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Old Fogy's Comments

Dussek Villa, on the Wissahickon, January 25, 1905.

Dear Mr. Editor: This month I must really draw a draft upon your proverbial patience. I had fully intended at the conclusion of my last article to close the curtain on Chopin and his music, for I agree with the remark Deppe once made to Amy Fay about the advisability of putting Chopin on the shelf for half a century and studying Mozart in the interim. Bless the dear Germans and their thoroughness! The type of teacher to which Deppe belonged always proceeded as if a pupil, like a cat, has nine lives. Fifty years of Chopin on the shelf! There’s an idea for you. At the conclusion of this half century’s immurement what would the world say to the Polish composer’s music! That is to say in 1955 the unknown inhabitants of the musical portion of this earth would have sprung upon them absolutely new music. The excitement would be colossal, for colossal, too, would be the advertising. And then? And then I fancy a chorus of profoundly disappointed lovers of the tone art. Remember that the world moves in fifty years. Perhaps there would be no longer our pianoforte, our keyboard. How childish, how simple would sound the timid little Chopin of the far away nineteenth century. In the turbulent times to come music will have lost its personal flavor. Instead of interpretative artists there will be gigantic machinery capable of maniacal displays of virtuosity; merely dropping a small coin in a slot will sound the most abstruse scores of Richard Strauss—then the popular and be whistled music maker. And yet it is difficult for us, so wedded are we to that tragic delusion of earthly glory and artistic immortality, to conjure up a day when the music of Chopin shall be stale and unprofitable to the hearing. For me the idea is inconceivable. Some of his music has lost interest for us, particularly the early works modeled after Hummel. Ehlert speaks of the twilight that is beginning to steal over certain of the nocturnes, valses, and fantasias. Now Hummel is quite perfect in his way. To imitate him, as Chopin certainly did, was excellent practice for the younger man, but not conducive to originality. Chopin soon found this out, and dropped both Hummel and Field out of his scheme. Nor shall I insist on the earlier impositions being the weaker; Op. 10 contains all Chopin in its twelve studies. The truth is that this Chopin to whom has been assigned two or three or four periods and styles and manners of development sprang from the Minerva head of music a full-fledged genius. He grew. He lived. But the exquisite art was there from the first. That it had a “long foreground” I need not tell you.

What compositions, then, would our mythic citizens of 1955 prefer—can’t you see them crowding around the concert grand piano listening to the old-fashioned strains as we listen to-day when some musical antiquarian gives a recital of Scarlatti, Couperin, Rameau on a clavecin! Still, as Mozart and Bach are endurable now, there is no warrant for any supposition that Chopin would not be tolerated a half century hence. Fancy those sprightly, spiritual, and very national dances, the mazurkas, not making an impression! Or at least two of the ballades! Or three of the nocturnes! Not to mention the polonaises, preludes, scherzos, and etudes. Simply from curiosity the other night—I get so tired playing checkers—I went through all my various editions of Chopin—about ten—looking for trouble. I found it when I came across five mazurkas in the key of C-sharp minor. I have arrived at the conclusion that this was a favorite tonality of the Pole. Let us see.

Two studies in Op. 10 and 25, respectively; the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66; five Mazurkas, above mentioned; one Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 1; one Polonaise, Op. 26. No. 1; one Prelude, Op. 45; one Scherzo, Op. 39; and a short second section, a cantabile in the E major Scherzo, Op. 54; one Valse, Op. No. 2—are there any more in C-sharp minor? If there are I cannot recall them. But this is a good showing for one key, and a minor one. Little wonder Chopin was pronounced elegiac in his tendencies—C-sharp minor is a mournful key and one that soon develops a cloying, morbid quality if too much insisted upon.

The Mazurkas are worthy specimens of their creator’s gift for varying not only a simple dance form, but also in juggling with a simple melodic idea so masterfully that the hearer forgets he is hearing a three part composition on a keyboard. Chopin was a magician. The first of the Mazurkas in C-sharp minor bears the early Op. 6, No. 2. By no means representative, it is nevertheless interesting and characteristic. That brief introduction with its pedal bass sounds the rhythmic life of the piece. I like it; I like the dance proper; I like the major—you see the peasant girls on the green footing away—and the ending is full of a sad charm. Op. 30, No. 4, the next in order, is bigger in conception, bigger in workmanship. It is not so cheerful, perhaps, as its predecessor in the same key; the heavy basses twanging in tenths like a contrabasso are intentionally monotone in effect. There is defiance and despair in the mood. And look at the line before the last— those consecutive fifths and sevenths were not placed there as a whim; they mean something. Here is a Mazurka that will be heard later than 1955! By the way, while you are loitering through this Op. 30 do not neglect No. 3, the stunning specimen in D-flat. It is my favorite Mazurka.

