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Transcriber's Note: A number of obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text, while archaic spelling has been maintained. For a complete list, please see the bottom of this document.
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OTHER MUSICAL ESSAYS
BY THE SAME AUTHOR.
SPAIN AND MOROCCO. 12mo, $1.25.
THE PACIFIC COAST SCENIC TOUR. Illustrated. 8vo, $2.50.
CHOPIN, AND OTHER MUSICAL ESSAYS. 12mo, $1.50.
WAGNER AND HIS WORKS. With Portraits. Two Volumes. Crown 8vo, $4.00.
CHOPIN AND OTHER MUSICAL ESSAYS
BY HENRY T. FINCK AUTHOR OF "ROMANTIC LOVE AND PERSONAL BEAUTY"
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1894
COPYRIGHT, 1889, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
TROW'S PRINTING AND BOOKBINDING COMPANY, NEW YORK.
RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED TO
MRS. JEANNETTE M. THURBER
I. CHOPIN, THE GREATEST GENIUS OF THE PIANOFORTE, 1
II. HOW COMPOSERS WORK, 59
III. SCHUMANN, AS MIRRORED IN HIS LETTERS, 111
IV. MUSIC AND MORALS, 141
V. ITALIAN AND GERMAN VOCAL STYLES, 183
VI. GERMAN OPERA IN NEW YORK, 233
THE GREATEST GENIUS OF THE PIANOFORTE
Leipsic, the centre of the world's music trade, exports about one hundred thousand dollars' worth of music to America every year. I do not know how much of this sum is to be placed to the account of Chopin, but a leading music dealer in New York told me that he sold three times as many of Chopin's compositions as of any other romantic or classical composer. This seems to indicate that Chopin is popular. Nevertheless, I believe that what Liszt wrote in 1850, a year after the death of Chopin—that his fame was not yet as great as it would be in the future—is as true to-day as it was forty years ago. Chopin's reputation has been constantly growing, and yet many of his deepest and most poetic compositions are almost unknown to amateurs, not to speak of the public at large. A few of his least characteristic pieces are heard in every parlor, generally in a wofully mutilated condition, but some of his most inspired later works I have never heard played either in private or in the concert hall, although I am sure that if heard there they would be warmly applauded.
There is hardly a composer concerning whom so many erroneous notions are current as concerning Chopin, and of all the histories of music I have seen that of Langhans is the only one which devotes to Chopin an amount of space approximately proportionate to his importance. One of the most absurd of the misconceptions is that Chopin's genius was born in full armor, and that it did not pass through several stages of development, like that of other composers. Chopin did display remarkable originality at the very beginning, but the apparent maturity of his first published works is due to the fact that he destroyed his earliest efforts and disowned those works which are known as posthumous, and which may have created confusion in some minds by having received a higher "opus" number than his last works.
Another misconception regarding Chopin is that his latest works are morbid and unintelligible. The same charge was brought by philistines against the best works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Wagner. The fact is that these last works are of an almost matchless harmonic depth and originality, as superior to his earlier works as Wagner's last music dramas are to his first operas. I make this comparison with Wagner advisedly because, although I have the most exalted notions of Wagner's grandeur and importance, I do not for a moment hesitate to say that in his own sphere Chopin is quite as original and has been almost as revolutionary and epoch-making as Wagner. Schumann was the first to recognize the revolutionary significance of Chopin's style. "Chopin's works," he says, "are cannons buried in flowers;" and in another place he declares that he can see in "Chopin's G minor Nocturne a terrible declaration of war against a whole musical past." Chopin, himself, modest as he was in his manners, wrote to his teacher Elsner, in 1831, when he was twenty-two years of age: "Kalkbrenner will not be able to break my perhaps bold but noble determination to create a new epoch in art."
Now, why has the world been so slow in recognizing that Chopin stands in the very front rank of creative musicians? One reason doubtless is that he was so quiet and retiring in his personal disposition. His still, small voice was lost in the din of musical warfare. He warmly defended the principles of the romantic school, if necessary, and had decided opinions of other musicians, especially of the popular pianists of his day who vitiated the public taste with their show pieces; but he generally kept them to himself or confided them only to his friends, whom he even occasionally implored to keep them secret. Had he, like Richard Wagner, attacked everybody, right and left, who stood in the way of the general recognition of his genius, his cause would have doubtless assumed greater prominence in the eyes of the public, even though the parlor piano does not afford so much play-ground for warfare as the operatic stage.
The chief reason, however, why musical authorities have so long hesitated to acknowledge that Chopin is one of the very greatest explorers and pioneers in the domain of their art, is to be found in what, for want of a better term, may be called aesthetic Jumboism. When the late lamented Jumbo was in New York he attracted so much attention that his colleagues, although but little inferior in size, had "no show" whatever. Everybody crowded around Jumbo, stuffing him with bushels of oranges and apples, while the other elephants were entirely ignored. As elephants are intelligent animals, is it not probable that Pilot, the next in size to Jumbo, went mad and had to be shot because he was jealous of the exclusive attentions bestowed on his rival? In aesthetics, this Jumboism, this exaggerated desire for mammoth dimensions, seems to be a trait of the human mind which it is difficult to eradicate. It is a suggestive fact that the morbid, sham aestheticism which prevailed in England a few years ago, chose for its symbol the uncouth sunflower. And many who know that a sunflower is less beautiful and fragrant than a violet, will nevertheless, on visiting a picture gallery, give most of their attention to the large canvases, though the smaller ones may be infinitely more beautiful. It cannot be said that the critics of art or literature follow the popular disposition to measure genius with a yard-stick; but in music there seems to be a general tendency to do this. Liszt remarks, apropos, in his work on Chopin: "The value of the sketches made by Chopin's extremely delicate pencil has not yet been acknowledged and emphasized sufficiently. It has become customary in our days to regard as great composers only those who have written at least half a dozen operas, as many oratorios, and several symphonies."
Even Schumann, and Elsner, Chopin's teacher, seem to have been affected a little by this irrational way of looking at music. Schumann, in a complimentary notice of Chopin's nocturnes, expresses his regrets that the composer should confine himself so strictly to the pianoforte, whereas he might have influenced the development of music in all its branches. He adds, however, on second thought, that "to be a poet one need not have written ponderous volumes; one or two poems suffice to make a reputation, and Chopin has written such." Elsner who was unusually liberal in his views of art, and who discovered and valued his pupil's originality long before Schumann did, nevertheless bowed before the fetish of Jumboism in so far as to write to Chopin in Paris that he was anxious, before he departed this Vale of Tears, to hear an opera from his pen, both for his benefit, and for the glory of his country. Chopin took this admonition to heart sufficiently to ask a friend to prepare for him a libretto; but that is as far as the project ever went. Chopin must have felt instinctively that his individual style of miniature painting would be as ineffective on the operatic stage, where bold, al fresco painting is required, as his soft and dreamy playing would have been had he taken his piano from the parlor and placed it in a meadow.
Besides Chopin's abhorrence of musical warfare and his avoidance of the larger and more imposing forms of the opera, symphony, and oratorio, there were other causes which retarded the recognition of his transcendent genius. The unprecedented originality of his style, and the distinct national coloring of his compositions, did not meet with a sympathetic appreciation in Germany and Vienna, when he first went there to test his musical powers. Some of the papers indeed had a good word for him, but, as in the case of Liszt and later of Rubinstein, it was rather for the pianist than for the composer. On his first visit to Vienna he was greatly petted, and he found it easy to get influential friends who took care that his concerts should be a success, because he played for their benefit, asking no pecuniary recompense. But when, some years later, he repeated his visit, and tried to play for his own pecuniary benefit, the influential friends were invisible, and the concert actually resulted in a deficit.
Chopin's letters contain unmistakable evidence of the fact that, with some exceptions, the Germans did not understand his compositions. At his first concert in Vienna, he writes, "The first allegro in the F minor concerto (not intelligible to all) was indeed rewarded with 'Bravo!' but I believe this was rather because the audience wished to show that they appreciated serious music than because they were able to follow and appreciate such music." And regarding the fantasia on Polish airs he says that it completely missed its mark: "There was indeed some applause by the audience, but obviously only to show the pianist that they were not bored." The ultra-Germans, he writes in another letter, did not appear to be quite satisfied; and he relates that one of these, on being asked, in his presence, how he liked the concert, at once changed the subject of conversation, obviously in order not to hurt his feelings. In a third letter, in which he gives his parents an account of his concert in Breslau, in 1830, he says that, "With the exception of Schnabel, whose face was beaming with pleasure, and who patted me on the shoulder every other moment, none of the other Germans knew exactly what to make of me;" and he adds, with his delicious irony, that "the connoisseurs could not exactly make out whether my compositions really were good or only seemed so."
