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Olga Samaroff - What the Life of an Artist Means

Written Expressly for The Etude by the Distinguished American Pianist

(Mrs. Leopold Stokowski)

olga-samaroff.jpgAmong the many problems which confront an artist, none is more perplexing than the constant, almost daily, requests for advice from young and aspiring musicians or their anxious relatives. As an appearance with an orchestra is the ambition of every budding virtuoso or singer, I have had even more than my share of such appeals since becoming the wife of an orchestral conductor, and it sometimes seems to me as though the entire next generation were striving to precipitate itself upon the concert stage!

Several years of experience in such matters has brought me to feel that it would not be amiss to bring once more (for it has been done before) to the minds of students who cherish an ambition for a public career, a sketch of what, according to my own experi­ence, at least, the life of an artist means. It is rather a difficult undertaking, and, indeed, I should not attempt to approach the subject of the artist’s inner life or artistic development. That is quite individual and much too subtle and complex. But even the more exterior or practical side of an artist’s life, however familiar to those connected with our modern concert world, seems to be a closed book to three-fourths of the students who aspire to devote their lives to the career of a musician. To that I shall confine my remarks.

First and foremost, it seems as though our Ameri­can students seldom have an adequate idea of the requirements of a career. Putting aside the question of qualities of playing, how often does one find that a young pianist, or violinist, for instance, whose entire repertory consists of one or two concertos, and per­haps a dozen solo pieces, thinks he is quite ready to. face the world and challenge comparison with great artists! Imagine starting a big department store with a ribbon and a glove counter! And not only have these young musicians such scanty equipment as regards their actual repertory, but if one inquires into their past studies one often finds that their acquaintance with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord, the Beethoven Sonatas, and the works of Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and even Chopin and Liszt is of the most superficial description. In fact, it would almost seem that, as a nation, we Americans do not yet understand, in the least, the kind of profound, patient and concentrated work necessary to become a real artist. We are too inclined to strive for quick results, to be satisfied with the superficial brilliancy produced by natural instrumental or vocal facility, and to fail to realize that art must rest on the foundation of deep and thorough knowledge. Such musicians as Casals, Gabrilowitsch, Bauer, Busoni, Thibaud, etc., possess not only complete mastery of their instrument and its literature, but a broad knowledge of orchestral, operatic, vocal and chamber music.

Every bit of musical experience and knowledge adds to the stature of an artist, no matter how great his natural gifts may be. How often one heard a virtuoso or singer who possesses in a high degree musical instinct, technical brillinacy (sic), emotional feeling and per­sonal magnetism, and yet who falls short of being a really great artist because of a lack of that author­ity, repose and particular quality of inspiration which comes from the broad and varied musical and intellec­tual development, which makes the artist a master.

The thoroughness of musical education abroad already exists in some of our conservatories, but we have a long way to go before our standards in general reach the European level. The proof is the amazing number of scantily equipped young people, who con­sider themselves, and are evidently considered by their teachers, to be ready for a public career. But, assum­ing that a young artist is properly equipped, possessing in addition the indispensable assets of health, person­ality, will-power and energy, how many are the prob­lems, discouragements and complications which stand in his way.

When one has witnessed the end of the career of a man like Mahler, who, although a supremely great artist, struggled to the last day of his life with antagon­ism and injustice, one realizes how little the artist can count on meeting with a sympathetic response to his efforts. On the other hand, there have always been artists who, without being really great, have achieved enormous financial success and who have occupied, for a time at least, the place of a public idol. And in the career of every artist, no matter what the general measure of his success may be, there are strange irregularities. It is very difficult for the young artist to reconcile himself to the fact that a success in one country may be followed by a

failure in another. That he may become a drawing-card in one city and play to empty benches in another. That the performance of a certain work may make a sensation with one audience and fall flat with another, and so on. Even to the experienced artist or manager these things are baffling. Many theories are advanced for their explanation, but in truth the psychology of the concert world remains very mysterious and full of surprises.

Take the question of musical criticism for one thing. Again, I will not attempt to discuss the question itself, but rather its practical effect as a problem in the life of a young and struggling artist. If he takes these things to heart he will soon find himself in an ocean of doubt. Is he warmly emotional or coldly intellectual, is his technic adequate or inadequate? He becomes quite bewildered, so conflicting are often the verdicts of critics. Or, if his debut was hopelessly bad, he may be finished off with one sentence like the unfor­tunate youth who read after his first concert in one of the European capitals: “Mr. So and So gave a con­cert last night. Why “

Again he may find himself advertised from one end of the country to the other by a press notice which he thought particularly bad, but which, after a successful surgical operation, performed by the manager, was made to look like extravagant praise. Sometimes critical notices are of great value, both from the point

of view of showing the artist the way, or of obtaining wide interest for his work, but in the life of the young artist beginning his career this side of the profession is apt to produce many heartburns.

It would be interesting to know how many of the aspirants for fame would stand the test of complete knowledge of the experiences which, however varied in detail, form an inevitable part of life when one is before the public. How little, for instance, do the uninitiated dream of the amount of intense concen­trated work involved after one has achieved public success! One often hears it said of certain great artists: “They do not have to practice.” This is true, to a certain extent, of a few exceptions. Such artists have a degree of natural talent for some special instru­ment, which enables them to do away with much of the mechanical work which is usually necessary. But even such artists must, at some period of their lives, do an immense amount of musical and intellectual work to give them mastery of a large repertory.

Quite apart from the artist’s own work, the demands of public life are innumerable and most exacting. The student who pictures to himself the life of a success­ful artist as a care-free existence, filled with beauty, luxury, adulation and pleasure is, unfortunately, very far from the truth. I will try to describe for his benefit a typical day of the successful artist in New York, where be is apt to have his headquarters, and the typical day of the same artist on the road. My pictures are mild and drawn from, the average, not from the unusual.

