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An Apology For the Piano


Professional musicians have an inveterate habit of decrying the pianoforte as being inferior not only to the human voice, but to the violin and other orchestral instruments. In this allegation there is some truth and a great deal of error. True it is that on the piano you can not begin a tone softly, swell it without a break to fortissimo, and again decrease it to pianissimo, as you can on a violin. But that is the only serious disadvantage under which the pianoforte labors, and even that can be largely overcome, where chords are concerned, by a skilful use of the sustaining pedal, and in single notes by the "caressing" stroke which Rubinstein sometimes used. The notion that the piano is a comparatively toneless and soulless instrument obviously takes us back to the time when its tone really was short and snappy; but the best American pianos made to-day have a sustaining power which astonishes me every time I test it. I remember, too, reading a few years ago that a Berlin musician had invented an electric apparatus by means of which the tones of a pianoforte could be sustained and swelled ad libitum. As I have heard nothing more about it, perhaps it was a failure; but I am sure that if Edison or Tesla were to give a week's thought and experiment to the matter, such an electric tone-controller could be easily devised.

Even without this improvement the piano is, in my opinion, by far the most interesting and enchanting of all instruments, including the vocal cords. There are, indeed, human voices that are incomparable as regards luscious tone quality; but these voices are as rare as genius. The average musical voice, amateur or professional, is vastly inferior in sensuous beauty to the tones of a Steinway. It was Richard Wagner, the magician of tone-color, who lamented the fact that other departments of practical music were, in their march toward perfection, so far behind the modern pianoforte. The poets go into raptures over the sweet song of the nightingale, but no nightingale sings as lusciously as Paderewski does on his piano. If any one says that the tones of an old Italian violin, in the hands of Joachim or Ysaye, are richer and more fascinating, I respect his opinion but do not agree with it. The pure sensuous beauty of a piano's tone has given me the esthetic thrill that creeps down the backbone and to the finger tips much oftener than any other instrument, or any voice.

So much for the two points—crescendo and tone-color—in regard to which the piano's superiority may be questioned. In all other respects its supremacy is altogether beyond dispute. The singer and the violinist are dependent for their harmonies on the accompanying piano; they have only melody, whereas the pianist can play his own harmonies. This means a great deal, when you bear in mind that in modern music harmony is even more important than melody, and a player who has not the harmony as well as the melody of a piece under his personal control labors under a tremendous disadvantage. Moreover, you tire much sooner of a solo violin, even with accompaniment, than you do of a piano. The pianist can, all alone, familiarize himself with all the good music ever written, whereas the violinist, unaided, can play only the melody. An orchestra can, of course, perform wonders that are beyond a pianist's power; but I am here comparing individual instruments only, and in pitting the piano against the violin I have chosen what is universally conceded to be the finest of all orchestral instruments.

We read of Frederick the Great amusing himself by the hour playing his flute, but when we study the lives of the great composers we find that their musical recreation consisted almost entirely of playing the piano. To it they could confide their joys and sorrows as to no other instrument. Is not improvisation the greatest of all pleasures to a creative musician? and can you improvise on any other instrument than the piano (or the organ, which is built on the same harmonic principle)? Even the orchestral composers are seldom able to dispense with a piano. Although Wagner was not an accomplished pianist and could not play his own scores satisfactorily, he made much use of the piano, especially in his early period, for improvising, finding ideas, and getting them into shape. Schumann quite properly deprecated the habit of composing at the piano, yet Chopin usually composed that way, and Chopin is unrivaled. Schumann's letters and the writings of George Sand give us many interesting glimpses into the happiness which Schumann and Chopin derived from their pianos. They did not look down on them as unsatisfactory instruments, though the pianos they played were in every way vastly inferior to those we now have. Beethoven was so attached to his piano that he continued to use it even after he had become deaf. In Russell's "Travels in Germany" occurs this curious passage regarding him:

"When he places himself at the piano he is evidently utterly unconscious of the existence of anybody or anything except himself and his instrument; remembering how deaf he is, it seems impossible that he can hear all he plays. He will, therefore, often play without producing a sound. He only hears with spiritual ears; his eyes, and the almost imperceptible movement of his fingers, indicate that he is inwardly following his music in all its developments: the instrument is as dumb as its player is deaf.''

