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Egotism, Eccentricities and Mannerisms Among Famous Musicians

By LORNA GILL
 
The vanity of the musician is a theme upon which few disagree. The "big head" is the plague that counts its most numerous victims upon the concert and operatic stage, where it assumes so many varied and interesting forms that one might say, "Some heads are born big, others achieve bigness and others have bigness thrust upon them."
 
From the earliest days of music affectations, mannerisms and self-exploitation have been the besetting sins of the musical hierarchy, though in more modern times a vast improvement has been shown, owing to the ever increasing seriousness, and complexity of music, and the consequent amount of study and mentality required from interpreters. Vanity and conceit usually flee before the chariot of Minerva. It is no longer considered good form to attract attention in any way, either by eccentricity in manner or dress—those outward signs of inward talent—luxuriant hair, flowing ties, and velvet waistcoats, have disappeared almost entirely from the concert stage; the aspirant for musical success cultivates repose and dignity of manner.
 
That there is some excuse for rapturously swaying and energetic shaking of heads, one can do no better than quote from Holmes' Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. "I have often seen pianoforte players and singers make such strange movements over their instruments and song books that I have wanted to laugh at them. 'Where did our friends pick up all these ecstatic airs?' I would say to myself. Then I would remember My Lady in Marriage a la Mode and amuse myself with thinking how affectation was the same in Hogarth's time and in my own. But one day I bought me a canary bird and hung him up in a cage at my window. By and by he found himself at home and began to pipe his little tunes; and there he was sure enough swinging and waving about with all the droopings, and liftings and languishing side turnings of the head that I had laughed at. And now I should ask, 'Who taught him all this?'—and me through him, that the foolish head was not the one swinging from side to side and bowing and nodding over the music, but that other which was passing its shallow and self-satisfied judgment on a creature made of purer clay than that frame which carried that same head upon its shoulders?"
 
Even to-day some of the actions and attitudes of our great artists are misunderstood by the public. I have heard a highly intellectual man criticize Paderewski severely for what he called his affectation in throwing his hands so high in the air, not knowing that it was done for technical reasons—to relieve the strain of the muscles and to prepare the hands for a fresh attack. There is, of course, no physiological reason why that whimsical charmer, de Pachmann, should stroke and caress his hands so tenderly and applaud himself, after the performance of some sparkling piece of passage work.
 
Musicians in the past were not the broad-minded, well-educated people that the great ones are to-day; they knew nothing outside of music; their narrowness bred in them an exaggerated opinion of their importance; in consequence we must look to them for the most glaring examples of vanity, conceit and egotism.
 
MELODRAMATIC PERFORMERS OF YESTERDAY.
The development of the piano, at the end of the eighteenth century, into an iron framed instrument now capable of brilliant effects was responsible for a crop of vain, superficial pianists who won applause and money by feats of strength and dexterity. Steibelt rushed through Europe with battle pieces, thunder storms, "enrapturing the public and tickling their nerves with sparkling shakes and tremolos," and given to such acts of musical operacy that he was called "one of the disgraces of his age." Chickering brought some of these "gymnasts" to this country to exploit his new pianos. Herz, one of the first among them, in 1845, sprang into the arena with cheap tricks and cheaper music, battle, thunder and lightning pieces, to be greeted with the uproarious applause of a football hero, by audiences composed, principally, of girls from boarding schools—who before had heard nothing more exciting than the Maiden's Prayer. However, Herz's taste for exploiting himself had its limits. Barnum, of circus fame, made a proposal that staggered even him—to play the piano, while the heavenly voiced Jenny Lind was to appear as an angel descending from Paradise. Von Meyer, another of these melodramatic performers, came a little later; sometimes "he played with his thumbs alone," then "smote with his fists or elbows," to produce music box effects, ringing bells or thunder bolts; or "he took a stick to drum out variations," meanwhile losing no opportunity of coquetting with the ladies in the parquet.
 
"He seemed to tear up great masses of chords by the roots and scatter them about with furious joy; his brow seemed almost to lift itself from his head; his whole body played; then he would straighten back and look with triumph on his audience, spring from his seat as if from a race horse, and as the one piano was vibrating like twenty, he would rush, as it were, into the arms of the audience, laughing and shouting, with as much delight as any of them at the marvellous things he had done."
 
Kalkbrenner; a pianist and teacher of big reputation in Paris at the time, was a man of mediocre attainments and so full of vanity that he would stop at nothing to gain applause or to place himself conspicuously before the public. He patronized Chopin and Beethoven, then younger men; said to the editor of a Berlin journal that the art of improvisation was on the wane, that after his death there would be no musician capable of it.
 
When Chopin first came to Paris he played for Kalkbrenner, who said Chopin should study with him for three years. "Although I was in a fair way, he regretted that when he ceased to play there would be no disciple of the grand old school of piano playing left," Chopin has told us.
 
