The French humorists, who often lack material, like American writers of the same guild, have of late been turning their attention to the piano and the young ladies who make that cumbrous instrument a specialty. This is a well-worn subject with American humorists, but there are good reasons why their transatlantic rivals are so late in the field. The young ladies in America have had for the last fifty years educational advantages equal to those of young men, with the piano thrown in as an additional feature of the curriculum. And the class that has enjoyed all these privileges has been numerous, for it has comprised not only the daughters of the very rich, but those of moderate means, the daughters of farmers and mechanics among the rest. Let the person to whom the piano is a torture and a horror fly to the uttermost parts of an American city, into the poorest, the most redolent quarters even, and he cannot escape it. Let him seek the portions of the boundless prairie, so remote from human habitation that the smoke of the primitive settler’s log cabin is invisible and its tum tum falls upon his ear. It is ever in the van in the westward march of American civilization. In the heart of the forest primeval it may almost be said to precede the woodman’s axe, such is the energy of the men who manufacture it, and the nervous activity of the agents who go to all the unexplored recesses of the land to sell it. So widespread has been this epidemic of New World culture that the instrument has been for many years a problem to anxious mothers, a source of wealth to the makers and dealers, a means of living to some hundreds of thousands of music teachers, and a wonderful problem to the social philosopher and the statistician.
The instrument has presented itself to the European public under a different aspect, simply because the middle and lower classes have not been able to afford the luxury, and the education of young girls has been conducted on a more limited scale, and with somewhat different ideas regarding the chief end of women. This condition of things of recent years has been gradually changing. The advantages of the higher education have been more and more extended to women, and as a consequence the piano has been more widely disseminated, and has come more within the sphere of the social philosopher and humorist. The French philosopher is to the fore with the question whether the results obtained are commensurate with the years of labor that young girls expend in learning to play on it. This is approaching the question as well as the instrument on its practical side, and it will be seen at a glance that it interests not French mothers alone, but those in America who have been in the habit of regarding ability to play on the piano as a young lady’s chief accomplishment. An anxious French matron wrote to the editor of a Paris educational journal, asking him if he would be kind enough to enlighten her as to the exact place which the piano should occupy in the education of young girls. The editor, not wishing to assume such an awful responsibility, referred the question to Charles Gounod, the author of “Faust,” who being a recognized master of the musical art was supposed to know all about it. The great composer replied bluntly as follows:—
Dear Sir:—You ask my advice on the part which the study of the piano should play in the education of young girls. The reply seems to me the simplest thing in the world. The least time possible for those who are not to make it a profession. This is my unpremeditated sentiment about the matter. I give it to you.
The French humorists approach the piano from quite another direction, and being entirely ignorant of what the American humorists have been saying about it for the last fifty years, their wit has a certain freshness. Some months ago a Parisian writer named Reyer declared war on the instrument. It had already invaded too many families and spoiled the peace of too many apartment houses, almost always in France built in flats. It was proving itself to be one of the vices of the republican form of government. Upon his enemy he wrote a satire called the “Mad Piano,” taking as his subject the famous instrument at the Conservatory, on which a procession of seventy or eighty young ladies thrum, one after the other, from morning to night during a great portion of the year. One fine day the long-suffering piano rebels against the hard usage it has received. The practice on it begins as usual. It yields with difficulty to the touch of the first pupil. It utters its notes with great effort. It seems anchylosed. To the second it is less unyielding. To the third it is more supple. The twentieth plays without effort. The thirtieth scarcely needs to place her fingers on the keyboard. When the fortieth takes her seat before it it plays alone. And what playing! Furioso! The lower notes rumble like thunder in its flanks, mingled with notes from every part of the scale. There is no rest, no truce. Air succeeds air. Morceau follows morceau. The foam of boiling harmony appears about its fearful mouth—that is to say, the keyboard. Those near recoil with terror. The cry, “The piano is mad! the piano is mad!” reechoes through the hall. The case is closed, the pedals are tied, but it plays on. It is removed from the stage, but it plays still. It is thrown out into the court, but it cannot be silenced. A fire engine is brought and it is inundated, but under the drenching shower it plays the “Tempest” of Felicien David. If there were only known among the methods of the piano an interim method, it would be used, but Pasteur is too much occupied with the chicken cholera to attend to such light things. An heroic decision is taken. Carpenters are sent for. They attack it with hammers and axes. But like the old martyrs it sings under the torture. From its gaping wounds it gives forth fortes, adagios, tremulos. It is not alone the strings that are musical. The mahogany vibrates. The pedals beat time. The music rack zig-zags. The candlesticks bob, and the handles contract and expand. The pieces live, like the fragments of a lobster. Liszt (still alive) is sent for in haste, runs to the place, and approaches the mad piano. He examines it a long time, and when he is at last able to disengage his hands from the feminine lips that kiss them, he takes some virus from his arm and applies it to the instrument. The effect is miraculous. It becomes gradually calm. It falls from Wagner, whose music it had played in its most agonized moments, into Berlioz, from Berlioz into Reyer, from Reyer into Adam, and finally renders, for its last sigh, the “Rose Waltz.” But in the meantime the number of persons bitten was incalculable, and the piano madness finds from day to day new victims. Unfortunately, Pasteur will not exhaust his scientific soul on the subject, and Liszt, who might have done something, is dead. So the matter rests for the moment.
But in spite of Gounod and the humorous writers of Paris, the use of the piano is extending in France, though it can never evidently be as general as in the United States. You cannot yet say of it that it is heard everywhere. It is still a social distinction In large French towns it is still the pride of retired neighborhoods. A Paris concierge, whose sphere of thought and experience is somewhat circumscribed, will tell an intending tenant that there are five or six pianos among the occupants of the house, and she cannot understand why he turns away with a look of disgust. In this country the time which a young girl should devote to the piano is an exceedingly practical question, and has not been much discussed, while volumes of polemics have been written regarding the time supposed to be wasted by young men on ancient languages. Gounod’s letter will be regarded as too sweeping in America. Perhaps the piano may be looked at as something in the light of a discipline. A young girl must fill up her time in some way. If it is better for her that she should sit bolt upright for several hours a day before it than to be making mud-pies or gadding about the streets, then give her the piano practice. Let her not devote to it the time that can be more profitably employed in making bread or milking the cows. There is reason in all things. A young girl who has learned the piano is able thereafter to understand and to enjoy music of all kinds better, and that is something. Though the piano is a much abused instrument, though it is a terror of boarding houses, hotels, and quiet neighborhoods, it must, in a spirit of candor, be granted its full dues. And the truth about it can only be brought out by discussion. Let the educators forget occasionally the classics as a part of the education of young men, and endeavor to find the curriculum for young women that unites in proper proportions that which is useful and ornamental.Etude Magazine. April, 1895