Enter "Herr Kapellmeister"

THE old word Kapellmeister sticks in Teutonic music, even if it has lost much of its original significance. Thousands of batons have beaten the air with ever-progressive energy since old Sebastian Bach used to plod along to the Thomasschule to try the new cantata he had written since breakfast. The master of His Serene Highness’s little band, who accepted his dole with becoming gratitude, has grown mightily into a lordly person, whose comings and goings are followed with eager interest by a great public; whose income matches that of many a princeling, in bygone days a patron of the divine art; whose instrument is a band of a hundred fiddlers, wind-blowers, and drum-beaters; a despot in his own realm, before whom all his subjects bow in submissive obedience.

When ladies wore wide-reaching hoops and towering coiffures, when gentlemen in their tailoring rivaled birds of paradise, when coaches were hung on straps, and wonderful fiddles were being made, the Herr Kapellmeister of His Serene Highness, the Grand Duke of Kalbsbraten-Pumpernickel, was a man of rare versatility, untiring industry, and admirable humility. The organist in the Court Church, he wrote the music he played, toccatas, fugues, and preludes by the dozen. The choir-master, he composed most of the cantatas, masses, and anthems. The leader of His Serene Highness’s orchestra, — the symphonies, overtures, suites, and chamber music heard at the evening concert were usually the offspring of his fertile brain. Between times he taught the fiddle, clavier, and harpsichord to the children of his patron, wrote music for special festive occasions, and now and then, merely to show that he was not idling, he would make a new setting for an opera book by Metastasio.

Let us take a day of his life. In the blackness of a northern winter morning he crawls out of his warm feather-bed into the chill of an unheated room, and with his nightcap still tight over his ears, his fingers stiff with cold, he sets music to an Ode by the Court Poet in celebration of the beauties of Her Serene Highness’s lap-dog, — an ancient and dilapidated beast, but a most important personage. This done, he calls his musicians and singers and rehearses it for the evening concert. Then he is off to the church to start a new cantata for next Sunday’s service and rehearse it. Next come lessons, perhaps; then a bit of work on his new opera or symphony; and finally, in the evening, the great event of the day, the court concert. In the dim soft light of candles, he is seated at his harpsichord at the end of the salon. About him are his band of ten, fifteen, or, perhaps, as the occasion is particularly notable, twenty players, and his singers. The audience is Their Serene Highnesses and their court, and with nervous patience Herr Kapellmeister watches for the Serene Nod which is the signal to begin. The Nod is given, and, beating time with his right hand and filling in the accompaniment on the harpsichord with his left, Herr Kapellmeister reveals to the distinguished company his latest masterpiece, on which the ink is hardly dry. At the end, he is permitted to kiss the Graciously Serene Hand. Perhaps, if Her Serene Highness is particularly serene, he is bidden to sit at the foot of the supper table, an honor his children cherish the memory of. Then back to his featherbed, to be out again before dawn to write by candle-light a ballet, perhaps, to be danced in honor of the birthday of His Serene Highness’s belle amie,

A century and a half later, the bewildered Shade of this humble servitor of art is placed in a huge, glaring concerthall where (vide posters outside) Herr Einzweiunddrei, the distinguished conductor, is to give his own peculiarly moving and temperamental reading of that monumental tone-poem, “ The Family Dinner,” the dernier cri of the Music of the Future. (We use the language of the Passionate Press Agent.) The Shade sees tier rising on tier of seats, filled with women in gay clothes and men extraordinarily sombre. There are two, three thousand of them. At one end of the hall is a vast platform on which, likewise in rising tiers of seats, are as many musicians as the Grand Duchy of Kalbsbraten-Pumpernickel had men in its army.

A door at the side of the stage opens. A hush falls on the multitude, to be followed by a thunder of welcoming applause as Herr Kapellmeister Einzweiunddrei walks in with the haughty step of conscious greatness and takes his place on the podium. Is there a Graciously Serene Highness to give the signalingnod to begin? Were he there, he would be but one of the crowd. A new master has come, for Herr Kapellmeister Einzweiunddrei, after accepting the welcome of the audience with dignified condescension, turns his back on it, beats a sharp rat-tat-tat on his music-stand with his baton, and then, if silence is not immediate, turns and glares at his admirers as if he would spank them all, individually and collectively. The latent threat brings quiet. Breathless ushers slam the doors in the faces of late-comers, the baton is raised, and—but why attempt to describe the effect of this tonepoem on the primitive ears of the Eighteenth-Century Shade?

