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Letters to Pupils

J.S. Van Cleve

M. G. L.—You ask if it is necessary to be able to transpose music, because singers so often wish their accompaniments transposed. Yes; I consider it extremely desirable, and there are two customs which were quite universal in the old days, which, despite the plenitude of our modern resources, we seem to have lost. One is the power to transpose at sight, and the other is the power to improvise in strict forms. When I was a young man I was nonplused and annoyed at finding that it was easier for me to think music in certain keys—such as C, G, F, D, B-flat—than in other keys—such as F-sharp, B, D-flat, and the like. I determined to remove this inequality, and so took a sonata of Beethoven which I knew well—viz., the “Pathetique,” in C-minor, Op. 13, and transposed it into all the twelve minor keys. I was amazed to find how lucid all the shadowy nooks became.

At present I am not able to detect the slightest difference in my power to think the twenty-four different keys. It is recorded that Beethoven, at the age of thirteen, could play the forty eight preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavichord by heart and transpose them into any required key. This is a little hard to believe, even of Beethoven; but I would advise you to cultivate the power of transposing, for this you must do even when you passively follow a classical composition; and as for enjoying Liszt and Wagner, Tschaikowsky or Rimsky- Korsakoff, how will you do it without a highly developed harmonic sense?


T. R. Y.—Your question as to how you shall master the tough, difficult spots in your music interests me, for I consider it a practical question of primary importance. You touch sensitively an experience which I have often had myself in my own labors as pianist, and I dare say no one that ever lived, from Liszt down to the most halting and sluggish of players, who can not get notes to bestir themselves more expeditiously than four a second, has had a similar experience. There is not a single composition in my repertoire, from those as easy as Schumann’s “Träumerei” or Mendelssohn’s Ninth Song without Words to Chopin’s “Polonaise” in A-flat or Liszt’s “Tannhäuser March,” which has not passages, long or short, which oppose a tantalizing obstruction to the labor of performance. I will divide what I have to say to you under three heads: The first requisite of good playing is keen analysis. Analysis is a mental process, and implies powers of discrimination and prolonged attention. You must first see with minute and exact perception just what tones the composer has used, and how he has put them together. This knowledge, furthermore, must be so thoroughly inwrought and so many times repeated that it sinks into the subconscious brain, and comes instantly at a general command of the mind without any sense of recalling details. The whole cluster of ideas must come by a single volition as a cluster of grapes will come when you pick up the stem.

Second. When you have done the mental work of analysis and committing to memory, the next step is to do precisely the same thing for the fingers which you have already done for the brain. Go over the composition with laborious minuteness, determining, with strict regard to that elusive but interesting mechanism generated by the hand in its relation to the keyboard, precisely what action of the fingers shall be made in order to pronounce the tones. This, again, you must repeat until it becomes automatic—is, as we say, second nature.

Never grudge the expenditure of time in the securing of finish, fluency, accuracy, ease. I think that it may be safely stated, as a principle in piano-playing, that nothing except what goes beyond the dimensions and structure of a given hand is beyond the attainment of the hand’s possessor, if only behind the hand there is a judicious and patient mind. It must be judicious and patient. The most alert judgment is necessary for any one who would practice effectively, to determine just where the time shall be spent. I believe it is no exaggeration to say that most, if not all of us, waste from a quarter to a half of our time in a vague inattention; a diffused, negative luminosity, instead of a burning focus-point. We keep bestirring ourselves for the two hours that we sit in front of the piano, but we do not turn every minute to account by applying our thoughts steadily to the places that need most attention. We practice carelessly many passages which scarcely need it, and do not take by any means time enough for the more intricate passages. I may without exaggeration say that the amount of time demanded by the easiest and the most difficult detail will vary easily from one to one hundred. Take, for instance, the rapid figure of sixteenths for the left hand in Chopin’s G major “Prelude,” Opus 28, No. 3, which constitutes the chief feature of that work, and it is treacherously difficult. I was told by my friend, Theodor Bohlmann, in Cincinnati, that Arthur Friedheim once played a single measure of this passage 5000 times consecutively. I do not know, for I was not there, and for this I thank heaven.

Again, every concert pianist knows the terrific passage of octaves for the left hand in sixteenths in the E-major episode of Chopin’s “Polonaise” in A-flat, Opus 53. I read somewhere that Tausig once practiced this passage for eight hours. These statements may be exaggerations, but they illustrate an indubitable fact—namely, that perfection in art means an appalling amount of patience applied to minute details. I may close this disquisition by a maxim of encouragement: Nothing is so hard that you can not liquefy it, if you will put on an intense current of electric attention and keep it there long enough.


