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Critical Comment.


The time is past when our public marveled at the amazing performances of infant-phenomena. Nowadays these prodigies are so plentiful that, if a youngster can not recite a poem, sing a song, or play a piece on the piano or violin he is considered extraordinarily stupid.

It seems to have become almost a principle that such precocity proves merely temporary, for most of these wonder-children sink to the level of the commonplace as soon as they near the end of their teens. This decad has been particularly prolific in its crop of Lilliputian marvels, yet of the vast band but an infinitely small proportion have achieved international significance, the rest wear glasses, play in orchestras, or teach for a couple of shillings an hour.

The rare instances in which it has been given a wonder-child to develop its talent proportionately with its age are easily counted on the fingers of one hand. The most potent examples appear in the persons of Mozart, Wieniawski, Liszt, and, in more modern times, Josef Hoffmann. Other contemporary “prodigies” whose future will be watched with much interest are Bronislaw, Hubermann, the violinist, and Paula Szalit, the tiny pianist who created a sensation in Germany.

Nobody has been able to account for the anachronistic trick of nature that provides juvenile bodies with mature souls, and nobody can suggest a method for the perpetuation and proper development of these miracles.

A prominent writer on musical topics recently said: “Nature imposes no penalty on the rightful use of her powers, but, on the contrary, offers a reward for those who never abuse her.”

That is the cardinal precept which should guide teachers and parents in their treatment of precocious musical talent.

He had played for his lordship’s levee,
He had played for her ladyship’s whim,
Till the poor little head grew heavy
And the poor little brain would swim.

And the face grew peaked and eerie
And the large eyes strange and bright,
And they said,—too late,—” He is weary;
He shall rest for at least to-night.”

But at dawn, when the birds were waking,
As they watched in the silent room,
With the sound of a strained cord breaking,
A something snapped in the gloom.

‘Twas a string of his violoncello,
And they heard him stir in his bed.
“Make room for a tired little fellow,
Kind God,” was the last he said.
—Austin Dobson.


What a bugbear to young musicians is that word!

When they apply to managers, to conservatory directors, to orchestra leaders, it is always the obstacle “experience” that has to be dodged or climbed.

Singers especially have a hard row to hoe in that regard, and operatic managers intrench themselves behind the convenient word and refuse to accept in its place even such adequate substitutes as a finished voice, histrionic talent, physical fitness, and quick comprehension.

A singer said recently: “Surely, the chance to come on the stage and sing a phrase such as ‘The carriage is ready,’ or ‘His Majesty comes,’ or ‘Heaven be gracious to my poor lady,’ can not fit a singer for such rô1es as Isolde, Margaretha, Elsa, Violetta, and Mignon. If managers give one no chance, where on earth is a singer to gain this precious “experience?’”

Young musicians are an enthusiastic folk, but often unpractical, and hence they do not readily comprehend the reason why “experience” is frequently preferable to talent.

A conservatory director is averse to engaging young teachers for the same reason that the manager refuses

untried singers. Enthusiasm that has not been routined into practical lines can often do more harm than good.

The ability to play or sing well by no means denotes possession of pedagogic ability. The trite saying that “Only a player can teach” has been upset in practice so often that it has become a mere sophism, used by teachers who are executants, against those of their colleagues either less fortunate or more busy than themselves.

There is a practical side to every art, and until it has been thoroughly mastered by the tyro he should never hope to combat successfully against “experience.”

Some persons are very unjust in their criticism of pianists. Extraneous factors in the peformance (sic) of a singer, a violinist, or a violoncellist are always taken into consideration, but the poor pianist is judged solely by the specific effects he produces.

A singer with a cold, or one who is hampered by acoustic drawbacks; a violinist whose instrument is poor, or who is hampered on a wet day by the “howling” of his strings; a violoncellist whose tone is drowned in the indiscreet roar of a great orchestra—all these are excused by even an unmusical audience.

But the pianist?

In the first place, he seldom plays the same piano at different concerts. Once it is a hard-, again an easy-actioned instrument. The pedals are never exactly alike on different pianos. The quality of tone certainly varies, and even more so the volume of sound.

It is well to remember these things, and slightly to temper observation with inference, when estimating a pianist’s worth.

Were Bülow and Liszt alive to-day, they would feel rather discouraged to observe how very little fruit their efforts have borne, to improve the social position of artists. The world at large still regards the musician as a sentimental, mooning imbecile who has no other purpose in life than to sit in the twilight and sing, play, or compose minor melodies.

I once asked Busoni whether he liked to teach. “It is better to take than to give,” he paraphrased, by way of answer.



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You are reading Critical Comment. from the November, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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