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A Study of Studies Old and New

Observations upon Technical Elements of Style in Piano Playing

By the Eminent American Critic


SITTING not so long ago in the company of two wise men of music, one of them asked me: “Which fingers do you trill with?” I was so startled that I did not answer. His companion, a younger pundit, told me how he trilled, and being pressed I simply answered, Irish-like, with another question: “Why should anyone trill at all?” Perhaps this shed some light upon the subject of the hand in modern piano-playing. The supremacy of the finger in the republic of hand, wrist, forearm, upper-arm, is gone forever; rather is the finger relegated to its just place, a servant of the biceps; above all, the triceps, and not as heretofore, a tyrannical master. Liszt settled the matter forever. To think of Rudolph Willmers and his one-time sensational chain-trills is not possible nowadays. Trill, if you must indulge in that frivolous proceeding, with your thumb and fifth finger, it does not matter, but trilling for the sheer sake of the trills is as obsolete as a piece which only exploits the arpeggio. The truth is the keyboard as a stamping ground for coloratura music is no longer possible. The mechanical players beat the virtuosi at their own game. Wagner raised the essential turn to an integral part of his thematic material and thus spiritualized the trill’s aspect. Nevertheless, Touch, Tone and Technique throw up as many problems for master and student alike, though the point of view has completely shifted. Technique for technique’s sake is as extinct as the Dodo. We no longer waste time in attempting the equalization of finger, for, as Harold Bauer has told us, the process is unnatural and unavailing. Nor do we pin any faith to the practicing of innumerable exercises—that way decay of the spirit lies. But, as Rafael Joseffy contends, we must play some studies, not alone for style, but also for the sake of endurance. Pupils can’t subsist on finger exercises alone.


Many years ago I endeavored to write at length—it was at great length—about all the etudes for the piano. My attempt naturally failed. Yet I return to the vexed question because there must be a solution and also because what is one pupil’s meat may be another’s poison. Since the days of grand old Carl Czerny, instruction books, commonly known as methods, began to appear. I shan’t go back to the Medes and Persians nor to the woad of the early Britons, so I’ll dodge the ancient practice volumes, with their quaint blowsy figures and scrolls, that were given pupils who wished to master the spinet, virginal and clavichord. But to-day there are few who still remember the methods of Hummel, Moscheles and Fétis, Henri Herz, Kalkbrenner, Lebert and Stark, Richardson—founded on the Lebert and Stark—and half a hundred other methods. That they have fallen into disuse is only natural. They were for the most part bulky, contained a large amount of useless material, and did not quite cover the ground, being too often the reflection of a one-sided virtuosity. Of late years the preparatory school of Rafael Joseffy and his method for the development of a virtuoso technique are the only works I am acquainted with that are new and an evolution of the principles advanced by Joseffy’s master, the peerless Tausig.

Coincident with the appearance of the methods sprang up an army of etudes. Countless hosts of notes, marshalled into the most fantastic figures, hurled themselves at varying velocities and rhythms on the pianistic world. Dire were the results. Schools arose and camps within camps. There were those in the land that developed the left hand at the expense of the right or the other way about. Trill and double-note specialists abounded, and one could study octaves here, ornaments there, stiffness at Stuttgart, relaxation with Deppe, and yet no man could truthfully swear that his was the unique method. Suddenly in this quagmire of doubt and dumb keyboards arose a still, small voice, but the voice of a mighty man. This is what he said: There is but one god of technique, Bach, and Clementi is his prophet. Thus spoke Karl Tausig, and left behind him an imperishable volume of Clementi.

It was the opinion of Tausig that only Clementi and Chopin have provided studies that perfectly fulfill their intention. It was that great pianist’s habit to make use of them before all others in the school for the higher development of piano playing of which he was the head. He used them himself. Furthermore, he asserted that by means of those studies Clementi had made known and accessible the entire piano literature from Bach to Beethoven, just as Chopin and Liszt completed the scale of dazzling virtuosity. The Gradus was one mighty barrier against the influx of mechanical or nonsensical etudes. Then came Von Bülow with his Cramer edition, and another step was taken in the boiling-down movement. Moreover, the clever Hans took the reins in his hands and practically said in his preface to the Cramer edition: Here is my list, take it and study. You will then become a pianist—if you have the talent. Here is his list: Lebert and Stark—abomination of angular desolation; Aloys Schmitt’s exercises, with a touch of Heller to give flesh and flavor to the old dry bones; Cramer (Bülow), Heller, Op. 46, Op. 47; Czerny, Daily Exercises and the School of Legato and Staccato; Clementi (Tausig); Moscheles, Op. 70; Henselt Studies, Op. 2 and Op. 5; Haberbier Etudes Poesies; Moscheles, Op. 95; Chopin, Op. 10 and Op. 25; the concert studies of Liszt and Rubenstein; finally, C. V. Alkan with Theodore Kullak’s octave studies.

