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Liza Lehmann - To The Young Musician Who Would Compose

From an interview secured especially for the readers of THE ETUDE from
liza-lehmann.jpg[Editor's Note :—Doubtless many of the readers of The Etude who have delighted in the remarkable charm of "In a Persian Garden" and other works of Mme. Liza Lehmann, desire to know more of the distinguished English woman composer than it was possible for us to include in the "Gallery of Musical Celebrities" in the February issue of this magazine. Had it not been for the great success of "In a Persian Garden" the name of Mme. Liza Lehmann would be known to very few Americans, notwithstanding the fact that she had before her marriage and retirement from the vocal profession become famous as a concert singer in England. Likewise, had it not been for the sensational interest with which Americans greeted her exquisite setting of the "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyam, some time might have elapsed before staid old England would have awakened to the fact that it possessed a woman composer of extraordinary ability. After Mme. Lehmann (in private life Mrs. Herbert Bedford, the wife of an eminent English painter of miniatures) had completed her setting of "In a Persian Garden" she offered it to several London publishers, only to be informed that there would be no demand for such a work and consequently its publication could not be considered as a commercial proposition. Song cycles of its kind had never been very popular, and therefore, according to good, old English traditions, Mme. Lehmann's work could not become popular. Finally she found a publisher willing to bring the innovation out, and even then the work failed to meet with the attention it deserved, until American audiences persisted in liking it despite traditions. Then the English musical World awoke, and since then Mme. Lehmann has been besieged by publishers who want, above all things, "song cycles." The publicity that accompanies fame is no less distasteful to Mme. Lehmann than it is to the average British gentlewoman of refinement, and it was only after much persuasion that Mme. Lehmann, whose innate modesty is as evident as her keen artistic sense, could be induced to give our readers the advantage of some educational suggestions arising from her wide experience.]
"It is exceedingly difficult for me to talk upon the subject of composition, for, although I have been engaged in composing for a good many years, the various laws which go to make up the scientific side of the study may be explained much better by those who make a specialty of teaching them. I can, however, say a few things about the subject of composition in general which may help some young American musician who aspires to become a composer.
"That musical composition demands a talent peculiar to the individual is self-evident. The mere desire to compose, coupled with the willingness to study and the advantage of the best instruction, will not make a composer unless there is that wonderful thing which can only be described by the word 'talent.' Please don't ask me to define talent. Many men and women have tried to do it in lengthy treatises, but talent is something which cannot be expressed in words.
"I have often been asked, 'How do you compose?' and I can only say, 'I don't know.' The melodies come to me as though purely by intuition. True, I studied the laws of musical composition for years, but when I am composing I am sure I never think of them. When a composition is sketched out and the time for revision comes, then I find whatever scientific knowledge of harmony and counterpoint I have acquired very valuable.
"'In a Persian Garden,' which was my first work of any significance, was written just outside of the city of London, when we were living in a little home located in the middle of a lovely apple orchard. I was very deeply impressed with the wonderful beauty of the Oriental poem, and I was very happy. I am always happiest when I am composing. One might as well ask me whence come the birds in springtime, as to inquire where the melodies come from. But if one desires to be a composer, the melodies must come, and they must be melodies that have an individual and original interest. Without the facility to produce beautiful melodies it is foolish to strive to become a composer. It would be quite as feasible for the raven to aspire to be a nightingale. There can be little doubt that many students waste years and years studying composition, which might be spent much more profitably in other vocations, if they could only discover at a sufficiently early age how foolish it is to attempt to accomplish the impossible.
"As we have previously noted, melodic fertility is the foundation of the claim of any individual to be recognized as a composer. He must produce beautiful melodies, whether they be one measure or sixteen measures in length. Even the 'motif' has a melodic character. It makes no difference whether the composer has the technical equipment to treat his melodies as a Beethoven, a Wagner, a Schumann, a Strauss, a Debussy or an Elgar, or whether he has the mere ability to harmonize his tune as in the case of the writer of folk songs, he must have first of all good melodic material of his own invention before he deserves recognition as a composer.
"Several years of public experience as a singer taught me to realize the potency of the effect of a beautiful melody upon audiences. I had always longed to write melodies. As a child it was my greatest delight. I became a singer principally because I had voice sufficient to enable me to make a success upon the concert stage and because my mother's greatest desire was to have me become a singer.
