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Student Days in Weimar with Liszt

Reminiscences of an American Virtuoso and Teacher Who Won the Interest of the Greatest Master of the Keyboard

By W. H. SHERWOOD
 
DURING my seven months’ stay in Weimar, where I enjoyed the inspiration of study under that greatest of all masters for the piano, Liszt, an experience at his studio one morning is before my mind, never to be forgotten. Liszt was amiable and indulgent on many occasions toward would-be pianists, who flocked to Weimar to obtain the great benefit of his instruction and encouragement. He appeared willing to hear many play. If they pleased him they would be invited to come again. If not, they were dismissed, sometimes with severe criticism.

One day a wealthy lady and her daughter from New York appeared. They wore fine clothes, with a conspicuous display of jewelry, while the air was laden with perfume in their presence. The daughter was invited by Liszt to play, and she certainly played with strength and assurance. Her hands and wrists were powerful and her execution rapid. The weight of the lady’s right foot on the damper-pedal was such that all the vibrating resources of the piano were in constant use. She played a brilliant concert waltz, with many wrong notes in the bass and chord accompaniment for the left hand. Liszt had a vein of sarcasm, good-natured but keen, and, while the lady was playing, he went through various gestures behind her back, which caused the other students present to smile.
 
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When the performance was finished he told the young lady that she only needed a few finishing touches to be a great artist, all of which was so elegantly sarcastic that the other students smiled still more. After this he began to talk kindly and to point out some of her greatest errors and faults. Then he sat down and played the parts for the left hand alone, for some two pages of the waltz. In doing this Liszt phrased the bass (one note each measure) with accented and expressive grouping, in sets of four and eight measures, according to the natural expression of the waltz. He played the alternating chords in such a way as to give meaning to the separate harmonie parts of each chord, as related to those of the next, etc. He played with an elastic, bounding stroke of the forearm at the wrist, with comparatively fixed, rigid fingers. The frame of the hand, was somewhat arched and rounded out, almost in the shape that he would have been obliged to assume had he been holding a large orange in his hand. The sensibility of touch for each individual finger was not in the least impaired by the rigidity of that part of the finger next to the hand. The palm of the hand averaged about two or three inches above the keyboard, maintaining the position for the fingers, meanwhile, tolerably close to the keys, while bounding the wrist up and down, within a range of perhaps from two to six inches. I speak of these mechanical matters, as used by Liszt in this kind of technic, for the reason that they were unusual. As far as my experience goes, the elastic use of the forearm at the wrist joint, combined with rigid or fixed positions of the fingers, was not taught in any of the conservatories at that time.

To return to the waltz and the occasion spoken of, Liszt had a habit frequently of dashing the wrist abruptly from the chord at the second beat of the measure, with more or less accent, sometimes almost prematurely, the movement being correspondingly retarted (sic), before playing the chord on the third beat of the measure, with another less conspicuous up stroke. Such treatment certainly lent a piquancy and sparkle to the performance. As it was never twice alike there was no objectionable mannerism therein. The playing of this music, really the accompaniment part by the left hand, as Liszt did it, with artistic touch and efficiency and perfect use of the damper-pedal, made a beautiful composition out of the work done, although none of the themes was heard. Certainly the performance sounded like music, whereas the previous performance by the young lady, with both hands and all the fingers (and much greater noise), was anything but music. The young lady evidently had talent, but had been very badly taught and was undoubtedly worse spoiled by the injudicious flattery of friends. She was invited to come again. The last I knew of her she had gone, at Liszt’s advice and recommendation, to one of the music schools in Germany to do some studying in the elementary branches of her art, which she appeared to have overlooked in her ambition to shine as a great star in the musical firmament.

Legato Chords and Octaves.
Upon three occasions I selected compositions to play to Liszt in which a performance of Legato Chords and Octaves was a prominent feature. I had learned how to cling to the keys tolerably well and to use flexibility of the forearm at the wrist in many such cases, instead of tossing the hand up and down, as is more generally done, according to ordinary methods. In each one of these pieces Liszt came over to the piano while I was playing and bore down heavily upon my hands. He held them down steadily in such a manner that I could neither raise knuckles nor wrist and then he told me to go on playing.