THE DAWN OF SYSTEMATIC PIANO TECHNIC.
All these "gymnasts" despite their stunts, did really nothing to systematize or develop piano technic, such as we know it to-day. That remained for men of a far different mental calibre—Clementi, Cramer. Dussek and a little later Czerny and Moscheles. No passion for self exploitation animated their musical efforts. They aimed at some permanent contributions to music by writing worthy compositions, studies designed specially to overcome technical difficulties and to develop virtuosity.
 
The day of the finger players soon passed, to give place to a higher type of pianist—to Chopin, Liszt and Rubinstein, men of lofty principles in interpretation and composition, with a sense of duty toward the public, to elevate its taste rather than debase or descend to it, as their predecessors.
 
Although Liszt did so much to raise the tone of piano music, he was guilty of a few rare vanities—he studied his audiences unceasingly while he played, laid his glove on the piano, and left it there afterwards, so that the ladies might tear it into fragments for souvenirs. Nowadays technic counts less than ever— any machine can beat the pianist at the game—he must excel in tone and interpretation if he chooses to be numbered among the elect, among the great virtuosos of to-day, Bussoni (sic), Godowsky, Paderewski, and others equally distinguished.
 
VANITIES OF THE SONG-BIRDS.
Above all other interpreters, either of the theatre or concert stage, singers of both the past and present, carry off the palm for vanity and conceit. Operatic history shows that it pandered to and developed that inordinate vanity that led to the jealousies, endless intrigue and quarrels for the spotlight; it shows that the love for technical display and applause retarded the development of opera. The singer was the cock of the walk, the composer a nobody, obliged to write whatever the singer wished, or he would lose his position as director. The arrogance of the prima donna became proverbial; she gave herself more airs and demanded more attention than royalty itself: felt herself privileged to break every law, in fact no contract was safe with her unless it were bound with iron clamps. The tenor fell slightly below her standard. Perhaps some lively experience led von Bülow to remark that "tenor is not a voice but a disease," and to a young man who had the hardihood to introduce himself as a tenor—"Oh, never mind, don't let it worry you."
 
Fortunately there is very little of the consuming vanity and self-importance of the opera singers of the past left among those of the present, as from the time of Gluck the composer has steadily asserted his right for free musical expression until he leads now where formerly the singer led. As a result we have now and have had for several years singers imbued with conscientious standards toward their art and the music of the composer, music becoming every day more difficult and complex, and demanding from them incessant study and greater mental and musical gifts. Despite this improvement among opera singers there does not seem much promise of the average professional or amateur singer of mediocre ability and cultivation ever becoming bereft of the lion's share of the world's conceit. Why the mere possession of a voice should cause such stirrings of superiority is a difficult question to answer. Budding Carusos, Tetrazzinis and Sembrichs speak after a year or two of study of a thousand a night as a mere trifle. One can readily understand the feeling of self-satisfaction that might arise in the bosom of a singer of accomplishment of musical gifts and cultivation, but "they that have most reason have the' least self-conceit." And what is it these half-baked singers don't expect from their poor accompanists? They demand the technique of a virtuoso, the intuition of a seer, a prop for every weakness, "conceit may puff a man up but never will it prop him up," that is left to the accompanist to cover up defects of time and interpretation, to be the butt for every failure and mistake and to be poor paid in return.
 
HALF EDUCATED SINGERS.
Max Maretzek, the impresario, writes in his Crochets and Quavers of one of these half educated singers, Benedetti, "robust indomitable figure, conceited with the inevitable self-approval of a first tenor, with a voice of only mediocre cultivation. If he sang a false note, or out of time he would look daggers at some unoffending member of the orchestra and even rebuke him publicly, or if he could not keep time he started beating with his own hand to show the fault lay with the conductor, though Benedetti himself did not know the difference between 3/4 or 2/4 time. You may be sure that such was a priceless tenor."
 
Woe betide the accompanist now as in the past who draws any attention to himself. Handel and Beethoven proved themselves more than matches for conceited coxcombs among singers. The former, by his masterly playing, sometimes did so. This was too much for one rare tenor who told the writer of heavenly strains, that if it happened again he would jump down on the instrument and put a stop to the performance. '"Oh, you will jump, will you! Very well, sare! Be so kind as to tell me the night you will jump so that I can advertise it on the bills and you will get a great deal more money by your jump than by your singing."
 
While Beethoven was organist at the Chapel of the Elector of Brandenburg, one of the singers boasted that nothing could make him err, or no accompanist upset him. Beethoven heard of it and made a wager that he could. During the solemn services of Passion week, the singer was warbling innocently away, when Beethoven by clever modulation threw him off the key and brought him to a standstill, making him a complete failure. In a rage he went to the Elector, who decided after hearing both sides that the singer was to blame for his meanness in complaining.
 
