Two Modern Classicists in Music: In Two Parts. Part Two

THAT Franz’s uncompromising classicism Should have left him more and more solitary and out of touch with other musicians of his time was unavoidable; this introduced into his life an element of sadness that was still further darkened by his physical infirmity, gradually approaching total deafness. To find that the spirit of the time is not with him, to be more and more forgotten and ignored as old age advances, is sad for any man of genius ; but to find all hands raised against him in a matter not his own, but which he with unselfish reverence has most at heart, — that infuses a drop of bitterness into the cup such as few men could bear to taste. Here are two letters by Franz, the first of which I will quote entire, for it seems to me the most completely tragic I have ever read. These letters were in reply to my asking him, at the instance of the president of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, if he would not write additional accompaniments to Bach’s great B minor Mass for that society. He had already written his score to Handel’s Messiah especially for the Handel and Haydn, and the president empowered me to promise him far greater pecuniary recompense for a similar score to the Mass than the society had been able to offer him for the Messiah. Franz’s first reply was as follows : —

MY DEAR MR. APTHORP, — Honorable to me as the task you propose is, I unfortunately cannot accept it. To jot down note-heads with painfully cramped fingers is in itself one of the things at the very thought of which my hair stands on end ; when to this is added a wholly destroyed head (ein völlig destruirter Kopf), that makes precise thinking impossible, then would it be sheer presumption to undertake a labor that demands the whole man ! For the amplifications to the B minor Mass, it is not merely a question of restoring a congruous style, but, what means far more, of a fruitful and devoted absorption in the poetic essence of this composition ; a working-out of the figured bass according to the rules of the craft fails utterly to hit the mark. My reconstructive labors, in so far as Seb. Bach is concerned, have struck out into paths that try to do justice to both demands ; as a dead-tired man, I must now leave it to my colleagues whether they will condescend to follow me. That no working by pattern, such as the modern historical party ask for, will suffice here is abundantly proved by the bunglings of the “ artists ” who let themselves be guided by those pedantic fools ; and to oppose more fitting forms for the B minor Mass to the above-mentioned bunglings was something for which I had neither incitement nor inclination, at a time when my additional accompaniments were bespattered with mud. Now, at last, people’s eyes seem to be opened to the disconsolate quality of those machine-made articles (jener Machwerke) ; for in the course of the last several years I have been asked at least a dozen times about additional accompaniments to the B minor Mass. Of course I could give no other information than that contained in the above lines. To be sure, thirty years ago — my ears had not yet refused me their service at that time — the work was performed under my direction with an accompaniment to the first three numbers, the Credo, the Sauctus, and the Osanna, such as the extremest necessity demanded; but the forms were not ready for the press, and consisted only of fragments of parts, — all else was left for further elaboration. Even to-day I can remember the mystic sounds in the Incarnatus that dropped down over the voice-parts like a veil from the clouds! Tempi passati !

Be so kind as to communicate these lines to the president of the Handel and Haydn Society, to whom I permit myself to give the advice — in the interests of the B minor Mass, you understand — rather to give up the performance than to put it through with a “ bad ” organpart 1 that can only injure the wondrous work.

What on earth has become of your article on Dresel ?


HALLE, May 27, ’92.

On my communicating this letter to the president of the Handel and Haydn Society, he begged me to write once more, and ask if the fragmentary parts mentioned therein could not be found and forwarded to Boston, as certainly half a loaf was better than no bread. Franz answered the second time thus : —

MY DEAR MR. APTHORP, — I am very sorry to be able to give you no information to correspond to the wishes of the president of the Handel and Haydn Society. Our performance of the B minor Mass came at a time when I was in initiis of my labors on additional accompaniments, and I could not turn out anything artistically complete. If I remember aright, little pieces of musicpaper with the most necessary additions were inserted in the respective orchestral parts; what has become of them, Heaven knows! If the gentlemen are absolutely bent on repeating the wonderful work, then I agree with your opinion to have it performed rather without additions than with defective ones. In the former case, one can at least imagine what may still be wanting, whereas a working-out according to the ideas of the historians will only result in bunglings that will obliterate the outlines of the original parts themselves. A little while ago I saw some samples of various organ-parts to Bach’s church compositions, of which one was ever worse than another; the most wretched of all, however, came from the high and mighty society in — ! 2

[Here follows a passage on another subject, too personal for present publication. The letter ends :]

Of the splendor of your " Indian summer ” I have often read with rapture in the writings of Charles Sealsfield. If one could only see it, too!