And does Herr Kapellmeister Einzweiunddrei wait anxiously for a summons to kiss the hand of a Serene Highness ? He is hardly in his green-room before he is surrounded by a throng of eager, palpitating women who are in a seventh heaven of delight does he vouchsafe them a smile and a word. And a seat at the foot of a supper-table ? The whole table is his if he will but have it. And a feather-bed in a cold room ? A costly fur coat, a costly automobile, and a costly apartment in a costly house, are a part of the rewards of the Shade’s descendant if he will have them; but more often than not, he limits himself to the fur coat. Herr Einzweiunddrei is usually of a thrifty and saving turn of mind, and the feather-bed tradition is still strong within him.

It is indeed a far cry from the Kapellmeister of the eighteenth century to the Kapellmeister of to-day. They have, of course, one trait in common. Both are musicians. Sometimes, alas! they may have another. Both may be composers, but with this difference: the ancient man was first a composer, and then a conductor. Force of circumstances compelled him to be a conductor, for, as all conductors were composers, how could he ever reveal to the world his works if he did not conduct them himself? But the modern man has no such excuse. He is a conductor, pure and simple, and if he composes, it is usually against the wishes of his employers. Yet, even in this respect, there remains a strong similarity between them. Kapellmeistermusik to-day, if different, is no better than Kapellmeistermusik of a hundred and fifty years ago; and what grand ducal and princely library in Europe has not reams of dead, gone, and forgotten manuscript rotting in the dust of a century and a half ? As it was then, so is it now, and so, it seems, it must be hereafter; yet we who have to listen to it will often wish that Herr Einzweiunddrei, when he composes, had the primitive ears of his ancestor in art.

Beethoven’s imperious rappings of Fate did more than usher in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony. They breached a hole in the confining walls which kept the conductor a time-beating prisoner, and through it he saw a sunlit vista of smiling prospects, full of promise of the day when he could scorn the metronome and all it implies. Tempo was to become, in the words of a distinguished conductor of to-day, a “ matter between man and his God,” and the composer must grin and bear it. Formal music for formal beauty’s sake had ceased with Mozart and Haydn. Conductors could not go far wrong with it, for the orchestras were small and simple, and the time strict and easy to beat. The conductor usually sat at the harpsichord, filling in the accompaniment, and now and then with his right hand indicating the changes of time. But with Beethoven came a new element, and in his music the Herr Einzweiunddrei of to-day was born.

Music was found to have a heart as well as a lovely face, and straightway a new and strange task confronted the Kapellmeister. He must not merely portray the beauty of form which had been all but self-evident, but he must reveal and interpret the emotions which lie behind it, and are now a part of it. Then came the men who discovered instrumental color, who, when they had not the tools with which to supply it, invented them, — Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. After them came others who, finding that Mozart had exhausted the formal beauty of music, that Beethoven had drained the cups of sorrow and gladness, of despair and hope, of tragedy and comedy, that Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner had consumed all the colors that could be mixed on the orchestral palette, turned to other directions, orchestrated philosophical tracts, mystical and symbolical plays, cities, towns, and countries, to say nothing of the “ Family Dinner,” which is one of Herr Einzweiunddrei’s specialties. With each step forward came more orchestra. With each step forward came new demands, mental and physical, on Herr Kapellmeister, until, by a process of which he and the public were almost unconscious, he was able one day to rise in his might and exclaim, “La mu-sique, c’est moi ! ” and all the world applauded.

It may be that the glamour of romance will not keep his memory green as it has those of the Caffarellis and Farinellis, the Rubinis and Marios of the past, and as it probably will those of the de Reszkes and Carusos of the present. It may be that he will never have the adulation given to the Malibrans and Frezzolinis, the Grisis and Linds, the Pattis and Melbas of the lyric stage. It may be that he will never scale the giddy heights of fame attained now and then by a pianist like Paderewski, and a fiddler like Paganini. But one thing is certain. Whatever tradition, myth, and the obituary editor of the daily newspaper may do with him after he is dead and gone, while he is in life he is now, and probably forever will be, master of them all. Whether his field is a little obscure municipal theatre in the German provinces, or one of the great opera houses of the world; whether he is at the head of a great permanent orchestra, or is a wandering star who travels from city to city exhibiting his prowess with the baton, his word is law wherever he is, and none is so big as to dispute it. Tenor and soprano, alto and bass, and the entire army of virtuosi, bow humbly before him when he shakes his shaggy mane and glares with his omnipotent eye. Composers sit on his doorsteps, waiting to thrust their latest work into his hand. His musicians are his “children”—when his temper is unruffled ; otherwise they are “shoemakers,” “ cattle,” and Schweinerei. If he is subject to any one, it is to his wife; and as to the Kapellmeister’s wife, some day another Daudet may come to celebrate her.

