Music - The Art Of The Pianist
( Originally Published 1911 )
Reference has already been made to the obvious fact that the impressions of music depend upon the abilities of an interpreter or a group of interpreters, added to those of the composer; that while an expert musician can derive considerable satisfaction from silent score reading, the ordinary music lover is in no such happy case, but must obtain his musical joys by the grace of certain people who perform in his presence for hire or good will. Moreover, the question of skill and imagination on the part of the performers enters so largely into the problem, that the very quality of beauty lies almost as much in their control as it does in the brain of the composer, so that to an inferior composition there may be imparted an unexpected charm, or a masterpiece be made al-most ridiculous. Besides this, there are elements of delightfulness in performance which do not enter into the composer's calculation at all, but belong to the special technique of reproduction. The enjoyment of music, therefore, involves an appreciation of the art of the performer, and the music lover who is undergoing education in the practice of listening must acquire knowledge of the principles and methods of playing and singing in their various departments.
I have chosen to confine the discussion of these principles to the specific instances of piano playing and solo singing. A study of performance by orchestra, string quartet, and chorus, and upon violin, organ, and other instruments would involve a great deal of repetition, and does not seem to me to be required in view of the discursive purpose of this volume. The lover of music should certainly become familiar with the constitution of the orchestra, the powers and limitations of the violin and organ, and the general laws that distinguish choral song from solo singing and orchestral playing. Instruction in these matters can easily be obtained by inquiries from experts, or from certain excellent treatises which this book of mine is not required to duplicate. I have selected piano playing and solo singing because they come constantly into the music lover's experience, and be-cause they are typical of performance in general. The principles of musical expression are very much the same whatever the medium employed, and the amateur who is able to judge intelligently the work of a pianist or vocalist will only require acquaintance with a few technical matters to receive right impressions from all the other means of interpretation.
Let me pass at once, then, to the question of performance in general and afterward to the discussion of the particular departments of the performer's art which I have chosen.
There are so many applications of the word art to activities that are diverse, from the "art" of swimming or fencing, to poetry or sculpture, that in our despair of finding a common basis for them all we sometimes resolve to refuse the designation to any but a very restricted and unquestionable category. When a distinct and permanent "work of art" is produced, one shaped out of pre-existing materials, designed for self-expression or the giving of pleasure rather than for utilitarian or didactic ends, or where a decorative value is added to practical convenience—in such products of design and fancy as a memorial arch, a poem, a statue, a picture, a piece of music, a chiselled vase, or jewelled ornament-we are on safe ground when we speak of the laws and methods of fine art.
There appears now another division of activities to which in common parlance the name of art is applied, in which an impression of ordered and imaginative beauty is conveyed, but without any embodiment of the impulse in tangible or enduring shape. I refer to the arts of performance, such as dancing, acting, poetic recitation, and musical re-production. In what sense are these functions artistic? Is the term by which they are honored in common speech justified to the reason?
It is evident that there is need here of still an-other classificationi Dancing stands apart from the other activities mentioned in that no "work of art" is at hand, no score, text, or design to which one may refer for suggestion or comparison; the means of effect are bodily movements and attitudes which vanish with the moments in which they appear. They had, indeed, a previous ideal existence in the mind of the performer, and they have a subsequent existence in the memory of the spectator, but there is nothing to which the term form can be applied, and so far from there being anything concrete or tangible involved the display is a vision which comes from the void and into the void returns. Nevertheless it would seem pedantic utterly to refuse the term art to dancing in its best estate. It is not merely the overflow of physical health and vigor in moving lines of grace—it is not wholly sensuous, but is capable of a wide range of emotional expression. Among the Greeks and the Japanese—nations preeminently endowed with the love of beauty in form and movement—the dance was and is esteemed an art worthy of the supervision of the best minds—an art pleasing to men and gods. And although in modern times, at least as a stage entertainment, it has fallen from its former dignity, there are signs that a revival is at hand, and the dance, refined and regulated, may take a higher place than it has lately held among the agencies that quicken the sense of beauty and promote health of body and mind.
Still less are we justified in refusing the title of art to the actor's craft. In certain particulars his work is related to that of the dancer, in that he employs means that are not external to himself but are identified with his own physical organization. In the use of different timbres and degrees of vocal force for purposes of expression he is allied to the singer. In his case also there is produced no "work of art" which survives the moment of presentation. The actor stands apart from the dancer and undoubtedly above him, in that the actor's whole aim is to present in visible and audible guise conceptions of the mind which have al-ready been put into permanent literary form. This work of literary art, however, is not yet complete; an essential element is lacking. A play is not a literary work merely; the actor adds an element which fulfils the intention of the author, and in so doing he shows himself not a mechanical imitator but a collaborator who contributes some-thing individual and original. Many effective plays could be named in which, during entire scenes, the poetic idea is largely conveyed by vocal timbre, facial expression, attitude, gesture, and the various details known as "business," the words alone seeming to offer nothing very significant. Indeed, complete plays, such as the famous L'Enfant prodigue, have been performed in dumb show, plays abounding in incident, with interesting development of plot and character. Let one read the text of the scene in which Macbeth, with his mind keyed to its murderous intent, has the hallucination of a dagger in the air. One may read the lines and not be greatly moved; but let one witness the scene as realized in the actual presentment by a competent actor, and it will appear that the poet's words are hardly more than a suggestion from which the player creates a terrible picture of a man in whose soul ambition, fear, compassion, and incipient remorse are fiercely con-tending. A painter might portray Macbeth at this moment and his picture would be a work of art; the actor's performance is likewise the outcome of thought, design, adaptation of means to an, end first conceived in the imagination, lacking only the element of permanence in some form that can be touched and reproduced .in a copy. None the less is it art, for the poet's words are but symbols and indications; they are tame and cold until the actor, employing vocal sounds and bodily organs as material, brings the thought in its fulness to the eye and ear of the beholder.
