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Virtuosity Versus Musicianship - Cyril Scott

By the Eminent English Composer and Pianist

Reading through one of my wife’s novels the other day I came upon the phrase, “He plays like a musician and not like a violinist.”

“That is caustic, witty and to the point,” I remarked.

“Well, considering you said it yourself,” she replied, “except that you made it applicable to pianists.”

“Did I, indeed? Then I am a bit more clever and perhaps a little more cruel than I thought I was.”

And yet, after all, the remark is not so paradoxical as it sounds on the surface, and may be applicable to various types of executants. When enthusiasts wish to offer the highest praise to a pianoforte executant, the phrase, “He plays like a pianist,” would be the last to cross their minds; rather would they say, “He plays like a true artist,” or even—from the lips of gushing women—“like an angel.” If we come to analyse matters, we find that those few artists who reach the pinnacle of popularity are just those who cause us to forget their métier the moment they begin to play or sing. John McCormack makes an immediate and irresistible appeal because he “sings like a poet;” Kreisler because he “plays like a poet,” and Percy Grainger—to mention one pianist— because he “plays like a musician.”

And now to come down to brass tacks and define what we actually mean by playing like a poet or a musician, and equally, what we mean by not playing like a pianist or violinist or singing “like a singer.”

cscott.jpgThe True Executive Genius

The true executive genius is he who achieves the ethical as well as musical altitudes of self-forgetfulness in its fullest sense. He is no longer preoccupied with his touch, his fingers or his voice-production, nor does he care or even think about what effect he produces on his audience. In short, he acquires the enviable “naturalness” and spontaneity of a singing bird. Is a bird preoccupied with its “production?” Hardly; but some pianists, even if equally unpreoccupied, unfortunately contrive to give the reverse impression. They produce “tone” but not melodious caresses; in other words, their melodies strike us, but do not caress us. We are conscious of hearing a particular instrument, instead of music only—and that, to the true music-lover, is a disadvantage. Thus there are pianists who interest other pianists, but seldom other musicians. This fact is highly significant and at once suggests Zopf or idiosyncrasy of executive interpretation.

And what is Zopf? For all music students should learn the meaning of that word, seeing that Zopf caused the downfall of Grecian music, was carried over into Roman music, and has reappeared from time to time throughout the whole of musical history. Zopf, then, is that state of affairs which comes about when the exhibition of digital or vocal skill takes the place of true artistic expression and real aesthetic value. It can be colloquially described as “fireworks,” or, more elegantly, “pyrotechnic display.” For this type of entertainment one goes (in England) to the Crystal Palace, but not to the concert hall; it belongs to the plane of “stunts,” but not to that of art. Nevertheless, time and again Zopf has tainted the souls of celebrated artists. Liszt was under its influence when he wrote the Hungarian Rhapsodies; Thalberg when he wrote variations to Home, Sweet Home; Sarasate when he wrote Zigeunerweisen. Nearly all recital programs end with Zopf; it is the fashion so to end them, and few executants have the courage to go contary (sic) to this fashion. Perhaps they think the public demands this pyrotechnic conclusion, and they are probably right. When the public goes to a concert to hear how a man plays, instead of what he plays, then that public is influenced by Zopf. And when that same public applauds the pyrotechnical items more than it applauds the truly aesthetic ones, then it is emphatically influenced by Zopf.

On the part of the player, Zopf is born of vanity, on the part of the listeners, of love of sensationalism. But let us hasten to add that there are audiences and audiences, and the true music enthusiast goes to hear good music divinely played instead of bad or indifferent music divinely displayed. We must, however, not make the mistake of confounding all velocity, brilliance and scintillation with Zopf. Only when we exhibit velocity for its own sake can it be termed Zopf. Those scintillating and artistically brilliant pieces of Ravel, such as Jeu d’Eaux, and Undine, do not bear the Zopf taint. They are written to express a certain phase of nature in terms of music, and are of highest artistic value; consequently their object is not to exhibit digital skill, but to enchant us with a portrayal of the subtler and more elusive music of nature.

