Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Variety of Piano Players

by Old Fogy

                If the great Solomon had lived in these latter days, he would probably have made his famous utterance, “Vanitas, vanitas rerum est vanitas,” much stronger; for surely this piano-banking age, with its plethora of piano music, is enough to provoke the spleen of the inspired Hebrew Psalmist himself.
                For some time past there have been paragraphs going the rounds of the musical papers to the effect that an early concerto of Liszt, hitherto unpublished, had come to light among his effects, and that Bernard Stavenhagen his favorite pupil, was preparing it for public performance.  This work is in E minor and is aptly named “Malediction," for this posthumous resurrecting of works is a malediction, and, with the exception of Bach and Schubert, is a pretty ungrateful task.  Now, to cap the climax, an earlier concerto still, said to be in F major, has been unearthed, and the question arises, where is this thing going to end?  We all know how unwise it was to publish, after Mendelssohn’s and Schumann’s death, so many of their unimportant and even poor compositions.  But how much worse in Liszt’s case, particularly as we are told these two concertos belong to his early or virtuoso period.
                There ought to be a society formed for the prevention of cruelty to artists, and the publishing of posthumous works sternly prohibited.  The world has seldom profited by them, and certainly the reputation of the artist, in nine cases out of ten, suffers.  The great Hungarian pianist was only too prolific during his lifetime with his pen, and one shudders at the bare possibility of a string of posthumous publications a la Hugh Conway, whose novels have increased even more rapidly since his death than during his lifetime.  With a constant influx of pianists and piano music, the musical world threatens to become pianized.  How subversive all this is to the principles of true musical art need not be pointed out.  So serious is the situation that Gounod and several other eminent musicians have taken up the cudgels against the legion of pyrotechnical piano prestidigitators, who, like the Huns of old, threaten to bury our modern musical Rome in a storm of cacophony and celluloid. 
                In some cities the local authorities have even stepped in to abate the piano nuisance, and if they could only interfere and prevent their too frequent appearance in the concert room, a long-suffering public would rise up and chant a hosanna of gratitude.  It has simply become unbearable, this constant inartistic piano drumming, and now, since “technic made easy” has become a household word, we are violently assaulted by young persons of both sexes—generally the female—who labor under the idea that digital dexterity means music, and who, since that Columbus of the Piano, Liszt, showed them how easy it was to stand the technical egg on its bottom, have been outvying their master ever since by trying to stand one egg on another one.  In a word, prodigious technical feats, and not music, is the sole aim and ambition of these so-called virtuosos.  The one evil feature about the Hoffmann recitals (and he is a genuine musical wonder) is that the public palate, like little Oliver Twist’s, continually asks for “more.”  It is not for the intrinsic musical quality of this little boy’s playing that one-half his audiences care a rush, but the spectacle of a child of his tender years manipulating the keyboard as he does; and a wonder it is, but it only excites the public mind a wrongful direction.  One-armed pianists, one-legged pianists (pedestrial, they dub themselves, we believe), pianists without arms (we were almost tempted to say pianists without brains, but we have such an enormous multitude of that class that the market is overstocked), will soon occupy the musical arena, to the exclusion of everything artistic.  This unhealthy craving for the sensational and the marvelous is a bad sign, not to speak of the infinite harm it does to the lad himself, who will, like the famous little Hungarian, Filstsch, Chopin’s pupil, wear himself out before he is in his teens.  In a word, it is time to cry halt to all this sort of thing, and also to attempt to stem the rising torrent of pianism which threatens to submerge the musical world.  The piano is a great instrument as far as it goes, but it is responsible for an immense amount of unmusical players—besides, there can always be too much of a good thing.
Yours in Disgust,

Enjoy Peter Toth and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra performing Liszt's "Malediction" (two parts):


  1. I sincerely hope there are more Old Fogy commentaries. I find it so interesting the way some things never change. Society as a whole seems to be perpetually fascinated with the bizarre and sensationalized whether it's "pyrotechnical piano prestidigitators" or reality TV.

    Love and hugs,
    Your devoted sister,

    P.S. Have enjoyed listening to the musical pieces while reading the articles. :)

    1. Old Fogy is a dear friend already. The occasional correspondence from his armchair at Dussek Villa-On-Wissahickon are treasured!

  2. Like Harmonica, I ,too, enjoy listening to the pieces and watching them played.

    Just wondering if there have been any posthumously published early works by any composer that are now thought of as noteworthy (pun unintended). I know that Mozart's Requiem was unfinished at his death and was finished, supposedly successfully. I have heard it and do not have the educated ear to tell where Mozart left off and the rest was added.

    Love the Old Fogy!! How can you not appreciate the way writers used language then. I've even re-read it a few times for the 'music' in the words.

    Much love,
    Your Olde Mum

    1. Dear Sweet Olde Mum:

      You would certainly recognize Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu which was written when he was about 24. The piece was written for a friend who, against Chopin's wishes, published it posthumously. Perhaps Chopin knew the middle section would lend itself to an over-played song in the future titled "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." As Old Fogy points out, such posthumous publications often do nothing for the artist's reputation!

      Love you, Mum!