Notes of a Pianist: Iii

NEW YORK, February, 1862.— One thing surprises me. It is to find New York, to say the least of it, as brilliant as when I took my departure for the Antilles in 1857. In general, the press abroad relates the events of our war with such a predetermined pessimist spirit, that at a distance it is impossible to form a correct estimate of the state of the country. For the last year I have read in the papers statements to this effect: — “ The theatres are closed ; the terrorism of Robespierre sinks into insignificance, compared to the excesses of the Americans ; the streets of New York are deluged with blood” (I very nearly had a duel in Puerto Rico for venturing to question the authenticity of this last assertion, propounded by a Spanish officer); “in short, the North is in a starving condition.”

“ How can you think of giving concerts to people who are in want of bread ? ” was the remark of my friends, on being apprised of my resolution to return to the United States ; and, in all humility, I must acknowledge that the same question suggested itself not unfrequently to my mind, when I discussed within me the expediency of my voyage. I have still in my possession a newspaper in which a correspondent states the depreciation of our currency to be such that he actually saw a baker refuse to take a dollar from a famished laborer in exchange for a loaf of bread.

The number of these trustworthy correspondents has increased in the direct ratio of our prosperity, the development of our resources, and the umbrage these blessings give to the enemies of democratic principles. There are very few governments that would not deem it a matter of duty to exult over the ruin of our republican edifice. Fear actuates the less enlightened; jealousy is the motive of the more liberal. A celebrated statesman once said to me, “ A republic is theoretically a very fine thing, but it is a Utopia.” Like the man in antiquity, who, on hearing motion denied, refuted the assertion simply by rising and walking, we had hitherto put the “Utopia into practice; and the thing did march on, and proved a reality. The argument was peremptory. A principle can be discussed ; a fact is undeniable. Although retracted by the organs of the foreign press, the light of truth still flashed at times upon the people in Europe, and taught it to reflect. When our troubles broke out, I was in Martinique. In all the Antilles,— Spanish, French, Danish, English, Swedish, Dutch, — it was but one unanimous cry, “ Did not we say so ? ” and the truthful and independent correspondents immediately embraced this opportunity to redouble their zeal, and forthwith began to multiply like mosquitoes in a tropical swamp alter a summer shower.

But it is not my province to pronounce upon lofty political and moral questions. I would merely say that New York, for a deserted city, is singularly animated ; that Broadway yesterday was thronged with pretty women, who, famished as they are, present, nevertheless, the delusive appearance of health, and brave with heroic indifference the bloody tumults of which our streets are daily the theatre ; that Art is not so utterly dead among us but that Maretzek gives “ Un Ballo in Maschera ” to crowded houses, and Church sees his studio filled with amateurs desirous of admiring his magnificent and strange “Icebergs,” which he has just finished.

It is difficult to account for the extreme ignorance of many foreigners with regard to the political and intellectual standing of the United States, when one considers the extent of our commerce, which covers the entire world like a vast net, or when one views the incessant tide of immigration which thins the population of Europe to our profit. A French admiral, Viscount Duquesne, inquired of me at Havana, in 1853, if it were possible to venture in the vicinity of St. Louis without apprehending being massacred by the Indians. The father of a talented French pianist who resides in this country wrote a few years since to his son to know if the furrier business in the city of New York was exclusively carried on by Indians. Her Imperial Highness the Grand-Duchess of Russia, on seeing Barnum’s name in an American paper, requested me to tell her if he were not one of our prominent statesmen. For very many individuals in Europe, the United States have remained just what they were when Chateaubriand wrote “ Les Natchez,” and saw parrots (?) on the boughs of the trees which the majestic “ Méchasébé ” rolled down the current of its mighty waters. All this may seem improbable, but I advance nothing that I am not fully prepared to prove. There is, assuredly, an intelligent class of people who read and know the truth ; but, unfortunately, it is not the most numerous, nor the most inclined to render us justice. Proudhon himself—that bold, vast mind, ever struggling for the triumph of light and progress — regards the pioneer of the West merely as an heroic outlaw, and the Americans in general as half-civilized savages. From Talleyrand, who said, “L'Amérique est un pays de cochons sales et de sales cochons,” down to Zimmermann, the director of the piano-classes at the Conservatory of Paris, who, without hearing me, gave as a reason for refusing to receive me in 1841, that “America was a country that could produce nothing but steam-engines,” there is scarcely an eminent man abroad who has not made a thrust at the Americans.— It may not be irrelevant to say here that the little Louisianian who was refused as a pupil in 1841 was called upon in 1851 to sit as a judge on the same bench with Zimmermann, at the “ Concours ” of the Conservatory.

