It was midwinter. As was his wont in this season, Chopin was attired from head to foot in white wool. His fragile form and spiritual face, with its delicate smile, made him seem a member of some heavenly brotherhood that spends its existence praying for the expiation of the wickedness wrought by men. The composer was standing near the fireplace; without it snowed, desperately snowed. He was not alone. Half sitting, half reclining on a chair, his feet on the mantelpiece, was a man, spare and sinewy as an Indian. Long, coarse, brown hair hung mane-like upon his shoulders. His lithe, powerful fingers almost seemed to crush the short white Irish clay pipe from which he occasionally took a whiff. It was Liszt, Franz Liszt, Liszt Ferencz—don't forget the accompanying Eljen!—the pet of the gods, the adored of women; Liszt who never had a hair-cut; Liszt the inventor of the Liszt pupil. There had evidently been a heated discussion, for Chopin's face was adorned with bright hectic spots, his smile was sardonic, and a cough shook his ascetic frame as if from suppressed chagrin. Liszt was surly and at intervals said "basta!" beneath his long Milesian upper lip. Such silence could not long endure; an explosion was imminent. Liszt, quickly divining that Chopin was about to break forth in an hysterical fury, forstalled him by jocosely crying: "Freddy, my old son, the trouble with you is that you have no Sand in you!" And before the enraged Pole could answer this cruel, mocking raillery, the tall Magyar leaned over, pressed the button three times, and the lemonade came in time to avert blood-shed.
There, Mr. Editor, you have a pleasing comminglement of romance and colloquialism. Now that I have shown how to play the trick, let all who will go ahead and be their own musical Boswell.
But a truce to such foolery. I am wayward and gray of thought today. My soul is filled with the clash and dust of life. I hate the eternal blazoning of fierce woes and acid joys upon the orchestral canvas. Why must the music of a composer be played? Why must our tone-weary world be sorely grieved by the subjective shrieks and imprudent publications of some musical fellow wrestling in mortal agony with his first love, his first tailor's bill, his first acquaintance with the life about him? Why, I ask, should music leave the page on which it is indited? Why need it be played? How many beauties in a score are lost by translation into rude tones! How disenchanting sound those climbing, arbutus-like arpeggios and subtle half-tints of Chopin when played on that brutal, jangling instrument of wood, wire and iron, the pianoforte! I shudder at the profanation. I feel an oriental jealousy concerning all those beautiful thoughts nestling in the scores of Chopin and Schubert which are laid bare and dissected by the pompous pen of the music-critic. The man who knows it all. The man who seeks to transmute the unutterable and ineffable delicacies of tone into terms of commercial prose. And newspaper prose. Hideous jargon, I abominate you!
I am suffering from too many harmonic harangues. [Isn't this one?] I long for the valley of silence, Edgar Poe's valley, wherein not even a sigh stirred the amber-colored air [or wasn't it saffron-hued? I forget, and Poe is not to be had in this corner of the universe]. Why can't music be read in the seclusion of one's study, in the company of one's heart-beats? Why must we go to the housetop and shout our woes to the universe? The "barbaric yawp" of Walt Whitman, over the roofs of the world, has become fashionable, and from tooting motor-cars to noisy symphonies all is a conspiracy against silence. At night dream-fugues shatter the walls of our inner consciousness, and yet we call music a divine art! I love the written notes, the symbols of the musical idea. Music, like some verse, sounds sweeter on paper, sweeter to the inner ear. Music overheard, not heard, is the more beautiful. Palimpsestlike we strive to decipher and unweave the spiral harmonies of Chopin, but they elude as does the sound of falling waters in a dream. Those violet bubbles of prismatic light that the Sarmatian composer blows for us are too fragile, too intangible, too spirit-haunted to be played. [All this sounds as if I were really trying to write after the manner of the busy Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, who helped Liszt to manufacture his book on Chopin; indeed, it is suspected, altered every line he wrote of it.]
O, for some mighty genius of color who will deluge the sky with pyrotechnical symphonies! Color that will soothe the soul with iridescent and incandescent harmonies, that the harsh, brittle noises made by musical instruments will no longer startle our weaving fancies. Yet if Shelley had not sung or Chopin chanted, how much poorer would be the world today. But that is no reason why school children should scream in chorus: "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity," or that tepid misses in their 'teens should murder the nocturnes of Chopin. Even the somnolent gurgle of the bullfrog, around the ponds of Manayunk, as he signals to his mate in the mud, is often preferable to music made by earthly hands. Let it be abolished. Electrocute the composer and banish the music-critic. Then let there be elected a supervisory board of trusty guardians, men absolutely above the reproach of having played the concertina or plunked staccato tunes on a banjo. Entrust to their care all beautiful music and poetry and prohibit the profane, vulgar, the curious, gaping herd from even so much as a glance at these treasures. For the few, the previous elect, the quintessential in art, let no music be sounded throughout the land. Let us read it and think tender and warlike silent thoughts.
And now, having too long detained you with my vagaries, let me say "good night," for it is getting dark, and before midnight I must patrol the keyboard for at least four hours, unthreading the digital intricacies of Kalkbrenner's Variations on the old melody, Sei ruhig mein Herz, or the Cat will hear you.
