Of all instruments, the one the study of which can be undertaken with advantage the earliest, is most certainly the PIANO.
From the age of six, sometimes indeed, of five years, a well-balanced child, with good health and ready intelligence and being already able to read well (this is the simplest and the best criterion) is in perfect condition to embark upon this study, if it is presented to him as it should be at this age, as a pleasure, I will even say as an amusement, a kind of recreation, and not, as too frequently happens, as a task.
Contrary to a generally accepted idea, it is very important that the child should receive his first notions from a good master, considering that these first notions will form the solid basis of all his future knowledge, and hence that it is desirable that they should have an artistic and attractive character, the impressions of which may be preserved for ever.
Let us then say plainly that it is false economy on the part of parents to hunt for petty teachers of the lowest order and without experience, on the pretext that it is only a question of teaching a beginner. To teach beginners is perhaps more difficult than any-thing else; and, moreover, it is in a great measure upon the initial direction given in the first hours of their studies that will depend the result into which will finally blossom, when they have reached maturity, all the pains they take themselves and that are taken for them. ” We think that it requires a very varied knowledge and a very complete musical education to be a good elementary teacher, for higher teaching is fruitful in results only when the basis of the first studies has been solidly established.” It is not necessary, however, that the teacher should be an exceptional virtuoso, that would be another exaggeration, but he should be a sufficiently able executant to let the pupil hear the desired effect and to show him how he can produce it. ” Every art is best taught by example.” j. This is so much the more to be desired since it is bad for the pupil to have his guidance changed too early, and it would be better to keep the same throughout his studies of the piano, or at least for a long time, until the period of the studies of high virtuosity, when it may even be good for him to try different kinds of teaching and to take note for himself of the methods of various schools, as we have already remarked. It is important also that the master should have had a good teacher himself, so that there is no risk of his propagating false principles ; but above everything else, he must be an artist, with an appreciation of the Beautiful, having a horror of bad composers, and incapable of making a bad selection in the works he puts into the hands of his pupils ; an erudite musician, knowing his classics and capable of inculcating in the child, whenever the occasion offers, healthful notions of aesthetics ; he must possess, particularly at the beginning, a patience and a gentleness proof against everything, so as to be able to repeat the same thing a hundred times without becoming impatient ; he must also have authority without pedantry, moral influence, a pleasing face, an amiable character, calling forth affection but repelling familiarity. These last qualities are found more frequently, and are more natural, in women and young girls. We see that if the choice of a teacher is important, it is not easy, particularly when we do not live in a large centre of population, and that it merits serious attention.
When once the professor has been judiciously chosen and enters upon his duties, it is important to leave him entire master of the situation, and not to impose any fetters upon him ; to ‘help him as far as possible, if it is his pleasure, and in the way that pleases him, but not to attempt to modify his ideas, his programme, or his way of teaching. It is like taking on a pilot, to whom the captain, while preserving his authority, relinquishes the care of taking the ship into port. Two sets of orders are never worth anything.
Another matter upon which it is bad judgment to economize is the choice of an instrument. A good little upright piano, by a conscientious maker, new or second-hand, but in very good condition, is the best. A large concert grand, or an old instrument that works badly, would be equally prejudicial to the success of the studies. In reality, one of the first things that one ought to seek here, even with the novice, is a good quality of tone, a beautiful sonority it is then necessary to put into his hands a sufficiently sensitive tool to betray the defects and awkwardnesses of his touch. On the other hand, a too sonorous instrument would deafen and confuse him, and would be too difficult for him to manage. What he wants is a good family horse, fairly spirited, and not an old hack nor a blooded steed. Moreover, it is necessary that his piano should always be kept in perfect tune, so as not to make his ear false if it is naturally true, and to correct it if it is slightly defective.
People think that at first any kind of a piano and a mediocre teacher are sufficient. These are two gross errors.
After the age that we have assigned to him, it is clear that the study of the piano may be undertaken at the same time as that of solfeggio. If one wishes to proceed thus, it is best absolutely to confound them for some time, to such an extent that the child cannot distinguish in his lesson which is the piano and which is solfeggio, and sees only one thing,music.
Here is about the type of the first lesson of this nature.
You write for him upon a sheet of paper which you put on the desk: and you say to him : this note is called do; write me a do. He should copy the note, putting its name above it.
Then, you show him on the piano the corresponding key, upon which you write with the pencil the same sign, saying: ” This is the same do; play do.” He should play the note.
Then you say to him: ” Listen well to this do; now sing it after me.” You sing it. And then he should sing it.
In this way, the idea of the note read or written, that of the key and the tone that it produces, that of the note that he hears and the note that he sings become incrusted at the same time in his mind, where they melt into a whole which is for him the note do under three forms,the trinity of the do.
This may be the extent of the first lesson.
