“ The best things, badly performed, become only the more insufferable.”— CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK.
“ The highest aim of the performing artist , of the virtuoso, must be the perfectly pure reproduction of the composer’s thought, and this can be insured only by a complete appropriation of the latter’s intentions, and consequently a perfect renunciation of his own inventive activity.” — RICHARD WAGNER.
PERSONS in the habit of reading much musical criticism are not unfamiliar with the expression, “ manifest intention.” This has, especially of late years, been held up as a never-failing screen, behind which performers can safely take what liberties they please with generally reverenced compositions. It is, perhaps, a striking fact that this manifest intention of tlie composer, which all performers ought undoubtedly to discover, is usually somewhat deeply hidden from the eyes of the majority of otherwise discerning musicians. If we are to believe the implied statement of many performers, this manifest intention is discoverable by them alone, and they model their performance upon their important, though singularly exclusive discovery. Otherwise, why should not other artists have found it out too, and play or sing the work in question just as they do ? It would seem, to the unprejudiced observer, as if manifest intention were often a misnomer.
Another favorite excuse for apparently unwarrantable liberties taken with acknowledged master-works is “the impulse of individual genius.” We are cautioned against considering great compositions as so many prison-cells within which the individual genius of the performer is to bo too strictly confined. Surely Some people, when they talk of music, talk what would he called arrant nonsense if applied to any other subject. It strikes us, at least, that confining any known individual genius within the limits of some compositions is very like confining a man within the limits of the surface of the terrestrial globe. How many players are there in the world whose individual genius can reasonably find itself cramped by any of the great Beethoven sonatas ? Come, let us not lose all rational sense of the proper relations of things! Here is what one of the most, individual, original, and daringly independent geniuses that the art of music has ever known says on the subject: —
“ Such corrections, meseems, do not come downward from above, hut upward from below, and vertically at that.
“ Let no one say that the remodelers, in working over the masters, have often made lucky hits; for these exceptional results cannot justify the introduction of such a monstrous immorality into art.
“ No, no, no, ten thousand times no ! Musicians, poets, prose writers, actors, pianists, orchestral conductors, of the third, second, or even of the first rank, you have no right to lay hands upon the Beethovens and the Shakespeares, to throw them the alms of your science and your taste.
“No, no, no, a thousand million times no! A man, whoever he may be, has no right to force another man, whatsoever he may be, to quit his own physiognomy and take that of another, to express himself in a way that is not his own, to assume a shape he himself has not chosen, to become a mannikin set in motion by another’s will while alive, or galvanized into mock action after death. If the man is mediocre, let him remain buried in his mediocrity ! If, on the other hand, he is one of the elect of art, let his equals and even his superiors respect him, aud his inferiors humbly bow down before him.”
But, to talk moderately, is there, or can there be any manifest intention in a composer’s work, other than that which he himself has plainly indicated on paper in black aud white? What more subtile intention there may be in his work, of that finer sort not to be indicated by printed notes aud expression marks, is by no means so plainly “manifest;” it is even hidden and veiled in the exact ratio of its subtilty. That this intention should be discovered before the real gist of the work is arrived at is evident, and it behooves the performer above all things to find it out. It is paying little respect to the great masters to think that this indispensable task is to be entered upon lightly. What infinite pains must an artist not take to familiarize himself with the composer’s habitual style, to compare his style with that of other masters of the same period! How carefully must he not guard himself against the temptation of expressing his own individual feelings through the notes, and not the probable feelings of the composer, as nearly as he can discover them! Upon the whole it may be safely said that the composer’s intention, however subtile and recondite it may be, can in no case he contravened by the most exact and punctilious observance of what expression marks he has noted down. Let the performer first make sure of playing the music exactly as it is written, omitting not a jot nor tittle of the text, and he will be sure that what sins he may have the ill luck to commit against the composer will be sins of omission and not of commission. If in addition to this he has by long study and careful consideration built up a consistent theory concerning the subtiler essence of the piece, he may he pretty sure that, if that theory of his is in the least shaken by a strict observance of the text, it is wrong and he must try again. An over-enthusiast ic listener may say, in the heat of the moment, after hearing Mr. A play a Beethoven sonata “in his own way,” as the phrase goes; “ To he sure, it is not exactly Beethoven, but it was sublime for all that.” Admitted ! But when a thoughtful person goes to hear a Beethoven sonata, he does not go to hear sublimity in the abstract, or Mr. A’s personal sublimity in the concrete, but the exact amount and quality of sublimity that the sonata itself contains, and it is Mr. A’s business to let him hear it to the fullest extent of his powers, just that and no less; about the no more Mr. A need not in genera] trouble himself. Now let any curious reader take the smallest scrap of paper from his waste-basket, and jot down the names of all the artists he knows who do their duty to the composer and their listeners in this respect. We warrant that he will not have to write on both sides of his paper. Just compare the spirit of the raging genius who hews his triumphant way through volume upon volume of great music, intent only upon finding food for his own magnificent individuality, with that of the conscientious artist who, careless of his own reputation as one of the kings of the piano-forte, once said : “ I cannot play the Liszt-Schubert Erl King as it should be played, so I will not play it; for that piece you must go to Rubinstein.” A great pianist, passing the evening at the house of a musical friend in Leipzig, said in going to the piano-forte to play his part in Schumann’s quintette: “My friend, you had better step into the next room and take a book; you will not enjoy the quintette; I play it in the Russian way” [russisch). The friend might well have retorted: “Yes. But did Schumann write it iu the Russian way ? ”
This manner of dealing with great compositions is fundamentally wrong, nothing more nor less than a “ monstrous immorality ” in art. What else is it but the height of impudence for a performer thus to set himself above the composer ? Singers and players have much to answer for on this head, but their sins sink into insignificance beside those of some orchestral conductors. Sir Michael Costa coolly puts three trombones, a bass-tuba, a big drum, and cymbals plump into the midst of the first finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, thus robbing the whole London public of their “inalienable right” to hear Mozart’s score as he wrote it. The very palpable fact that Sir Michael must he insane to think that his scoring of the passage in question sounds better than Mozart’s is not worth a farthing; even if it did sound better, the point at issue would not be in the least affected. A similar charge has been brought against Wagner for putting a bass-tuba part into the score of Spontini’s Vestale. The fact is that when Spontini was in Dresden, he said to Wagner: “ I heard in your Rienzi an instrument that you call ‘bass-tuba;’ I don’t wish to banish that instrument from the orchestra; write me a part for the Vestale.” He also asked Wagner to write trombone parts for the triumphal march in the same opera, and was so much pleased with the effect that ho afterwards wrote from Paris : “ Send me a score of the trombones for the triumphal march, and of the bass-tuba as it was played under my direction in Dresden.” This is the only case we know of such an interpolation in another man’s score having any sufficient authority. Robert Franz’s rescoring Bach’s Passion is a totally different matter. The score of the Passion, as Bach left it, is admitted by every one to be incomplete, and when Franz filled it out, instead of committing an act of impudent vandalism, he reverently attempted to fill a hiatus that the whole musical world deplored. So with some of the changes that Wagner has made in parts of Beethoven’s symphonies. To take one significant example, here are the trumpet parts in a passage of the ninth symphony, as Beethoven wrote them: —
die-sen Kuss der gan-zen Welt.