OLD FOGY WRITES A SYMPHONIC POEM
"Definite feelings and emotions are unsusceptible of being embodied in music," says Eduard Hanslick in his Beautiful in Music. Now, you composers who make symphonic poems, why don't you realize that on its merits as a musical composition, its theme, its form, its treatment, that your work will endure, and not on account of its fidelity to your explanatory program?
For example, if I were a very talented young composer—which I am not—and had mastered the tools of my trade—knew everything from a song to a symphony, and my instrumentation covered the whole gamut of the orchestral pigment.... Well, one night as I tossed wearily on my bed—it was a fine night in spring, the moon rounded and lustrous and silvering the lake below my window—suddenly my musical imagination began to work.
I had just been reading, and for the thousandth time, Browning's Childe Roland, with its sinister coloring and spiritual suggestions. Yet it had never before struck me as a subject suitable for musical treatment. But the exquisite cool of the night, its haunting mellow flavor, had set my brain in a ferment. A huge fantastic shadow threw a jagged black figure on the lake. Presto, it was done, and with a mental snap that almost blinded me.
I had my theme. It will be the first theme in my new symphonic poem, Childe Roland. It will be in the key of B minor, which is to be emblematic of the dauntless knight who to "the dark tower came," unfettered by obstacles, physical or spiritual.
O, how my brain seethed and boiled, for I am one of those unhappy men who the moment they get an idea must work it out to its bitter end. Childe Roland kept me awake all night. I even heard his "dauntless horn" call and saw the "squat tower." I had his theme. I felt it to be good; to me it was Browning's Knight personified. I could hear its underlying harmonies and the instrumentation, sombre, gloomy, without one note of gladness.
The theme I treated in such a rhythmical fashion as to impart to it exceeding vitality, and I announced it with the English horn, with a curious rhythmic background by the tympani; the strings in division played tremolando and the bass staccato and muted. This may not be clear to you; it is not very clear to me, but at the time it all seemed very wonderful. I finished the work after nine months of agony, of revision, of pruning, clipping, cutting, hawking it about for my friends' inspection and getting laughed at, admired and also mildly criticized.
The thrice fatal day arrived, the rehearsals had been torture, and one night the audience at a great concert had the pleasure of reading on the program Browning's Childe Roland in full, and wondering what it was all about. My symphonic poem would tell them all, as I firmly believed in the power of music to portray definitely certain soul-states, to mirror moods, to depict, rather indefinitely to be sure, certain phenomena of daily life.
My poem was well played. It was only ninety minutes long, and I sat in a nervous swoon as I listened to the Childe Roland theme, the squat tower theme, the sudden little river motif, the queer gaunt horse theme, the horrid engine of war motif, the sinister, grinning, false guide subject—in short, to all the many motives of the poem, with its apotheosis, the dauntless blast from the brave knight as he at last faced the dark tower.
This latter I gave out with twelve trombones, twenty-one bassett horns and one calliope; it almost literally brought down the house, and I was the happiest man alive. As I moved out I was met by the critic of The Disciples of Tone, who said to me:
"Lieber Kerl, I must congratulate you; it beats Richard Strauss all hollow. Who and what was Childe Roland? Was he any relation to Byron's Childe Harold? I suppose the first theme represented the 'galumphing' of his horse, and that funny triangular fugue meant that the horse was lame in one leg and was going it on three. Adieu; I'm in a hurry."
Triangular fugue! Why, that was the crossroads before which Childe Roland hesitated! How I hated the man.
I was indeed disheartened. Then a lady spoke to me, a musical lady, and said:
"It was grand, perfectly grand, but why did you introduce a funeral march in the middle—I fancied that Childe Roland was not killed until the end?"
The funeral march she alluded to was not a march at all, but the "quagmire theme," from which queer faces threateningly mock at the knight.
"Hopeless," thought I; "these people have no imagination."
The next day the critics treated me roughly. I was accused of cribbing my first theme from The Flying Dutchman, and fixing it up rhythmically for my own use, as if I hadn't made it on the spur of an inspired moment! They also told me that I couldn't write a fugue; that my orchestration was overloaded, and my work deficient in symmetry, repose, development and, above all, in coherence.
This last was too much. Why, Browning's poem was contained in my tone-poem; blame Browning for the incoherence, for I but followed his verse. One day many months afterward I happened to pick up Hanslick, and chanced on the following:
"Let them play the theme of a symphony by Mozart or Haydn, an adagio by Beethoven, a scherzo by Mendelssohn, one of Schumann's or Chopin's compositions for the piano, or again, the most popular themes from the overtures of Auber, Donizetti or Flotow, who would be bold enough to point out a definite feeling on the subject of any of these themes? One will say 'love.' Perhaps so. Another thinks it is longing. He may be right. A third feels it to be religion. Who may contradict him? Now, how can we talk of a definite feeling represented when nobody really knows what is represented? Probably all will agree about the beauty or beauties of the composition, whereas all will differ regarding its subject. To represent something is to exhibit it clearly, to set it before us distinctly. But how can we call that the subject represented by an art which is really its vaguest and most indefinite element, and which must, therefore, forever remain highly debatable ground."
