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Old Fogy Redivivus

A day in musical New York!

Not a bad idea, was it? I hated to leave the country, with its rich after-glow of Summer, its color-haunted dells, and its pure, searching October air, but a paragraph in a New York daily, which I read quite by accident, decided me, and I dug out some good clothes from their fastness and spent an hour before my mirror debating whether I should wear the coat with the C-sharp minor colored collar or the one with the velvet cuffs in the sensuous key of E-flat minor. Being an admirer of Kapellmeister Kreisler (there’s a writer for you, that crazy Hoffmann!), I selected the former. I went over on the 7.30 a.m. P. R. R., and reached New York in exactly two hours. There’s a tempo for you! I mooned around looking for old landmarks that had vanished—twenty years since I saw Gotham, and then Theodore Thomas was king.

old-fogy.jpgI felt quite miserable and solitary, and, being hungry, went to a much-talked-of cafe, Luchow’s by name, on East Fourteenth Street. I saw Steinway & Sons across the street and reflected with sadness that the glorious days of Anton Rubinstein were over, and I still a useless encumberer of the earth. Then an arm was familiarly passed through mine and I was saluted by name.

“You ! why I thought you had passed away to the majority where Dussek reigns in ivory splendor.”

I turned and discovered my young friend—I knew his grandfather years ago—Sledge, a pianist, a bad pianist, and an alleged critic of music. He calls himself “a music critic.” Pshaw! I was not wonderfully warm in my greeting, and the lad noticed it.

“Never mind my fun, Mr. Fogy. Grandpa and you playing Moscheles’ ‘Hommage à Fromage,’ or something like that, is my earliest and most revered memory. How are you? What can I do for you? Over for a day’s music? Well, I represent the ‘Weekly Whiplash’ and can get you tickets for anything from hell to Hoboken.”

Now, if there is anything I dislike, it is flippancy or profanity, and this young man had both to a major degree. Besides, I loathe the modern musical journalist, flying his flag one week for one piano house and scarifying it the next in choice Billingsgate.

“Oh, come into Luchow’s and eat some beer,” impatiently interrupted my companion, and, like the good-natured old man that I am, I was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And how I regretted it afterward! I am cynical enough, forsooth, but what I heard that afternoon surpassed my comprehension. I knew that artistic matters were at a low ebb in New York, yet I never realized the lowness thereof until then. I was introduced to a half dozen smartly dressed men, some beardless, some middle-aged, and all dissipated looking. They regarded me with curiosity, and I could hear them whispering about my clothes. I got off a few feeble jokes on the subject, pointing to my C-sharp minor colored collar. A yawn traversed the table.

“Ah, who has the courage to read Hoffmann, nowadays?” asked a boyish-looking rake. I confessed that I had. He eyed me with an amused smile that caused me to fire up. I opened on him. He ordered a round of drinks. I told him that the curse of the generation was its cold-blooded indifference, its lack of artistic conscience. The latter word caused a sleepy, fat man with spectacles to wake up.

“Conscience, who said conscience? Is there such a thing in art any more?” I was delighted for the backing of a stranger, but he calmly ignored me and continued:

“Newspapers rule the musical world, and woe betide the artist who does not submit to his masters. Conscience, pooh-pooh! Boodle, lots of it, makes most artistic reputations. A pianist is boomed a year ahead, like Paderewski, for instance. Paragraphs subtly hinting of his enormous success, or his enormous hair, or his enormous fingers, or his enormous technic——”

“Give us a fermata on your enormous story, Jenkins. Every one knows you are disgruntled because the ‘Whiplash’ attacks your judgment.” This from another journalist.

Jenkins looked sourly at my friend Sledge, but that shy young person behaved most nonchalantly. He whistled and offered Jenkins a cigar. It was accepted. I was disgusted, and then they all fell to quarreling over Tschaikowsky. I listened with amazement.

Tschaikowsky,” I heard, “Tschaikowsky is the last word in music. His symphonies, his symphonic poems, are a superb condensation of all that Beethoven knew and Wagner felt. He has ten times more technic for the orchestra than Berlioz or Wagner, and it is a pity he was a suicide—-” ” How,” I cried, “Tschaikowsky a suicide?” They did n’t even answer me.

“He might have outlived the last movement of that B-minor symphony, the suicide symphony, and if he had we would have had another ninth symphony.” I arose indignant at such blasphemy, but was pushed back in my seat by Sledge. “What a pity Beethoven did not live to hear a man who carried to its utmost the expression of the emotions!” I now snorted with rage. Sledge could no longer control me.

