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The Modern Virtuoso.


Not many of us stand where we are able to look upon the virtuoso of the past and of to-day. We can only form our estimates by the style of music, and also by an understanding of the limitations of the instruments upon which he exploited his qualities. When we speak of modern as distinct from classic we must not confuse the antiquated salon-form with that supreme and ever enduring form upon which rest the basic principles of all music past and present. The violin of a hundred years ago was the same as to-day, and we hear of no technician whom we may suppose excels Paganini. The same is true of other string instruments ; and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the brasses and wood-wind offer no more allurements today to invite a greater degree of technic than they did in the past.

The virtuoso faces two conditions—the spirit of the times and the limitations or possibilities of the instrument. To deal primarily with the day, it is obvious that everywhere we find the tendency to restlessness, to emotional outbursts, to the ruggedness of the elements, and music perhaps more than any other art has received the outpouring of this intense condition. Perhaps nowhere is virtuosity more apparent than in the orchestra, and while it is true that the individual instruments invite nothing elaborate in the way of technic, modern compositions make great demands upon the orchestra as a body, which of course means upon the individual.

Contrast if you please a Haydn or a Mozart symphony with a Richard Strauss tone poem. This will explain the situation exactly. The old classics are the purest types, breathing in every measure the simple life, the pastoral freshness and beauty, in short, the joy of living. Taking the subjects upon which Strauss has built his works, one can readily see the conflicting emotions he must depict in order to bring about any connection between the subject and his treatment of it. (“Heldenleben”—The Life of a Hero; “Also Sprach Zarathustra”—Thus Spake Zarathustra ; “Tod und Verklärung”—Death and Transfiguration.) It is not essential to go further into detail because it is unnecessary to do more than understand the point of view of Strauss, who possesses a keenly philosophical and analytical mind which undertakes to translate the most abstruse philosophies into music. In line with Strauss are D’Indy, who represents to France what Strauss does to Germany, and the followers and imitators that these leaders naturally have created.

The orchestra in use for the presentation of pure classics represents the only need of absolute music in its most accepted form, and offers simply an avenue through which to express pure music descriptive of nothing except the musical idea. The modern orchestra must be a vehicle wherein to carry something outside of music; it must present philosophies through every tone it produces. We seldom find on the old scores anything more than the opus number, although there are manifestations of descriptive music, such as may be expressed by the words “Pastorale,” “Jupiter,” and especially dating from Beethoven, “Appassionata,” “Eroica,” etc. To-day, however, entire works are given to the description of the turmoil of life, to the conflict of emotions, to the translation into music of the most blood-curdling fantasies and tragedies, and each day brings us further away from the purity of music per se. The modern orchestra calls into play the woodwind and reeds which, if we may judge from appearances, are more fitted for suggestive, if not imitative, effects than are the strings, which have been the strictly legitimate medium of the most classical writers. The restless spirit of the modern composer, if we may judge from Strauss, is such that he even reaches beyond the musical instruments in existence for something which has not yet been created and of which, in the exaggeration of the age, he feels the need.

This is what the modern virtuoso must face, whether he be pianist, violinist, or indeed singer. Take for example the violin which, as before stated, is no different in any particular from that of old, indeed it seems almost needless to call the attention to the fact that the most valuable violins are those which have extreme age in their favor. But the modern listener does not want the florid, dazzling, facile technic, no matter how finished or how smooth it may be. Vide the attitude of real musicians to Kubelik, who must be regarded as the first technician or virtuoso of the age. Ysaye, Kreisler, Maud Powell—these are violinists with messages. Technically or from the standpoint of what is called virtuosity they may not have the faultless, dazzling agility of Kubelik; but what they have to say musically brings into play the dramatic and emotional qualities of modern thought to be found both in and out of music.

This is exactly true in regard to singers as well. Where is the demand for the old-fashioned light soprano—the coloratura with all her empty, though exquisitely rounded pearly runs? She has given way to the dramatic soprano who runs more to mezzo than to soprano, because of a fuller body of tone and deeper, more trenchant and broader entrance into the vital elements of life and incidentally of music. Virtuosity, as synonymous with superficiality, no matter how finished and at what degree of perfection, stands for nothing by itself. At the same time it is not forgotten in the face of the more expressive qualities; in consequence of which the singer must bring virtuosity along with the broader sides of the art or endure the most severe criticism for not having it. This does not mean that these same critics would find complete satisfaction in the most artistic virtuosity without the more valuable side—the side which deals with the idea rather than with the vehicle of expression. They would not, but they demand a faultless instrument, that is a perfect tone production and all the qualities of mind and emotion necessary to understand and to express great musical ideas which are indissolubly interwoven with the greatest thoughts or problems that the era has to offer.

