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Lingering Lovingly on Details


Why is Paderewski the greatest of living pianists?

Because, more than any other, he lingers lovingly on beautiful details in the music he is playing. There are other reasons, but that is the principal one. Lingering lovingly on ravishing details is the climax, the last word, the perfection of pianoforte playing.

Perfect technic does not make a perfect pianist. There are hundreds of piano players, male and female, professional and amateur, who can do almost as brilliant technical stunts as the player-pianos, but they are no Paderewskis.

Some pianists are as versatile as Paderewski, playing French, German, Russian and Polish music with equal facility and intelligence; they read at sight as easily as he; they have equally good if not better memories, and some of them excel him in technical stunts. His art of pedaling is, on the other hand unique, inspired, unequaled. No other pianist has—probably no one ever had—quite his gift for evoking from the piano, with the aid of the pedal, ravishing tints—tints as new as the colors with which Luther Burbank has painted his poppies and gladioli. But his most personal trait is—let me say it again—the bewitching way he lingers over beautiful details. It is with those exquisite details that he has most frequently thrilled his audiences—and will again, I hope thrill them when the Polish question is settled. As a statesman and orator, let me add, he emphasized “details” which, if the “patriots” had heeded them, would have prevented the nearly fatal overrunning of Poland by the Bolsheviki last year.

In all my life I have never heard a more eloquent speech than the one Paderewski made in Carnegie Hall (preceding one of his recitals) in behalf of Poland. It was an appeal for the starving children that went as straight to the heart as his playing of Chopin’s Funeral March or of the thrilling Preludes in B Minor and E Minor (Op. 28, Nos. 6 and 4), which were played at Chopin’s funeral in Paris.

This sublime speech would have fallen flat if it had been rattled off without pauses, in the way Chopin’s music is usually played by professionals.

The Piano Not a Sewing Machine

“Make pauses for breathing,” Hans von Bülow used to say to his pupils. And again: “Do not play too fast, You must bring out the harmonic and melodic beauties, and you cannot do that if you treat the piano like a sewing machine.”

Nine times out of ten when I hear a pianist—famous or infamous—in Carnegie or Aeolian Hall, I feel like shouting, after a few minutes: “You should bring out the harmonic and melodic beauties and you cannot do that if you treat the piano like a sewing machine.”

When you run a sewing machine there is no possibility of introducing special illuminating accents and no advantage in making pauses; but there is in playing the piano. You have read about “eloquent flashes of silence” and doubtless you have heard speeches by famous orators who, just after or before one of their most telling sentences, would stop in order to give the hearers a chance to breathe and prepare the attention for what is coming. If an actor spoke Hamlet’s lines, “To be or not to be,” metronomically, without pause or lingering over details, would you not feel like throwing a rotten potato at him? I certainly often feel like throwing rotten potatoes at pianists who haven’t enough poetry in their souls to linger lovingly over beautiful bars.

In my Success in Music and How It Is Won (p. 291), there is a paragraph which shows what Liszt did in regard to this matter, wherefore I beg the reader’s permission to quote it: “Liszt taught his pupils the secret of musical rhetoric, the science of eloquence. Among living pianists, Paderewski is almost the only one who fully realizes the value of the rhetorical pause—a thing unknown to the foolish ‘sewing-machine players.’ Once Fräulein Gaul played for Liszt a piece in which there were two runs and after each run two staccato chords. She played the runs finely, but struck the chords immediately after them. ‘No, no!’ cried Liszt. After you make a run you must wait a minute before you strike the chords, as if in admiration of your own performance. You must pause, as if to say, ‘How nicely I did that!’ And he illustrated the point at the piano. ‘That,’ says Miss Fay, ‘is the way he plays everything. It seems as if the piano were speaking with a human tongue.”

A Hint by a Great Song Writer

Robert Franz once said to a friend that he did not believe the melody of a song should always “hover over the accompaniment like a butterfly” (what a poetic way of putting it!), but should also appear in the pianoforte part, and that only thus could a poem’s possibilities of musical expression be exhausted.

His own short but big song, The Rose Complained, illustrates this point admirably. In this song about the rose bewailing its short life the chief melody is, as it should be, in the voice part, yet the piano not only begins it, but at the end brings, as it were, an echo of the melody without the voice. But what I wish to call attention to particularly is the fourth full measure (not counting the opening fraction of a measure). If I were a piano teacher I would devote a whole lesson to the two dissonant C’s which in that measure so exquisitely voice the rose’s complaint. Those plaintive C’s, which most accompanists—even the good ones—are apt to glide over carelessly—must be emphasized; they are the very fragrance of this rose song. The emphasis is partly a matter of accent (very slight), partly of lingering lovingly on the two dissonant notes—not too long, but just long enough. To get it just right you may have to play the measure a hundred times—great pianists do that sort of thing; I have heard Paderewski do it with some measures while visiting him at his Swiss chateau—but when finally the accompanist gets the real poetry of those plaintive C’s, Franz’s little song is as sure of big applause as the most showy operatic aria. The public never fails to recognize the lovely details if the player dwells on them poetically. That’s why Paderewski came, was heard and conquered.