The arts of poetry, painting, and sculpture, there-fore, reproduce phenomena of nature and human emotion with something added, viz., the personality of the artist. The actor's craft is an art by second intention, in which literary expression, al-ready reproduction, passes through a second process, and becomes subject to another addition. Each process is art, because something preixisting in more or less crude and unorganized form is worked over by a new application of emotion and contrivance into a beautiful embodiment of an idea.
Now music as an art is nearly allied to the drama in that the work of the original creator remains in abeyance, in an embryo state we might say, awaiting the second birth through which it enters into completeness of life. This subsequent activity under the hands of the performer is likewise a result of artistic contrivance; we call it reproductive, but like the actor's portrayal it is much more than that. The performer is not concerned simply with transmitting the intention of the composer—the composition is a medium by which he confides to his hearers an emotion that has become his own. It is well enough to say as a counsel of moderation that the player or singer . should lay aside self-consciousness and love of personal display and devote himself to the interpretation of the composer's thought, but in fact, since he is himself endowed with a musical temperament, with the craving for self-expression that belongs to every normal human being, he cannot efface himself and become literally and completely the author's tool. His very constitution that turns him to the study and practice of music implies a certain likeness between his impulse and that of the composer. The black symbols upon the page are transmuted into living voices. The performer forgets that they have been loaned to him to use as the composer's representative; he conceives them as his own; they are his own for the moment, and if he be truly a master he persuades the hearer into the same belief. In this process the performer, of course, ex-presses himself not as he is in the constant relations of daily life, but as he is in the mood of exaltation excited by the touch of the music. His effort, like that of the actor, is the deliberately imaginative one of identifying himself with the work in hand. There is a sort of double consciousness at work. Without the loss of self-control and the power of instant adaptation of means to ends, he sinks him-self in the substance of the composition and lives its life, which for the time being is the whole of life for him. This is the explanation of the power of great performers upon the stage or the concert platform. The player feels no difference between the role or the music and his own personality. What was external has become internal. There is a large margin of self-determination allowed him; the author's conception is given to him temporarily for his personal use, and he making it his own remoulds it nearer to his heart's desire.
No other art, not even the drama, is so dependent upon a mediator as music. Music unperformed is a dead thing, and there is no medium into which it can be translated. On the musical staff the notes are stationary; they imply motion but they do not move. The rapidity of the succession of sounds, their grouping and shading, are determined to a large extent by the player's thought. The composer, to be sure, gives all the general directions in regard to tempo, dynamics, etc., and there are certain principles and traditions which are generally accepted and handed down by authority; but in art, laws are very frequently repealed, and precedents have no power of self-enforcement. In spite of all checks and balances the composer is quite at the performer's mercy. Wagner attributed the failure of the "Tannhauser" overture at its first performance at Leipzig to the lack of understanding of the work on the part of the conductor. Franz Liszt, in one of his Travel Letters of a Bachelor of Music, complains bitterly of the misunderstanding on the part of the audience from which composers often suffer by reason of unintelligent performance. "The poet, the painter, or the sculptor," he says, "brings his work to completion in the quiet of his atelier, and when it is completed, there are publishers to circulate it, or museums in which it may be exhibited; no mediation is necessary between the art work and its judges. The composer, on the other hand, must have recourse to interpreters who are often incompetent or indifferent, and make him suffer by reason of a rendering that is perhaps true to the letter, but utterly fails to reveal the thought of the work and the genius of the author."
We have all heard pianists who were easily masters of every mechanical difficulty, but whose playing was cold and monotonous. Nothing is more common in musical criticism than the complaint that a certain pianist has failed to grasp the essential mood of a musical work or the spirit of a composer. This player, it may be said, is a master of technique, but he should not try to play Chopin. Another is at home in the late romantic school, but he has no proper conception of Bach or Beethoven. Another turns a bold and passionate fancy of Schumann into a bit of sentimental trifling. Another, inferior to many in brilliancy, illuminates everything he plays, and imparts to long familiar compositions an unsuspected eloquence. As the works of the great composers pass through the hands of skilled and sympathetic performers they are constantly revealing new beauties. A pianist who is on the road to mastership, and even after he has attained that exalted degree, keeps certain great works constantly before him, and as the years go on his playing of them is more or less insensibly modified, changing with his mental growth, with his experience of life and art. Alexander McArthur tells us that a pupil once protested to Rubinstein that since he knew the "Waldstein" sonata thoroughly he did not need to practise it any longer. "Don't you?" said Rubinstein sadly; " Well, you are eighteen and I am sixty. I have been half a century practicing that sonata and I need still to practice it. I congratulate you." No thought here on the part of the great Russian that a musical piece is a finality whose reproduction requires only technical dexterity and obedience to rules. I can even conceive it possible that a musical work may take a deeper place in the soul of a student than it had in the mind of its author. Handel would probably be much astonished if he knew the uses to which his "Largo" (originally a song to a plane tree in his opera "Xerxes") has been put. One who has felt his whole being quiver under Mischa Elman's marvelous performance of Schubert's "Ave Maria" may easily believe that the composer's intention was more. than fulfilled. Anton Seidl, it is said, could not conduct the last movement of Tchaikovsky's "Symphonie pathetique" without tears. Was Seidl simply following the directions of the score, and was the result only a matter of formal prescription and drill? When the orchestra, sub-missive to his will, extorted the very last throb of anguish from those amazing chords, had Seidl no share in the creative act? If one denies that he had, perhaps it would be convincing to hear the work (as was once my misfortune) performed by an orchestra as competent as Seidl's, but led by a conductor inferior to him not only in musicianship, but also in imagination and sensitiveness of heart.
