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Old Fogy's Comments

Dussek Villa on the Wissahickon, December 25, 1904.
DEAR MR. EDITOR: Your letter about the Chopin number of THE ETUDE—The only musical publication I care to read in these days of musical gas, charlatanism and chicanery—caught me in the humor for a reply,—that is, a printed reply. Since my return from the outskirts of Camden, N. J., where I go fishing for planked shad in September, I have been busying myself with the rearrangement of my musical library, truly a delectable occupation for an old man. As I passed through my hands the various and beloved volumes, worn by usage and the passage of the years, I pondered after the fashion of one who has more sentiment than judgment; I said to myself:— “Come, old fellow, here they are, these friends of the past forty years. Here are the yellow and be-penciled Bach Preludes and Fugues, the precious ‘forty-eight’; here are the Beethoven Sonatas, every bar of which is familiar; here are—yes, the Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann Sonatas [you notice that I am beginning to bracket the batches!]; here are Mendelssohn’s works, highly glazed as to technical surface, pretty as to sentiment, Bach seen through the lorngnette of a refined, thin, narrow nature. And here are the Chopin Compositions.” The murder is out—I have jumped from Bach and Beethoven to Chopin without a twinge of my critical conscience. Why? I hardly know why, except that I was thinking of that mythical desert island and the usual idiotic question: what composers would you select if you were to be marooned on a South Sea island—you know the style of question and, alas! the style of answer! You may also guess the composers of my selection. And the least of the three in the last group above named is not ChopinChopin, who, as a piano composer pure and simple, still ranks his predecessors, his contemporaries, his successors.

I am sure that the brilliant Mr. Finck, the erudite Mr. Krehbiel, the witty Mr. Henderson, the judicial Mr. Aldrich, the phenomenal Philip Hale, have told us and will tell us all about Chopin’s life, his poetry, his technical prowess, his capacity as a pedagogue, his reforms, his striking use of dance forms. Let me contribute my humble and dusty mite; let me speak of a Chopin, of the Chopin, of a Chopin—pardon my tedious manner of address—who has most appealed to me since my taste as been clarified by long experience. I know that it is customary to swoon over Chopin’s languorous muse, to counterfeit critical raptures when his name is mentioned. For this reason I dislike exegetical comments on his music. Lives of Chopin from Liszt to Niecks, Huneker, Hadow, and the rest are either too much given over to dryasdust or to rhapsody. I am a teacher of the pianoforte, that good old keyboard which I know will outlive all its mechanical imitators. I have assured you of this fact about fifteen years ago, and I expect to hammer away at it for the next fifteen years if my health and your editorial amiability endure. The Chopin music is written for the piano—a truism! — so why in writing of it are not critics practical? It is the practical Chopin I am interested in nowadays, not the poetic—for the latter quality will always take care of itself.

Primarily among the practical considerations of the Chopin music is the patent fact that only a certain section of his music is studied in private and played in public. And a very limited section it is, as those who teach or frequent piano recitals are able to testify. Why should the D-flat Valse, E-flat and G minor Nocturnes, the A-flat Ballade, the G minor Ballade, the B-flat minor Scherzo, the Funeral March, the two G-flat Etudes, or let us add, the C minor, the F minor and C-sharp minor studies, the G major and D-flat preludes, the A-flat Polonaise—or, worse still, the A major and C-sharp minor Polonaises—the B minor, B-flat major Mazurkas, the A-flat and C-sharp minor Impromptus, and last, though not least, the Berceuse,—why I insist should this group be selected to the exclusion of the rest, for, all told, there is still as good Chopin in the list as ever came out of it.

I know we hear and read much about the “heroic” Chopin, and the “New Chopin”—forsooth —and “Chopin the Conqueror”; also how to make up a Chopin program—which latter inevitably recalls to my mind the old crux: how to be happy though hungry. [Some forms of this conundrum lug in matrimony, a useless intrusion.] How to present a program of Chopin’s neglected masterpieces might furnish matter for afternoon lectures now devoted to such negligible musical debris as Parsifal’s neckties and the chewing gum of the flower maidens.

As a matter of fact, the critics are not to blame. I have read the expostulations of Mr. Finck about the untilled fields of Chopin. Yet his favorite Paderewski plays season in and season out a selection from the scheme I have just given, with possibly a few additions. The most versatile—and—also delightful— Chopinist is de Pachmann. From his very first afternoon recital at old Chickering Hall, New York, in 1890, he gave a taste of the unfamiliar Chopin. Joseffy, thrice wonderful wizard, who has attained to the height of a true philosophic Parnassus,—he only plays for himself, O wise Son of Light!—also gives at long intervals fleeting visions of the unknown Chopin. To Pachmann belongs the honor of persistently bringing forward to our notice such gems as the “Allegro de Concert,” many new mazurkas, the F minor, F major—A minor Ballades, the F-sharp and G-flat Impromptus, the B minor Sonata, certain of the Valses, Fantaisies, Krakowiaks, Preludes, Studies and Polonaises—to mention a few. And his pioneer work may be easily followed by a dozen other lists, all new to concert-goers, all equally interesting. Chopin still remains a sealed book to the world, notwithstanding the ink spilled over his name every other minute of the clock’s busy traffic with Eternity.

