How to Listen to Music


At a Pianoforte Recital

Mr. Paderewski's concerts.

No clearer illustration of the magical power which lies in music, no more convincing proof of the puissant fascination which a musical artist can exert, no greater demonstration of the capabilities of an instrument of music can be imagined than was afforded by the pianoforte recitals which Mr. Paderewski gave in the United States during the season of 1895-96. More than threescore times in the course of five months, in the principal cities of this country, did this wonderful man seat himself in the presence of audiences, whose numbers ran into the thousands, and were limited only by the seating capacity of the rooms in which they gathered, and hold them spellbound from two to three hours by the eloquence of his playing. Each time the people came in a gladsome frame of mind, stimulated by the recollection of previous delights or eager expectation. Each time they sat listening to the music as if it were an evangel on which hung everlasting things. Each time there was the same growth in enthusiasm which began in decorous applause and ended in cheers and shouts as the artist came back after the performance of a herculean task, and added piece after piece to a programme which had been laid down on generous lines from the beginning. The careless saw the spectacle with simple amazement, but for the judicious it had a wondrous interest.

Pianoforte recitals.
The pianoforte's underlying principles.

I am not now concerned with Mr. Paderewski beyond invoking his aid in bringing into court a form of entertainment which, in his hands, has proved to be more attractive to the multitude than symphony, oratorio, and even opera. What a world of speculation and curious inquiry does such a recital invite one into, beginning with the instrument which was the medium of communication between the artist and his hearers! To follow the progressive development of the mechanical principles underlying the pianoforte, one would be obliged to begin beyond the veil which separates history from tradition, for the first of them finds its earliest exemplification in the bow twanged by the primitive savage. Since a recognition of these principles may help to an understanding of the art of pianoforte playing, I enumerate them now. They are:

1. A stretched string as a medium of tone production.

2. A key-board as an agency for manipulating the strings.

3. A blow as the means of exciting the strings to vibratory action, by which the tone is produced.

Their Genesis.
Significance of the pianoforte.

Many interesting glimpses of the human mind and heart might we have in the course of the promenade through the ancient, mediæval, and modern worlds which would be necessary to disclose the origin and growth of these three principles, but these we must forego, since we are to study the music of the instrument, not its history. Let the knowledge suffice that the fundamental principle of the pianoforte is as old as music itself, and that scientific learning, inventive ingenuity, and mechanical skill, tributary always to the genius of the art, have worked together for centuries to apply this principle, until the instrument which embodies it in its highest potency is become a veritable microcosm of music. It is the visible sign of culture in every gentle household; the indispensable companion of the composer and teacher; the intermediary between all the various branches of music. Into the study of the orchestral conductor it brings a translation of all the multitudinous voices of the band; to the choir-master it represents the chorus of singers in the church-loft or on the concert-platform; with its aid the opera director fills his imagination with the people, passions, and pageantry of the lyric drama long before the singers have received their parts, or the costumer, stage manager, and scene-painter have begun their work. It is the only medium through which the musician in his study can commune with the whole world of music and all its heroes; and though it may fail to inspire somewhat of that sympathetic nearness which one feels toward the violin as it nestles under the chin and throbs synchronously with the player's emotions, or those wind instruments into which the player breathes his own breath as the breath of life, it surpasses all its rivals, save the organ, in its capacity for publishing the grand harmonies of the masters, for uttering their "sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies."

Defects of the pianoforte.
Lack of sustaining power.

This is one side of the picture and serves to show why the pianoforte is the most universal, useful, and necessary of all musical instruments. The other side shows its deficiencies, which must also be known if one is to appreciate rightly the many things he is called upon to note while listening intelligently to pianoforte music. Despite all the skill, learning, and ingenuity which have been spent on its perfection, the pianoforte can be made only feebly to approximate that sustained style of musical utterance which is the soul of melody, and finds its loftiest exemplification in singing. To give out a melody perfectly, presupposes the capacity to sustain tones without loss in power or quality, to bind them together at will, and sometimes to intensify their dynamic or expressive force while they sound. The tone of the pianoforte, being produced by a blow, begins to die the moment it is created. The history of the instrument's mechanism, and also of its technical manipulation, is the history of an effort to reduce this shortcoming to a minimum. It has always conditioned the character of the music composed for the instrument, and if we were not in danger of being led into too wide an excursion, it would be profitable to trace the parallelism which is disclosed by the mechanical evolution of the instrument, and the technical and spiritual evolution of the music composed for it. A few points will be touched upon presently, when the intellectual activity invited by a recital is brought under consideration.