Criticisms culled from contemporary newspaper notices and other sources emphasize the fact that the Germans were at that time blind to the transcendent merits of Chopin's genius. The professional critics, after their usual manner, found fault with the very things which we to-day admire most in him—the exotic originality of the style, and the delightful Polish local color in which all his fabrics are "dyed in the wool," as it were. How numerous these adverse criticisms were, may best be inferred from the frequency with which Schumann defended Chopin in his musical paper and sneered at his detractors. "It is remarkable," he writes, "that in the very droughty years preceding 1830, in which one should have thanked Heaven for every straw of superior quality, criticism, which it is true, always lags behind unless it emanates from creative minds, persisted in shrugging its shoulders at Chopin's compositions—nay, that one of them had the impudence to say that all they were good for was to be torn to pieces." In another article, after speaking in the most enthusiastic terms of Chopin's trio, in which "every note is music and life," he exclaims, "Wretched Berlin critic, who has no understanding for these things, and never will have—poor fellow!" And seven years later, in 1843, he writes, with fine contempt for his critical colleagues, that "for the typical reviewers Chopin never did write, anyway." And this, be it remembered, was only six years before Chopin's death.
Not a few of the composers and composerlings of the period joined the professional critics in their depreciation of Chopin's works. Field called his "a talent of the sick chamber." Moscheles, while admitting Chopin's originality, and the value of his pianistic achievements, confessed that he disliked his "harsh, inartistic, incomprehensible modulations," which often appeared "artificial and forced" to him—these same modulations which to-day transport us into the seventh heaven of delight! Mendelssohn's attitude toward Chopin was somewhat vacillating. He defended him in a letter against his sister's criticisms, and assured her that if she had heard some of Chopin's compositions "as he himself played them" for him, she too would have been delighted. He adds that Chopin had just completed "a most graceful little nocturne," of which he remembered much, and was going to play it for his brother Paul. Nevertheless, he did not recommend the pupils at the Leipsic Conservatory to study Chopin's works, and various utterances of his are on record showing that he had a decided artistic antipathy for the exotic products of Chopin's pen. To give only one instance. In one of the letters to Moscheles, first printed in Scribner's Magazine for February, 1888, he complains that "a book of mazurkas by Chopin, and a few new pieces of his are so mannered that they are hard to stand."
I have dwelt so much on the attitude of the Germans toward Chopin, because I am convinced that in this attitude lies one of the main reasons why no one has hitherto dared to place him in the front rank of composers, side by side with Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. For the Germans are the tonangebende (the standard-setting) nation in music to-day, and, as there seems to be a natural antipathy between the Slavic and the Teutonic mind, the Germans are apt, like Mendelssohn, to regard as mannerism what is simply the exotic fragrance which betrays a foreign nationality. The ultro-Teutons still persist in their depreciation of Chopin. In the latest edition of Brockhaus's "Conservations-Lexicon" we read, apropos to Chopin's larger works, that "he was deficient in the profounder musical attainments"(!) Dr. Hanslick, generally considered the leading German critic of the period, in a 534-page collection of criticisms, discussing twenty concert seasons in Vienna, has only about half a dozen and by no means complimentary references to Chopin. And even the late Louis Ehlert, in his appreciative essay on Chopin, comes to the conclusion that Chopin is certainly not to be ranked with such giants as Bach and Beethoven. This is Teutonism, pure and simple. No doubt Chopin is, in some respects, inferior to Bach and Beethoven, but in other respects he is quite as unquestionably superior to them. He wrote no mammoth symphonies, but there is a marvellous wealth and depth of ideas in his smaller works—enough to supply half a dozen ordinary symphony and opera writers with ideas for a lifetime. His works may be compared to those men of genius in whose under-sized bodies dwelt a gigantic mind.
Schumann appears to have been the only contemporary composer who did not underrate Chopin. Whether he would have gone so far as to rank him with the greatest of the German composers, I cannot say, for he avoids direct comparisons. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Schumann flattered Chopin more than any other master, for his pianoforte works are much more in the manner of Chopin than of Bach or Beethoven. I do not mean direct imitation, but that unconscious adoption of Chopin's numerous innovations in the treatment of the piano and of musical style, which are better evidence of influence than the borrowing of an idea or two. He himself testified to the "intimate artistic relations" between him and Chopin. Moreover, his praise of Chopin is always pitched in such a high key that it would seem as if praise could no higher go. It was he who first proclaimed Chopin's genius authoritatively, and to this fact he often referred subsequently, with special pride. The very first article in his volumes of criticisms is devoted to Chopin's variations on "La Ci Darem'," published as "opus 2." In those days, Schumann used to give his criticisms a semi-dramatic form. On this occasion he represents his alter ego, Eusebius, as rushing into the room with a new composition, and the exclamation "Hats off, gentlemen! a genius!" He then analyzes the variations in glowing poetic language and rapturously exclaims at the end that "there is genius in every bar." And this was only one of the early works of Chopin, in which he has by no means attained his full powers. Of another quite early work, the second concerto, he writes that it is a composition "which none of us can approach except it be with the lips to kiss the hem;" and later on, the Preludes, the most inspired of his works, led Schumann to exclaim that Chopin "is and remains the boldest and noblest artistic spirit of the time."
Schumann would have found it difficult to induce any of his countrymen to endorse his exalted opinion of Chopin, but the Hungarian Liszt joined hands with him heartily, and pronounced Chopin "an artist of the first rank." "His best works," he says, "contain numerous combinations of which it must be said that they did nothing less than create an epoch in the treatment of musical style. Bold, brilliant, enchanting, his pieces conceal their depth behind so much grace, their erudition behind so much charm, that it is difficult to emancipate one's self from their overpowering magic and estimate them according to their theoretic value. This fact is already recognized by some competent judges, and it will be more and more generally realized when the progress made in art during the Chopin epoch is carefully studied."
That Elsner, Chopin's teacher, detected his pupil's originality, has already been stated. Fortunately he allowed it a free rein instead of trying to check and crush it, as teachers are in the habit of doing. But there are some passages in Chopin's early letters which seem to indicate that the general public and the professional musicians in his native Poland were not so very much in advance of the Germans in recognizing his musical genius. Liszt doubts whether Chopin's national compositions were as fully appreciated by his countrymen as the work of native poets; and Chopin writes to a friend, apropos of his second concert at Warsaw: "The elite of the musical world will be there; but I have little confidence in their musical judgment—Elsner of course excepted." Elsewhere he complains of a patriotic admirer who had written that the Poles would some day be as proud of Chopin as the Germans were of Mozart. And when in addition to this the editor of a local paper told him he had in type a sonnet on him, Chopin was greatly alarmed, and begged him not to print it; for he knew that such homage would create envy and enemies, and he declared that after that sonnet was published he would not dare to read any longer what the papers said about him.
Chopin's want of confidence in the judgment of his countrymen showed that, after all, the national Polish element in his compositions was not the main cause why they were not rated at once at their true value. It was their novelty of form, harmonic depth and freedom of modulation, that made them for a long time caviare to the general. This was again proved when he went to Paris. Chopin was a Pole only on his mother's side, his father having been a Frenchman, who had emigrated to Poland. It might have been supposed, therefore, that there would be a French element in Chopin's genius which would make it palatable to the Parisians. But this did not prove to be the case. In the remarkable group of musicians, poets, and artists who were assembled at that time in Paris, and who mutually inspired one another—a group which included Liszt, Meyerbeer, Hiller, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Heine, George Sand, the Countess D'Agoult, Delacroix, etc.—there were no doubt not a few who knew what a rare genius their friend Chopin was. George Sand wrote in her autobiography: "He has not been understood hitherto, and to the present day he is underestimated. Great progress will have to be made in taste and in the appreciation of music before it will be possible for Chopin's work to become popular." Heine also wrote that his favorite pianist was Chopin, "who, however," he adds, "is more of a composer than a virtuoso. When Chopin is at the piano I forget all about the technical side of playing and become absorbed in the sweet profundity, the sad loveliness of his creations, which are as deep as they are elegant. Chopin is the great inspired tone-poet who properly should be named only in company with Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini."
But aside from these select spirits and a small circle of aristocratic admirers, mostly Poles, Chopin was not understood by the Paris public. At first he could not even make his living there, and was in consequence on the point of emigrating to America when a friend dragged him to a soiree at Rothschild's, where his playing was so much admired that he was at once engaged as a teacher by several ladies present. In a very short time he became the fashionable teacher in aristocratic circles, where his refined manners made him personally liked. As he refused to take any but talented pupils, teaching was not so irksome to him as it might have been. Nevertheless one cannot but marvel at the obtuseness of the Parisians who put into the utilitarian harness an artist who might have enchanted them every evening with a concert, had their taste been more cultivated. He did play once, when he first arrived, but the receipts did not even meet the expenses, and the audience received his work so coldly that his artistic sensibilities were wounded, and he did not again appear in public for fourteen years. Occasionally he played for the select aristocratic circles into which he had been introduced; but even here he did not often meet with the genuine appreciation and sympathy which the artist craves. "Whoever could read in his face," says Liszt, "could see how often he felt convinced that among all these handsome, well-dressed gentlemen, among all the perfumed, elegant ladies, not one understood him."