In the following ones, in starting again with do, you can teach him several other notes, always by making him read them, write them, play them, hear them and sing them, by making groups of them, which will be fragments of the scale or little airs. You must point out to him that the notes above the do are written in the clef of (sol) G and those below in the clef of (fa) F, the last of which he cannot sing as easily as the others (first notion of the compass of the voice) and finally, haying started from this basis, you can make him copy his little exercises and sing them in solfeggio, before playing them upon the piano, in such a way as to develop the little musician and the little pianist at the same time, and so that there will never be separated in his little infantile intelligence the three ideas of the written note, the played note, and the note that is sung or heard, which should form an irreducible whole, which is the truth for every musician.
It must be well understood that this can only last for a time, and that the two studies will have to be pursued separately although side by side.
At the beginning, especially if the child is very young, the lessons should be very short but very close together ; the ideal plan would be a quarter of an hour every day, without any work on the part of the child alone, and without even allowing him to amuse himself upon the piano in the interval, so as not to acquire bad habits, which would retard his progress. At the -end of a few months, you can separate the lessons to every two days, and increase their length to half an hour, if this child is sufficiently attentive and careful to work alone in the intervening days. It is scarcely until after two years of study that the pupil can profit by a lesson of an hour, repeated two or three times a week, working an hour or two every day. In the course of the studies, one should keep on increasing the intervals between the lessons. Towards the age of fifteen or sixteen years, one lesson a week, or even one a fortnight, should suffice, and later, it would be best only to take one a month. To make them more frequent has the bad result of depriving the pupil of some of his spontaneity and individuality.
The daily work should keep constantly increasing until it reaches about four hours a day (very exceptionally five or six, in several sittings, and never more than two hours in succession), always attaching great importance, and this from the first months, I should almost say the first days of study, to obtaining a beautiful sonority, a good quality of tone,something inestimable and which is almost entirely dependent upon the first habits acquired ; ” the tone obtained from the same piano varies, according to the suppleness and the delicacy of touch of the artist, according to his individual nature and the degree of his manual dexterity.” When this principle has been neglected at the beginning, a work that is often long and difficult is exacted later.
It is often said : pianists have an advantage over all others in finding their tones already made. This is not absolutely true, since every pianist has a different tone which causes him to be recognized.
” One of the first conditions for obtaining breadth of execution, a beautiful sonority and a great variety in the production of tone, is to divest oneself of all stiffness. It is then indispensable to have in the forearm, the wrists and the fingers, as much suppleness and varied inflections as a clever singer possesses in his voice.”
Generally speaking, people work too muchthis remark will make me friends with all pupils,but in general also they work badly. Here, as in so many things, quality is preferable to quantity.
To work well and profitably, the principal thing is to bring a sustained attention to that which we are doing, and not to allow ourselves to be distracted by any external preoccupation ; to work slowly : Chi va piano, va sano, et chi va sano va lontano,the thing which is the most useful of all, and very often also the most difficult to obtain.
Again I quote from Thalberg, who was one of the most enchanting of virtuosi: ” We will remark that in general people play too fast and that they think they have proved a great deal by displaying great agility with the fingers. To play too fast is a capital offence. In a moderate movement, the conduct of a simple fugue of three or four voices and its interpretation, in correctness and style, exact and prove more talent than the execution of the most brilliant, rapid and complicated piano piece. It is much more difficult than one would think not to hurry and not to play fast.” And a little further on he adds : ” One recommendation that we should not neglect, is to put great sobriety into the movements of the body and great tranquillity into the arms and hands, never to attack the piano from too great a height, to listen constantly while playing, to interrogate and to be severe upon ourselves as to our playing, and to learn to judge ourselves. In general, people work too much with their fingers and too little with their intelligence.”
Another very useful thing is not to forget what we have learned while we are learning something else, which becomes the labour of the Danaïdes. I fully believe that Jacotot, a celebrated educator of the last century, was ‘ the first to formulate that admirable axiom, applicable to all branches pf instruction, and consequently to music, but in a way quite special to the piano because of the prodigious quantity of beautiful works with which composers have endowed the literature of this instrument and with which pupils are consequently wont to furnish their minds : ” One would always be more learned with what one has forgotten than with what one has retained.” How true that is of everything ; and who is there among us, even the most learned, who would not be benefited by recovering the remembrance of a host of things that he has once known and forgotten, abandoning in exchange the paltry baggage of what has remained in his memory ! ” Science is nothing but remembrance,” Montaigne has said ; to know anything to-day counts for nought, if tomorrow we no longer know what we knew yesterday. To learn without being able to recollect is equivalent to writing upon shifting sands.
