Piano and Song



(A Discourse on Piano-Playing, delivered to an Audience of Lady Pupils.)

Ladies,—As I am about to make a journey of a few weeks with my daughters, we will suspend for a short time our musical meetings. On my return, you will resume them with fresh interest. We will then not only play and sing together, but occasionally talk upon kindred subjects. Your friends will be made welcome, provided they are really interested in simple and noble musical performances, which make no attempt at display. We will exclude from our circle malicious criticism and idle curiosity: we require the accompaniment of the violin and 'cello, but not of those two disturbing elements.

To-day I wish to propound a query in regard to piano-playing, to the partial solution of which you will perhaps be glad to give some attention. You may be sure that I shall always speak only upon [129]subjects which are not even mentioned in the most crowded piano-schools.

Query. Why is it that our young, educated ladies, who enjoy the advantages of sufficient talent, industry, a serious purpose, and all the necessary aids, are usually dissatisfied with their progress and with their success in piano-playing?

Their education is a sufficiently careful one, extending to all branches of knowledge; but their intellectual advancement in music (although it has been fostered for years, by constantly listening to good music, and frequently to the performances of distinguished players, and by a critical comparison of their own performances with these) is still small in proportion to their power of execution, and to the mechanical facility which they have acquired. These are certainly essential to a correct and agreeable rendering of a piece of music: the compositions which are to be performed ought, however, never to demand the exercise of all the mechanical skill which has been acquired, for in that case, by the struggle with mechanical difficulties, only embarrassment, discouragement, and anxious haste are apt to take the place of boldness, confidence in one's self, and command of the music. It is the duty of teachers, in choosing studies for [130]the improvement of technique, to select only such as are within the mechanical powers of the pupil, in order that he may make steady progress, and may acquire a pure and delicate style of execution, retaining at the same time a lively interest in his pursuit. But why has the acquirement of this technique been usually unsuccessful?

1. Because you begin to acquire it too late. In order to gain facility and flexibility of the fingers and wrist (which a child in the sixth or seventh year, with a skilful teacher, may acquire in four lessons), from fifteen to twenty lessons, according to the construction of the hand, are necessary with persons from ten to fourteen years old. For other reasons also, we must urge that the mechanical facility should usually be acquired, or at least a complete foundation for it laid in childhood, and not left to be formed by a course which is destructive of all spirit, at an age when labor is performed with self-consciousness,—an age when our ladies are talking a great deal of musical interpretations, of tenderness and depth of feeling, of poetry and inspiration in playing, to which they are led by the possession of our classical piano compositions and immortal master-works, and by intellectual friends and teachers aiming at the highest culture. [131]You reply: "But even if your mode of elementary instruction should meet with faithful disciples, how, in such young pupils, are we to find perseverance and sense enough to continue these severe exercises, even in your interesting manner?" My dear ladies, children ought to do it merely from habit, although in many cases, after the beginning, talent and correct musical instinct may make their appearance. Uninterrupted enjoyment would indeed be unnatural, and where you find it vanity will usually be its moving spring, and this seldom bears good fruit. You may as well ask whether our great literary men and artists always like to go to school, or whether they did not delight in a holiday. Let this be the answer to the strange question, Do your daughters like to play? Good heavens! After they are able to play, and that without much effort, and a little at sight; when they can master, with a musical appreciation, easy, graceful salon music, or even the easier compositions of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Hummel, Moscheles, &c.,—then they take pleasure in playing, and they play a great deal, and with enthusiasm.

2. But, in case children should sometimes begin in their sixth year, you must remember what is said, [132]in the first chapter of this work, with regard to the prevalent false method of teaching beginners. You, however, are supposed to have had better and more sensible teachers. Let me nevertheless quote for your amusement the remark which I have heard so frequently in the course of my long life as a piano-teacher: "In the beginning, a poor, rattling piano, that is forty years old, and that is tuned regularly once a year, and a cheap teacher, will do well enough. As soon as the children learn to play really well, then we will have a better piano and a better teacher." Yes; but that time never comes, and the parents soon conclude that even the most gifted children have no talent, and take no pleasure in music; and so they stop learning, only to regret it when they are older. But the parents console themselves, and after a while the old piano is never tuned at all. But, as I have told you, I do not refer here to your teachers, for whom I have a personal regard, and who teach on excellent pianos.

3. Don't be angry with me for my suggestion, ladies: you do not make enough use of the minutes. While our learned education absorbs so much time, while our friends require so many hours, while, alas! balls and dinners consume whole days, we must be sparing of the remaining minutes.

[133]"Now I must rush to the piano! I must go to dinner in ten minutes: two scales, two finger exercises, two difficult passages out of the piece I have to learn, and one exercise to invent on the dominant and sub-dominant, are soon done; and then the dinner will taste all the better."

"My dear Agnes, we might talk for ever about this dreadful snow, it won't melt the sooner for it: how do you like this passage that I am going to play to you? It is from a charming Nocturne, by Chopin, and is so difficult that I shall have to play it over fifty times, or else I shall always stumble at this place, and I never shall know the Nocturne to play to any one. Don't you think it is beautiful?—so spiritual and original! I can tell you it will be something to boast of, when I have accomplished that. You like it better the oftener I play it? So do I."