BRIGNOLI'S CONCEIT.
Brignoli, a popular tenor twenty-five years ago, presents a glaring example of self-importance. He had been engaged to sing a solo during mass at St. Agnes' Church, New York. He arrived late, and after having divested himself of much clothing, he started practicing, keeping it up until he thought himself prepared to sing, meanwhile not caring how much he was annoying or upsetting the choir. The priest was beginning his sermon when Brignoli leaned over the choir rail gesticulating wildly and shaking his head to attract the attention of the priest. Then he shouted out in a loud voice, "Stoppe ze preach! Stoppe ze preach! Me ready for ze sing! And the priest actually stopped to accommodate the impatient singer, whose voice now rang out with religious fervor."
 
The egotism of the creative musician is a far different quality from the conceit and vanity of the man of lesser talent; and if we are to judge by the lives of the great composers, a very necessary characteristic to the man with new ideas to express. Where would Handel, Gluck, Beethoven and Wagner be to-day were it not for their tremendous self-confidence? Where the glorious symphonies of a Beethoven, the epoch-making operas of Gluck, the music dramas of Wagner? Balzac says of Schmucke, the gentle German musician in Gambara, "For all his talents he never could rise above the rank of a music teacher, as he lacked the initiative necessary to the composer to put new ideas into expression."
 
BEETHOVEN'S EGOTISM.
There was no such lack in any of the immortals of music. How they bullied their patrons right and left. Beethoven would not give an inch in art or life. Gluck and Handel were veritable tyrants with singers and orchestra. Berlioz and Wagner stood before the public and the world in an attitude of defiance in defense of their new ideas. This aggressiveness is written on all their faces. See Beethoven's pugnacious mouth, his fearless eyes, his bristling hair! He was called the "Big Mogul" by Haydn and so proud of his genius, that when asked in court if there were not a von to his name, he tapped his forehead answering, "This is my nobility." He rapped the knuckles of an archduke at his music lessons, but for all his scorn of the nobility he flirted with maidens of high degree whenever he got the chance; The rights of "the individual for free-development in art and life were a perfect fetich with him. Such a shock as his pet republican ideas received when Napoleon declared himself Emperor! ''Liberty and progress are great conditions in the empire of music as well as in the world," he said, and in those monuments of musical advance, the Ninth Symphony and the Grand Mass are their embodiment, his independence of all traditions and the opening up of new fields in operatic and instrumental music.
 
What but egotism could have enabled Gluck to carry out his operatic reforms in 1773? Cabals were formed against him by the adherents of Italian opera; singers refused to appear in his operas because he would not supply them with the meaningless trills, roulades and top-notes that stirred the gallery gods to resounding applause. He clung through all to his ideals of dramatic truth, and in so doing hurled the first real blow at the vanity of the singers.
 
Berlioz, that revolutionist in orchestral music, was also a furious fighter for his individual expression, with a tongue and pen sharper than a Damascus blade to help him out. Starving, unappreciated by Parisians while he lived, they gave him a gorgeous funeral at his death; consider the irony of it all. Here and there he had enthusiastic admirers. Once a young man rushed up to him and seized his left hand, saying "I beg your permission to grasp the hand that wrote Romeo. Ah, sir, you understand Shakespeare!" "Certainly," said Berlioz, "but you are mistaken in the hand, I always write with this one," extending the right.
 
Countless stories are told of the great composers being called upon to assert their musical independence. After the production of Mozart's opera, Entführung aus dem Serail, the Emperor of Austria said to him, "It is too fine for our ears, too many notes, my dear Mozart." "Just as many as are required, your majesty," replied Mozart.
 
THE LAST WORD IN MUSICAL EGOTISM.
When we reach the mighty Richard Wagner, we have said the last word on egotism. He wore a "halo of infallibility;" no pocket-filling politician was ever more caricatured as the diabolical egotist and musical despot. Heaven only knows what depths of courage, confidence and patience were needed to launch such gigantic upheavals in opera. Like the early Christians, he suffered tortures, contempt, ridicule and poverty rather than relinquish his artistic faith, that faith to which he would have been false if had he gone on writing in the style of his early opera, Rienzi, when by doing so he could have secured ease and comfort for the rest of his life. No man was ever fonder of elegance and luxury. Failure after failure only goaded him on, opera after opera came from his pen with no prospect of production, each one more radical than the last, while the bitter attacks of the critics were still ringing in his ears, scorn on the lips of musicians and the laughter of the public in his very face. He lived through the three stages which John Stuart Mill says all reformers pass—ridicule, discussion, then adoption; he lived to see the victory of his artistic standards, to see himself a ruler in the realms of sound.

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