Should I have yielded to such pressure upon my hands, as to have held them down heavily against the keyboard, I would not have been able to play a note. I found out immediately that the first thing necessary was to keep the palm of the hand steady at a moderate distance above the keyboard. It was necessary to have a space of from one to three inches between the keys and the knuckles. In cases where there were enough fingers to go around the problem was not such a difficult one, but with a succession of full chords, containing four notes each for one hand, it was necessary to use the same fingers continually and above all to play legato. Under such circumstances the only thing to do with the finger can be described about at follows:

To straighten out the finger, meanwhile keeping the key down and, when time to play either upon the same key or upon another, then lift the tip joint of the finger, enough to let the key up only an instant, drawing finger back to a curve immediately for the next note. Students with Dr. Wm. Mason always learn to stretch out and draw in fingers. A specialty of Dr. Mason’s has been to use such motions for staccato playing, drawing the finger in suddenly and far enough in to leave the key as abruptly as it is approached. But here was a method of stretching the finger out nearly enough to straighten it (more or less according to circumstances) and then drawing the finger in only enough to cling strongly to the key, as related to legato playing in difficult combinations of full chords and octaves. The way in which Liszt insisted on this kind of work was very emphatic. The selections used in these lessons with him, where legato chords were such a feature, were the Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, The Chopin Etude in C sharp, Op. 25, No. 27, (sic) and the Liszt arrangement of “Isolden’s Liebestod” from “Tristan & Isolde”—Wagner. The latter number was persisted in with such enthusiasm and diligence that I enjoyed the great honor of being invited to play it at Liszt’s concluding soiree of the season, just prior to his departure for Rome, where he was to spend some of the winter months.

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Advisable Hand Positions.
As a matter of study, it has been a most helpful principle in my work as a concert player and teacher ever since, to find out how many ways the fingers can be taught to work with independence and control of varied touches, without requiring any additional movement of the hand at the knuckles, except in lateral movements. To hold the wrist equally fixed might easily lead to stiff and very undesirable conditions. A pianist can train the hand at the knuckles to fixed positions with great advantages, while retaining the power of flexibility and lightness at all times with the wrist and fingers. In a general way it may be said that the height of the knuckles can be adjusted to different kinds of playing with several very efficient changes. Generally speaking, it is well to hold the back of the hand (across the knuckles) about two inches above the keyboard (one side as high as the other) during the performance of ordinary legato passages for the fingers. A higher knuckle position, perhaps three inches above the keyboard, serves its purpose in the staccato and chord playing, better than the low position for ordinary legato. Liszt certainly illustrated exactly such discriminations and many others, of which one might speak. My experience on a good many occasions with him was that he would take as much minute care and pains about small matters of detail, in different ways of managing the hand, arm and wrist, and in little matters of discrimination regarding ideal beauties of expression, as any teacher I ever met. The greatness of the man really served to emphasize his kindness and patience toward young students in little things, as well as with the wonderful expression of poetry, musical soul and imagination shown in bolder flights of interpretation.
 
Lessons From The Joachim Quartet.
When a student under Kullak and Weitzmann in Berlin, I never missed an opportunity to hear the Joachim String Quartet. At that time this was the finest organization of its kind in the world. It is doubtful if any stringed quartet has ever had any more rightful authority in regard to artistic taste and feeling, and correct judgment and poise, in matters of phrasing and interpretation, than that of which Joseph Joachim, DeAhna, Rappoldi and W. Mueller were the members. These men played Beethoven’s string quartets with the finest appreciation of tone blending and musical unity of purpose that could be conceived. In smoothness and efficiency of expression it was as if one man were playing and he a master of his art. One could, however, also hear the definite will and meaning which each man singly felt and put into his own part. When these men played a fugue, each voice had its own peculiarities of expression, of accent and impulse, of increasing or decreasing tone volume, of rounding out each phrase. Thus we would hear a true sense of values and relative importance of voices and parts in their music. One man could accent a note, the climax in his phrase, and sustain the note at a moment when another man would be making a diminuendo and ending for his particular phrase. Although playing simultaneously, two or more men could play with totally contrary and opposite inflection of individual parts. The Joachim Quartet had a perfectly graded system of ending phrases. With some pianists a mannerism is frequently prevalent to end all phrases alike, suddenly, staccato and weak. But the Joachim Quartet would play the final chord in a phrase, if playing in an adagio movement, with a tone only a degree less strong than the preceding tone and with a prolonged, instead of a short, staccato. The violinist has at least three methods of playing staccato, the shortest kind called “pizziccato,” being produced by picking the violin strongs (sic) with the fingers abruptly. The next kind by bounding the violin bow across the strings, and another kind, suitable for slow song phrases, by drawing the bow to a greater or less degree, according to the player’s taste and judgment. How many pianists can show an equal amount of discrimination in similar cases?