Now this list doesn’t err on the side of superficiality, nevertheless it is very old fashioned, made nearly a half century ago, and in art that time means many revolutions in taste and technique. The cry is Condense ! and thereupon Oscar Raif, who with a wave of his pedagogic wand banished all etudes, substituting the difficulties in a composition for standard exhaustive practice. Certainly a step in piano pedagogics, then seemingly nihilistic, but to-day an incarnate principle in the Daily Studies of Isidor Philipp. Then said a few reasoning men: Why not skeletonize the entire system of piano technique, giving it in pure, powerful and small doses to the patient, i. e., student? With this idea Plaidy, Bruno Zwintscher and Riemann have literally epitomized the technics of the keyboard. Dr. William Mason in his Touch and Technic further diversified this bald material in making the pupil attack it with varying touches, rhythms and velocities. In his valuable synthetic method, Albert R. Parsons makes miracles of music commonplaces for the plastic mind of children. Heinrich Germer’s Technics or Mason’s are sufficient to form the fingers, wrist and arm, but what studies are essential to a student who wishes to attain the technical boundaries of the keyboard? Technics alone will not do, for one does not get figures that flow, nor the sequence of musical ideas, nor musical endurance, not to mention phrasing and style generally. No particular work blends these requisites. Piano studies can’t be absolutely discarded without serious loss; we lose the suavity and simplicity of Cramer, a true pendant to Mozart; the indispensable technics and foundational tone and solid touch of Clementi a true forerunner in the technical sense, to Beethoven; and then what a loss to piano literature would be the suppression of the Chopin, Liszt and Rubinstein studies.


The new psychology in piano pedagogics recognizes the labors of the preceding generation of thinkers, experimenters and seekers; also recognizes the use at the time of a more rigid schematology than is necessary to-day. But the truth is that where the old school relentlessly drilled young fingers, giving them nothing but musical husks for the imagination, we give instead of finger gymnastics Bach, Bach and again BachBach, in whose music floats the past, present and future of the tone art. Not only is a young mind taught habits of concentration, but the fingers learn self-independence; they weave polyphonically in and out of a simple composition, autonomous, varied in touch; in a word, the foundation is laid for tone color, all said and done, the most difficult of artistic problems, for tone color and its possession differentiates a human being from a self-playing piano. There is no Bach piano method, as some of the Inventions are as difficult as the Fugues. But begin with the Little Preludes and exercises and the youthful groper soon finds his hands on terra firma; then proceed with the two and three part Inventions, the Suites, the Italian Concert, the Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues in the Well Tempered Clavichord, not forgetting the beautiful Fugue in A minor—a separate opus with a short prelude, and the glorious Fantasia and Fugue. The Liszt-Bach transcriptions, like the Tausig transcriptions of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, may be taken up later, much later. Handel, too, should be taken up at this period. Before the Clavichord is reached the pupil’s hand is ready for Cramer, and some of these agreeable pieces, many poetic, may be studied. What could follow Cramer more fitly than Clementi as edited by Tausig? But Bach should be the daily bread of students and teachers alike. It was Chopin’s.

