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What the Metropolitan Music Critic Looks for Most - By Henry T. Finck.

By the Distinguished New York Critic



I HAVE been asked to tell what the musical critics of a city like New York look for, particularly in musicians who appear at public recitals and con­certs. There are a number of things they look for, the eyes being critical as well as the ears.

Time was when the personal appear­ance of a performer was a matter of secondary importance. Shabby attire, a slouchy gait, unkempt hair and unwashed hands didn’t matter much so long as the artist sang or played well.

It is not so to-day. It has been made evident that genius does not necessarily imply eccentricity of attire and conduct. Paderewski and Kreisler, the musical idols of the time, are perfect gentlemen in every way. When, after an absence of some years, Kreisler appeared in London, several of the critics, after praising him as the foremost violinist of the period, commented on the satisfaction it was to behold in him a musician who was also a gentleman.

As for Paderewski, he has all the merits of both musi­cians and men of the world combined, with none of their faults. Early in his career he was accused—like Liszt and Rubinstein in their day—of posing: wearing long hair, and that sort of thing; but these things were per­fectly natural; they were not personal “mannerisms,” any more than was Mozart’s long nose with the aid of which, by the way—have you heard the story?—he won a bet that he could strike five C’s on the clavichord at once.

Beauty on the Stage

Nowadays we also expect woman above all things to show good breeding on the stage. I have before me an article accusing American girls—who are supposed to be paragons of perfection—of a long list of sins of omis­sion and commission. The list is exaggerated; yet many are the debutantes and seasoned professionals who do not realize how much they could do, by grace and charm of deportment, to create in the critics and the rest of the audience a favorable impression before they begin to sing or play.

There is such a thing as hearing with the eyes. The supreme loveliness of Geraldine Farrar, when she made her début in New York as Juliette, would have gone a good way to win favor for her, even had she not sung with such beautiful voice and pathetic fervor.

Blanche Marchesi relates an incident which illustrates the stage value of beauty. Her mother, the famous teacher, was called one day by Gounod, who was in despair. He needed a Juliette for his opera and could find no singer who would do. “Have you one?” he asked. “Yes,” replied Mme. Marchesi, “I have your Juliette. I have the most beautiful Juliette any Romeo ever looked in the face.”

Gounod clasped her hand excitedly. “I shall never cease to be grateful if you speak the truth,” he ex­claimed.

Next day the great teacher brought to his studio a young American student—Emma Eames. Gounod was so enchanted he nearly embraced her, and exclaimed: “If she sings half as well as she looks she is engaged.” She sang, and he exclaimed: “You sing twice as well as you look; you are engaged.”

“Her success,” this writer adds, “was assured before she had opened her mouth; but when she sang her waltz the whole house rose; a scene of enthusiasm was wit­nessed unparalleled since the day of the great Krauss.”

For a pianist, personal beauty is less important; yet the possession of it was a distinct asset in the cases of—for instance—the two South Americans, Teresa Carreno and Guiomar Novaes.

Critics are human; if they are honest, they do not say that a girl plays or sings well because she looks well; but all the same the impressions they get in con­cert halls are a blend, or composite, of sounds and sights, and the tone of their articles is affected by pleasant sights, as well as sounds. Bear that in mind.

Technical Stunts

But how about girls who lack beauty? Well, they might try something else than giving recitals or singing at the opera, wherein they labor at such a disadvantage. However, grace, which is so important an adjunct to beauty, can be cultivated; and beauty, too, is so largely a matter of health that few girls who lead a normal life and do not become victims of dyspepsia, overeating, in­sufficient sleep or injudicious overwork need fear that the Metropolitan critics will be biased against them for non-musical reasons.

Turning to the purely musical side of the question, one of the important things the critics expect in a per­former, as a matter of course, is rare technical skill. That they take for granted, as did Liszt whenever a new pupil came to him.

At the same time, they attach less importance to it than their predecessors used to do two or three genera­tions ago. I recall the words of Clara Schumann regard­ing the once famous pianist Dreyschock: He has much digital skill, but no soul, and his style is atrocious. He created a furor at the Gewandhaus (Leipzig), im­posing on the audience by rapidity of execution.”

To-day, a pianist who tried to impose on an audi­ence by rapidity of execution would be “roasted” by the critics. They expect dazzling digital skill, yes; but only as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Liszt, as a youth, used digital skill as an end in itself; but, long before his genius matured, he denounced such an attitude as “virtuosity”; and ever since that time a more or less scornful opprobrium attaches to sheer vir­tuosity. Why should one laud rapidity of execution when any player-piano can beat a piano player “all ‘round the block?”

Sensible critics do not censure a good pianist for an occasional false note or chord. The fiendish difficulty of many pieces makes it almost impossible for players to be impeccable without making mere machines of themselves.

In an article printed in The Etude some years ago, Rachmaninoff noted that Rubinstein indulged in his no­torious wrong notes particularly when he was at his best; that is, when he was emotionally inspired; but when he took especial care to be accurate, his playing was less interesting.

Most hearers, including real critics, prefer an in­spired player who errs occasionally to a dry cerebral pianist who never makes a mistake.