It is then necessary to cultivate the memory, to accustom yourself to learn everything by heart (I say everything without exception, exercises as well as the works of the masters), and to forget as little as possible, nothing, if you can help it. And this is not very difficult, if you proceed with method and perseverance ; here are the means, I hand over the secret : from the moment that you are able to play correctly and properly any piece whatsoever, be it étude or morceau, you should learn it by heart, so thoroughly as to be able to repeat it exactly without having the text before your eyes (for some this will be very easy, for others it will require great effort at first, but it will all come in time, it is nothing but an acquired habit, the experience has been proved with thousands of pupils at the Paris Conservatoire alone, and to my knowledge) ; having done this, you must force yourself to play this piece over again, on the following days, alternately by heart and with the music, once, which is a matter of a few minutes. During this time, learn something else, which must then be submitted to the same rule, but now piece No. 1 will keep itself in the memory by being played only every two days, once with the music and once by memory. When a third piece has been learned and like-wise got encased in the memory, piece No. 2, in its turn, will not need to be repeated more than twice every two days, and No. 1 every four days, and so on. You will very easily manage (when I say you, I mean by that everybody, all those who are willing to take the trouble) to retain in the memory and in the fingers pieces that you play only once a month and even less frequently, provided you have proceeded progressively, by gradually distancing the repetition to six, eight, ten and fifteen days, relatively to the order in which the aforesaid pieces have been learned, and then every two months, three months, six months, etc., submitting them however to a new supplementary study if you perceive that the memory is in danger of failing. When a musical work has remained in the memory for about a year, it is very seldom that it ever escapes. To obtain this result, which is so desirable and so delightful, the whole thing is to act systematically ; it is true that after some time, this requires you to keep in mind a veritable catalogue, but this does not interfere much with other occupations. I have very often seen modest amateurs without the slightest effort register and retain in their memories and fingers repertories of from 150 to 200 pieces always ready, among which, if they had a few of Chopin’s Nocturnes or Mendelssohn’s Romances, pieces of a few pages only, there also figured entire Sonatas and Concertos, which were regarded in their catalogue as simple units. Better than that, I have seen people play without the slightest hesitation (these were artists) with the orchestra and from memory, Concertos which they had learned ten or twenty years previously, had never seen since and believed they had forgotten, but which had been submitted, at the proper time, to the rule that I have just described. This appears prodigious, but it is, nevertheless, very simple ; it is sufficient to proceed methodically and systematically, and to absorb thoroughly this truth : it is far more useful to retain what we have learned, than to be constantly learning new things. One hour a day devoted to this perpetual review, is broadly sufficient and not in the least tedious, since we are giving ourselves a veritable little concert.
Apart from this question of repertory, so important to the pianist, whether he be artist or amateur, there is another that absolutely obliges him to cultivate and develop his memory. It even presents a rather curious fact. About fifty years ago, all good piano teachers were opposed to their pupils playing four notes in succession by heart, for fear of their altering anything of the composer’s text, and required them always to have the music before their eyes; this was an absolute principle. They were right. The teachers of today, while quite as careful about the exact reproduction of the text, no longer think the same, but want to have everything played by heart. They are also right.
Because during the 200 odd years that the piano has existed, the instrument and its literature, and the way of writing for it, have been changed from beginning to end. Until the time of Mozart and Beethoven’s early years, its keyboard had a very restricted compass, of about five octaves and a half, which naturally the composer never dreamed of exceeding. Therefore their works were always written under the hand, and the glance can be easily shared between the keys and the music-book. There was not the slightest reason then in playing the piano to act otherwise than in playing any other instrument, and it was much wiser to keep the music before the eyes so as not to run the risk of going astray. That was very logical.
But since that time, and even before Beethoven’s last years, the piano has been considerably enlarged, since its keyboard now embraces seven octaves and sometimes more. The composers have quite naturally profited by this expansion, by these new resources, and under the influence of the Chopins, Liszts and all the moderns, the manner of writing has quite changed. It goes by leaps and bounds, putting the whole instrument into vibration at once, by means of the pedal; the body itself often has to be in movement, and it would be very difficult or impossible to keep the eyes fixed on the music while they are engrossed in watching the hands and looking at the keys. The only way to play modern music then, is by heart ; and when this habit is once acquired we also prefer to play in the same way the classic works, which, being more simply written and containing fewer notes, find their way more easily into the mind.
This custom has so thoroughly passed into practice, that a pianist who plays with his notes now looks as unnatural and ill at ease as an actor who should read his part on the stage; without speaking of that awkward complication arising from the need of al-ways having somebody beside you to turn the pages.
” You must not only be able to play your pieces, but you should be able to solfa them without the piano ; and your imagination should be cultivated to the point of retaining the harmony that is given to a melody quite as well as the melody itself.”
When we attentively examine the matter, we perceive that so far as music is concerned there really exist three kinds of memory, or, it would be better to say, three distinct manifestations of the memory : the memory of the ear, of the eyes, and of the fingers, which can exist separately, and thus give satisfactory results, but whose union alone constitutes the perfect and truly desirable memory. This requires some explanation. The memory of the ear alone is sufficient to retain a melodic contour, or a series of chords, or even the two united ; but it only registers the tones in the memory according to their relation to each other, and not according to their absolute and real pitch (with exceptions of extreme rarity) ; it is prone to transpose them involuntarily, indeed most of the time unconsciously, and it is in this that its imperfection consists ; it also lacks precision ; it is very nearly, but not quite, a memory, one that allows us approximately to remember an air heard while travelling, or a gifted amateur to play a whole opera, whose first representation he has attended, on the piano when he goes home, to the amazement of his friends,and with good reason (I have never been a witness of this phenomenon, but I have been so often told about it!). It is a superficial and incomplete memory ; although appreciable.