H. S.—You ask me if I consider the study of theory necessary for a pianist. If there were a word stronger than the word “yes” I should employ it, and I believe I would ask a calliope to lend me its steam-breath to add stentorian loudness to my reply. Of course, a pianist needs to understand theory. Every musician needs to understand theory. If there is any one element in the musical education of Americans which is weaker than their knowledge of theory I am not aware what it is. The Bible tells us that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, while sojourning in the city of Sodom, often felt his “righteous soul vexed” by the sins of the citizens, and I have had my esthetic sense many a time and oft irritated by the nettles of unmusicality in relation to our flocks of music students which my work as teacher in various schools and as public music critic has forced upon me. Believe me, the strong root from which flourishes up so much bad piano playing as may still be heard in the United States, especially in the smaller cities and towns, North and South, is the indolent spirit which prevents our students from making their minds really musical by the study of theory. Musical grammar and rhetoric are peculiarly difficult subjects. It seems as if nature had been jealous of our enjoyments and had hedged about all her choicest pleasures with bristling and thorny difficulties. But, then, consider the prize; endure the pain, and the pleasure is sure to follow. But there is this benevolent condition of things: that the pain is severest at first and steadily diminishes with each new increment of knowledge and skill, whereas the pleasure, faint at first, increases like an oil-fed flame. I believe that a mature-minded musician generally has lost the power to conceive of the pain which he felt in his puzzled and muddled brain when, as a beginner, he strove to grasp the abstract mathematical relations of tones. The delight, however, which one experiences when the mental sight is keen enough to look through an intricate tone-structure, such as the “St. Anthony Variations” of Brahms, the fugue of Beethoven’s Opus 110, Bach’s “Chromatic Fantaisie and Fugue,” or Wagner’s “Death of Siegfried,” is so exalted and so indestructible that for analogy I should have to cite the experience of the traveler who toils to the summit of a rugged mountain and enjoys a sublime landscape. Understand me: I do not say that music should never be simple or even shallow. I do not say that there is anything wrong in using it for a refreshing recreation or an agreeable pas time; but I take it for granted that you are a student, ambitious and in earnest; and I warn you, therefore, not to send all your energies along the channels of technical development. I do not underrate technic; facility in handling a keyboard is necessary for any musical work, and must be carried to a high degree if you expect at all to astonish your hearers; but I am trying to point out to you in what way you can make your music most delightful and serviceable to yourself. It is only by feeling exactly and deeply just what the composer had in his mind when the tones took form that you can really get the true flavor of music. Such ideas as triads, chords of the seventh, resolutions, keys, modulations, suspensions, motives, phrases, periods, imitations, transpositions, augmentations, diminutions, and all the familiar structural forms, such as dances, marches, sonatas, rondos, nocturnes, and, to some extent at least, fugues, should be habitual conceptions of your mind. But you think, doubtless, this represents a great deal of labor. So, indeed, it does; but when you hear a smooth performance of Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccioso,” or Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” or Chopin’s “Ballade” in A-flat, you are enjoying that which has cost a vast number of hours spent in patient, accurate, even painful, labor. The knowledge of theory is to the mind exactly what technic is to the body. Indeed, it is mental technic. In order to make a foundation sufficiently firm for the new post-office in Chicago they are driving piles to the depth of a hundred feet. These piles are great, solid beams, which are forced down through the clay and gravel, and will remain there out of sight for the next century; yet they will sustain in solid repose the magnificent structure of Uncle Sam’s place of business. Any day, passing along Clark Street, you may hear the measured throbbing and thumping of the mighty pile-drivers, which are forcing the beams into their places. Set the patient pile-drivers to work upon your own head, and imbed the fundamental principles of music in your subconscious brain, and one day you will realize that music has become something more than a mere vague, temporary pleasantness, and is a veritable breath of heaven.


To B. L.—So you wish to know, do you, how you are to determine whether a composition is in a major or a minor key? It is well that you are deep-minded enough to have at least this much thirst for theory. It is about one of the most simple and rudimentary of things; however, to a traveler burning with thirst even a teaspoonful of water is precious. The quandary you are in is excusable in you as a pupil, but will you try to fancy my amazement when I discovered the other day, on a program sent me by a prominent Chicago teacher, the statement that the second movement of Schumann’s piano concerto is in D minor? Schumann’s one great piano concerto begins in A minor and ends in A major, while the second movement is most palpably in F major. This gentleman gets a high price for his didactic hours, and plays piano well. It was a piece of most dreadful carelessness for him to mistake F major for D minor, merely because the signature, one flat, is the same. The way to tell is this: Inspect the music,—that is, analyze the chords for a few measures,—and as soon as you find a triad alternating with the dominant seventh which belongs to it, you have ascertained the key. Every dominant seventh belongs to a major and a minor triad. If you do not know what a dominant seventh is, and to what triads it should belong, hunt up any fundamental harmony book and find out by reading the chapter on the dominant seventh. I do not consider it any more excusable in a musician to be uncertain whether the key is major or minor than it would be in a man professing to be educated to use a plural subject with a singular verb, or to employ a participle for the past tense and decorate his conversation with such beauties of phrases as “I done it” or “I seen him.” Congressman Rusk was much laughed at because, when once complimented for some worthy action, he replied, with an exemplary modest disclaimer, “I seen my duty and I done it.”



—Studies regularly conducted, rules framed by skilful singers who were at the same time well grounded musicians, exercises proportioned to the nature and the capabilities of each voice; all these studied patiently —here is the whole secret of the famous Italian school.— Henri Lavoix.


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