Could styles be more at variance than those of Chopin and Brahms? (The very sound of his name sounds heavy, resonant, powerful. Wagner always said “Abraham” and once was undignified enough to call the great Johannes “that Jewish Czardas player.”) Moscheles declared that much of Chopin’s music was unplayable, and it is a commonplace to discuss the Brahms piano music as “unpianistic.” The affinity of Brahms with Schumann is marked; perhaps when Robert pronounced favorable judgment upon the opus 1 of Brahms the latter acknowledged the blood relationship. However, Brahms tells us different things in his music, but as I purpose dealing more with externals I shall not discuss his musical content. To the lover of the somewhat florid Liszt, Chopin, Hen- selt schools the Schumann-Brahms technics must seem less attractive. Possibilities for personal display are rare—I mean display of the glittering passage sort. Extensive scale-work is seldom found in either composer, and antique ornamentation gladdens by its absence. Musically there is gain, “pianistically” there is loss. No more of those delicate, zephyr-like figures, no billowy and sonorous arpeggios sweep over the keyboard. In a word, the finger virtuoso’s occupation is gone, mental virtuosity is become imperative in these closely knit compositions wherein idea and image (theme and figuration) are perfectly welded. Heavy chordal work, arabesques that might have been moulded by a Michelangelo, a polyphonic, not a monophonic, cantilena; ten voices instead of one—all this, is it not eminently modern, yet Bachian! Crotchety von Bülow was not off the track with his epigram of the three B’s. Schumann came from Bach, and Schumann is artistic foster-father to Brahms, but Bach and Beethoven blood also runs warmly in the musical veins of Johannes of Hamburg and Vienna. Under which King? Will you embrace the Scarlatti, Emanuel Bach, Mozart, Cramer, Chopin, Liszt faith, or will you serve under the standards of Bach—glorious old Johann Sebastian—Clementi, Schumann and Brahms? Better let your temperament decide, and decide it will and with such marked differences that I’ve often attended piano recitals and silently wept because the “reciter” fondly believed he was so versatile that he could play any composer from Alkan to Zarembski. It is not given to every pianist to interpret both Chopin and Brahms as does Rafael Joseffy.
Brahms and Bach
Brahms reared upon the Schumann technique a lofty structure whose foundations—Bach-Schumann—are not builded upon sand. You may acquire a fair notion of the Brahms piano technique by playing the figure he gave Tausig—and credited to him—for that master’s Daily Studies, and also in the fifty-one exercises of Brahms. Consider his variations, which are true studies. Read the Paganini Variations. Are they not heaven-storming? Brains, and again, brains and Bach. It seems to me that the acme of the Brahms compositions for piano are the Paganini Variations; those famous, awesome, o’r-toppling, huge, fantastic, gargoylean (pardon this manufactured vocable) variations, planned, erected and superimposed upon a theme by Paganini, one of those themes literally created for treatment, technical, polyphonic and poetic. Brahms has taken this fiddle motive and juggled with it like the musical virtuoso doubled by a metaphysician that he is. Diabolical, yet spiritual these variations are the latest word in the literature of the instrument, for I decline to consider now as new the “unpianistic” music of the new French and Russians interesting as are these miniaturists and goldsmiths. But the studies on studies of Brahms are not too entertaining. One is the Rondo by Weber in his first C major Sonata, the so-called Perpetual Movement. Brahms has transcribed this for the left hand, lifting the bass part to the treble. Anything more dispiriting I never heard; it is as if your clock had struck nineteen in the darkest watches of the night. The étude in sixths on Chopin’s charming etude in F minor, opus 25, seems to me like an attempt to dress an exquisite violet in a baggy suit of pepper-and-salt clothes. Altogether a gauche affair quite unlike Joseffy’s graceful transcription of the G flat etude of Chopin (opus 10). Worst of all, the Brahms perversion is unklaviermassig. Bendel’s étude in double-sixths is an