Infinitely superior is the memory of the eyes, however strange this may appear at first glance. He who possesses it, retains as graven on his mind the note itself, the printed note, even remembers the place it occupies on the page, and would be capable of copying from memory and reproducing upon the paper the work that he has studied sufficiently to have fathomed it to its depths, even were it an orchestral score, exactly as one would write a piece of verse or any bit of literature that is retained in the mind, word for word ; at bottom, it is the same intellectual operation. This is the analytical memory, the memory of the true musician who knows how to listen with his eyes as well as with his ears, who makes no difference between the note written, the note sung or played and the note heard,ever the same principle. It is this memory above all that we should try to acquire and develop by every possible means, as being the most precious of all. We can exercise it by applying our-selves assiduously to writing out by heart little fragments and short passages, which we have first specially studied with this end in view, and then others of greater length. There are cases, however, especially for the pianist, in complicated passages formed of many notes that succeed each other with extreme rapidity, where this intelligent and rational memory, which demands an effort of reflection, might find itself at fault. Then becomes valuable the mechanical and unthinking memory of the fingers, which correctly and faithfully accomplish their task like veritable automata, when they have been sufficiently trained, without any cerebral effort, and even while we may be thinking of something entirely different.
I do not know how physiology or the psychologist explains this phenomenon of dual thought-action, but it is indubitably real. There are some persons who can play for you a piece heavily charged with notes while listening to others talking around them and even, taking part in the conversation. To assert that they put deep feeling into their playing at the same time, should not dare.
And this is why I say that the complete, perfect and really desirable memory should be clothed in turn, and sometimes simultaneously, with these three forms: memory of the eyes, ear and fingers. If we possess one of these, we must train for the others ; they will naturally aid each other.
More than any other instrumentalists, pianists should give their whole attention to the study of reading at sight, because of the great number of notes that they have to read, whether simultaneously or very rapidly. From the third year, at the latest, it is necessary to devote a few moments every day to reading slowly things that are easy enough to be read without making any mistakes (I have already said this, but it cannot be repeated too often), with-out hesitating or stumbling, and even to putting in all the shading indicated ; it is only on this condition that this study is profitable. Before reading any piece whatsoever, short or developed, you should go over it slowly, examining very particularly such passages as seem difficult ; but once having started, you must never stop under any pretext whatsoever ; it would be better to invent several notes, indeed even several bars, than to stop and begin again. You must possess ” a complete absence of remorse for any mistake made,” according to the pretty expression of Eugène Sauzay, a celebrated violinist who was a perfect master of accompaniment as well as a man of wit and erudition. It is imperative to know how to divine from the figure what we have no time to read, and always to read ahead, at least one bar in slow movements, and several in pieces of a lively gait. To know how to read well, a thing precious above all else, is an accomplishment of combined intelligence, ability, and presence 6f mind. J. J. Rousseau said long ago in his dictionary : ” All musicians pride themselves upon playing at sight, but there are very few who in this execution catch the spirit of the work, or who, even if they make no mistakes in the notes, do not at least give a wrong meaning in the execution.”
With modern music, reading has become in itself a veritable art, and really a very difficult one.
Four-hand reading is very good practice, still better than with two pianos, whether with the teacher or with a partner of about the same skill.
The pianist should also be equally accustomed to the difficulties of transposition, more complicated for him than for any other instrumentalists, because he has infinitely more notes to read than they have. He should therefore train himself very early in trans-posing even exercises. Apart from the utility of knowing how to transpose, this study forms an excellent gymnastic exercise and helps to form a musician.
When we have acquired complete mastery of an instrument, and can play without having to pay attention to the minute details of execution, it is worth while to take ensemble lessons with a violinist or ‘cellist (inaccurately called lessons of accompaniment, because the piano does not accompany more than it is accompanied, it is absolutely a concerted instrument) ; or we might even choose as a teacher the player of some entirely different instrument, but we should quickly come to the end of the catalogue of good works written for the piano and clarinet, flute, oboe, horn or bassoon, while the literature for the stringed instruments is nearly inexhaustible. After getting accustomed to playing with a single instrument, you can take up the study of Trios, Quartets, Quintets, etc., which is exceedingly interesting.
This interest lies very largely in the enormous number of masterpieces that the classic authors and a few contemporaries have written for Chamber-music, the most elevated form of pure music; partly also in the pleasure caused by the mingling of the timbres. The pianist here is obliged to play otherwise than as a soloist, to modify and frequently to diminish his tone, in order to assimilate and to ally himself with the other instruments, which he should never try to dominate except in particular passages where his part preponderates. Finally, it is an entirely special study.
It is also a very good exercise to accompany singers :here the verb to accompany is in its place, meaning a complete abnegation, with the one desire of supporting the singer, aiding him and sometimes guiding him, without ever covering his voice. This talent of being a good accompanist is very rare, and one that always denotes an excellent musician, for it requires all the qualities of a virtuoso, and in addition a tact and a presence of mind that are very difficult to acquire.
In every kind of ensemble music, there can be no question of playing by heart. No matter how sure you may be of your memory, you cannot be responsible for the errors into which you may be led through the inadvertence of a partner.
