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The Making of an Artist - The Views of Alfred Reisenauer.


 With Liszt.

“When I had reached a certain grade of advancement it was my great fortune to become associated with the immortal Franz Liszt. I consider Liszt the greatest man I have ever met. By this I mean that I have never met, in any other walk of life, a man with the mental grasp, splendid disposition and glorious genius. This may seem a somewhat extravagant statement. I have met many, many great men, rulers, jurists, authors, scientists, teachers, merchants and warriors, but never have I met a man in any position whom I have not thought would have proved the inferior of Franz Liszt, had Liszt chosen to follow the career of the man in question. Liszt’s personality can only be expressed by one word, ‘colossal.’ He had the most generous nature of any man I have ever met. He had aspirations to become a great composer, greater than his own measure of his work as a composer had revealed to him. The dire position of Wagner presented itself. He abandoned his own ambitions— ambitions higher than those he ever held toward piano virtuosity—abandoned them completely to champion the difficult cause of the great Wagner. What Liszt suffered to make this sacrifice, the world does not know. But no finer example of moral heroism can be imagined. His conversations with me upon the subject were so intimate that I do not care to reveal one word.

Liszt’s Pedagogical Methods.

“His generosity and personal force in his work with the young artists he assisted, are hard to describe. You ask me whether he had a certain method. I reply, he abhorred methods in the modern sense of the term. His work was eclectic in the highest sense. In one way he could not be considered a teacher at all. He charged no fees and had irregular and somewhat unsystematic classes. In another sense he was the greatest of teachers. Sit at the piano and I will indicate the general plan pursued by Liszt at a lesson.”

Reisenauer is a remarkable and witty mimic of people he desires to describe. The present writer sat at the piano and played at some length through several short compositions, eventually coming to the inevitable “Chopin Valse, Op. 69, No. 1, in A flat major.” In the meanwhile, Reisenauer had gone to another room and, after listening patiently, returned, imitating the walk, facial expression and the peculiar guttural snort characteristic of Liszt in his later years. Then followed a long “kindly sermon” upon the emotional possibilities of the composition. This was interrupted with snorts and went with kaleidoscopic rapidity from French to German and back again many, many times. Imitating Liszt he said, “First of all we must arrive at the very essence of the thing; the germ that Chopin chose to have grow and blossom in his soul. It is, roughly considered, this:


Chopin’s next thought was, no doubt:


 But with his unerring good taste and sense of symmetry he writes it so:

riesenauer_003.jpgNow consider the thing in studying it and while playing it from the composer’s attitude. By this I mean that during the mental process of conception before the actual transference of the thought to paper, the thought itself is in a nebulous condition. The composer sees it in a thousand lights before he actually determines upon the exact form he desires to perpetuate. For instance, this theme might have gone through Chopin’s mind much after this fashion:

riesenauer_004.jpg“The main idea being to reach the embryo of Chopin’s thought and by artistic insight divine the connotation of that thought, as nearly as possible in the light of the treatment Chopin has given it.

“It is not so much the performer’s duty to play mere notes and dynamic marks, as it is for him to make an artistic estimate of the composer’s intention and to feel that during the period of reproduction, he simulates the natural psychological conditions which affected the composer during the actual process of composition. In this way the composition becomes a living entity—a tangible resurrection of the soul of the great Chopin. Without such penetrative genius a pianist is no more than a mere machine and with it he may develop into an artist of the highest type.”

A Unique Attitude.

Reisenauer’s attitude toward the piano is unique and interesting. Musicians are generally understood to have an affectionate regard for their instruments, almost paternal. Not so with Reisenauer. He even goes so far as to make this statement: “I have always been drawn to the piano by a peculiar charm I have never been able to explain to myself. I feel that I must play, play, play, play, play. It has become a second nature to me. I have played so much and so long that the piano has become a part of me. Yet I am never free from the feeling that it is a constant battle with the instrument, and even with my technical resources I am not able to express all the beauties I hear in the music. While music is my very life, I nevertheless hate the piano. I play because I can’t help playing and because there is no other instrument which can come as near imitating the melodies and the harmonies of the music I feel. People say wherever I go, ‘Ah, he is a master.’ What absurdity! I the master? Why, there is the master (pointing to the piano), I am only the slave.”