It has become a frequent complaint among the musical critics of the press that pianists as a rule refuse to present new works to the public, confining their programs to a limited range of standard compositions of masters who are dead. There is good ground for this dissatisfaction on the part of those who have the progressive interests of art in view. It is probable, however, that the generality of listeners are contented with this condition and there are certain obvious reasons why they are so. There is one possible explanation that is not quite so obvious, and that is that every famous work is in one sense a novelty when performed by a great pianist. "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet," supremely great as they are as literary works, would hardly maintain their attracting power generation after generation if their leading roles were always acted in precisely the same manner in every detail. It is not simply "Hamlet".or "Romeo and Juliet" that one goes to see, but Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet, it may be, or Julia Marlowe's Juliet. And so when a veteran concert goer pays his fee to hear a famous pianist play the "Sonata Appassionata" or Schumann's Concerto, it is not merely to hear an old work, every note of which he can anticipate, but a work renewed under the individual treatment of the player. From Harold Bauer he will receive one impression, from Pachmann another, from Careno another, from Mrs. Zeisler or Hofmann or Godowski a "reading" that is different still. No performance of a classic is ever final. There is always something to be said by the next corner. There are two factors in the exhibition, and the second can never be calculated. The charm of musical performance is partly the charm of surprise. Zola defined a work of art as a bit of nature seen through a temperament. In music, as in a drama, there is a second intermediary stage, and in playing, singing, or conducting we have a. work of art seen through a temperament. The performer receives the work from the author, and when he gives it forth again it has undergone a mysterious change. It has not simply been touched with new color, it has been quickened with a new spirit.
In all this there may be found, I think, the reply to those who protest against the "star system." They are right, of course, when admiration of the star means indifference to the composition, or if that admiration is directed solely to mere tricks of virtuosity. But they are wrong if they over-look the fact that the star is or may be also an artist who creates the work anew at every representation; that in music the work and the performance cannot be separated in consciousness; that the greater the performance the greater the work.
The lover of music finds, therefore, that he must know something of the laws of performance as well as the laws of composition. What is good playing and good singing? he will ask. In what is one executant superior to another? Are there rules by which judgment can be guided? An intelligent person does not wish to applaud a defective performance any more than he is content to enjoy a poor composition. He wants not only an opinion of his own, but also reasons with which to confirm it. The hopeless differences of view among his critical friends over the merits of this or that performer may perhaps give him pause by showing him that infallibility is not attainable. This is true, however, in all art matters; it does not follow that there are no principles by which one may be guided to safe and sane conclusions.
The music lover whom I have in mind in all these discussions is called, not so much to bestow awards of praise or censure, as to observe, appreciate, and enjoy. The appraisal of values, leading to judgments, will follow enlightenment, but inquiry must come first. The question, therefore, is similar to that which we have already considered in our study of form and composition—what does musical performance offer us? What are we to .look for in playing or singing? . And also—following the line which we have opened in the beginning of this chapter — what does the performer add out of his own taste, knowledge, and genius? What does he do that is not commanded him by the composer? Then, finally, what is the distinction between good and evil in musical reproduction?
Taking piano playing as a type of musical performance in general, for reasons already given, we have now to ask in what respect is the pianist an artist? What is his part in determining the character of a composition as it reaches the listener's ear? He has before him a number of leaves of paper on which are printed certain black characters, most of them notes and rests, others consisting of indications for delivery. A very slight consideration shows that the notes and other conventional signs which compose a musical score direct the player's action up to a certain point and there leave him. There are slight variations of tone length, regulations of speed from moment to moment, contrasts and blendings of shades, re-fined use of the pedals, subtleties of phrasing—in a word, a host of sensitive adjustments which constitute expression and impart life, buoyancy, and finesse. These cannot be indicated with precision by the system of notation as it now exists. Fortunate indeed are we that it is so, for were it other-wise the player's task would afford but little inspiration; two pianists of equal technical skill would produce exactly the same effect. The in-exhaustible charm of the masterworks, however, lies largely in the fact that no such mechanical reiteration is possible. The most stolid piano thumper that ever tormented a critical audience must give something that has not precisely existed before. His performance, as Touchstone said of Audrey, may be a poor thing but it is his own. On the other hand if the pianist is a man of genius we have the splendid spectacle of two original forces at work. Liszt's playing of Beethoven, writes Wagner, "was not mere reproduction, but real production." There is fire in every great work, but it is latent and must be rekindled• under the breath of the player's will.
It may be necessary to remind the reader at this point (and I ask him to bear it in mind all through this discussion) that the determination of the player in regard to the "reading" of musical works is very plainly, one may say narrowly, restricted. His freedom is not license. No capricious or spasmodic renderings are to be tolerated. Maupassant's injunction to the novelist—" give us something fine according to your temperament"—may be applied to the pianist, but he must remember that it will not be fine unless it conforms to the eternal laws of art. He must look up to the composer as his master. His work must be chastened by reverence. He must not wilfully push his own personality into the foreground, and by a false straining after originality, by mannerisms and exaggerations, do. violence to the author's intentions. He has many guides in history, scholar-ship, and tradition that must be respected. This side of the vexed question of the pianist's duty will be considered later; meanwhile a recognition of it must be held in reserve while we go on to consider the privileges of the player as an original thinker.