Whether it is a question of the study of the piano, sight-reading or ensemble music, the foundation should always consist of classical music, or that of contemporary composers who have written in the classical style ; for the primary or secondary instruction, it is also necessary to adhere to these ; then a part of the time should be given to modern music, but with extreme circumspection, and avoiding all vulgar and unhealthy compositions that unfortunately are rap-idly multiplying. Schumann expresses himself clearly upon this subject : ” You should never play bad compositions, nor listen to them, if you are not compelled to.” I believe that this is forcible enough. Else-where, he goes still further and seems to invest the pupil with the somewhat excessive functions of a severe censor : ” Never spread abroad bad compositions, on the contrary help to suppress them with energy.” The pupil should not yet trust entirely to his own discernment ; to a great extent it is in this choice that the tact of the professor is shown. The works of Schumann, Chopin and their followers of the Roman-tic School, demanding more maturity, should not figure in the programme of any one before the age of fifteen or sixteen except as hors-d’oeuvres and as pieces for occasional ambitious flights ; up to this period, the pure classic Germans must be studied exclusively, notably Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Weber and Mendelssohn (for études, Cramer and Clementi, in his marvellous collection of Gradus ad Parnassum) ; for a stronger reason, Liszt and the school of transcendent virtuosity will be re-served for the finishing touch of the studies and should not be touched before the age of eighteen or twenty.
Here, as everywhere else, there may be exceptions, extraordinarily precocious natures ; it is for the professor to judge of these; but also not to allow himself to be deceived by appearances, nor carried, away by the desire to give pleasure to his pupils or to their parents ; he should represent wisdom and prudence.
Upon this subject, it will not be out of place to put an end to that misunderstanding, that false notion of words and things, that for many young pupils makes classic the synonym for tedious, while modern suggests the idea of what is amusing. It is impossible to imagine a more complete error. Among the ancients as among our contemporaries, there are composers who are gay and others who are more pro-found and more serious ; sometimes even, often would be better, the same composer alternately assumes the two aspects. If Bach is austere in his fugues, that does not prevent him from writing gavottes and other pieces in an alert and joyous style ; there is no music that is more delightful and witty, more tender and playful than that of Mozart and Haydn, more warm, passionate and dramatic than that of Beethoven. We must also take into consideration that what we call in musical matters the classics, are not strictly speaking ancients, they are the moderns of yesterday consecrated by admiration, who directly gave birth to the style of today. If we say that every well ordered study should begin with the pure classics, it is to confine ourselves in this chapter to considerations of dry pedagogy, and not embarrass ourselves with questions of aesthetics that will find their place elsewhere, because the classic school initiates us progressively into the present manner of writing, and leads us logically towards it, while the modern school, which ‘is its outgrowth, could not serve to lead us to the old Masters. This at least is the principal reason to be considered by those pupils who desire to follow a normal progress ; professors of some little experience will be able to find several others which there is no need here to indicate to them.
As soon as the young pupil begins to play properly several little pieces and knows them by heart, it is indispensable to accustom him to play them before people, without any airs and without waiting to be begged, which is the worst possible taste. This should first happen before one’s own family and a few intimate friends who are kindly disposed (it is not a treat that is offered to them, it is a service that is demanded of them), then gradually before more numerous audiences. At this age, a child does not know what fear is, of that stupid and paralyzing thing not a trace is known, and this habit of playing before people is formed quite naturally and is never lost. Later, on the contrary, timidity, which is nothing but a form of self-love, comes into play, and the greatest amount of form and ceremony is required to induce the young virtuoso to play before those friends who are the most kindly disposed towards him. This is absurd, but it is so, above all with young girls. Now, it is absolutely necessary to avoid this pretentious shyness, and the most certain way is to take it in hand at an early period. Music is before everything else an art that belongs to society, and the executant, whether artist or amateur, it matters little, has no reason for existence except when someone is listening to him, someone whom he is trying to make participate in his sensations of art. He who never plays except for himself alone would be above all a perfect egoist in the first place, and, secondly, to speak the truth, he would not even need to learn the mastery of his instrument, it would suffice for him to learn to read music fluently in order to satisfy his own pleasure.
Many kinds of apparatus have been invented with the purpose of developing, by methods of gymnastics, the strength and suppleness of the fingers : the Dactylion of Henri Herz, the Chirogymnaste of Henri Martin, the Veloce-mano, the leaden rings, the hand-guides (chiroplast), the dumb pianos with progressive stiffness, and many others which would look terrible if they figured in the museum of instruments of torture at Nuremberg. All these mechanical de-vices are detestable or inefficacious, and I only speak of them here for the sake of strongly discouraging their use. With means of this nature, employed against my will, many of my pupils have gravely compromised their progress ; one of them, Mr. Louis H of St. Louis, Missouri, by making use of an extraordinary and complicated apparatus which he made himself and with which he slept to force his fingers further and further apart, succeeded in crippling them completely.
A similar mishap had already occurred to Robert Schumann : with the aim of improving his technique, and unknown to his most intimate friends, he took it into his head to tie down his third finger firmly, while exercising the four others. The result was that the third finger was attacked by paralysis, which soon put it out of service, and paralysis progressively attacked the entire hand. All these machines must be deliberately rejected, for when not dangerous they are useless.