A fair moiety of this present issue of The ETUDE could be usurped by a detailed account of the beauties of the Unheard Chopin—you see I am emulating the critics with my phrase-making. But I am not the man to accomplish such a formidable task. I am too old, too disillusioned. The sap of a generous enthusiasm no longer stirs in my veins. Let the young fellows look to the matter—it is their affair. However, as I am an inveterate busybody I cannot refrain from an attempt to enlist your sympathies for some of my favorite Chopin.

Do you know the E major Scherzo, Op. 54, with its skimming, swallowlike flight, its delicate figuration, its evanescent hintings at a serious something in the major trio? Have you ever heard de Pachmann purl through this exquisitely conceived, contrived and balanced composition, truly a classic? Whaur is your Willy Mendelssohn the noo? as the Scotchman asked. Or are you acquainted with the G-sharp minor Prelude? Do you play the E-flat Scherzo from the B minor Sonata? Have you never shed a furtive tear—excuse my old-fashioned romanticism—over the bars of the B major Larghetto in the same work? [The last movement is pure passage writing, yet clever as only Chopin knew how to be clever without being offensively gaudy.]

How about the first Scherzo in B minor? You play it, but do you understand its ferocious irony? [Oh, author of “Chopin: the Man and his Music,” what sins of rhetoric must be placed at your door!] And what of the E-flat minor Scherzo? Is it merely an excuse for blacksmith art and is the following finale only a study in unisons? There is the C-sharp minor Prelude. In it Brahms is anticipated by a quarter of a century. The Polonaise in F-sharp minor was damned years ago by Liszt, who found that it contained pathologic states. What of it? It is Chopin’s masterpiece in this form and for that reason is seldom played in public. Why? My children, do you not know by this time that the garden variety of pianoforte virtuoso will play difficult music if the difficulties be technical, not emotional or emotional and not spiritual? The F-sharp minor Polonaise is always drummed on the keyboard because some silly story got into print about Chopin’s aunt asking the composer for a picture of his soul battling with the soul of his pet foe the Russians. Militant the work is not, as swinging as are its resilient rhythms: granted that the gloomy repetitions betray a morbid dwelling upon some secret, exasperating sorrow; but as the human soul never experiences the same mood twice in a lifetime, so Chopin never means his passages, identical as they may be, to be repeated in the same mood-key. Liszt, Tausig, and Rubinstein taught us the supreme art of color variation in the repetition of a theme. Paderewski knows the trick; so does Joseffy and de Pachmann—the latter’s pianissimi begin where other men’s cease. So the accusation of tonal or thematic monotony should not be brought against this Polonaise. Rather let us blame our imperfect sympathies and slender stock of the art of nuance.

But here I am pinning myself down to one composition, when I wish to touch lightly on so many! The F minor Polonaise, the E-flat minor Polonaise, called the Siberian—why I don’t know; I could never detect in its mobile measures the clanking of convict chains or the dreary landscape of Siberia—might be played by way of variety; and then there is the C minor Polonaise, which begins in tones of epic grandeur [go it old man, you will be applying for a position on the Manayunk Herbalist soon as a critic!] The Nocturnes—are they all familiar to you? The F-sharp minor was a positive novelty a few years ago when Joseffy exhumed it, while the C-sharp minor, with its strong climaxes, its middle sections so evocative of Beethoven’s Sonata in the same key—have you mastered its content? The Preludes are a perfect field for the “prospector”; though Essipoff and Arthur Friedheim played them in a single program. Nor must we overlook the so-called hackneyed valses, the tinkling charm of the one in G-flat, the elegiac quality of the one in B minor. The Barcarolle is only for heroes. So I do not set it down in malice against the student or the everyday virtuoso that he—or she—does not attempt it. The F minor Fantaisie, I am sorry to say, is beginning to be tarnished like the A-flat Ballade, by impious hands. It is not for weaklings; nor are the other Fantaisies. Why not let us hear the Bolero and Tarantella, not Chopin at his happiest, withal Chopin. Emil Sauer made a success of other brilliant birdlike music before an America public. As for the Ballades, I can no longer endure any but Op. 38 and Op. 52. Rosenthal played the beautiful D-flat study in Les Trois nouvelles Etudes with signal results. It is a valse in disguise. And its neighbors in A-flat and F minor are Chopin in his most winning moods. Who, except de Pachmann, essays the G-flat major Impromptu—wrongfully catalogued as Des Dur in the Klindworth edition? To be sure it resumes many traits of the two preceding Impromptus, yet is it none the less fascinating music. And the Mazurkas—I refuse positively to discuss at the present writing such a fertile theme. I am fatigued already, and I feel that my antique vaporings have fatigued you. Next month I shall stick to my leathery last, like the musical shoemaker that I am—I shall consider to some length the use of left hand passage work in the Hummel sonatas. Or shall I speak of Chopin again, of the Chopin mazurkas! My sour bones become sweeter when I think of Chopin—ah, there I go again! Am I, too, among the rhapsodists, Mr. Editor?

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