"The idea of my becoming a composer was never even considered. Why? Simply because during my childhood the thought of a woman becoming a composer was not a popular one in England. It never seemed to occur to those who had the guidance of my early education that a woman could ever be taken seriously as a composer. Maud Valèrie White, however, had written some very successful songs, and her career and influence were a source of greatest inspiration tome. When on my marriage I decided to retire from the concert platform, I gave my whole attention to composition, I was determined not to let my physical condition sever me from my musical ambitions, and I also realized that my experience upon the concert platform, which had made me acquainted with many of the great vocal masterpieces, was of much value to me.
"Like literature, the study of musical composition is facilitated by a familiarity with the music of the past as well as the present. This in itself will not make a composer, for some of thosewho have been most familiar with the great masterpieces have failed dismally as composers. Composition cannot be studied by theory alone. One must employ the keenest possible observation in noting how the masters have used their musical materials.
"There is a lesson in composition on every page of Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin or any of the great musical creators of the past. Such a knowledge is also of value in keeping the young composer informed as to what has been done, so that he may avoid ideas that have already been exhausted by his famous forerunners. Many so-called cases of plagiarism are due to the fact that the victim has composed a melody which he has supposed to be original, but which may be found in some work with which he is entirely unfamiliar. As it is inconceivable to imagine a composer producing music comparable with our modern works without having a knowledge of them, it is therefore obvious that it is most desirable for the young student to make his musical experience as wide as possible.
"If it is absolutely impossible for him to be near some great music center where he can hear the masterpieces properly rendered, he need not despair. He can secure the scores of the compositions, and by means of training and imagination get at least some idea of their character. His musical training should be so thorough that he need not refer to a musical instrument to secure an idea of a new work. He should read the musical page as he would the printed page.
"Among the very few painful impressions I have gained in rehearsing singers in America is that there seems to be a decided lack of proficiency in sight reading. Imagine how one would be hampered in a school or a university if one were unable to read readily and rapidly, and you will realize how serious such a defect is. This is surely due either to neglect or to faulty instruction, for the American is, as a rule, very quick in comprehending new ideas. I have also found a deplorable deficiency among singers when difficult and unusual intervals were approached. Americans seem to possess splendid voices. The voice, however, is of little value until the mind of the singer has been trained to employ it properly.
"In connection with this topic permit me tosay that I have also been continually forced to note that the diction of some American singers and students has been far from being above reproach. I have had the privilege of hearing many young singers with remarkable voices in this country. They come prepared to sing arias in foreign tongues, but when requested to sing in their native tongue the results have been very unsatisfactory. In fact, it seems as though the foreign tongues were their own, and as if English were a foreign tongue! Thisis certainly very wrong, for if we desire to encourage musical composition in English-speaking countries, we cannot afford to put the English tongue upon a shelf.
"English, contrary to the opinions of some, is an excellent language for singing purposes. It may perhaps lack some of the smooth, dulcet softness of Italian, but it possesses a charm of its own, and in the hands of our master poets has become one of the most elastic of all means of verbal expression. Let us, above all things, have English songs and properly trained English-speaking singers to sing them. No better means of encouraging the English-speaking composer can be found than that of assuring him a proper interpretation for his vocal works.
 "In no art is the life of the composer more definitely reflected than in that of music. His musical breadth will depend very largely upon his personal breadth. As he has lived, so will his music be. But polish is not always a characteristic of a great composer. I remember one curious little incident which illustrates this excellently. I was studying with Mme. Clara Schumann in Frankfurt, where she had invited me to become better acquainted with the immortal songs of her husband, Robert Schumann. While I was in her home, Brahms came for a short visit. Naturally, I was in a state of great ecitement. (sic) The anticipation of meeting one of the world's greatest masters was quite enough to set the student heart aflame. On the morning of the first day of his visit we had sardines for breakfast. They were served after the German custom in the original tin containers. What was my surprise and horror upon seeing Brahms devour his fish and then take up the can and drink the oil!
"Other musicians I have met have been similarly boorish, largely owing to unfortunate early surroundings. However, most musicians are men and women of high brain-culture, if not exponents of what the world considers 'good manners.' It has been my privilege to know many artists. My father was a painter of fame and my mother intensely gifted in music, so our home became the center for many renowned men and women engaged in the various arts. What girl could fail to be impressed by the presence of such illustrious personages as Jenny Lind, Robert Browning, Alma Tadema, Liszt, Rubinstein, Joachim and others who frequently visited us? In this atmosphere of literature, art and music it was my good fortune to spend my early years.
