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Up the Slippery Slopes of Parnassus

By JAMES HUNEKER

In which the distinguished critic calls special attention to studies about which all ambitious students are eager to obtain expert information

LAST March I dealt with studies that are the foundation of the art of playing the piano: Czerny, Clementi, Cramer, the three church fathers—De Lenz calls Cramer the Venerable Bede of the Etude. We had slowly mounted the slippery slopes of Parnassus as far as the Chopin studies, though not quite. But the peak was not yet achieved, there are remoter roads still to be traversed. However, I should like to return to the subject of finger equality, as I forgot to quote Chopin’s original views. He once began, as you may remember, a method but did not complete it; he was an admirable preceptor, taking the deepest interest in the elements of his art; but, after all, a poet, not a pedagogue. His sister gave the manuscript of this method to the Princess M. Czartoryska, and the Polish pianist, Natalie Janotha, has translated the fragment. Here is the part that alludes to our theme. Chopin wrote:

“No one notices inequality in the power of the notes of a scale when it is played very fast and equally, as regards time. In a good mechanism the aim is not to play everything with an equal touch, but to acquire a beautiful quality of touch and a perfect shading. For a long time players have acted against nature in seeking to give equal power to each finger. On the contrary, each finger should have an appropriate part assigned it. The thumb has the greatest power, being the thickest finger and the freest. Then comes the little finger, at the other extremity of the hand. The middle finger is the main support of the hand, and is assisted by the first. Finally comes the third, the weakest one. As to this Siamese twin of the middle finger, some players try to force it to become independent. A thing impossible, and unnecessary. There are, then, many different qualities of sound, just as there are several fingers. The point is to utilize the differences; and this, in other words, is the art of fingering.”

The Wilderness
What a wilderness of piano studies would have remained unwritten if this advice of Chopin had been followed. How many dull hours could have been spared us! All instinctive artists know it. Harold Bauer has been preaching the doctrine for years. Leschetizky built his system—he really has no hard and fast system—on the idea, a purely anatomical one. Mr. Theodore Presser may recall the time when Dr. Forbes, of Philadelphia, performed an operation on the fourth finger—or adhering to the English fingering one would call it the third—of my left hand, cutting the superciliary tendon without, as might be supposed, either harming or benefiting my mediocre technique. This is an extreme case, but equally unlike is the monstrous regiment of piano studies. Some teachers dispense with them altogether. Rosenthal simply laughed when I asked him if he ever employed studies. He admitted, however, that when he had ten minutes free after a hard day’s playing he would limber up with a few exercises. But everyone isn’t a Rosenthal. My own experience as a teacher—many years ago—is that I secured quicker results from the snapping fingers in William Mason’s valuable Touch and Technic—that is, alternate staccato and legato in one key, the hand being rapidly withdrawn, hence the “snapping;“ and also in attacking every figure imaginable with the hand stroke—slowly, of course, and one hand at a time—scales, arpeggios, chords, double-notes. Mr. Joseffy pointed this out to me, and I noted that clarity, precision and speed were quickly attained. Another thing: observe any great artist as he plays—Josef Hofmann, De Pachmann, Joseffy, Godowsky—and you will fail to see any finger movement. The hand seems balled-up, as if to pinch; the controlling movements apparently come from the fore and upper arm. This is only in appearance, and, like the conventional picture of a horse in full flight. Muybridge it was who first analyzed the various movements of the horse by a series of instantaneous photographs, and to our surprise we are shown the legs bunched and not outstretched. But there are a myriad number of minute movements that go to making the synthesis. A great pianist has arrived at his effortless muscular motions only after years of painstaking analysis, thus illustrating the formula of Herbert Spencer as to the advance from the heterogeneous to the homogeneous. Not so long ago Alexander Lambert told me that he had closely observed Leopold Godowsky at the keyboard and failed to detect the slightest finger movement, even when he was performing such colossal feats as the playing of two etudes of Chopin simultaneously. The fact that Tausig, Von Billow and Joseffy had, and have very small hands ought to prove the fallacy of fanatical finger culture. Which brings us back to my original question: Why should any one trill with any particular pair of fingers if the trill can be achieved by wobbling the whole hand ? The truth is that a flexible muscular organization is at the bottom of all great technical feats.

