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Mile-Posts in Pianistic Progress. By the Eminent Pianist Teacher SEÑOR ALBERTO JONÁS

Mile-Posts in Pianistic Progress. By the Eminent Pianist Teacher

[Editor’s Note: This article is the third in the present series by Señor Jonás. Students should not fail to secure the previous articles as they give a very comprehensive outline of the development of the art of piano playing from the very earliest beginnings. Señor Jonás resided in the United States for many years, but is now engaged in teaching in Berlin. He is the teacher of the remarkable prodigy, Pepito Arriola.]


We seem to have strayed far from piano playing, and yet how can one be a really fine pianist, a musician and ignore or deny the influence of the other arts on music? Is it rash to presume that because these arts reached a height of sublime perfection, the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach and of Handel (both born in 1685) was stirred the more to accomplish their formidable task, nobly executed, of raising the art of music to the level of the others!

We now reach the eighteenth century, which brings a rapid development of pianistic technic. Domenico Scarlatti and Muzio Clementi, 1746, inaugurate the era of the virtuoso proper. Scarlatti’s piano works are intended, almost without exception, for the display of technic; it is still scales, arpeggios and passage work; double notes and passages in chords appear seldom, but he exploited considerably the crossing of hands in skips, taken at a rapid tempo, which, trivial as the innovation may seem, gave great brilliancy to the playing and a new outlet to technical proficiency. Towards the end of his life he grew so fat that he could not cross his hands any more on the keyboard and could not play his own pieces. “Served him right,” will undoubtedly be the expression of the young lady with her hair down her back, who strives to hit more than two accurate notes in his lovely, joyous Sonata in A major.

Clementi’s aim was further to develop technic. His passage work requires more strength of fingers and wrists; he gives attention to the playing of thirds, although sixths and fourths do not yet appear to any extent. His Gradus ad Parnassum marks the beginning of modern piano playing; it is a work of lasting value. Contemporaneous with Clementi were Haydn, 1732, Mozart, 1756, and Beethoven, 1770.

There is no need to tell the reader what these three names mean for music. From a pianistic standpoint Beethoven’s Sonatas and Concertos represent a new apex in musical literature. The facile, none too strong fingers and wrists, that play with charming grace the productions of all the older writers, and even the fluent Sonatas of Haydn and of Mozart, fail here entirely.

Conceived by a mighty mind, depicting the entire range of human emotions, with the orchestra ever present in their wealth of color, and in their disregard of technical difficulties, the piano works of Beethoven compelled a new manner of piano playing. Virile, rugged strength allied to feminine (not effeminate) grace; strong, yet supple fingers, wrists and arms; great forcefulness of accent and delicacy of touch, all these are needed when playing Beethoven; but more than that: one must have lived—for the canvas on which he wields his mighty brush is so large that too young eyes cannot understand its heroic proportions.

Czerny’s name (1791) appears strange at this juncture, yet he was a pupil of Beethoven, and not only has he written pedagogical works to which the new generation of pianists owes much, but he was himself the teacher of Liszt.

We are now in the nineteenth century, and the piano for which Bach, Händel, Haydn, Mozart wrote the greater part of their works becomes more and more the favorite medium of expression. Schubert (1797), von Weber (1786) have lavished on it the richness of their creative genius. And here, as we did before Bach and Beethoven, we must again pause; for a quartet of tone poets appears, with whose advent the piano gains the unique and universal position it occupies to-day.


Mendelssohn (1803), Chopin, Schumann (both born in 1810), Liszt (1811) wrote mostly for the piano and endowed it with a literature so vast and varied as to create for our instrument again a new era, the richest and most brilliant it has known.

As creators of a new style of piano playing, Chopin and Liszt both stand out conspicuously; the former through the wonderful originality and boldness of his tone creations, his yearning, heart-searching melodies, the depth and strength of his utterance, alternating with such loveliness of poetic expression as completely to sway and subjugate our willing selves. Beethoven wrote vast problems and struggles of mankind against fate, and his joys and sorrows are so big as to be meant for the entire human race, and therefore we, single individuals, sometimes fail to understand him. Chopin wrote for the heart of man and woman. All that can gladden or pain he wrote, and with what appealing accents!

In his works, and they are nearly all for the piano, we live our lives again. Not one string of our heart does he leave untouched, and with what a delicate, womanly hand! But he can also pulsate a lyre of iron, and none is more manfully eloquent than he when (as in his great Etudes A minor and both of the C minor) he hurls forth his passionate, throbbing protest against Poland’s downfall.

None can exceed the heroic and martial valor of his great soul. In his Polonaises F sharp minor, A flat major, A major, C minor, reverberate the tramp of armies, the boom of cannons, the sinister howl of grim war. Chopin, the morbid dreamer of Nocturnes, the elegant composer of aristocratic waltzes, we all know; but not all have as yet fathomed the might and sweep of his greater works: the Fantasie in F minor, the four Ballades, the four Scherzos, the great Polonaises, the Sonatas in B flat minor and in B minor, the Etudes and some of the Preludes and Mazurkas… Our piano technic has had to grow because of him; scales in thirds, chromatic thirds, fourths, sixths, the boldest passages in octaves, arpeggios of superoctave range, coursing through the entire keyboard, call for endurance and strength as never before.