"We have an invitation out. Mother has a great deal to arrange, and directions to give. We shall have to go in ten minutes. I must rush to the piano, though I am in rather an inconvenient toilette: I may as well accustom myself to play in it. I shall have to spend three hours this evening without any music. Well, to make up for it, I will occupy myself for the next ten minutes with an [134]exercise for this obstinate fourth finger, though it is pretty dry. That weak finger has been a hindrance to many a fine passage and scale. That is better! Now I can put on my tight gloves. Suppose I should put on the left glove on the way."

Well, my young ladies, how many hours do you think all those minutes would make in a year? But I hear you say, "What is the use of worrying to pick up all those stray minutes, like lost pins? We have a whole hour to practise every day, when nothing prevents." Exactly, when nothing prevents.

I will now tell you a few of my secrets for piano performers.

If in piano-playing, or in any art, you wish to attain success, you must resolve to work every day, at least a little, on the technique. Sickness and other unavoidable interruptions deprive you of days enough.

Practise always with unexhausted energy: the result will be tenfold. Do you not frequently use the time for practising, when you have already been at work studying for five or six hours? Have you then strength and spirit enough to practise the necessary exercises for an hour or more, and to study your music-pieces carefully and attentively, [135]as your teacher instructed you? Is not your mind exhausted, and are not your hands and fingers tired and stiff with writing, so that you are tempted to help out with your arms and elbows, which is worse than no practice at all? But, my dear ladies, if you practise properly, several times every day, ten minutes at a time, your strength and your patience are usually sufficient for it; and, if you are obliged to omit your regular "hour's practice," you have, at any rate, accomplished something with your ten minutes before breakfast, or before dinner, or at any leisure moment. So, I beg of you, let me have my minutes.

Practise often, slowly, and without pedal, not only the smaller and larger études, but also your pieces. In that way you gain, at least, a correct, healthy mode of playing, which is the foundation of beautiful playing. Do you do this when neither your teacher, nor your father or mother is present to keep watch over you? Do you never say, "Nobody is listening"?

Do you take enough healthy exercise in the open air? Active exercise, in all weather, makes strong, enduring piano fingers, while subsisting on indoor-air results in sickly, nervous, feeble, over-strained playing. Strong, healthy fingers are only too [136]essential for our present style of piano-playing, which requires such extraordinary execution, and for our heavy instruments. So I still beg for the minutes: your walks take up hours enough.

Excessive and fatiguing feminine occupations, and drawing, or painting, are by no means consistent with an earnest, practical musical education; not only because both those occupations require so much time, but because they deprive the fingers of the requisite pliability and dexterity, while knitting, according to the latest discoveries, produces an unnatural nervous excitement, which is unfavorable to healthy progress in music. I at least, in my instruction on the piano, have never been able to accomplish much with ladies who are devoted to knitting, crochet, and embroidering. My dear ladies, you who have been born in fortunate circumstances, and have been educated by your parents, without regard to expense, should, at least, allow the poor girl in the country, who is obliged to hide her talents under a bushel, the small privilege of making a collar for your mother's or your aunt's birthday present. I assure you your mother or your aunt, if you surprise them instead with a fine piano performance, will be as much pleased as if you strained your eyes and bent your back for days and nights [137]over the needle-work. And now as regards painting: painting and music, though theoretically so nearly related, agree but poorly in practice; at least, if you are in earnest about either. You say painters often play on the guitar and the flute. That may be true: I will allow them those two instruments. But piano-playing stands on a different footing, even for mere amateurs. Sweet melodies on those instruments may afford an agreeable companionship for the painter in his rambles through the woods and over the hills; but piano-playing should be the friend of a life-time, ennobled by the elevating enjoyment of lofty master-works. Therefore, I beg you, do not dissipate your powers too much. Leave the art of painting to your friends, who are either without talent for music, or who have no opportunity to study it. Our short lives do not allow the successful practice of several arts. Of what advantage to our higher culture is it to be able to do ten things tolerably well; what gain for the future, for humanity, or for the true happiness of the individual? And even if you can succeed in painting something which scarcely can be said to resemble a rose, of what advantage is it, when we have so many real roses to admire?

