Arthur Symons.

Plays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory online

. (page 11 of 13)
Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 11 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

learned gravity, he plays a difficult game, as in the Paganini
variations of Brahms, which were done with a skill as sure and as
soulless as Paganini's may have been. Sometimes he forgets that the
notes are living things, and tosses them about a little cruelly, as if
they were a juggler's balls. They drop like stones; you are sorry for
them, because they are alive. How Chopin suffers, when he plays the
Preludes! He plays them without a throb; the scholar has driven out the
magic; Chopin becomes a mathematician. In Brahms, in the G Minor
Rhapsody, you hear much more of what Brahms meant to do; for Brahms has
set strange shapes dancing, like the skeletons "in the ghosts'
moonshine" in a ballad of Beddoes; and these bodiless things take shape
in the music, as Godowsky plays it unflinchingly, giving it to you
exactly as it is, without comment. Here his fidelity to every outline of
form becomes an interpretation. But Chopin is so much more than form
that to follow every outline of it may be to leave Chopin out of the

Pachmann, of all the interpreters of Chopin, is the most subtle, the one
most likely to do for the most part what Chopin wanted. The test, I
think, is in the Third Scherzo. That great composition, one of the
greatest among Chopin's works, for it contains all his qualities in an
intense measure, might have been thought less likely to be done
perfectly by Pachmann than such Coleridge in music, such murmurings out
of paradise, as the Etude in F Minor (Op. 25, No. 2) or one of those
Mazurkas in which Chopin is more poignantly fantastic in substance, more
wild and whimsical in rhythm, than elsewhere in his music; and indeed,
as Pachmann played them, they were strange and lovely gambols of
unchristened elves. But in the Scherzo he mastered this great, violent,
heroic thing as he had mastered the little freakish things and the
trickling and whispering things. He gave meaning to every part of its
decoration, yet lost none of the splendour and wave-like motion of the
whole tossing and eager sea of sound.

Pachmann's art, like Chopin's, which it perpetuates, is of that
peculiarly modern kind which aims at giving the essence of things in
their fine shades: "la nuance encor!" Is there, it may be asked, any
essential thing left out in the process; do we have attenuation in what
is certainly a way of sharpening one's steel to a very fine point? The
sharpened steel gains in what is most vital in its purpose by this very
paring away of its substance; and why should not a form of art strike
deeper for the same reason? Our only answer to Whistler and Verlaine is
the existence of Rodin and Wagner. There we have weight as well as
sharpness; these giants fly. It was curious to hear, in the vast
luminous music of the "Rheingold," flowing like water about the earth,
bare to its roots, not only an amplitude but a delicacy of fine shades
not less realised than in Chopin. Wagner, it is true, welds the lyric
into drama, without losing its lyrical quality. Yet there is no perfect
lyric which is made less by the greatness of even a perfect drama.

Chopin was once thought to be a drawing-room composer; Pachmann was once
thought to be no "serious artist." Both have triumphed, not because the
taste of any public has improved, but because a few people who knew have
whispered the truth to one another, and at last it has leaked out like a


I shall never cease to associate Paderewski with the night of the
Jubilee. I had gone on foot from the Temple through those packed, gaudy,
noisy, and vulgarised streets, through which no vehicles could pass, to
a rare and fantastic house at the other end of London, a famous house
hospitable to all the arts; and Paderewski sat with closed eyes and
played the piano, there in his friend's house, as if he were in his own
home. After the music was over, someone said to me, "I feel as if I had
been in hell," so profound was the emotion she had experienced from the
playing. I would have said heaven rather than hell, for there seemed to
be nothing but pure beauty, beauty half asleep and dreaming of itself,
in the marvellous playing. A spell, certainly, was over everyone, and
then the exorciser became human, and jested deliciously till the early
morning, when, as I went home through the still garrulous and peopled
streets, I saw the last flutter of flags and streamers between night and
dawn. All the world had been rioting for pleasure in the gross way of
popular demonstrations; and in the very heart of this up-roar there had
been, for a few people, this divine escape.

