In spite of the prevalent mania for card-playing it is still the fashion to provide some more or less intellectual feast for the entertainment of guests on many occasions; and music, readings, recitations, are all in demand. Of these, music is the chief favorite, and the easiest to procure, since almost every young lady who goes into society has some vocal or instrumental accomplishment, and since the pianola and the Victor are now to be found in many houses.
A little music, even if it is not very well rendered, makes a pleasant break in the monotony of social intercourse; it gives those present an opportunity to change their places, to make an end of tiresome conversations, and to begin fresh ones. So if a young girl does not sing like Melba or Tetrazzini, we forgive her, as long as her voice is fresh and sweet, and provided her efforts are not too ambitious. An entertainment where a little music is given, however, is a very different affair from a regular musical, whether it be matin้e or soir้e. Where this name is used, it must not be taken in vain; and the guests will have a right to be both discontented and satirical if they hear no music worthy of the name.
It is needless to enter here into a discussion of the merits of the different schools of music. Some very delightful musicals are given where the programme consists entirely of selections from the Italian operas; though most of us would prefer a sprinkling at least of the more intellectual harmonies of the German composers. Be that as it may, the most important point is that the music should be good of its kind, and interpreted by adequate performers, amateur or professional. No one should attempt to give a musical unless he has a real acquaintance with the art of music, or unless he puts the whole matter in the hands of some thoroughly competent person. A man who should make a collection of pictures without having any knowledge of the art of painting, and invite all his friends to look at his gallery, would be voted an in-tolerable bore. The man who inflicts on you two or three hours of musical (?) torture, through his own ignorance and ambition, is even a greater bore; because you can turn your back on the pictures, but you can't get away from the music unless you stop your ears, which would not be considered polite.
Where the host's purse is sufficiently long; it is much better to employ some professional musicians, or what are called " semi-professionals; " that is to say, people who sing in church-choirs, etc., and are paid for what they do, although very often they have some other business or occupation.
The amateur is sometimes a brilliant performer or a finished vocalist, but he belongs to a most uncertain species, uncertain in more respects than one. In the first place, you can seldom count on an amateur for any special occasion, particularly if he is a singer. Great are the disappointments caused by amateurs, as any one can testify who has had much to do with them. They are not paid for their efforts, - they simply sing or play to oblige other people, hence they do not feel themselves bound to appear if they happen to feel a little unwell, or if they hear that some superior performer is going to eclipse them. Those who sing have more to excuse them than those who play, the voice being a delicate and unreliable organ, in the care of which an amateur rarely equals a professional.
The second point of uncertainty about an amateur musician is as to his talents and capabilities. A man's friends will say, " Oh, So-and-so sings delightfully, you must have him at your concert! when So-and-so has only a mediocre voice, with very little cultivation, There is no uniform standard by which people judge musical performance, because so many know nothing at all about the art, and praise anything that happens to please them.
But if one employs professionals the case is very different. It is comparatively easy to find out what their musical standing is, and they are much less capricious than their half-brothers the virtuosi. Probably they have as much vanity and ambition as the latter; but the chariot of regular work has an amazing tendency to quiet Pegasus. When he is once hitched between its shafts, business habits become second nature, and the prospect of bread and butter is even more stimulating as a daily incentive than that of fame.
If a professional musician is asked to sing or play he must always be paid for his services. Some people, who ought to know better, invite well-known singers to their houses and then request these guests to sing for the amusement of the company. This is in contravention of all the laws of etiquette, and often produces much ill-feeling. The guest does not like to refuse, because that would seem a churlish return for the hospitality he is enjoying; at the same time he feels that it is treating him shabbily to invite him in his character of a private gentleman, and then expect him to display himself in his public and professional character as an artist. He feels also that it is a mean way of forcing him to part for nothing with what is in reality a part of his stock in trade. We don't invite merchants to our houses and then ask them for a chest of tea or a firkin of butter; nor do we take advantage of the presence of a doctor at a festive gathering to get him to prescribe for some ailing member of the family. An artist deserves quite as much or more consideration at our hands than do these others; for he is often a stranger, and feels himself in a delicate position. Often, too, he is of a sensitive nature and easily offended.