The percussive element.
Melody with drum-beats.
Rhythmical accentuation.
A universal substitute.

It is to be noted, further, that by a beautiful application of the doctrine of compensations, the factor which limits the capacity of the pianoforte as a melody instrument endows it with a merit which no other instrument has in the same degree, except the instruments of percussion, which, despite their usefulness, stand on the border line between savage and civilized music. It is from its relationship to the drum that the pianoforte derives a peculiarity quite unique in the melodic and harmonic family. Rhythm is, after all, the starting-point of music. More than melody, more than harmony, it stirs the blood of the savage, and since the most vital forces within man are those which date back to his primitive state, so the sense of rhythm is the most universal of the musical senses among even the most cultured of peoples to-day. By themselves the drums, triangles, and cymbals of an orchestra represent music but one remove from noise; but everybody knows how marvellously they can be utilized to glorify a climax. Now, in a very refined degree, every melody on the pianoforte, be it played as delicately as it may, is a melody with drum-beats. Manufacturers have done much toward eliminating the thump of the hammers against the strings, and familiarity with the tone of the instrument has closed our ears against it to a great extent as something intrusive, but the blow which excites the string to vibration, and thus generates sound, is yet a vital factor in determining the character of pianoforte music. The recurrent pulsations, now energetic, incisive, resolute, now gentle and caressing, infuse life into the melody, and by emphasizing its rhythmical structure (without unduly exaggerating it), present the form of the melody in much sharper outline than is possible on any other instrument, and much more than one would expect in view of the evanescent character of the pianoforte's tone. It is this quality, combined with the mechanism which places all the gradations of tone, from loudest to softest, at the easy and instantaneous command of the player, which, I fancy, makes the pianoforte, in an astonishing degree, a substitute for all the other instruments. Each instrument in the orchestra has an idiom, which sounds incomprehensible when uttered by some other of its fellows, but they can all be translated, with more or less success, into the language of the pianoforte—not the quality of the tone, though even that can be suggested, but the character of the phrase. The pianoforte can sentimentalize like the flute, make a martial proclamation like the trumpet, intone a prayer like the churchly trombone.

The instrument's mechanism.
Tone formation and production.

In the intricacy of its mechanism the pianoforte stands next to the organ. The farther removed from direct utterance we are the more difficult is it to speak the true language of music. The violin player and the singer, and in a less degree the performers upon some of the wind instruments, are obliged to form the musical tone—which, in the case of the pianist, is latent in the instrument, ready to present itself in two of its attributes in answer to a simple pressure upon the key. The most unmusical person in the world can learn to produce a series of tones from a pianoforte which shall be as exact in pitch and as varied in dynamic force as can Mr. Paderewski. He cannot combine them so ingeniously nor imbue them with feeling, but in the simple matter of producing the tone with the attributes mentioned, he is on a level with the greatest virtuoso. Very different is the case of the musician who must exercise a distinctly musical gift in the simple evocation of the materials of music, like the violinist and singer, who both form and produce the tone. For them compensation flows from the circumstance that the tone thus formed and produced is naturally instinct with emotional life in a degree that the pianoforte tone knows nothing of.

Technical manipulation.
Touch and emotionality.

In one respect, it may be said that the mechanics of pianoforte playing represent a low plane of artistic activity, a fact which ought always to be remembered whenever the temptation is felt greatly to exalt the technique of the art; but it must also be borne in mind that the mechanical nature of simple tone production in pianoforte playing raises the value of the emotional quality which, nevertheless, stands at the command of the player. The emotional potency of the tone must come from the manner in which the blow is given to the string. Recognition of this fact has stimulated reflection, and this in turn has discovered methods by which temperament and emotionality may be made to express themselves as freely, convincingly, and spontaneously in pianoforte as in violin playing. If this were not so it would be impossible to explain the difference in the charm exerted by different virtuosi, for it has frequently happened that the best-equipped mechanician and the most intellectual player has been judged inferior as an artist to another whose gifts were of the soul rather than of the brains and fingers.

The technical cult.
A low form of art.