As example of this look at the texts the modern song writers are setting to music, and then examine the accompaniments. It is not insignificant that the old time chord accompaniments have given way to the most difficult and most complex expositions of theories which are created in conformity with the demands of the subject matter, first from the standpoint of idea, and then from the point of music which has been made to fit that idea. To be a virtuoso of song under these conditions means much more than it did in the day of the Italian “queens of song,” whatever we may be told concerning the difference between the art of singing to-day and of yore, we can only examine into the demands made upon the singers to-day and compare them with what the composers of seventy- five or one hundred years ago required, and it will not be difficult to judge for ourselves that to-day we demand infinitely more, and would be far from satisfied with the most marvelous organ, if it only served to offer trills and scales and embroideries. It may be that Wagner separated the past from the present; if not alone, at least by the influence which he wrought upon every form of music, vocal and instrumental, especially orchestral and operatic.

Perhaps the technic which has taken on the greatest dimensions, especially as compared to the older day, is that of the pianist. This is brought about from many sides, the principal one being the wonderful development of the piano. From the technic necessary to tinkle upon the harpsichord to the more exacting one demanded by the early piano, an avowed instrument of percussion, was a great stride; but from that instrument to the modern piano, whose tremendous possibilities are only known to the greatest pianists of the day, the difference is immeasurable. The piano of to-day is a more masterful creation than it was in even so closely remote a day as that of Liszt and Rubinstein, and when such artists as Rosenthal, Bauer, Pugno and a few thus equipped, run the gamut of its possibilities they bring with their understanding of the instrument all that modern thought has done and is doing for music. Not alone the brilliant scales and trills of a Thalberg, but the crashing chords and the clear orchestration of the most elaborate modern composition is put upon the piano by the artist whose virtuosity is ample, not only to run the embroideries in a faultless manner, but also to bring out each individual part, making apparent all that the orchestra might attempt to set forth with its hundred men to do it.

Technic is receiving different attention to-day from what it did of old. It is an absolute necessity, the proof of which will be found in the fact that there are so many technicians of gigantic proportions. Among these we find those just mentioned, supplemented by Lhevinne, Hofmann, Hambourg, Godowsky, D’Albert, Busoni, Paderewski, Gabrilowitsch, Joseffy; in fact, every pianist before the public to-day, because, in order to take rank in the public eye, each must be so equipped as to bear comparison with the one beside him. When we compare the number of great virtuosi to-day with what the past had to offer it is obvious that virtuosity has made great strides, notwithstanding the question whether any of them has surpassed Rubinstein and Liszt.

Piano compositions, too, will tell their own story, beginning with those written for harpsichord, which bear the limitations of the instrument; at the same time we must realize that Beethoven could have formed no idea of what his sonatas would represent on the modern piano. We must not forget, however, that he spoke with the voice of the orchestra within him, and whether he felt by intuition that some day the piano would be great enough to carry his works as it does to-day, we can only surmise. With this exception the composers have revealed the limitations of the instrument.

At this juncture it will not be forgotten that Bach never wrote for the piano at all. He died before the first pianos were made effective. The organ for which he wrote the great fugues and difficult works was remarkably complete, and such of Bach’s works as we hear on the piano have been worked over from harpsichord or from organ. On the other hand, Bach’s works for the violin also proved what were the possibilities of that instrument over two hundred years ago, for no one will deny that when an Ysaye or a Kreisler has discharged satisfactorily a Bach sonata for violin there is little in the way of virtuosity more difficult to master. Kreisler has also shown us the literature of the most remote period in the Italian school, revealing the same technical difficulties as might be met with among the writers of to-day, indicating the supremacy of the violin virtuosity over all the other instruments of that period. The advance made in technic by the other instruments is due to the growth of the instruments themselves and the broadening and growing complexities of musical thought.


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You are reading The Modern Virtuoso. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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