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Keyboard Masters of Other Years

An Intimate Brief Review
 
By CONSTANTIN VON STERNBERG
 
The actor lives but for his own time;
No laurels has posterity for him.
Schiller
 
As in a theater the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next.
Shakespeare (Richard II).
 
Taken in a general way, the foregoing quotations ex­press a somewhat melancholy truth; they state a rule which is confirmed by the remarkable fewness of its exceptions. And even in the few exceptions—such as Kean, Booth and a few others—we find that their names are not remembered for the acting per se but for the advancement they gave to the histrionic art; by sub­duing the scanning of meters, abolishing rant, reading new and stronger meanings into the old lines and kindred innovations and reforms. We enjoy the results of the reforms, but scarcely remember the reformer, because— alas!—"no laurels has posterity for him," nor, for that matter, for any interpretative artist who has not also been creatively influential in his branch of art.
 
This includes, of course, also the pianist; but in his case it must be taken into consideration that such pianists as our present time would regard as "great" did not exist until the later years of Beethoven's life. There have been musicians before then who played the piano well; Beethoven, himself, is said to have played well, but on what sort of piano? What could he do on an instrument with a compass of five octaves only and a mechanism so frail that the slightest excess over a forte was punished by the breaking of hammers, strings and by other mishaps.
 
Hummel the First Virtuoso
It is surely not the "pianist Beethoven" who is re­membered, and it is, therefore, quite just to say that the first pianist to become famous through his playing alone was Hummel (1778-1837). His compositions were too light in ideas and workmanship to rescue their author's name from utter oblivion, but the bases of his technic—some features of it, at least—have remained. The next one who might be named, because it is said that he could play very well (Moscheles told me so), was Czerny (1791-1857); but he played in public a very few times only. From his Studies and his Toccatta (sic), how­ever, it is easy to infer how much he learned from Hummel, with whom he studied. Yet Czerny is not re­membered as a player, and as for his writings, a large number of them are losing their educational value because of their musical barrenness. In fact, several of the best pianists of the present have developed their skill without resorting to him, and the same is true of Clementi and his dry-as-dust Gradus, thank heaven!
 
The real heir of Hummel was Moscheles ,(1794-1870), who quite equalled Hummel in technic and completely overshadowed him as a musician. Moscheles was what Wagner calls "a backward looking prophet;" his method of playing was correct, exact and even expressive but also forestalling any changes which might be suggested by the rapidly succeeding improvements of the piano as an instrument. He played with stiff wrists, absolutely still standing hands, making them subject to the test of putting a glass of water on them while playing, etc. This tallied perfectly with his musical views in which he strongly disapproved of Chopin and only "toler­ated" Schumann. Having, however, enjoyed the friend­ship and influence of Beethoven, Clementi and many of their contemporaries his ultra-classic tendency was but natural.
 
Let it be well understood, however, that he was a con­summate master musician, and that, despite his super­annuated style of technic, he played so well as to win the highest respect of Liszt and Rubinstein, who often stayed at his house when concertizing in Leipzig. I have heard Moscheles play in his lessons, at his home, and once in public when he was nearly seventy, and I have fully understood and shared the admiration which the two giants just mentioned showed him. What Mendelssohn, who studied the piano with Moscheles, thought of him is. best proven by the fact that he collaborated with him in a set of variations for two pianos and orchestra; there can be no better evidence of Moscheles' high artistic standing in his day; and his Etudes, Op. 70, are still liv­ing because they combine great musical merit with their technical value.
 