I saw instantly that I had been on a false track. Charles Lamb and Eduard Hanslick had both reached the same conclusion by diverse roads. I was disgusted with myself. So then the whispering of love and the clamor of ardent combatants were only whispering, storming, roaring, but not the whispering of love and the clamor; musical clamor, certainly, but not that of "ardent combatants."
I saw then that my symphonic poem, Childe Roland, told nothing to anyone of Browning's poem, that my own subjective and overstocked imaginings were not worth a rush, that the music had an objective existence as music and not as a poetical picture, and by the former and not the latter it must be judged. Then I discovered what poor stuff I had produced—how my fancy had tricked me into believing that those three or four bold and heavily orchestrated themes, with their restless migration into different tonalities, were "soul and tales marvelously mirrored."
In reality my ignorance and lack of contrapuntal knowledge, and, above all, the want of clear ideas of form, made me label the work a symphonic poem—an elastic, high-sounding, pompous and empty title. In a spirit of revenge I took the score, rearranged it for small orchestra, and it is being played at the big circus under the euphonious title of The Patrol of the Night Stick, and the musical press praises particularly the graphic power of the night stick motive and the verisimilitude of the escape of the burglar in the coda.
Alas, Childe Roland!
Seriously, if our rising young composers—isn't it funny they are always spoken of as rising? I suppose it's because they retire so late—read Hanslick carefully, much good would accrue. It is all well enough to call your work something or other, but do not expect me nor my neighbor to catch your idea. We may be both thinking about something else, according to our temperaments. I may be probably enjoying the form, the instrumentation, the development of your themes; my neighbor, for all we know, will in imagination have buried his rich, irritable old aunt, and so your paean of gladness, with its brazen clamor of trumpets, means for him the triumphant ride home from the cemetery and the anticipated joys of the post-mortuary hurrah.
A COLLEGE FOR CRITICS
Yes, it was indeed a hot, sultry afternoon, and as the class settled down to stolid work, even Mr. Quelson shifted impatiently at the blackboard, where he was trying to explain to a young pupil from Missouri that Beethoven did not write his oratorio, The Mount of Olives, for Park and Tilford. It was no use, however, the pupil had been brought up in a delicatessen foundry and saw everything musical from the comestible viewpoint.
The sun blazed through the open oriel windows at the western end of the large hall, and the class inwardly rebelled at its task and thought of cool, green grottoes with heated men frantically falling over the home-plate, while the multitude belched bravos as Teddy McCorkle made three bases. Instead of the national game the class was wrestling with figured bass and the art of descant, and again it groaned aloud.
Mr. Quelson faced his pupils. In his eyes were tears, but he must do his duty.
"Gentlemen," he suavely said, "the weather is certainly trying, but remember this is examination day, and next week you, that is some of you, will go out into the great world to face its cares, to wrestle for its prizes, to put forth your strength against the strength of men; in a word, to become critics of music, and to represent this college, wherein you have imbibed so much generous and valuable learning."
He paused, and the class, which had pricked up its ears at the word "imbibe," settled once again to listen in gloomy silence. Their dignified preceptor continued.
"And now, gentlemen of the Brahms Institute, I hasten to inform you that the examining committee is without, and is presently to be admitted. Let me conjure you to keep your heads; let me beg of you to do yourself justice. Surely, after five years of constant, sincere, and earnest study you will not backslide, you will not, in the language of the great Matthewson, make any muffs." Professor Quelson looked about him and beamed benignly. He had made a delicate joke, and it was not lost, for most sonorously the class chanted, "He's a jolly good fellow," and in modern harmonies. Their professor looked gratified and bowed. Then he tapped a bell, which sounded the triad of B flat minor, and the doors at the eastern end of the hall parted asunder, and the examining committee solemnly entered.
It was an august looking gang. Two music-critics from four of the largest cities of the country comprised the board of examination, with a president selected by common vote. This president was the distinguished pianist and literator, Dr. Larry Nopkin, and his sarcastic glare at the pupils gave every man the nervous shivers. Funereally the nine men filed by and took their seats on the platform, Dr. Nopkin occupying with Mr. Quelson the dais, on which stood a grand piano.
There was a brief pause, but pregnant with anxiety. Mr. Quelson, all smiles, handed Dr. Nopkin a long list of names, and the committee fanned itself and thought of the Tannhaeuser-Busch Overture which it had listened to so attentively in the Wagner coaches that brought it to Brahms Institute.
The only man of the party who seemed out of humor was Mr. Blink, who grumbled to his neighbor that the name of the college was in bad taste. It should have been called the Chopin Retreat or the Paderewski Home, but Brahms—pooh!
Dr. Nopkin arose, put on a pair of ponderous spectacles, and grinned malevolently at his hearers.
"Young men," he squeakily said, "I want to begin with a story. Once upon a time a certain young man, full of the conviction that he was a second Liszt, sought out Thalberg, when that great pianist—"
"Great pianist!" whispered Blink, sardonically.