Evidence as to the value of the pianoforte is most convincing when it comes from men who wrote little or nothing for it. Such men are Robert Franz and Richard Wagner. The greatest of song composers since Schubert, Robert Franz, said one day to his friend, Dr. Waldmann:

"We hear and read so often about the imperfections of the pianoforte's tones, and not long ago Gumprecht declared that the piano paints everything gray. These persons forget that Beethoven and Bach and Schubert and Schumann have practically given us the best of their genius in their compositions for the piano—a fact which alone ought to convince them that this instrument can not be so defective as they say. The piano has its own peculiar character, by which it differs from all other instruments."

It is interesting to note the change of mind in Richard Wagner's attitude toward the piano. In his autobiographic sketch he says, in regard to his early opera, "The Flying Dutchman": "In order to compose it, I needed a piano, for after a nine months' interruption in my musical productiveness l had to begin by getting back into a musical atmosphere. So I rented a piano, and after it had arrived I suffered tortures from the fear that I should discover that I was no longer a musician." At a later period, when he was at work on "Die Walküre," he still seems to have made use of a piano, but as he could not afford to buy a good one he implored Liszt to beg Madame Erard to send him one: "Tell her that you visit me three times every year, and must , therefore, absolutely have something better than my crippled instrument… . Make her believe it is a point of honor that an Erard should stand in my house. … I must have an Erard!" When I wrote my Wagner biography I said that history did not record whether Mme. Erard complied with his wishes. Since that time Hans von Bülow's letters have appeared, and in one of these we read that the good widow did make Wagner a present of a superb grand.

Some years later, when he composed "Die  Meistersinger," he no longer seems to have made use of a piano, but to have composed altogether in his mind. We know this on the authority of Hans Richter, who declared, in an article which he wrote some years ago for the Guide Musical, that during the thirteen months when he lived in Wagner's house at Triebschen (Lucerne) his room was right under Wagner's music room, and that in all this time, though the "Meister" was hard at work on that opera, he never heard him touch the piano once.

But what I wish to emphasize particularly is that, whereas in one of his early essays Wagner speaks rather contemptuously of the piano as a "toneless" instrument, and accuses it of "giving only a sketch of music," in one of his later essays, in which he describes his plan for an ideal music school in Munich, he modulates into quite a different key. The principal object of a music school, he thinks, should be the education of the taste. This can not be achieved by means of lectures, but only by practical acquaintance with good music; and this, he continues, is most easily and conveniently acquired by means of the piano, which enables a single player not only to familiarize himself with the most complicated scores, but to communicate his intentions distinctly to others.

"On no single instrument," he continues, "can the ideas embodied in modern music be more distinctly brought out than by means of the ingenious mechanism of the piano; and for our music it is therefore in reality the leading instrument, having also become so partly through the circumstance that our greatest masters wrote a large proportion of their most beautiful and important works specially for the piano. Thus, in indicating the summits of German music, we place Beethoven's sonatas right alongside of his symphonies; and from an academic point of view, nothing can be more conducive to the cultivation of a correct taste in the interpretation of music than first learning how to play a pianoforte sonata, and then transferring our capacity thus acquired to the correct performance of a symphony. For these reasons extra care must be given in our enlarged conservatory to correct instruction on the piano."

A bit of pathos may conclude this sketch. A Vienna paper, not long ago, printed the reminiscences of an acquaintance of Franz Schubert, in which a peculiarly touching reference is made to that immortal's poverty. Schubert could not afford to buy, or even rent, a decent piano, but a friend of his had a good one, and Schubert used to come every day and play on it by the hour. The friend enjoyed it, but he was a student and it interfered with his work, so he finally had to make a special arrangement, telling Schubert that when the window curtain was down the piano was locked, but when the curtain was up he might come and play to his heart's content. Neighbors used to watch him as he came down the street, and declared that it was touching to see the look of disappointment that came into his face when he saw the curtain was down.

The poor fellow! What heavenly joy the possession of a modern American grand would have been to him! And yet, notwithstanding the keen delight all the great composers have taken in their instruments, many musicians have the impudence and stupidity to declare that the piano is an inferior instrument. They fancy that by doing so they prove their superior taste, but what they really prove is their lack of taste.

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