The players named so far may be called "musicianly" pianists, players who did full justice to every detail in the pieces they played, brought out the themes clearly, em­phasized, (usually too much) their developments, marking every imitation or other polyphonic device as if it were a purpose in itself instead of a mere "filling," and they even revealed—on somewhat general lines—a little of the emotional course of the pieces, as far as the instrument of their time permitted, which, as mentioned before, was not very much. The ever present danger of breaking hammers, strings, or both, constituted a natural limita­tion ; so did the narrow compass, and also the fact that each hammer struck but two strings, instead of three, as it does now. The upright piano, after numberless earlier experiments, did not come into general private use until the early sixties of the last century. Up to that time its present place was held by the square piano, a contrivance (still more frail than the grand piano) in which the soften­ing of tone was effected by the insertion of a strip of felt between the strings and hammer, producing a tone some­what between a zither and a not very good guitar.
 
The square piano is mentioned here because many a concert or recital had to be played on square pianos, since in many a city no grand piano was available, and as for the pianist carrying his piano with him, it was out of question in those times when all railroading was in its infancy.
 
The grand pianos were sturdier than the squares, but not so much sturdier as to offer anything like the present dynamic range. Above all, they lacked that persuasive tone quality which now has such a stimulating effect upon the player. In short, the material side of piano music— tone qualities and varieties—was not yet developed, the piano "charm" (without which a piece by Chopin can be scarcely imagined) was missing, and this is an ample explanation and justification of the playing that was done by the pianists so far mentioned.
 
When Hummel was in the third decade of his life, however, there were born four boy babies who were predestined to change the art of piano playing com­pletely, to induce many improvements to the instrument and to raise technic to a height where Josef Hofmann and Godowski come near lamenting with Alexander the Great that there are "no new worlds to conquer"—though they seem to have been victorious over quite a number of hitherto unconquered technical mountain ranges. The four babies were Chopin, Liszt, Thalberg and, but little later, Rubinstein.
 
When ten years old I was taken to a concert to hear Thalberg (1812-1871) and though I never heard him again, the enchanting effect of his tone and touch is still living in my memory. Of his qualities as a musician I could at that time not judge, of course, but I know that I never heard such "singing" on the piano again until it came from the finger tips of Henselt and—better still— of Rubinstein. With this statement, however, the account of Thalberg's virtues as a pianist is complete and nothing further is to be added. Scales, like strings of pearls, im­maculate arpeggios, nice distinction between melody and by-work, a few effects, such as making the shallow orna­mental by-work going across the melody to both sides, and the aforesaid singing melody touch—et voila tout! The pendulum of piano playing had, before him, swung so high to the purely "musical" side of tone and touch as to make it but natural that with Thalberg it swung just as high to the other side and compensated the audiences for the absence of musical merit by a sensuous delight— a practice not yet forgotten by some of our present-day vocalists. Feeling, probably, that he had no musical mes­sage to deliver, he resorted to paraphrasing popular oper­atic melodies, which, of course, assured him of a friendly
welcome. Liszt, too, has done some of this, but, oh— the difference!
 
Piano students, however, should learn a lesson from Thalberg—to wit: that the purely tonal side of piano playing ought to be a matter of very serious considera­tion; for not only was it able to make Thalberg—for a while—a strong rival of Liszt (think of it!) but, since the modern piano admits of so much tonal beauty, it con­stitutes now that important element in piano music which carries dignified musical thoughts, past hearing and intel­lect, into the hearts of auditors who, without this element, would remain inaccessible to them. Admiration cannot be coerced; it must ever be coaxed out of an audience, and it is the tone and touch which do the coaxing and which persuade and accustom the erstwhile unwilling auditor to listen with attention to worthy musical messages.
 
And now we come to the two bright luminaries in the pianistic firmament: Liszt (1811-1886) and Rubinstein (1829-1894); to the two men who wrought the prophe­cies of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin into ravishingly beau­tiful realities. It would be impossible to find in all human history two other men who had so much in common and were nevertheless so totally different from each other as these two heroic figures. Though almost absurd to speak of it in connection with their names, it may be mentioned for completeness' sake that their technic was, of course, equal to many—even to the enormous self-created—de­mands. In tonal beauty and in musicianly qualities they were equal, too, though by no means alike; but the great trait in their playing, the trait which made them tower high above all contemporaries was—personality! It was this that impressed their audiences so powerfully and per­haps the more so since the two personalities differed so widely from each other in everything but the innate power of impressiveness.
 
