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Personal Recollections of Famous Musicians

Written Especially for The etude by the Eminent Composer, Conductor, Singer and Teacher
[Editor's Note.—The distinguished composer, conductor, singer, pianist and teacher, George Henschel, who has kindly consented to give his personal recollections to The Etude, was born in Breslau, February 18th, 1850. In the following article he relates many of his interesting musical experiences, but at best does little more than skirt the fringe of his enormous experience. As the first conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he became known to American audiences. Later with his wife (formerly Lillian June Baily, born at Columbus, Ohio), he made many tours of America, giving inimitable and unforgetable interpretations of the great art songs. Dr. Henschel's compositions include sixty opus numbers, ranging from his well-known Requiem (written in memory of his wife), able compositions for orchestra, an opera (Nubia, performed at the Court Theatre in Dresden, in 1899), to many beautiful songs.]
It is a pleasure to learn that a little article from my pen would be welcomed by Etude readers, and I am glad to write, something in keeping with the tendency of your excellent paper, viz.: to teach, to entertain, to inspire.
I trust I shall not be considered lacking in modesty if I choose as my subject some early reminiscences of my own life, which, like that of any musician who can look back upon fifty years of musical experience, must needs be of some interest to students of a younger generation. Moreover, in this age of almost alarmingly rapid progress it may not be altogether undesirable to preserve the memories at least of a slower— and perhaps surer—past.
To anyone writing his reminiscences the truth of Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage," must seem of particularly striking fitness. We all know the fascination exercised on outsiders by the lives of actors and actresses on and off the stage. Reviewing the history of one's life, many of the men and women whose memory is revived appear before the mind's eye like actors and actresses on a stage upon which the curtain has gone down for ever. Some of them have stirred our imagination, kindled the fire of our enthusiasm; some touched us to tears, provoked our laughter; some perhaps disappointed our expectations, but all have left some mark, some impression on our minds lasting for a longer or lesser period according to the part they played and the manner in which they played it.
george-henschel.jpgI shall never forget a little incident at the Court Theatre of Weimar, long years ago. The play was Shakespeare's King Lear. It was exceedingly well done as a whole, and the impersonation especially, by a then already rather famous member of the regular company, of the majestically tragic and pathetic figure of the old king, was a wonderfully fine and powerful piece of acting.
At the end of the play the enthusiasm of the crowded house knew no bounds. The chief actor was vociferously called before the curtain over and over again. At last when, recalled for the tenth time or so, he seemed quite overcome with emotion on receiving such an ovation in the historical play-house which could boast the traditions of Schiller and Goethe, and, bowing deeply, was heard to mutter—audibly, however, to those near—'"I think I have merited it."
This, many people, and some of the press, considered rather arrogant and conceited, whilst I emphatically held with the few who, in that no doubt unusual utterance, could, see nothing but the innocent, inadvertently escaped expression of the artist's consciousness of having done, and given, his best. And I have often thought since then how this great Theatre of Life would be none the worse, if all the actors and actresses could make their exits with that consciousness, whether in silence or amid the plaudits of the multitude.
Breslau, the ancient capital of Silesia, where I was born at the beginning of the second half of last century, is the proud possessor of one of the oldest Universities of Germany; and there being connected with that University from time immemorial an institute for church music, it means that the art of music always came in for a large share in the artistic pursuits of the citizens of Breslau. Several choral societies were flourishing at the time when I had my first music lessons. Light and popular music was provided by military bands of which there were two or three, in almost daily concerts which took place, during the summer, in the numerous milk—or beer—gardens of the town. In the afternoon mothers would take their work and their children, and I spent many an enjoyable and profitable hour, listening to the overtures and symphonies of Auber, Bellini, Boieldieu, Donizetti, Verdi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven—not to forget all the popular dances of Lanner and Strauss.
Well do I remember standing for hours at the time before the pavilion in which the band played, staring at the man up in front there who kept beating the air with a short ebony stick with ivory ends, and wondering why he faced me, and not the players. At that time, strange to say, military conductors and even some conductors of popular symphony concerts always had their backs turned toward the men. Rather different from nowadays when a swift flash from the eagle eye of one of our titan conductors will perhaps produce a fortissimo enough to shake the casements!
