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Originality.

Not often do we bear a player  who sternly disregards traditon (sic), and recognizes, in the playing of all our artists, nothing better than conventional and stereotyped utterance. Under no circumstances do we expect to find such boldly independent thought among our younger performers; and we are naturally amazed to discover such a mental attitude even among the ripest and most experienced violinists. Yet such a discovery we actually made, not very long ago, and we believe that what we learned on this occasion is worth recording.

The player in question is infatuated with the idea of originality. He maintains, and quite correctly, that too much time and thought are devoted by violinists to the technical questions and the superficialities of the art—that, in short, the qualities that are most charming and fascinating in a player’s work, individuality and originality, are, in the minds of our violinists, either secondary considerations or of no importance at all.

Naturally, he maintained that he, of all men, strove to be, and succeeded in being, original; and he could not adequately express the astonishment he felt that others failed to appreciate the beauties of his musical conceptions and their exceptional strength and originality. To illustrate how grievously he is wronged and underrated, he related the following story:

“I had spent many weeks,” said he, “in the search for new and unconventional ideas for the Beethoven concerto. I discarded most of the bowings and fingerings employed in this concerto by other violinsts (sic), and after the most persistent study and experiment, I succeeded, at last, in my efforts to give an entirely new and original version of this famous concerto. My success stirred me to such a degree of enthusiasm that I could not resist mentioning the matter, one day, to our friend, Mr. X——-. I told him what I had accomplished. I begged him to come to my studio that he might judge for himself how originality of thought can revolutionize all so-called traditional conceptions of this famous work. I played the first movement with a joy and exaltation which few can comprehend, and awaited the verdict of my solitary listener without the slightest misgivings.

“Mr. X——- regarded me calmly for a moment, and then, slowly and deliberately, began: ‘So you want my honest opinion, do you? Well, I honestly believe that you—have—softening—of—the—brain!’ “

This little anecdote excited our interest. It made us more than curious to learn its relator’s ideas of originality. Our request for a few illustrations was quickly granted, and soon we stood listening, like Mr. X    before us, to the most amazing presentation of Beethoven’s glorious music. And, like Mr. X , the conviction was forced upon us that this player was not, musically at least, wholly responsible.

Now, here was an interesting case. The player under discussion was a man ripe in years, general understanding and experience. He had studied, when a boy, under a well-known violinist and instructor in France. Though he had never achieved distinction, he was not without some little reputation, and we are strongly inclined to believe that, so far as the technics of violin-playing are concerned, he had been more than ordinarily proficient in his younger years. Just what degree of musical intelligence he formerly possessed it is impossible for us even to surmise.

What interests us chiefly at the present time is his attitude towards great artists, his conception of the term originality, and his utter disregard of, if not irreverence for, tradition.

This player scoffed at artists like Joachim and Ysaye. He attempted to illustrate how utterly lacking artists of the highest standing are in the matter of originality; he gave us puerile and grotesque imitations of the style which distinguishes Joachim’s art, and imagined that his absurd and vulgar caricatures of great men actually proved his contentions. Originality, he maintained, could not be traced in the work of our best artists, and to him originality was the only thing worth striving for in art.

But let us see what was this man’s conception of originality. According to his own version of the Beethoven concerto and other works which he played for our enlightenment, his views may be briefly summed up as follows:

Originality means the absolute obliteration of other men’s ideas, and the presentation of a musical viewpoint differing wholly from anything which tradition, intelligence, taste and refinement impel us to accept. Originality means, in other words, the complete relinquishment of all ideas of other men, however good or rational or beautiful these ideas may be, and the substitution of ideas which differ either essentially or superficially from those accepted by other men. However perfectly the generally accepted bowing or fingering may conform with the composer’s musical intentions, however perfect a medium either may be for a clear and beautiful musical utterance, it would necessarily have to be rejected on the ground that it was common property, so to speak, the thought of other men, unoriginal.

Such are the remarkable views of a player of some merit and wide experience—dangerous views, indeed, if promulgated among young students and amateurs who have neither the knowledge nor the independence of thought which enables recognition of false doctrines.

It is easy to understand how young players, wholly dependent upon the guidance of a teacher, and too unripe and inexperienced to make intelligent comparisons and formulate sensible opinions—it is easy to understand, we say, how such players may be carried away by the enthusiasm of even the most irrational and erratic musicians, whose every utterance seems gospel truth born of maturity and wisdom. And for this reason, if for no other, we believe that the question of originality deserves some space in these columns.

Originality—as we attempted to elucidate to the violinist just under discussion—is easily attainable by any player, that is, originality as this violinist apprehends, or rather misapprehends, the term. A man may clothe himself in a scarlet coat, green waistcoat and pink trousers, and his remarkable costume will hardly fail to attract immediate attention. It may properly be pronounced original, but no human being with a normal brain and correct vision would venture to say that such a costume was beautiful, or that it evinced taste or refinement or good judgment. And as it is in the matter of dress, or in other things too numerous to mention, just so it is in music. Taste and intelligence are absolutely essential. Intelligence is either natural or acquired; in nearly all cases it is both. It enables the possessor to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. It is the fruit of mental training, in its more perfect state, and reasons, in every doubtful question, accepting this or rejecting that.

Taste is a subtle quality born of intelligence and experience. Its manifestations are limitless, its possibilities of development incalculable.

Together, taste and intelligence stamp a work with a certain individuality; and these are the chief factors in all desirable originality. We emphasize desirable because, as our readers must have seen, not every manifestation of originality is necessarily welcome or pleasing. Desirable originality is something better than mere singularity. It is not, and never can be, designated as such merely because it is a departure from generally accepted ideas. On the contrary, such a departure from so-called conventionality may be nothing better than an unintelligent or grotesque utterance; whereas, original expression of a desirable kind is peculiarly selective, and rejects everything that is either unrefined or unintelligent.

Briefly, originality should not be confounded with eccentricity. If what is often termed originality is merely a defiant rejection of existing ideas and the substitution of a method of expression calculated to surprise the listener—if it is only that it is worthless and offensive. But if it is a phase of originality resulting from knowledge, refinement of thought and feeling and intelligent selection, it is always clearly recognized, and it is both welcome and refreshing.

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You are reading Originality. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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