The process by which the star conductor of to-day is evolved is long and tedious. He may be no Wunderkind to enrapture a public with his precocity. There is no royal road to his greatness except that road which is made royal by hard labor. To be sure, when he has all but arrived, the end of the journey may be hastened by the use of certain factors which will hardly come under the heading of “ Music; ” but, first of all, he must build his edifice of success on a solid foundation of musical routine, secured only by years of drudgery. The time was, and not so many years ago, when most conductors rather drifted into that branch of the art. They started their careers as virtuosi,—pianists, violinists, ’cellists; or they rose out of the ranks of the orchestra ; or they were pushed forward by some influential composer in whose music they had become specialists; such is the history of nearly all the great men of the baton we now have with us. But conditions are changing rapidly, and the famous Herr Kapellmeister of to-morrow has been dedicated to his career in his youth, and his whole work has been directed to the single aim of making him a conductor.

His early training differs little from that of the lad who is to become a virtuoso of some instrument, except that no one instrument monopolizes his attention. The musician’s beast of burden, the patient piano, he studies, of course, and he studies at least one other instrument, the violin, or ’cello, the horn, or one of the wood-winds, for some day he must play in an orchestra and get that part of his routine. Theory and composition he must study, too, and here his greatest danger lies. He may imagine himself a composer; and, while being a poor composer does not necessarily involve spoiling a good conductor, his position enables him to inflict his compositions on the public, and he is too often perniciously active in this direction. Bitter experience has taught us that a few good composers are good conductors. Bitterer experience has taught us that fewer good conductors are good composers.

In course of time he has mastered the rudiments of his profession. He can give a respectable performance of a not too difficult concerto for piano. Perhaps he can do the same with the violin or whatever other instrument he has chosen to supplement the piano. He can transcribe to the piano at sight any manuscript orchestral score, so that he will understand it fairly well if the auditor does not. He has played enough in an orchestra to know what is sufficient for his purpose of the routine of such work, and while doing so he may have been under the baton of some great man whose “ readings ” of the masterpieces he has duly observed and noted. Then he is ready for the next step. He will go to this same great man, or to some one else equally illustrious, to “study scores,” particularly to learn the “ traditions; ” or he may go to several: to Herr This for Beethoven, Herr That for Brahms, and Herr Sucha-One for Wagner, each of these being a noted authority in these several composers. Perhaps he may enter a class of conducting which has been organized by a distinguished Kapellmeister who allows his pupils to practice on his orchestra every now and then. But whatever the method adopted, sooner or later he is ready for his real apprenticeship to begin.

He may preface this by hiring an orchestra in one of the large cities, and giving an interminable concert with an impossible programme of all schools and periods, just to show the metal that is in him. It is possible, nay, probable, that if he be an ambitious composer as well as a budding Kapellmeister, he will have some of his own compositions on the programme. He knows that his invited guests will be kind, when speaking to him, and if the critics in their notices are not kind, they are dolts. Now and then, at long intervals, a genius or quasigenius appears, who gets a fairly good berth by means of his concert, but as a rule his career starts when he is appointed assistant conductor in some minor opera house. The title is euphemistic. He is really a chorus-master. He drills the chorus, coaches the singers in their parts, and presides at the piano when the real Kapellmeister is holding piano rehearsals. Now and then he may be allowed to conduct a “ hurdy-gurdy ” opera of the early Italian school, but nothing of importance is intrusted to him. The Kapellmeister will take good care of that, especially if his assistant has talent.

Let us hope that the rapidity of his rise will depend upon his talent for music and talent for work; but often, it must be admitted, it depends as much on his talent for intrigue. However that may be, we see him go up slowly, but surely, as assistant conductor through third- and second-rate opera houses, third- and second-rate orchestras and singing societies, until the happy day comes when he finds himself a Hofkapellmeister, it may be in the little grand duchy of Kalbsbraten-Pumpernickel, but Hofkapellmeister none the less. There he is at the parting of the ways. On the one hand is a life of comfortable and obscure mediocrity with a modest but certain pension for his old age. On the other hand are the glare and glitter of a career which may bring wealth and fame, and surely will involve ceaseless struggles, intrigues without end, and petticoat politics such as the British War Office has not dreamed of. Women are a powerful factor in music.