As for the French critics they seem to have been as obtuse as their German colleagues. To give only one instance: M. Fetis, author of the well-known musical dictionary, states in his article on Chopin, that this composer is overrated to-day, and his popularity largely due to the fact that he is fashionable. And in his article on Heller, he asserts, more pointedly still, that "the time will undoubtedly come when the world will recognize that Heller, much more than Chopin, is the modern poet of the pianoforte." In this opinion Fetis probably stands alone; but many who have not studied Chopin's deepest works carefully, are still convinced that the pianoforte compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, are of greater importance than Chopin's. So far am I from sharing this opinion that if I had to choose between never again hearing a pianoforte piece by any or all of those composers, or never again hearing a Chopin composition, I should decide in favor of Chopin. Some years ago I expressed my conviction, in The Nation, that Chopin is as distinctly superior to all other piano composers as Wagner is to all other opera composers. A distinguished Cincinnati musician, Mr. Otto Singer, was horrified at this statement, and wrote in The Courier, of that city, that it could only have been made by "a patriotically inclined Frenchman or a consumptive inhabitant of Poland;" adding that "he would readily yield up possession of quite a number of Chopin's bric-a-brac for Schumann's single 'Warum.'" I am neither a patriotic Frenchman nor a consumptive Pole, and I am a most ardent admirer of Schumann; nevertheless I uphold my former opinion, and my chief object in this essay is to endeavor to justify it.
All authorities, in the first place, admit that Chopin created an entirely new style of playing the pianoforte. Many have pointed out the peculiarities of this style—the use of extended and scattered chords, the innovations in fingering which facilitate legato playing, the spray of dainty little ornamental notes, the use of the capricious tempo rubato, and so on. But it has not been made sufficiently clear by any writer how it was that Chopin became the Wagner of the pianoforte, so to speak, by revealing for the first time the infinite possibilities of varied and beautiful tone-colors inherent in that instrument. To understand this point fully, it is necessary to bear in mind a few facts regarding the history of the pianoforte.
The name of pianoforte was given about a century and a half ago to an instrument constructed by the Italian Cristofori, who devised a mechanism for striking the strings with hammers. In the older instruments—the clarichords and harpsichords—the strings were either snapped by means of crow's quills, or pushed with a tangent. The new hammer action not only brought a better tone out of the string, but enabled the pianist to play any note loud or soft at pleasure; hence the name piano-forte. But the pianoforte itself required many years before all its possibilities of tone-production were discovered. The instruments used by Mozart still had a thin short tone, and there was no pedal for prolonging it, except a clumsy one worked with the knee—a circumstance which greatly influenced Mozart's style, and is largely responsible for the fact that his pianoforte works are hardly ever played to-day in the concert hall. For, as the tone could not be sustained, it was customary in Mozart's time to hide its meagre frame by means of a great profusion of runs and trills, and other ornaments, with which even the slow movements were disfigured. Under the circumstances, these ornaments were justifiable to some extent, but to-day they seem not only in bad taste, but entirely superfluous, because our improved instruments have a much greater power of sustaining tones.
Czerny, the famous piano teacher, touched in his autobiography on the peculiarities of Mozart's style. Beethoven, who gave Czerny some lessons on the piano, made him pay particular attention to the legato, "of which," says Czerny, "he was so unrivalled a master, but which at that time—the Mozart period, when the short staccato touch was in fashion—all other pianists thought impossible. Beethoven told me afterwards," he continues, "that he had often heard Mozart, whose style from his use of the clavecin, the pianoforte being in his time in its infancy, was not at all adapted to the newer instrument. I have known several persons who had received instruction from Mozart, and their playing corroborated this statement."
In view of these facts, we can understand why Beethoven did not like Mozart's pianoforte works as well as those of Clementi, in which there was more cantabile, and which required more fulness of tone in the execution; and we can understand why even so conservative a critic as Louis Ehlert should exclaim, apropos of Chopin's "entirely new pianoforte life," "How uninteresting is the style of any previous master (excepting Beethoven) compared with his! What a litany of gone-by, dead-alive forms! What a feelingless, prosaic jingle! If anyone should, without a grimace, assure me sincerely that he can play pianoforte pieces by Clementi, Dussek, Hummel, and Ries, with real enjoyment even now, I will esteem him as an excellent man—yes, a very honest one; but I will not drink wine with him."
Were it not for what I have ventured to call the fetish of Jumboism, I am convinced that Professor Ehlert would have written Mozart's name in this last sentence in place of Clementi's. By excepting Beethoven alone from the list of "uninteresting" composers preceding Chopin, he implicitly condemns Mozart; but he does not dare to do so explicitly, although such a confession would not have affected Mozart's greatness in other departments of music, which is undeniable. Indeed, if Professor Ehlert had been perfectly sincere I am not quite sure that he would have excepted Beethoven's sonatas. Although they teem with great and beautiful ideas, these sonatas are not really adapted to the intrinsic nature of the pianoforte, and hence fail to arouse the enthusiasm of those whose taste has been formed by the works of Chopin and Schumann. It was no doubt an instinctive antipathy to Beethoven's unpianistic style (if the adjective be permissible), which prevented Chopin from admiring Beethoven as deeply as he did some other composers, whom he would have admitted to be his inferiors. And Beethoven himself does not seem to have regarded his pianoforte works with the same satisfaction as his other compositions. At least, he wrote the following curious sentence in a corner of one of his sketch books in 1805; "Heaven knows why my pianoforte music always makes the worst impression on me, especially when it is played badly." He must have felt that his ideas found a much more appropriate and adequate expression in the orchestra than on the piano. Not being a radical innovator he did not, in his treatment of the pianoforte, go beyond Clementi; and so it remained for Chopin to show the world that the pianoforte, if properly treated, will yield tones whose exquisite sensuous beauty can hardly be surpassed by any combination of orchestral instruments.
The two principal means by which he accomplished these reforms were the constant employment of the pedal, and the use of extended and scattered chords, in place of the crowded harmonies and the massive movements of the older accompaniments.
Very few pianists seem to comprehend the exact function and importance of the pedal. Many will be surprised to hear that the word "touch," which they suppose refers to the way the keys are struck by the fingers, has quite as much to do with the feet—that is, the use of the pedal—as with the fingers. No matter how thoroughly a pianist may have trained his fingers, if he does not use the pedal as it was used by Chopin and Schumann, he cannot reveal the poetry of their compositions. In one of his letters Chopin notes that Thalberg played forte and piano with the pedals, not with his hands, and some piano bangers do so still; but every pianist who deserves the name knows that loudness and softness must be regulated by the hands (and very rarely the left-side pedal). Yet even among this better class of pianists the notion seems to prevail that the main object of the right-side pedal is to enable them to prolong a chord or to prevent a confusion of consecutive harmonies. This is one of the functions of the pedal, no doubt, but not the most important one. The chief service of the pedal is in the interest of tone-color. Let me explain.
Every student of music knows that if you sing a certain tone into a piano (after pressing the pedal), or before a guitar, the strings in these instruments which correspond to the tone you sing will vibrate responsively and emit a tone. He also knows that when you sound a single note, say G, on the violin or piano, you seem to hear only a simple tone, but on listening more closely you will find that it is really a compound tone or a complete chord, the fundamental tone being accompanied by faint overtones, which differ in number and relative loudness in different instruments, and to which these instruments owe their peculiar tone-color.
Now when you press the pedal of a pianoforte on striking a note you do not only prolong this note, but its vibrations arouse all the notes which correspond to its overtones, and the result is a rich deep tone-color of exquisite sensuous beauty and enchanting variableness. Hence, whenever the melodic movement and harmonic changes are not too rapid, a pianist should press the pedal constantly, whether he plays loudly or softly; because it is only when the damper is raised from the strings that the overtones can enrich and beautify the sound by causing their corresponding strings to vibrate in sympathy with them. Those who heard Schumann play say that he used the pedal persistently, sometimes twice in the same bar to avoid harmonic confusion; and the same is true of Chopin, concerning whose playing an English amateur says, after referring to his legatissimo touch: "The wide arpeggios in the left hand, maintained in a continuous stream of tone by the strict legato and fine and constant use of the damper pedal, formed an harmonious substructure for a wonderfully poetic cantabile."
