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Answers to Questions

Edited by Louis C. Elson
 
Q. Is there any physical reason why certain parts of Italy became so famous for the wonderful violins produced? (D. A. G.)
 
A. There is no reason why certain Italian violin makers succeeded better than all others, except that, like the painter's colors, their work was "mixed with brains." Brescia was at first the seat of violin making, in the days of Da Salo and Maggini; but the Amati family afterwards brought the supremacy to Cremona, where Stradivarius and the Guarnerius family also flourished. Copies of the famous Cremona violins have been made, with as much care as possible, yet they do not equal the originals. There must have been some secret, something we do not know, whether about wood, age, workmanship or varnish. Stradivarius made experiments of all sorts, and no trouble was too great for him to undertake if a possible improvement was in view. The pine and maple used (the former for the sound-board) were selected with great care, and often brought long distances. It is told of Stainer, the famous Tyrolean maker of violins, that he chose trees which had begun to die on top, and that he tapped them with a hammer to see if the sound was right. When the woodcutters were after lumber he would sit at the foot of a steep incline and listen to the noise that the descending logs made against the rocks before choosing the wood he wanted.
 
We are not absolutely sure that age alone will improve a violin. If this were true, then the old copies of the Cremona instruments should be better than they are. The case of August Gemünder shows that the maker's skill has more influence than age, for he made violins of such excellence that the judges in a German exposition withheld the prize from them at first, on the ground that they were too good to be new. It is probable that good playing must be combined with age to improve a violin, for a good instrument often deteriorates when poorly played. But good workmanship must come first. In the Cremona families there were many generations of violin makers who devoted their whole lives to the work, and so became expert. Their varnish, too, was a result of long experience, and was better than what is used to-day. This varnish is said to be a "lost art." The sounding-boards were probably made of balsam pine.
 
Q. Who are thought to be the six greatest composers of Italy at the present day? (Vocal Student.)
 
A. Puccini, because of sustained greatness in opera ; Sgambati, as a pioneer of orchestral music in modern Italy ; Wolf-Ferrari, in opera and cantata ; Bossi, in cantata, organ and other fields ; Leoncavallo and Mascagni. in opera. The last two may be of doubtful rank, for each made one great success and followed it by many failures. Perosi's right to a place in the six is debatable, for his sacred works are not of the very highest rank. Busoni certainly deserves a high place, but he seems German by adoption.
 
Q. What is meant by the words "art song," frequently employed? How does an "art song" differ from any other song? (Nevada Reader.)
 
A. An art song is one that has music set to its entire length, while a song in strophe form has the same music repeated for each verse. The art song is thus the better form, as it illustrates the text more perfectly. The strophe form should only be used when the sentiment of each verse is like that of the others, as in Schubert's "Wandern." In a strophic song like Hullah's "Three Fishers," however, an artistic error is brought about, for the dissonance of its third line, well suited to the words, "They looked at the squall and they looked at the shower," or, "The women are weeping and wringing their hands," does not fit to the line in the first verse, "Each thought of the woman who loved him the best." The songs of Richard Strauss are admirable examples of the art song type. Sometimes, in an art song, the strophe form may be temporarily used, as in Loewe's "Archibald Douglas," where we find the effect of a song within a song.
 
Q. What is considered the best fingering for the chromatic scale? (G. K.)
 
Calling the thumb 1, and beginning at C, the best fingering for strength is 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 2. This brings 3 on C sharp for the second octave. For rapidity this is used: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2. The next octave would continue with 3, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, with the first 3 on C sharp.
 
Q. Why do we have twelve major scales? Would it not be as well if we had only one, the "C" scale? The intervals are the same in all; I can see no reason for so many. Please answer fully. (K. A. N.)
 
When Bach introduced the tempered scale of twelve equal semitones it resulted in rendering modulation possible on the precursors of the piano, and also made the employment of the twelve major scales practicable. There are several reasons for composing in other scales than that of C. Even in a piano work the effect would vary if it were transposed up or down, so the composer writes it in the key that he wishes used. In vocal works a key must be chosen that will bring the music within the limits of pitch imposed by the voice. In orchestral music all keys cannot be played with the same ease, and composers choose those best suited to the instruments. Piano exercises for beginners may well be written in simple keys, but all performers, and even advanced students, are at home in any key, so the composer may choose the key that he thinks suitable for his effects. Different keys, therefore, are used, not only for modulations, but for definite effects of pitch.
 
Q. Do composers usually compose without the assistance of an instrument, or do they work out most of their compositions at the keyboard? (L. U. F.)
 
A. They differ, according to the man and the kind of music. Haydn once said, "I sit down to the piano and begin extemporizing, sadly or joyously, as my mood directs. When I have found an idea my whole effort is to elaborate it according to the rules of art." The piano is not necessary, but it is a great aid, and even the most famous composers have often obtained good themes and modulations while at the keyboard; but ideas often came to the composers in other ways. Mozart would think up his music most readily while playing billiards. Beethoven's ideas flowed freest while he was in the open air, and one of his favorite spots was a natural seat in a tree at Schönbrunn, just outside of Vienna. He always carried a notebook, and jotted down themes and passages as they occurred to him. Bach showed phenomenal ability at improvising on the organ, and probably this led to many of his permanent works; but Bach was least tied to the keyboard, as the music was formed in his brain before he touched the keys. Schubert's melodious muse needed no keyboard aid, and, in fact, he once broke down hopelessly in trying to play one of his own pieces. Wagner was much influenced by externals, and had his room furnished in accordance with the work he was writing. In general, piano works may shape at the keyboard, while only certain effects are tried over in orchestral work, and it is not even necessary to try these. An orchestral work is usually written first for the strings, and the other instruments filled in later; but Mendelssohn wrote his "Ruy Blas" overture in complete form, finishing each measure for all the instruments before he began the next. Thus, although composers may find the keyboard a convenience, they can dispense with it entirely whenever they choose.

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