To be sure, there are critics who love to display their knowledge by carefully referring to every wrong note played by a great artist. That sort of thing cannot be helped. Artists should pay no attention to it. Vanity in some writers is incurable; the ego always comes first with them.

It used to be said of a certain famous American critic that he would make an enemy of his best friend for the sake of a joke which would make his readers think “how witty he is!”

Mastering Stage Fright

One reason why critics expect public players or singers to have great technical facility is that without it no per­son of artistic sensibility can hope to escape the disad­vantages of nervousness. To be nervous is to be obsessed by fear, that most destructive of all emotions. As long as you are afraid of the public you cannot concentrate your mind on the interpretation of the music and there­fore cannot come up to critical expectations.

Stage fright is an outcome of vanity—the dread of making a fool, if not a “holy show” of yourself. The best way to fight nervousness, therefore, is to fight vanity. Think it over—ponder on the facts that your ego is of infinitesimal importance in this world; that of the billion and five hundred million or more people in the world only a handful are in the hall and nearly all of these will not remember a week hence whether you did well and what the critics afterward wrote about you. Further­more, most of the persons in an average audience do not know really how well or how badly you do sing or play. Bear that in mind, too, at the critical moment; it will help you to suppress fear.

Artists Versus Night Laborers

But the grandest of all remedies for nervousness is to crush vanity, to ignore your ego and concentrate all your soul—if you have one—on the composition you are rendering. In other words, give the impression that you are more interested in the music than in your personal success, and you will gain tremendously in the estima­tion of good critics. To lose their good­will the easiest way is to betray by your actions that you are not really in love with music, but look on it commercially—simply as a way to make your living.

There are thousands of respectable and highly educated persons to whom such an attitude on the part of the critics will seem strange—in fact, incomprehensible. Why, they ask, should not anybody who has the ability and opportunity, take to music solely to earn his bread and butter? Because musicians who are not in love with music are not artists but simply day—or rather night—laborers. There is no more reason why newspaper critics should write about them than about brick­layers or hod-carriers.

The Germans have words to indicate the difference between the two classes of performers: Musikanten, for those who practice music solely for bread and butter reasons; and Musiker, for artists—that is, musicians who have not only technical proficiency but enthusiasm for their art and the power to make their hearers share it.

In order to pass muster with real critics you must therefore convince them that you are an artist and not a mere night or day laborer. If you are that and noth­ing more, you cannot hide it from an expert one mo­ment. You may make money—and since that’s what you are after, it ought to satisfy you—but you cannot expect to be admitted into the inner circle of genuine musi­cians.

The greatest of American dramatic sopranos, Lillian Nordica, sums up this point forcibly in her recently pub­lished “Hints to Singers”: “True success as a singer is impossible to those with whom the question is, ‘How long will it take me to get on the stage, and how much shall I make when I get there?’ The mercenary feeling cannot enter into it; one must study because one loves one’s art—Love of art is the secret of true study.”

Correct, Beautiful, Interesting

What critics expect of professional musicians might be summed up in an aphorism of Hans von Bülow, stat­ing that the first thing to aim at is to play correctly; the next, beautifully; and then interestingly. There are plenty of pianists whose playing is so microscopically correct that every note is not only in its place, but also has its correct dynamic emphasis, and who nevertheless fail to make an impression because their musical lilacs and lilies lack fragrance—that is, what in music is called expression.

Beautiful playing is a factor in expressive playing, but by no means the whole of it. Cerebral pianists usually lack the gift of clothing their tones in beautiful garbs and that is why they fall below critical expectations. I could give the names of several widely known men Who play correctly, brilliantly, effectively, from an intel­lectual point of view, but who just fall short of real greatness because their ears have not guided them to the subtle use of the right-hand pedal for commingling overtones into ever-changing tone colors—things of beauty which are a joy forever.

Leschetizky’s pre-eminence lay largely in his knowing how to teach colorful pedaling. It is not a mere acci­dent that Paderewski, king of pedalists for rainbow tones, was a pupil of Leschetizky. Maud Powell’s husband told me a few days ago how she taught two prominent pian­ists to use the right pedal for coloring—They simply didn’t know! And they were delighted to find out!

To play interestingly is even more difficult than to play correctly and beautifully. It includes beauty, too, but a great many other things besides—everything compre­hended under the word expression—emotion, passion, pathos, tenderness, dramatic eloquence. To play or sing with expression makes the music speak.

Expression is what real critics look for above all things, it is the life, the warm blood of music. It means so many things that they could not even be hinted at in a final paragraph. If you desire detailed information on this point, consult the index (under Expression) of my latest book, Musical Progress, which shows the only way to musical success hereafter.

Don’t be discouraged if I add that Maud Powell was right when she said that “the world is full of artists and musicians whose talent and ability command the deepest reverence, who, nevertheless, cannot swell box-office receipts by a single dollar for lack of that illusive quality of magnetism. The great public is moved by human qualities, more than by art qualities.”

Geraldine Farrar once begged to be excused from sing­ing because she was not in good voice.

“Never mind the voice!” exclaimed Gatti-Casazza. “What the public wants is you”

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