Romanticism, And The Advent Of The Great Virtuosi

THE romantic spirit which found an outlet in the songs of Schubert, the operas of Weber and Marschner, the fantastic piano pieces of Schumann, and the fairy-like elegance of Mendelssohn, made its appeal to an eager, attentive and sympathetic public, largely imbued with the same feeling of unrest. It seemed as if the world had been waiting for just that kind of musical utterance.

This appreciation on the part of the public was aided in no small degree by the timely advent of a new school of virtuosi of the violin, piano and other instruments. During the seventeenth century, the perfecting of the organ had. made possible a virtuosity never before known, and such splendid players as Sweelinck, Frescobaldi, Reinken and Buxtehude are still remembered for their complete mastery of the instrument.

The works of Vivaldi and Corelli had already made great demands upon the skill of ambitious violinists, while Domenico Scarlatti, Rameau, Bach and Handel were not only themselves virtuosi on the harpsichord, but created a new style of playing which made great demands in the direction of technique and coloring of tone, so that when the piano-forte finally outrivaled the clavichord and harpsichord, the works of these masters were found to be equally adapted to the new instrument.

The slow movements of Haydn’s sonatas for piano demanded a still greater coloring of tone. As they usually consisted of some sort of fantasia, or theme with variations, it was the performer’s task to impart to each of the different sequences and changes a different tone-color, thus making them more interesting.

Mozart gave us the Adagio upon the piano, as a song in soulful style. Then came Beethoven, who ushered in a new era in piano-playing, not only through his compositions but through his own performances, in which he excelled all others of his time. He embodied the spirit of romanticism in his later piano compositions, treating the instrument with a mingling of boldness, delicacy and poetry that taxes the ability of the greatest artists of to-day. Chopin, Schumann and Liszt demand little more from the pianist in certain directions than did Beethoven in his sonatas and concertos.

Early in the nineteenth century there flourished a number of other eminent piano virtuosi, exponents of the classical style, some of whom had a decided influence upon the composers for that instrument; and among these we must mention Clementi, Field, Cramer, Berger, Moscheles, Hummel, Dussek and Czerny.

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), born at Rome four years be-fore Mozart and outliving Beethoven, met during his youth a traveling English amateur who became interested in the boy and took him to England. At the age of 18 he created a furore in London by his facile technique. Shortly afterwards he published his first sonatas and in 1777 was appointed conductor of the Italian Opera in London. In 1781 he began to concertize, and startled the world with his playing. On this tour he met Mozart in Vienna, and there, at a pianistic contest between the two virtuosi, it was conceded that his playing was the more brilliant but that Mozart had the more beautiful touch and singing style. As a result of this contest Clementi’s compositions became more musical, decidedly influencing Beethoven, while his playing showed more feeling. He made several other concert-tours, including two to St. Petersburg, and was generally successful.

Most of his life, however, was spent in London, where he founded a piano-manufactory and also spent much time in teaching. Many of his sonatas are virile in the extreme. His greatest pedagogic work is the “Gradus ad Parnassum, a series of 100 piano-studies in all styles.

One of his famous pupils was John Field (1782-1837), at the age of ten already a musical prodigy at Dublin. This excellent virtuoso took even Paris by storm by his masterly playing of Bach’s fugues. At the age of 20 he accompanied Clementi to Russia, and labored for many years as composer and teacher. It was there that he conceived the form of the Nocturne, an expression of his feeling for the romantic which found general favor, and was later magnificently developed by Chopin.

Another of Clementi’s celebrated pupils was Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858), born at Mannheim in Germany. He was also a precocious pianist, and at the age of 10 began a tour of Europe, during which he met Haydn and Beethoven, to whose style of playing he remained true in spite of the surging waves of pianistic progress which agitated the musical world during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Another excellent pianist of the period was Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), for a while an inmate of Mozart’s home as his pupil, an intimate friend of Beethoven’s and the successor of Haydn at the home of the Esterhazys. In composition he followed the style of Mozart; he had a decided gift for improvisation, and was very successful as a teacher.

Johann Ladislaus Dussek (1761-1812), the first Bohemian musician of prominence, was another virtuoso of the time of Clementi. Many of his works, exhibiting his love and appreciation of a “singing tone” on the piano, are very well known.