The Future of Pianoforte Music.

An interesting question that frequently arises in musical circles relates to the future possibilities of the art of composition in its connection with the pianoforte. Not a few have some considerable apprehension regarding the possible dearth of new melodic material and the technical and artistic treatment of such material. “I do not think that there need be any fear of a lack of original melodic material or original methods of treating such material. The possibilities of the art of musical composition have by no means been exhausted. While I feel that in a certain sense, very difficult to illustrate with words, one great ‘school’ of composition for the pianoforte ended with Liszt and the other in Brahms, nevertheless I can but prophesy the arising of many new and wonderful schools in the future. I base my prophecy upon the premises of frequent similiar (sic) conditions during the history of musical art.” These are Reisenauer’s views upon this matter.

Continuing, he said: “It is my ambition to give a lengthy series of recitals, with programs arranged to give a chronological aspect of all the great masterpieces in music. I hope to be enabled to do this before I retire. It is part of a plan to circle the world in a manner that has not yet been done.” When asked whether these programs were to resemble Rubinstein’s famous historical recitals in London, years ago, he replied: “They will be more extensive than the Rubinstein recitals. The times make such a series posssible (sic) now, which Rubinstein would have hesitated to give.”

As to American composers, Reisenauer is so thoroughly and enthusiastically won over by MacDowell that he has not given the other composers sufficient attention to warrant a critical opinion. I found upon questioning, that he had made a genuinely sincere effort to find new material in America, but he said that outside of MacDowell, he found nothing but indifferently good salon-music. With the works of several American composers he was, however, unfamiliar. He has done little or nothing himself as a composer and declared that it was not his forte.

American Musical Taste.

Reisenauer says: “American musical taste is in many ways astonishing. Many musicians who came to America prior to the time of Thomas and Damrosch returned to Europe with what were, no doubt, true stories of the musical conditions in America at that time. These stories were given wide circulation in Europe, and it is difficult for Europeans to understand the cultured condition of the American people at the present time. America can never thank Dr. Leopold Damrosch and Theodore Thomas enough for their unceasing labors. Thanks to the impetus that they gave the movement, it is now possible to play programs in almost any American city that are in no sense different from those one is expected to give in great European capitals. The status of musical education in the leading American cities is surprisingly high. Of course the commercial element necessarily affects it to a certain extent; but in many cases this is not as injurious as might be imagined. The future of music in America seems very roseate to me and I can look back to my American concert tours with great pleasure.

Concert Conditions in America.

“One of the great difficulties, however, in concert touring in America is the matter of enormous distances. I often think that American audiences rarely hear great pianists at their best. Considering the large amounts of money involved in a successful American tour and the business enterprise which must be extremely forceful to make such a tour possible, it is not to be wondered that enormous journeys must be made in ridiculously short time. No one can imagine what this means to even a man of my build.” (Reisenauer is a wonderfully strong and powerful man.) “I have been obliged to play in one Western city one night and in an Eastern city the following night. Hundreds of miles lay between them. In the latter city I was obliged to go directly from the railroad depot to the stage of the concert hall, hungry, tired, travel worn and without practice opportunities. How can a man be at his best under such conditions—yet certain conditions make these things unavoidable in America, and the pianist must suffer occasional criticism for not playing uniformly well. In Europe such conditions do not exist owing to the closely populated districts. I am glad to have the opportunity to make this statement, as no doubt a very great many Americans fail to realize under what distressing conditions an artist is often obliged to play in America.”


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You are reading The Making of an Artist - The Views of Alfred Reisenauer. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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