“Yes, gentlemen,” I shouted; “utmost expression of the emotions, but what sort of emotions? What sort, I repeat, of shameful, morbid emotions?” The table was quiet again; a single word had caught it. “Oh, Mr. Fogy, you are not so very Wissahickon after all, are you? You know the inside story, then?” cried Sledge. But I would not be interrupted. I stormed on.

“I know nothing about any story and don’t care to know it. I come of a generation of musicians that concerned itself little with the scandals and private life of composers, but lots with their music and its meanings.” “Go it, Fogy,” called out Sledge, hammering the table with his Seidl. “I believe that some composers should be put in jail for the villainies they smuggle into their score. This Tschaikowsky of yours—this Russian—was a wretch. He turned the prettiness and favor and noble tragedy of Shakspere’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ into a bawd’s tale; a tale of brutal, vile lust; for such passion as he depicts is not love. He took ‘Hamlet’ and transformed him from a melancholy, a philosophizing Dane into a yelling man, a man of the steppes, soaked with vodka and red-handed from butchery. Hamlet, forsooth! Those twelve strokes of the bell are the veriest melodrama. And ‘Francesca da Rimini’—who has not read of the gentle, love lorn pair in Dante’s priceless poem; and how they read no more from the pages of their book, their very glances glued with love? What doth your Tschaikowsky with this Old World tale? Alas! you know full well. He tears it limb from limb. He makes over the lovers into two monstrous Cossacks, who gibber and squeak at each other while reading some obscene volume. Why, they are too much interested in the pictures to think of love. Then their dead carcasses are whirled aloft on screaming flames of hell, and sent whizzing into a spiral eternity.”

“Bravo! bravo! great! I tell you he’s great, your friend. Keep it up old man. Your description beats Dante and Tschaikowsky combined!” I was not to be lured from my theme, and, stopping only to take breath and a fresh dip of my beak into the Pilsner, I went on:

“His ‘Manfrell’ is a libel on Byron, who was a libel on God.” “Byron, too,” murmured Jenkins. “Yes, Byron, another blasphemer. The six symphonies are caricatures of the symphonic form. Their themes are for the most part unfitted for treatment, and in each and every one the boor and the devil break out and dance with uncouth, lascivious gestures. This musical drunkenness; this eternal license; this want of repose, refinement, musical feeling—all these we are to believe make great music. I’ll not admit it, gentlemen; I’ll not admit it! The piano concerto—I only know one—with its fragmentary tunes; its dislocated, jaw-breaking rhythms, is ugly music; plain, ugly music. It is as if the composer were endeavoring to set to melody the consonants of his name. There’s a name for you, Tschaikowsky! ‘Shriekhoarsely’ is more like it.” There was more banging of steins, and I really thought Jenkins would go off in an apoplectic fit, he was laughing so.

“The songs are barbarous, the piano-solo pieces a muddle of confused difficulties and childish melodies. You call it naïveté. I call it puerility. I never saw a man that was less capable of developing a theme than Tschaikowsky. Compare him to Rubinstein and you insult that great master. Yet Rubinstein is neglected for the new man simply because, with your depraved taste, you must have lots of red pepper, high spices, rum, and an orchestral color that fairly blisters the eye. You call it color. I call it chromatic madness. Just watch this agile fellow. He lays hold on a subject, some Russian volks melody. He gums it and bolts it before it is half chewed. He has not the logical charm of Beethoven—ah, what Jovian repose; what keen analysis! He has not the logic, minus the charm, of Brahms; he never smells of the pure, open air, like Dvorak—a milkman’s composer; nor is Tschaikowsky master of the pictorial counterpoint of Wagner. All is froth and fury, oaths, grimaces, yelling, hallooing like drunken Kalmucks, and when he writes a slow movement it is with a pen dipped in molasses. I do n’t wish to be unjust to your ‘modern music lord,’ as some affected idiot calls him; but, really, to make a god of a man who has not mastered his material and has nothing to offer his hearers but blasphemy, vulgarity, brutality, evil passions like hatred, concupiscence, horrid pride,—indeed, all the seven deadly sins are mirrored in his scores,—is too much for my nerves. Is this your god of modern music? If so, give me Wagner in preference. Wagner, thank the fates, is no hypocrite. He says out what he means, and he usually means something nasty. Tschaikowsky, on the contrary, taking advantage of the peculiar medium in which he works, tells the most awful, the most sickening, the most immoral stories; and if he had printed them in type, he would have been knouted and exiled to Siberia. If—-“

“Time to close up,” said the waiter. I was alone. The others had fled. I had been mumbling with closed eyes for hours. Wait until I catch that Sledge!

Old Fogy.


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