Certain auxiliary studies should be taken along with that of the piano. Just as, during the primary period, we must consider solfeggio as indispensable, and pursue this study long and seriously, it is well that, having once gained a step higher, the young pianist should possess some notions of harmony ; superficial notions, if you please, for the amateur who is only trying to gain a more complete understanding of the works he is studying, but notions that must be infinitely more extended for the artist who intends to develop himself in the art of interpretation, and who may, moreover, one day or other be also a composer, which very frequently happens and demonstrates a fact, which we shall have occasion to speak of later,the influence of the instruments of the key-board upon musical inspiration and fecundity.
This study of harmony is not imposed upon any other instrumentalist with the same character of use-fulness as upon the pianist. In reality, the piano, the polyphonic instrument, par excellence, is the one which by its very construction is able to produce the greatest number of simultaneous sounds (with the exception of the grand organ), that which admits of the greatest complications, various parts that are en-tangled, combining with one another superimposed melodies that form counterpoint, chords, or arpeggios bristling with accidentals which are not always easy to read correctly or to interpret well, unless we have the power of making a quick analysis, and thus penetrating and divining the intention of the author. A pianist is not complete unless he is also a harmonist, were it only for the sake of being able to rectify, in case of need, the mistakes in printing that are always found in even the best expurgated editions of works so complex as are those which are written today for the piano. But this is the least of its uses. To know how to understand and appreciate the beauty of the works which he interprets is indispensable in order that he may execute them properly, for by execution we do not mean merely a correct interpretation, but an interpretation that is intelligent, interesting and elevated, which cannot be attained without taking their structure and harmonic framework into account.
Despite an old prejudice which seems to be disappearing, it is not at all hurtful for a pianist to play the organ, even if he has no idea of becoming an organist. This prejudice may have had some justification formerly, when the organ keys were very stiff and hard to work ; up to a certain point, they might make the touch heavy and deprive it of some of its delicacy ; but nothing of this is to be feared today, for the manufacturers are able to render the touch of the organ as light as that of the best pianos.
This, moreover, is exactly Schumann’s opinion : ” Do not neglect any opportunity of practicing on the organ ; there is no instrument so efficacious in correcting the errors or the habits of a bad musical education.”
What the organ teaches you is to avoid a skipping, dry, superficial and unstable method of playing ; and also, inversely, the heavy and slovenly method of those who drag their fingers over the keys, neglecting to let them recover at the proper time, for these two faults are intolerable; it is like a microscope that magnifies all defects, showing them in their most hideous aspect. It teaches integrity of technique.
Everybody has not a Grand Organ at his disposal ; but a Harmonium, which can render a similar service, is more frequently met with. Play upon this instrument (or a Grand Organ) a Bach fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier for example, or a piece of Handel’s, having previously studied them carefully upon the piano where they seemed to be correctly rendered, and you will be amazed at the number of unsuspected mistakes that you will discover, notes released too soon, held too long, unevennesses, gaps, etc. This will make you more careful about your rendering before you try a new experiment.
Finally, it is necessary that the pianist, without consequent conceit, should realize that, by the very nature of his instrument, he is able to become a more perfect musician than any other virtuoso. None, in reality, finds himself confronted with more complications in rapid passagesI am not speaking of the material difficulties,no one else has to make several melodic parts heard simultaneously, no .7 to bring out a song with one hand while with the other, and very often the same, he must preserve a relative but real interest in figures of accompaniment, arpeggios, or contrapuntal formulae. The literature of the piano, in works of the highest style, is the most complex of all musical literatures. By its compass, that is greater than that of the orchestra, by its power and by the infinite variety of its effects, the piano authoritatively seizes the preponderant rôle, wherever it is found.
In Chamber-music, in String Quartets, Quintets, Septets, with or without wind-instruments, where there is no piano, it is implicitly agreed that the first violin takes the lead; it gives the signal of attack, it indicates the combination shadings, the rallentandos, the organ-points, finally it commands, and this suits it, because there must always be a leader, and it is well fitted for this part. But if the piano takes a part, the first violin, while preserving the attitude of command habitual to it, finds itself forced to take into account this new partner whose force of will is unequalled ; it is the latter now that imposes its time and its shading, and this without effort, by the sole fact that it is irresistible, representing an orchestra in itself, with which, moreover, it can maintain a struggle, as happens in Concertos. If each instrument taken by itself can be compared to a military unit, the piano is a whole army corps.
But I am wrong to make use of such comparisons, since we can find better ones without going outside of the musical domain. Everybody has heard Hungarian orchestras with their keen and strident cembalo, that ancestor of the piano, which gives to them such an individual character of precision, clearness and nervous force; here, as elsewhere, it is the first violin, the only one that is played standing, that directs the band and plays the part of the conductor ; all the others obey it, following it with most amusing facility into the rhythmic by-ways that give to Hungarian music so strange and so typical a character, all follow, even the cembalo; but if the latter took a fancy to rob the leader of its authority and modify the interpretation to its own taste, it would carry everything before it, not one would be able to liberate itself from the communicative power of that metallic and perpetual hammering, and the unhappy leader would find itself in the annoying situation of a shepherd who is not in ac-cord with his dog. And it would have to give in.