Liszt’s Generosity.
I have referred at such length to the Joachim Quartet in order to emphasize the independent beauty and infinite variety of expression in Liszt’s playing of fugues and other music, where two or more voices of independent meaning are so frequently heard simultaneously. I studied several of the greatest fugues for the piano with him, including his edition of the marvelous “Fire Fugue” by Handel and also Liszt’s own arrangement for the piano of Bach’s great organ fantasie and fugue in G minor. Liszt played the works mentioned to me, in addition to patiently hearing my efforts through, in these and many other numbers. Many were the valuable hints given and great was the encouragement and inspiration gained thereby. He would frequently invite the students to come to his studio and elsewhere, where he played for some special occasion. The average opportunity to spend two or three hours with the master, much of the time in company with other students, was three or four times a week for four or five months. When it is remembered that Liszt received a good many students this way, although many others were politely invited not to Come again, and that this inestimable privilege was absolutely free to the student, without money and without price, one can understand something of the grand and generous nature of the greatest pianist of all ages. While in Weimar I know of at least one instance in which Liszt aided an extremely talented young lady with money, that she might be enabled to stay and study. It is a matter of musical history that Liszt made many voluntary remittances to his friend Richard Wagner, and it is doubtful if Wagner would ever have been rescued from obscurity had it not been for the persistent and untiring work of Liszt in his behalf.

LISZTS_HOME_IN_WEIMAR.jpgThe Famous Weimar Court Theatre.
Toward the last part of my stay in Weimar, a small provincial town by the way, containing only some thirty or forty thousand inhabitants, a subscription series of dramatic and musical performances began at the Weimar theatre. I was a  subscriber. There were performances three or four times a week. At one time there would be a drama by Goethe, next some new opera, not a hackneyed number; next a tragedy by Schiller, then a Wagner opera. At this time Eduard Lassen, the director of the opera at Weimar, an intimate friend of Liszt and a musical genius and composer of renown, was rehearsing “Tristan and Isolde." Herr and Frau Vogel, the great Wagner singers from  Munich, were in Weimar as guest performers. They had rehearsed many times with the friendly co-öperation of Liszt, who would take a front seat in the audience room near the conductor and frequently interrupt the rehearsal with criticism and suggestion. I was invited by the master to go with him to some of these rehearsals and sit beside him, looking over the score. The orchestra in Weimar was a fine one. The singers, who had solo parts, were artists. The enthusiasm of all concerned was at the highest mark. With such inspiration this opera was performed successfully at Weimar more than a year earlier than its first performance at Berlin. Weimar was the second place in Germany for the performance of “Tristan and Isolde.” I attended the performance several times there. During the ensuing winter this opera had some fifty-two rehearsals at the royal opera house of Berlin, but the season ended without a public performance thereof. A year later I heard it given in Berlin at one of its first performances in that city. To my mind these particular Weimar performances ranked as superior to those in Berlin, notwithstanding a greater reputation and much greater preparation for them in the capital city.
 
Promote Music in Smaller American Cities.
Perhaps the most interesting suggestion in reference to this subject might be found in the difference in price of admission to hear such works in Weimar, Berlin, etc., as compared with present rates in New York and other American cities. The success and the high artistic standard in a small provincial city of Germany, much less in population and resources than hundreds of our American cities, is a commentary upon the kind of art that can be developed through local enthusiasm and united interests of people, who live and work at home for modest incomes and have a love of art in their hearts, as compared with the commercialism and propaganda which leads our beloved American citizens to throw cold water upon the more or less imperfect art aspirations of our own musical talent, while patronizing the brilliancy of the European and transitory star system with which we are amply provided at a high price.
 
 
 
 
“THE musician in search of self-improement (sic) is not the only one to find intellectual nourishment in the fields of genius other than his own. The concert artist by broadening his knowledge, his acquaintance with the world, and increasing his capacity for thought, finds many a help in augmenting the power of his artistic experience.”—Lessmann.
 
“MENDELSSOHN and Meyerbeer were amateurs, and yet composers of the first order, because they had taken the trouble to study seriously.”—Marmontel.

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