Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Musical Scrap Book

          A delightful glimpse of the home into which Chopin was born is given in “Chopin, the Child and the Lad,” by Uminska and Kennedy.
          The “flat” in a small town on the Mazovian plains, say these authors, was “a little suite of rooms in the long, low annex of Countess Skarba’s manor-house, and was separated by a hall from the manor bakery and kitchen . . . .  The Chopins’ three rooms had, as was then the habit, beamed ceilings and whitewashed walls.  They were furnished with solid old-fashioned mahogany furniture.  In the one-windowed front room in which Nicholas Chopin, the new-born baby’s father, was wont to sit and study, there were also bookshelves, containing his collection of books, from which he was never willingly separated.  The next room, which had two windows, was the largest of all and served as a drawing room.  In one corner of it stood a high-backed clavichord.
          “The third room, which was at the back of the house, had a window looking out on a flower bed, and further, across the River Utrata (Utrata means “loss”), which flowed almost under the windows of the house.
          “In the corner of each of these rooms stood a tall, white-washed brick stove, heated with pinewood logs, which, burning, gave forth a smell of resin, that mingled with the scent of rosemary and lavender and dried rose leaves with which, according to prevailing fashion, the sofa cushions were stuffed.  White muslin curtains covered the windows and on the broad sills stood Fushia, Pelargonium and Geranium plants.”

“It is well to remember that to be successful one must play, direct, or compose up to the public.  It is the greatest nonsense to imagine that success depends on playing down to the public.”—John Philip Sousa


          James Jupp has written a book.  It is called “The Gaiety Stage Door,” and James Jupp kept the door of this famous London playhouse for thirty years.  He has many strange stories to tell including one about a street-singer who attracted the mighty George Edwardes, then at his prime as a producer of musical comedies.  Edwardes sent for the man who had a fine but untrained baritone voice.
          “He (Edwardes) put several questions to him in a delicate manner, as to why he was singing in the street, if he had any parents, and so forth.  Then he made an offer for which any right-minded young man would have been everlastingly grateful.  It was that he should be put under a master and be thoroughly trained for opera, comic opera, or musical comedy or whichever his voice proved to be most suitable for.  he would be clothed and have board and lodging found for him, and during the time he was studying (perhaps two or three years) he would be paid five pounds ($25) a week.  At the end of his studies he was to enter into a contract with Mr. Edwardes, who would put him on the stage in London, and if he (Mr. Edwardes) had any judgment, he would be assured of a very successful career.”
          To this generous offer, says Jupp, the man made the following reply:
          “’Do you know that I rake in as much as $100 a week at this game?  Sometimes more?  And I am my own boss.  I sing when and where I like, and not at all if I don’t feel in the mood.  Study!  Me study?  No thanks!’”
          If modern music is ugly, at times, and bitter with acid discord, this is because it interprets the spirit of our times, says H. E. Wortham, an English critic who writes quite cheerfully on the theme in his “Musical Odyssey.”
          “The harshness of the greatest modern music is not to be denied,” he declares, “and, in so far as it springs from new uses of the scale and unfamiliar harmonic idioms, will wear off with time.  But we cannot thus account for it all.  There is assuredly a deeper reason.  Though music stands apart from the sphere of daily life, the musician is always subject to the spiritual stresses and struggles of the society in which he lives, and reflects them the more clearly in that his will be a nature more sensitive than that of the ordinary man  Thus when we find composers of genius giving utterance to strains that are positively painful in their harsh intensity, it is the wiser course not to condemn such as the eccentricity of talent striving after originality, but to accept them as the truest echo we can offer today of the music of the spheres.
          “That echo sounds differently in every age.  We do not hear it as did the Victorians.  Parry, who was doing good work only a decade ago, is already the voice of a past time.  Sir Edward Elgar, still happily in the full tide of life and strength, is beginning to appear remote.  In them there is not that undercurrent of mental restlessness of excitement and disillusion which is characteristic of today.  It can be seen in a hundred ways, but it can be seen most powerfully perhaps in the ‘Planets,’ a work at once huge, as the modern world is huge, but also mystical as the modern world is not.  When the future historian of our defunct civilization wishes to gain an insight into the way European peoples of today reacted to the imponderable things of the spirit, he will not be able to do better than to turn to Holst’s masterpiece.”

 Enjoy “Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s Planets, performed by the Osaka PhilharmonicOrchestra, Eiji Oue, conducting:
          Gottschalk, first of American piano virtuosi, learned to play the piano as early as in his fourth year, according to Marguerite F. Aylmer, quoted by Octavia Hensel in the latter’s “Life andLetters of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.”
          “His early childhood was passed in a poetic and wild retirement, far from the noise of cities, or the realities of the world of men.  On the romantic shores of Lake Pontchartrain he drew his first inspirations from the wisest and most beneficial of all teachers—Nature.
          “At the age of four, he sought an outlet for his wonderful inspiration, for by no other name can it be called, on the piano; and not infrequently at that tender age, his mother would be awakened in the long still nights by faint sweet melodies from below, and descend to find the child fingering the ‘beautiful cold keys,’ with a marvelous, rapt look on his little face.
          “The first opera he ever heard, was ‘Robertle Diable’ and upon his return from the theater he sat down and played the principal airs with a miraculous exactitude.  Long years after, when the child had grown to a world-famous man, he says, speaking of the death of Meyerbeer, “I will not attempt to tell you of my grief; to understand it, you must have been habituated, like myself, from infancy, to something little short of worship for this great genius, whose chef-d’oeuvre, “Robert le Diable,’ filled my early years with ineffable joy.’”
          Gottschalk (1829-69) was of Anglo-French descent, and was musically educated in Paris.  He is best known by his compositions “TheLast Hope” and “Dying Poet,” but deserves to be known also by his transcriptions of Creole music and typical Creole compositions.