This is exactly what would happen in Chamber-music if the pianist did not know how to restrain him-self, make himself flexible and conduct himself far more as a musician than as a virtuoso, although a great deal of skill is required of him in order to man-age to subdue his piano, which is really nothing but a keyed cembalo, and prevent it from showing its lion’s claws, and asserting its dominating strength. Only very great artists can succeed in maintaining the balance without effacing themselves in an exaggerated manner and attenuating without annihilating the sound, which would be equally harmful.
An easy experiment will clearly demonstrate the material preponderance of the piano in Chamber-music. Get somebody to play, entirely alone, the violin, viola, or violoncello part of any piece of ensemble music whatsoever : you will gain no idea of what the combination of the instruments will produce. Get somebody to play, also by itself, the piano part of the same piece, and immediately, with a very slight effort of the imagination, you will be able to divine what will be the general effect by reconstructing approximately, with your mind, the other missing parts.
When we reduce the piano to the apparently modest part of accompanist, whether for an instrumental solo or for an operatic aria, it becomes a miniature orchestra of which the pianist is the conductor. Awkwardly employed, it can overwhelm, annihilate, or totally rout the unhappy soloist, whilst in capable hands, it sup-ports and guides him, brings out his good points, shows him the right road when he strays, and becomes his most precious auxiliary, the artificer of his success. The singer is always at his ease when he is accompanied by the composer, because the composer is always an artist before he is a pianist. More than any other musician, must the accompanist possess presence of mind, sang-froid, and the sense of what is appropriate. He can ruin all, or save all.
Hence the importance that the most accomplished singers attach to having always a good accompanist, and, as often as possible, their own accompanist, without whom they feel as if they were deserted and disabled.
I hope now that I have made completely clear the importance of the piano in whatever service it may be employed, and the consequent absolute necessity (in order intelligently to manipulate so energetic a mechanism, which, in inexperienced hands can so easily become a disturber) of possessing sound knowledge of technique and aesthetics.
At a period when thousands of young pianists possess an inconceivable finger dexterity, it is not uninteresting to remind them of the true mission of the simple and the beautiful, that of charming and not of astounding the audience, of playing less for show and more for the heart. This secret, which reveals the true artist, can only be learned by the study of the great masters, aided by hearing, as often as possible, great virtuosi,those who in addition to the prestige of execution possess a high intelligence in matters of art. It is also necessary to know how to listen attentively to good singers, for they can often serve as models, if not counsellors. ” One can learn much from singers, but it will not do to accept all their counsels,” says Schumann. The great fault of the piano, a fault inherent to its nature, is dryness; it cannot sustain the tone, and if any one ever succeeds in giving this faculty to it, as has several times been attempted already, it will be the piano no longer, but a new instrument. It is then for the pianist, by the force of his art, to lessen and make this characteristic imperfection forgotten, by trying to imitate the, vocal inflections of singers ; this is why he should listen to them attentively, study and assimilate their methods, and try to imitate them or come as near it as possible. ” The best advice that we can give to persons who occupy themselves seriously with the piano is to learn, to study and to analyze the beautiful art of singing. With this end in view, we should never neglect an opportunity of hearing great artists, whatever may be their instrument, and above all the great singers ; from the very beginning and in the first stage of our accomplishment, we should know how to surround ourselves with good models.”
For this imitation, a great help to success in producing the illusion of tones that are sustained or swelled, is the judicious use of the pedals. Of these the great majority of amateur pianists, and, what is more to be regretted, a great number of artists do not know how to avail themselves. ” In the use of pedals, which play so important a part in execution, we should take the greatest care never to mix dissimilar harmonies and thus produce disagreeable dissonances. There are pianists who make such an abuse of the pedals, or rather they use them with so little logic, that their sense of hearing is perverted and they have lost the appreciation of pure harmony.” Now, who is it that expresses himself thus? It is still Thalberg, that is to say the man who, with Chopin, carried to the utmost limit of ability the art of using the pedals. ” The greatest number of pupils,” the learned master, Marmontel, also remarks upon this subject, ” to whom the use of the loud pedal is permitted, make use of it to beat the time ” (we have already mentioned one frequent cause of this grotesque use)” or, better, put it down and never let it go. This produces a frightful cacophony, to the affliction of all musicians of taste.”
It would be better to abstain entirely from using the pedal rather than employ it at random ; and in truth, in all classic music before the Beethoven period, it should be left alone. In modern music, on the contrary, it is indispensable ; but it is necessary to learn how to make it serve you and never allow it to produce confusion and discord : ” The art of the pedal does not consist in knowing how to put it down, but how to take it off.” t This is indeed a truth, the importance of which too few pianists comprehend.
It is certain that the study of harmony contributes to uproot these habits, as vicious as they are anti-artistic.
