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Dr. William Mason - The Nestor of American Musicians.

Dr. William Mason’s Reminiscences.

william-mason.jpgOf all the prominent figures in American music none have so attractive and genial a personality as Dr. William Mason, whose professional life has extended over half a century, spent in this country and abroad: a life and labors which have given him an international reputation and contributed largely to the development of musical interests and musical education in the United States.

The son of a father, Lowell Mason, whose name and work are closely associated with the most important musical activities of American music in the first half of the previous century, Dr. Mason’s musical career may be said to have begun, when “at the age of seven,” as he relates, his father placed him on the organ-bench, and he played the accompaniment while the choir sang “Boylston,” one of the best of the famous tunes that Lowell Mason has handed down to Christian worship.

Early dispatched to Europe to make himself one with the advanced art of Germany, Dr. Mason met, on equal terms, almost every living celebrity of the day; and in his musical home in Steinway Hall, New York City, during his entire career as an original and innovating teacher of music, he has acted as Dean of the New York musicians and given the right hand of fellowship to every foreign artist that has visited our shores.

Naturally there has been the strongest kind of a demand for Dr. Mason to put in permanent form his recollections of the great artists, composers, teachers, conductors, and other musical celebrities whom he has known intimately, and to give his impressions of the various movements which have made musical history during the period of his long life, and to which he himself contributed a share. This has been done in a work, “Memoirs of a Musical Life,” to be issued this month by the Century Company, from advance sheets of which The Etude has been given the privilege of making some selections of interest to its readers.

Dr. Mason’s book, as may be expected, includes memories of the most famous names in modern music,—from his delicate picture of Moritz Hauptmann, on whose “stove, a regular old-fashioned German structure of porcelain nearly as high as the ceiling, there was always a row of apples in process of slow baking,” to his unexpected addition to the Brahms ana,—every picture is graphic and delightful. So much has been said about Liszt’s friendship for Brahms that we quote the description of their first meeting verbatim:

“On one evening early in June, 1853, Liszt sent us word to come up to the Altenburg next morning, as he expected a visit from a young man who was said to have great talent as a pianist and composer, and whose name was Johannes Brahms. He was to come accompanied by Eduard Remenyi.

“The next morning, on going to the Altenburg with Klindworth, we found Brahms and Remenyi already in the reception-room with Raff and Pruckner. After greeting the new-comers, of whom Remenyi was known to us by reputation, I strolled over to a table on which were lying some manuscripts of music. They were several of Brahms’s yet unpublished compositions, and I began turning over the leaves of the uppermost in the pile. It was the piano solo opus 4, ‘Scherzo, E-flat Minor,’ and, as I remember, the writing was so illegible that I thought to myself that if I had occasion to study it I should be obliged first to make a copy of it. Finally Liszt came down, and after some general conversation he turned to Brahms and said: ‘We are interested to hear some of your compositions whenever you are ready and feel inclined to play them.’



Brahms, who was evidently very nervous, protested that it was quite impossible for him to play while in such a disconcerted state, and,

notwithstanding the earnest solicitations of both Liszt and Remenyi, could not be persuaded to approach the piano. Liszt, seeing that no progress was being made, went over to the table, and taking up the first piece at hand, the illegible scherzo, and saying: ‘Well, I shall have to play,’ placed the manuscript on the piano-desk.

“He read it off in such a marvelous way—at the same time carrying on a running accompaniment of audible criticism of the music—that Brahms was amazed and delighted. Raff thought, and so expressed himself, that certain parts of this scherzo suggested the Chopin ‘Scherzo in B-flat Minor’ but it seemed to me that the likeness was too slight to deserve serious consideration. Brahms said that he had never seen or heard any of Chopin’s compositions. Liszt also played a part of Brahms’s ‘C-major Sonata,’ opus I.



“A little later some one asked Liszt to play his own sonata, a work which was quite recent at that time, and of which he was very fond. Without hesitation, he sat down and began playing. As he progressed he came to a very expressive part of the sonata, which he always imbued with extreme pathos, and in which he looked for the especial interest and sympathy of his listeners. Casting a glance at Brahms, he found that the latter was dozing in his chair. Liszt continued playing to the end of the sonata, then rose and left the room. I was in such a position that Brahms was hidden from my view, but I was aware that something unusual had taken place, and I think it was Remenyi who afterward told me what it was.”

The pictures of Weimar life, in which Mason shared with Raff and Klindworth the honor of being Liszt’s only pupils, are delightful. There is the description of Liszt himself:


LISZT IN 1854. 

“The best impression of Liszt’s appearance at that time is conveyed by the picture which shows him approaching the Altenburg. His back is turned; nevertheless, there is a certain something which shows the man as he was better even than those portraits in which his features are clearly reproduced. The picture gives his gait, his figure, and his general appearance. There is his tall, lank form, his high hat set a little to one side, and his arm a trifle akimbo. He had piercing eyes. His hair was very dark, but not black. He wore it long, just as he did in his older days. It came almost down to his shoulders, and was cut off square at the bottom. He had it cut frequently, so as to keep it at about the same length. That was a point about which he was very particular.”

Then another genre picture, in which Liszt invites himself and friends to breakfast with his pupils, and suggests the bill of fare: “rolls, caviar, and herring.” After breakfast they all go walking in the muddy little garden. Every detail about “the master” is drawn with a loving hand; perhaps none is more interesting than the following glimpse into that inner life about which men, and especially musicians, are prone to say little:



“Deep beneath the surface there was in Liszt’s organization a religious trend which manifested itself openly now and then, and there were occasions upon which his contrition displayed itself to an inordinate degree. Joachim Raff, long his intimate friend and associate, told me that these periods were sometimes of considerable duration, and while they lasted he would seek solitude, and, going frequently to church, would throw himself upon the flagstones before a Muttergottesbild, and remain for hours, as Raff expressed it, so deeply absorbed as to be utterly unconscious ofevents (sic) occurring in his presence.