In a letter discussing certain points in piano playing Edward MacDowell once wrote, "Black notes on white paper are the despair of composers." He meant by this that our system of notation is incomplete, so that while the composer can show what notes are to be sounded, he is only partly able to indicate in what manner they are to be sounded, and consequently is more or less at the mercy of the performer. I have tried to prove that the art gains more than it loses by this state of things, and that the world of performers and mu-sic lovers will never share the composer's regret. Let us now come close to details, and taking the words of MacDowell as a text inquire just what are the elements of performance that cannot be set down in black notes on white paper.
Take first the question of tempo. The composer puts at the head of his piece a direction, consisting ,of a word or two, which shows his wish as to the general rate of speed, such as Adagio, Andante, Allegro. No one supposes that these or other expressions of the same nature signify an exact number of beats to the minute. Adagio means slowly or leisurely, but the Italian word is as indefinite as the English. Andante may indicate one pace to one person, another to an-other, and to the same person it will vary with the composition. Wagner explains that there are two kinds of Allegro movement, each requiring a special kind of treatment. Sebastian Bach did not put directions for tempo at the head of his pieces; who shall determine at what rate of speed they should be played? Metronome marks are more exact, but they are far from being an infallible reliance. At the most they indicate the general movement of a composition, not the alterations that must constantly occur. They often serve as fetters to players or conductors that submit to them. Wagner at one time made extensive use of them in his dramas, but afterward decided that it was best on the whole to leave the question of tempo to the taste and musicianship of the conductor.
The amount of time to be occupied in the performance of a composition as a whole is, however, the easiest part of the problem. Rarely does a piece of considerable length or variety of style re-quire an exactly uniform rate of motion from be-ginning to end. The beauty of an interpretation consists to a very large extent in the varying degrees of speed in the different divisions, periods, and phrases. It is the feature to which the composer gives the least thought in his orders to the player, and consequently it is in this particular that pianists are most at variance with one another. Nowhere else are taste and judgment more in demand than here; nowhere else are perversions and eccentricities more abundant. Condemnations by critics of the "conceptions" of players or conductors will be found in the great majority of cases to apply to tempo. Wagner goes so far as to say that "the whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo. His choice of tempi will show whether he under-stands the piece or not. With good players the true tempo induces correct phrasing and expression." The determination of the "true tempo," however, is not so easy. "I have often been astonished," says Wagner again, "at the singularly slight sense for tempo and execution evinced by leading musicians." In spite of uncertainty in the practical application of the principle of speed variation, in the privilege itself is found the element which gives to music its delightful suggestion of ease, grace, and elasticity. A too rigid tempo gives a suggestion of friction, of resistance some-where; a flexible tempo is motion as free, confident, and joyous as the flowing of winds or ocean tides. Those buoyant fluctuations of movement that we hear in a masterly performance, those unexpected contrasts, those languishing retards, those fiery accelerations, those delicate balancings of phrase against phrase, those affectionate lingerings upon lovely modulations, those almost imperceptible delays as if to give a beautiful chord a little more time to resound along the corridors of the memory, those tender caressing familiarities, those impetuous defiances, all those bold liberties which prove the tone masses submissive to the player's will, the direct manifestation of his emotion—how eloquent, how illuminating they are!
That the composer should say to the player that here and here, and thus and thus, shall he make these expressive alterations of speed is impossible. Rarely does he attempt to do so. Here and there he will write ritardando or accelerando, but precisely how much slower or faster, or exactly at what instant these changes begin, cannot be indicated. In the wide spaces of the piece, however, no directions are given. The composer implicitly says to the player: In the matter of tempo I put myself in your hands, your musicianship is the arbiter; if my music sounds dull and monotonous you must take a part or the whole of the blame, if other-wise a goodly share of the honor shall be yours.
It is well known that it is Chopin who has brought the beauty that lies in tempo modification most palpably into notice, and that under the title tempo rubato, or "stolen time," it has become, we might say, self-conscious. These liberties, however, are not as lawless as the term would seem to imply, for the alterations of tempo that give elasticity to a performance arc so adjusted and balanced in good playing that the sense of poise is never lost. Like all other elements of expression they must be regulated by conscious artistic purpose. The very nature of Chopin's music implies this freedom of movement, but it is now granted, although in less degree, in the works of the classic masters. Even in Bach's fugues, where a machine-like stiffness once passed for orthodoxy, a more natural and human treatment is allowed. That this liberty may be abused we all know. There are agreements among musicians that have acquired the binding force of laws, and must not be violated at the player's caprice. A prelude by Bach or an adagio by Beethoven is of a more rigid mould than a nocturne by Chopin and must be rendered with more sobriety and reserve. The player must constantly remind himself that freedom in tempo does not mean unsteadiness, and that the rate of speed in each phrase does not depend solely upon its own separate interest, but still more upon its relation to its companion phrases. We must have in music a sense of equilibrium, of stability. A careless, spasmodic hurrying and retarding leads only to flabbiness and inconsequence.