The highest class of orchestral music could at that time be heard at the concerts, during the winter season, if the "Orchester-Verein," an institution which, then, counted among its active members many men prominent in society, such as University professors, physicians, army officers, etc., and it was not always an easy task for the professional conductor to convince some of these enthusiastic amateurs that their executive musical efficiency did not increase with the number of their years. It must, however, not be supposed that dear old Breslau was not, in some respects, advanced beyond many of the larger musical centres of Germany.
One, certainly, of her institutions, was of a decidedly novel character, and that was a school for pianoforte playing at which the elements of that art were taught in a very original way, invented by the director, Mr.
Louis Wandelt: There were about ten large rooms in the institute, in each of which there stood, dovetailed fashion, four, six or even eight grand pianos, and before each of these pianos there would, at lesson time, sit a little pupil, and those four, six or eight girls and boys played, simultaneously, the same exercises and "pieces" to the ticking of a metronome. The teacher went from pupil to pupil, noting the application of the fingers, the position of the hands, correcting, encouraging, scolding, praising, as the case may be, and putting the result of his observations down in the shape of good or bad marks, in each pupil's little record book.
To this school my parents who had a deep love and feeling for music, though practical musicians only in a very modest, untaught way, with voice and guitar, sent me when I was five years old, and I have always been grateful to them for it, as I consider the Wandelt method of teaching the piano an excellent one for beginners, stimulating, as it does, the ambition of the pupils and, above all, instilling into them a sense for rhythm which is apt to stick to them all their lives.
When in 1862—can it really be fifty years ago!—Mr. Wandelt founded a similar school in Berlin, he took with him for the opening ceremony, which consisted of a public concert, four of his best pupils, and we four youngsters played in a real concert hall, accompanied by a real orchestra, Weber's Concerto in F minor, on four pianos. I shall never forget the pride of my dear mother when she packed my little valise for the great journey, putting into it a brand new suit of clothes, consisting of a short braided jacket, a beautiful embroidered shirt with frills in front and at the cuffs, a lovely leather belt and a glorious pair of long trousers, in the left pocket of which she had, unknown to me, sewn a piece of superstition in the shape of a little crust of bread to avert evil. The amusing part of this was that, as I was dressing for the concert and proudly putting my hands in my pockets, I quickly withdrew my left with a cry: The dried-up sharp points of the crust had grazed my skin and very nearly prevented my appearance at the concert!
Side by side with the piano I was taught harmony and singing, and when I was a little over nine, received my first fee—a bright new thaler (shall I ever forget the sensation!) for singing at one of the church music institute's concerts, under Professor Julius Schäfer, the soprano solo, Oh, for the Wings of a Dove, in Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer.
After a while my voice changed into a contralto and, after a while, from that into a high tenor. I sang all the big arias from The Huguenots, Prophet, Trovatore, etc., with great gusto and all the aplomb of an old stager, much to the amusement and delight of my audiences, consisting chiefly of my proud father and mother and visiting relatives and friends.
I revelled in holding a high B natural or C with full chest voice and already began to dream of thousands of people crowding into the opera house to hear the great Henschelini, or rather Angelini, as I intended calling myself on the stage, when suddenly one fine day, coming to breakfast and bidding my parents good morning, the "good" was still said in tenor, and the "morning" in the deepest bass voice you ever heard. So that dream was dispelled and gone for ever, and I nothing but an ordinary bass. Think of the humiliation! And as such—I was just sixteen then—made my first public appearance at a concert for charity, which we know covers a multitude of sins.
The year following, 1867, I was sent to Leipzig, to study singing under Professor Goetze, an excellent teacher who as a young man had been the first Lohengrin when that work was first given in Weimar, under Liszt. I also studied pianoforte under Ignaz Moscheles. These two were the first musical celebrities I had met to talk to and I remember well how, on being introduced to Moscheles, I stared at the man who had seen Beethoven face to face and been commissioned by the Master to make the vocal score of his Fidelio.
I found him, however, most kind and sociable, and soon became an almost daily guest at the Moscheles house, the presiding angel of which was his accomplished, beautiful and charming wife, a relative of Heinrich Heine's, who remained a motherly friend to me until the end of her life. My lessons with Moscheles proved highly interesting and profitable and, sometimes, amusing as well. He had been trained in, and was the foremost exponent, then, of a school of pianoforte playing as far removed from the modern sledgehammer-klavier technique as Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes' "one-horse shay" from a sixty-horsepower motor car. I think the dear old gentleman would have had a fit if any of us had forgotten ourselves so far as to lift our hands as much as two inches from the keyboard. Chopin and Schumann were the most advanced composers he would admit for study in his lessons. I remember well one day playing a phrase of Beethoven's in a somewhat rubato style and his chiding me by gently and innocently saying: "My dear sir, you may do that with Schumann or Chopin, but not when you play Beethoven or me!"