The feats accomplished by a pianoforte virtuoso in the mechanical department are of so extraordinary a nature that there need be small wonder at the wide prevalence of a distinctly technical cult. All who know the real nature and mission of music must condemn such a cult. It is a sign of a want of true appreciation to admire technique for technique's sake. It is a mistaking of the outward shell for the kernel, a means for the end. There are still many players who aim to secure this admiration, either because they are deficient in real musical feeling, or because they believe themselves surer of winning applause by thus appealing to the lowest form of appreciation. In the early part of the century they would have been handicapped by the instrument which lent itself to delicacy, clearness, and gracefulness of expression, but had little power. Now the pianoforte has become a thing of rigid steel, enduring tons of strain from its strings, and having a voice like the roar of many waters; to keep pace with it players have become athletes with

"Thews of Anakim
And pulses of a Titan's heart."
Technical skill a matter of course.

They care no more for the "murmurs made to bless," unless it be occasionally for the sake of contrast, but seek to astound, amaze, bewilder, and confound with feats of skill and endurance. That with their devotion to the purely mechanical side of the art they are threatening to destroy pianoforte playing gives them no pause whatever. The era which they illustrate and adorn is the technical era which was, is, and ever shall be, the era of decay in artistic production. For the judicious technique alone, be it never so marvellous, cannot serve to-day. Its possession is accepted as a condition precedent in the case of everyone who ventures to appear upon the concert-platform. He must be a wonder, indeed, who can disturb our critical equilibrium by mere digital feats. We want strength and velocity of finger to be coupled with strength, velocity, and penetration of thought. We want no halting or lisping in the proclamation of what the composer has said, but we want the contents of his thought, not the hollow shell, no matter how distinctly its outlines be drawn.

The plan of study in this chapter.
A typical scheme of pieces.

The factors which present themselves for consideration at a pianoforte recital—mechanical, intellectual, and emotional—can be most intelligently and profitably studied along with the development of the instrument and its music. All branches of the study are invited by the typical recital programme. The essentially romantic trend of Mr. Paderewski's nature makes his excursions into the classical field few and short; and it is only when a pianist undertakes to emulate Rubinstein in his historical recitals that the entire pre-Beethoven vista is opened up. It will suffice for the purposes of this discussion to imagine a programme containing pieces by Bach, D. Scarlatti, Handel, and Mozart in one group; a sonata by Beethoven; some of the shorter pieces of Schumann and Chopin, and one of the transcriptions or rhapsodies of Liszt.

Periods in pianoforte music.

Such a scheme falls naturally into four divisions, plainly differentiated from each other in respect of the style of composition and the manner of performance, both determined by the nature of the instrument employed and the status of the musical idea. Simply for the sake of convenience let the period represented by the first group be called the classic; the second the classic-romantic; the third the romantic, and the last the bravura. I beg the reader, however, not to extend these designations beyond the boundaries of the present study; they have been chosen arbitrarily, and confusion might result if the attempt were made to apply them to any particular concert scheme. I have chosen the composers because of their broadly representative capacity. And they must stand for a numerous epigonoi whose names make up our concert lists: say, Couperin, Rameau, and Haydn in the first group; Schubert in the second; Mendelssohn and Rubinstein in the third. It would not be respectful to the memory of Liszt were I to give him the associates with whom in my opinion he stands; that matter may be held in abeyance.

Predecessors of the pianoforte.
The Clavichord.

The instruments for which the first group of writers down to Haydn and Mozart wrote, were the immediate precursors of the pianoforte—the clavichord, spinet, or virginal, and harpsichord. The last was the concert instrument, and stood in the same relationship to the others that the grand pianoforte of to-day stands to the upright and square. The clavichord was generally the medium for the composer's private communings with his muse, because of its superiority over its fellows in expressive power; but it gave forth only a tiny tinkle and was incapable of stirring effects beyond those which sprang from pure emotionality. The tone was produced by a blow against the string, delivered by a bit of brass set in the farther end of the key. The action was that of a direct lever, and the bit of brass, which was called the tangent, also acted as a bridge and measured off the segment of string whose vibration produced the desired tone. It was therefore necessary to keep the key pressed down so long as it was desired that the tone should sound, a fact which must be kept in mind if one would understand the shortcomings as well as the advantages of the instrument compared with the spinet or harpsichord. It also furnishes one explanation of the greater lyricism of Bach's music compared with that of his contemporaries. By gently rocking the hand while the key was down, a tremulous motion could be communicated to the string, which not only prolonged the tone appreciably but gave it an expressive effect somewhat analogous to the vibrato of a violinist. The Germans called this effect Bebung, the French Balancement, and it was indicated by a row of dots under a short slur written over the note. It is to the special fondness which Bach felt for the clavichord that we owe, to a great extent, the cantabile style of his music, its many-voicedness and its high emotionality.