The second of the constituents of expression that rest mainly upon the player's determination consists in differences of loudness and softness, also known as nuance, or light and shade. The composer makes a rather liberal use of the marks for different degrees of force, such as f., p., sf., cres., dim., but every pianist knows that it is for himself to decide just how these signs shall be interpreted, and also that his performance must be full of ac-cents and modifications of tone volume which the writer does not attempt to indicate. Composers differ greatly in the abundance of their dynamic signs, but at the best they can do no more than suggest the relative values of these changes, while the absolute values, the exact amount of force, depend upon the player's physical command of tone, the construction of his instrument, and still more upon his musical feeling and judgment. Even the extreme marks pp. (softest) and if. (loudest) are indefinite. The softest possible and the loudest possible are never indulged in by a player of discretion. Not only must fortissimo be subjected to the final law of tone beauty (in spite of the fact that this law is often grossly violated by famous pianists) but its degrees vary greatly according to circumstances. A rapid run in single notes cannot possibly be made as loud as a detached chord, although the composer may use the if. sign for both. On the other hand, the softest possible tone would be inaudible except perhaps to the performer him-self. If these extreme signs are so inexact, what shall be said of the grades between, only a few of which are designated by the composer? The printed dynamic signs are like the more obvious elevations and depressions in a distant landscape—innumerable are the undulations between.
Even the signs which the composer takes pains to insert are often ignored by the player, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. I have heard Anton Rubinstein make a diminuendo in a Beethoven sonata where the author had written a crescendo, and vice versa. What pianist ever ends Chopin's delicate F sharp Impromptu with a crash, as the composer seems to demand? Mr. W. S. B. Mathews tells that he once prepared a class for MacDowell's "March Wind," which the composer was to play in public, that he carefully called attention to every nuance in the piece, and that to his consternation MacDowell played it fortissimo from beginning to end. The composer, certainly, has a larger privilege in respect to his own work than the ordinary performer, but this instance shows that he does not always attach the same seriousness to the expression marks that he does to the notes, and that within certain limits they may be considered as suggestive and provisional rather than arbitrary.
After all, it is the broader, more general scheme of light and shade that is furnished by the composer.The finer gradations, those subtle and immeasurable modifications of dynamic value which make a composition a palpitating, coruscating thing of beauty, are wholly under the player's will. The simplest piece is inexhaustible in the opportunities it affords for tone variety. Listen to a rapid, clearly articulated scale, filled with undulating crescendos and diminuendos and rhythmic accents. Listen to a surging double arpeggio, its waves of tone rising and falling as majestically as the billows of the sea. Or a series of pure sonorous chords, pressed with a perfect adaptation of the fingers in order to secure solidity and balance, with a melody singing brightly upon their surface. Or a skein of delicate filaments of sound, with a single rich tone ringing through them like the far-away call of a horn. These things are among the luxuries of sensation, and unlike many luxuries they bring no surfeit.
The study of these effects is for the pianist the task of a lifetime. The desire for tone beauty must be a veritable passion if he is ever to attain true artistry. Not less must the music lover appreciate its worth, ever be quick to detect it, and train his perceptions to respond to the most delicate gradations in beautiful sound both in nature and in art.
"The tone sustained with equal power," said Wagner, "is the basis of all expression." This was said of vocal and orchestral music, and al-though an evenly sustained tone is impossible with the piano (since by reason of the mechanism the tone diminishes from the instant it is struck) yet it has always hovered before the minds of the great players as an ideal, the very longing for it affecting their touch and treatment. To prolong the short and relatively dry tone of the piano to the greatest possible extent has always been the aim of manufacturers; but the limit is soon reached, and players are often forced to fall back upon a system of disguises and pretences, the instrument assuming a virtue that it does not possess. In gaining the notion of sustained tone without the actuality the listener's fancy works as well as that of the player. He is more credulous than any speculator. He wishes to be deceived. There are even ways by which a tone may apparently be made to swell after being struck — an effect that is very beautiful, and legitimate because beautiful.
We speak of a pianist's "singing touch" as one of his most admirable merits. There is no more frequent injunction at the present day than that the tone must have a pure singing quality, no matter how rapid, intricate, or violent the passage may be. "Do not think of striking your notes," exclaimed Rubinstein, "think of singing them!" This in-junction forbids the short, dry, unsympathetic tone one often hears, as well as the harsh, brassy, clanging stroke in which even reputable players often indulge. In piano playing as well as in orchestral and violin playing the pure, rich, sustained tone of the human voice at its best must be the standard.
This problem involves also that of quality or timbre in piano tone, in respect to which there are many delusions abroad. It would be easy to show that the player has but very slight power—perhaps none at all — of altering the quality of tone by his way of pressing the keys, that force and duration are the only elements he can control by his touch alone, leaving out the modification that can be effected by the pedals. Nevertheless there is a vast difference in sheer sensuous tone beauty in the playing of different pianists. This is not the place to explain all the causes of these differences. They consist mainly, perhaps wholly, in extremely minute shades and degrees of blending and contrasting the two elements of duration and loudness. The love of color and the thought of color will, however, strongly influence the touch in piano music. Hans von Bülow sometimes suggested to his pupils that they think here and there of a flute, a 'cello or a horn. No one knew better than he that a pianist cannot in the least imitate the timbre of any orchestral instrument; piano tone is piano tone and never anything else. But the thought of an instrument so luscious in quality and so full in sustaining power as a cello or a horn would in-sensibly affect the touch and the disposal of dynamic relations. This modern emphasis upon tone color in piano playing is one manifestation of the universal demand for sensuous beauty in all art which is so marked a feature of our time. Color in painting, color in photography, color in orchestration, color in singing, color in piano playing — these are the response to the quickened sensitiveness of eye and ear which every new chromatic invention in picture or music helps in turn to promote. Artists even speak of color in an etching or en-graving, meaning of course that color is suggested. And so in piano playing tone color is suggested, the mind is stimulated so that it impulsively throws over the music a sort of prismatic veil which is none the less delightful for being so largely an illusion. Art is full of suggestion, and it asks the beholder to coöperate with the producer. The whitest pigment is a thousand degrees less bright than sunlight, but De Hoogh and Turner and Monet paint sunlight to the perfect satisfaction of the observer. It is one of the wonders of music that an instrument essentially so cold and mono-chromatic as the piano can take on so many lovely tints and reinforce melody and harmony with sounds so delicious to the sensual ear. Of all this the composer, with his black notes on white paper, gives but a remote intimation. It. is the contribution of the performer in his capacity of artist.