No less magical, soothing, enchanting was the apparition, in Queen's
Hall, ten years later, of this unchanged creature with the tortured
Burne-Jones face, level and bewildering eyes, the web of gold hair still
poised like a halo. Beauty grew up around him like a sudden, exuberant
growth, more vigorous and from a deeper root than before. I realised,
more than ever, how the musician had always been the foundation of the
virtuoso. I have used the word apparition advisedly. There is something,
not only in the aspect of Paderewski, which seems to come mysteriously,
but full of light, from a great distance. He startles music into a
surprised awakening.

The art of Paderewski recalls to me the art of the most skilled and the
most distinguished of equilibrists, himself a Pole, Paul Cinquevalli.
People often speak, wrongly, of Paderewski's skill as acrobatic. The
word conveys some sense of disparagement and, so used, is inaccurate.
But there is much in common between two forms of an art in which
physical dexterity counts for so much, and that passionate precision to
which error must be impossible. It is the same kind of joy that you get
from Cinquevalli when he juggles with cannon-balls and from Paderewski
when he brings a continuous thunder out of the piano. Other people do
the same things, but no else can handle thunder or a cannon-ball
delicately. And Paderewski, in his absolute mastery of his instrument,
seems to do the most difficult things without difficulty, with a
scornful ease, an almost accidental quality which, found in perfection,
marvellously decorates it. It is difficult to imagine that anyone since
Liszt has had so complete a mastery of every capacity of the piano, and
Liszt, though probably even more brilliant, can hardly be imagined with
this particular kind of charm. His playing is in the true sense an
inspiration; he plays nothing as if he had learned it with toil, but as
if it had come to him out of a kind of fiery meditation. Even his
thunder is not so much a thing specially cultivated for its own sake as
a single prominent detail in a vast accomplishment. When he plays, the
piano seems to become thrillingly and tempestuously alive, as if brother
met brother in some joyous triumph. He collaborates with it, urging it
to battle like a war-horse. And the quality of the sonority which he
gets out of it is unlike that which is teased or provoked from the
instrument by any other player. Fierce exuberant delight wakens under
his fingers, in which there is a sensitiveness almost impatient, and
under his feet, which are as busy as an organist's with the pedals. The
music leaps like pouring water, flood after flood of sound, caught
together and flung onward by a central energy. The separate notes are
never picked out and made into ornaments; all the expression goes to
passage after passage, realised acutely in their sequence. Where others
give you hammering on an anvil, he gives you thunder as if heard through
clouds. And he is full of leisure and meditation, brooding thoughtfully
over certain exquisite things as if loth to let them pass over and be
gone. And he seems to play out of a dream, in which the fingers are
secondary to the meaning, but report that meaning with entire felicity.

In the playing of the "Moonlight" sonata there was no Paderewski, there
was nothing but Beethoven. The finale, of course, was done with the due
brilliance, the executant's share in a composition not written for
modern players. But what was wonderful, for its reverence, its
perfection of fidelity, was the playing of the slow movement and of the
little sharp movement which follows, like the crying and hopping of a
bird. The ear waited, and was satisfied in every shade of anticipation;
nothing was missed, nothing was added; the pianist was as it were a
faithful and obedient shadow. As you listened you forgot technique, or
that it was anybody in particular who was playing: the sonata was
there, with all its moonlight, as every lover of Beethoven had known
that it existed.

Before the Beethoven there had been a "Variation and Fugue on an
original theme," in which Paderewski played his own music, really as if
he were improvising it there and then. I am not sure that that feeling
is altogether to the credit of the music, which, as I heard it for the
first time, seemed almost too perilously effective, in its large
contrasts, its Liszt-like succession of contradictory moods. Sound was
evoked that it might swell and subside like waves, break suddenly, and
die out in a white rain of stinging foam. Pauses, surprises, all were
delicately calculated and the weaver of these bewildered dreams seemed
to watch over them like a Loge of celestial ingenuity.

