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Questions and Answers

Helpful Inquiries Answered by a Famous Authority
MR. LOUIS C. ELSON
Professor of Theory at the New England Conservatory

Q. Will you kindly tell me the status of the guitar as a musical instrument, the class of Music that can be played upon it, and if it is limited to music in certain keys? In fact any information you may be pleased to give regarding its capabilities as an instrument for the home.—A. R. B.

A. If you ever hear the guitar or bandurria played in Spain by wandering bands of musicians, you will find that there are great possibilities in the instrument. These possibilities are not enough known in America. The keys are not greatly limited when the capo d’astro (or capo tasto) is used. It is an excellent home instrument, especially for vocal accompaniment. It is not a good orchestral instrument save in the hands spoken of above. It was once introduced by Schumann into symphony, to accompany a Romanza, but he afterwards changed the accompaniment to violins pizzicato.

Q. When music is in the tenor clef, where is it played? I claim that it is played as it is written. Our organist says it is played as if written in the bass.—Altus.

A. The tenor clef shows the position of one-lined C, the “middle C” of the piano. The clef is properly placed upon the fourth line of the staff. When it is thus placed each note is written a ninth higher than it would be in the G clef notation. But there is a peculiar use of the tenor clef in many American hymnals, in which the clef-sign, appears on the third space, in this case the notes are written an octave higher than they would be in the G clef; that is you can transpose down an octave and then play as if the G clef were written. These clefs are used to avoid too many leger-lines in notation. It is well to remember also that all vocal music for male voices, when written in the G clef, must be transposed down an octave when played on piano or organ keyboard. Look up the article on “Clefs” in “Elson’s Dictionary of Music” and in Elson’s “Mistakes and Disputed Points in Music.”

Q. Speaking in general, have improvements in musical instruments been brought about by the efforts of manufacturers’ to comply with the demands of composers, or have they taken the lead in giving composers increased opportunities?—S. D.

A. The rule has worked both ways. Taking the piano as an example, Beethoven wrote some passages which were beyond the instruments of his time, but the piano was improved gradually and at present all of his most advanced passages can be performed upon it. Per contra, when the grand piano was evolved (in the later years of Beethoven’s life) he at once reflected this in his compositions, and his great sonata in B flat, Op. 106, was entitled “Grosse Sonata für dos Hammerklavier”—“Great sonata for the grand piano.”

Each new invention causes the composers to use the improvements in their compositions. If you will examine the first page of Arthur Shepherd’s piano sonata you will find something that seems utterly impossible, providing you have an average upright piano. There are passages at each end of the keyboard, and sustained notes in the centre. If you play it on a modern grand piano and employ the “sostenuto” pedal, the page can be played, but, as above intimated, on a less developed piano it would be impossible.

Q. I recently read the report of the first performance of a new composition in which the critic said that the theme had been “logically worked out.” What is the meaning of this phrase?—J. M.

A. It means that some of its figures have been employed as seeds from which new musical thoughts and even themes have grown. This is called “Development,” and is the intellectual side of music. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (whom Bülow called the three great Bs of music) are the greatest exponents of this subtle side of composition, but D’Indy, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, etc., carry development to incredible lengths.

If you desire to study this practically, examine Bach’s Fugue in D-major, “Well-tempered Clavichord” Vol. II, No. 5. Here you will find a figure of nine notes at the beginning and everything in the rest of the composition grown out of these nine notes, very much of it from the last four of these nine notes. A more usual kind of development (or “working-out”) may be found in Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words,” No. 20. In this the melody begins with four chromatic notes in ascending progression. You would not dream of these being anything but a fragment of the melody, yet if you trace the music carefully you will find several other measures and phrases grown out of these four notes, and you will also discover other figures that are “logically worked out.” Such development is the very life blood of classical instrumental music, and demands your immediate and careful study, which you can pursue if necessary, without the aid of a teacher.

Q. In tempo rubato, is the time spent over one portion of a phrase made up in another? For example, if tempo rubato were employed in one or two places in a musical phrase eight bars in length, would the passage occupy the same amount of time as a whole if the tempo rubato were not employed?—K. W. M.

A. Properly, yes, although some artists violate this rule. Look up “Rubato” in Elson’s “Mistakes and Disputed Points in Music,” and also read Paderewski’s essay on the true rubato in Finck’s “Success in Music and How it is Won.” Liszt once compared the rubato to the elasticity of trees in a breeze. “Look at the small twigs, they are swinging freely; look at the large branches, they are moving but little; look at the trunks, they are firm; let that be your rubato!”

Liszt often thought in parables like this. He meant that the bass should be steady and the measure formation not distorted. But the rubato is not easily defined. It consists chiefly in making the melody elastic, not in allowing the left hand to stagger around.

How much it means in music may be gathered from this fact in the life of Chopin. When he was teased to play in a drawing-room, and did not feel in the mood, he would try to beg off; but, if Mme. Dudevant “Georges Sand” (whom he obeyed almost childishly) said, “Do play us something, Frederic,” he would sit at the piano and play some of his works in strict time, with the utmost precision, and without a trace of rubato. The result was such a practical joke that finally the audience would burst into laughter. I have heard De Pachmann do the same trick once or twice.

Q. Are all of Schubert’s songs of equal merit? If not, which are considered the best ten? M. B.

A. By no manner of means! I would advise you to read Ernest Newman’s “Hugo Wolf,” and note the criticism which he justly passes upon some of Schubert’s Lieder. If you will examine such a song as “The Miller’s Flowers” carefully, you will find the music sometimes strengthening and intensifying the poetry, and sometimes contradicting it.

Of course some of the songs of the earliest period are unequal, but the latest songs are surprisingly powerful, almost every one being a masterpiece.

To give a list of the ten best songs of Schubert would be almost impossible. It would be sure to do injustice to some of the others, and it would after all be only a record of personal taste. Suppose you ask some of your friends which are the two best kinds of pie, I doubt if you would get a unanimous answer. But here are ten Schubert songs that appeal strongly to me: “The Erlking,” “The Wanderer,” “The City,” “The Fishermaiden,” “The Almighty One,” “The Double” (“Doppelgäuger”), “Hedge Roses,” “The Young Nun,” “The Serenade,” “The Hurdy-gurdy Player.” But this list ought also to recognize “By the Sea,” “Ave Maria,” “Death and the Maiden,” “Who is Sylvia?” and many others.

Q. Is it necessary for the drummer in a great orchestra to know anything more about music than the principles of meter and rhythm?—Noname.

A. Certainly he must know more than these principles. He must often give expression to his humble instrument. Meyerbeer has an entire march (in “Robert le Diable”) played by four kettledrums alone. Wagner’s use of the kettledrums (also quite alone) at the death of Telramund in “Lohengrin” or at the meeting of Senta and the Flying Dutchman, is pregnant with anxiety and suspense. There was a time when conductors used to put any superannuated musician at the kettledrums, but a great kettledrummer, Herr Pfund (in English the name is very fitting. Mr. Pound) taught them better. The bass drum and the snare drum do not, however, require more than my correspondent suggests.

Q. In playing the ordinary hymns, is it possible to use the damper pedal of the piano? The chords change with almost every beat in some hymns but when I leave the pedal out the whole matter sounds thin.— Choirmaster.

A. It is well not to use the damper pedal to any extent in playing hymns. It can be employed at certain wide harmonies and sometimes when it is impossible to get a necessary legato with the fingers.

 

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