Rubinstein also told me that on one occasion he had been a witness of such an act on the part of Liszt. One afternoon at dusk they were walking together in the cathedral at Cologne, and quite suddenly Rubinstein missed Liszt, who had disappeared in a mysterious way. He searched for quite awhile through the many secluded nooks and corners of the immense building, and finally found Liszt kneeling before a prie-dieu, so deeply engrossed that Rubinstein had not the heart to disturb him, and so left the building alone.”

Not less fresh and illuminating is Dr. Mason’s account of his call on Wagner, whose brother had not thought the relationship of sufficient honor to mention it, but who gave the young American a letter to the exiled composer (at the close of his stay in Leipzig), who was then established in Zurich.

Wagner “looked much more like an American than a German” to Dr. Mason, and volunteered such an “interview” as would have crazed a journal reporter with joy. He wound up with a present of his autograph.

Dr. Mason is not less mindful of the development of music in New York. His own connection with Theodore Thomas in his early days marks the very foundation of our modern concert-giving.

“From the time that Thomas took the leadership free and untrammeled the quartet improved rapidly. His dominating influence was felt and acknowledged by us all. Moreover, he rapidly developed a talent for making programs by putting pieces into the right order of sequence, thus avoiding incongruities. He brought this art to perfection in the arrangement of his symphony concert programs.

“Our viola, Matzka, was also an excellent musician, and for many years the first viola of the Philharmonic Orchestra. Mosenthal, who played second violin, achieved a wide reputation as composer and conductor, in which latter capacity he did splendid work for the Mendelssohn Glee Club. He was also one of the best teachers of piano and violin in New York.



“Thomas’s fame as a conductor has entirely overshadowed his earlier reputation as a violinist. He had a large tone, the tone of a player of the highest rank. He lacked the perfect finish of a great violinist, but he played in a large, quiet, and reposeful manner. This seemed to pass from his violin-playing into his conducting, in which there is the same sense of largeness and dignity, coupled, however, with the artistic finish which he lacked as a violinist. He is a very great conductor, the greatest we have ever had here, not only in the Beethoven symphonies and other classical music, but in Liszt, Wagner, and the extreme moderns. Why should he not conduct Wagner as well as anybody else, or better? Everything is large about Wagner, and everything is large about Thomas. His rates of tempo are in accord with those of the most celebrated conductors whom I heard fifty years ago. In modern times the tendency has been toward an increased rate of speed, and this detracts in large measure from the impressiveness of the works, especially those of Mozart, Beethoven, von Weber, and others.

“That Thomas had entire confidence in himself was shown in the outset of his career. One evening, as he came home tired out from his work, and after dinner had settled himself in a comfortable place for a good rest, a message came to him from the Academy of Music, about two blocks away from his house in East Twelfth Street. An opera season was in progress there, and, what was not unusual, the management was in financial difficulties. Anschutz, who was conductor of the orchestra, had refused to take the desk unless paid what was due him. The orchestra was in its place, the audience was seated, but there was no conductor. Would Thomas come to the rescue? He had never conducted opera, and the work for the evening’s performance was an opera with which he was unfamiliar. Here was a life’s opportunity, and Thomas was equal to the occasion. He thought for a moment, then said: ‘I will.’ He rose quickly, got himself into his dress-suit, hurried to the Academy of Music, and conducted the opera as if it were a common experience. He was not a man to say: ‘Give me time until next week.’ He was always ready for every opportunity.”

Many were the odd experiences which reached Dr. Mason in his intercourse with the stars who have tasted his hospitality; this of Paderewski has all the value of the unexpected:

“‘I am composing a set of variations on “Yankee Doodle,”’ said the Polish artist, ‘and shall dedicate them to you.’ He looked at me, and thought he saw a curious expression in my face,—although I was quite unaware of such a thing,—and continued: ‘You don’t like it!’

“‘Oh, I do’ I protested, ‘and esteem the dedication as a great honor.’

“‘I see you don’t,’ he said.

“‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I already have one “Yankee Doodle” from Rubinstein, and was thinking that the coincidence of your dedicating me another was very curious, that is all. Let me explain to you that “Yankee Doodle” does not stand in the same relation to the United States as “God Save the Queen” to England, “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” to Austria, or the “Marseillaise” to France. “Yankee Doodle” was written by an Englishman in derision of us.’ I am afraid that my remarks discouraged him, for he never finished the composition. He played it to me as far as he had progressed with it, and it is certainly the best treatment of the theme I have ever heard. He had given it respectability, and, indeed, he told me that he really liked the tune.”

Here is another, in a sadder strain, which brings to our view the figure of the great Russian pianist: “Just before leaving Weimar I had asked Rubinstein to write in my autograph-book, and he immediately complied.

“The theme, which he wrote in the key of E-flat major, is characteristic of him. It is strong, and has a vigorous upward movement. It suggests the young man just starting out in life, with the vitality and courage of early manhood. It is dated ‘Weymar, le 5, Juin, 1854.’

“I did not see Rubinstein again until 1873, the year of his visit to this country. Happening in his room one day with my book, the idea occurred to me of asking him to write in it again, under his former signature. For some reason he was averse to doing so, but finally consented. At a glance the second theme seems like the first, but on examination the difference will appear. He has transposed the theme to E-flat minor, and its character is entirely changed. The young man has reached the summit of the hill and realizes that he is now upon the descent. The allegro maestoso of former years has changed to an adagio, and, as Rubinstein aptly writes, it is ‘not the same.’”

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