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The Musical Listener - Mr. Max Heinrich

The Listener, not wishing to wear the interest of his Etude readers threadbare by giving them an overdose of his own opinions, thoughts, and feelings, takes great pleasure in presenting to them this month the most interesting resident musical personality before the public in America. In looking about for such a musician The Listener did not select Mr. Max Heinrich especially because he is a pianist as well as a singer, but because he is one of the few typically musical natures to be found in our professional ranks—not meaning, however, that he is a typical American musician, but that, in every particular, he materializes the spirit of sound, uttering itself poetically and dramatically. To begin with, Mr. Heinrich was born with a talent; he did not produce his gift, it produced him. In other words, he is a musician because he could not help being one, and for this reason he is an example worth contemplating in our America, where there are twenty performers to one musician.

Mr. Heinrich and The Listener like to talk things over at all times and any time, but when approached for the purpose of a public interview, in his free, almost naïve way, he replied: “Interview me? Oh, never! I have no thoughts to talk or write about; I sing and play all my thoughts and feelings.” But when he at last realized the possible importance of his wide experience to a student public, he said: “How did I ever learn to play so well as you say I do? Just as everybody else learns—by study. Did n’t you know I was a pianist and a piano teacher before I sang in public? Bless you! yes. My father was a business man, a manufacturer in Saxony. There was not a musical member of my family, although my father loved to hear music. I am a freak, you know; but from the time I was a little fellow I sang and then played—after a hard tussle with my father, trying to make him buy me a piano, which he objected to as bordering on to the professional, of which he disapproved. When I once got the piano and found out what study of it meant, by taking lessons of as good a teacher as we had in our little town in Saxony, I was ready to let it all go—study wasn’t so much fun; but my father made me continue, and I’m grateful enough to him now. After that I studied faithfully the voice; but the piano is really my instrument.”

“Why did you come to America? Was it for money?” I asked.

“Himmel! No!” said Heinrich, “I should have made more money over there. I came to escape military service; I was a musician, not a soldier. No; I’ve seen plenty of sorrow and poverty in this country. I taught the piano for seven years in Philadelphia and four more years in the South before I could get a bit of encouragement in this country. Why, twelve years ago I could not get even my friends in America to listen to Schubert and Schumann songs.”

“Then you think the musical taste over here has improved?” I asked, knowing that his opinion would be invaluable, because there is no other musician who comes into such close touch with as many audiences and as many individual people as does Mr. Heinrich.

“Improved!” he exclaimed. “It is wonderful, the improvement! It was only about ten years ago that I began to give my recitals all over this country. Since that time a great appreciation of the best music has grown among your people. Nowadays when I sing in small cities, and even little towns, the people all come provided with the music on my programme. They are unconsciously my teachers, because when I see them sitting there following me with the music in their hands I have to look out for myself—they keep me right up to my standard. Nowadays I give recitals of Schumann, Schubert, Franz, and even Brahms’ songs in remote places to interested audiences; in these same places, even a few years ago, they would not listen to anything of the kind. Does n’t that show how the taste is growing and spreading? The trouble with America, musically, is that anybody and everybody wants to be a professional musician. In Germany hundreds of amateurs know more about music than most of the professionals do over here, but they only consider themselves fit to listen, while in America anybody with their amount of talent would rush into the profession. Of course, they do it for money, not because they love to express themselves in that way; but in the long run it does n’t pay, because only real musicians can ever shine, and meantime the imitation ones are lowering the standard of art to the general public.”

“You are finding some thoughts after all, Mr. Heinrich, are n’t you?” I laughed.