Ludwig Berger (1777-1839), although an excellent player, is more especially remembered as the teacher of Mendelssohn, Taubert, Fanny Hensel, Herzberg, and many other pianists.

The last two virtuosi representing the classical tradition of the piano were Karl Czerny (1791-1857), a pupil of Beethoven and a follower of the styles of Clementi and Hummel, best known through his technical studies; and Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), a Bohemian, a brilliant concert pianist, and for many years a teacher at the Leipzig conservatory. He was an intimate friend of Beethoven, after whose death he was considered the best representative of that master’s style of playing. As a composer he never advanced beyond the Clementi principles, romantic works remaining to him as sealed books.

During the time of these classical piano virtuosi, highly cultivated players of orchestral instruments also demanded and received the attention of the musical public. Among the violinists of the last part of the eighteenth century, the successors of Tartini and Leclair, must especially be noted Giovanni Battista Viotti (1753-1824), the connecting-link between the old and new schools of violin-playing. A large number of his pupils followed in his footsteps, from among whom we may single out Pierre Rode (1774-1830), a violinist of great power and renown in his day and the author of many excellent works for his instrument. But the greatest violinist of the early nineteenth century and possibly of all time was Niccolô Paganini (1782-1840), born at Genoa, the child of very poor parents. His gift for violin-playing amounted to genius: During his career of thirty years he appeared repeatedly in every city of Europe and was universally received with the utmost enthusiasm, his production of unusual effects upon his instrument earning for him the sobriquet of “the child of the devil.” His playing had a great and varied influence that was directly felt, not only in the orchestra, but also in the domain of composition and pianism, both Schumann and Liszt being affected by it. His own compositions, while not great artistically, on account of his limited musical training, are clever show-pieces, sensational and at times passionate, and his caprices, together with the sonatas of Bach, form the basis of modern violin-playing. His tremendous success was sought in vain by a host of immediate followers and imitators, many of whom approached him in brilliancy of technique, but none of whom possessed his distinctive genius for the violin.

One of his most brilliant contemporaries, but one who was not in sympathy with his sensational style, was Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859), an excellent musician as well as a great violinist, following in the footsteps of Rode. He was a friend of Mendelssohn and one of the first to recognize in a small measure the genius of Wagner. As a composer, he followed the classical lines of Mozart, although he shows the influence of romanticism in the display of considerable imagination.

Other virtuosi than those of the violin and piano were not wanting during this time, and many might be mentioned who distinguished themselves as artists upon the flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and harp.

Their artistry was observed, appreciated and utilized by another virtuoso, one who played upon the orchestra as a whole, Hector Berlioz (1803-1864), the founder of the grandiose style, and the father of modern orchestration. He was the first orchestral composer who really made an exhaustive study of the technical capacity and musical personality of the various orchestral instruments, and thus was able to suggest many of their improvements. His extraordinary appreciation of tone-color amounted to genius and enabled him to conceive and produce marvelous orchestral effects. In his larger works, such as the “Damnation of Faust” and the “Requiem,” he reveals his extreme delight in the massing of enormous groups of musical instruments of one kind, the latter composition requiring 14 kettledrums and four brass bands, as well as an augmented orchestra, an organ, and an enlarged chorus, all being used not so much for the sake of tone-volume as for that of tone-color. His autobiography is very interesting as a revelation of the man.

In his works he shows an absorption of the ultra-romanticism of his time as regards musical form, looking upon it as but the garment, the conventional covering, and not the individual, and insisting that the musical content of a work should be its architect, the designer of its form.

His compositions, being written in a pictorial style, following a more or less definite series of events, were the first to receive the title of “program music,” and as such form a portion of the répertoire of every symphony orchestra. His musical influence is most noticeable in Wagner and Liszt, who incorporated his broad, grandiose style in their orchestral works.

The transition from the classical piano virtuosi to those of the romantic school was so gradual that there was apparently no break in the line of their succession, the smaller piano pieces of Schumann, the sonatas of Beethoven, and the larger piano-forte works of Weber, being in a measure preparatory to the advent of the great geniuses of the piano-style, Thalberg, Chopin and Liszt, and to their contributions to its literature.

The revelation of the individual tonal possibilities of orchestral instruments made by Berlioz, led each of these three virtuosi to investigate and study for himself the tonal possibilities of the piano, and to strive for the invention of new effects upon that instrument, rivaling those of Paganini on the violin.