"Yes, I said great pianist—greater than all your Paderewski's, your—"
"I protest, Mr. President," said Mr. Blink, rising to his feet; at the same time a pink flush rose to his cheek. "I protest. We have not come here to compare notes about pianists, but to examine this class."
The class giggled, but respectfully and in a perfect major-accord. Dr. Nopkin grew black in the face. Turning to Mr. Quelson he said:
"Either I am president or I am not, Mr. Quelson."
That gentleman looked very much embarrassed.
"Oh, of course, doctor, of course; Mr. Blink was carried away, you know—carried away by his professional enthusiasm—no offense intended, I am sure, Mr. Blink."
By this time Mr. Blink had been pulled down in his seat by Mr. Sanderson, the critic of the Skyrocket, and order was restored.
The class seemed disappointed as Dr. Nopkin proceeded: "As I was saying when interrupted by my Wagnerian associate, the young man went to Thalberg and played an original composition called the Tornado Galop. It was written exclusively for the black keys, and a magnificent glissando, if I do flatter myself, ended the piece most brilliantly. Thalberg—it was in the year '57, if I remember aright."
"You do," remarked the class in pleasing tune.
"Thank you, gentlemen, I see dates are not your weak point. Thalberg remarked—"
"For goodness sake give us a rest on Thalberg!" said the irrepressible Blink.
"A rest, yes, a fermata if you wish," retorted the doctor, and the witticism was received with a yell, in the Doric mode. You see Rheinberger had not quite sapped the sense of humor of Mr. Quelson's young acolytes.
Considerably pleased with himself Dr. Nopkin continued:
"Thalberg said to the young man, 'Honored sir, there is too much wind in your work, give your Tornado more earth, and less air.' Now the point of this amiable criticism is applicable to your work now and in the future. Give your readers little wind, but much soil. Do not indulge in fine writing, but facts, facts, facts!" Here the speaker paused and glanced severely at his colleagues, who awoke with a start. The ear of the music critic is very keen and long practice enables him to awaken at the precise moment the music ceases.
Then Dr. Nopkin announced that the examinations would begin, and again from a tapped bell sounded the triad of B flat minor. The class looked unhappy, and the young fellow from Missouri burst into tears. For a moment a wave of hysterical emotion surged through the hall, and there being so much temperament present it seemed as if a crisis was at hand. Mr. Quelson rose to the occasion. Crying aloud in a massive voice, he asked:
"Gentlemen, give me the low pitch A!"
Instantly the note was sounded; even the weeping pupil hummed it through his tears, and a panic was averted by the coolness of a massive brain fertile in expedients.
The committee, now thoroughly awake, looked gratified, and the examination began.
After glancing through the list, Dr. Nopkin called aloud:
"Mr. Hogwin, will you please tell me the date of the death of Verdi?"
"Don't let him jolly you, Hoggy, old boy," sang the class in an immaculate minor key. The doctor was aghast, but Mr. Quelson took the part of his school. He argued that the question was a misleading one. They wrangled passionately over this, and Blink finally declared that if Verdi was not dead he ought to be. This caused a small riot, which was appeased by the class singing the Anvil Chorus.
"Well, I give in, Mr. Quelson; perhaps my friend Blink would like to put a few questions." Dr. Nopkin fanned himself vigorously with an old and treasured copy of Dwight's Journal of Music, containing a criticism of his "passionate octave playing." Mr. Blink arose and took the list.
"I see here," he said, "the name of Beckmesser McGillicuddy. The name is a promising one. Wagner ever desired the Celt to be represented in his scheme of the universe."
"Obliging of him," insinuated Mr. Tile of the Daily Bulge.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," groaned poor Quelson; "think of the effect on the class if this spirit of irreverent repartee is maintained."
"Mr. Beckmesser McGillicuddy, will you please stand up?" requested Mr. Blink.
"Stand up, Gilly! Stand up Gilly, and show him what you are. Don't be afraid, Gilly! We will see you through," chanted the class with an amazing volume of tone and in lively rhythm.
The young man arose. He was 6 feet 8, with a 17 waist, and a 12-1/2 neck. Yet he looked intelligent. The class watched him eagerly, and the Missouri member, now thoroughly recovered, whistled the Fate-motif from Carmen, and McGillicuddy looked grateful.
"You wish to become a music critic, do you not?" inquired Mr. Blink, patronizingly.
"What do you think I'm here for?" asked the student, in firm, cool tones.
"Tell me, then, did Wagner ever wear paper collars?"
"Celluloid," was the quick answer, and the class cheered. Mr. Quelson looked unhappy, and Tile sneered in a minor but audible key.
"Good," said Mr. Blink. "You'll do. Would any of my colleagues care to question this young and promising applicant, who appears to me to have thoroughly mastered modern music?"
Little Mr. Slehbell arose, and the class again trembled. They had read his How to See Music Although a Deaf Mute, and they knew that there were questions in it that could knock them out. The critic secured the list, and after hunting up the letter K, he coughed gently and asked:
"Mr. Krap is here, I hope?"
"Get into line, Billy Krap; get into line, Billy. Give him as good as he gives you; so fall into line, Billy Krap."
