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The Making of an Artist: A Second Talk with Mark Hambourg

“HAVE I some more ideas for readers of THE ETUDE?” repeated Mark Hambourg, settling back with his inevitable Russian cigarette. “I might ask in turn is there any time that an artist is likely to have more ideas than when he is en tour? None but the musician knows the sensation of busy loneliness when the day is divided among the excitement of public appearances, and the fatigue of travel, and an ever-present solitude. Besides,” he added with a covert smile, “considering the result of my talk with you for THE ETUDE,1 is something more than a pleasure. That talk produced a bit of a sensation in England; nearly all the papers quoted from it, some printed it in its entirety, and my idea on the performance of Beethoven gained a new critical attitude for me when I played his works in London last spring. Here in the States and Canada I find THE ETUDE everywhere. But to our theme, and an important phase of it, too, to begin with.”

Making a Repertoire.

“The making of a repertoire is of prime importance with the young pianist. The first thing that enters the mind in the consideration of this matter is that one can no longer go on with merely a dozen pieces. In these days of patent appliances, people can play everything for themselves with the aid of mechanical devices, and the formality of study for those who would be well informed in pianoforte literature, has been, in a way, narrowed down to a matter of rolls and cylinders. At no period in the history of his instrument has it been so necessary for the pianist to include the novel as well as the standard in his repertory. Some things, masterpieces, are always immortal. But to my way of thinking, we are sticking too closely to convention. Every young man and woman should be learning new things; this is the only way that talent will come to light, talent of the creative class that composes, and of the executive that gives it artistic expression. The concert public is very limited.

“Think of the effect upon it, of listening to the same things year after year. From the educational point of view, it is very necessary for pupils to hear these new things. An artist is not only one who gives pleasure, but an educator. He gives years of study to his art as an interpretant, his average of musical education is higher. It is in these respects that his playing differs from that of the teacher. He must analyze and he must study. Beyond these things worked out in exhaustive completeness, his audience, in its appreciation, acts as a vital spark, stirring him to higher effort in performance.”


Listen to Good Playing, and Learn!

“The hearing by pupils of good concert pianists has been urged often and again, but it can never be urged too frequently. By such a course the style is broadened, the taste grows more eclectic, and we gain an idea of the interpretation of things from various points of view. Take the best, and throw the rest away. But my experience has been this: that true appreciation grows only with years and experience. Youth will have its fling and fault finding, but the older we get the more good we find in things. Every good thought is valuable, we can learn from all. The pupil may suggest to his teacher. This suggestion may be in a way hit upon by accident, but it is none the less a valuable suggestion because of that. I remember one instance, when a pupil, studious and attentive, but without especial talent, gave to Leschetizky a fuller idea of the trill in Chopin’s Funeral March, something that he himself had, perhaps, heard millions of times. The main point in such instances is to grasp the information, no matter how it is presented or who presents it to us.”

Listen to Singers.

“Listening to singers is of vital importance to the pianist, for from them we can learn a vast deal in fine points in phrasing, sustaining, color, and finish in the delivery of melody, and in the management of crescendo and diminuendo. Never play ahead pianissimo or fortissimo, but observe the course of the singer or violinist, when he takes a note it vibrates and goes through you. Singers may possess faults, too often characteristic ones, of disregard of time and the breaking off in the middle of a phrase; but I have been listening to them for many years, and have found the opportunity to gain from them something which I did not have. Without these very studies, scales are vibrations without meaning. The pianist must declaim, for music is speech. Dramatic instinct we must possess if we would gain our point.”

Legitimate Playing of Legitimate Music.

“What is legitimate music? is another question often asked. To my way of thinking, all music is legitimate. But there is another question, the legitimate playing of ‘legitimate’ music, that is far more vexing. By ‘legitimate’ playing is too often meant set and dried mathematics. This, a class, and unfortunately a numerous one, adhere to with set and bound idea. To such, this ‘legitimate’ playing means notes and nothing else, and the moment that feeling enters in, standard and tradition are overset. Going along such lines, how is it possible to put passion into the performance of Beethoven and Schumann? It is not. And yet the work of these great masters is instinct and alive with this very passion that ‘legitimists’ would destroy. Read between the lines and not alone on them. Of course, I would object to changing chords or harmonies, but a little more or less pedaling than is indicated, the treatment of a note, etc., these are liberties that may be allowed us. But I would not advise a young pupil to embark on freedom of interpretation, for he might wreck his performance through chaos and incoherency. Knowledge of how far one may go, and the healthful limit of self-restraint, come only through good taste, and the care that is born of experience. Rhythm is pulsation and life, and not enough attention can be paid to it. A great artist plays tempo rubato, but in the end always comes out even.”