“Debonelessizing”
What is now called—with Delsartian emphasis—decomposition, is the real root of the matter. I wish we had a satisfactory English equivalent of the French word, désossement—boning is the precise word, but debonelessizing is a better, if not exactly defensible. That complete relaxation, that absolute unstarching of the muscles, yes, and nerves also, is the key to the limpid technique of a De Pachmann. Go to the circus thou pianistic sluggard, and study the tumbling clowns in the sawdust. They bound like india-rubber when dropped from heights and smile over it; other men would break their bones in the attempt. It is the art of decomposing in its broadest aspects, or the difficult art of holding on and letting go—in a word, the art of living.

I read somewhere a story De Lenz tells about Liszt. The gossiping Russian had begun the first movement of the C sharp minor sonata of Beethoven, the so-called Moonlight, when Liszt seized his little finger of the right hand with “a grip like a June bug” and pressed it “into” the key. The cantilena was improved at once. Here Liszt was only demonstrating the injunction of modern teachers, from Deppe to our days— play with weight. Yet, Thalberg had a beautiful singing touch, beautiful, but invariably the same, and therefore, according to Ehrlich, a touch that would have been a drawback in modern methods of interpretation, which seeks for continuous tonal variety. Liszt has been instanced as an artist whose singing touch lacked the fat, juicy cantabile quality (the late William Mason told me that his touch was positively hard) but whose tonal gamut was all comprehensive—tender, dramatic, poetic and intellectual at will. Color, or, rather, nuance rules. A pianist with a colorless touch will not draw a corporal’s guard be his technique never so facile. He lacks eloquence, and is the inferior of the man or woman who says something, though his or her mechanism may not he remarkable. But back to the technical trenches! There are a dozen finger battles still ahead of us to-day.

What Philipp Has Done
I have been asked about special studies. They are to be had in abundance. Dr. Mason’s work alluded to above; the Isidor Philipp (of Paris) piano literature, the most satisfying of its kind—his new Gradus ad Parnassum—is a complete course, full of good things, selected by a sympathetic teacher and a finished pianist. M. Philipp has also culled from the Chopin works a system of study which is admirable.

The best way to study Chopin is to pick out the various technical problems from his music. This Philipp has done in two volumes. Before attacking, say, the last four pages of the F minor Ballade you first conquer the various finger-breakers set before you in condensed form. When you take the piece in question, that left hand scale in D flat, or those formidable double-notes in the coda, are at your finger tips. This is the best preparation for Chopin that has yet appeared. Among other works M. Philipp has written A Preparatory School of Technic, a complete School of Technic, Exercises in Extension, and also an Octave School, containing a vast variety of examples, chiefly modern. Or, if you desire more homeopathic treatment there is C. L. Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist, edited by W. Safonoff. Arnold Sartonio has a Course in Octave Playing—the study pieces are melodious and graded; and my old friend, James H. Rogers, poses in his Octave Velocity—24 exercises and etudes—the problem and solves it for you satisfactorily. He does the same with his Double-Note Velocity, excellently devised studies. If your left hand is recalcitrant Ernest R. Kroeger has in the Fifteen Studies for the Cultivation of the Left Hand, which I heartily commend, and hot off the publisher’s griddle, is a very thorough treatment of all the difficulties in octave playing, entitled The Art of Octave Playing, in 50 progressive studies, compiled, classified and edited by Sigmund Herzog and Andor Pinter. When you have mastered its pages octaves in the most complicated figures need no longer terrify. And yet the old Kullak School of Octaves is not dead, nor, I may say en passant, is Carl Czerny, either. The more I see of that extraordinary pedagogue’s work the more I wonder. He
has forestalled every modern composer for the piano in the matter of figuration. He is simply the inexhaustible bottle in the conjurer’s trick.