This was first sung by the class with antiphonal responses, then with a fugued finale, and Mr. Slehbell was considerably impressed.
"I must say," he began, "even if you do not become shining lights as music critics, you are certainly qualified to become members of an Opera Company. But where is Mr. Krap—a Bohemian, I should say, from his name."
"Isn't Slehbell marvellous on philology?" said Sanderson, and Dr. Nopkin looked shocked.
No Krap stood up, so the name of Flatbush was called. He, too, was absent, and Mr. Quelson explained in exasperated accents that these two were his prize pupils, but had begged off to umpire a game of Gregorian-chant cricket down in the village. "Ask for Palestrina McVickar," said Mr. Quelson, in an eager stage whisper.
The new man proved to be a wild-looking person, with hair on his shoulders, and it was noticeable that the class gave him no choral invitation to arise. He looked formidable, however, and you could have heard an E string snap, so intense was the silence.
"Mr. McVickar, you are an American, I presume?"
"No, sir; I am an Australian, I am happy to say." A slight groan was heard from the lips of an austere youth with a Jim Corbett pompadour.
"You may groan all you like," said McVickar, fiercely; "but Fitzsimmons licked him and that blow in the solar plexus—"
Mr. Slehbell raised his hands deprecatingly.
"Really, young gentlemen, you seem very well posted on sporting matters. What I wish to ask you is whether you think Dvorak's later, or American manner, may be compared to Brahms' second or D minor piano concerto period?"
"He doesn't know Brahms from a bull's foot," roared the class, in unison. "Ask him who struck Billy Patterson?" Once more the quick eye of Mr. Quelson saw an impending rebellion, and quickly rushing among the malcontents he bundled five of them out of the room and returned to the platform, murmuring:
"Such musical temperaments, you know; such very great temperaments!" Incidentally, he had rid himself of five of the most ignorant men of the class. Quelson was really very diplomatic.
McVickar hesitated a moment after silence had been restored, and then answered Mr. Slehbell's question:
"You see, sir, we are no further than Leybach and Auber. The name you mention is not familiar to me, but I can tell you all the different works of Carl Czerny; and I know how to spell Mascagni."
"Heavens," screamed Blink, and he fainted from fright. Beer was ordered, and after a short piano solo—Czerny's Toccata in C, from Dr. Larry Nopkin—order reigned once more. The class gazed enviously at the committee as it sipped beer, and longed for the day when it would be free and critics of music. Then Mr. Quelson said that questioning was at an end. He had never endeavored to inculcate knowledge of a positive sort in his pupils. Besides, what did music critics want with knowledge? They had Grove's Dictionary as a starter, and by carefully negativing every date and fact printed in it, they were sure to hit the truth somewhere. A ready pen was the thing, and he begged the committee to be allowed to present specimens of criticisms of imaginary concerts, written by the graduating class of 1912.
The request was granted, and Dr. Nopkin selected as the reader. There was an interval of ten minutes, during which the doctor played snatches of De Koven and Scharwenka, and the class drove its pen furiously. Finally, the bell sounded, and the following criticisms were handed to the president, and read aloud while the class blushed in ruddy ensemble:
An Interesting Evening
"It was a startling sight that met the eyes of the musical editor of the Evening Buzzard when he entered the De Pew Opera House last night at 8.22. All the leading families of Mushmelon, arrayed in their best raiment, disported themselves in glittering groups, and it was almost with a feeling of disappointment that we saw the curtain arise on the seventh act of Faust. Of course the music and singing were applauded to the echo, and the principals were forced to bow their acknowledgments to the gracious applause of the upper ten of Mushmelon. The following is a list of those present," etc. (Here follow names.)
"A rattling good notice that," said one of the older members of the committee. Mr. Quelson hastened to explain that it was intended for an emergency notice, when the night city editor was unmusical. "But," he added, "here is something in a more superior vein."
Dr. Nopkin read:
How I Heard Paderewski!
"Of course I heard Paderewski. Let me tell you all about it. I had quarreled with my dear one early in the day over a pneumatic tire, so I determined to forget it and go listen to some music.
"Music always soothes my nerves.
"Does it soothe yours, gentle reader?
"I went to hear Paderewski.
"Taking the Broadway car, me and my liver—my liver is my worst enemy; terrible things, livers; is life really worth the liver?—I sat down and paid my fare to a burly ruffian in a grimy uniform.
"Some day I shall tell you about my adventure with a car. Dear Lord, what an adventure it was!
"Ah, the bitter-sweet days! the long-ago days when we were young and trolleyed.
"But let me tell you how Paderewski played!
"After I reached my seat 4000 women cheered. I was the only man in the house; but being modest, I stood the strain as long as I could, and then—why, Paderewski was bowing, and I forgot all about the women and their enthusiasm at the sight of me.
"Fancy a slender-hipped orchidaceous person, an epicene youth with Botticellian hair and a Nietzsche walk. Fancy ten fluted figures and then—oh, you didn't care what he was playing—indeed, I mislaid my program—and then it was time to go home.
"Some day I shall give you my impressions of the Paderewskian technique, but today is a golden day, the violets are smiling, because God gave them perfume; a lissome lass is in the foreground; why should I bother about piano, Paderewski, or technique?