With the fairest greetings,


HALLE, October 7, 1892.3

That Dresel sympathized completely with all Franz’s feelings on the additional-accompaniments question need not be said again. He was one of the most ardent champions of Franz’s scores to Bach’s and Handel’s works, made himself a masterly pianoforte score from his score to the Messiah,4 and showed in his own pianoforte accompaniments to many of the airs from Handel’s oratorios and Italian operas how entire this agreement was.5 He, too, had that wondrous insight of genius into the essence of another’s genius, and depended on it unreservedly. I remember his saying, one day, " It does not seem to occur to the idiots who object to Handel’s scores being filled out orchestrally that it is an argument of some weight that a man like Mozart thought it a proper thing to do! Why, Mozart’s opinion of what is right to do for Handel is worth that of a hundred thousand professors of musical history ! ”

In like manner, he said of the various editions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord, with their mutually irreconcilable readings of certain passages, that, of all the editions ever published, the one edited by Karl Czerny almost invariably contained the best version. He was at the time engaged in preparing a new issue of the work together with Franz, and had all the different versions of disputed passages at his fingers’ ends. In making their selections from these different versions, both he and Franz allowed themselves to be guided by their artistic judgment alone, regardless of all external evidence touching the authenticity or spuriousness of any of them ; in short, they chose only those that were best and most like Bach. And in speaking of Czerny’s edition, Dresel suggested that its excellence might not be owing to any special musical perspicacity or carefulness in research on Czerny’s part, but that, as Czerny was a pupil of Beethoven, his manuscript might very likely have passed under Beethoven’s eye, and " Beethoven’s opinion on such a matter would necessarily be of inestimable value.” In the same way, he thoroughly agreed with Franz in denying the authenticity of the St. Luke Passion.

“ I know very well,” said he, “ that the score is undeniably in Bach’s autograph, — it is his handwriting : all the experts agree on that point. But when Bach students like Mendelssohn and Franz unhesitatingly assert, after a careful examination of the work, that it is morally impossible that Bach ever composed it, that it swarms with whoppers (Schnitzer), such as we find in no other work by Bach written at any period in his life, you may be sure that their opinion is the right one. The fact that it is in Bach’s own hand goes for nothing; he may have copied it, as he copied off many another thing. To pit such evidence as that and the mere knowledge that Bach did write a St. Luke Passion of some sort against the testimony of men like Mendelssohn and Franz is sheer insanity.”

I do not know whether Franz was ever accused of inconsistency, as Dresel certainly was often enough ; that both of them should have been accused of “ narrowness” was not unnatural,— not unnatural, but intrinsically false. But men of very determined principles have been called narrow before. It may be that Dresel showed the scope of his musical appreciation more fully to those who knew him well than to people in general; he was by no means what one would call a guarded man in his conversation, and would often flare out with the most violent opinions on very slight provocation; but he was exceedingly careful about the influence he might exert upon others, and would think twice before expressing likings or dislikings — especially the former — where there was a chance of his being misunderstood. For several years after his first coming to Boston he was set on a sort of artistic tripod in certain circles, and made the object of no little hero-worship ; his word was law. He was never in the least thrown off his balance by adulation, but he did take what was really serious in his position very seriously. He felt that he could exert a salutary musical influence upon his surroundings, and took great pains to do or say nothing that might interfere with the particular influence he wished to exert. He thus often gave a somewhat false impression as to what his feelings regarding certain composers really were ; considering it needless to dwell upon the better side of men whose popularity was firmly established, and whose influence upon the public in general he thought none of the best. I remember that, at the time when he used to play the pianoforte a good deal, both in public and at friends’ houses, he was fond of playing one little piece, the name of the composer of which he kept a profound secret. No one could ever find out from him who wrote that piece. Years afterwards, when I reminded him, one day, of his whim for making a secret of the composer, and hinted that he might have written the little trifle himself, he laughingly answered : —

“ Oh, no, it was no false modesty; I did n’t write it. The thing is really charming; it was one of those happy accidents that sometimes happen to a thoroughly fourth-rate man. The man who wrote it was not in the least worthy of it. There was no need of letting people know his name and unsettling their ideas about him, which were in the main quite correct.”