Formerly, and not so very long ago either, it was the custom to play a prelude on the piano. It even happened, as exaggeration followed, that under the pretext of preludes some performers thus improvised veritable pieces that never finished. This might be charming when the pianist was also a clever improviser; but, as this was the exception, more often people found themselves treated to lucubrations of a moment, containing more nonsense and rambling than anything else.
To obviate this regrettable condition, some naïve and well-intentioned professors had the idea of publishing, under the title of Preludes, in all the major and minor keys, some kinds of formule as hideous as they were pretentious, which the performer was to learn by heart and then be credited with improvising. It was grotesque. Another annoying thing about it was that these formule having to serve for every piece written in the same key, if there were several on the same programme, no matter what inspired air might be selected, the ridiculous trick was discovered.
A sudden change in fashion occurred, for fashion meddles with everything, and now preludes are out of date, which, after all, is much better.
There are three cases, however, in which it is still necessary to know how to improvise a few chords :
The first always presents itself in chamber-music, immediately after having given the A and just before beginning the piece.
The A is always needed for the instruments to tune by. If, after the horrible cacophony which is the result of this ceremony and which no one has yet found the means to avoid, we were immediately to attack the first chord in a piece in E-flat, for instance, the result for the sensitive hearer would be an impression of discord, very fleeting certainly, but nevertheless painful. Therefore, it is better to prepare him for the tonality by a few discreet chords that will efface from his memory the unavoidable charivari of the tuning of the instruments.
Second case : if one should have to play in succession several pieces in very different and dissimilar keys (a thing it would be better to avoid in making up the programme), it is judicious to weld them together, or to separate them, by a rapid modulation which will prevent the memory of the first piece from spoiling the beginning of the second. (This will be a little less of a shock.)
Third case : to give the key to a singer whom we are accompanying, especially if he has to begin with the first bar.
Reduced to its most simple expression, a few chords or a few arpeggi, the prelude can still be useful to give us an idea of the degree of sonority, resonance or deadness, of a hall, or of an instrument with which we are not yet familiar, and also to command silence and hush disturbing conversation.
In all these circumstances, no matter how brief may be the series of improvised chords, in order that they should be correct and not displeasing, and in order to avoid any clashing or awkwardness, the pianist must be versed in the practice of harmony to a greater degree than any of his associates who play on other instruments, and who have never, or but very rarely, to manage combined notes.
Everything that tends to develop the musical spirit and the initiative sense is good for him: to sing in choruses, serving in them as a leader in the attack, and if he has no voice, to act as accompanist, rehearse the singers, read the score, make transcriptions, and, in short, serve in every capacity as a real musician. I should like to sum up all this in a formula that is as simple as it is true : The pianist who is nothing but a good pianist is a bad pianist.
If I have thought it necessary to give so much space to everything concerning the piano, it is not merely because this instrument is the one most usually found in our drawing-rooms. It is more particularly because of the preponderant part that it plays in the musical civilization of our time.
The celebrated Russian pianist and composer, A. Rubinstein, did not hesitate to assert his convictions upon this subject: ” Instrumental music,” he said, ” is man’s most intimate friend, closer than his parents, his sisters, or his comrades “( ?)” This is particularly shown in misfortune ; and of all instruments the one that best plays the part of a friend is the piano. Therefore, I consider the teaching of the piano as a great benefit to humanity and I am not very far from making it obligatory “(this is perhaps somewhat excessive)” regarding it, be it well understood, as an intimate consolation for the pupil and not as a means of shining in society.”
Did Rubinstein know this thought of Chateaubriand’s, which he seems to have tried to paraphrase: ” Music puts grief to sleep in troubled hearts “?
The piano is everybody’s instrument : as has been already established, a knowledge of it is useful, in diverse degrees and for different reasons, to every instrumentalist, without exception ; it is indispensable to singers and teachers of singing; moreover, the piano for other reasons is of extreme usefulness for the composer, as we shall see later. Often, too, it is by means of the piano, which in some measure sets a score before your eyes and beneath your fingers, that you become a composer. Witness the great number of worthy composers who commenced to express them-selves as simple pianists. (I think it superfluous to add here that every pianist who intends to devote himself to composition, even if solely for his own instrument, should submit, at least partially, to the special studies for a composer, and not give himself up blindly to his instinct and the routine fascination exercised by the keyboard.) It is the sole instrument upon which we can condense a score, the only one which in every case is sufficient unto itself, without the aid of any other. From the beginning to the end of the modern studies, and during the entire life of the artist, its indispensableness is perpetually making itself felt for everybody ; and certainly of all instruments it is the one that plays the greatest part in the diffusion and the expansion of the art.
If it is correct to say that solfeggio has always been and will always be, under one form or another, the solid basis of all deep musical instruction, we may also say that the piano is its most convenient and practical pivot, the one around which everything revolves and upon which all branches of teaching are grafted. It is the instrument par excellence of every musician.
Everything therefore pointed to the propriety of giving it a very large place here ; and this so much the more because all that we have said on this subject, addressing pianists in particular, besides its direct utility for them, can also, with a few slight modifications, be made use of in the study of every other instrument.