Let us assume that our supposed hero is a pianist. He awakens tired from a concert the night before, and a late supper, to which he had to go, much against his will, because of certain personal or professional obligations. The moment his eyes are open, he is con­scious of a something weighing upon him. What is it? Oh, yes; several important business letters to be written and programs for coming concerts to be made. He telephones for a stenographer, if he has not a reg­ular secretary. She comes and proceeds to impair our hero’s digestion of his breakfast by the emotions her spelling of composers’ names calls forth.

All this time our hero is impatient to begin his work at the piano because he is to play something new or something he has not looked at for a long time, at his next concert. But, as he sits down at the instru­ment, he finds himself confronted by a long and illeg­ibly written sonata recently sent him by an unknown composer, who expects a verdict and the manuscript that day. Our hero’s first impulse is to throw the sonata in the waste-paper basket and do something even worse to the composer, but being a somewhat conscientious human being he tells himself for the thousandth time that it is his duty to help the young, etc., so he wades through the work only to find, nine times out of ten, the most hopeless mediocrity.

He curses Fate and settles down once more to his own work. After a few minutes, the telephone rings. His manager must speak to him. Something in the arrangement of the Chicago Concert has gone wrong, the conductor of such and such an orchestra can’t let him play the concerto he wanted to, will he give his services at a charity concert for the benefit of something or other, etc., etc. His tired brain jumps from one thing to another, while in one corner of his subconscious mind the notes of some particularly diffi­cult passage in the work he is trying to practice keep going around and around. If he is lucky he may get a little real work done before going to a luncheon where he is expected to “roar” to the satisfaction of the lionizers, and give an interesting revelation of his “personality.”

After lunch he may attend to some of the trouble­some things which fall to the lot of man in general, such as tailors, dentists, etc., but the artist in question has to go through them, watch in hand, fearing to miss a half-dozen appointments, and never losing an uncom­fortable sensation that he ought to be doing something else, namely, his own work. As the afternoon progresses he is more than likely to have a sitting for a portrait painter or a photographer, who takes at least twenty-five poses. Then a news­paper interview or two, a series of ap­pointments to hear people play and to see composers of new works, to talk to representatives of some reproducing instrument, or to people who want to write a biographical sketch for a maga­zine, or to interview some of the endless people who want help of various kinds, etc.

In between times the artist struggles with his engagement list, trying to ex­tract the necessary and worth-while things from the bewildering mass of demands made upon him for the future. The evening during the season is sure to bring him either a concert of his own, some entertainment at which he appears in his professional capacity, or a night journey to another place.

If the reader is not too weary to follow our pianist-hero, one will find him arriving at his destination early in the morning after a night on the train, which is more exasperating to his over­strained nerves than it would be to a differently organized man. His desire to work and also to snatch some much-needed rest becomes more acute on the road than ever. He arranges with the hotel operator not to call his room at certain hours. He tries desperately to barricade himself against the world, but a new army of reporters, young artists, young composers, lionizers, managers, heads of charitable or educational institutions, etc., awaits him in each place, and, sooner or later, for one reason or another, a certain part, at least, of these demands has to be met.

In addition, there are the many small but vital prob­lems of travel, which are inevitable in moving quickly from one place to another. Baggage gets lost, trains are late, pianos have a great way of arriving without their legs or going off to a wrong place altogether, and although the artist is not supposed to look after such things, he is the one to suffer. How often does the unlucky virtuoso arrive in some town five minutes after the concert is supposed to begin! He is cold, hungry, tired and out of sorts. He is hustled into other clothes (if his baggage has turned up properly) and onto the stage, where he is supposed to soar promptly to the heights of inspiration and take a thousand or more people with him! As likely as not, the artist at such a moment wishes he had never been born.

Then the discouragements in the case of the young artist! He gets an exceptionally good engagement, let us say, with some important orchestra. He pre­pares feverishly for it. He dreams of a brilliant suc­cess and of all that will result from it. He even, if he is very human, enjoys in advance the envy and dis­comfiture of his enemies. The evening comes. He has indigestion or a tired arm from over-practice or he is in a dull mood, or just plainly nervous. There are a thou­sand and one reasons why a sensitive being can be put out of sorts. He is not at his best and knows it. He is painfully and acutely conscious of having lost, in spite of all his efforts, a great opportu­nity. Perhaps bad or lukewarm notices in the papers the next morning add to his sorrows. Such moments are not easy, and I doubt whether there is an artist before the public who has not ex­perienced them, and at these times en­vied those on the other side of the footlights who could go back to quiet, comfortable homes, free from all such mental and emotional turmoil.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the successful artist, during a strenuous concert season, has scarcely a moment to himself. Every hour of his time, every ounce of his energy and nervous force goes into his professional life. From this point of view alone, it is not a thing to be lightly undertaken. It is a life of much self-sacrifice, a life in which not only the pleasure of freedom to follow one’s inclinations, but much more vital things, such as the happiness of home life must be, temporarily at least, subordinated to the demands of a career. To the artist who possesses in a high degree all the qualifications neces­sary, nothing would he a deterrent, however much he might and does rebel against the objectionable sides of an artist’s life. But the young student who stands questioningly at the parting of the ways should not only try to realize the difficulties that lie ahead of him, but also that he can satisfy, to a large extent at least, his love for music without throwing himself into the maelstrom of the international musical world where “many are called but few are chosen.” A sincere musician who develops his own gifts as far as he can, finds satisfaction in that whether he is before the public or not. If he then teaches and passes on what he has to give—thus upholding or even raising the musical standards of the community in which he lives, he can rejoice in both usefulness and the possibility of a tran­quillity and harmony in his private life which is very difficult of attainment for the man in the limelight.




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