It is not easy to give directions for this most rare accomplishment. There are so many sides to it and conditions confronting it that a book could and should be written which would, as far as possible, exhaust the subject. Let us first consider the accompanist, and, because so many more women than men aim to succeed in this field, we will designate her as she.
Qualifications of an Accompanist.
In the first place, she should be a good pianist, which actually covers a catalogue of qualities, such as quick reading, perfect command of all the varieties of touch, musical insight (which is only another name for musicianship), and unfailing technic; and, secondly, she should have a knowledge of the vocalist’s art.
Now, in point of fact, accompanists rarely possess all of these important attributes. If they did, they would hardly look kindly upon accompanying as a profession. It is sad, as it is true, that the ranks of accompanists are filled from the army of inefficient pianists. Thus, one or more of the above-mentioned features are lacking in their equipment, which relegates them to second place, and puts a higher value upon perfect masters of the art. That good accompanists are rare is a notable fact. It is not by any means, however, a hopeless situation; the keyboard field is so rapidly filling and overflowing that the immediate prospect of better accompanists who are fully equipped is encouraging. The modern vocal repertory is vastly demanding upon accompanists. It is quite the thing for composers of the present day to give a quiet theme to the voice and a typical Chopin-Liszt combination for the piano. The odium that was formerly attached to accompanying as a minor consideration is removed, and the honors are more evenly divided between the voice and the instrument.
While the singer loses in the matter of eminent priority, she gains in confidence that she can depend upon able support in her work. The esthetic side of accompanying amounts to more than appears upon the surface. The perfect sympathy between composer and artist must be sustained by the third factor at the keyboard; it seems almost too much to expect that such a trinity can exist in perfection, but it often does, and the results are always delightful. The accompanist should, with the singer, know the text to the point of familiarity with its mission, and the composer’s means of bringing clearly to the mind of the auditor the salient points of that mission. She must even be superior to the singer in judgment as to which background of stress is most favorable to the singer’s volume and use of that volume. She must be familiar with the phrasing and diction peculiar to the singer; for singers differ in this regard even in the narrow limits of strict tradition. She must adjust the amount of support to the natural loudness or softness of the instrument, the size of the room, and the vitality of the singer. The use of the soft pedal would be extremely rare by an accompanist who had her technic well established, but its use is by no means prohibited.
Accompanist’s Office to Support.
The office of the accompanist is to support; she is always subordinate to the singer. If the singer, however, is uncertain, a helpful note may be quickly and unobtrusively interpolated to reassure her; if the singer loses poise or control, the accompaniment may come sufficiently into prominence to admit of a sense of secure support which need be only temporary. Disaster is imminent if a nervous singer, a nervous accompanist, and a pretentious composition form the combination. The most valuable characteristic in an accompanist is self-possession, best expressed to the cult as “nerve.” Many a timid bark has been wrecked when there was but little danger, because of the loss of that valuable quality. After all that is, or can be, said or written, the finesse of accompanying may be summed up in the word “sympathetic.” Let the technic and interpretative preparation be never so perfect, if there is not strong and deep sympathy between the artist and accompanist the work will be wanting in the power to move or sense of completeness.
As for singers, how they differ! Some artists seem to look upon an accompanist as a necessary evil, tolerated while the necessity exists, but utterly worthless when the work is done; they never accord her her share of the praise, but are quick to load her with more than her share of the blame. It has often occurred that, when artists have made the most atrocious blunders, they would turn and scowl at the innocent accompanist, thus attempting to shift the responsibility of their own carelessness on to her shoulders. A prominent singer attempted this daring ruse in New York at a concert not long ago, but the audience was familiar with the number, and would not tolerate the imposition, and retaliated by hissing the singer instead of applauding her. There are others who value the assistance at the piano at its true worth, and there is no more grateful sight to a cultured audience than that of an artist, when responding to enthusiastic recalls, bringing the accompanist to the foot-lights with her, thus publicly acknowledging her indebtedness for the assistance, and allowing her to share the honor of success.
The most strenuous rule in regard to accompanying is that there should be infinite pains taken at the rehearsals; every point worth making should be remarked upon and put to the test. One has only to hear Nordica, Schumann-Heinck, and Sembrich in their recitals to realize the attention that has been given to the minutest details in the accompaniments. Another rule which should never be broken is: not to appear at a public performance without a rehearsal. It is better to make no appearance than one where there is an element of uncertainty as to the result. Finally, if you would accompany well, accompany much; play for all the singers within your reach; study their music with them; breathe when they breathe, sigh when they sigh, exult when they exult; in short, do all that they do, the only difference being you do these things with your thoughts and fingers, while they do them with their voices.