excellent study evidently modelled after the G sharp minor study of Chopin’ (which in the original version is so difficult to play slowly) . Zarembski has written a finger breaker in B flat minor, and the two Von Schloezer studies are by no means easy. But there are other technical heights yet to be explored. Charles V. Alkan, a Parisian pianist, contrived, concocted, and manufactured about twenty-seven studies which almost reached the top-most technical notch—which is, of course, Godowsky’s extraordinary version of the Chopin etudes. The Alkan, first introduced to America by Edward MacDowell, are, to confess the truth, not very musical, they are the extreme outcome of the Liszt technique and only possess historical value. The opus 23 of Anton Rubinstein, six etudes, must be warmly commended. The first in F major, and the well-known staccato étude in C—D’Albert’s war-horse—should be studied. Try this staccato piece in legato, it sounds well thus. Rubinstein has written two studies both in C major, one called study on false notes, and sometimes the “handball.” They are all “pianistic.” Anton Strelezki’s five concert studies are modern and require a good grip. Nos. 4 and 5are the most musical of the set. The same composer’s The Wind is an excellent unison study. Then there is Balakirev’s muscle-breaking two-step fancy orientale Islamey, a true whirling dervish study. Little need to tell you of Tausig’s Daily Studies. No pianist can afford to be without them. The Rosenthal-Schytte studies are rich in technical ideas, and Schytte has written some Vortrag studies of value. In a previous article in this series I spoke of Rafael Joseffy’s method, truly a method of methods, beginning as it does where other methods end. The technics of all periods and schools may be found in this eclectic and remarkable volume. Smetana’s study By the Sea Shore is played by Gabrilowitsch with great success.
I have long possessed a copy of Liszt’s etudes Opus 1 a veritable curiosity for the plates have been destroyed, the edition therefore rare. Written when Liszt was fresh from the tutelage of Carl Czerny, they show traces of his schooling. For fingers inured to modern methods they are not difficult. When I acquired them— dusty, neglected on the top shelf of some Philadelphia music dealer years ago—I hadn’t even heard of the Etudes d’Execution Transcendentales, and when I saw them for the first time I exclaimed at Liszt’s supreme cleverness. Never prolific in novel thematic invention the Hungarian composer has dressed this first word—probably about the fiftieth or more—in the most bewildering technical fashion. He bestowed appropriate names on nearly all of them. Even to-day these studies demand tremendous technique to do them justice. The one in F minor (No. 10) Liszt left nameless, like a mighty peak it rears skyward, while about it cluster its more graceful companions: Ricondanza, Feux-follets, Harmonies du Soir, Chasse-niege and Paysage. What a superb contribution to the literature of etudes is Liszt’s. These twelve incomparable studies, the three effective Etudes de Concert (also Chopinesque) the Paganini studies, with the favorite Campanella—better sounding in the transcription than in the original—the poetic Waldesrauschen Tricksy and impish Gnomenreigen the fierce Ab-Irato, graceful Au Lac de Wallenstadt and Au Bord d’une Source—have they not all of them developed the technical resources of the pianoforte! And to play them one must possess fingers of steel, a brain on fire and a heart full of chivalry. Seriously, Liszt was a comet-like pianist, this Magyar who swept Europe with the fire and sword of his genius, one who transformed the still small voice of Chopin into a hurricane. But we can’t conceive Liszt without a Chopin preceding him. Nevertheless, Liszt lost, the piano would have lost its most dashing cavalier; his freedom and fantasy are admirable corrections for the stilted platitudes of the Hummel, Czerny, Mendelssohn school. He extended from his instruments an orchestral quality. He advanced by great wing strokes toward perfection, and to exclude him would exclude color, sonority, subtle nuance and dynamic contrast. He is not, as was Bach the brain of the piano, or Beethoven, its heart, nor yet Chopin, its soul, but he is its master rhapsodist, both bard and prophet.