Now such a trumpet part is, musically, little better than a monstrosity. The reason why Beethoven wrote it so is pretty evident. Here, for once, we do find a manifest intention not expressed in black and white. Trumpets with cylinders and pistons had not come into use in Beethoven’s time; the only instrument of the kind he had at command was the plain trumpet, which could play only the natural harmonies of a given key-note. If any melody was to be reinforced by the trumpets, all such notes as the instrument could not play had perforce to be left out. Now the modern chromatic trumpets can play any note in the chromatic scale between certain limits. Wagner’s filling out of the trumpet parts in the passage in question, and all similar passages, is in no sense a “ correction ” of Beethoven’s score, but merely helping Beethoven out of a technical difficulty that was insurmountable in his time, but is now no difficulty at all. Which is paying greater respect to the master: playing the part as he was forced to write it merely from a lack of technical means, or playing it as he most evidently wished it to be, and as he would have written it beyond all reasonable doubt had he only had our present means at command ?
Pianists to-day have little of this sort of completion of imperfect passages to do. The piano-forte of to-day is in most important respects the piano-forte of fifty years ago. The scale has been extended at both ends, and if a pianist finds a passage of descending octaves which suddenly changes to single notes because the old piano fortes did not run below sixteen-foot F, he most assuredly ought, to continue the chain of octaves which have now become practicable on our instruments which run down to thirty-two-foot A. The greater heaviness of action of the modem piano-fortes will sometimes make practically impossible rapid passages that were comparatively easy with the lighter action of the old instruments. In such cases the pianist must take great care, in substituting phrases that are practicable on our modern instruments, not to do unnecessary violence to the composer’s intention. Here he has a good chance to display, not his own executive ability, but his good taste and appreciation of the composer’s spirit. But these cases are so rare as to have little or no bearing upon the performer’s reverence for the composer. It is astonishing how little reverence either for the text or spirit of the great classic composers we find in performers in general. Many players seem to take it as a personal grievance that Beethoven is not Schumann, that Schumann is not Rubinstein, that Mendelssohn is not Liszt. Mr. Thunderer plays a carefully and intelligently selected programme consisting of works by various masters, so arranged as to form the most admirable contrasts, the light and cheerful relieving the mind from the strain of the deep and thoughtful, and all that we hear is one unbrokeu monotony of Thunderer, nothing but Thunderer. He has melted down all the numbers of his programme and recast them in his own mould. Next day Mr. Lackaday gives his concert and does the same thing after his manner, and in both cases the audience turn up their eyes and thank their stars for “the new insight the admirable artist has given them into music that they thought they knew already.” Such things are simply atrocious, besides being lamentably stupid. Take the most brilliant Bach gigue you can find, bedevil it with every modern sauce your brilliant technique and “glorious individuality” can devise, you will never succeed in making a Gottsehalk banjo out of it. You cannot turn Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses into Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. Remember, St. Peter’s is a very large church, quite large enough and to spare for any conceivable form of devotion, but you would find yourself strangely cramped if you tried to run a steeple-chase in it. Your soul may be only that of a horse-jockey, not the largest sort known, but St, Peter’s is not big enough for you. You may have invented a very astonishing theatrical thunder-machine that will make a well-disposed audience quake in their shoes; go and work it in the Sahara, and you and your machine are only a ridiculous blot on the landscape, your thunder nowhere. The great masterpieces of art are among the noblest inheritances of man, and the thing above all others they demand of man is loving reverence. They are to be jealously guarded against all taint, never to be profaned through thoughtlessness, still less through viciousness. Call a man a fool for not feeling the beauty of the Sonata Appassionata, and then yourself play the sonata as if it were a Dreysehock rhapsody, and you will have done but little honor to Beethoven. In art the text is a prime factor of the spirit. Slight the text and, in so doing, you slight the spirit, still more. In art you can never “ say the same thing in other words.” Whatever may he the mysterious connection between mind and matter in the universe, we may be absolutely sure that in art, form and spirit are inseparable. “ Playing correctly ” has a bad sound, but the first question we would ask about an artist is, “Does he play correctly ? ” Without this, he does nothing and worse than nothing; with this he truly does not do all, but he at least does something.