Unquestionably there are many blanks in certain branches of our civilization. Our appreciation of the fine arts is not always as enlightened, as discriminating, as elevated, as it might be. We look upon them somewhat as interlopers, parasites, occupying a place to which they have no legitimate right. Our manners, like the machinery of our government, are too new to be smooth and polished ; they occasionally grate. We are more prone to worship the golden calf, in bowing down before the favorites of Fortune, than disposed to kill the fatted calf in honor of the elect of thought and mind. Each and every one of us thinks himself as good and better than any other man : an invaluable creed, when it engenders self-respect ; but, alas ! when we put it in practice, it is generally with a view of pulling down to our level those whose level we could never hope to reach. Fortunately, these little weaknesses are not national traits. They are inherent in all new societies, and will completely disappear when we shall attain the full development of our civilization with the maturity of age.

My impresarios, Strakosch and Gran, have made the important discovery, that my first concert in New York, on my return from Europe in 1853, took place the II th of February, and consequently have decided to defer my reappearance for a few days in order that it may fall upon the II th of February, 1862. The public (which takes not the remotest interest in the thing) has been duly informed of this memorable coincidence by all the papers.

Query by some of my friends : “ Why do you say such and such things in the advertisements ? Why do you not eliminate such and such epithets from the bills ? ”

Answer: Alas ! are you ignorant of the fact that the artist is a piece of merchandise, which the impresario has purchased, and which he sets off to the best advantage according to his own taste and views ? You might as well upbraid certain pseudo-gold-mines for declaring dividends which they will never pay, as to render the artist responsible for the puffs of his managers. A poor old negress becomes, in the hands of the Jupiter of the Museum, the nurse of Washington; after that, can you marvel at the magniloquent titles coupled with my name ?

The artist is like the stock which is to be quoted at the board and thrown upon the market. The impresario and his agents, the broker and his clique, cry out that it is “excellent, superb, unparalleled, — the shares are being carried off as by magic, — there remain but very few reserved seats. ’ (The house will perhaps be full of dead-heads, and the broker may be meditating a timely failure.) Nevertheless, the public rushes in, and the money follows a similar course. If the stock be really good, the founders of the enterprise become millionnaires. If the artist has talent, the impresario occasionally makes his (the impresario’s) fortune. In case both stock and artist prove bad, they fall below par and vanish after having made (quite innocently) a certain number of victims. Now, in all sincerity, of the two humbugs, do you not prefer that of the impresario ? At all events, it is less expensive.

I heard Brignoli yesterday evening in “ Martha.” The favorite tenor has still his charming voice, and has retained, despite the progress of an embonpoint that gives him some uneasiness, the aristocratic elegance which, added to his fine hair and “beautiful throat,” has made him so successful with the fair sex. Brignoli, notwithstanding the defects his detractors love to heap upon him, is an artist I sincerely admire. The reverse of vocalists, who, I am sorry to say, are for the most part vulgar ignoramuses, he is a thorough musician, and perfectly qualified to judge a musical work. His enemies would be surprised to learn that he knows by heart Hummel’s Concerto in A minor. He learned it as a child when he contemplated becoming a pianist, and still plays it charmingly. Brignoli knows how to sing, and, were it not for the excessive fear that paralyzes all his faculties before an audience, he would rank among the best singers of the day.

I met Brignoli for the first time at Paris in 1849. He was then very young, and had just made his debut at the Theatre Italien, in “ L’ Elisire d’ Amore,” under the sentimental patronage of Mme. R., wife of the celebrated barytone. In those days Brignoli was very thin, very awkward, and his timidity was rendered more apparent by the proximity of his protectress. Mme. R. was an Italian of commanding stature, impassioned and jealous. She sang badly, although possessed of a fine voice, which she was less skilful in showing to advantage than in displaying the luxuriant splendor of her raven hair. The public, initiated into the secret of the greenroom, used to be intensely amused at the piteous attitudes of Nemorino Brignoli, contrasting, as they did, with the ardent pantomime of Adina R., who looked by his side like a wounded lioness. Poor woman ! What has been your fate ? The glossy tresses of which you were so proud in your scenes of insanity, those tresses that brought down the house when your talent might have failed to do so, are now frosted with the snow of years. Your husband has forsaken you. After a long career of success, he has buried his fame under the orange-groves of the Alhambra. There he directs, according to his own statement, (but I can scarce credit it,) the phantom of a Conservatory for singing. I am convinced he has too much taste to break in upon the poetical silence of the old Moorish palace with portamenti, trills, and scales, and I flatter myself that the plaintive song of the nightingales of the Generalife and the soft murmur of the Fountain of the Lions are the only concerts that echo gives to the breeze that gently sighs at night from the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Alas! poor woman, your locks are silvered, and Brignoli — lias grown fat! “ Sic transit gloria mundi !