Concentration in Thought and Work.

“The student must realize the importance of concentration of thought in study as well as in public performance, if he would gain either advance or appreciation. The moment that thought strays, error creeps in when we are at work; when we are before the public we lose attention in the instant that the mind loses its grasp on the composition in hand. Errors that we acquire are much more difficult to rid ourselves of, as we very well know, than a gain in improvement. But no matter how carefully we may study, unless we carry this same rule with us into the concert-room, we are beset by two dangers—we fail to hold the attention of our hearers, because we do not give a proper degree of it ourselves, and we suffer from the too common, and assuredly terrible malady, called stage-fright. There is no easier way to handicap oneself, and may be, completely, by this latter, than by thinking not of the thing you are doing, but of the people you are doing it before. A certain amount of nervous anxiety prior to appearing is really necessary to the securing of a good performance, but this phase of nervousness and stage-right, which is an unnecessary condition, are widely opposite. To my way of thinking, and speaking from experience, if one thoroughly knows a thing—and none should think of performing anything in public that he has not completely grown into—stage-fright is an entirely unnecessary condition.

“Take an actor of distinction, for instance: the first moment that he is on the stage, particularly before a strange audience, he is not at his best. This uneasiness may betray itself in a dozen ways, for with every individual there is a different phase in its manifestation. But in those moments the purely mechanical side of his art—the result of study until things go of themselves—sustains him. The moment he begins to throw the interest and concentration of his mind into his lines, these signs vanish, and his hold upon his audience begins. It is the same with the pianist. At the outset he may feel a bit uncomfortable, illness or fatigue may aggravate the sensation, but let him fix every faculty and thought upon the composition in hand and keep it there with a vise. Then he will see how quickly he forgets surroundings and how completely the performance absorbs him. This self-command through concentration of mind is not to be learned in a moment, nor is it to be learned in public, where most it is needed, but in study through which it grows to be second nature and as much a part of ourselves as the technical command of our fingers should be.”


“In making a repertory the pianist must have certain standard pieces, for instance, Beethoven sonatas, Chopin etudes, the Faschingsschwank of Schumann, and other things along that line. But vary the programs in the matter of mood, key, and character. Some of the greatest conductors disregard these important items, and place three things, all symphonies and in the sonata form, and all in one key—D minor, for instance—the one after the other. By the end of the second selection you hear nothing but D; monotony is inevitable.

“In order to secure proper sequence, major and minor must follow each other, something soft must be succeeded by something brilliant; but never place two things of a kind together. By this I do not mean a succession of violent contrasts in the pieces that you play, for that in itself will create incoherence of impression and disturb contrast. But blend the combinations so as to get variety in key, mood, and tempo. Occasionally a strong contrast is all well enough, particularly toward the close of your program when one wishes to arouse fresh interest that will help in the approach to a final climax.

“In the selection of novelties for study, there are Russian, modern German, and some of the Italian compositions to draw upon, but these last are mainly brilliant without contents. There must be mentioned, though, in this connection, Poldini’s studies, for they present a new pianoforte technic and new combinations. You have, as well, certain of your American composers for the pianoforte to choose from. It goes without saying, or, at least, it should go without saying, that every executant musician should recognize the composers of merit of his own nationality, and give them a place in his programs. England has long been my place of residence, and among other British composers, whose work I have brought forward, is the effective Prelude and Fugue by Clarence Lucas, which Leschetizky has pronounced the best modern fugue for the pianoforte.”

The Outlook for Success.

“There comes a time when study is finished up to a certain point, and the question presents itself, ‘Am I going to succeed or not?’ The answer is, ‘Go at it harder and harder.’ Do not get discouraged. Never forget to practice in a way to avoid getting into technical errors; study out those you have, one always has some, and endeavor to correct them. When you are studying, seize every opportunity to play for people, make everybody the ‘dog.’ Let them complain, but don’t you mind.

“The parting word is, never neglect advice. Have an ideal.”

1. Published in THE ETUDE, October, 1902.


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