Another means of obtaining beautiful changes of tone color, to which the listener should attend, is in the use of the pedals. A master is known by his pedalling as well as by the exploits of his fingers. The composer or editor may, of course, set down pedal marks, but they are at the best inadequate, often inexact, and an experienced player gives little or no heed to them. Even to an immature performer they are an awkward kind of assistance and the sooner he. learns to do without them the better. An accomplished pianist simply conceives a certain tone effect and employs the pedal for the production of that effect. He subjects tone adjustment by means of the pedals to an elaborate analysis, until at last, with the growth of experience, his pedalling becomes a second nature, and his foot responds to his thought as automatically as his hand.
The question now arises, What is it that the pedals do? There is probably no other feature in piano playing that is so misunderstood, not only by the general public but also by piano students. The pedal that is managed by the right foot is persistently called the "loud pedal," which designation is a complete misnomer. It is easy to see, if one thinks about it, that the damper pedal cannot possibly make .the sounds louder. The degree of loudness in the case of a sounding string depends upon the amplitude of the vibrations, and in piano music the amplitude of the vibrations depends upon the amount of force with which the hammer comes against the string. When a single key is struck and the pedal is not pressed, a damper rises; when the pedal is pressed, all the dampers in the instrument are raised. This can-not affect the amplitude of the vibrations. Every player knows that the damper pedal enables him to continue the tone after his finger has left the key, — the most important mechanical invention in the history of the art, for without it our magnificent treasure of piano music, founded by Beethoven, could never have come into existence.
But the damper pedal, as I have already intimated, does more than sustain the tones that are struck; it makes them more rich and sympathetic to the ear and enables the player to obtain variety of tone color. It is easy to see how this is done. Every musical tone is compound instead of simple. A fundamental tone, indicated by a note upon the staff and produced by the vibration of the whole string, contains also other tones made by vibrations of parts of the string. These "resultant tones," "over-tones," "harmonics," or "upper partials," as they are variously called, cannot ordinarily be distinguished from the fundamental tone, but they color it, imparting its peculiar quality or timbre. In a violin or clarinet these overtones are very prominent; in a flute or organ diapason pipe they are much less so. In the piano they are to be reckoned with. Put the damper pedal down and all the dampers are raised. That leaves all the strings free or "open," and some that are not struck will vibrate slightly by reason of the impingement upon them of the secondary air waves that are stirred by the string that is struck by the hammer. The strings whose vibration thus produced can be heard by the normal ear are those of the octave, the twelfth, and the second octave above the smitten string, and in a fine grand piano perhaps one or two more. It follows that the sounds that come from a piano are richer in quality when the dam-per pedal is used than when it is idle.
The soft pedal, which has but recently, comparatively speaking, come into its own as a means of tone beauty, does not merely make the sounds softer, it alters their timbre. In a grand piano it makes the hammer strike two strings instead of three; that alone would produce a modification of the tone, while at the same time the third string, although not touched, vibrates sympathetically with a delicate, veiled, shimmering quality that gives a peculiar mellow and sympathetic effect to the combined impression. The soft pedal takes from the instrument its characteristic brilliancy, affording such contrasts that the player will often em-ploy it even with a strong touch, carrying the special effect produced by this apparatus into broad sonorous tone masses.
The study of the pianist in the use of the damper pedal, in spite of its coloristic possibilities, lies chiefly in its function as a tone-sustaining contrivance. The piano is unique among instruments in its ability to prolong tones when the player's fingers are busy with new ones, and the opportunities thus afforded for variety, fulness, and grandeur of tone effect are numberless. To press and re-lease the pedal at exactly the proper instant, to produce continuity of sound with never the slightest confusion in the harmonies, to blend, distribute, and contrast all the varieties of tone color that are latent in the instrument without excess or barrenness, and to do all this without losing distinctness of articulation or blurring the outline of the rhythmic figure — here is a field of endless study for the player and delight, to the appreciative listener. A pianist is indeed a past master of the art of pedal-ling when the most greedy ear is satisfied and the most sensitive ear can detect no flaw.
Last to be considered among the contributions made by the player is phrasing. This term signifies the disclosure to the ear of the rhythmic structure of a piece. The firm metrical basis and the intricate rhythmic figuration must be as distinctly in the consciousness of the player as in that of the composer. All the rhythmic laws of musical art must be familiar to him in practice if not in theory, and his skill of hand must so reinforce his sense of structural design that the listener will never be for a moment in doubt concerning the essential factors in the tonal ebb and flow. Under the player's hand the entanglements of the interwoven threads are unravelled. All becomes clear, symmetrical, orderly. He imparts to the music a suggestion of naturalness, of spontaneity; there is poise, buoyancy, and balance; there is the ecstasy of vibration, the throb of life. This art requires incessant study and the most vigilant care. There have been pianists, such as Hans von Bülow, who were especially distinguished for their clear-cut scholarly phrasing, other elements of effect being often sacrificed to that. Other players, who have delighted more in masses of sound and splendid tonal contrasts, have not taken such extreme pains to make every thread of tissue evident. We seem to have here two classes of pianists - the scholarly, reflective, and analytical, with an extremely refined sense of form; and the bold, impetuous, and impressionistic, whose minds are intent upon the broader lights and shades and masses rather than upon minute dissection. The first love to make the work transparent, holding to the light every detail of organization. The second will often obscure detail for the sake of breadth, concentration, and color. Either tendency in excess leaves something to be desired; the consummate artist of the keyboard will grant to every means of beauty its true measure, not sacrificing the mass for the sake of the parts nor the parts for the sake of the mass. He will finish each item cleanly, but will remember that motives and phrases, like the lines and colors of a painting, find their value not in isolation and detachment, but in their relation to one another and to the whole.