Tappert at the Table
In Volume I of Philipp’s New Gradus ad Parnassum there is a study for the left hand alone by the late Wilhelm Tappert, once a well-known Berlin music critic and an exponent of Wagner at a time when, to call a man a Wagnerian, was a matter of duelling, either with pen or tongue. Well, I had no sooner clapped eyes on that F minor study (where the indefatigable Philipp came across it I should like to know) when certain association of ideas began to operate. I was back at Bayreuth in 1896 where I first saw Tappert, a heavy set man, with a bull-dog face, the face of the born fighter that he was. We sat at the same table, Otto Floersheim, then the New York critic, now a resident of Geneva, making the third of the party. It was he who introduced me to the Berlin writer. Tappert was not a conversationalist. He occasionally grunted disapproval when the performances at the Wagner Theatre were mentioned. He belonged to the old guard. To make a short story longer let me tell you that the sight of this study and the name of its manufacturer evoked an image of the man engaged in the dangerous occupation of swallowing his knife as he ate his peas. I saw the knife and the peas perilously balanced thereon, and in the key of F minor. Why? I can’t say. The picture came back as vividly as the day I witnessed the fell deed—a man may be a great music critic and yet a sword-swallower. So even a dull finger study hath its uses to arouse the dead.

Don’t forget the custom of Chopin who, when about to appear in concert, shut himself up and played Bach; no doubt the ill-tempered clavichord, in this case, for the Polish composer was often given to irritable humors. (I wish the Editor of THE ETUDE would get up a symposium of pianists and teachers of piano to consider the question: Why are musicians as a rule an irritable tribe? The answers might be of interest. Naturally, the wives and sisters should be invited to contribute their experiences.)

This is an eminently realistic period in piano literature. The brutal directness of the epoch is mirrored in contemporary music and with the widespread introduction of national color the art is losing a moiety of its former well-bred grace, elegance and aristocratic repose. Norwegian, Russian, Bohemian, Finnish, Danish, Hungarian peasant themes have all the vitality of the peasantry, and much of their clumsiness, too. When I listen to this species of music I see two stout, apple-cheeked rustics jigging furiously after the hearty manner of “Toil-tillers.” Turgenev reproached Zola for describing the perspiration that coursed down the workman’s back in so many of his naturalistic novels, and there is a realism that is equally as disagreeable in this national music. Such company is odd and out of place when brought into the drawing-room. With Adolf Henselt the case is different, he is quite at home in the palace. His refined polished speech is never conventional, nor does he tear passion to tatters in the approved modern manner. A man of the world, a bit blasé, but true at the core, he is a poet and a musician. His two volumes of studies for the piano could be ill-spared. There is no one who could replace him. The Bird Study is a classic. His gentle, elegiac nature, his chivalry, his devotion to the loved one are distinctively individual. His nights are moonlit, his nightingales sing, though not in the morbid, sultry fashion of Chopin; even the despair in his study Verlorne Heimath is subdued. It is the despair of a man who eats truffles copiously washed down with choice Burgundy, while his heart is breaking. Nevertheless, there is a note of genuineness. Henselt is never a hypocrite. He dreams with one eye open and Chopin often disturbs his slumbers. What charming études are in his opus 2 and opus 5. What a wealth of technical figures, what euphony is imperative for their ideal performance. To play Henselt with a hard, dry touch would be Hamlet with the melancholy Dane absent from the cast. The Henselt studies should not precede those of Chopin; in fact, some of Chopin’s could be sandwiched with Clementi, or Moscheles—if you wish him—or with Kessler. Chopin used the Moscheles preludes in teaching. De Lenz relates that Chopin expressed a mild desire to know Henselt, but did not say anything about his music. Frederic was always rather exclusive. Henselt will give you romantic freedom, a capacity for stretching and a sweetness of style. I don’t believe that all the horde of musical peasants, clumsily footing their rude tunes, have come to stay. In the end form will prevail, and as Buffon said about style—it is the man. Much of latter-day piano literature is vulgar, commonplace and inferior to compositions of the grand classic school. Too often the old convention of artificial salon spielerei has been replaced by a new convention—that of the volks music. It’s all right to put the cart before the horse—when you are backing; not otherwise.

