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The Musical Listener

During this early spring season, when the cities of New York and Boston, in particular, are exposed to an inundation of song recitals, the Listener’s mind has, perforce, turned to the inestimable value of a good accompanist, and has been led to dwell upon the importance of that department of musical education.

For many years it remained a mystery to me why some of the most excellent pianists were incapable of playing a simple accompaniment acceptably for any solo instrument. My bewilderment was enhanced upon hearing a first-rate composer of songs almost ruin the performance of his own compositions sung by a celebrated singer, merely by playing a wretched accompaniment.

By degrees I solved the mystery to my own satisfaction, and was confirmed in my own ideas the other day by one of the best accompanists in America. In reply to my question, “What is the secret of good accompanying?” she replied with a smile: “The acceptance of the fact that one is of secondary importance in the performance. There are three kinds of accompanists, the bad kind, the willing kind, and the good kind. The bad kind may be a splendid pianist, but when he accompanies he spoils everything by trying to interpret according to his own ideas, instead of following the interpretation of the singer. In that word following lies the whole secret. I make a point of lagging almost imperceptibly behind the singer rather than driving on in advance of her. Few singers or other solo performers have an invariable interpretation of any one song, therefore I am kept on the qui vive for the subtle differences they make at every performance. At such times, if I am not following—literally following—them they go one way, I another, greatly to the detriment of the musical intention.”

“How did you happen to take up accompanying as a profession?” I asked.

“I was always what might be called a vocal musician,” she replied. “The pure cantabile appeals to me greatly. I wish I had a voice. Early in my career I faced the truth, that many could play as well as I, but few could accompany as well; so I turned my entire intelligence upon perfecting the thing I was sure of in myself, and now have the satisfaction of knowing I fill a long vacant place. I have the keenest satisfaction in reading the noble Schumann, Schubert, Brahm’s songs with some of the most artistic song reciters our country affords. I study all of the great songs by myself closely and at length before I try them with a singer. At a first rehearsal I simply play the notes, following along in pursuit of her, feeling for the song. This I impress myself with, so that if I am given no second rehearsal, by the time of the recital I have learned the song, or songs, from her standpoint of interpretation. It must have been a joy to have sung to Mendelssohn’s accompaniments. He was the vocal musician par excellence.

“By the willing accompanist I mean the person who would do the right thing if he knew how. Singers are of small assistance in helping one on to the right road where there is no instinctive knowledge within one’s self. They know what they want but can’t tell it. Most of the singing teachers have accompanists, some of whom have come to me for lessons. I say to these girls, ‘First of all learn to follow; secondly, remember that the time of a song is not kept up to the tick of the metronome; thirdly, that whatever the singer does is right so far as you are concerned, no matter what your own private opinion may be.’ When they learn to practice these rules they are good accompanists, provided they read well, have a fair execution, and considerable sympathy.”

This lady has the gratification of knowing that what she does is well done. She is in great demand and makes a good living by this kind of work and the pianoforte teaching she does.

In my own opinion the chief fault with piano people when playing accompaniments is an egotistical tendency to lead off, not an incapacity to follow. That they could follow if they would is shown by the exquisitely humble attitude Emil Pauer and his great body of men take when accompanying a solo performer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A great singer said to me once, “It is a positive inspiration to sing with the Boston Orchestra. Mr. Pauer gives such a splendid support.” That is the word—support. The true accompanist supports, but never leads.

* * * * *

The Listener wonders how many really intelligent people would find unadulterated pleasure, benefit, or instruction out of a Shaksperian tragedy were they to attend a performance of one whose plot they knew nothing beforehand, and which was given in a foreign language with which the aforesaid people were unacquainted.

This is precisely the attitude the majority of people take toward Wagner’s musical dramas. “Tannhäuser,” “Lohengrin,” and “The Flying Dutchman” tell their own story pretty well, but the Listener confesses that were he to attend any opera of the trilogy or “Tristan and Isolde” or “Parsifal” without some previous knowledge of the dramatic entente—in ordinary parlance, the plot of the play—and knew not one word of German, he would hardly expect to be inspired, in fact, hardly edified.

People ought to prepare themselves for Wagner in a literary way—read the “Nibelungen Lied” in translation, if in no other way, or study librettos—before trying to understand heroic love and soul tragedies sung in a foreign language conveyed by tonal progressions unfamiliar and startling to the novice.

To illustrate the point I am talking of let me tell you about a most intelligent man’s first hearing of “Tristan and Isolde.” Although not professionally musical, he has the true artist’s instinctive appreciation of beauty in every recognizable form. He is immoderately fond of grand opera and symphony concerts, but it so happened that up to this winter he had never heard a Wagner opera. For several months previous he and his wife revelled in the prospect of hearing Lilli Lehmann sing “Isolde,” as they had been told no one else could do it.

