( Originally Published 1922 )
From the sum of the foregoing information, it will be seen, although this has not been the precise question, that all instruments are not equally easy or difficult to learn, and that there are some that demand an infinitely longer period of study than others in order to arrive at relatively equivalent results.
This is an easy matter to understand, but more difficult to measure and state precisely and exactly. We cannot take as a term of comparison the moment when the artist attains perfection, for this moment is imperceptible ; what one calls perfection is far from another's idea of it. No one can ever say : I know the violin, or I know the harp ; any more than one could say I know History, or I know Astronomy. But one can say : I know how to play the violin, I know how to use the harp, I have studied History, I have some knowledge of Astronomy, because these various ways of expressing oneself do not convey the idea of a complete and final knowledge, any pretension to which is simply absurd. The most accomplished virtuoso today will be seeking tomorrow for new effects and methods ; so he will still further perfect himself, just as the most learned historian, by delving deeper into his documents and comparing them, will make further progress in his science. Absolute perfection does not exist, and what we call by that name is merely that which seems to us to approach it most nearly, still remaining perfectable. There-fore we cannot plant a fixed landmark upon this ever-fleeting spot. But there is another that can be perhaps stated definitely enough for the present inquiry ; this is the moment when the pupil has acquired a complete knowledge of all the means of execution applicable to his instrument and knows how to use them with discernment.
Admitting this medium level as a term of comparison, we can first establish, proceeding by families, that those instruments demanding the longest study are : the stringed instruments and the piano; secondly, the wood-wind and the harp ; and thirdly, the brass. (It will be remarked that neither the organ nor the harmonium comes into the question, these two instruments imperiously requiring a preliminary study of the piano upon which their own, one very short and the other very long, will be afterwards grafted, as we have already seen.)
If we now examine separately each of the three categories grouped as above, individual aptitude being regarded as equal, the pupil who studies the violin or the piano will be the longest in attaining our medium level agreed upon; the violoncellist will arrive before him and he will be preceded by several bow-shots by the double-bass player, whose instrument, notwithstanding its dimensions, or rather on that account, exacts infinitely less delicacy and precision.—Passing to the second group, and still supposing the pupils to be equally well endowed and trained, it is the flutist who should arrive first, then the clarinettist and the bassoonist, and finally the oboist ; because the oboe is the most delicate instrument of this family to manage. I have forgotten the harp, which perhaps might dispute the first place with the flute, for, when once the first difficulties are Vanquished, progress is often very rapid.—Finally, among the brass instruments, the horn is incontestably the one that. claims the longest study, particularly on account of its stopped tones ; the trombone and the trumpet are learned in about the same length of time ; and, finally, the cornet may be considered the easiest of all.
(I have not spoken here of the viola, nor of the English horn, which are equally easy to learn, if one knows how to play the violin, or the oboe.) With regard to the special instruments for military bands, it will suffice to knew that in a regiment, when a man shows himself incapable of sweeping the court or grooming his horse, he is put in the band, and within a few months, he is able to sustain his part, Heaven only knows how.
Another classification of instruments is still to be considered from the standpoint of study. It is -absolutely necessary to make a difference between those who imperatively demand virtuosity, mastery, and those who can do without it. To play the violin fairly well is sufficient to hold a place as second violin in an orchestra ; this is true also of the viola, the double-bass, the trumpet, the trombone, and even the bassoon, because they are very rarely required to act as soloists ; with second-rate talent, they can make themselves useful at need. On the other hand, great skill is requisite for the first violins, violoncellos, flutes, oboes, clarinets and horns, whose parts are al-ways far more in evidence. In the execution of chamber-music, an equal degree of perfection is- required of all the participants, whatever their instrument ; no mediocrity is tolerable there. It is the same, with greater reason, when one intends to attract the attention of the audience to oneself alone, by the interpretation of a Concerto or even another instrumental solo that is less developed. It would be simply ridiculous for any one to attempt such things without the possession of a veritable and complete talent, without being so sure of himself as to feel certain that he will not create that agonizing feeling of fear and anxiety which deprives the public of all the pleasure it has a right to expect from the execution of a charming work. The true virtuoso should inspire confidence from his very first notes, appear at his ease amid the greatest difficulties, and give everybody the impression that it is all child's play to him.
A few years ago, one of our most marvellous young pianists, travelling incognito and finding himself in a large hotel in Switzerland, availed himself of a few moments one morning when the salon was empty to limber up his fingers and play some of the most beautiful pieces' in his repertory upon a magnificent Stein-way piano that he found there. As he was about to leave, a stranger whom he had not noticed, approached and 'asked his permission to let him express his admiration. " I have been here from the beginning," he said, " and you have charmed me so greatly that if you had continued, I certainly should have remained all day long ; I have heard Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg, and no one has ever produced such an effect upon me. Will you permit me to ask you a question? "
" With pleasure, Sir, if I can answer it."
" Oh, yes, certainly. I should like to ask you if you have learned to play or if it is natural? "
A burst of laughter from the young pianist, who did not see until later that this simple person had paid him the most beautiful as well as the most ingenuous of compliments. In reality, when we hear a great virtuoso, the first impression is that it costs him no effort, it seems as if we could do the same thing ; and reason has to intervene before we realize that this is the result of many years of arduous labour.
However, not to speak solely of exceptional talent, it is certain that at a small party and at intimate gatherings, a modest and unpretentious amateur can be infinitely agreeable and make himself useful if he atones for his imperfections by qualities of artistic intelligence, if . he is a good reader and a good musician. This is why we again insist, and for the last time, upon the necessity for every instrumentalist, whether an amateur or a professional artist, to precede or accompany his instrumental studies with solid studies of solfeggio pursued long and patiently, as well as a summary study of the piano; and if the piano is his instrument, a serious study of harmony and reading at sight. Before being a virtuoso, one must be a musician.