It was a counterpart of Rossini’s “ E troppo buono per questo c—” when he stole some other composer’s aria and put it into one of his own operas. During the earlier part of Dresel’s life in Boston, Italian opera, with Grisi, Mario, and others of the now vanished gods, was all the rage, and he deemed its influence upon the musical public ratlier debilitating. He accordingly did not give its devotees any encouragement, which led most people to imagine that he thoroughly abominated the whole business, and would have been glad to exterminate it, root and branch. But that was far enough from being his real feeling. In later years, he admitted to me that he had often played Bellini’s “ Casta diva,” arranged by himself as a pianoforte nocturne.

“Not in public,” said he, “ nor to any one in private, — that sort of thing needed no ‘ booming ’ from me at the time, — but to myself, as a study in phrasing. The melody is divinely beautiful. You can see that Bellini did not have to rack his brains to find his second phrase, but that it grew right out of the first by the Heaven-sent impulse. Then that change to D minor is exquisite, a real stroke of genius! ”

Another time he was glancing through the Ingemisco in Verdi’s Requiem with me. His brow grew darker and darker, and at last, pointing with his finger to a certain passage, he cried out in utter disgust: —

“ There ! look at that! That is what we used to call, in Germany, regularly dirty (schmutzig) writing; it blackens the page without saying anything. The man wrote those middle-parts, not because he wanted to, but because he could not think of any other way of getting out of the scrape. But look here! ” turning hack to the beginning of the Requiem, “ Where in heaven did Verdi find that C-sharp minor chord on ‘ et lux? That is one of the most impressive effects I know of anywhere ! Aha ! the old boy knew what he was about that time. He meant that, every note of it.”

One Sunday afternoon I went up to him in the picture gallery of the St. Botolph Club, just after the first movement of Grieg’s string quartet had been played, and asked him. jokingly, what he thought of that for a piece of modern writing. He made no answer, but looked unutterable things.

“ Never mind,” said I, still in fun, “wait till you hear the Romanza; that is something different.”

I took a seat beside him, and the quartet of players began the Romanza. Much to my surprise, he whispered, after the first three or four phrases, —

“ H’m ! yes ; that shows talent, that shows real invention. I do not like it; I very much dislike it; but, it does show genuine talent; the man has something to say.”

“ It is graceful, at all events,” I answered.

“ Graceful ? No, I do not call that graceful; it is too strained. It has a certain seductiveness, if you will; but God help the man who needs wax in his ears for such a siren ! ”

The whole Wagnerian movement was naturally profoundly antipathetic to him, although he perfectly appreciated that there was that in it, and more especially in Wagner himself, which made poohpoohing out of place. But Wagner’s musical individuality was as distasteful to him as his style. Yet one morning, shortly after his return from a rather long stay in Europe, I met him at the Tremont Street corner of the Common, and, after the first greetings were over, said to him, —

“ So I hear you’ve been to Bayreuth and heard Parsifal.”

“ Yes, I have heard Parsifal. I did not want to go, but they insisted so that I should be a fool not to that I gave in and went.” Then, going on very seriously, almost reverently, “ It was one of the most tremendous experiences of my life! There is a unity in the whole thing ; it is enormously impressive; and it is all noble (edel) and on a very high intellectual and poetic plane. I am not speaking of the music, but of the whole impression. As for the music, you do not think about it at the time; you hear it, as Wagner says, ‘consciously unconsciously.’ Ah, Wagner was talking no nonsense when he invented that phrase, ‘ bewusstvoll unbewusst; ’ and it only adds to the general impressiveness. To be sure, after you get home and to bed, you become conscious of having heard a great many very disagreeable things, which you try hard to forget. In the whole three acts I found only one really beautiful musical idea, that first phrase of the flower-girls, — ‘ Komm ! komm ! holder Knabe ! ’ That is one of those phrases that take hold of you to the marrow of your bones, — one of those phrases such as only Wagner could write. But it comes to nothing, it is not worked out; what follows it is absolutely weak.”