When the actual Liszt came, the interminable Sonata in B minor, in which
the sugar and the fire are so strangely mixed, it was as if Paderewski
were still playing his own music. If ever there was a show piece for
the piano, this was it, and if ever there was a divine showman for it,
it was Paderewski. You felt at once the personal sympathy of the great
pianist for the great pianist. He was no longer reverential, as with
Beethoven, not doing homage but taking part, sharing almost in a
creation, comet-like, of stars in the sky. Nothing in the bravura
disconcerted or even displeased him, no lack of coherence or obviousness
in contrasts disturbed him; what was loud, boisterous, explosive, he
tossed about as in a colossal game, he bathed luxuriously in what was
luscious in the melodies, giving them almost more than their real worth
by the delighted skill with which he set them singing. A more
astonishing, a more convincing, a more overwhelming tour de force could
hardly be achieved on the piano: could an eruption of Vesuvius be more
spectacularly magnificent?

Liszt's music for the piano was written for a pianist who could do
anything that has ever been done with the instrument, and the result is
not so wholly satisfactory as in the ease of Chopin, who, with a
smaller technique, knew more of the secret of music. Chopin never
dazzles, Liszt blinds. It is a question if he ever did full justice to
his own genius, which was partly that of an innovator, and people are
only now beginning to do justice to what was original as well as fine in
his work. How many ideas Wagner caught from him, in his shameless
transfiguring triumphant way! The melody of the Flower-Maidens, for
instance, in "Parsifal," is borrowed frankly from a tone-poem of Liszt
in which it is no more than a thin, rocking melody, without any of the
mysterious fascination that Wagner put into it. But in writing for the
piano Liszt certainly remembered that it was he, and not some unknown
person, who was to play these hard and showy rhapsodies, in which there
are no depths, though there are splendours. That is why Liszt is the
test rather of the virtuoso than of the interpreter, why, therefore, it
was so infinitely more important that Paderewski should have played the
Beethoven sonata as impersonally as he did than that he should have
played the Liszt sonata with so much personal abandonment. Between those
limits there seems to be contained the whole art of the pianist, and
Paderewski has attained both limits.

After his concert was over, Paderewski gave seven encores, in the midst
of an enthusiasm which recurs whenever and wherever he gives a concert.
What is the peculiar quality in this artist which acts always with the
same intoxicating effect? Is it anything quite normal in his fingers, or
is it, in the image of a brilliant and fantastic writer on music in
America, Mr. James Huneker, a soul like the soul of Belus, "the Raphael
of the piano," which, "suspended above him, like a coat of many colors,"
mesmerises the audience, while he sits motionless, not touching the

Is Paderewski after all a Belus? Is it his many coloured soul that
"magnetises our poor vertebras," in Verlaine's phrase, and not the mere
skill of his fingers? Art, it has been said, is contagious, and to
compel universal sympathy is to succeed in the last requirements of an
art. Of what difference is it whether, like Keats, he perpetuates his
personal magnetism in a stanza, or, like Paderewski, sheds it, like a
perfume, for that passing moment which is all the eternity ever given to
the creator of beautiful sounds?


The interpreter of ancient music, Arnold Dolmetsch, is one of those rare
magicians who are able to make roses blossom in mid-winter. While music
has been modernising itself until the piano becomes an orchestra, and
Berlioz requires four orchestras to obtain a pianissimo, this strange
man of genius has quietly gone back a few centuries and discovered for
himself an exquisite lost world, which was disappearing like a fresco
peeling off a wall. He has burrowed in libraries and found unknown
manuscripts like a savant, he has worked at misunderstood notations and
found out a way of reading them like a cryptogrammatist, he has first
found out how to restore and then how to make over again harpsichord,
and virginals, and clavichord, and all those instruments which had
become silent curiosities in museums.

It is only beginning to be realised, even by musical people, that the
clavecin music of, for instance, Bach, loses at least half its charm,
almost its identity, when played on the modern grand piano; that the
exquisite music of Rameau and Couperin, the brilliant and beautiful
music of Scarlatti, is almost inaudible on everything but the
harpsichord and the viols; and that there exists, far earlier than these
writers, a mass of English and Italian music of extreme beauty, which
has never been spoiled on the piano because it has never been played on
it. To any one who has once touched a spinet, harpsichord, or
clavichord, the piano must always remain a somewhat inadequate
instrument; lacking in the precision, the penetrating charm, the
infinite definite reasons for existence of those instruments of wires
and jacks and quills which its metallic rumble has been supposed so
entirely to have superseded. As for the clavichord, to have once touched
it, feeling the softness with which one's fingers make their own music,
like wind among the reeds, is to have lost something of one's relish
even for the music of the violin, which is also a windy music, but the
music of wind blowing sharply among the trees. It is on such instruments
that Mr. Dolmetsch plays to us; and he plays to us also on the lute, the
theorbo, the viola da gamba, the viola d'amore, and I know not how many
varieties of those stringed instruments which are most familiar to most
of us from the early Italian pictures in which whimsical little angels
with crossed legs hold them to their chins.