My dear ladies, I warn you, generally, do not [138]be afraid of the so-called classical, heavy music, especially Beethoven's, if you desire to learn from it, only or chiefly, repose, lightness, facility, elasticity, graceful, delicate playing, and a fine touch. It is necessary to play such music after those brilliant qualities have already been, to a certain degree, acquired by mere studies and appropriate pieces. It is, however, still more foolish and impractical, when parents (who perhaps are skilful musicians, but who have no recollection of their own youth) hold the mistaken opinion that their children ought, from the very beginning, to practise and play only fine classical music, in order that the children's ears may not be injured by false progressions, by insignificant finger exercises, and by easily comprehensible Italian airs, and that they themselves may not be ruined body and soul. Gracious heavens! how much pure music, suited to the piano, have not my daughters, as well as many others whom I have brought up to be fine performers, played and studied!—such, for instance, as the music of Hünten, Czerny, Burgmüller, Kalkbrenner, A. and J. Schmitt, Herz, and many others. Who finds fault now with their musical culture, with their sound taste, or their want of love for classical music? What a long road a [139]child has to travel through Etudes of Cramer, Moscheles, and Chopin, before he comes to Bach's Well-tempered Clavichord, or before he is able, or ought even, to study Beethoven's Sonate Pathétique! It is not well, though quite in the spirit of the times, to condemn without experience, from one's own prejudiced point of view, the methods which those skilled in their business have for years successfully tried and practised. It is possible to make pupils musical in the above way, but they will be only dull, clumsy bunglers on the piano; not fine artists, who alone can give a worthy and noble interpretation of classical music. I desire that my daughters may never forget my well-considered instructions, sustained by the experience of many years; and that they may, in grateful remembrance of their father and teacher, repay to their pupils what they owe to him.

But I see among my audience several beginners in singing, and I beg to be allowed a word to them. So long as many of our German song composers consider it beneath their dignity to study the art of singing in the old Italian master-works, and under the guidance of well-qualified singing masters,—as Gluck, Naumann, Hasse, Händel, Haydn, Mozart, Salieri, Winter, and others have done,—I [140]warn you to take care of your tender voices, which are so easily ruined, and not to allow yourselves to be misled by ingenious opinions, and by music otherwise good. The loss of your voices follows in the footsteps of modern tortures in singing, as you may see sufficiently in all our theatres, or, indeed, may experience yourselves in numberless German songs. Apply also to singing what I have just said about piano-playing: as you should choose for the piano music suited to the piano, so for your studies in singing select only that which is adapted to the voice; under the guidance of prudent and educated teachers, not of modern voice breakers, who allow you to scream, "in order to bring out the voice." When you have acquired a good technique, when your attack is sure, and a certain skilfulness in singing has been developed, then only you may try, by way of experiment, a few pieces of such spirited but unskilled song composers, who frequently commit sins in every line against correct representation, the register of the voice, the breathings, the pronunciation, and a hundred other things.

Look around and see who sing these so-called classical songs. They are either singers who do not know what singing is, and who have no taste for it, which, in consequence of their education, they [141]never can have; or those who no longer have any voice, and accordingly sing every thing, or, rather, declaim it, because they cannot sing. I recommend you to sing (to mention the names of two only of our most excellent song composers) the charming songs of Fr. Schubert and Mendelssohn, who, in constant intercourse with the most judicious masters of singing in Vienna and Italy, have striven constantly to compose scientifically, and have at the same time produced clever songs; but you should sing them not too often, or too many of them. Singing in the German language, and in syllables, and often with clumsy melodies, requires a great deal of voice, and easily leads to many faults and to a false manner. Remember how strictly Jenny Lind selected, for performance in her concerts, the songs of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. In this way she succeeded in winning great success, even with small, short songs.

Finally, one more secret for performers, which weighs heavy in the balance. You ought, especially if you have not received good early instruction, to acquire a habit of moving the fingers very frequently, at every convenient opportunity; and particularly of letting them fall loosely and lightly [142]upon any hard object, while the hand lies upon something firm, in an extended position.

You must accustom yourselves to do this unconsciously. For example, while reading, at table, or while listening to music, allow your hand to lie upon the table, raise the fingers, and let them fall, one at a time, quite independently of the wrist; particularly the weak fourth and fifth fingers, which require to be used a hundred times more than the others, if you wish to acquire evenness in the scales. If it attracts attention to do this on the table, then do it in your lap, or with one hand over the other. To drum with your fingers and stretch your hands on the backs of other people is not often practicable, and is not necessary. That was only pardoned in the zealous and original Adolph Henselt, who, though otherwise such a modest and amiable artist, even now, in St. Petersburg, makes himself ridiculous in this way, by his practice of finger movements.

Now you perceive the reason why I cannot answer the question which has been asked me innumerable times. How much do your daughters practise? I cannot count up the finger movements and the stray ten minutes just spoken of; but it is certain that they practise fewer hours in the day than [143]many thousands who learn nothing, for they never practise and never have practised wrongly, but always correctly and advantageously.

One thing more. After my experienced, watchful eye had observed in our circle many moving fingers in consequence of my lecture, a distinguished lady of Vienna whispered in my ear: "But, my dear Herr Wieck, my Amelia is not to be a professional player: I only want her to learn a few of the less difficult sonatas of Beethoven, to play correctly and fluently, without notes." My dear ladies, I do not aim with you at any thing more than this. A great many circumstances must combine for the formation of fine concert performers; in fact, the whole education, from the earliest youth, must have reference to this end. If this were not so, Germany especially, on account of its natural musical talent, would be able annually to furnish thousands of virtuoso performers.

Has my lecture been too long to-day? I ask your pardon. My desire to make myself useful to you must be my excuse, if I cannot dispose of such an extensive subject in a few words. I have not yet exhausted it.


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