His experience with Parsifal did not breed any such enthusiasm in Dresel as inspired Franz, in 1852, to dedicate a book of songs “ to the Composer of Lohengrin ; ” in reality it did nothing to change his estimate of Wagner as a composer. After 1852, the year in which Lohengrin was first brought out in Weimar by Liszt, it did not take Franz long to get over his Wagner enthusiasm; and to their dying day both he and Dresel were strong anti-Wagnerites. It is somewhat curious, however, that, of all antiWagnerians who have been at performances of the Bayreuth master’s musicdramas, Franz and Dresel should have been the ones who listened to them most in the way that Wagner himself wished them to be listened to,—giving themselves up unreservedly to the first total impression without listening critically to the music as such.

Dresel’s “purism” was as thoroughgoing as possible, the more so that it was well past the self-conscious stage, — if indeed it had ever been through it, — and was functionally a part and parcel of his whole artistic nature. His demands on nobility of expression in music were to the full as exacting as those he made on purity of form. I have already quoted his “ God help the man who needs wax in his ears for such a siren ! ” in relation to the Romanza in Grieg’s quartet ; in a similar spirit, I once heard him say of Grieg’s favorite song, “ Ich liebe dich ! ” that the expression was too overdone and ignoble, and that “ a man who loved so would crack ribs ” !

There was not the faintest tinge of the pedant in him ; there was no merely “ academic ” side to his artistic bent. His æsthetic principles were so purely the outcome of his own nature that they lay in his consciousness in the condition of spontaneous instincts, — instincts which it might be worth his while logically to account for, it is true, but still retaining all their vitality and immediateness. For the letter of the law he cared less than nothing; the spirit was all in all to him. One day he showed me a volume of Chopin’s nocturnes, on the margin of a page of which was pasted a little slip of music-paper with a measure of music in writing.

“ Look at the leading of those middleparts,” said he. “ I once heard SaintSaëns play that measure so, and got him to write it out for me ; since then I have often played it so, too. It was a happy inspiration of Saint-Saëns’s : it is Chopin through and through, Chopin all over ; Chopin himself would have accepted it, if he had heard it ! ”

I suggested that that sort of thing might be a dangerous precedent; to which he replied: —

“ I am not going to make a precedent of it, nor let anybody else make one, either. I have showed it only to you, and you do not play the pianoforte to people. Then, if any one should happen to catch me at it, and complain of my taking liberties with Chopin, I could answer back that at least I have never been guilty of playing that misprint Dsharp acciaccatura in the second measure of the Romanza in the E minor concerto, that is in all but the very latest editions, and has been played by pianist after pianist all over the world. I never made Chopin write such abominable harmony as that D-sharp in the right hand makes against the D-sharp in the bass. The thing ought plainly enough to be a Bnatural, and nobody but a duffer could have taken it for anything else.”

For a man of his naturally strong feelings and uncompromising views, he was remarkably free from prejudice. For instance, although he would never admit that Berlioz was a great nor even a good harmonist, in spite of all his subtlety, he one day pointed out to me a passage in Weber’s Invitation à la Valse in which he showed that Weber had written a very bad bass, and then showed me how Berlioz “ had perceived, and very properly corrected, the error ” in his orchestral transcription of the piece. Most men with Dresel’s dislike for Berlioz and admiration for Weber would have cried out against the former’s “ vandalism.” With all his cool regard for the fashionable Italian opera composers, — I have already mentioned his practicing “Casta diva” as a pianoforte nocturne,— he would go into raptures over certain things of Rossini’s; he had a special admiration for the overture to Guillaume Tell and the first act of the Barbiere. I remember his saying one day, about the opening “ Piano, pianissimo ! ” scene, that it showed genius of the first water; “Mozart himself could not have written it better. Then the orchestration, that bassoon doubling the first violins in the octave, with its suggestion of darkness, is simply masterly.”

During the earlier years of his life in Boston, it was only his intimate friends who associated him especially with Bach and Handel; to the musical public he stood much more as the champion of Chopin and Schumann, and of Robert Franz’s songs. In those days, when he was still prominently before the public as a pianist, he used to play Chopin a great deal; he was also extremely fond of playing Liszt’s transcriptions of Franz and Schubert songs, and that of Weber’s Schlummerlied. In fact, he was generally accepted as a champion of the then “ modern - romantic ” school, but still with strong leanings toward the classics. He was rather chary about playing Bach or Handel in public, since the cultivation of a popular taste and appreciation for these masters was the object nearest his heart, and he saw how important it was not to excite any antipathy to them in the beginning; he knew he had a hard task before him, and was very circumspect about what experiments he made.