I have italicised and emphasized the words maintained in a continuous stream of tone, because it calls attention to one of the numerous resemblances between the style of Chopin and that of Wagner, who in his music dramas similarly keeps up an uninterrupted flow of richly colored harmonies to sustain the vocal part. Schumann relates that he had the good fortune to hear Chopin play some of his etudes. "And he played them very much a la Chopin," he says: "Imagine an AEolian harp provided with all the scales, commingled by an artist's hand into all manner of fantastic, ornamental combinations, yet in such a way that you can always distinguish a deeper ground tone and a sweet continuous melody above—and you have an approximate idea of his playing. No wonder that I liked best those of the etudes which he played for me, and I wish to mention specially the first one, in A flat major, a poem rather than an etude. It would be a mistake to imagine that he allowed each of the small notes to be distinctly audible; it was rather a surging of the A flat major chord, occasionally raised to a new billow by the pedal; but amid these harmonies a wondrous melody asserted itself in large tones, and only once, toward the middle of the piece, a tenor part came out prominently beside the principal melody. After hearing this etude you feel as you do when you have seen a ravishing picture in your dreams and, half awake, would fain recall it."
Now it is obvious that such dreamy AEolian-harp-like harmonies could not have been produced without Chopin's novel and constant use of the pedal. And this brings out the greatest difference between the new and the old style of playing. In the pianoforte works of Mozart and Beethoven, and even in those of Weber, which mark the transition from the classical to the romantic school, there are few passages that absolutely require a pedal, and in most cases the pieces sound almost as well without as with pedal; so that, from his point of view, and in his days of staccato playing, Hummel was quite right in insisting that a pianist could not be properly judged until he played without the pedal. But as regards the romantic school of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and their followers, it may be said with equal truth that a pianist's use of the pedal furnishes the supreme test of his talent. If he has not the delicacy of ear which is requisite to produce the "continuous stream of tone" in Chopin's compositions, without the slightest harmonic confusion, he should leave them alone and devote himself to less poetic composers.
An amusing anecdote illustrates visibly how helpless Chopin would have been without his pedal. He was asked one evening at a party in Paris to play. He was quite willing to do so but discovered to his surprise that the piano had no pedals. They had been sent away for repairs. In this dilemma a happy thought occurred to Liszt, who happened to be present. He crawled under the piano, and, while Chopin was playing, worked the mechanism to which the pedals ought to have been attached so cleverly that they were not missed at all! He stooped that his friend might conquer.
The fact that Chopin in his later works, often omitted the sign for the pedal on his MSS. must not be held to indicate that he did not wish it to be constantly used. In his earlier works he carefully indicated where it should be employed, but subsequently he appears to have reasoned rightly that a pianist who needs to be told where the pedal ought, and where it ought not, to be employed, is not sufficiently advanced in culture to play his works at all, and had therefore best leave them alone.
Chopin's remarkable genius for divining the mysteries of the pianoforte enabled him, as it were, to anticipate what is a comparatively recent invention—the middle pedal which is chiefly used to sustain single tones in the bass without affecting the rest of the instrument. The melancholy "F sharp minor Prelude," for example, cannot be played properly without the use of this middle pedal. In another prelude, we have an illustration of how the pedal must often be used in order to help in forming a chord which cannot be stretched. And this brings us to the second important innovation in the treatment of Chopin's pianoforte—the constant use of scattered and extended chords.
Karasovski relates that Chopin, a mere boy, used to amuse himself by searching on the piano for harmonies of which the constituent notes were widely scattered on the keyboard, and, as his hands were too small to grasp them, he devised a mechanism for stretching his hands, which he wore at night. Fortunately, he did not go so far as Schumann, who made similar experiments with his hands and thereby disabled one of them for life. What prompted Chopin to search for these widely extended chords was his intense appreciation of tonal beauty. To-day everybody knows how much more beautiful scattered, and widely extended harmonies are than crowded harmonies; but it was Chopin's genius that discovered this fact and applied it on a large scale. Indeed, so novel were his chords, that at first, many of them were deemed unplayable; but he showed that if his own system of fingering was adopted, they were not only playable, but eminently suited to the character of the instrument. The superior beauty of scattered intervals can be strikingly demonstrated in this way. If you strike four or five adjacent notes on the piano at once, you produce an intolerable cacophony. But these same notes can be so arranged by scattering them that they make an exquisite chord in suspension. Everything depends on the arrangement and the wideness of the intervals. Chopin's fancy was inexhaustible in the discovery of new kinds of scattered chords, combined into harmony by his novel use of the pedal; and in this way he enriched music with so many new harmonies and modulations that he must be placed, as a harmonic innovator, on a level with Bach and Wagner.
These remarks apply especially to Chopin's later compositions; but his peculiarities are already distinctly traceable in many of his earlier works; and Elsner, his teacher, was sufficiently clear-sighted and frank to write the following words: "The achievements of Mozart and Beethoven as pianists have long been forgotten; and their pianoforte compositions, although undoubtedly classical works, must give way to the diversified artistic treatment of that instrument by the modern school." Mr. Joseph Bennett quotes this sentence in his Biography of Chopin, and adds an exclamation point in brackets after it, to express his surprise. Mr. Bennett is considered one of the leading London critics; yet I must say that I have never seen so much ignorance in a single exclamation point in brackets. Note the difference between Elsner and Bennett. Elsner adds to the sentence just quoted, that the other works of Mozart and Beethoven—their symphonies, operas, quartets, etc., "will not only continue to live, but will, perhaps, remain unequalled by anything of the present day." This is genuine discriminative criticism, which renders unto Caesar what is Caesar's due: whereas, Mr. Bennett is guided by the vicious old habit of fancying that because Mozart and Beethoven are great masters, therefore they must be superior to everybody in everything. Is it not about time to put an end to this absurd Jumboism in music?
The fact is, we are living in an age of division of labor and specialism; and those who, like Robert Franz and Richard Wagner, devote themselves to a single branch of music have a better chance of reaching the summit of Parnassus than those who dissipate their energies in too many directions. Chopin was the pianoforte genius par excellence, and in his field he stands above the greatest of the German composers, whatever their names. Mendelssohn once wrote to his mother that Chopin "produces effects on the piano as novel as those of Paganini on the violin, and he performs marvels which no one would have believed to be possible." Mendelssohn benefited to a slight extent by Chopin's example, but he did not add anything new to the treatment of the pianoforte. Nor does even Liszt mark an advance on Chopin from a purely pianistic point of view. Paradoxical as it may seem, Liszt, the greatest pianist the world has known, was really a born orchestral composer. He was never satisfied with the piano, but constantly wanted to convert it into an orchestra. His innovations were all in the service of these orchestral aspirations, and hence it is that his rhapsodies, for example, are much more effective in their orchestral garb than in their original pianoforte version. The same is true of many of Rubinstein's pianoforte works—the Bal Masque, for instance, which always has such an electric effect on Mr. Theodore Thomas's audiences. Not so with Chopin. Liszt remarks, somewhere, that Chopin might have easily written for orchestra, because his compositions can be so readily arranged for it. I venture to differ from this opinion. Chopin's Funeral March has been repeatedly arranged for orchestra—first by Reber at Chopin's funeral (when Meyerbeer regretted that he had not been asked to do this labor of love); and more recently by Mr. Theodore Thomas. Mr. Thomas's version is very clever and effective, yet I very much prefer this sublime dirge on the piano. In a small room the piano has almost as great a capacity for dynamic shading as the orchestra has in a large hall; and, as I have just pointed out, one who knows how to use the pedal can secure an endless (almost orchestral) variety of tone-colors on the piano, thanks to the hundreds of overtones which can be made to accompany the tones played. Chopin spoke the language of the piano. His pieces are so idiomatic that they cannot be translated into orchestral language any more than Heine's lyrics can be translated into English. Chopin exhausted the possibilities of the pianoforte, and the piano exhausts the possibilities of Chopin's compositions.
The innovations of Chopin which I have so far alluded to, have been to some extent adopted by all modern composers, and the more they have adopted them the more their works ingratiate themselves in the favor of amateurs. But there is another epoch-making feature of Chopin's style, which is less easy, especially to Germans, because it is a Slavic characteristic; I mean the tempo rubato. This is a phrase much used among musicians, but if pressed for an exact definition, few would be able to give one. Let us see first what Chopin's contemporaries have to say of the way in which he himself treats it. Chopin visited England in 1848, and on June 21 gave a concert in London. Mr. Chorley, the well-known critic, wrote a criticism on this occasion for "The Athenaeum," in which he says: "The delicacy of M. Chopin's tone and the elasticity of his passages are delicious to the ear. He makes a free use of tempo rubato, leaning about within his bars more than any player we recollect, but still subject to a presiding sentiment of measure, such as presently habituates the ear to the liberties taken. In music not his own, we happen to know he can be as staid as a metronome; while his Mazurkas, etc., lose half that wildness if played without a certain freedom and license—impossible to imitate, but irresistible if the player at all feels the music. This we have always fancied while reading Chopin's works:—we are now sure of it after hearing him perform them."
Moscheles wrote to his wife that Chopin's "ad libitum playing, which, with the interpreters of his music degenerates into offences against correct time, is, in his own case, merely a pleasing originality of style." He compares him to "a singer who, little concerned with the accompaniment, follows entirely his feelings." Karasovski says that Chopin "played the bass in quiet, regular time, while the right hand moved about with perfect freedom, now following the left hand, now ... going its own independent way. 'The left hand,' said Chopin, 'must be like an orchestral conductor; not for a moment must it be uncertain and vacillating.'" Thus his playing, free from the fetters of tempo, acquired a unique charm; thanks to this rubato, his melody was "like a vessel rocked upon the waves of the sea."