If you wish him, then, to sing or play at your party, he should be invited to do so beforehand in a careful and delicate way. You cannot command his services as you would order a ton of coal, that is, not if you expect to get them. Artists are " kittle folk " to deal with, and when one remembers how badly they have often been treated it is small wonder. They feel, and rightly, that the profession they have chosen is not a degrading, but an elevating one. They are not the less gentlemen for being artists, but their social position is often disputed by those who should know better.
When Dickens was asked to read before the Queen of England, he replied that if he was invited as a gentleman he would do so, but not otherwise. In an interview which he once had with the same exalted personage he showed somewhat of the spirit of a lackey, however, for he stood during their long conversation of an hour's length or more and then complained about it afterward. How much more dignified was the conduct of Carlyle! When he visited the royal Guelph, he calmly sat down, not out of bravado, but because it was fatiguing to stand. Her Majesty gracefully accepted the situation, sat down herself, and waved her hand to those about her as a token that they also should be seated. She felt instinctively that she had met not only her superior, but one to whom the artificial divisions of mankind into classes made absolutely no difference. He saw so keenly the real and actual divisions made by the Almighty, the superior qualities of some men, the inferior qualities of others, that the little petty difference in outward appearance between a puppet prince and a peasant was to him of no real importance. Dickens and Thackeray cried out constantly about snobbishness, because its yoke was around their own necks. The man of greater soul did not complain of it, because his thoughts were ever on higher subjects.
In our own country instances are not wanting of snobbish conduct toward artists. A Boston Anglo-maniac said to the artist who was painting his portrait, " Why don't you marry, Mr. ? It would be an excellent plan, if you should marry some young woman of your own class."
Where a musician is new in his profession, and wishes to be made known and advertised, he may sometimes be glad to give his services without compensation to those who are disposed to help him in his life effort, to those who are in truth his friends and patrons. But one must have an actual claim upon an artist, or know that he is a person really obliging, and willing to give his services to please and amuse others, before it will be safe to call upon him to do so. A young pianist in Boston was seriously displeased because he was asked to play, without previous notification, before half a dozen people after dinner.
The host at a musical party has not only many snares to avoid in the selection of his musicians, but he must also look out for dangers ahead when he chooses his audience. A musical cannot be a success unless most of the hearers are fond of music, and of the kind which has been chosen for the evening's entertainment. Thus, it is best not to make a general affair of such an occasion, but to invite those only who will really enjoy your programme. If the audience is large and mixed, it will be safer not to have a strictly classical one.
It is very rude to interrupt a musical performance by talking or Iaughing. Those to whom music is a bore ought either to stay at home or to keep quiet and allow others to enjoy it. A good story was told about Liszt apropos of interrupting music. He had been asked to play before Queen Victoria, and had just struck the first few chords, when her Majesty turned and spoke to some one. The Maestro was much offended, but of course could not make any remonstrance; so he vented all his wrath on the piano, and played the scales with such violence that the Queen was obliged to get up and leave the room.
In arranging a programme, ceteris paribus, the best performer should be given the last and not the first place. The simple pieces also should come before the more elaborate and florid ones. The reasons for these rules are obvious. No ordinary artist would wish to follow one of marked superiority, as the contrast would be disadvantageous to him. The interest of an entertainment, moreover, ought to grow and culminate, instead of declining.
Mr. and Mrs. Caleb Perkins will be at home on Saturday evening, March the twenty-eighth, at nine o'clock, at three hundred and two Beacon Street. Music. is a proper form for an invitation to a formal musical party. For an afternoon occasion the hostess would write on her visiting card the word " Music " and the hours between which she expected her friends. Camp-chairs or light chairs such as are used for the german, should be provided for the accommodation of guests, and a good piano for that of the musicians. It is unfair to ask a pianist to play on a second or third rate instrument, especially as one can always hire a Chickering or a Steinway anywhere within the boundaries of civilization. The manufacturers will send a piano to any reasonable distance. If the hostess has a good piano of her own it must be put in tune just before the musical, and must not be tuned too high where it is to accompany the voice, unless the lady of the house wishes to receive the maledictions of tenor and soprano on her devoted head. If many guests are expected, it is desirable to have a slightly raised platform for the piano and the performers, unless there is a regular stage.