"Dear Lord, dear Lord—!"
Mr. Quelson looked interrogatively at the committee when the doctor finished.
"The personal note, you know," he said, "the note that is so valued nowadays in criticism."
"Personal rubbish," grunted the doctor, and Mr. Slehbell joyously laughed.
"Give us one with more matter and less manner," remarked Mr. Sanderson, who had quietly but none the less determinedly eaten up all the sandwiches and drunk seven bottles of beer. Mr. Van Oven, of the Morning Fowl, was, as usual, fast asleep. [This was the manner in which he composed himself.]
Mr. Quelson handed the doctor the following:
Solid Musical Meat
"The small hall of the Mendelssohn Glee Club was crowded to listen to the polished playing of the Boston Squintet Club last night. It was a graciously inclined audience, and after
Haydn, Grieg, and Brahms had been disclosed, it departed in one of those frames of mind that the chronicler of music events can safely denominate as happy. There were many reasons, which may not be proclaimed now why this should be thus. The first quartet, one of the blithest, airiest, and most serene of Papa Haydn's, was published with absolute finish, if not with abandon. Its naive measures were never obsessed by the straining after modernity. The Grieg is hardly strict quartet music. It has a savor, a flavor, a perfume, an odor, even a sturdy smell of the Norway pine and fjord; but it is lacking woefully in repose and euphony, and at times it verges perilously on the cacophonous. Mr. Casnoozle and his gifted associates played a marvelous accord and slid over all the yawning tonal precipices, but, heavens, how they did perspire! The Brahms Quartet—"
"I protest," said Mr. Blink, hastily rising. "I've been insulted ever since I entered the building. Why, the very name of the institution is an insult to modern musicians! Brahms! why, good heavens, Brahms is only a whitewashed Hummel! And to think of these young minds being poisoned by such antique rot as Brahms' music!"
In a moment the committee was on its legs howling and jabbering; poor Mr. Quelson vainly endeavoring to keep order. After ten minutes of rowing, during which the class sang The Night That Larry Was Stretched, Dr. Nopkin was pushed over the piano and fell on the treble and hurt his lungs. The noise brought to their senses the irate men, and then, to their consternation, they discovered that the class had sneaked off during the racket, and on the blackboard was written: "Oh, we don't know, you're not so critical!"
"My Lord," groaned Mr. Quelson, "they have gone to that infernal Gregorian chant-cricket match; wait till I get hold of that Palestrina McVickar!"
The committee left in a bad humor on the next train, and the principal of Brahms Institute gave his class a vacation. Hereafter he will do his own examining.
A WONDER CHILD
A recent event in the musical world of Laputa has been of such extraordinary moment as to warrant me in making some communication of same to your valuable sheet, and although in these days of electricity one might reasonably imagine the cable would have outstripped me, still by careful examination of American newspapers I find only meagre mention of the remarkable musical occurrence that shook all Laputa to its centre last month. As you know, we pride ourselves on being a thoroughly musical nation; our symphony concert programs and our operatic repertory contain all the novelties that are extant. To be sure, we are a little conservative in our tastes and relish Mozart, and, must it be confessed, even Haydn; but, on the other hand, we have a penchant for the Neo-Russian school and hope some day to found a trans-Asiatic band of composers whose names will probably be as hard as their harmonies are to European and American ears.
The event I speak of transcends anything in the prodigy line that we have ever encountered, for while we have been deluged with boy pianists, infant violinists, and baby singers, ad nauseam, still it must be confessed that a centenarian piano virtuoso who would make his debut before a curious audience on his hundredth birthday was a novelty indeed, particularly as the aged artist in question had been studying diligently for some ninety-five years under the best masters (and with what opportunities!) and would also on this most auspicious occasion conduct an orchestral composition of his own, a Marche Funebre a la Tartare, for the first time in public. This, then, I repeat, was a prodigy that promised to throw completely in the shade all competitors, in addition to its being an event that had no historical precedence in the annals of music.
With what burning curiosity the night of the concert was awaited I need not describe, nor of the papers teeming with anecdotes of the venerable virtuoso whose name betrayed his Asiatic origin. His great-grandchildren (who were also his managers) announced in their prospectus that their great-grandfather had never played in public before, and with, of course, the exception of his early masters, had never even played for anybody outside of his own family circle. Born in 1788, he first studied technics with the famous Clementi and harmony with Albrechtsberger. His parents early imbued him (by the aid of a club) with the idea of the extreme importance of time and its value, if rightfully used, in furthering technique. So, from five hours a day in the beginning he actually succeeded in practising eighteen hours out of the twenty-four, which commendable practice (literally) he continued in his later life.
Although he had only studied with one master, the Gospadin Bundelcund, as he was named, had been on intimate terms with all the great virtuosi of his day, and had heard Beethoven, Steibelt, Czerny, Woelfl, Kalkbrenner, Cramer, Hummel, Field, Hiller, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Henselt, and also many minor lights of pianism whose names have almost faded from memory. Always a man of great simplicity and modesty, he retired more and more amidst his studies the older he grew, and even after his marriage he could not be induced to play in public, for his ideal was a lofty one, and though his children, and even his grandchildren, often urged him to make his debut, he was inflexible on the subject. His great-grandchildren, however, were shrewd, and, taking advantage of the aged pianist's increasing senility, they finally succeeded in making him promise to play at a grand concert, to be given at the capital of Laputa, and, despite his many remonstrances, he at last consented.