Mr. Dolmetsch is, I suppose, the only living man who can read lute-music
and play on the lute, an instrument of extraordinary beauty, which was
once as common in England as the guitar still is in Spain. And, having
made with his own hands the materials of the music which he has
recovered from oblivion, he has taught himself and he has taught others
to play this music on these instruments and to sing it to their
accompaniment. In a music room, which is really the living room of a
house, with viols hanging on the walls, a chamber-organ in one corner,
a harpsichord in another, a clavichord laid across the arms of a chair,
this music seems to carry one out of the world, and shut one in upon a
house of dreams, full of intimate and ghostly voices. It is a house of
peace, where music is still that refreshment which it was before it took
fever, and became accomplice and not minister to the nerves, and brought
the clamour of the world into its seclusion.

Go from a concert at Dolmetsch's to a Tschaikowsky concert at the
Queen's Hall. Tschaikowsky is a debauch, not so much passionate as
feverish. The rushing of his violins, like the rushing of an army of
large winged birds; the thud, snap, and tingle of his strange orchestra;
the riotous image of Russian peasants leaping and hopping in their
country dances, which his dance measures call up before one; those sweet
solid harmonies in which (if I may quote the voluptuous phrase of a
woman) one sets one's teeth as into nougat; all this is like a very
material kind of pleasure, in which the senses for a moment forget the
soul. For a moment only, for is it not the soul, a kind of discontented
crying out against pleasure and pain, which comes back distressingly
into this after all pathetic music? All modern music is pathetic;
discontent (so much idealism as that!) has come into all modern music,
that it may be sharpened and disturbed enough to fix our attention. And
Tschaikowsky speaks straight to the nerves, with that touch of
unmanliness which is another characteristic of modern art. There is a
vehement and mighty sorrow in the Passion Music of Bach, by the side of
which the grief of Tschaikowsky is like the whimpering of a child. He is
unconscious of reticence, unconscious of self-control. He is unhappy,
and he weeps floods of tears, beats his breast, curses the daylight; he
sees only the misery of the moment, and he sees the misery of the moment
as a thing endless and overwhelming. The child who has broken his toy
can realise nothing in the future but a passionate regret for the toy.

In Tschaikowsky there is none of the quieting of thought. The only
healing for our nerves lies in abstract thought, and he can never get
far enough from his nerves to look calmly at his own discontent. All
those wild, broken rhythms, rushing this way and that, are letting out
his secret all the time: "I am unhappy, and I know not why I am unhappy;
I want, but I know not what I want." In the most passionate and the most
questioning music of Wagner there is always air; Tschaikowsky is
suffocating. It is himself that he pities so much, and not himself
because he shares in the general sorrow of the world. To Tristan and
Isolde the whole universe is an exultant and martyred sharer in their
love; they know only the absolute. Even suffering does not bring
nobility to Tschaikowsky.