If he decides to turn his back on the humdrum, pleasant life of the little capital where he is a personage. to follow the strenuous career of a star conductor, there is much for him to do. Above all else, he must make himself known, and, to attract the attention of the omnivorous paragrapher, he must plan to be a little different from his colleagues. Novelty is the best asset he can have, after talent — and his best chance for advancement now lies in the public press. He may write music, music which requires a little larger orchestra than was ever gathered together before him. He may write books, essays, critiques, brochures, on musical and quasi-musical subjects, and, by injecting a little more acid into his opinions than others have, get the required publicity in this fashion. He may discover in his grand ducal library the music of his predecessor of the eighteenth century, and proclaim it to the world as surpassing that of Bach or Mozart. That will certainly make talk, and there are always those who will endorse an opinion derogatory of those whose fame time has made secure. He may discover a new genius whose music is more cacophonous, therefore greater, than any ever written; and he will haunt those wonderful and fearful festivals of new music that are held in Germany every spring, where, if his enterprise is great, he will soon conduct some of it, and perhaps be the founder of his composer’s cult. A poor creature is that composer to-day who has not his cult to proclaim his genius, and it is very good business for a young conductor to father such a movement. He may even have some deftly devised chroniques scandaleuses told of him. The favor of a great lady still casts a romantic light over the fortunate man, and may be regarded distinctly as an asset.

And while he is doing one, two, or all of these things, he is cultivating his own individuality. He may not be entirely conscious of it, for his ambition — or obsession — has made it a habit, but he is doing it none the less. His manner before an audience, for example: temperament and constitution of mind determine it in the rough, practice makes perfect. So we have the conductor who is ascetic in manner and sparing in gesture; the conductor who rages like a Berserker ; the conductor who weaves lovely arabesques in the air, with beautiful hands and expansive white cuffs; the conductor who will rouse the envy of any virtuoso in ground and lofty tumbling; the conductor of military stolidity; the conductor of rhapsodic lyricism; the conductor who uses a yard-stick for a baton; the conductor who uses none. All these peculiarities in their perfection mean work, and much of it.

Nor is his preparation for his career finished even now. There are his " readings ” of the classics which, after all, are the back-bone of music. In these, our Kapellmeister is an interpreter of either the objective or the subjective school. A sufficient definition of these adjectives in music is yet to be made, but they sound well and are much used. Perhaps the difference is that the objective conductor is more careful of the wishes of the deadand-gone composer than his subjective brother, and sticks to the text more closely. At any rate, our conductor is one or the other, and if he does not present himself as a peculiarly authoritative interpreter of Beethoven or Brahms, Mozart or Schumann, he is sure to take some works by these masters which he turns into what are flippantly known as battle-horses. He discovers in them some hitherto undiscovered beauty or meaning, and by a twist in the tempo here, and the raising of an inner voice there, he sets the critical bigwigs talking about him, it makes no difference whether for or against, and possibly — O terque, quaterque beatus! — he creates a “ tradition.”

And now, his apprenticeship finished, all that is needed is the opportunity, and that will not be lacking. Good conductors are too few for any to go begging. He is lifted from the obscurity of the German provinces into the welcome glare of the metropolis. He is invited here and there to be “ guest.” London hears of him and “ discovers ” him. Paris follows in the footsteps of London, and then our Herr Kapellmeister looks longingly across the stormy Atlantic to the Land of Promise and Dollars, a field that lies fallow waiting for his artistic plough, a land whose dollar is four times the value of a reichsmark, and much more plentiful. The call is sure to come, for America is curious if not artistic, and if it does not accept him at his own artistic worth, and at that which Germany has placed on him (and, strangely enough, this sometimes happens), what matters it? Who goes to barbarous, money-grubbing America except for money ?

The music of Richard Strauss is not further away from the music of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf than the Kapellmeister of to-day is from the Kapellmeister we have seen doing his daily stint of music for the Grand Duke of Kalbsbraten-Pumpernickel, when Ditters was held a revolutionary genius because his music melted Phaëthon’s wings. The modern conductor is the superman of music. He looks down with benign contempt on all others who practice the art, for they are all his servants, —singers, executants, and composers. He has no rival, nor has he fear of one. Only one tiny speck is to be seen on his horizon. What if the time should come when we should have mechanical orchestras, one in every home, to be paid for on the installment plan ?