Grieg has been called the Northern Chopin, a superficial simile, but Von Bülow’s epigram hit the bull’s-eye: Grieg is a Mendelssohn in sealskin. The Grieg piano music was once delightfully fresh and it still has a quaint ring. But he said all he had to say in his piano sonata, opus 7, in E minor, and in the first violin and piano sonata, opus 8, in F. The attempt to pad his Scotch-Scandinavian shoulders so as to fit the cloak of the great Pole is an ineffectual sartorial scheme. Grieg lacks a distinguished style, despite his undoubted harmonic originality and mock naiveté, and while I admire his A minor Concerto with its mosaic of melodies, I begin to tire of the eternal yodel, the Triolen that always bob up as a sort of musical trademark. If you wish to get at the technical scheme of Grieg his G minor Ballade will give it to you; as a matter of fact it shows more invention than his Concerto. What a superb stylist was Chopin, and what may we not say about his preludes and studies—the Vade Mecum of all good pianists who, after death, go to Parnassus to study with Frédéric the fugues of Bach and his own studies. In the preludes we may discover rich nuggets. If your left hand remains intractable remember Bach will individualize the fingers, and Czerny’s opus 399 is excellent, if not pleasant, medicine for the muscles. For a light hand play Mendelssohn, the Caprices, or the F major Study of Chopin, opus 25, No. 3. If you long for variety at this stage dig up Theodore Doehler’s fearfully and wonderfully made concert studies, and glimpse the technics that delighted our grandfathers: interlocked chords, trills, prolonged scale passages and vapid harmonies may be enjoyed. Of genuine music there is little, if any; great difficulties were once uselessly imposed upon the left hand without corresponding musical results; this was followed by minor accompaniment figures, while the right hand flashed all over the keyboard. This may be found in the Gottschalk technique, which is only a repetition of the fulminating brilliancies of the French school.

Notable Studies
Single studies are now in order. Joseffy’s crystalline étude, At the Spring, is delightful in color and replete with exquisite nuances. To play it pianissimo and prestissimo, and, at the same time, in a cool, liquid caressing manner is to have achieved distinction. Carl Heyman has in his Elfinspiel given us a taste of his wonderful technique and unfailing charm. Max Vogrich’s Staccato Study is brilliantly effective, though I think he found his figure first in a Henselt study. The rhythmic studies of Ferdinand Hiller are excellent, and the late Carl Baermann’s are solid, satisfying and sincerely musical. Golinelli, a Milanese virtuoso, has left twelve studies which are now practically obsolete, though the octave study was often played by William Sherwood. In the set is one in C sharp minor with a rolling bass which is effective. Speidel has written an octave study, and then there is that perennial favorite, Die Loreley, by Hans Seeling, a talented young Bohemian pianist, who died young (1828-1862). His set of twelve studies contain good things, such as the Gnomes’ Dance. Dreyschock’s Campanella study is as dry as his name and reputation. Xaver Scharwenka’s preludes and studies are among the best things he has composed. The Staccato Etude is deservedly popular, and the E flat minor Prelude and F sharp minor Etude are models of their kind. The last name is evidently suggested by a figure in the first movement—the working-out section of Chopin’s E Minor Concerto. Moszkowski’s three concert studies are difficult; the one in G flat is a rather faded favorite. Nicodé’s two studies are well made, and Dupont’s Toccata in B is a grateful concert piece. Sgambati has written some interesting studies, though as a whole they lack individual profile. The two most likely to last are Il Combattimenti and Vox Populi. The six studies of Saint-Saëns are difficult. One for double-notes in repetition is valuable. The Valse in form of a study is graceful, though the theme is trivial. His Toccata is his best in the form. If you demand velocity, coupled with lightness and suppleness of wrist, go back to old Scarlatti.

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You are reading Up the Slippery Slopes of Parnassus from the May, 1915 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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