Liszt has had a great following. His innovations affected all modern technique,orchestral as well as for the piano, Tausig felt the impact of his genius;even Schumann was influenced, though his setting of the Paganini etudes is far removed from Liszt’s. Schumann, however, struck out an original course when he composed his Etudes Symphoniques. Here Lisztian style would be a ban to forceful interpretation. Music, profound and tender music, is needed, with strong, singing fingers and a wrist of iron. The Toccata in C is an admirable example of not only Schumann’s, but also of latter-day technics. As in the Brahms compositions, polyphonic fingers, tonal discrimination in chord passages is demanded, and a power in extension that tax most hands to the utmost. Among modern artistic studies those of Saint Saens, Raff and MacDowell’s are the most brilliant. Digital discrimination is expected in several of the Frenchman’s six studies. Paderewski’s The Desert toys with the gigantic. Henselt has written some studies which he named Master Studies for Piano. They are for virtuosi and should be severely left alone by anybut finished pianists (who won’t need them). Carlyle Petersilyea once made a technical variante on Chopin’s study in sixths (Opus 25). Henselt, evidently acting on the principle that pianists weary of always playing a piece in the same manner; that fingers become indolent from the fatal facility which follows too much repetition; therefore, he considers a familiar difficulty from a fresh rhythmic viewpoint. He distorts, perverts, alters, almost roots up from the harmonic and rhythmic soil the figurative believing that with a new aspect, a new difficulty, you will return with refreshed fingers—besides being mentally invigorated—to the normal version. There are 167 examples, which make you alternately smile, shudder, applaud. Henselt has accomplished his task with a vengeance. Chopin is liberally paraphrased, the version of the E minor (posthumous) valse is fit for concert performance, so effectively brilliant is it. There are examples from Beethoven, Hummel, Weber, Mendelssohn, Cramer, Schumann, Liszt, Raff, Moscheles. Also from Henselt, he mocks his own Bird study, which reminds me what I wrote after hearing Moriz Rosenthal play the charming little piece; “In his hands the tender, fluttering lark becomes an eagle cleaving the azure on mighty pinions.” Yet I only merely suggest these Henselt finger studies, they are apt to hoist a pianist with his own petard.
We must not forget to include in our already swollen list the various preludes and studies of the Russian composers, of Liadov, Balakirev, Cui, Sapelnikoff (the Idylle-Etude by Balakirev is decorative) particularly of the lately deceased Scriabine. Josef Hofmann introduced his D sharp minor etude, with its echoes of the D Minor prelude of Chopin (Toujours Chopin) and a very agreeable and effective piece it is. The middle section is ultra ursine; you hear the growl of the Russian bear. Scriabine has composed a number of etudes. So has Liadov, who is more Gallic, more graceful. A very grateful composer of studies is Blumenfeld, while Rachmaninoff who hardly needs an introduction since Siloti first played his Prelude in C sharp minor (one of the best things ever written by Henselt when he was court pianist at St. Petersburg. Consult the C sharp minor-section of the slow movement in the Henselt F minor concerto) . But this is not the only prelude or etude of Rachmaninoff. There is a flock of young Russians whose technical prowess is notable for ingenuity, though not always novel. Liszt and Schumann and Chopin fathered them all.
And now which way are we heading? What’s the moral of my threadbare tale? If there is any it's Bach, first and last and all the time (the oldcomposers are harder to play). As my musical digestion grows less receptive with the years I crave a peptonic diet on the matter of studies. Life is brief, art is lengthy, and condensation is my motto. If Chopin is to be studied there is the admirable volume of Chopin extracts of Isidor Philipp, with its difficulties sedulously grouped. Or his Daily Studies, with examples from all composers. But best of all is Bach. As to contemporary technical tendencies I can’t say much, I am no prophet, nor yet “bird” either (pace, Schumann). We seem to have reached the Ultima Thule of piano technique, yet I would not be surprised to hear that in some far-off country, in some secret fantastic valley of the Himilaya mountains, there toils a slant-eyed maniac genius who will give the musical world an absolutely new system of piano technics, and while I will applaud, metaphorically his industry I hope I may not live to hear his hellish inventions, even if his Pegasus does fly across Parnassus. Which proves me to be a hopeless reactionary. But all said and done isn’t the technique of life more important than piano technique? On this interrogative note let us end further discussion of that ever attractive theme: How to Play the Piano though Poor.