If the charge of “ narrowness ” so often brought against Dresel was really unfounded, this was not quite the case with the charge of “ inconsistency.” In truth, he often seemed the most inconsistent man imaginable. But, in the last analysis, this inconsistency of his was more apparent than real. He would say one thing one day, and another diametrically opposite the next, and generally with a violence and frankness that left nothing to be desired. In his playing, and later in his conducting, he would take the same thing at a very different tempo on different occasions. He was no believer in the modern school of “ emotional performance” and “rhythmic freedom ; ” he said repeatedly that a certain stability and unity of tempo was an essential part of that unity of form which all true music should have. But, as Franz said of him, he was an extremely “subjective ” man, of very strong feelings and high-strung nerves, and could not help following the impulse of the moment. Although a man of wide intellectual scope, thoroughly logical in his cast of mind, and able to look at things from various points of view, as a rule he took only one point of view at a time, and for the moment that was the only one that existed for him. It was this, more than anything else, which gave him the appearance of inconsistency; and it took a long and intimate acquaintance with him to appreciate that this inconsistency with himself was only superficial, after all. For there was really a fine harmony underlying all he said and did; his seemingly irreconcilable and contradictory utterances were but momentary expressions of different sides of one and the same firmly convinced and unswervingly true individuality. He was a far more spherically developed nature than all but a few of his friends gave him credit for being, and saw clearly enough that the whole truth was never on any one side ; but in his conversation he almost always gave voice to the truth that lay uppermost in his mind at the time. Sometimes he would make his friends stare. I shall never forget the impression made by one of his outbreaks at a meeting of the programme committee of the Harvard Musical Association at the time of the old symphony concerts. There had been a good deal of discussion about putting I now forget what composition on the programme, when Dresel suddenly sprang up and said : —

“ Mr. President and Gentlemen : Let me remind you of the fact that, in making up these programmes, we should not consult only our own personal taste in the matter. If I consulted only my own pleasure, I should have no Beethoven, no Bach, no Mozart, no Schubert, no Schumann, no Handel, no Haydn, no Mendelssohn, nor Weber, nor Cherubini; but only Wagner and Berlioz and Raff and Liszt and Goldmark and Rubinstein and all the rest of them. But that would be a questionable education for our audiences, and we really must consider that.”

Almost every one present thought he was joking, and his speech was greeted with a hearty laugh ; but I heard him murmur, half to himself and half to me, as he turned away : —

“ That rubbishy idea of taking pleasure in hearing the same old things played year after year in the same old way ! I can imagine no more infernal bore — except listening to the whole of a Bach suite at a sitting.”

He was really in earnest, or a good deal more than half in earnest; only those who heard him failed to detect what the real mainspring of his speech was. It is perfectly true that lie did take pleasure in hearing new music, in knowing what was going on in the musical world, and getting new emotions. He was fond of hearing things that “ had a go to them;” and I remember his frantically applauding a performance of Liszt’s second rhapsody (the “ young ladies’ seminary” rhapsody) by Thomas’s orchestra, — muttering the while, “ Do you think I had not rather hear that than the fifth symphony all washed out with sentimentality ? ” To be sure, the performance of the fifth symphony that evening had been rather lackadaisical.

But his enjoyment of the new music was à fleur de peau, a sort of superficial tickling; he had no sympathy with it nor its ideals. He strongly deplored anything like artistic omnivorousness in any one. He used to speak of Liszt as “ absolutely a musical ostrich,” who could digest anything. He spoke of Ferdinand Hiller’s “ having not entirely secret yearnings for the Italian siren,” for which “Mendelssohn scolded him roundly, often enough.” “ Where things are irreconcilable, you must take one side or the other,” he would say, “ or else you lose all artistic spinal column, and become a mollusk.” In speaking of the modern schools, he once said : “ I find no lack of talent in these new lights, sometimes I even find hints at genius; but what seems to be utterly dead and gone is all real mastery. Of course I object to the things they do, but I should not object half so strongly, and sometimes I should not object at all, if they only did them better. Look here ! ” darting across the room, and taking up a volume of Bach’s organ preludes (Choralvorspiele). “ Look at this closing cadence, with its audacious transition through a distant key. Mr. Gounod and Mr. Bizet could not do finer than that ! But old Bach did it well; there is some hang-together and reason in it ; and it is divinely beautiful. The old boy knew it, too, perfectly well; for see, he has written ‘ adagiosissimo ’ over it! ”