The world suffered a great loss when a band of ignorant soldiers found the bundles of letters which Chopin had written from Paris to his parents, and used them to feed the fire which cooked their supper. But it lost a still greater treasure when Chopin tore up the manuscript of his pianoforte method, which he began to write in the last years of his life, but never finished. In it he would no doubt have given many valuable hints regarding the correct use of the rubato. In the absence of other authentic hints beyond the one just quoted, Liszt must be depended upon as the best authority on the subject; for it is well known that Liszt could imitate Chopin so nicely that his most intimate friends were once deceived in a dark room, imagining that Chopin was playing when Liszt was at the piano. "Chopin," Liszt writes, "was the first who introduced into his compositions that peculiarity which gave such a unique color to his impetuosity, and which he called tempo rubato:—an irregularly interrupted movement, subtile, broken, and languishing, at the same time flickering like a flame in the wind, undulating, like the surface of a wheat-field, like the tree-tops moved by a breeze." All his compositions must be played in this peculiarly accented, spasmodic, insinuating style, a style which he succeeded in imparting to his pupils, but which can hardly be taught without example. As with the pedal, so with the rubato, Chopin often neglected to mark its use in later years, taking it for granted that those who understood his works would know where to apply it.
Perhaps the importance of the rubato in Chopin cannot be more readily realized than by his concession that he could never play a Viennese waltz properly, and by the fact that sometimes, when he was in a jocular mood, he would play one of his mazurkas in strict, metronomic time, to the great amusement of those who had heard him play them properly.
When Liszt speaks of the tempo rubato as a unique characteristic of Chopin's style, he must not be understood too literally. As a matter of fact, the rubato is too important an element of expression not to have been partially anticipated in the works of some of Chopin's predecessors, just as Wagner's leading motives had imperfect prototypes in the works of some preceding composers. As early as 1602, the Italian, Caccini, describes what he calls the "Stile Nobile, in which the singer," he says, "emancipates himself from the fetters of the measure, by prolonging or diminishing the duration of a note by one-half, according as the sense of the word requires it." But it is probable that the Italian singers of that period, as to-day, used this kind of rubato merely to display the beauty of their voice on a loud high note, and not, like Chopin, for the sake of emphasizing a pathetic or otherwise expressive note or chord.
Of the Germans it may be said that, as a rule, they had, until recently, no special liking for the tempo rubato. Dr. Hanslick, the eminent Viennese critic, referred to it thirty years ago, as "a morbid unsteadiness of tempo." Mendelssohn, who always liked a "nice, swift tempo," repeatedly expressed his aversion to Chopin's rubato. Nevertheless, traces of it may be found in the rhythms of the classical school. Although Mozart's tempo in general was as strict and uniform as that of a waltz in the ball-room, in playing an adagio he appears to have allowed his left hand some freedom of movement for the sake of expression (see Jahn I., 134). Beethoven, according to Seyfried, "was very particular at rehearsals about the frequent passages in tempo rubato;" and there are other remarks by contemporaries of Beethoven which indicate that although he wrote in the classical style, in his playing and conducting he often introduced a romantic rubato. Still, in the majority of his compositions, there is no room for the rubato, which cannot be said to have found a home in German music till it was assimilated by the Schumann school, under the influence of Chopin. Since then, it has leavened the spirit of modern music in a manner which has never been sufficiently emphasized. I am convinced that even Richard Wagner was, unconsciously, influenced by it through Liszt; for one of the chief peculiarities of his style is a sort of dramatic rubato which emancipates his music from the tyranny of the strict dance measure. In his essay on the proper interpretation of Tannhaeuser, Wagner declares that the division of music into regular measures, or bars, is merely a mechanical means for enabling the composer to convey his ideas to the singer. As soon as the singer has grasped the idea, he says, the bar should be thrown aside as a useless incumbrance, and the singer, ignoring strict time, should be guided by his feelings alone, while the conductor should follow and preserve harmony between him and the orchestra.
It might be said that this dramatic rubato is something different from Chopin's rubato. Rubato literally means "robbed," and it is generally supposed that the peculiarity of Chopin's style consisted simply in this, that he prolonged certain notes in a bar at the expense of the others—robbing from one what he gave to his neighbor. But this is a very inadequate conception of the term. Chopin's rubato means much more than this. It includes, to a large extent, the frequent unexpected changes of time and rhythm, together with the ritardandos and accelerandos. It includes, secondly, those unique passages, first conceived by Chopin, where the right hand has to play irregular groups of small notes—say twenty-two, while the left hand plays only twelve; or nineteen, while the left plays four—passages in which Chopin indicated as clearly as Wagner did in the words just quoted that the musical bar is a mere mechanical measure which does not sufficiently indicate the phrasing of the romantic or dramatic ideas that lie beyond the walls of a dance-hall.
There is a third peculiarity of Chopin's style which may be included under the name of rubato, namely, his habit of "robbing" the note, not of its duration, but its accent. Every student of music knows that the symphony and sonata are called "idealized dance forms," because they are direct outgrowths of the dances that were cultivated originally in Italy, France, and Germany. Now, one peculiarity of these dances is the fact that the accent always falls on the first beat of each bar. This is very appropriate and convenient for dancing, but from an artistic point of view, it is decidedly monotonous. Hence, Chopin conferred a vast benefit on modern art by introducing the spirit of Slavic music, in which the accent often falls on other beats beside the first. These regular accents produce the effect of the variable tempo rubato, and it is to them that Chopin's works largely owe their exotic, poetic color. As they open up new possibilities of emotional expression, they have been eagerly appropriated by other composers and have leavened all modern music. To Chopin, therefore, chiefly belongs the honor of having emancipated music from the monotony of the Western European dance-beat by means of the tempo rubato in its varied aspects.
But, it was not merely in the accent of the dance forms, that he introduced an agreeable innovation; he was one of the giants who helped to create a new epoch in art, by breaking these old forms altogether, and substituting new ones better suited to modern tastes. And here we come across one of the most ludicrous misconceptions which have been fostered concerning Chopin by shallow critics, and which brings us back again for a moment to the question of Jumboism. I do not know whether he was a German or a French critic who first wrote that Chopin, although great in short pieces, was not great enough to master the sonata form. Once in print, this silly opinion was repeated parrot-like by scores of other critics. How silly it is may be inferred from the fact that such third-rate composerlings as Herz and Hummel were able to write sonatas of the most approved pattern—and that, in fact, any person with the least musical talent can learn in a few years to write sonatas that are absolutely correct as regards form. And yet we are asked to believe that Chopin, one of the most profound and original musical thinkers the world has ever seen, could not write a correct sonata! Risum teneatis amici! Chopin not able to master the sonata form? The fact is, the sonata form could not master him. He felt instinctively that it was too artificial to serve as a vehicle for the expression of poetic thought; and his thoroughly original genius therefore created the more plastic and malleable shorter forms which have since been adopted by composers the world over. The few sonatas which Chopin wrote do not deviate essentially from the orthodox structure, but one feels constantly that he was hampered in his movements by the artificial structure. Though they are full of genius, like everything he composed, he did not write them con amore. Concentration is one of Chopin's principal characteristics, and the sonata favors diffuseness. Too much thematic beating out is the bane of the sonata. A few bars of gold are worth more than many square yards of gold leaf; and Chopin's bars are solid gold. Moreover, there is no organic unity between the different parts of the sonata, whatever may have been said to the contrary. The essentially artificial character of the sonata is neatly illustrated by a simile used by Dr. Hanslick in speaking of Chopin. "This composer," he said, "although highly and peculiarly gifted, was never able to unite the fragrant flowers which he scattered by handfuls, into beautiful wreaths." Dr. Hanslick intends this as censure. I regard it as the greatest compliment he could have paid him. A wreath may be very pretty in its way, but it is artificial. The flowers are crushed and their fragrance does not blend. How much lovelier is a single violet or orchid in the fields, unhampered by strings and wires, and connected solely with its stalk and the surrounding green leaves. Many of Chopin's compositions are so short that they can hardly be likened unto flowers, but only to buds. Yet is not a rosebud a thousand times more beautiful than a full-blown rose?