It goes without saying that the attendance at our National Opera House was one of the largest ever seen there. The wealth and brains of the capital were present, and all eagerly watched for the novel apparition that was to appear. The program was a simple one: the triple piano concerto of Bach, arranged for one piano by the Gospadin; a movement from the G minor concerto of Dussek; piano solos, L'Orage, by Steibelt; a fugue for the left hand alone, by Czerny, and a set of etudes after Czerny, being free transcriptions of his famous Velocity Studies, roused the deepest curiosity in our minds, for vague rumors of an astonishing technique were rife. And, finally, when the stage doors were pushed wide open and a covered litter was slowly brought forward by six dusky slaves and gently set down, the pent up feelings of the audience could not be restrained any longer, and a shout that was almost barbaric shook the hall to its centre.
An Echtstein grand piano, with the action purposely lightened to suit the pianist's touch, stood in the centre of the stage, and a large, comfortable looking high-backed chair was placed in front of it. The attendants, after setting the litter down, rolled the chair up to it, and then parting the curtains carefully, and even reverently, lifted out what appeared to be a mass of black velvet and yellow flax. This bundle they placed on the chair and wheeled it up to the piano and then proceeded to bring forth a quantity of strange looking implements, such as hand guides, gymnasiums, wires and pulleys, and placed them around the odd, lifeless looking mass on the chair. Then a solemn looking individual came forth and announced to the audience that the soloist, owing to his extreme feebleness, had been hypnotized previous to the concert, as it was the only manner in which to get him to play, and that he would be restored to consciousness at once and the program proceeded with.
There was a slight inclination on the part of the audience to hiss, but its extreme curiosity speedily checked it and it breathlessly awaited results. The doctor, for he was one, bent over the recumbent figure of the pianist and, lifting him into an upright position, made a few passes over him and apparently uttered something into his ear through a long tube. A wonderful change at once manifested itself, and slowly raising himself on his feet there stood a gaunt old man, with an enormous skull-like head covered with long yellowish white hair, eyes so sunken as to be invisible, and a nose that would defy all competition as to size.
After fairly tottering from side to side in his efforts to make a bow, the Gospadin (or, as you would say, Mister or Herr) Bundelcund fell back exhausted in his seat, and while a murmur of pity ran through the house his attendants administered restoratives out of uncanny looking phials and vigorously fanned him. By this time the audience had worked itself up to a fever pitch (at least eight tones above concert pitch) and nothing short of an earthquake would have dispersed it; besides the price of admission was enormous and naturally every one wanted the worth of his money. I had a strong glass and eagerly examined the old man and saw that he had long skinny fingers that resembled claws, a cadaverous face and an air of abstraction one notices in very old or deaf persons. To my horror I noticed that the doctor in addressing him spoke through a large trumpet and then it dawned on me that the man was deaf, and hardly was I convinced of this when my right hand neighbor informed me that the Gospadin was blind also, and being feeble and exhausted by piano practice hardly ever spoke; so he was practically dumb.
Here was an interesting state of things, and my forebodings as to the result were further strengthened when I saw the attendants place the old man's fingers in the technique-developing machines that encumbered the stage, and vigorously proceeded to exercise his fingers, wrists, and forearms, he all the while feebly nodding, while two other attendants flapped him at intervals with bladders to keep him from going to sleep. Again my right-hand neighbor, who appeared to be loquacious, informed me that the Gospadin's mercenary great-grandchildren kept him awake in this manner and thus forced him to play eighteen hours a day. What a cruelty, I thought, but just then a few muffled chords aroused me from my thoughts and I directed all my attention to the stage, for the performance had at last begun.
Never shall I forget the curious sensation I experienced when the aged prodigy began the performance of the first number, his own remarkable arrangement for piano solo of the Bach concerto in D minor for three pianos, and I instantly discovered that the instrument on which he played had organ pedals attached, otherwise some of the effects he produced could not have been even hinted at. His touch was weird, his technique indescribable, and one no longer listened to the piano, but to one of those instruments of Eastern origin in which glass and metal are extensively used. The quality of tone emanating from the piano was brittle, so to speak; in a word, sounded so thin, sharp, and at times so wavering as to suggest the idea that it might at any moment break. And then it made me indescribably nervous to see his talon-like fingers threading their way through the mazes of the concerto, which was a tax on any player, and though the three piano parts were but faintly reproduced, the arrangement showed ability and musicianship in the handling of it. But a vague, far-away sort of a feeling pervaded the whole performance, which left me at the end rather more dazed than otherwise.