In Clementi we may discern the seeds of modern piano music, and a careful study of him insures nobility of tone, freedom of style, and a surety of finger that cannot be found elsewhere. Tausig compressed Clementi into twenty-nine examples, which, with discrimination, may be reduced to fifteen. The same procedure of elimination may be applied to Cramer, not more than one-half of the fifty in the Bülow edition being serviceable in the latter-day curriculum. Von Bülow’s trinity of B’s—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—may be paralleled in the literature of piano studies by a trinity of C’s—Clementi, Cramer and Chopin. And that leads us to the pertinent question: How is that ugly gap between Clementi and Chopin to be bridged? Bülow attempts to supply the bridge by a compound of Moscheles, Henselt—who needs special preparatory studies to meet his demands on the stretching power of the fingers—which is obviously tedious, and in the case of Henselt puts the cart before the horse. And I fear I do not appreciate the much-vaunted studies by the musical Philistine, Moscheles. (Why not Reinecke and be done with the matter?) To be sure, they are fat and healthy, indeed, almost buxom, but they lack just a pinch of the Attic salt that conserves Clementi and Cramer. I do not wish to speak irreverently of the worthy Moscheles, who was a sound, sincere musician and pedagogue. I believe his G minor concerto is the greatest conservatory concerto ever written, holding the fort even against the two concertos by Mendelssohn; while his several Hommages for two dry pianists serve the purpose of driving a man out of art into politics. As for the utilitarian qualities of Op. 70 or Op. 95, I see nothing in either of them that has not been better done by contemporaries of this composer. For instance, in Op. 70 the double-note study is weak when compared with that best of all studies of the kind, Czerny’s Toccata in C. In passing let me say that this old Toccata is a remarkable special study and is certainly number one in the famous trio of double-note etudes, the other two being the Schumann Toccata and the G sharp minor study in Op. 25 of Chopin.

Since I wrote the above my attention was called to a new edition (Herzog) of Czerny’s Studies in Perfection of Style. They will open your eyes when you see how the Viennese pedagogue anticipated in figuration and style such moderns as Chopin, Henselt, Hans, Seeling and others; he even met on his chosen field with success Cramer. The first is Henseltian, the second Cramer, the fourth would serve as a preparation to Chopin’s Winter Wind study in Op. 25—not, of course, so complicated in pattern, nor in the mood the slightest resemblance; in No. 11 there is a figure favored by Rubinstein in his Op. 23, while the bass mounts like the sword theme in the Ring! Yes, it sounds comical, I admit. No. 14 gives us a rolling bass figure—the commonplace melody superimposed in octaves—that may be found in Henselt’s Op. 2, also more elaborately worked out in Seeling’s study, Lurline; Clementi bobs up in No. 15, Henselt in the following study, and Cramer in No. 18; also the succeeding one; and in No. 22 reminiscence-hunters will gasp over the more than superficial resemblance to Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu; even a rhythmic problem is solved; finally, in No. 23 Henselt and Seeling are recalled—the old, dry- as-dust piano teacher, Czerny, anticipated all these romantic young chaps.


At one time I believed that the gap I speak of could be crossed by the two Hummel concertos, for between the early Chopin and Hummel there is a certain resemblance. For instance, some of the passage work of Hummel is singularly like Chopin’s juvenile style, and Chopin was extremely fond of playing the Hummel concertos. The resemblance is an external one; spiritually there is no kinship between the sleek virtuoso of Weimar and the genius of Warsaw. No doubt the Perfection studies of Czerny above mentioned might serve as a passage to Chopin, and there are studies of Kalkbrenner, of virtuoso character; Ries, too, has done some good work, notably the first in the Peters set. Then there is Edmund Neupert. His hundred daily studies are original and his etudes are charming; they suggest Grieg, a more virile Grieg. Take the Thalberg studies, how much more pianistic, even poetic, than the respectable Moscheles’ efforts! I know it is the fashion to sneer at Thalberg and his machine-made fantaisies, but we must not be blind to the good qualities in his Art of Singing on the Piano (with one possible exception— Henselt—he was the purest singer of all pianists), his etudes, op. 26—one of them in C, a tremolo study, is more useful than Gottschalk’s Tremolo—not forgetting op. 45, a very pretty theme and variations in repeated notes. The truth is Thalberg has written music that cannot be passed over by any fair-minded teacher. The same objection that is held against Thalberg also holds good in the case of Moscheles; both are old-fashioned. The style in either case is rococo, the ornamentation banal and the tunes trite. But of the two Thalberg prepares the hand better for Henselt, Chopin and Liszt than does Moscheles, as Bülow so fondly imagined.