One more consideration. The psychology of the sonata form is false. Men and women do not feel happy for ten minutes as in the opening allegro of a sonata, then melancholy for another ten minutes, as in the following adagio, then frisky, as in the scherzo, and finally, fiery and impetuous for ten minutes as in the finale. The movements of our minds are seldom so systematic as this. Sad and happy thoughts and moods chase one another incessantly and irregularly, as they do in the compositions of Chopin, which, therefore, are much truer echoes of our modern romantic feelings than the stiff and formal classical sonatas. And thus it is, that Chopin's habitual neglect of the sonata form, instead of being a defect, reveals his rare artistic subtlety and grandeur. It was natural that a Pole should vindicate for music this emotional freedom of movement, for the Slavic mind is especially prone to constant changes of mood. Nevertheless, as soon as Chopin had shown the way, other composers followed eagerly in the new path, and in the present day the sonata may be regarded as obsolete. Few contemporary composers have written more than one or two—merely in order to show that they can do so if they want to; and even Brahms, the high priest of the conservatives, has, in his later period, devoted himself more and more exclusively to shorter modern forms in his pianoforte music.
Strictly speaking, Chopin was not the first who tried to get away from the sonata. Beethoven, though he remained faithful to it, felt its fetters, as is shown by his numerous poetic licenses. Schubert wrote "Moments Musicals," Mendelssohn, "Songs without Words," Weber, Polonaises, and Field, Nocturnes. But these were merely straws which indicated in which direction Chopin's genius would sweep the field and clear the musical atmosphere. His polonaises and nocturnes are vastly superior to those of Weber and Field; and his poetic preludes, his romantic ballads, his lovely berceuse, his amorous mazurkas, are new types in art which have often been imitated but never equalled. Only in one field did Chopin have a dangerous rival among his predecessors, namely, in the Waltz. Weber's "Invitation to the Dance" is the source of the modern idealized waltz, because it was not written for the feet alone, but also for the heart and the imagination. Like Chopin's waltzes, it contains chivalrous passages, amorous episodes, and subtle changes of movement. And it seems as if the fact that there was less room for formal and emotional innovations in the waltz than in the other forms, had somewhat affected Chopin's imagination. For, although the most popular of his works, his waltzes are, with a few exceptions in which the rubato prevails, less characteristic than his other pieces. Nevertheless, they are charming, every one of them. But they are fairy dances—mortals are too clumsy to keep time to them.
Next to the waltzes in popularity come the polonaises; and they fully deserve their popularity. Liszt has given us a charming description of the polonaise as it was formerly danced in Chopin's native country. It was less a dance than a promenade in which courtly pomps and aristocratic splendor were on exhibition. It was a chivalrous but not an amorous dance, precedence being given to age and rank, before youth and beauty. And whereas, in other dances, the place of honor is always given to the fair sex, in the polonaise the men are in the foreground. In a word, the polonaise represents, both in its subject and the style of music, the masculine side of Chopin's genius.
The feminine side is chiefly embodied in the mazurkas and the nocturnes. It has been said that the highest genius must combine masculine with feminine traits, and it is a remarkable fact that the works of two of the most spontaneous composers—Chopin and Schubert—are often characterized by an exquisite feminine tenderness and grace; as if, seeing that women have not done their duty as composers, they had tried to introduce the feminine spirit in music. Yet it is unfair to place too much emphasis on this side of their genius. In their bolder moments, Chopin and Schubert are thoroughly masculine.
It seems strange at first sight that the mazurkas, these exquisite love poems, should be so much less popular than the waltzes, for they are quite as melodious and much easier—although here, as elsewhere, Chopin often introduces a few very difficult bars in an otherwise easy composition, as if to keep away bunglers. Perhaps the cause of their comparative neglect is, that they are so thoroughly Polish in spirit; unless they are played with an exotic rubato, their fragrance vanishes. There is more local color in the mazurkas than in any of his other works. The Mazurs are musically a highly gifted nation, and Chopin was impressed early in life with the quaint originality of their melodies. No doubt some of his mazurkas are merely artistic settings of these old love songs, but they are the settings of an inspired jeweller. If we can judge by the number of pieces of each class that he wrote, the mazurka was Chopin's favorite form. Even on his death-bed he wrote one. It was his last effort, and he was too weak to try it over on the piano. It is of heart-rending sadness, and exquisite pathos. Perhaps it was a patriotic rather than an aesthetic feeling which led him thus to favor the mazurka. His love for his country was exceeded only by his devotion to his art. "Oh, how sad it must be to die in a foreign country," he wrote to a friend in 1830; and when, soon afterward, he left home he took along a handful of Polish soil which he kept for nineteen years. Shortly before his death he expressed a wish that it should be strewn in his coffin—a wish which was fulfilled; so that his body rested on Polish soil even in Paris.
A countless number of exquisite melodic rhythmic and harmonic details in the mazurkas might be dwelt upon in this place, but I will only call attention to the inexhaustible variety of ideas which makes each of them so unique, notwithstanding their strong family likeness. They are like fantastic orchids, or like the countless varieties of humming birds, those "winged poems of the air," of which no two are alike while all resemble each other.
The nocturnes represent the dreamy side of Chopin's genius. They are sufficiently popular, yet few amateurs have any idea of their unfathomable depth, and few know how to use the pedal in such a way as to produce the rich uninterrupted flow of tone on which the melody should float. Most pianists play them too fast. Mozart and Schumann protested against the tendency to take their slow pieces too fast, and Chopin suffers still more from this pernicious habit. Mendelssohn in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Weber in "Oberon," have given us glimpses of dreamland, but Chopin's nocturnes take us there bodily, and plunge us into reveries more delicious than the visions of an opium eater. They should be played in the twilight and in solitude, for the slightest foreign sound breaks the spell. But just as dreams are sometimes agitated and dramatic, so some of these nocturnes are complete little dramas with stormy, tragic episodes, and the one in C sharp minor, e.g., embodies a greater variety of emotion and more genuine dramatic spirit on four pages than many popular operas on four hundred.
One of Chopin's enchanting innovations, which he introduced frequently in the nocturnes, consists in those unique and exquisite fioriture, or dainty little notes which suddenly descend on the melody like a spray of dew drops glistening in all the colors of the rainbow. No less unique and original are the exquisite modulations into foreign keys which abound in the nocturnes, as, indeed, in all his works. Schucht calls attention to the fact that in his very opus 1 Chopin permits himself a freedom of modulation which Beethoven rarely indulged in. But this is a mere trifle compared with the works of his last period. Here we find a striking originality and boldness of modulation that has no parallel in music, except in Wagner's last music-dramas. Now we have seen that Moscheles, and other contemporaries of Chopin, found his modulations harsh and disagreeable; and doubtless there are amateurs to-day who regard them in the same way. It seems, indeed, as if musical people must be divided into two classes—those who find their chief delight in melody pure and simple, and those who think that rich and varied harmony is the soul of music. Chopin fortunately wrote for both classes. Italy has produced no melodist equal to him, and Germany only one—Franz Schubert. No one has written melodies more soulful than those of the nocturne, opus 37, No. 2, the second ballad, the etudes, opus 10, No. 3; opus 25, No. 7, etc. I distinctly remember the thrill with which I heard each of these melodies for the first time; but it was a deeper emotion still which I felt when I played for the first time the sublimest of his nocturnes—the last but one he wrote—and came across that wonderful modulation from five sharps to four flats, and, later on, the delicious series of modulations in the fourth and fifth bars after the Tempo Primo. I realized then that modulation is a deeper source of emotional expression than melody.
In speaking of Chopin's melancholy character, the nocturnes are often referred to as illustrations of it. They do, indeed, breathe a spirit of sadness, but the majority represent, as I have said, the dreamy side of his genius. The real anguish of his heart is not expressed in the nocturnes but in the preludes and etudes, strange as these names may seem for such pathetic effusions of his heart. The etude, opus 10, No. 6, seems as if it were in a sort of double minor; as much sadder than ordinary minor, as ordinary minor is sadder than major. Chopin had abundant cause to be melancholy. He inherited that national melancholy of the Poles which causes them even to dance to tunes in minor keys, and which is commonly attributed to the long-continued political oppression under which they have suffered. But, apart from this national trait, Chopin had sufficient personal reasons for writing the greater part of his mazurkas and his other pieces in minor keys. Like other men of genius, he keenly felt the anguish of not being fully appreciated by his contemporaries. Moreover, although he was greatly admired by the French and Polish women in Paris, and was even conceded a lady-killer, he was, in his genuine affairs of the heart, thrice disappointed. His first love, who wore his engagement ring when he left Warsaw, proved faithless to the absent lover, and married another man. The second love deceived him in the same way, preferring a Count to a genius. And his third love, George Sand, after apparently reciprocating his attachment, for a few years, not only discarded him, but tried to justify her conduct to the world, by giving an exaggerated portraiture of his weaknesses, in her novel "Lucrezia Floriani."
Nevertheless, it was in one respect fortunate for the world that George Sand was Chopin's friend so long, for we owe to her facile pen many interesting accounts of Chopin's habits and the origin of some of his compositions. The winter which he spent with her on the Island of Majorca was one of the most important in his life, for it was here that he composed some of those masterpieces, his preludes—a word which might be paraphrased as Introductions to a new world of musical emotion. There is a strange discrepancy in the accounts which Liszt and George Sand give of the Majorca episode in Chopin's life. Liszt describes it as a period of calm enjoyment, George Sand as one of discomfort and distress. As she was an eye-witness, her testimony appears the more trustworthy, especially as it is borne out by the character of the preludes which he composed there. There are among Chopin's preludes a few which breathe the spirit of contentment and grace, or of religious grandeur, but most of them are outbreaks of the wildest anguish and heart-rending pathos. If tears could be heard, they would sound like these preludes. Two of the saddest—those in B minor and E minor—were played by the famous organist Lefebure Wely, at Chopin's funeral services. But it is useless to specify. They are all jewels of the first water.