Forty years ago, when I was a little boy, I remember how my mother used to play drawing-room pieces with titles such as The Magic Rill, The Brook, Dance of the Elves, and so on. But apart from the fact that these pieces were quick, they bore as little resemblance to rills and brooks as a train in motion bears to a cascade. They were simply specimens of Zopf music, with titles providing an excuse for the display of digital skill. It so happens that forty years ago music had not reached that stage of subtlety when it was capable of expressing the spirit of Nature. In those days it was far too diatonic in character; too hide-bound by key. Only when the tonal art shook itself free from diatonic conventions was it in a position to express and imitate to a certain degree the sounds of Nature—those sounds suggestive of “between the notes;” melodious, yet without definite melody; harmonious, yet without definite harmony; tender without being sickly, and sometimes discordant without being harsh.

The Love of Sensationalism

The distinction between Zopf and not Zopf will now have become clear. But although it is one matter to know that a given thing is bad, it is quite another to rid the musical world of the desire for it. Realizing that Zopf arises from love of sensationalism on the one hand and vanity on the other, we are up against two almost universal weaknesses in human nature. The pianist, violinist, ‘cellist, or whatnot, naturally says to himself: “Here do I labor all day long at perfecting my technic and it is a shame if I can’t create some opportunity for displaying it to its fullest advantage.” So at the end of his program, as already mentioned, he plays a bravura piece. In a tug of war between art and vanity, vanity wins—and what is more, it wins the palm into the bargain, for the applause which greets the conclusion of this bravura piece shows that vanity pays. Can one blame an executant for giving the public what it wants? That, of course, depends upon how tolerant one is. But let it be reiterated that the true artist reaches the hearts, and so gains the applause and gratitude of his hearers by higher means than Zopf; and the less he is tempted by the latter, the more is likely to attain the former.

Yet given the best intentions on the part of the executant, there are certain obstacles to the attainment of that heart-appealing and soul-touching spontaneity. Strange though it may sound, it is my conviction that nearly all executants practice too much. They try to force music into their minds and fingers, instead of letting it flow out of their souls. The other day I heard of a pianist who does not cease practicing even while he has his luncheon! He feeds himself with his right hand, and continues practicing with his left. It may be added that he is a marvelous technician and plays everything much quicker than it ought to be played. Thus people are intrigued by his astounding dexterity and correspondingly annoyed by his inartistic interpretation and lack of “soul.” But what else can one expect? The very desire in itself to sit and practice eleven hours a day shows a distinct artistic limitation.

One-Sided Workers

As Carlyle pointed out in his work on Heroes and Hero-worship, the man who exclusively occupies himself with his own branch of literature, music, or whatever it may be, can seldom achieve greatness. A perusal of biography proves this, with few exceptions, to be true. Richard Wagner, for one, was not only a composer but a librettist, a thinker and a revolutionist in the best sense of the word. To turn to painters, Leonardo da Vinci affords a startling example of a many-sided genius. Did he not even experiment with flying-machines? Of Dante Gabriel Rossetti it is difficult to say whether he was the finer poet or painter. Many other examples of artist-versatility could be given; suffice it here to say that Chopin was a facile draughtsman, a splendid mimic and something of a poet, and that Mendelssohn was also proficient with his pencil and endowed with literary ability. We need only read his letter. Much the same may be said of Schumann, who owed so much of his musical originality to his admiration for Jean Paul Friedrich Richter.

And what does all this show? Why, that other branches of art feed a man’s creative or executive muse. From divers phases of beauty he derives nourishment for his own soul, then sends that beauty, clothed in a new garb, forth to the world once more.

Now it is obvious that the man who practices eleven hours a day has neither time nor inclination for other branches of art. He is so busy educating his fingers that he fails to educate his soul. But it is just from the soul that true art proceeds; the fingers are merely the means—a fact so self-evident that one almost hesitates to write it down. Yet self-evident though it may be, one meets a vast number of musicians who are incapable of conversing on any other subject but music; they can—or care to—talk nothing but “shop,” the result is disastrously boring; it also shows “which way the wind blows.” There was once a very ugly—(in the States this word is charitably rendered homely)—singer, who was attractive to women as long as he sang, but repellant as soon as he ceased to sing. Something similar may be said of other musicians—they are interesting after a fashion as long as they are performing, but become tedious as soon as they begin to converse. Are these men great artists? Seldom, if ever. How can they be; they are all fingers and no soul.