Quilled instruments.
Tone of the harpsichord and spinet.
Bach's "Music of the future."

The spinet, virginal, and harpsichord were quilled instruments, the tone of which was produced by snapping the strings by means of plectra made of quill, or some other flexible substance, set in the upper end of a bit of wood called the jack, which rested on the farther end of the key and moved through a slot in the sounding-board. When the key was pressed down, the jack moved upward past the string which was caught and twanged by the plectrum. The blow of the clavichord tangent could be graduated like that of the pianoforte hammer, but the quills of the other instruments always plucked the strings with the same force, so that mechanical devices, such as a swell-box, similar in principle to that of the organ, coupling in octaves, doubling the strings, etc., had to be resorted to for variety of dynamic effects. The character of tone thus produced determined the character of the music composed for these instruments to a great extent. The brevity of the sound made sustained melodies ineffective, and encouraged the use of a great variety of embellishments and the spreading out of harmonies in the form of arpeggios. It is obvious enough that Bach, being one of those monumental geniuses that cast their prescient vision far into the future, refused to be bound by such mechanical limitations. Though he wrote Clavier, he thought organ, which was his true interpretative medium, and so it happens that the greatest sonority and the broadest style that have been developed in the pianoforte do not exhaust the contents of such a composition as the "Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue."

Scarlatti's sonatas.

The earliest music written for these instruments—music which does not enter into this study—was but one remove from vocal music. It came through compositions written for the organ. Of Scarlatti's music the pieces most familiar are a Capriccio and Pastorale which Tausig rewrote for the pianoforte. They were called sonatas by their composer, but are not sonatas in the modern sense. Sonata means "sound-piece," and when the term came into music it signified only that the composition to which it was applied was written for instruments instead of voices. Scarlatti did a great deal to develop the technique of the harpsichord and the style of composing for it. His sonatas consist each of a single movement only, but in their structure they foreshadow the modern sonata form in having two contrasted themes, which are presented in a fixed key-relationship. They are frequently full of grace and animation, but are as purely objective, formal, and soulless in their content as the other instrumental compositions of the epoch to which they belong.

The suite.
Its history and form.
The bond between the movements.

The most significant of the compositions of this period are the Suites, which because they make up so large a percentage of Clavier literature (using the term to cover the pianoforte and its predecessors), and because they pointed the way to the distinguishing form of the subsequent period, the sonata, are deserving of more extended consideration. The suite is a set of pieces in the same key, but contrasted in character, based upon certain admired dance-forms. Originally it was a set of dances and nothing more, but in the hands of the composers the dances underwent many modifications, some of them to the obvious detriment of their national or other distinguishing characteristics. The suite came into fashion about the middle of the seventeenth century and was also called Sonata da Camera and Balletto in Italy, and, later, Partita in France. In its fundamental form it embraced four movements: I. Allemande. II. Courante. III. Sarabande. IV. Gigue. To these four were sometimes added other dances—the Gavotte, Passepied, Branle, Minuet, Bourrée, etc.—but the rule was that they should be introduced between the Sarabande and the Gigue. Sometimes also the set was introduced by a Prelude or an Overture. Identity of key was the only external tie between the various members of the suite, but the composers sought to establish an artistic unity by elaborating the sentiments for which the dance-forms seemed to offer a vehicle, and presenting them in agreeable contrast, besides enriching the primitive structure with new material. The suites of Bach and Handel are the high-water mark in this style of composition, but it would be difficult to find the original characteristics of the dances in their settings. It must suffice us briefly to indicate the characteristics of the principal forms.

The Allemande.

The Allemande, as its name indicates, was a dance of supposedly German origin. For that reason the German composers, when it came to them from France, where the suite had its origin, treated it with great partiality. It is in moderate tempo, common time, and made up of two periods of eight measures, both of which are repeated. It begins with an upbeat, and its metre, to use the terms of prosody, is iambic. The following specimen from Mersenne's "Harmonie Universelle," 1636, well displays its characteristics:

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Iambics in music and poetry.

Robert Burns's familiar iambics,

"Ye flowery banks o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu' o' care!"

might serve to keep the rhythmical characteristics of the Allemande in mind were it not for the arbitrary changes made by the composers already hinted at. As it is, we frequently find the stately movement of the old dance broken up into elaborate, but always quietly flowing, ornamentation, as indicated in the following excerpt from the third of Bach's English suites:

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