I asked my friend if he knew the legend of “Tristan and Isolde” and in my heart of hearts felt him doomed to disappointment when he admitted ignorance of even the outline of the story of passion. They went to hear “Tristan and Isolde.”

He was extremely reticent about expressing an opinion afterward. I insisted, whereupon he broke out with, “Well, I suppose I show bad taste and all that, but the truth is, if they hadn’t made so much noise on the stage I should have gone to sleep. The opera seemed to be made up of climaxes.”

I have not a doubt but this would be the honest opinion of hundreds who affect a Wagnerian enthusiasm they never honestly feel. Mind you, I have no desire to detract from the value, beauty, and power of the wonderful musical dramas by this illustration. To the contrary, my main object is to show how much they might be in reality to every spectator provided he or she would first mount to an intelligent standpoint of appreciation, somewhere near Wagner’s own height of conception. Then, too, so few people realize the futility of trying to grasp fully anything great at one hearing or reading. I found, personally, that though I thought I had got a good deal from “Tristan and Isolde” at the time of my first hearing, I was surprised and almost bewildered with the new beauties revealed at every subsequent hearing. Listening to any music and especially Wagner, is a question of education, not instinct, just as looking at pictures is. Could any man of small musical education be expected to appreciate the unique beauties of Wagner’s musical dramas when one of the celebrated musical critics of London, in the year 1855, after a first hearing of “Tannhäuser,” could print the following: “Scarcely the most ordinary ballad writer but would shame him in the creation of melody, and no English humorist of more than one year’s growth could be found sufficiently without ears and understanding to pen such vile things.”

The man who wrote that conscientiously was judging according to his lights, whose rays had not yet penetrated the enormous shadow cast by Wagner upon the earth. The critic declared there was no melody in the opera because the melody was not always where he expected to find it—in the voice parts. My friend had heard of Wagnerian declamation but it never occurred to him that an entire opera could be given without the star soprano going down to the footlights and singing a melodious aria, because in the modern French and Italian operas he had heard more or less of the same thing that he remembered in Il Trovatore, Semiramide, and the other grand operas upon which he dotes. The Listener has known several people of deeply poetic natures but no musical attainments who fairly revelled in Wagner’s operas upon a first hearing, while so-called musicians sat by infinitely bored. Why was this? Because the poet immediately felt the dramatic power and heroic natures, while the other, unmindful of these effects, with small imaginative powers at best and no great knowledge upon which to base a judgment, was momentarily missing all that he was accustomed to and found nothing to substitute for his ideals.

Mr. Walter Damrosch has done almost more than any one else in America to bring Wagner’s operas within the fair understanding of the multitudes; not alone by his fine presentation of the operas but also by his interesting lectures upon the topics pertaining to the Wagner theories of art.

But even more than this fine musician is doing for the establishment of Wagner in the hearts of the people is being accomplished by the management of a stock opera company in Boston, where the best grand operas are given every night except Sunday, and are staged magnificently, all for the admission price of 50 cents and 25 cents. This winter Lohengrin and Tannhäuser have been put on experimentally, during which performances not even standing-room could be obtained except by applying a week ahead. Thousands of people have heard and enjoyed those operas for the first time, although the voices employed are but mediocre. No matter if this be so, the audiences get many times over what they pay in pleasure and knowledge, while the management coins money.

If there were more such stock companies in other prominent cities (I believe there is one in Philadelphia) by the time the next generation is grown a man would not need a special training before attending “Tristan and Isolde” for the first time. In Germany one can hear Lehmann sing “Isolde” for 12½ cents, the highest price paid being 50 cents.

* * * * *

Individuals cannot all think alike or enjoy alike, anyway, and fortunately so, otherwise only one person could represent a given branch of art during a decad.

A musician who recently returned from Berlin after a five years’ residence there, said: “I do not understand all of this talk I hear in America about Paderewski! In Germany it is all D’Albert. No one can approach him.”

Teresa Carreño is taking “the States” by storm by her unprecedented (among women) executive powers, but critics say she cannot play Beethoven, and piano students scoff at her lack of sentiment and sympathy. And so it goes—no one is perfect, otherwise there would be nothing left to work for.

“Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?
    Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear;
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe, But God has a few of us whom He whispers in the ear:
    ‘The rest may reason and welcome, ‘tis we musicians know.’”



—I am perfectly convinced that censure is far more useful to the artist than praise. He who sinks before blame was worthy of his fall,—only whom it furthers, he has the true inner strength; but that praise as blame also painfully touches the artist to whom nature has given the most violent spur of passion, must be found explicable.—R. Wagner. 


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