Some years ago I wrote in "The Nation" that if all pianoforte music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin's preludes. If anything could induce me to modify that opinion to-day, it would be the thought of Chopin's etudes. I would never consent to their loss. Louis Ehlert, speaking of Chopin's F Major ballad, says he has seen even children stop in their play and listen to it enraptured. But, in the etudes I mentioned a moment ago, there are melodies which, I should think, would tempt even angels to leave their happy home and indulge, for a moment, in the luxury of idealized human sorrow. There is in these twenty-seven etudes, as in the twenty-five preludes, an inexhaustible wealth of melody, modulation, poetry and passion. One can play them every day and never tire of them. Of most of them one might say what Schumann said of one—that they are "poems rather than studies;" and much surprise has been expressed that Chopin should have chosen such a modest and apparently inappropriate name for them as "studies." Now, I have a theory on this subject: I believe it was partly an ironic intention which induced Chopin to call some of his most inspired pieces "studies." Pianists have always been too much in the habit of looking at their art from purely technical or mechanical points of view. They looked for mere five-finger exercises in Chopin's etudes, and finding at the same time an abundance of musical ideas, they were surprised. It did not occur to them that Chopin might have intended them also as studies in musical composition—studies in melody, harmony, rhythm and emotional expression. I believe he did so intend them; and finding that his contemporaries did not take his idea, he probably laughed in his sleeve, and exclaimed, "O tempora!"
This conjecture seems the more plausible, from the fact that there was a pronounced ironic and comic vein in Chopin's character. The accounts of his melancholy, in fact, like those of his ill-health, have been too much exaggerated. He was often in a cheerful mood. Sometimes he would amuse himself for a whole evening playing blind-man's buff with the children. As a mere child he had formed the habit of mimicking and caricaturing pianists and other distinguished men. Liszt often suffered from this mischievous habit, but he did not complain, and even seemed to enjoy it. Of Chopin's wit, two specimens may be cited. A rich Parisian one day invited him to dinner, with the intention of getting him to entertain the guests afterward. In this case, however, the host had reckoned without the guest, for, when asked to play, Chopin exclaimed, "But, my dear sir, I have eaten so little." The other instance occurs in one of his letters, where he says of the pianist Aloys Schmitt, that he was forty years old, and his compositions eighty—a bon mot worthy of Heine.
There was much, indeed, in common between Chopin and Heine. Nothing is more characteristic of Heine than the way in which he works up our sentimental feelings only to knock us on the head with a comic or grotesque line at the end. Similarly, Chopin, after improvising for his friends for an hour or two, would suddenly rouse them from their reveries by a glissando—sliding his fingers from one end of the key-board to the other. In almost all of Chopin's or Heine's poems there is this peculiar mixture of the sad and the comic veins—even in the scherzos, which represent the gay and cheerful moods of Chopin's muse.
Another point between these two poets is their elegance of style, and their ironic abhorrence of tawdry sentimentality and commonplace. Heine is the most elegant and graceful writer of his country, and Chopin the most elegant and graceful of all composers. Not a redundant note or a meaningless bar in all his compositions. Heine owed his formal finish to French influences, but Chopin did not need them, for the Poles are as noted as the French for elegance and grace. He avoided not only the modulatory monotony of the classical school, but, especially, the commonplace endings which marred so many classical compositions. "All's well that ends well," is a rule that was generally ignored by composers till Chopin taught them its value and effect. Chopin's pen always stopped when his thoughts stopped, and he never appends a meaningless end formula as if to warn the audience that they may now put on their hats. On the contrary, some of his later compositions, especially of the last period, end with exquisite miniature poems, connected in spirit with the preceding music and yet distinct—separate inspirations. I refer, especially, to the endings of his last two nocturnes and to the final bars of the mazurka, opus 59, No. 3.
George Sand has given us a vivid sketch of Chopin's conscientiousness as a composer. "He shut himself up in his room for entire days," she says, "weeping, walking about, breaking his pen, repeating and changing a bar a hundred times, and beginning again next day with minute and desperate perseverance. He spent six weeks over a single page, only to go back and write that which he had traced at the first essay." As regards his creativeness, George Sand says that "it descended upon his piano suddenly, completely, sublimely, or it sang itself in his head during his walks, and he made haste to hear it by rushing to the instrument." I have already mentioned the fact that when he wrote his last mazurka he was too weak to try it on the piano. In one of his letters he speaks of a polonaise being ready in his head. These facts indicate that he composed mentally, although, no doubt, during the improvisations, many themes occurred to him which he remembered and utilized. When he improvised he did not watch the key-board, but generally looked at the ceiling. Already as a youth he used to be so absorbed that he forgot his meals; and, in the street, he was often so absent-minded that he very narrowly escaped being run over by a wagon. Visions of female loveliness and patriotic reminiscences inspired many of his best works. Sometimes the pictures in his mind became so vivid as to form real hallucinations. Thus it is related that one evening when he was alone in the dark, trying over the A major polonaise which he had just completed, he saw the door open and in marched a procession of Polish knights and ladies in mediaeval costumes—the same, no doubt, that his imagination had pictured while he was composing. He was so alarmed at this vision that he fled through the opposite door and did not venture to return. Another illustration of the relations between genius and insanity.
The foregoing remarks on Chopin's compositions suffice, I think, to show how absurd is the prevalent notion that he is the composer for the drawing-room, and that his pieces reflect the spirit of fashionable Parisian society. They do, perhaps, in their elegant form, but certainly not in their spirit. The frivolous aristocratic circles that heard Chopin could never have comprehended the depth of his emotional life. The pianists for them, the real drawing-room composers were Kalkbrenner, and Field, and Thalberg, with their operatic fantasias. Chopin is the composer for the few, and he is the composer par excellence for musicians. From him they can get more ideas, and learn more as regards form, than from anyone else, except Bach and Wagner. In comparing his last works with his first, and noting their progress, the mind tries in vain to conceive where he would have led the world had he lived eighty instead of forty years. One thing is certain: he would have probably written more for other instruments. His pianoforte concertos belong to his early period, and betray a lack of experience in the treatment of the orchestra. But he wrote two pieces of chamber music which have never been excelled—a 'cello sonata and a trio. The 'cello sonata was the last of his larger works, and in my opinion it is superior to any of the 'cello sonatas of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and even Beethoven and Rubinstein. The trio, though an earlier work, is, like the 'cello sonata, admirably adapted to the instruments for which it is written. I once belonged to an amateur trio club. Our tastes naturally differed on many points, but in one thing we all agreed: we always closed our entertainment with this Chopin trio. It was the climax of the evening's enjoyment. Yet, only a few years ago, the leader of one of the principal chamber music organizations in New York admitted to me that he had never heard of this trio!—an incident which vividly illustrates the truth of my assertion that Chopin's genius is still far from being esteemed at its full value.
HOW COMPOSERS WORK
Forty years ago Robert Schumann complained that the musical critics had so much to say about singers and players, while the composer was almost entirely ignored. To-day this reproach could hardly be made, for although vocalists still receive perhaps a disproportionate share of attention, compositions, new and old, are also discussed at great length in the press. Nevertheless, I believe that the vast majority of those who attend an operatic performance in New York, and are delighted with "Siegfried" or "Faust," have but vague and shadowy notions as to the way in which such an opera is composed. My object here is to illustrate the way composers work, and to prove that the creating of an opera is perhaps the most difficult and marvellous achievement of the human intellect.
Professor Langhans notes, in his history of music, that in the Middle Ages, as late as Luther's time, it took two men to compose the simplest piece of music: one who conceived the melody, and the other who added the harmonic accompaniment. The theoretical writer, Glareanus, deliberately expressed his opinion, in 1547, that it might be possible to unite these two functions in one person, but that one would rarely find the inventor of a melody able to work it out artistically. We have made much progress in music within these three hundred years, and to-day every composer is not only expected to invent his own harmonies and accompaniments to his melodies, but, since Wagner set the example, composers are beginning to consider it incumbent on them to write their own librettos; and, what is more remarkable, if we examine biographies of musicians carefully we find that, even before Wagner, not a few composers assisted in the preparation of their operatic texts; and this remark applies even to some of the Italian composers, who were proverbially careless regarding their librettos. Rossini was, perhaps, too indolent to devote much attention to his texts, and he was apt to postpone even the musical work to the last moment, so that he sometimes had to be locked up in his room by his friends, to enable him to finish his score by the date named in his contract. Yet it is worthy of note that during the composition of what Rossini's admirers commonly regard as his best and most characteristic work—the "Barber of Seville"—he lived in the same house with his librettist. "The admirable unity of the 'Barber,' in which a person without previous information on the subject could scarcely say whether the words were written for the music or the music for the words, may doubtless," as Mr. Sutherland Edwards suggests, "in a great measure be accounted for by the fact that poet and musician were always together during the composition of the opera; ready mutually to suggest and to profit by suggestions."