On another occasion I brought him, for his criticism, a pianoforte composition of mine in which he suggested a correction of about ten or twelve bars. "Shall I play you now the corrected version?" Tasked. "My dear sir," he said, smiling, "there's no need of that; I hear that all distinctly in my mind's ear—I really must tell you a little story about that: When I wrote my concerto with three kettle drums"—he seemed particularly proud of this, then almost unheard of innovation and boldness—"when I wrote my concerto with three kettle drums, I came to a tutti I wanted rather fully and noisily orchestrated. Well, will you believe it, I heard that tutti with all those different instruments so distinctly and clearly in my mind's, ear whilst I was writing it that … that I got … a real headache !"
My singing lessons with Professor Goetze I also enjoyed thoroughly, and already in the early part of the following year, 1868, I sang the part of Hans Lachs in Wagner's Meistersinger at a performance in Leipzig, prepared and conducted by Carl Riedel, the great Wagner enthusiast, whose choral society was then justly celebrated. This was the first performance of the opera in Leipzig, and it was given on the concert platform, the authorities of the Municipal Theatre not quite daring to do it on the stage yet after the rather doubtful reception of the work at the Court Theatre of the neighboring Dresden. The conductor there was then Julius Rietz, an excellent musician of the classical school, and known for his ready and biting wit. During the first reading-rehearsal of the Meistersinger, a rehearsal called "Corrector's Probe," its object being merely to correct eventual mistakes in the parts, the whole orchestra would from time to time burst into homeric laughter and merriment at the "awful' dissonances;" when suddenly Rietz, knocking at the desk, stopped the orchestra, saying, "Gentlemen, this sounds so well—almost beautiful—there must be something wrong in the parts!"
Times have changed—haven't they!
In the spring of that same year, at a meeting of the "Allgemeine Tonkünstler-Verein" (General Tone- Artists' Union) at Altenburg in Saxony I first met that wonderfully fascinating personality, Franz Liszt, in some of whose works produced on that occasion, I had to sing the bass solo. Liszt was beyond all expectation kind to me, and only too readily and gratefully I accepted his most cordial invitation to visit him at his home in Weimar. During the summer of '68 I settled for some weeks in that famous little capital and daily went to the "Gärtnerei" (Gardener's House), a charming little garden residence placed at Liszt's disposal by the reigning grand duke. There Liszt held a sort of court, the picturesque old town fairly swarming with past, present and would-be pupils and disciples, male and female, of the Master. It was, however, by no means pupils only that flocked to those famous Sunday morning "At Homes;" at one of them, for instance, it was my good luck to not only see, but also hear in that historical music room, besides the illustrious and genial host himself, no fewer and no lesser stars than Anton Rubinstein, Carl Tausig and Hans von Bülow. Here there were the four greatest pianists of the time, gathered, not in a cast concert hall, but in a small room, at home, in their shirt sleeves, so to say, enabling us privileged fellow guests, to compare, not from memory, but by immediate impressions, within the compass of an hour or so, the stupendous power of a Rubinstein with the polished infallibility of a Tausig; the irreproachable classicism of a Bülow with the enchanting elegance and romanticism of a Liszt. They are gone, all those four great ones, but the memory of that morning is more real, more living to me to-day than any reproduction of their playing could be by those most wonderful and ingenious musical inventions of this electric age.
In the course of the morning Liszt, pointing to a parcel he had received from Wagner the day before and which was lying on the piano, called out to me, "Voila, won cher, une jolie bagatelle pour vous" (Here, my friend, is a pretty little piece for you) and handed me a short volume of music which we—for by that time I was surrounded by a number of eager and curious faces—discovered to be the first published Vocal Score of Wagner's Walküre—"Allons done mon cher," cried Liszt, "chantons Les Adieux de Wotan." (Come along, my boy, let us sing Wotan's Farewell.) And he sat down at the piano, I standing next to him, bending over the score, and we then and there played and sang that grand finale amid frequent exclamations of delight from the audience, and had to repeat parts of it over and over again.
[It is not unlikely that we may be able to present another series of recollections from Mr. Henschel at a later date.— Editor's Note.]

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