"I would advise students who desire to become composers to meet as many men and women of note in different walks of life as possible. In this way their aspect of art and its human application will be greatly broadened.
"Before more advanced studies are undertaken the student should have a thorough knowledge of the rudiments, and should have the advantage of studying ear-training (sight-singing). All musical progress is founded upon training of this kind. The ability to identify and sing intervals in various meters and rythms should precede the pursuit of the more intricate studies of harmony and counterpoint. Judging from my personal observations this would seem the greatest need in musical America at this time. So long as the musician is bothered by technicalities of any kind, he is in a sort of musical bondage from which he can only escape by breaking the technical chains which bind him.
"Do not belittle the necessity for studying harmony, counterpoint, etc. You may read, for instance, that Wagner had comparatively little theoretical instruction. In all probability Wagner studied much without the assistance of a teacher, but by means of his powers of intense concentration was able to accumulate knowledge at a phenomenal rate. Although in musical theoretical studies one often learns rules that he may thereafter break, he must first of all learn how to break these rules intelligently before he can feel free in his work in composition. In fact, rules are discarded with the mastery of the subject, and the composer possesses in their stead a highly trained sense of musical intuition which leads him to avoid musical pitfalls apparently without effort. The rules have been absorbed as it were. Although the young pianist is necessarily frequently instructed in the proper method of holding his fingers, he forgets these rules as he becomes advanced and the fingers assume the proper position without thought upon his part. It is much the same with the rules of harmony and counterpoint.
 "We hearof the successes of many celebrated composers, but we do not hear of those who have failed. Even those who have won fame and wealth are not always free from care and annoyances that continually arise. Upon one occasion, I went with my parents to dine with Verdi at his home. I remember that among the costly dishes that were prepared for us was a huge fish at least a yard and a half long. The whole length of its spine was decorated with pink and white camelia blossoms. After many similar evidences of prosperity and material success, I found that Verdi was obliged to keep the one small piano in his house in his bedroom so as to evade the armies of young singers who insisted upon having the master hear them. He was fond of singing, however, and when I sang some Scotch songs for him instead of the inevitable selections from his operas, he seemed greatly pleased.
"Very few composers succeed in winning success with their first works. It is often a matter of many years before the composer can produce works that satisfy his own musical consciousness and also the demands of the publisher, who in most cases is forced to regard the whole question from the commercial standpoint. Proficiency, however, comes only through work, and hard work at that. The young composer must write, write, write, and with every finished composition he must seek to see wherein he has failed and wherein he has succeeded. The cultivation of the habit of being one's own most severe critic is a most excellent one, though the young composer should always respect the criticism of experienced musicians. The faults they find with your work are criticisms that may lead you to new heights. The habit of disregarding failure is also one which should be assiduously cultivated. In musical composition many failures usually precede success. You cannot afford to have your mind burdened with regret over the loss of temporary hopes if you would be in good condition to produce new works.
"Although my most successful works have been vocal works for the concert platform, I have long felt a leaning to write for the stage. I have written one light opera, entitled 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' which was produced in London, with Mr. David Bispham in the leading role. I have not attempted a grand opera as yet, but I am continually on the outlook for the libretto for a romantic opera.
"My latest work has been a cantata, a musical setting for some poems of Ossian. Ossian was the name given to a semi-historical Gælic bard and warrior. He lived about the end of the third century. In 1760 James Macpherson, a Scotch poet, showed some translations of Gælic verses to his friends, alleging them to be translations of fragments of poems by the third century poet. A controversy as to the genuineness of their Gælic origin at once arose, and has, according to some, never been settled. If Macpherson was the author, there was no reason for his concealing his identity, as many famous English literary authorities have praised the poems highly. However, the uncertainty as to their identity adds to the interest in them. Edward Fitzgerald, who spent twenty years in translating 'In a Persian Garden' from the Rubaiyat of the 11th Century Persian poet, Hakin Omar, called Khayyam or the tent-maker, so vastly improved the presentation of the Oriental original that the poem has come to be considered one of the great masterpieces of the English language.
"I hope on my return visit to America in the autumn to be able to superintend a production of this cantata, which I have entitled 'Leaves from Ossian,' and if the American public receives it with as much kindness and indulgence as it has extended to my other compositions I shall indeed be happy and grateful."

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