During the uproarious applause that followed my neighbor again remarked to me that though the old man did not appear to be as much exhausted as he had anticipated, still he feared the worst from this great strain of his appearing before such a public and under such exciting circumstances, and then becoming confidential he whispered to me that the agents for the Paul von Janko keyboard had approached the venerable pianist, but after inspecting the invention the latter had replied wearily that he was too old to begin "tobogganing" now. My neighbor seemed to be amused at this joke, and not until the orchestra had begun the tutti of the G minor concerto of Dussek (an intimate friend of the Gospadin's, by the way) did he cease his chuckling.
The concerto was played in a dreary fashion, and only the strenuous efforts of the attendants on each side of the soloist kept him from going off into a sound nap during every tutti. The rest of the piano program was almost the same story. The Steibelt selection, the old-fashioned L'Orage, was no storm at all, but a feeble, maundering up and down the keyboard. The Czerny fugue was better and the performance of the same composer's Velocity Studies was a marvel of lightness and one might almost say volubility. In these etudes his wonderful stiff arm octave playing, in the real old-fashioned manner, showed itself, for in every run in single notes he introduced octaves. The applause after this was so great and the flappers at the pianist's side plied him so vigorously that the Gospadin actually began playing the Hexameron, that remarkably difficult and old set of variations on the march in Puritani, by Liszt, Chopin, Pixis, and Thalberg.
These he played, it must be confessed, in a masterly manner, but at the end he introduced a variation, prodigious as to difficulty, which I failed to recognize as ever having seen it in the printed copy of the composition. Again my right-hand neighbor, appearing to anticipate my question on the subject, informed me that it was by Bundelcund himself, and that he had been angered beyond control by the refusal of the publishers to print it with the rest, and had written a lengthy letter to Liszt on the subject, in which he told him that he considered him a charlatan along with Henselt, Chopin, Hiller, and Thalberg, and that he was the only pianist worth speaking of, which information threw an interesting side light on our Asiatic virtuoso's character, and showed that he was made of about the same metal, after all, as most of your European manipulators of ivory.
By this time the stage had been cleared of the piano and the litter, and a conductor's stand was brought forward, draped in black velvet trimmed with white, and appropriately wreathed with tuberoses, whose deathly-sweet odor diffused itself throughout the house and caused an unpleasant shudder to circulate through the audience, who were beginning to realize the mockery of this modern dance of death, but who remained to see the end of the sad comedy. The orchestra, which was reinforced by several uncanny looking instruments, strange even to Asiatic eyes, were seated, and then the dusky servants lifted with infinite care the aged Bundelcund into a standing posture, placed him at the stand, and while four held him there the two flappers were so unremitting in their attentions that one might suppose the old man's face would be sore, were it not for its almost total absence of flesh, and also his long, thick hair, which fell far below his waist.
Standing in an erect attitude he was an appalling figure to behold, and the two lighted tapers in massive candelabras on each side of the desk lighted up his face with an unholy and gruesome glare. The funereal aspect of the scene was heightened by the house being in total darkness, and though many women had fainted, oppressed by the charnel-house atmosphere that surrounded us, still the audience as a whole remained spellbound in their seats. The medical man now plied the conductor-pianist with the contents of the mysterious phial, and placing a long, white ostrich plume in his hand, he made a signal for the orchestra to begin. The conductor, despite his deafness, appeared to comprehend what was going on and feebly waved the plume in air, and the first gloomy chords of the Marche Funebre a la Tartare were heard. Of all the funeral marches ever penned this composition certainly outdid them all in diabolical waitings and the gnashing of teeth of damned souls.
It was the funeral march of some mid-Asiatic pachyderm, and the whole herd were howling their grief in a manner which would put Wagner, Berlioz, and Meyerbeer to shame; for such a use of brass had never been even dreamed of, and the peculiar looking instruments I first spoke of now came to the fore and the din they raised was positively hellish. Those who could see the composer's face afterward declared it was wreathed in smiles, but this, of course, I could not see; but I did see, and we all saw, after the rather abrupt end of the march (which finished after a long-drawn-out suspension, capo d'astro, resolved by the use of the diseased chord of the minor thirteenth into a dissipated fifth), the venerable virtuoso suddenly collapse, and suddenly fall into the arms of the attendants, whose phlegm, while being thoroughly Oriental, still smacked of anticipation of this very event. Instantly the lights went out and a panic ensued, everyone getting into the street somehow or other. I found myself there side by side with my neighbor, who informed me in an oracular manner that he had expected this all along.
Then an immense crowd, angered by the cruel exhibition which they had witnessed, searched high and low for the miscreant and mercenary great-grandchildren who had so ruthlessly sacrificed their talented progenitor for the sake of pelf, but they were nowhere to be found, and they doubtlessly had escaped with their booty to a safe place. The doctor had also disappeared and with him all traces of the Gospadin Bundelcund, and soon after sinister rumors were spread that the man we had heard performing was a dead man (horrible idea!) that he had been dead for years, but by the aid of that new and yet undeveloped science, hypnotism, he had been revived and made to automatically perform, and that the whole ghastly mummery was planned to make money. Certain it was that we never heard of any of the participants in the affair again, and I write to you knowing that American readers will be interested in this queer musical and psychical prodigy. His epitaph might be given in a slightly altered quotation, "Butchered to make a Laputian's holiday."