“Oh, they’re up here,” he replied, with a knowing nod of his head,—one of the inimitable gestures peculiar to his strong personality,—and indicating a particular spot at the top of his cerebellum; “they would have to be there or I would n’t be what I am. A musician must know how to think even if he can’t tell what he’s thinking except through his instrument, which is his best tongue. Tell your readers for Heinrich that if they want to be musicians they must be born to it first of all, then they must study for it; but not only on the technical side—that is another fault. Music must express—it must tell something, or what is it for? Why, if when I go on to the stage my mind was on how my fingers are to be held, and whether my soft palate hung up or down, do you suppose I could ever give the big programmes I do, accompanying myself to those tremendous songs I sing? Never! so long as I live. If people have to think about those things they are not ready for the public and ought to sit in the audience. There is the deeply poetic side of music, which Americans are only beginning to understand. When I go on the stage I am full of something to say. My music must say these things for me, just as I try to tell what the great composers thought. If music is not a language, it is nothing. Tell them all to feel and think music—yes, feel it and think it; then everybody will want to hear them.”

“Have you cultivated the unusual memory you have?” I asked him, as he relapsed into his chair and to his cigar after his last emphatic reply.

“No. No more than practice cultivates anything. Both memory and sight-reading were gifts with me. I can hardly remember when I could not read any instrumental or vocal score at sight, and just the same with memorizing. About as soon as I know music I remember it. I seldom forget. I remember, after I had been teaching the piano for very little money, and had failed in every effort to make myself known over here, in the year of 1882 I made up my mind over night to go to New York and make a last attempt—this time with my voice. I went to Walter Damrosch’s father,—kind old Damrosch,—trembling in my boots. He said, ‘Well, young man, what will you sing or play for me?’ ‘I did n’t bring anything along,’ I said, ‘but I can do anything at sight you would like to hear.’ He did n’t believe me, but after he brought out some big things which I read right off as though I had known them all my life, he not only believed me but gave me engagements at once; and so I got my start in America through Damrosch. I have never enjoyed all the money I have made since as I did that first seventy-five dollars Damrosch paid me. When he offered it I said, ‘What! Me! Seventy-five dollars to me for singing! Gott in Himmel!’ His first good pay is mighty sweet to the poor artist, because it means recognition as well as money.”

Mr. Heinrich paused, and seemed to be feeling again that first keen pleasure of appreciation, than which there is nothing sweeter in all life. It is the child in us, always wishing to stand at the head of the class, proudly receiving the prize for which we have worked.

“I believe in art for the people—I mean art that they can understand,” he went on. “All people understand what they know under the name of ‘expression,’ and I say again no man is an artist who has not that gift of expression. They may not understand the mechanical forms and all that, but they always understand the meaning—if any meaning is conveyed to them. Art is not a cold, lifeless thing to be put away off and adored. No! A man must take art to his heart if he is to love her. Now, I’ll have more thoughts than I’ll know what to do with if you urge me on this way. We’ll end this by your presenting my compliments to your readers, and telling them I, the foreign musician, love them and their country; the country that is fast becoming as truly musical as my own Fatherland—and do n’t forget to say good-by to them all, but add auf Wiedersehen, because I shall surely meet some of them in my recital wanderings.”

About Mr. Heinrich’s music there is always that wonderful spontaneity and variety of temperamental expression which, as he says, marks the musician in contradistinction to the performer of music. It makes no difference to what kind of an audience he appears, whether it be metropolitan, self-sufficient, hypercritical, or provincial, easily-pleased, uneducated musically, that poetic, natural, almost childlike element in the man and his music strikes home to their sympathies and intuitive comprehension. The Listener has watched every kind of an audience listen to Mr. Heinrich, but has never yet seen one to which he did not appeal in this way, and I emphasize this fact by way of urging upon teachers and students the absolute necessity for national temperamental development if we ever hope to produce such music and musicians as those who come to us from the old world. Music is still too much of an artifice with us, not yet enough of an art. We neglect the natural in running after the artificial, but, as Mr. Heinrich says, “it will come,” and the best evidence The Listener has ever received of this happy probability is Mr. Heinrich’s account of how his recitals are received at the present day, showing clearly racial progress in the art, indicating an intimate future understanding after several more generations have listened to such music as his with score in hand.

Mr. Heinrich, and a few others like him from his Fatherland, have helped to put us where we are now, and I hereby acknowledge The Listener’s share of the debt of gratitude we owe them.


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