But the greater part of these names are negligible. There is, however, one man who might be suggested, a composer who is as much forgotten as Steibelt, who wrote a Storm for the piano and thought he was as good as Beethoven. Joseph Christoph Kessler is the one. Chopin dedicated his Preludes, Op. 28, to him, and Kessler dedicated his Op. 20, twenty-four studies, to Hummel. After he met Chopin at Warsaw he dedicated to him a set of preludes (Op. 31). Schumann admired him, wrote of him, and Liszt—who knew every- body and everything—played an etude by Kessler in concert. Withal a well commended young man (he was born 1800 at Augsburg; he died at Vienna, 1872). Let us examine the four books of studies, too bulky and badly fingered. Out of the twenty-four there are ten worthy of study; the rest are old-fashioned. Book I, Vol. I, is in C and is a melody in broken chords peculiarly trying to the fourth finger; the stretches are modern, the study is useful. No. II, in A minor, is an excellent approach to interlocking figures in modern music. Valuable this one. No. III may be recommended as a melody in chord skips. No. IV is useful for the development of the left hand. No. V is confusing on account of hand crossing. No. VI serves the same purpose as No. IV. If you can play Nos. IV and VI of Kessler you need not fear the C minor or C sharp minor studies of Chopin (Op. 10), wherein the left hand plays such an important rôle. Book II has a study—No. VIII—in octaves, but I shan’t emphasize its importance, as the Kullak octave school should never be absent from your piano rack. No. X, unisonic study, is good and a foundation study for effects of this sort. It might be practiced before attacking the last movement of the B flat minor Sonata by Chopin. That about comprises the value of this volume. Book III contains little to commend—a study, No. XIII, nasty figures for alternate hands; No. XV for the wrist, excellent as preparation for Rubinstein’s staccato étude, and No. XVIII, same Chopin-like figuration for the right hand. Book IV has only a few studies: No. XX for left-hand culture, No. XXI for stretches and a facile thumb, and No. XXIV, a very stiff study, bound to strengthen the weaker fingers of the left hand. It will repay you to look through Kessler; you may find that bridge between Clementi and Chopin which I pretend, or imagine, to be missing. To the solidity of Clementi, Kessler has added a modern technical spirit.


Naturally every pupil can’t be pinioned to the same round of studies. Temperaments are as numerous as the sands of the sea. That is why I suggest these various études. There are other charming works besides Cramer; Heller, for example. Try Eggeling and Riemann as preparatory to Bach, or Jadassohn’s scholarly preludes and fugues, with a canon on every page—though he is not such a brave canoneer as Kleugel. In Jadassohn’s C sharp minor prelude and fugue is to be found honest music-making. Then there are some pretty special studies. William Mason’s Etude Romanza is a scale study (built on the so-called Hungarian scale with the raised second), wherein music and muscle are happily blended; Schuett’s graceful Etude Mignonne, Raff’s La Fileuse, Haberbier’s Serenade in D, from Op. 53; the musical preludes of Isidor Seiss, in which the left hand plays an important part; Ludwig Berger’s interesting studies, and a wholly delightful étude in F by Constantin von Sternberg, which I heartily commend. Ravina, Jensen and many of the younger Austrians and Russians have written studies for which a light wrist, facile fingers and an agreeable style are requisites. Joseffy’s charming At the Spring and Carl Heyman’s Elfenspiel are in this mode. Nor can we forget the rhythmical problems of Heinrich Germer, of great value. for therein may be found a solution for criss-cross rhythmic difficulties. Adolph Carpé’s work on Phrasing and Accentuation attacks the rhythmic problem in the most searching and practical fashion, and there are no doubt many other kindred studies which I have forgotten or else am ignorant of. Sufficient for the day are the studies thereof.

We have now reached the boundaries of the Chopin études, that delightful and tremendous region wherein the technique-worn student discerns from afar the glorious hues, the birds of exotic plumage, the sparkle of falling waters. the odors so grateful after so much inhalation of Czerny, Clementi and Cramer. What an inviting vista! Yet it is not all a paradise of roses. Flinty is the road over which the musical pilgrim toils, and while his ears covet the beautiful sounds his fingers may bleed. Up the peak of Parnassus he mounts, the delectable land of music over yonder. But he will find that his best staff has been Bach, his safest guides Czerny, Clementi and Cramer. The rest may be dispensed with, not so this trio. You may note that with the passage of the years I remain as old-fashioned as ever.

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