Music Study – Tone, Rhythm And Time

Whatever instrument is concerned, we may say with the greatest certainty that from the instant the first elementary knowledge is acquired, what should dominate throughout the remainder of the studies is the earnest effort to create a beautiful timbre, and constantly to improve it. Many artists make themselves masters of every kind of technical difficulty, possess a perfect mechanism, and are able to phrase and shade with art and intelligence, without being able to exercise upon the public that captivating and all-embracing charm that is the result of a beautiful sonority. Therefore we will point out, as far as words will serve, the dominant character of the timbre that should preferably be sought in every instrument.

What is meant exactly by having a beautiful tone, if the tone that is considered beautiful in any one instrument is not the same for all? To have a beautiful tone is to produce upon an instrument the different tones of which the scale is composed in the manner that is best calculated to show off the instrument to its greatest advantage. To have a good tone, is then to have an excellent quality of tone, a tone pure, clear, full, vibrant and of great brilliancy ; a precious faculty, independent of the talent of execution, properly so-called, and which, in certain individuals, above all, the musicians who play wind-instruments, is not always the fruit of study, but the result of a natural disposition, and principally of a particular conformation of the mouth.*

The contrary negative quality was once very humourously expressed by the words little tone, on which subject it is appropriate to recall an anecdote very well-known among orchestra-musicians, which Berlioz has very cleverly narrated under the title of Sensibility and Indifference—A Funeral Oration in Three Syllables. I borrow this story from him: ‘Cherubini was walking in the foyer of the Concert Hall of the Conservatoire during an intermission. The musicians about him seemed sad: they had just heard of the death of their comrade Brod, a remarkable virtuoso and first oboe at the Opéra One of them, approaching the old master, said :

” Eh bien ! Monsieur Cherubini, nous avons donc perdu ce pauvre Brod ! ”

“Eh! quoi?”

(Le musicien élevant la voix), ” Brod, notre cama-rade Brod ! ”

” Eh bien? ”

” Il est mort.”

” Euh ! petit son ! ”

People also say a bad tone, which is even worse than a little tone. On any instrument whatever, a cottony, weak, flabby tone, and one that does not carry, is always a bad tone; the same is true of a time that is raucous, strident, hollow, or in a word disagreeable in any sense ; as also any tone that perverts the characteristic timbre of the instrument that produces it and seems to be an imitation of some other. The truly beautiful tone has the breath of health ; it is frank, sincere, robust, energetic without being rough, sweet and soft without weakness, and always frankly characteristic, that is to say, without leaving the slightest doubt, for every one with a delicate and experienced ear, as to the instrument by which it is emitted. If therefore, on hearing an instrument played, we find it an impossibility clearly to recognize and name it, the instrumentalist has played bad notes ; this proves that his timbre is not frankly characteristic, and is lacking in sincerity.

Whenever one speaks of a beautiful timbre, of a beautiful sonority, of a good quality of tone, this is what must be understood. Beauty is not the same for all ; that of a dog does not consist in having a beak, and an elephant with wings would be as ridiculous as a bird with four feet. It is the same with instruments. A violin can, in certain notes, particularly by means of harmonics, produce a certain illusion of the flute ; with the sourdine, it can sometimes recall the oboe. Incidentally, such effects may be employed, but we must not make a habit of this and believe that this is what is called the beautiful quality of violin tone.

It is especially by listening to the great artists that we can come to understand thoroughly what a beautiful timbre is, and the enormous prestige it gives to talent ; and it is above all by trying to imitate them that we ourselves manage to attain that quality that exceeds all others, and which nothing can replace. It must not be denied that upon certain instruments, a beautiful timbre often takes long to acquire, and is, moreover, difficult; but when once it is found, it is never lost.

When he arrives at this point, the young artist ought to have such a love of his instrument, as to believe implicitly that it is the most beautiful of all; and he-will truly have reason to think thus, and he ought to be encouraged in his conviction, for in reality there is not a single instrument that is not superior in some respects to all the others ; it is this very thing that he ought to see and try to put in evidence. Such an attitude of mind is excellent, and is more favourable than anything else to the blossoming of the great talent of the virtuoso.

Another important matter of attention should be rhythm, and this also from the very beginning to the end of the studies, for a tottering rhythm gives the hearer a kind of discomfort, which he cannot always account for, but which deprives him of a great part of his pleasure. ” Play in time,” said Schumann, ” the playing of many virtuosi resembles the staggering of a drunken man.” I will add to this a personal observation which everybody can verify : it is that those irritating persons, who have that detestable mania when walking and talking of stopping every five or six steps to make their argument sink deeper into the mind of their interlocutor, and at need holding the victim by the button of his coat, are always devoid of the rhythmic sense. As for these, we can quickly get rid of them by going another way, or by jumping into a carriage, but it is much more difficult to escape from a musician who is determined to play you his favourite piece, and if he does not play it in time, he subjects you to a veritable torment. Independently of all other more artistic considerations, we may say that to play in time is the politeness of music, just as to speak intelligibly and to write legibly are the acts of a good education. These comparisons seem to me quite just, for all music played in bad rhythm thereby becomes unintelligible, or at least exacts from the listener a mental tension that rapidly becomes painful and fatiguing.