"Donizetti," the same writer informs us, while at the Bologna Lyceum, "occupied himself not only with music, but also with drawing, architecture, and even poetry; and that he could turn out fair enough verses for musical purposes was shown when, many years afterward, he wrote—so rapidly that the word 'improvise' might here be used—for the benefit of a manager in distress, both words and music of a little one-act opera, called 'Il Campanello' founded on the 'Sonnette de Nuit' of Scribe. Donizetti also arranged the librettos of 'Betty' and 'The Daughter of the Regiment,' and of the last act of 'Lucia' he not only wrote the words but designed the scenes."
Concerning Verdi, Arthur Pougin says: "It is not generally known that, virtually, Verdi is himself the author of all his poems. That is to say, not only does he always choose the subject of his operas, but, in addition to that, he draws out the sketch of the libretti, indicates all the situations, constructs them almost entirely as far as regards the general plan, brings his personages and his characters on the stage in such a way that his collaborateur has simply to follow his indications to bring the whole together, and to write the verses."
One of Verdi's poetic assistants was Francesco Piave, who supplied the verses for "La Traviata," "Ernani" and several other of his operas. He was, Pougin informs us, "a tolerably bad poet, quite wanting in invention," but he had the most important quality (from Verdi's point of view) "of effacing himself completely, of putting aside every kind of personal vanity and of following entirely the indications and the desires of the composer, cutting out this, paring down that, shortening or expanding at the will of the latter—giving himself up, in short, to all his exigencies, whatever they might be."
A question having arisen some years ago, as to the origin of the libretto of "Aida," the author of it, M. du Locle, wrote to a Roman paper that the first idea of the poem belongs to the celebrated Egyptologist, Mariette Bey. He adds: "I wrote the libretto, scene by scene, phrase by phrase, in French prose, at Busseto, under the eye of the maestro, who took a large share in the work. The idea of the finale of the last act, with its two stages, one above the other, belongs especially to him."
The libretto for Verdi's last work, "Otello," was prepared by Boito, who had previously assisted him in rearranging his "Simon Boccanegra," and who also wrote the poem of "La Gioconda" for Ponchielli. Boito is a thorough believer in Wagner's doctrine that every composer should write his own opera books, and he followed this rule in his interesting opera "Mefistofele."
Mozart was altogether too careless in accepting librettos unworthy of his genius. Yet occasionally he took the liberty to improve the stuff that was submitted to him. As the learned librarian, Herr Pohl, remarks, "In the 'Entfuehrung' it is interesting to observe the alterations in Bretzner's libretto which Mozart's practical acquaintance with the stage has dictated, to the author's great disgust. Indeed, Osmin, one of the most original characters, is entirely his own creation, at Fischer's suggestion."
Weber resembled Wagner, among other things, in the habit of carrying plans for operas in his head for many years. Thus we read that while on the look out for a subject for an opera he and Dusch hit upon "Der Freischuetz," a story by Apel, then just published. At the time, however, it did not get beyond the beginning; and not till seven years later did Weber begin the work which made his reputation, a work which in Dresden, where it was first produced, has had already more than a thousand performances, and which even in London was at one time played simultaneously at three theatres. When he finally did begin his work on the "Freischuetz" the libretto he used was by another author, Herr Kind, a man of considerable dramatic ability, but who—perhaps for that very reason—was subsequently so mortified by the fact that Weber's superior genius caused his music to receive the lion's share of the public's attention, that he refused to write another libretto for him. This was unfortunate, for, as ill luck would have it, Weber fell into the hands of a Leipsic blue stocking, Wilhelmine von Chezy, whose literary gifts were not of the most brilliant order. She submitted several subjects to him, from which he selected "Euryanthe;" but her sketch proved so unsatisfactory that he altered it entirely and compelled her to work it over nine times before he was sufficiently satisfied with it to set it to music. The libretto for his last opera, "Oberon," was prepared for him in London, but the subject, as usual, was his own choice and was based on Wieland's famous poem of that name. Weber's rare artistic conscientiousness is indicated by the fact that at this time, although he felt that his end was approaching, he set to work to learn the English language in order to avoid mistakes in adapting his melodies to the accent of the words and the spirit of the text.
Having now caught a glimpse of the manner in which the great composers find subjects for their operas, and elaborate them, with or without the assistance of poets, we may go on to consider the sources of the musical inspiration which provides appropriate melodies and harmonies for these texts. Experience shows conclusively that the most powerful stimulant of the composer's brain is the possession of a really poetic and dramatic text. To take only one instance—it surely cannot be a mere coincidence that the best works of four great composers—Spohr, Berlioz, Gounod, and Schumann, are based on the story of "Faust." And Schumann, in one of his private letters, indicates very clearly why his "Faust" is such an inspired composition. Speaking of a performance of this work he says: "It appeared to make a good impression—better than my 'Paradise and Peri'—no doubt in consequence of the superior grandeur of the poem which aroused my powers also to a greater effort."
More significant still are the words which Weber wrote to Fran von Chezy when she was writing the libretto for "Euryanthe;" which he intended to make better than all his previous works. "When you begin to elaborate the text," he wrote; "I entreat you by all that is sacred to task me with the most difficult kinds of metre, unexpected rhythms, etc., which will force my thoughts into new paths and draw them out of their hiding-places."
In one of his theoretical essays, Wagner emphasizes the value of a good poem in kindling the spark of inspiration in a composer's mind by exclaiming: "Oh, how I adore and honor Mozart because he found it impossible to compose for his 'Titus' as good music as for his 'Don Juan,' or for his 'Cosi fan Tutte' as good music as for 'Figaro.'" Mozart, he adds, always wrote music, but good music he could only write when he was inspired, and when this inspiration was supplied by a subject worthy of being wedded to his muse.
No doubt Wagner was right in maintaining that Mozart's operas contain his best music. Where among all his purely instrumental works is anything to be found as inspired as the music in the scenes where the ghostly statue nods at Don Juan, and subsequently where it enters his room and clutches his hand in its marble grasp? I venture to add that even Beethoven, although he is not generally regarded as an operatic composer par excellence, and although his fame chiefly rests on his symphonies and other instrumental works, nevertheless composed his most inspired music in connection with his one opera "Fidelio." I refer to the third "Leonora" overture, and to the music in the prison scene, where the digging of the grave is depicted in the orchestra with a realism worthy of Wagner, and where the music when Leonora levels her pistol at the villain reaches a climax as thrilling as is to be found in any dramatic work, musical or literary. Obviously, it was the intensely dramatic situation which here inspired Beethoven to the grandest effort of his genius.
It has often been asserted that the best numbers in "Fidelio" were directly inspired in Beethoven by the emotional exaltation resulting from one of his unhappy love affairs. Mr. Thayer doubts this story, because he could not find anything in Beethoven's sketch-books corroborating it; but even if it should be a myth, there are many well authenticated facts which show that Beethoven, like other composers, owed many of his best ideas to the magic influence of love in stimulating his mental powers. He dedicated thirty-nine compositions to thirty-six different women, and it is well known that he was constantly falling in love, had made up his mind several times to marry, and was twice refused. Female beauty always made a deep impression on him, and Marx relates that "even in his later years he was fond of looking at pretty faces, and used to stand still in the street and gaze after them with his eyeglasses till they were out of sight; if anyone noticed this he smiled and looked confused, but not annoyed. His little Werther romance he had lived at an early age in Bonn. In Vienna, he is said to have had more than one love affair and to have made an occasional conquest which would have been difficult if not impossible to many an Adonis."
Weber's "Freischuetz" doubtless owes much of its beauty to the fact that it was written but a few months before the composer's marriage. In one of his letters to his betrothed he writes, "Yesterday I composed all the forenoon and thought of you very often, for I was at work on a scene of Agatha, in which I still cannot attain all the fire, longing, and passion that vaguely float before me." And his son testifies that Weber's love influenced all his work at the time. "It was the reason," he says, "that Weber took to heart, above everything else, the part of Aennchen, in which he saw an embodiment of his bride's special talent and characteristics, and it was under the fostering stimulus of this warm feeling that he allowed those parts of the opera in which Aennchen appears to ripen first. The first note which he wrote down for the 'Freischuetz' belongs in the duo between Aennchen and Agatha." He adds that his father, while composing, actually saw his bride in his mind's eye, and heard her sing his melodies, and accordingly as this imaginary vocalist nodded approval or shook her head, he was led to retain or reject certain musical ideas.