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Old Traditions and New Ideas, by Mark Hambourg

By Mark Hambourg.
Traditions, pedanticisms, yes, I consider them musical chloroforms which deaden the soul and the emotions. But, before saying anything more, I wish to state that if I venture to talk a little about some views of mine on tradition, and the interpretative side of the musical art, it is only because I have been so often asked to do so by people interested in such subjects; they therefore must be my excuse, and to them I appeal with these few remarks.
As an artist of to-day, then, I do protest against the tyranny this term "tradition" raises up against virtuosi and interpretative artists by the voices of musical Philistines.
These people seem to forget the great difference between style and tradition in interpretation, and appear to confuse the two things. Style, being the form which clothes the music as words clothe ideas, of course remains of its age, unchanging, stamped with the character of the time which generated it. But the life in the music surely may take color from every successive touch that strives to evoke it. Is not that the credential of its immortality, and of tradition? What is this shibboleth that has become such a dragon in music nowadays? What do people really mean by the word? I myself can never quite make it out. Do they really imagine seriously that they know (by means of unbroken records handed down, I suppose) exactly how Bach, Beethoven, etc., intended their works to be rendered? Surely this is nonsense. If there had been phonographs or gramophone records then, perhaps it had been possible. But in those days people did not even write about music as they do now, and I should doubt if there exist any authentic letters of those great composers telling of their ideas of how their works should be interpreted. Unfortunately, there was no Vasari for music. And even if such records did exist, there is another side to the question. It is an absolutely foregone conclusion that the composer should always be the best judge of how his work is to be rendered?
Personally I am of the opinion that all great works of music cannot be confined to one special interpretation. I think the very art is too elusive and intangible for such restrictions. It is in this respect more akin to philosophy, and lends itself to many different expositions, each of value according as it produces an intellectual and also an emotional impression. Everyone knows the story of how Tschaikowsky, when he first heard his piano concerto played by a great artist, was quite overcome with surprise and pleasure, saying that he had never imagined it would or could sound like that. The same story has been told of many composers, and I, for one, am certain that if Bach could have heard his organ fugues sound as they do now when finely played by a great artist on the modern piano he would have been enthusiastic and delighted.
I think there is a great similarity between the position of the musical interpreter and the actor. Yet it does not seem to me that the actor is subjected to the same fire of criticism as the virtuoso musician when the former departs from the reading of a preceding great actor and gives to his role an intrepretation (sic) born of his own original conception. On the contrary, people welcome the many conceptions of, say, "Hamlet" (I take that role because it is such a specially striking example of many different versions). Well, there is not much resemblance to be found between the Hamlet of Irving and the Hamlet of Forbes Robertson, as conceptions of character, yet no one says either one is or is not Shakespeare. The same with every great stage character.
I do not mean to say that I am an advocate of originality in a grotesque or exaggerated form, the "anything to do something different" sort of spirit! That is not a serious or possible attitude for an artist to take who regards music as an intellectual study and loves and reverences it in all its greatest forms whether old or modern. But, when after years of careful study, much thought, and having acquired a thorough knowledge of the letter and tendency of the music, an artist then comes before his public with a conception evolved by himself out of the impression the work has made on his particular mind, surely he must not be condemned because he brings the composer's message home to the hearts of his hearers, warmed by the magnetism of his own imagination.—Music.

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