treacherous branch on the lonely, frozen mountain sides.
 
A combined finger and hand staccato is best here of the most extremely incisive character, with fingers much curved, knuckles high, hand firm, and bounding wrist.
 
A little later comes the climax with its short but impetuous crescendo, taxing the resources of the player to the full. Its ominous, threatening whisper, its increasing rush and roar, and finally overwhelming crash, reminding us of the awful avalanche of Longfellow's poem, or, perhaps, symbolizing the avalanche of fate and destruction sweeping down upon a gallant life. But in either case dominated once more by the ringing shout, "Excelsior," sounding again with the re-entrance of the first theme.
 
The remainder of the work contains only repetitions of material already used and referred to; but we have found that seven distinct kinds of tone and touch, producing as many various effects, are requisite for the treatment of this one short, comparatively unimportant composition; and I have spoken only of the principal themes. As many more shades and modifications of touch are needed to produce the proper coloring and dynamic balance in the accompaniment of the different strains; and there are scarcely two periods of four measures in the whole work that do not exemplify the thought expressed in the title of this paper by their strongly contrasted character.

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