The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About . Donate .

Dream Radio .. LinkNYC Radio .. Payphone Radio .. Practice Room Radio .. Sleep Radio .. Snore Radio

Masters Who Have Triumphed By Self-Help

“Men at some times are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”— WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. (Julius Caesar, Act I, Sc. II.)
 There is a vast difference between the words “Self- Help” and “Self-Taught.” All great masters are in a measure self-taught—but only in a measure. Practically all have been obliged to depend upon “Self- Help” for success. Very few have been born like Mendelssohn “with a silver spoon in the mouth.” This article then does not deal so much with self-taught musicians as “self-help” musicians.
It is safe to say that the great masters who have been obliged to get along with little instruction have been those who have worked the hardest. They have acquired an immense amount of information and knowledge and this has not come from their own brains alone. It has come through knowing other musical people, through attending great concerts, through the most laborious kind of study of the works of those who preceded them. The teacher might have spared them many blunders, many heartaches, and might have enabled them to do much greater work by showing the quickest road to musical success. One who has to find his own way may be compelled to pass through many a wilderness before he arrives at a goal. Who knows what Schubert might have accomplished if he had had some masterly instructor to help him mould his talent. Schubert died at the age of thirty-one. Let us suppose that instead of wasting time in experimenting and in committing many musical blunders as history tells us he did—he had had his knowledge classified and available as had Beethoven and Haydn. Those thirty-one years might have produced a still greater master.
The marvel of it all is that those who have had meagre educational opportunities have been able to accomplish so much. A short time ago a famous American pianist was requested by the author to give some account of his struggles, his privations, his sacrifices which he was compelled to undergo before reaching success. When told that it was to be incorporated in an article for The Etude, the artist refused, saying, “It would discourage too many young musicians. Let them find it out for themselves. The Almighty only knows what I have been through for my art—it has been terrible, terrible, but I won out at last and the triumph of winning has been sweet to me.” I do not think that the editors of The Etude wish to suppress anything, and I do think that if the young artist has the right spirit he will glory in the knowledge that all of his struggles will not be in vain if he persists—he will find sympathy in the fact that the great masters have been compelled to work out their own salvation—he will find encouragement in reading of the victories of the masters over the innumerable obstacles which fate seems to cast in the path of all who are destined for greatness. No struggle in all history was so great as that of Richard Wagner. His autobiography is at times heart-rending. Yet who of us is so small that we would not covet the privilege of giving to the world such great masterpieces as those of Wagner.
Following are just a few facts regarding the battles of great musicians who have not been afraid to work, wait and sacrifice. The price is a big one, but if you are willing to pay it success almost invariably follows. The great trouble is that students are rarely willing to pay the price. Let teachers who desire to inspire their pupils read of the following achievements and let the pupils ask themselves whether they are making similar sacrifices.
Dr. Thomas Arne, one of the most distinguished English musicians, author of Rule Britannia and many charming songs, was the son of an upholsterer. He was educated at Eton college, and after his graduation was intended for the law. His father was insistent, and the boy was placed in a solicitor’s office for three years. His love for music was so great that he took every possible secret means to pursue his favorite study. He had a spinnet in his bed room, which was draped to look like a trunk during the day. At night he muffled the strings so that it could not be heard in other parts of the house. Thus he was not only compelled to get his education by means of self-help but also by surreptitious means. He also made a clandestine arrangement whereby he took a few lessons upon the violin. He made such great progress that he was soon leading an amateur band. Sometimes he would borrow a servant’s uniform in order that he might attend the opera in disguise. Finally his father discovered his bent, and it was only after much persuasion that the maker of bureaus and bedsteads consented to let his son become a musician.
Auber the great French composer of light operas and later the director of the famous French Conservatoire for many years, had very meagre musical opportunities as a child. But by dint of great enthusiasm, work and patience he accomplished wonders as a performer and as a composer. He wrote some songs which proved extremely popular, although the composer was at that time only eleven years old, Nevertheless a stern parent determined that Auber should follow a commercial career. Consequently he was sent to London and held the position of a clerk for a considerable time. Here again his music attracted a great deal of attention. He attempted to write an opera for a society of amateurs. Fortunately the great Cherubini was among the auditors and insisted upon having Auber, who was then nineteen, come to him for lessons. After that Auber’s road was easy and his success quick. His last opera was produced when he was eighty-seven years old. Wagner considered Auber’s Masaniello a great French masterpiece.
Johann Sebastian Bach was not satisfied with the excellent lessons he received from his father and later his brother. We are all well acquainted with the well authenticated story of how the boy craved for music which his brother forbade him to play, thinking it too advanced. Bach managed to get the music he wanted out of the bookcase and copied it entire by the light of the moon. When his brother found what he had done he tore up the copies. We also know that he made continual efforts to secure instruction outside of that received from his family. He continually made trips many miles in length for the opportunity of hearing such masters as the great Reinken and the great Buxtehude. Several of these trips were made on foot and with very little money for food. Who can wonder that Bach succeeded when he was made of such stuff?
Cesar Cui, the Russian composer, received some fragmentary instruction in his childhood but his parents’ desire to have him rise in military life compelled him to give the major part of his attention to the Russian army. He rose to the position of professor in the Royal Military Engineering School at St. Petersburg, and among his pupils in this position was the present Czar of Russia. He became a Lieutenant General in the Russian army. Later he met the Russian composer, Balakirev, and was inspired by him to attempt musical composition again. Although almost entirely self-taught he commenced to compose, and the results astonished not only his companions in Russia, but the entire musical world as well.
Antonín Dvořák, the greatest composer his country has ever produced, was intended by his parents to follow the mundane but necessary career of the butcher. Fate intervened, however, and saved the little Antonín from a life devoted to weighing out chops and sausages. In his childhood a troupe of traveling players used to gather in front of his father’s inn at Mühlhausen. He begged the village schoolmaster to give him a few lessons upon the violin and he also went to every possible musical event. Later he sang solos at church, but was so nervous when great works were performed that he continually broke down. When twelve he went to a better school, and his musical education was continued under somewhat more favorable circumstances. His teachers were not masters but they were capable in a way. When he returned he arranged for the performance of a polka, which when played by the orchestral instruments for which it was written revealed such hideous discords that the composer was forced to withdraw it. His uneducated father took this as a sign of lack of talent and insisted upon his original intention of making a meat-cutter of his boy. Much persuasion resulted in the young Dvořák going to the School for Church Music at Prague. For a time his father sent him a very small allowance, but then the parent became disgusted and withdrew his support. Then Dvořák showed his real self-help spirit. He joined one of the little town bands and for a considerable time earned his living, playing at cafes and beer gardens. Step by step he fought for success until he became the greatest musician of his race.
(The triumphs of other masters who have profited by self-help will be told in the next issue.)

<< Answers To Questions     Well Known Composers of To-Day: J. Frank Frysinger >>

Monthly Archives


The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music

Dream Radio .. LinkNYC Radio .. Payphone Radio .. Practice Room Radio .. Sleep Radio .. Snore Radio