To pass from Wagner to Tschaikowsky, from "Parsifal" to the Pathetic
Symphony, is like passing from a church in which priests are offering
mass to a hut in which peasants are quarrelling, dancing, and making
love. Tschaikowsky has both force and sincerity, but it is the force and
sincerity of a ferocious child. He takes the orchestra in both hands,
tears it to pieces, catches up a fragment of it here, a fragment of it
there, masters it like an enemy; he makes it do what he wants. But he
uses his fist where Wagner touches with the tips of his fingers; he
shows ill-breeding after the manners of the supreme gentleman. Wagner
can use the whole strength of the orchestra, and not make a noise: he
never ends on a bang. But Tschaikowsky loves noise for its own sake; he
likes to pound the drum, and to hear the violins running up and down
scales like acrobats. Wagner takes his rhythms from the sea, as in
"Tristan," from fire, as in parts of the "Ring," from light, as in
"Parsifal." But Tschaikowsky deforms the rhythms of nature with the
caprices of half-civilised impulses. He puts the frog-like dancing of
the Russian peasant into his tunes; he cries and roars like a child in a
rage. He gives himself to you just as he is; he is immensely conscious
of himself and of his need to take you into his confidence. In your
delight at finding any one so alive, you are inclined to welcome him
without reserve, and to forget that a man of genius is not necessarily
a great artist, and that, if he is not a great artist, he is not a
satisfactory man of genius.

I contrast him with Wagner because it seems to me that Wagner, alone
among quite modern musicians, and though indeed he appeals to our nerves
more forcibly than any of them, has that breadth and universality by
which emotion ceases to be merely personal and becomes elemental. To the
musicians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, music was an art
which had to be carefully guarded from the too disturbing presence of
emotion; emotion is there always, whenever the music is fine music; but
the music is something much more than a means for the expression of
emotion. It is a pattern, its beauty lies in its obedience to a law, it
is music made for music's sake, with what might be called a more
exclusive devotion to art than that of our modern musician. This music
aims at the creation of beauty in sound; it conceives of beautiful sound
as a thing which cannot exist outside order and measure; it has not yet
come to look upon transgression as an essential part of liberty. It does
not even desire liberty, but is content with loving obedience. It can
express emotion, but it will never express an emotion carried to that
excess at which the modern idea of emotion begins. Thus, for all its
suggestions of pain, grief, melancholy, it will remain, for us at least,
happy music, voices of a house of peace. Is there, in the future of
music, after it has expressed for us all our emotions, and we are tired
of our emotions, and weary enough to be content with a little rest, any
likelihood of a return to this happy music, into which beauty shall come
without the selfishness of desire?


All art is a compromise, in which the choice of what is to be foregone
must be left somewhat to the discretion of nature. When the sculptor
foregoes colour, when the painter foregoes relief, when the poet
foregoes the music which soars beyond words and the musician that
precise meaning which lies in words alone, he follows a kind of
necessity in things, and the compromise seems to be ready-made for him.
But there will always be those who are discontented with no matter what
fixed limits, who dream, like Wagner, of a possible, or, like Mallarmé,
of an impossible, fusion of the arts. These would invent for themselves
a compromise which has not yet come into the world, a gain without loss,
a re-adjustment in which the scales shall bear so much additional weight
without trembling. But nature is not always obedient to this too
autocratic command. Take the art of the voice. In its essence, the art
of the voice is the same in the nightingale and in Melba. The same note
is produced in the same way; the expression given to that note, the
syllable which that note renders, are quite different things. Song does
not in itself require words in order to realise even the utmost of its
capacities. The voice is an instrument like the violin, and no more in
need of words for its expression than the violin. Perhaps the ideal of
singing would be attained when a marvellous voice, which had absorbed
into itself all that temperament and training had to give it, sang
inarticulate music, like a violin which could play itself. There is
nothing which such an instrument could not express, nothing which exists
as pure music; and, in this way, we should have the art of the voice,
with the least possible compromise.

The compromise is already far on its way when words begin to come into
the song. Here are two arts helping one another; something is gained,
but how much is lost? Undoubtedly the words lose, and does not the
voice lose something also, in its directness of appeal? Add acting to
voice and words, and you get the ultimate compromise, opera, in which
other arts as well have their share and in which Wagner would have us
see the supreme form of art. Again something is lost; we lose more and
more, perhaps for a greater gain. Tristan sings lying on his back, in
order to represent a sick man; the actual notes which he sings are
written partly in order to indicate the voice of a sick man. For the
sake of what we gain in dramatic and even theatrical expressiveness, we
have lost a two-fold means of producing vocal beauty. Let us rejoice in
the gain, by all means; but not without some consciousness of the loss,
not with too ready a belief that the final solution of the problem has
been found.

An attempt at some solution is, at this moment, being made in Paris by a

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13

Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 11 of 13)