The remedy for this state of affairs is not far to seek; it may be expressed by two short word-combinations, i. e., soul-education and finger-moderation. With regard to the latter, that excessive practicing to which we have already alluded, a few remarks may be added. Overmuch practicing is hostile to spontaneity; the performer is apt to be “sick of a piece” before he plays it in public at all. He has had to labor at its difficult passages, not to mention the necessity of learning it by heart. A good plan, therefore, adopted by some artists, is to lay a piece entirely aside for some weeks as soon as it has been committed to memory and its difficulties have been thoroughly mastered. Only a day or two before the concert at which it is to be performed, should it be played through, “just to refresh the memory,” as the phrase goes. In this manner spontaneity of interpretation is assured. Furthermore, an artist should be content not to exhibit an enormous repertoire, thereby avoiding the necessity for excessive practicing.

Playing from Music

There was a time when even great artists played from music at a concert; but nowadays it has become the fashion to play by heart, and few performers have the courage or care to go contrary to this fashion. Nevertheless, I am far from convinced that they are wise. The cause of nervousness or stage-fright, so-called, is usually associated with fear of loss of memory. The artist fears that suddenly he may forget. It was all very well for Liszt to advise performers to “imagine they were playing to a lot of cabbages,” for who has sufficient imagination to follow that advice? Moreover, who wants to play to cabbages? It is like the doctor who tells the poorest of his patients to take a trip around the world.

The most efficacious remedy for nervousness would be simply to play from notes; then the fear of forgetting would be obviated once and for all. Pugno and the Spanish pianist Vines did not hesitate to have the music before them; and thus they were not preoccupied with the state of their nerves. For it stands to reason that an artist cannot play his best when he is constantly on “tenterhooks.” It is true that an exceedingly pretty singer once lamented to the great Anton Rubinstein over the state of her nerves, and that he replied, “Be glad; all great artists are nervous;” but then Rubinstein was particularly susceptible to feminine charms and was not likely to lose an opportunity of paying a graceful compliment. It is natural that all great artists are highly strung and nervous by temperament, otherwise they would be too coarsely organized to respond to the vibrations of those subtle planes from which all inspiration, creative and “executive,” proceeds. But that is an added reason why they should avoid conditions which make for increased and debilitating states of nerves.

Excessive Practicing

And there is even more to be said for playing from notes. A vast number of pieces exist and are played which present no technical difficulties, and the charm of which lies entirely (apart, of course, from the music itself) in the manner in which they are interpreted and in the taste and dulcitude of their performer’s touch. Thus it is not the actual performing of these pieces which demands a great deal of preparatory practice, but simply the learning of them by heart. Hence if performers would be content to play from notes, they could acquire a reasonably large repertoire without practicing to excess. To this, however, they will probably object; “Yes, but it looks so bad to play from music—nobody does it, and why should I be the exception?” Precisely, but in that case it is in my opinion better to content oneself with a more modest repertoire—anything, in short, to avoid the necessity for that soul-crushing excessive practicing.

In this connection it should, however, be understood that we have been referring largely to the fully-fledged artist. The student must practice to a reasonable degree in order to acquire his technic. But even so, he should not spend so much time on his fingers that none be left over for the education of his mind, as implied in the terms of this article.

In Germany and elsewhere it is imperative that all students entering a conservatoire should study other branches of music in addition to the piano, violin, singing, or whatever it be they intend to make their special profession. And this policy on the part of conservatoire directors is indeed a wise one, for it broadens, so to speak, the musical mind. The students are advised also to acquire a taste for fine literature, painting, sculpture and the drama. Unfortunately, pupils do not always take this advice, hence the onesidedness, already mentioned, of many executive artists, and its result—the love of Zopf, in other words, virtuosity; the deification of the means instead of the end. I once read in a newspaper that a certain ‘cellist (I will be discreet) would play a certain concerto “with additional difficulties” by the performer himself. Here was an example par excellence of vulgar display versus art, of virtuosity versus musicianship.

I did not attend the concert.


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