There are four means by which the structural grouping of tones is made apparent, viz. accents, alternations of longer and shorter tones, breaks in the succession of sounds (including phrasing by the damper pedal), and crescendo and diminuendo. In the application of these rhythmic devices the player is certainly more restricted than in the modification of tempo or in shading. It is a matter of knowledge with him, of musical scholarship, rather than of personal preference. That is to say, tempo and shading are very greatly subject to the player's feeling and imagination, and may measurably differ in the performance of the same composition by the same player at different times, or under the hands of players who are unlike one another in temperament. Phrasing, however, is either right or wrong; within the successions of melodies and harmonies there dwells the essential rhythmic de-sign dictated by the inherent laws of musical construction. There is the metrical foundation established by the beat and the measure grouping, while the rhythmic figuration springs from it in tropical luxuriance. Both alike must be rescued from confusion and when offered to the ear brought under the control of artistic design. In effecting this. the player must chiefly rely upon his scholar-ship and his musical instinct, for the means which the composer possesses for indicating the proper phrasing are very incomplete. This fact is made evident by the numerous and bewildering books on rhythm and the phrased editions of the classic composers — the product of an outlay of labor and thought of which the layman has little conception. An extensive knowledge of rhythmic laws and of the peculiar rhythmic styles of the great piano composers must be a part of the mental equipment of the pianist. In the digital analysis of the intricate minutiae of structure the performer must give a multitude of accents not indicated in the general metrical scheme — he must often vary the time values of individual. notes, must make breaks in the tone current which are not marked in the score, must use crescendo and diminuendo for the stirring of the rhythmic waves to their progressive rise and fall. The curving lines, or slurs, which abound in musical scores are sometimes employed as phrasing signs by composers, but so irregularly and with such disregard of system that the player who should direct his phrasing by them would produce the most unhappy results. Even the elucidations of scholarly editors do not always agree. It is only by a highly developed rhythmic sense, a firm grasp of musical structure, years of study and experience, a technique so perfect that in the most rapid and difficult passages every shade of tone and every variety of touch are under complete control, that a performer is able to solve all the mysteries of the phrasing art and become infallibly true to those laws of form that give to musical works their complex order, their inner logic, their plastic grace, and their architectonic strength.
The player who makes an intelligent study of rhythm will not confine his analysis to the smaller groupings of period and section and phrase, but will also attend to the larger divisions in which these are contained; he will hold in his mind the entire framework of the piece and will give to his hearers an impression of solidity and mutual sup-port among the parts. In this, the highest grade of rhythmic interpretation, there will be heard, marked dissimilarities among players. One will unravel the texture with the utmost care, separating the phrases and rounding off the outlines of all the details with an almost finical nicety, at the same time so regardless of the larger unity that the work will appear like a mosaic of brilliant spots with no suggestion of continuous development and comprehensive organization. I have heard the first movement of Beethoven's "Sonata Appassionata" so treated — each phrase highly polished but no grasp of the movement in its vast reach and cumulative force. It was an affected, selfconscious performance; the fierce onrush, which should be like that of a river at the spring flood, checked and diverted by an over-desire for finish. It was "faultily faultless," like Tennyson's Maud. A master player will grasp the work in its entirety; while giving the characteristic beauty to each feature, he will have the complete form distinctly present in his mind, so that every passage will be a preparation for that which is to follow and a con-sequence of that which has gone before. He will also apprehend the essential emotional character of the composition — passionate, merry, languishing, solemn, pathetic, or whatever it may be — and every phrase will receive its proper treatment as a contributing factor in the larger purpose.
Perfection of phrasing might be said to be the supreme sign of mastership, since it is closely united with control of tempo and shading. Furthermore, it implies large executive resources, for if a pianist plays up to the limit of his technique an artistic command of phrasing, nuance, and tempo will surely be wanting. There will be a suggestion of effort, perhaps of strain, and the sign of this, even where no false notes are struck, will be a lack of clearness and freedom in shading and phrasing. But when the performer is able, at any chosen tempo and in spite of every technical difficulty, to present the work in its true emotional atmosphere, luminous in every detail, perfectly articulated and balanced, buoyant with conscious re-serve of power, rejoicing in freedom while obedient to law, then the grateful auditor will be ready to confer the degree of artist summa cum laude.