To give the reader an idea of the difference between the two it will be best to place them in juxtaposition and thus to show how their views varied on the same points. Both were firm believers in subjective conception; that is, they both thought that the artist cannot interpret an art work but in the way it impresses him, but with Liszt this freedom extended no further than to apply the resources of the modern piano to the thoughts of composers to whom the modern pianistic vocabulary was not known. Here and there, where a climax seemed inadequately stated, Liszt would add octaves toward the end, or he would play what we call "blind double- octaves" instead of merely broken octaves; figures which the old-time composers had to cripple on account of the short compass of their instruments—Liszt would reconstruct them in accordance with parallel places (he was, by the way, the first to do this) ; in short, he would stop at nothing to bring out the composer's idea. Rubin­stein, on the other hand, was a great stickler for the printed notes and annotations—but he was so only in his teaching, not in his playing. When he played, he played "Rubinstein," whether the piece was by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin; his intense personality broke through all barriers of indicative annotations. Though everything sounded as if it were composed by himself, no one could retain control over one's cool, critical faculties because—no matter what he played—he al­ways delivered a consummate work of art, for there was so much of impressive beauty in his style of play­ing as to make even the most critical auditor forget all about "the composer's style," or the "code of art," or the much spoken of but never established "eternal laws of aesthetics" and to lose himself in a sea of beauty both sensuous and emotional.
 
With Liszt the freedom was of different kind. When he played Beethoven, it was "Beethoven" as Beethoven would have written if he had known the tonal and mechanical perfection of the modern piano. Whether it was Bach or Beethoven, Liszt's conception remained true to the composers' time and style, plus all the newer means of extolling their thoughts.
 
From all of which the inference may be drawn that from Rubinstein one could learn a great deal in his lessons, but as a player he was a dangerous model; while Liszt played as he taught—and he actually taught or advised the use of modern means of expression. Rubinstein's freedom was one of conception, while Liszt's was merely a freedom of execution.
 
At this point it should be proper to refer to the pianist Chopin (1809-1849) (sic) (young girls should refrain from calling him "Shopen") because he, of all players since Philipp Emanuel Bach, made the largest advance in piano technic, as we see it reflected in all his composi­tions—not to speak of their beauty and originality. He must have been a great pianist, indeed, but the frailness of his physique prevented that powerful display of his skill which is necessary to impress a large audience; his playing must have suffered by its over-refinement. In private circles he fascinated and entranced his rapturous hearers, but in a large, public hall he never achieved that full measure of success which he so richly deserved. It is quite possible that to his contemporary public the dif­ference between his over-refinement and the imperious masterfulness of his friend and admirer Liszt was too great.
 
Another pair of pianists must be mentioned here, al­though I do make the anti-climax with natural reluc­tance. One of them was Bülow (1830-1894), that bundle of vitriolic sarcasm. He was originally a jurist and, therefore, a worshiper of the "letter" (the veriest an­tithesis of Liszt and Rubinstein). He was a "peda­gogic" player. His recitals were "piano lessons," show­ing how absolutely correct things can be done and unconsciously demonstrating at the same time that all the correctness in the world can never be a substitute for inspiration. He had a phenomenal memory and, of course, all the technic which his repertory required, but no surplus of it to which to resort in case he had been granted that mysterious "something" which is known as "the divine spark;" that spark which was also missing in Tausig (1841-1871), whose enormous technic was, after all, insufficient to procure for him a large fol­lowing among those who were not technic-mad.
 
The divine spark! How weak a word for that which it means to convey! The French call it "the holy fire" (le feu sacre), which expresses it much better and comes much nearer suggesting to the mind the re­splendent heavenward blazing, illuming flame of genius which was the all-explaining, all-justifying gift of heaven to Liszt and Rubinstein.
 
 
 

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