Details like the two dissonant C’s in the Franz song may seem trifles, but trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.

A good many persons think musical critics a superfluity and a nuisance. But there is an excuse for them—in fact there are three excuses for them: (1) if they slaughter mediocrities; (2) if they try to discover and encourage genius; (3) if in their comments they dwell lovingly on beautiful details in compositions or their interpretation. In this article we are concerned only with the third of these excuses.

Vague Attention

Frank M. Chapman, the editor of that delightful magazine, Bird Lore, in a recent number commented on “the vagueness with which most people see birds.” He attributes this vagueness chiefly to “hasty, inadequate and careless observation,” and to “a lack of training in the art of seeing things accurately and in detail.”

The lack of training in the art of noticing things accurately and in detail is painfully prevalent. Last summer I had in front of my residence in Maine a bed thirty feet long and three feet wide filled with Opium, Darwin, Silver Lining and Burbank’s Shirley poppies. Many admired them, but few, I am sure, took in all the ravishing details of the Burbank poppies in particular. Most people see flowers only in a vague way; few could sketch or paint what they have looked at, to save their lives. And so with other things visible.

An amusing parlor diversion consists in having half a dozen or a dozen persons look as long as they please at the dial of your watch and then try to draw one just like it. Some will draw Roman figures when yours are Arabic, and almost invariably the figure VI is drawn, too. But no watch ever has a figure VI. Did you know that? Look and see why!

In music there is a corresponding vagueness in hearing, and in the overlooking of details. When you travel on an express train and look out of the window you see many things, but most of them so superficially that they make no special impression. That’s the experience most untrained listeners have when they go to an opera or concert. The music just races past their ears and few details are remembered. Is it a wonder, when you reflect that in an opera there may be a million notes?

Now here is where the musical critic can make himself useful. Frequent hearing having made him thoroughly familiar with most operas and concert pieces, he has the opportunity to dwell knowingly and lovingly on beautiful details. In writing of Carmen, for instance, he can advise the hearer to watch particularly for the glorious music of the love melody sung successively by Escamillo and Carmen, just before he enters the bull ring; or for a dozen other gems.

After a Wagner performance in which Jean de Reszke had the part of Tristan, the critic could dwell admiringly on many details, but particularly on the tenor’s utterance of the word Isolde in the last bar he sings. “It was most wonderful,” wrote a London critic; “not merely affecting as the despairing and adoring cry of a dying man thinking of the woman he worships, but far more than that. In it one hears not only love, but death. It is the mysterious, whispering utterance of a spirit already far away, as if the soul, having started on its dark journey, were compelled by its old and beautiful earthly passion to pause and to look back down the shadowy vista to the garden of the world that it had left, to the woman that it had left, perhaps forever, and to send down the distance one last cry of farewell, one last dim murmur of love, spectral, magical already with the wonder of another world. Such an effect as this is utterly beyond the reach of any one who is not a great artist. It is thrilling in its imaginative beauty. It opens the gates as poetry does sometimes and shows us a faint vision of a far-away eternity.”

In thus dwelling lovingly on a single bar in Wagner’s wonderful tragedy, what does the musical critic do? He rejoices the heart of the great singer who is glad to be so thoroughly appreciated, and is encouraged by this praise to bestow the same amount of soul-work on other pregnant measures. He rejoices the sympathetic listener who felt as moved as the critic was, but usually is unable to express his feelings as glibly in words; and, furthermore, the critic, by his enthusiastic comments, makes others eager to hear an opera, a single measure of which has such an ocean of meaning—thus helping along the survival of the fittest in the opera houses.

I have often received letters from readers of my newspaper criticisms or books thanking me for specially calling their attention to beautiful details. In my editorial notes on the songs of Schubert, Grieg and other masters I have always kept this in mind as my most important task; also in my biographies of Wagner, Grieg and Massenet. When a reader writes to me that I have opened up to her or him a new world of beauty and joy by calling attention to the things most to be looked for, I feel I have not lived or written in vain.

Count Tolstoy’s Folly

The other day I read an excellent little English book by Percy A. Scholes, entitled “The Listener’s Guide to Music.” In it occurs this sentence: “A simple folk-song Tolstoy could understand: a sonata or symphony was beyond him. Tolstoy would abolish all complex music because the plain man cannot grasp it at a sitting. The assumption of the present book is that it is better to abolish the plain man—as a plain man. There is a world of beauty lying just beyond the plain man’s reach; it is worth a little striving on his part to find the way to that world and enter in.”

If Count Tolstoy could have been persuaded to let some one point out to him some of the countless beauties in Wagner’s Siegfried, and to go and hear it five or six times, he would have become despairingly ashamed of the incredibly silly comments he made on that sublime masterwork. The same is true of Ruskin and his equally stupid remarks on Wagner’s The Meistersingers. Strange that minds so huge in their own sphere can be so microscopically small out of their sphere!


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