A piece of music, no matter what it is, should stand plumb as a building, and architects are not in the habit of often taking for models the Leaning Tower of Pisa or those of Bologna, which are not for a moment interesting except as curiosities. Rhythm is the breaking up of musical time into parts more or less long or short, but strictly proportional; time is the absolute equality, in duration, of all the notes of the same value. We then can play in time while giving the rhythm in an incomplete manner ; but we can-not produce correct rhythm without playing perfectly in time,

It is seldom that the feeling for time is not instinctive ; for really, almost everybody walks nearly in time; but when this exact feeling does not exist naturally and in a sufficient degree, it can be developed by the exercise of a well measured walk, by counting the steps as in a military march : one, two; or one, two, three, four; also by the dance. (It may be remarked, in passing, that that pretended rhythmic difficulty, which frightens beginners at the piano and which is called three two or two three is solved unconsciously by the least accomplished dancers in the two-step Valse, simply because no one ever dreamed of telling them that it was a difficulty ; while the orchestra is playing in three time, they are dancing in two ; for this, it is sufficient for them to fix their attention only upon the first beat of the music, which at each return, coincides with their own first beat.)

We can also cultivate this faculty by means of a prudent use of the metronome, which is nothing more or less than a clock beating the fractions of seconds with a mathematical and inflexible regularity. This inflexibility, however, which constitutes its whole value, becomes a fault if we abuse this mechanical device, and communicates an unpleasing rigidity to the pupil. This is why, although recommending its usage in certain cases, we believe that its employ should be limited.

First of all, we should never make use of it if we possess instinctively the feeling for time, and the equality of time intervals, which happens ninety-nine times out of a hundred. It should be reserved for those exceptional cases where the pupil truly has trouble in accomplishing this mental operation, and where the ordinary means of beating time, and counting, have failed. Then, and then only, he should use it, but by applying it solely to scales, exercises and purely mechanical studies, which under these circumstances, should engross the greatest part of the time consecrated to study. With regard to all pieces in which qualities of style, even summary, are to be displayed, it is imperative to abstain from it completely, excepting, be it clearly understood, in passages of dexterity, which, from the standpoint of execution, may be likened to simple studies. Under these conditions it may be used with profit. But this is not the true application of the metronome. Above all, its object is to determine, with a precision quite beyond the reach of the conventional musical terms, the movement, the exact speed that belongs to a piece of music, according to the intention of the composer. ” To drag or hurry the time are equal faults.” However, if in doubt, it would be better to take a movement too slowly ; but the best of all would be to take a movement correctly, upon which even musicians of highest standing can hesitate or differ in opinion, a fact which often occurs, and is partly the cause of the differences in interpretation of the same work by various conductors. The metronome settles the question when the composer has taken the pains to indicate the formula himself, which many contemporary composers wisely do. On the other hand, it is important to place a merely relative confidence in the metronomic instructions applied to works anterior to the invention of the metronome and its vulgarisation, for such indications can only be the work of an editor, or proof-reader, and therefore have no authority. Now, from the researches of one of my colleagues,* it is clearly shown that although the first idea of a chronometer applicable to music dates from the end of the Seventeenth Century, it was not until 1816 that the actual metronome, the inventor of which was Maëlzel, made its official appearance, and could have been practically adopted. With regard to metronomic signs therefore, only those must be considered sure and certain that apply to works after this date; the others, if they are not simply fanciful, may relate to some apparatus of the same species, long since fallen into disuse, and whose scale, now unknown, may have differed as much from the metronome of our time as the thermometer of Celsius, Réaumur and Fahrenheit differ from one another.

A care for firmness in the rhythm, like the effort towards a beautiful sonority, which, properly speaking, have nothing to do either with technique or style, although they are indispensable auxiliaries to both, should be constantly present in the mind of the young virtuoso, who, moreover, if he is provided with a certain dose of artistic sentiment, will not be slow to appreciate its value and incomparable importance.

Therefore, after a certain number of years, which varies quite as much in accordance with the nature of the instrument as the aptitude of the pupil, the amount of time devoted to work every day, and the ability of the teacher, the period for the higher or finishing studies will arrive.

Here many things will change. The unity of the instruction, so desirable in the beginning, has now lost its preponderant utility ; if we can still keep the first teacher, he should be kept ; but if he has become insufficient, there would be no objection to taking one of a higher class; indeed this would often even prove an advantage by initiating the pupil into new methods of execution, showing him another manner of regarding interpretation, and making him realize the differences that can exist between two neighbouring schools.

The essential thing at present is to have to deal with a militant-virtuoso in the full activity of his powers, and the vigour of his talent, and the more brilliant an executant he is, the better he will be as a master, for what will be required of him will be to give explanations far less than to furnish examples ; his teaching will consist especially in playing for his pupil, rarely entire pieces, but very frequently complete passages, a song, phrase, or a difficult passage, the beautiful expression, elevation of style, or boldness and perfection of execution of which the pupil will immediately try to reproduce ; but this instruction will be incomplete unless, at the same time, his aim is to – elevate the student’s musical sentiment, inculcating aesthetical ideas and inspiring him with, the love of the beautiful. It is for this reason, having arrived at this point,, that it has become essential to approach only an artist of great worth, one of those who know how to reveal the thought of the composer, by means of their own powerful interpretation, and thus make themselves veritable collaborateurs of genius. Otherwise, it would be better not to leave the first teacher.