After all, it was in talking about the great classic masters that Dresel showed himself thoroughly at his best; then his enthusiasm knew no bounds, and he would ransack three languages for glowing terms and striking similes. Yet, in the hottest blaze of his enthusiasm over these congenial themes, he would never for a moment lose his balance ; even in argument and discussion he kept his head and heels to perfection. One day, when he was pointing out to me some particular beauty in the seventh symphony, I mentioned having just heard a certain lecturer call Beethoven “ the greatest composer of all time.”

“ Now, what foolish talk that is ! ” cried Dresel, — “ the greatest composer ! He was the greatest in the symphony, in the sonata, and in the string quartet; but in Music’s house there are many mansions. Bach and Handel did far greater work than he in oratorio and church music ; where is he on the organ, compared with Bach ? And with all his great pianoforte sonatas, he never wrote the Well-Tempered Clavichord, which is a work of a certain importance in its way. Then Mozart was a greater operawriter than he, and surely Schubert pretty well knocked him out in songwriting. The greatest composer ! Will you please tell me who is THE greatest composer ? ”

Upon the whole, it was in speaking of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert that the sureness of his mental and emotional balance showed itself most unmistakably, and that his expression of opinion was least swayed by the mood of the moment. Not that his expression was less downright and violent, but that one found less apparent inconsistency in it. He ill brooked contradiction, especially on the subject nearest his heart, and anything touching the honor of his favorite composers would call forth the frankest and bluntest remarks from him. A certain musician once showed him arrangements for two pianofortes of Bach’s concertos for three clavichords and strings that he had just added to his library, asking him if he knew these arrangements. “ Yes,” answered Dresel ; “ they are the most outrageous pieces of butchery ever committed.”

His criticisms on musical doings in other fields, particularly on musical performances, were seldom so downright ; but his caustic sarcasm would be none the less biting. Coming out one afternoon from a pianoforte recital given by a certain young woman, I asked him what he thought of the pianist’s future prospects.

“ Ah, the beautiful young creature ! ” said he. “ Her prospects, who knows ? She plays with so much feeling, — such very wrong notes, and holds them so lovingly! . . . Whew!”

Another time I was looking over the score of a new symphony with him at a rehearsal. At a certain strenuous passage he began under his breath : —

Miaou! miaou ! we shall have to get another mise en scène for the concert ; we ought to have a roof, with a ridgepole and some chimneys.”

Later in the same symphony the repeated recurrence of a certain hornphrase elicited from him : —

“ It seems to me as if Mr.—,” naming the composer, " must find that very beautiful! ”

Yet it was owing to an impetuous temper and an almost too ardent faith in his convictions that he sometimes gave offense, rather than to any innate want of tact. Very undiplomatic and wholly transparent he certainly was, and the truth — or what he saw as truth — took so fierce a hold upon him that he often seemed to see nothing else. His mind worked unswervingly toward one point, and in expressing himself earnestly, at times even violently, he forgot personal considerations; but no one could be more surprised and grieved than he when he found he had hurt any one’s feelings, or had been thought to bear personal ill will. On the other hand, his tact in musical matters was often wonderful: the way in which he, when conducting rehearsals, coaxed his chorus to conquer difficulties and managed every singer who came under his influence was simply perfect. Singers felt they were doing their very best with him ; he never let them for a moment feel overtired, dissatisfied, or discouraged, and was as careful that everything they sang should be effective for them and those who heard them as he was that it should be good. To bore people, to be socially or musically tedious, was for him an idea full of horror; he would really suffer at having what he thought a tiresomely puttogether programme ascribed to him as his work.