          Emma Calvé’s book, “My Life,” contains many revealing incidents culled from her varied career, including one that shows how even a great singer can learn a lesson in promptitude.
          “At the last general rehearsal before the first night of ‘Sappho’ (an opera specially written for Calvé by Massenet), I had the misfortune of arriving at the theater ten minutes late.  The company was waiting, and Massenet, excited and nervous as usual, was decidedly out of patience.  He greeted me abruptly, disregarding the presence of my comrades and the members of the chorus and orchestra.
          “’Mademoiselle Calvé,’ he said, ‘an artist worthy of the name would never keep her fellow workers waiting!’
          “It was extremely angry.  Turning away, I walked off the stage and started to leave the building.  On my way out, I had a change of heart.  It took all my courage, but I decided to go back!
          “’My friends,’ I said, ‘the master is right.  I am at fault.  Forgive me!  I am ready to rehearse my part, if I am permitted to do so.’
          “The chorus and the orchestra applauded.  Massenet embraced me.  I was forgiven, but it had been a painful lesson.  Since then, I have never been a minute late for even the most unimportant engagement.”
          Being late at rehearsals is a serious business, and orchestra conductors are usually very strict on this matter with their personnel.  Musicians are sensitive, and playing at a high pitch, so that any slight interruption or mishap may throw them off their balance and spoil the music.
 Enjoy this recording of Emma Calvé performing "Plaisir d'Amour" from 1908:


          We have seen symphony orchestras in the course of a century or so swell up from the twenty or thirty players of Haydn’s time to the immensity of the modern symphony orchestra.  George Dyson in his book “The New Music” suggests the return to smaller orchestras in a novel way:
          “It is just possible that we are feeling our way towards that ideal combination, a small orchestra of soloists, in which every performer will be an aristocrat, to his own and music’s great advantage,” says Dyson.
          “Nobody knows yet what to do, still less what may eventually be done, with such a medium.  There are few composers who can handle as many as a dozen instruments with sustained yet orderly independence.  But no one ever did know what to do with new possibilities.
          “Slowly, clumsily, and with but a partial dawning of comprehension, music has gradually embraced its resources.  In the end one can imagine the new Bach, as it were, consummately applying the interpretative gifts of a selected few to the evolution of new forms of beauty.  There was never a time when players of such perfection awaited the composer of genius.  The old Bach was sometimes constrained to enroll an instrumental chorus to support his scanty soloists.  We have seen where that may lead, the new Bach will, it is hoped, be spared such temptations
          “This music will in many respects be eclectic.  It will not lend itself to arrangements for the piano, or submit to the devastating effect of unsuitable instruments in undiscriminating hands.  But the vast concourse of music-lovers wants to listen, not to play.  And now that difficulties of reproduction and circulation are for the most part solved, it is theoretically possible for new works to reach, in substantial purity, the ear of the true amateur, whoever and wherever he may be.”

“Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory.”

          The difficulties of Jewish music students in Russia under the old order are told by Leopold Auer in “My Long Life in Music.”  When he was teaching at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, young Jascha Heifetz was admitted without question, but his parents and little sisters were barred from the city on racial grounds.
          Finally, however, “Someone hit upon the happy idea,” says Auer, “of suggesting that I admit Jascha’s father, a violinist of forty, into my own class, and thus solve the problem.  This I did, and as a result the law was obeyed while at the same time the Heifetz family was not separated, for it was not legally permissible for the wife and children of a Conservatoire pupil to be separated from the husband and father.
          “However, since the students were without exception expected to attend the obligatory classes in solfeggio, piano and harmony, and since Papa Heifetz most certainly did not attend any of them, and did not play at the examination, I had to battle continually with the management on his account.
          “It was not until the advent of Glazounoff, my last director, who knew the true inwardness of the situation, that I had no further trouble in seeing that the boy remained in his parents’ care until the summer of 1917, when the family was able to go to America.
Enjoy Jascha Heifetz’ performance of Bach’s Chaconne from Partitia No. 2 in D minor:

by A. S. Garbett


  1. An interesting 'scrap book'! In Chopin's first home, I could almost smell the pine resin and fragrant stuffed cushions. What a lovely picture the author painted in that article. - Loved the other anecdotes, especially the piece about the 'Harshness of Modern Music'. Some of the thoughts expressed certainly give one much to ponder. - Always enjoy the performances, too.
    -Your Loving Mum

    1. Yes, and it would take an Englishman to be able to write "quite cheerfully" on the subject, wouldn't it? The real gem in this post is Jascha Heifetz's performance of the Bach Chaconne...

      Thank you for reading, Lovely Mum!