If Chopin is the poet, Liszt is the virtuoso, par excellence, and both he and Anton Rubinstein (1829) will ever stand as the two highest exponents of piano playing. Anton Rubinstein at the piano was a lion; an onrushing whirlwind of fury and passion that no barriers of technical difficulties could stay; the breadth and sweep of his playing were appalling and thrilling, yet the lion’s paw could caress the keys with a touch like velvet, and what a tone he drew from the piano! Liszt, on the other hand, was the magician evoking all the splendor of the East; its hot, surging voluptuousness, the dazzling brilliancy of gorgeously set gems. But he could also let loose all the lightning and thunder of a torrential temperament, and his playing, in the palmy days of his virtuosity, is said to have exercised over his hearers the same witchery that was attributed to Paganini.

Saint-Saëns, himself one of the greatest of French pianists, and whose piano compositions, especially his concertos, have enlarged not a little the brilliant and effective repertoire of the modern pianist, says in his Portraits et Souvenirs: “One would hardly believe with what radiance, what magic prestige the name of Liszt appeared to the young musicians during the early days of the Imperial period; a name so strange for us Frenchmen, sharp and cutting like a blade of steel, traversed by its slavic Z as if by the flash of lightning. As an artist and as a man he seemed to belong the the (sic) legendary world.

“The majority of the pieces which he had published seemed impossible of execution to anybody but him, and they were so indeed according to the precepts of the old method which prescribed immobility, the elbows immovable, near the body, with a limited action left to the fingers and to the forearms … . The influence of Liszt on the destiny of the piano has been immense; I see nothing to be compared to it except the revolution brought about by Victor Hugo in the mechanism of the French language. It is more powerful than the influence of Paganini in the world of the violin.”


This is true, but not only as a virtuoso has Liszt achieved a revolution in the manner of playing the piano. In every direction has the powerful influence of this remarkable man been felt. He transformed, ennobled the transcription for the piano of songs, organ pieces and orchestral pieces, so that they have become an accepted part of the higher piano literature, instead of being, as they were before him, musical atrocities. He invented new, better ways of musical annotation; he taught: and his pupils, through their own well-earned fame, have proclaimed the pedagogic genius of their master. He created the symphonic poem; he wrote a book on Chopin which better portrays the Polish genius than any other work written about him. He made us know Schubert, Schumann, Chopin when the public, accustomed to the insipid fare of former days, rebelled at first at the daring innovations. He also made known to us the Beethoven of the last Sonatas. He gave to Wagner such help of friendship, money, artistic support in producing his operas, such untiring efforts in his behalf that no small thanks are due him for the final success of Wagner’s genius. He gave to the virtuoso, by his own example, the stamp of the man of the world, cultured, refined, eagerly accepted in the highest circles.

With Schumann piano technic grows more massive; less scales, arpeggios and passage work, but a more orchestral style in which double notes and chords abound. The same holds good of Brahms, whose bigger, more difficult works require a technic for which the Etudes of Chopin are no sufficient preparation.

From the time of Liszt and Rubinstein to ours a host of famous virtuosos, of all nationalities, has sprung up, and it were idle to quote names known the world over. In the same time a love among the general public for piano playing and an understanding for and cultivation of the master works written for the piano have grown in a wonderful manner. This high level of musical culture and appreciation I have been able to observe throughout my numerous extended concert tours in all countries of Europe and all over America.

Only lately have women pianists entered the field as concert pianists, but with what brilliant success the names of Teresa Carreño, Essipoff, Sophie Menter, Elsa von Grave, Roger de Miclos, Clotilde Kleeberg, Bloomfield-Zeisler eloquently show.


We have thus arrived at our present day and, as I hinted at the beginning of this essay, the question arises: What will the future bring us?

To all appearances music will have to follow the irresistible march of mankind towards a less artistic but more scientific era. The mechanical piano will be so perfected that the “performer,” by manipulating stops and levers with hands and feet, will be able to give an individual touch, accentuation and color to every single note, as the pianist does now, and the result may be the same, but with greater effects, with the peculiar articulation and rapidity of enunciation of mechanical appliances. The device, until now sought in vain, whereby a “vibrato” can be imparted to any string of the piano, like the vibrato a violinist brings forth, will be invented; the tone will be sustained, increased and diminished at will, as produced now by players of string and of wind instruments. More than that every instrument of the orchestra will be played automatically, and it will be possible for one person to control a combination of them, or possibly all, so that the “virtuoso manipulator” will “play” alone sonatas for piano and violin, quartets for piano and string instruments, concertos for piano and orchestra.

Impossible, say you? Wild fancies and dreams? Consider what our mighty organs are to the humble, little instruments on which Paumann and Claudio Merulo played. Already we have astounding mechanical pianos and mechanical violins. Yes, this is what awaits us; the twentieth century will mark the dawn of such scientific, mechanical marvels as we scarcely dare dream of, and music will also—who knows whether for better or worse—be subject to its unavoidable influence. Will it then still be one of the muses? Will the hearts of our great-great-grandchildren be thrilled by it as ours are to-day? Is it possible that the heavenly beauty of so many, many works of our great composers shall, to future generations, appear stilted and stale? I, for one, do not believe it. There is a something, call it was you will, which makes a work live forever, in defiance of time, of mankind itself. Nor do I believe that the love for music study, nor the occupation of the teacher will be lessened in the least.

“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

Thus wrote the immortal bard of Stratford-on-Avon.

The same proud truth glows in those tone poems, forever lovable and true, left to us as a priceless legacy by the master poets in music.


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