Dresel was a firm believer in the conscious power of genius, and scouted the idea that the process of artistic creation goes on without the creator’s understanding it. He would often say that the really great things were always written, not by any happy accident, but distinctly on purpose, and with a perfect knowledge on the writer’s part of how and why they were great. He emphatically denied that a truly great genius was at the mercy of his inspiration; affirming, on the contrary, that a man was master of his inspiration in direct proportion with the greatness of his genius. “ It is the little men who now and then do fine things by accident, and without knowing how they do them; the true masters always know what they are about.”

As a pianist, Dresel was one of the most inspiring players I ever listened to. He was seldom at his best in public, being essentially what Berlioz called " an artist of the drawing-room.” His extreme nervousness, his insatiate self-criticism, his exalted idea of an artist’s responsibility, all militated against his being in good form on public occasions for which he had gone through a long course of preparation. On such occasions he was too frequently what athletes call “stale,” — overtrained, with his nervous irritability in excess over his self-command. In this respect he was very like Adolf Henselt, who gave up playing in public early in his long artistic career. Dresel’s best playing was done in private, when asked to play on the spur of the moment, — better still when he offered to play of his own accord. Then his playing would reach the very acme of inspiring beauty and vital force. For true genius at white heat, yet controlled by the finest artistic sense of measure, I have never heard his best playing surpassed by any of the greatest pianists. Rubinstein himself could not outbid the afflatus with which Dresel would play at times. He had an incisiveness and brilliancy of tone, a vigor of accent, that carried everything before them. If his playing lacked any fine quality, it was perhaps that of suavity ; as somebody once said of him, he played as if the keys were red-hot. Like Gottschalk, he had the peculiar power of producing a brilliant, ringing quality of tone even in the softest pianissimo. But his career as a concert pianist belongs to the first half of his life.

Dresel’s musical influence upon those who came in contact with him was of the finest. To be sure, the circle of those who came under it grew more and more restricted as he grew older. Perhaps he himself unconsciously contracted it. He had lived to see Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin well installed in their normal position in the estimation of the Boston musical public; Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven had always been held in honor ; and the only field for musical propagandism left him was to encourage the cult of Bach and Handel. To preach Bach and Handel in Boston — or anywhere else, for matter of that — was to preach to few listeners. Handel, to be sure, had long been popular in Boston ; at least the Messiah, Samson, Israel in Egypt, and some few of his other oratorios had been ; but Dresel’s ideas of doing full justice to the works of the great master differed widely from the current traditional ones, and his attempts to propagate them were, oftener than not, resented by people who thought that years of routine had taught them all they needed to know about Handel, and the general public were loath to welcome any influence that should disturb them in their old habits. With Bach, again, Dresel’s work of propagandism was more difficult still ; there was no popular interest in Bach of any sort, and what people did hear of him did not particularly attract them. In fact, music lovers in general felt more and more like letting Dresel have his Bach and Handel to himself, and not bothering their own heads about the two old masters. Dresel became more and more exclusively associated with them in people’s minds, as a man who cared for little or nothing else in music, and was consequently more and more looked upon as one whose mental bias made him out of touch with the present musical world at large. His well-known opposition not only to Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner, but to Raff, Rubinstein, Goldmark, Brahms, and others of the newer schools, only increased the distrust with which most people regarded his opinions. In a word, he preached more and more in the desert, and fewer and fewer music lovers were inclined to listen to him.