Now let us hurry on to Op. 41, No. 1. It well repays careful study. Note the grip our composer has on the theme, it bobs up in the middle voices; it comes thundering at the close in octave and chordal unisons, it rumbles in the bass and is persistently asserted by the soprano voice. Its scale is unusual, the atmosphere not altogether cheerful. Chopin could be depressingly pessimistic at times. Op. 50, No. 3, shows how closely the composer studied his Bach. It is by all odds the most elaborately worked out of the series, difficult to play, difficult to grasp in its rather disconnected procession of moods. To me it has a clear ring of exasperation, as if Chopin had lost interest but perversely determined to finish his idea. As played by de Pachmann we get it in all its peevish, sardonic humors, especially if the audience, or the weather, or the piano seat does not suit the fat little blackbird from Odessa. Op. 63, No. 3, ends this list of Mazurkas in C-sharp minor. In it Chopin has limbered up, his mood is freer, melancholy as it is. Louis Ehlert wrote of this: “A more perfect canon in the octave could not have been written by one who had grown gray in the learned arts.” Those last few bars prove that Chopin—they once called him amateurish in his harmonies!—could do what he pleased in the contrapuntal line.

Shall I continue? Shall I insist on the obvious; hammer in my truisms! It may be possible that out here on the Wissahickon—where the summer hiccoughs grow—that I do not get all the news of the musical world. Yet I vainly scan piano recital programs for such numbers as those C-sharp minor Mazurkas, for the F minor Ballade, for that beautiful and extremely original Ballade Op. 38 which begins in F and ends in A minor. Isn’t there a legend to the effect that Schumann heard Chopin play his Ballade in private and that there was no stormy middle measures? I’ve forgotten the source, possibly one of the greater Chopinist’s—or Chopine-sts, as they had it in Paris. What a stumbling block that A minor explosion was to audiences and students and to pianists themselves. “Too wild, too wild!” I remember hearing the old guard exclaim when Rubinstein, after miraculously prolonging the three A’s with those singing fingers of his, not forgetting the pedals, smashed down the keyboard, gobbling up the sixteenth notes, not in phrases, but pages. How grandly he rolled out those bass scales, the chords in the treble transformed into a Cantus Firmus. Then his

Calmuck features all afire, he would begin to smile gently and lo!—the tiny, little tune, as if children had unconsciously composed it at play! The last page was carnage. Port Arthur was stormed and captured in every bar. What a pianist, what an artist, what a man!

I suppose it is because my imagination weakens with my years—remember that I read in the daily papers the news of Chopin’s death! I do long for a definite program to be appended to the F major Ballade. Why not, Mr. Editor, offer a small prize for the best program and let me be judge? I have also reached the time of life when the A-flat Ballade affects my nerves, just as Liszt was affected when a pupil brought for criticism the G minor Ballade. Preserve me from the third Ballade! It is winning, gracious, delicate, capricious, melodic, poetic, and what not, but it has gone to meet the D-flat Valse and E-flat Nocturne—as the obituaries say. The fourth, the F minor Ballade—ah, you touch me in a weak spot. Sticking for over a half century to Bach so closely I imagine that the economy of thematic material and the ingeniously spun fabric of this Ballade have made it my pet. I do not dwell upon the loveliness of the first theme in F minor, or of that melodious approach to it in the major. I am speaking now of the composition as a whole. Its themes are varied with consummate ease, and you wonder at the corners you so easily turn, bringing into view newer horizons; fresh and striking landscapes. When you are once afloat on those D-flat scales, four pages from the end nothing can stop your progress. Every bar slides nearer and nearer to the cimax, (sic) which is seemingly chaos for the moment. After that the air clears and the whole work soars skyward on mighty pinions. I quite agree with those who place in the same category the F minor Fantasie with this Ballade. And it is not much played. Nor can the mechanical instruments reproduce its nuances, its bewildering pathos and passion. I see the musical mob of 1955 deeply interested when the Paderewski of those days puts it on his program as a gigantic novelty!

You see, here I have been blazing away at the same old target again, though we had agreed to drop Chopin last month. I can’t help it. I felt choked off in my previous article and now the dam has overflowed, though I hope not the Editor’s! While I think of it someone wrote me asking if Chopin’s first Sonata in C minor, Op. 4, was worth the study. Decidedly, though it is as dry as a Kalkbrenner Sonata for sixteen pianos and forty-five hands. The form clogged the flight of the composer. Two things are worthy of notice in many pages choked with notes: there is a Menuet, the only essay I recall of Chopin’s in this graceful, artificial form; and the Larghetto is in 5/4 time—also a novel rhythm, and not very grateful. How Chopin reveled when he reached the B-flat minor and B minor Sonatas and threw formal physic to the dogs! I had intended devoting a portion of my letter to the difference of old-time and modern methods in piano teaching. Alas! my unruly pen ran away with me! Next month!

Old Fogy.

 

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