It is difficult to determine which of these three, each ignorant of the other’s efforts, first discovered and applied a new piano technique, which demanded more flexible use of the fingers, hand and arm, and which began to take into serious consideration the pedal, sometimes called the “soul of the piano.” Although Liszt in his piano arrangement of Berlioz’ “Harold” Symphony makes demands upon the hands deemed impossible in the old technique, the honor of first developing a style that was distinctly original and easily recognizable by the average listener as different from those which preceded it, belongs to Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871).

His first composition in this new style was a “Fantasie” on themes from Weber’s opera Euryanthe, and revealed his power as a virtuoso of a new order. All his piano works are based upon his recognition of the tone-sustaining possibilities of the piano, his knowledge of the voice leading him to transfer a beautiful cantabile vocal style to that instrument. His series of studies for the purpose of acquiring this cantabile are there-fore called “l’Art du Chant sur le Piano.” As a pianist he was conspicuous for a wonderful technique characterized by fluency, lightness and clearness of scales, sonorous chord-passages, and a predilection for carrying a melody in the middle of the keyboard while lightly investing it with arpeggios and scales which formed a sort of ethereal atmosphere. At one time he was a serious rival of Liszt, and had many followers largely because of his greater repose in playing. His compositions belong to a style of “salon music” which aims solely at creating pleasing diversion and entertainment.

Far greater were the contributions, not only to modern pianism but to musical literature, made by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), the first great romantic poet of the piano. Born in Poland of good family, his youth was overshadowed by the popular grief over his country’s loss of individual existence, a tragedy which made a great impression upon his sensitive nature. Although his life was almost parallel with that of Mendelssohn, and although they were both equally influenced by a musical and literary environment, the effect was wholly different. Moved by a national spirit which now brooded in melancholy over his country’s sorrows and now rose in fiery revolt against existing political conditions, his genius expressed itself in a new strain of romanticism. His Op. 2, a set of variations on Mozart’s melody “Là ci darem la mano,” earned for him Schumann’s inimitable criticism and commendation, beginning with the words, “Hats off, gentle-men! A genius!” While his thematic invention, considered from the academic standpoint, was perhaps limited, in the freer forms it was abundant and stands revealed in characteristic rhythms and new harmonic combinations that are fascinating. His Ballades are dramatic poems; his Nocturnes express the Byronic sentiment then abroad in the land; his Mazurkas and Polonaises are expressions of turbulent waves of patriotism. His pianistic style is nowhere more distinctive than in his Studies and Preludes, which, though frankly technical, are also fine examples of lyric and dramatic poetry and sound like improvisations. His variety of expression in the same form is apparently inexhaustible; his piano compositions in the smaller forms did as much for the advancement of pianistic art as did those of Liszt, while his influence on living composers, especially in Russia, is still felt. All his efforts were of immeasurable benefit to the development of Romanticism, because they popularized the revelation of sentiment upon the instrument most accessible to the public, the piano, by their skillful employment of its varied possibilities.

A few words regarding the evolution of “salon music” are necessary here. The desire to excel in some direction is felt by every normally constituted human being. Because of this desire, and possibly also because of the consequent distinction, renown and financial rewards to be attained, many pianists, encouraged by the success of the smaller works of the romanticists, devoted themselves to the exploitation of their own compositions, which, though romantic in form, lacked the genius of their predecessors. Many of these efforts, however, gave a certain impetus to the progress of musical art; being written more for the purpose of drawing-room entertainment than for the serious concert platform, they received the title of “salon music.”

A number of other pianists flourished during the first half of the nineteenth century, distinguished not so much for musicianship as for technical brilliancy, for which the general public, then as now, seemed to have an insatiable appetite. Among these champions of the bravura style may be mentioned Henri Herz, Ernst Haberbier, Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, Alexander Dreyschock and Joseph Wieniawski, all of whom wrote a great deal of “salon music” in the lighter style. They also aided in popularizing the piano and in creating a general desire for a more or less superficial study of this instrument on the part of the multitude, thereby helping the cause of musical education in general.

Among the pupils, admirers and followers of Mendelssohn who nevertheless made paths of their own and formed the Leipzig circle, must be mentioned Ferdinand Hiller, Sterndale Bennett, Niels W. Gade, Carl Reinecke and Salomon Jadassohn.

Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885), an excellent pianist and versa-tile composer, a pupil of Hummel, was not only very successful as an interpreter of Bach and Beethoven in Paris, but also as conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts at Leipzig, where he was closely associated with Mendelssohn. In 1850 he founded the conservatory of Cologne and for many years made his influence felt as composer, teacher and musical essayist.

Among the many English composers who acknowledged Mendelssohn as their leader, we single out Sir William Stern-dale Bennett (1816-1875), who at the age of 17 had already achieved considerable distinction as pianist and composer. Through the assistance of a London piano manufacturing firm, he was able to spend several years in Leipzig, associating there with Schumann and Mendelssohn, and later, upon his return to London, was active in founding the Bach Society and as the head of the Royal Academy of Music.

Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890), born at Copenhagen, early made his mark as a virile composer. At first he followed in the footsteps of Mendelssohn, but later his strong romantic spirit required the freer forms, and followed the style of Schumann.

The influence of Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), who adhered to the forms of expression of the early romanticists in spite of the ultra-romantic turmoil through which he lived, has been and is still far-reaching. A classical pianist, noted as an exponent of Mozart’s style, a versatile conductor and a composer of mildly romantic type, he was for many years an interesting figure in conservative Leipzig.

Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902), a Leipzig student and later a pupil of Liszt, an attractive composer in the classic forms, exhibiting superb contrapuntal skill, is best known as a teacher of composition and instrumentation, and his text-books for these branches of study are in world-wide use.

The giant of pianistic virtuosity was the Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who developed the piano technique and style of to-day on the foundations laid by Schumann and Chopin. Instructed by Czerny and Salieri (one of Beethoven’s teachers), he achieved distinction in early youth. At the age of 14 he had such brilliant success in concerts at Vienna, that Beethoven publicly embraced and kissed him in delight over the boy’s musical gifts. Soon afterwards he went to Paris; being refused admission at the Conservatory by Cherubini on account of his foreign birth, he studied with the best private teachers, and soon gratified his youthful ambitions by the successful production of an operetta. He then decided on a pianistic career as teacher and concert artist. Friends among the Hungarian nobility secured him entrance to the foremost literary and musical society of Paris, which included Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Berlioz, Chopin and Paganini. This aroused within him the desire to emulate the beauties of literary style in the realm of tone-poetry. In addition to this, fascinated by the tremendous success of the “wizard of the violin” in the invention of novel tonal effects and in brilliant technique, he determined to become an equally able master upon his own instrument, his efforts resulting in what is called the transcendental school of piano-playing.

His unusually tall stature, accentuated by clerical dress, his long arms ending in large hands for which technical difficulties had apparently ceased to exist, his strong face with its piercing eyes, all combined to make him a remarkable figure wherever he appeared during his long concert career. He used his virtuosity for the production of pianistic effects never before achieved. His “arrangements” or “transcriptions” of various works originally written for voice, organ or orchestra, excelled all their predecessors in that class because of their retention of the original tone-color.

While many of Chopin’s works have either a conscious or an unconscious “program,” Liszt, like Berlioz, deliberately furnished for many of his works either definite suggestions or an actual literary “motto” to serve as a guide to the listeners’ imagination. In these he displayed a creative originality that at least equals that of many contemporary composers of the classical style and which had the added piquancy of novelty of form as well as of content.

His orchestral compositions in the larger forms, to which he gave the title of “symphonic poems,” aroused a storm of protest from the purists, who considered the structural liberties thus taken as deliberate insults to the geniuses of the classic style. The “symphonic poem,” however, was necessary for the expression of his virile romanticism, which, like that of Berlioz, rebelled against the formal limitations of the past centuries as inadequate to its needs. His apparent structural lawlessness, which so offended many admirers of his pianistic gifts, was after all but a natural outgrowth of the broadly developed romantic spirit which brooked no interference with its fullest artistic expression.

His influence on piano-playing and on music in general is difficult to define, because of its breadth and variety. While he was not a great creative genius, except in the smaller forms, he possessed unusual powers as a musical decorative artist who knew how to depict the heights of grandeur and the intimacy of graceful sentiment, thus preparing the way for many other composers.

It is difficult to conceive what the life of Wagner would have been without the championship and the valuable assistance of Liszt and his immediate coterie of admiring followers.