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The Pianoforte Legato

The legato treatment of the pianoforte is a tradition as old as the instrument itself. Now, traditions have their value. They stand in the breach when we are in imminent peril of persisting at the hands of the radicals. Even when they do not embody perennial truth, and when the whole substance of them is dubious, they may serve a useful purpose; and at any rate they are a form of history.
But they are dangerous, too. Now and then they are the deadly foes of true progress. And this has happened so often in the history of politics and of science and of art that Lichtenberg could say, "It is just those things upon which everybody is agreed that should be subjected to investigation." If this is true we may, now and then, be pardoned if we refuse the appeal to authority, and regard with suspicion things that have been handed down to us from the fathers.
The Pianoforte Legato Compared with that of Other Instruments.
It has been assumed that the pianoforte is a legato instrument, that the cantabile is truly klaviermässig; and upon this assumption have been based rules for the practice and playing of that instrument. But the premise is untenable. It may be that the inspired tune is the loveliest element in music and that it is extremely desirable that it should be possible to render it in all its flowing articulated beauty upon every instrument. It does not follow that that can be done, where it is perhaps most desirable—upon the pianoforte. And when we compare the legato, the cantabile, of the pianoforte with that of an instrument about which no question in this respect exists, the conclusion is patent and even startling, that the pianoforte is essentially non-legato. Listen to it in contrast with the violin. Most of the great instruments are intrinsically cantabile both in their effect and in their technic. Strings or wood-wind or brass, to get non-legato effects out of any of them demands a particular effort of the player, precisely as such effect calls for special treatment on the part of the singer. But with these instruments the pianoforte cannot be classed.
The Pianoforte a Percussion Instrument.
It belongs to the family of the percussive, the non-legato instruments. Modern invention has, it is true, gone a long way toward extricating it from this rather doubtful company, in fact it has distinctly lifted it to the group of great instruments; nevertheless it has by no means severed the tie that links it to its humbler relatives.
A Consideration of the Pianoforte Tone.
If its legato were its chief recommendation, what kind of a case could you make out for it? Nothing is clearer than that it is something else, quite, which gives the piano its prestige as the universal instrument—the instrument for all musicians. For the piano, legato is, at its best, a series of pulsations, undulations. That ingenious expression, "pearly legato," hits it perfectly, for it is a string of tones whose points of contact are, in fact, points and scarcely more. As for modifying a tone after it has been sounded—an essential characteristic of any cantabile worthy the name—that is of course out of the question, except in the minutest degree. The premise is, therefore, untenable; what then of the system of practice and of playing founded upon it? This, to the student and teacher, is a serious matter.
Ill Result of the Attempt to Teach Legato Playing to Beginners.
I believe that this assumption—that the legato is the proper style of playing the piano—has been responsible for a good share in the general failure of music teaching. Ignoring the fact that the piano is provided with a legato apparatus (the pedal) it has laid upon the fingers of the beginner the last, most difficult task of the accomplished player, and has perversely set him to deal with it in the most mechanical way. That is to say the pupil has been kept to the practice not of effects nor of any specific effect, but of certain obscure, intricate movements supposed to produce the desired thing. Widely trumpeted contrivances have been invented to make the fingers, willy-nilly, do just those prescribed things.
And his business has assumed such portentious importance that other things have been ignored, and multitudes of pupils have been enjoined to practice whole studies and pieces in absolute flagrant disregard of all signs and canons of interpretation, legatissimo and as a natural consequence (no musical consideration having validity enough to claim recognition) fortissimo. With what result? Precisely the inevitable one—a race of players in whom interpretation is not innate, spontaneous, but a pretense and a sham. I suppose all teachers that have any sense have had, until they were sick, the experience of struggling to lead a pupil taught in this fashion to do something musicianly. The struggle is long and liberally accompanied with heartfelt imprecations upon a method of teaching so childish and so unscientific in one. As for the pedagogy ofit, it is antideluvian; it would disgrace a Bushman.
The violin is treated according to the nature of it; so is the clarinet, and all the rest of the orchestral pieces, and so in the main is the organ; why should the pianoforte alone be warped from its proper, unique function? It can do things of the greatest effectiveness and beauty which are out of reach of the other instruments; what sense is there in its aping any one of them? No other is so rhythmic, so capable of crisp, telling accent. But the pedal is the feature, its true distinction. That command of sympathetically aroused overtones—the most ethereal sounds that ever greet the human ear—puts it in a class by itself, and, with its capacity for polyphony and for dynamic variety, has given it its peculiar hold upon the musician, has made it his intimate in all the range of his work. It is these things that have secured it its prestige and no powers of it which could for a moment give it competition with the violin or the flute.
But the tyranny of the legato idea has played further mischief. It has impeded the free, natural, and rapid development of the hand. The fingers, from the moment the rudiments of them appeared in the course of evolution, have never been independent of each other. And their tendency to act in concert can never by any practice be obliterated. When one of them descends upon a key the others go, too, except as held back by a distinct effort. The act of descent upon a key, therefore, must be reduced to the very minimum, that the strain upon the other fingers may be as light and as quickly released as possible, and that the finger in action may be free for immediate repetition of its movement. But here the legato fetish interfered again and insisted that the finger should remain firm—vigorously active, that is—upon the key. Which, of course, had the inevitable effect; whereupon we have innocently wondered why pupils' hands were so stiff, and why the malady was so nearly universal among them.
Apropos of all this I have two or three interesting observations to make before leaving the matter to the consideration of the reader. Carlyle Petersilea said to me one day: "Liszt did not play legato; he used a kind of wrist, half staccato action the most of the time, and got his effects with the pedal," and thereto agree some things William Mason has said in his reminiscences.
The second observation is that Chopin, among the earliest exercises he taught, included a non-legato movement, even forming the finger action on that basis.
And the third is that two classes of players show this very attitude toward the matter: our consummate artists, and those other players whose performance is least warped by misdirected discipline from the natural, unconscious, direct ways of obtaining the desired effects.

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You are reading The Pianoforte Legato from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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