It was during only the last few years of his life that a happy circumstance enabled him once more to exert directly the influence he had always been most anxious to exert, — upon a small circle, it is true, but where it could bring forth some good fruit, and not be wholly wasted. This was the formation of the Bach Club : a choir of picked singers, many of them professional, who met at his house every Monday evening during the winter to practice choruses by Bach and Handel under his direction, accompanied by himself on the pianoforte, with a firmer background of tone supplied by a small pipe-organ he had had built in his music-room, which was played on these occasions by competent organists. Sometimes whole cantatas would be rehearsed, recitatives, arias, and all, — for some of the best singers in the city were members of the club. Twice or three times in the winter some twenty or thirty musical friends would be invited to hear a “ performance; ” and the musical influence of the club thus extended to a larger circle. Although the scheme did not include any sort of orchestra, the conditions for musical effect were peculiarly and exceptionally fine : that small and carefully drilled chorus, singing in a room where the volume and vitality of tone suffered nothing from evaporation, the generally fine quality of the individual voices,—on this point Dresel was exceedingly fastidious, — and the contagious, masterly vigor with which the pianoforte accompaniments were played, together with the firm bass of the organ pedals, all united to make these performances, especially of the things by Bach, overwhelmingly impressive. All who had the good luck to be present at these gala evenings of the Bach Club could count them among the high tides of their musical experience. The best part of the influence was upon the singers themselves. Few of them joined the club with great expectations of enjoyment, and many were induced to come at first more because they were invited than for any other reason. But the overmastering charm of Dresel’s personality, his communicative enthusiasm, and the new insight he gave them into the unaccustomed music held them fast. I have never spoken with a member of the club, no matter how slight his previous interest in Bach may have been, who did not count these evenings at Dresel’s house as the most valuable and inspiring fact in his artistic education. The influence was doubtless upon a small circle ; but it was of the very best imaginable, and an intelligent nucleus is always worth cultivating. Here were at least twentyfour or thirty singers who had been led on to find Bach and Handel not merely interesting and instructive, but a genuine source of musical enthusiasm and excitement. That was surely worth while. And it may well be doubted whether any very fruitful influence, of just the right sort, could have been exerted in favor of a Back and Handel propaganda in any other way. These great masters, notably Bach, were essentially musical aristocrats ; they may be taken as supreme examples of what Franz wrote in one of his letters to me : —

“ Art, as the noblest blossom of every age, is in its very nature aristocratic through and through, and must therefore not deport itself democratically in those of its achievements that aim at being monumental.”

A Bach and Handel propaganda, especially nowadays, can hope to be truly and rightly efficient only in small circles ; happy the propagandist of this high cult if he can get a few willing listeners to heed him and try to understand his teaching! In this way a nucleus of intelligent enthusiasm may be formed, and that nucleus may perhaps grow with time. Other hope of initiating the world into the higher and more sacred mysteries of Bach’s and Handel’s art there seems at present to be none.

Here we have, to my mind, the most valuable part of the life-work of both Franz and Dresel, — the work they did toward promoting a right understanding of the genius and works of Bach and Handel; sweeping away, as far as they were able, the accumulated rubbish of ever deteriorating tradition and routine stupidity under which the art legacy of these two supreme masters had lain half hidden for generations, and bringing its true worth and significance to the light of day. Their best work was to “ exclude trash, and let what was genuine come into its rights.” And of all men of their day, they were the best fitted for the task.

William F. Apthorp.

  1. Franz here seems to have overlooked the fact that I had not written him about a “ bad organ-part,” but about a “ bad organ ” (the doleful instrument now in the Boston Music Hall), upon which no organ-part of any description whatever could be effective.
  2. This was in response to an account I had given him of an experience of mine in Paris. The Société des Concerts at the Conservatoire had given some wonderfully fine performances of the B minor Mass, almost the only blot on which was the utterly unsatisfactory organpart. I subsequently ventilated my feelings about this organ-part to M. Jules Garcin, the conductor of the society, to which he replied: “ I don’t blame you in the least; for we were all dissatisfied. But this is how it was: You know we are extremely careful to do everything as correctly as possible at the Conservatoire, so we were particularly anxious to do the B minor Mass according to the best traditions. We therefore sent to Germany for an organ-part, there being none written out in the score; but when it came, we found it so bad that we had to hand it over to M. Guilmant to revise it and make it even harmonically correct! ” Remembering Franz’s disgust at a copy of the Breitkopf Härtel edition of Frederick the Great’s flute sonatas being sent to Paris, and thus exposed to the scrutiny of French musicians, I wrote him this story.
  3. This, the last letter I ever received from Franz, was written little more than a fortnight before his death, October 24, 1892.
  4. The only thoroughly excellent pianoforte score of the Messiah in existence. But this is too faint praise, considering the quality of the others published.
  5. If any of my readers would have a realizing sense, by actual experiment, of the worldwide difference between the sort of work Franz and Dresel demanded and that asked for by the “ historical ” party, I would beg them to compare Dresel’s pianoforte accompaniment to the favorite Sleep air in Handel’s Semele with that which runs along the bottom of the pages in the edition of the German Handel Society published by Breitkopf & Härtel. If they do not then see how far the inanity of the one falls short of the wondrous grace of the other, then are they past praying for!