In what has been said thus far it may seem that too much stress has been laid upon the player's liberty. But I have thought that a discussion of the art of the pianist from this point of view would be of most value to the music lover who desires to know something of the higher criticism in piano music. There is, of course, another side to the story. The pianist's work is based on laws and principles to which he must submit, however great his genius. It is only after long training and experience that he can be allowed to give loose rein to his own natural impulses. Looming above him, warning and guiding him, is the authority of artistic laws which are as imperative as natural forces. These decrees are final because they are the expression of something inherent in the very constitution of the human mind. Next below these ultimate commands are methods, styles, customs which have acquired the sanction that is drawn from the consensus of the most intelligent practice. As the generations come and go experiments of every conceivable kind are made; certain procedures, not being justified by sober reflection, are abandoned, while others are maintained because in the long run they agree with the matured sense of artistic propriety. Hence arise what are called "traditions." These traditions, however, are not absolutely rigid. There is no finality in art, because where there is mental activity and an insatiable search for truth even the works of the older masters will be seen through an atmosphere created by the .temper and experience of the age, and a changed point of view will modify their aspect. The master pianist may say, Why should not I also have a share in the making of tradition? Mendelssohn and other musicians of his time no doubt believed that the tradition of the performance of Beethoven's symphonies was once for all established, but then came Wagner, Liszt, Bülow, Richter and their disciples, and the tradition under-went a change. In piano playing there are capacities for varying beauty in the improved instrument that were undreamed of by Mozart and Beethoven; the performer, therefore, may add color to their works and is not required to pre-serve the dry light of the old time. The master pianist must hold the balance between two inclinations — one to deny his own instinct toward self-expression and efface himself in presence of the composer, the other to ignore the composer's authority and give free rein to his own egotism.
But what is the proper balance? There indeed is the difficulty. All admit that the player must be true to the spirit and meaning of the composer, but since the composer's intention must be mainly inferred from the composition itself there comes that latitude of interpretation, that exercise of the performer's judgment, taste, and musicianship which gives to piano recitals their perpetual interest. The pianist, like the actor, is a man of his time. Contemporary tendencies in art will show themselves in piano playing as in other fields of expression. Certain general principles, how-ever, stand sure. Mozart must not be played like Tchaikovsky, nor a Beethoven Adagio like a Cho-pin Nocturne. It is not a question of period, however, as some seem to assert, but of style. A composer of the present who should write like Mozart must be played like Mozart, and not with the contrasts of speed and dynamics that are proper to a Liszt Rhapsodie. But there is a more or less necessary connection between the style of a composer's work and his period; hence the player must be familiar with the history of his art in order that he may be conscious of the background of every typical work, and enter sympathetically into the special character which it may possess as the reflection of the ideals and methods of its age.
There abides the old antithesis between "subjective" and "objective" playing. The subjective player makes the work his own, he discharges through it his own temperament, and he never plays it twice in exactly the same way. The objective player treats the work as external to himself, he aims to perform it, to the best of his knowledge and belief, precisely as the composer would do; he fixes in his memory every dynamic sign, he scrupulously follows the tradition, and he endeavors to play the work in the same manner at every repetition down to the smallest details. Rubinstein said to a pupil, "Play as you feel. Is the day rainy?
Play it in one way. Is it sunny? Play it in an-other way." A player of the school of Mendelssohn would probably have said: This way, or this, is correct; so must it always be done.
The discussion is of little moment, for strictly speaking there is no such thing as purely subjective or purely objective performance. The happy limitations of our notation system forbid the latter, and as for subjective playing there is only one sort that is completely such, and that is improvising In former days extemporaneous playing, in which the pianist was composer and executant at the same instant, was the summum bonum, the ultimate test of mastership. But in these latter times the pianist gains his crown through his ability as an interpreter of the works of other. men. Undoubtedly something has been lost by the change. If we are to trust contemporary report, the unpremeditated performances of Beethoven and Liszt exhibited a splendor, a fire, and an eloquence of appeal that are not paralleled in the deliberate reproductions of the modern method. The gain, however, has more than balanced the loss. A Beethoven or a Liszt appears only once in a generation, while Paderewski and Hofmann and the noble army of their compeers keep ever before us the glorious works of the great tone poets, endowed by the love and the imagination of the interpreter with the magical, ever-renewed charm of re-creation. The master player gives to his performance a glow and an energy as of an improvisation, but he is saved from exaggeration and egotistic straining after originality by a humble deference to the composer and a reverence for the established laws of his art. At the keyboard, under the excitement of the moment and the nervous stimulation that comes from the enthusiasm of his audience, he will often put forth powers unsuspected even by himself, and will produce effects apparently unpremeditated. But, like the wise actor, he will not trust wholly to "the inspiration of the moment," and it will probably appear that these seeming novelties of treatment, these outbreaks of exceptional ardency, are simply the intensifying of effects planned in the study chamber and kindled by the electric contact of the milieu and the moment into a splendor which the calm of the practice hours could not anticipate. Under such excitements flashed those impassioned displays of which gray-haired contemporaries of Liszt and Rubinstein speak with bated breath and uplifted eyes.
It appears from this examination of the pianist's art that the music lover has in piano music a very large field for study and a provision for ever in-creasing delight. He will first look for finished technique - for rapidity, force, and clarity in brilliant work, for singing tone and perfect equipoise of melody and harmony under all circumstances. The shading must be full of variety, balanced and distributed like the lights and darks in a fine painting; the crescendos and diminuendos must rise and fall with majestic ease; there must be fulness without confusion, force without violence, delicacy without weakness; a perfect adaptation of the touch, from the crispest staccato to the sustained clinging legato, to the essential character of the passage; above all and everywhere a faultless drawing of the melodic and rhythmic line, the contour and body of every figure clearly revealed and placed firmly upon the metrical foundation. With all this assumed as an evidence of the technical competence of the player, the question of the truth of his interpretation, never perhaps to be finally settled (since the decision is so much affected by personal preferences), will be submitted to that larger knowledge of the laws of art and of the diverse ideals of the masters which the seeker after critical wisdom will constantly labor to acquire.