A great deal of wit has been expended in making fun of people who will not sing or play without an enormous amount of urging. No doubt young girls and men too do sometimes behave in a foolish and affected way, and protest they cannot sing a note, when all the time they fully mean to warble as long and as loud as the company will let them. But there are other people whose natural shyness makes it positively painful to them to perform in public. Still another class of persons hesitate to sing or play when asked to do so, because they are not accomplished musicians and can only cause disappointment by their efforts. How true to nature is the absurd story in " Happy Thoughts," where the luckless hero is fairly forced to sing a comic song which he has half forgotten, to the disgust of himself and everybody present!
Miss A., let us say, is fond of music, has a sweet voice, and sings pleasantly enough at home, where she gathers her little brothers around her at that best of all times for music, the twilight hour. But her voice is entirely uncultivated, and she does not pretend to be a musician. At Mrs. D.'s musical some injudicious person says, " Miss A., I hear that you sing so charmingly; won't you let us have the pleasure of hearing you? " Others take up the chorus, and Miss A. is much troubled, because she is placed in a false position. If the occasion is a very small and informal one she will perhaps yield to the general entreaty rather than seem disobliging; but she will certainly refuse in the first instance, giving the real reason, namely, that her voice is not cultivated, and that she never sings except at home. If the affair is a large one, Miss A., if she is wise, will not allow her-self to be inveigled into displaying her home talent.
A hostess- should have tact enough- to see whether the guest who is asked to sing or play is really unwilling to do so, or whether he is only shamming. It is both impolite and unkind to urge people to do what they evidently prefer not to do. Per contra, the " second person of the second part," if he means to sing, should
certainly not wait till he is asked to do so many times, but should respond to the first or second appeal. It is more polite for a hostess to repeat her invitation only once. A person may naturally hesitate at the first asking, thinking it to be only complimentary, or not wishing to appear too eager to display his accomplishments; but with the second request he should comply, or else " forever hold his peace." Generally speaking, it is better quietly to do your best, and if you have any skill at all to give the company the benefit of it. A short piece should be selected for the first one, and if the audience like it they can easily ask for more. It goes without saying that no one should sing or play, unless at the invitation of the host or hostess.
An eminent musician said to his pupil (who was an amateur), " Do not attempt to play your most difficult pieces of music in public. Play something which you have thoroughly mastered and which is comparatively` simple. . . . If you have made a false note by accident, do not go back to correct it." This gentleman knew something of the fluster and excitement which so often hamper the efforts of young people unaccustomed to play before even a private public, if one may be allowed to use such an expression.
Children should be taught to play or sing before other people almost from the beginning. They will thus acquire a habit which may be invaluable to them in later years, and will probably never experience that extreme shyness which is such a torment to those who are subject to it. It goes without saying that only children with musical talent should be brought up in this way. Neither should these be allowed to play before a Iarge number of people until they are old enough and fitted to do so. A child who is put forward as an infant prodigy becomes conceited and odious. It is easy to observe a happy medium by confining the little girl's audience to a small circle of judicious friends, who will praise the music rather than the performer, and who will encourage her without over-stimulating her vanity.
People who have large houses and who really love music often have a room specially built and adapted for it. The first requirement for a music-room is that its acoustic properties shall be good; hence all draperies are strictly banished from it, carpet, curtains, upholstered furniture. Indeed, one well-known pianist used to insist that all ladies should come to his chamber concerts without their bonnets, because the bonnets absorbed so much sound!
There is a beautiful music-room in one of those exquisite houses which are the glory of new Boston. The colors are quiet and subdued, the decorations all 'harmonious but unobtrusive, since the ornamentation in a music-room must be of secondary consideration, and must not distract the attention of the hearers from the main pleasure, that of listening. The walls are crowned by a white frieze composed of casts from the singing boys of Luca della Robbia. The floor is of polished wood, guiltless of rug or carpet. Dainty and graceful cane-chairs, imported from Italy, take the place of prosaic camp-stools; the rest of the furniture is of gilt wood, with two empire sofarettes. The inevitable grand piano stands in one corner, while near by its graceful ancestor the harp calls up the spirit of ancient times, looking like a gentle ghost of the past when compared with its prosperous and portly grand-child, the Chickering grand. A quaint old mandolin completes the trio of musical instruments. No upholstery, no drapery of any sort is to be found in this classic apartment, severe but beautiful, like the harmonious sounds which echo within its walls. But when it is filled with richly dressed women and gay cavaliers, then our severe room is like a marble Psyche which has come to life, and the cold white frame suits to perfection the beautiful warm picture which it clasps in its setting.
( Originally Published 1911 )
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