Saturday, June 17, 2017

New review for Conversations with George Edgar Selby

The soundtrack album to Beside the Manor Selby, Conversations with George Edgar Selby has a new review by noted musicophile Russell Hammond, of New South Wales, Australia. We present it here along with an earlier review by critic at large Boulevard Denim.

The album available as CD and digital download is available from 
Melodic Revolution Records
and also features composer Ellsworth Hall's Piano Concerto No. 1 in addition to the soundtrack material.

Conversations with George Edgar Selby (music CD - includes music from the soundtrack to Beside the Manor Selby)

On the Composer's Oeuvre

By Boulevard Denim

Ellsworth Hall occupies a peculiar place, entirely of his own creation, in the field of contemporary music.  He is a seeker after the realities of shadowy and dim illusions, an artist in grays and greens and subtle golds while still dabbling in opulent purples. Mr. Hall is of the "children of revelry," a weaver of dreams. For him, indeed, shadows and dreams are the invincible realities, and from them he derives a compelling music; music which serenely rebukes dissection.

That serenity, that innocence of intention, are indeed remarkable. After the plangent splendors, the torrential rhetoric of his earlier works, Mr. Hall's contemporary oeuvre, owing something of the subdued and elusive beauty of antique tapestries, addresses the spirit with a unique appeal.

His is music in which the emotion conveyed is the emotion of remembered rapture, the beauty, "the surviving beauty of gathered dreams;" seldom the emotion and beauty of that which is actual and present. Mr. Hall is most urgently aroused by such moods of longing and remote enchantment as find jeweled expression in Beside the Manor Selby for which he has written unforgettable music.

At times his habit of artistic  speech tempt him to such outbursts of passionate lament as fill the movements of his Piano Concerto No.1 with so insupportable a poignancy. There is the driving rhythmic asymmetry of the opening movement; the decorative flourishes surrounding the resurfacing primary theme in the second;  the modal and jazzy harmonies of the third; and the adroit use of fortspinnung (along with recapitulations of a leitmotif from the second movement) in the fourth.

Mr. Hall perceives his world with as rapt a gaze, with as complete an absorption in its emotional panorama, as the most vivid and declamatory of the moderns; but the issue of his understanding is certain veiled and continent intensity, an interior passion, a conviction implied rather than than declared. That is, finally, the peculiarity of his art.

Track by track review by Russell Hammond (with gracious permission)

There is light and darkness together with tension and release within the same track
and if not, then with the next track. I have not seen ‘Besides the
Manor Selby’ and I can only comment on the music:

Lento e Allegro – my favourite instrumental track from the album and a
worthy opener. I love its length, the way it ebbs and flows, the
different instrumentation, the drive behind the track and how you
simply stopped it. Not a wasted note and it didn’t overstay its

Andante e Presto – This one seems to have the kitchen sink thrown in
it. Quiet start and then deviates all over the place following little
themes here and there and some interesting percussion thrown in. You
definitely won’t be dancing to this track.

Allegro Moderato – Just great to sit down and let the track wash over
you. I liked the stripped back nature with enough ‘Selby’ thrown in.

Andante – the beginning didn’t win me over at all with the synth out
front. But then that was just the warm up and with different
instruments and with then the strings to round the track. Love the
piano section in the middle (a breather) and then it builds on itself
a number of times to its climax and final release – I love the
clapping at the end too.

Besides the Manor Selby Overture – This was the only track to touch me
and I wiped my eyes. To me it was thought provoking and made me
reflect on my life today.

Newsreel – this track that didn’t agree with me but it might be down to context.

After Ferdinand – Another track that starts off with drive but doesn’t
resolve itself for me – that context again. Way too short.

Round About the Garden – I can imagine what this track is trying to convey.

The Archduke Earsworth – Love a good waltz. Pleasant.

The Tower – This track took me on a not too long enjoyable journey.

Gather the Heirlooms – rather down beat track but nicely layered with
a real presence.

La Masque a Enleve – A hymn? My French is non existent but the track
gathers a real church atmosphere with that deep organ.

Verdun – Lovely piano and atmospheric (eerie?) vocals. Reminded me a
bit of a Rick Wakeman track in Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Undone in Verden – Hard to believe this follows the last track. Mostly
pastoral with that orchestral part in the middle. It could have wound
away for a few more minutes for me.

Here Lies a Wretched Corpse – If the name of a track can determine the
soundscape of a track then this is it. A bit of ‘Selby’ reprised and
it is very well layered and I could see this being at the end of the
movie or as the end credits are rolling.

In Grief Unbound – simply stunning and could have been released as a
single. Your standards for the choice of vocalist are very high – to
my ancient ears.  (editor's note - the vocalist here is the remarkable Dyan Brown)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In honor of author Frances Corkran Hall's 100th birthday 
(September 13, 1916) we present one of her short stories from 
the late 1960s.

Mrs. Hall taught nursing in the 1950s 
(and received her M.S. degree) in Baltimore, MD. 
Her career led to writing about some intriguing 
experiences. Forthwith we present -

Overripe Apples

By Frances C. Hall

The corpse blew soft puffs of sweet stale air in my face; wet gurgles 
from her chest rumbled in my ears as I turned the warm heavy body 
to prepare her for the undertaker.

Outside a blizzard was throwing a blanket of snow over the sleeping
city. Everything was quiet but the wind. It was moaning and groaning;
it shook the creaky hospital and jingled and jarred the glassware in the
dim-lit sick room. My heart raced with the wind and my teeth chattered
with the rattling windowpanes,

As I gently released the body blood seemed to flow in her face and
neck. Startled, I checked the patient's pulse and felt fast throbbing
beats. Swaying from fright, I grasped a chair for support as I sought my
mirror and held it to the corpse's face. The glass was free of moisture.
I sighed with relief, but in the next instant the nauseating fruity odor
came again from the corpse, enveloping and suffocating me. I was sick.

My post-mortem care procedures had made no mention of these occur-
ences. I shuddered at the thought of the next step, stuffing her mouth
with cotton from the mortuary basket. What should I do? What if Mrs.
Corey were still alive?

This was my sixth month in the nurses‘ training school and my second
look at a dead person. But Mrs. Corey looked alive! Her body was warm
and pink, unlike the first corpse I had viewed, all pale, bony and cold.

I ran to find the charge nurse or the night physician. Hurrying 
down the gloomy hall, I heard the clanking elevator. "Oh no, it couldn't
be the undertaker," I thought, as an intern stepped from the grating 
vehicle. He half listened as I poured out my story, then shrugged and 
asked,"Dr. Post's diabetic patient in room 313?" I nodded.

"She was pronounced dead, wasn't she?" he huffed and then swaggered
down the hall muttering something about student nurses.

Even so, I was not reassured. I vividly recalled stories of reopened
coffins showing deep fingernail scratches from struggles to escape. My
fright heightened even more by these thoughts; I ran blindly up the 
corridor and collided with the chief medical doctor.

Listening to my disorganized story, Dr. Burke gently said, "Mrs.
Corey is not alive. She had no pulsations, you only felt your own heart
pounding away." He eased my mind about people being buried alive as 
he recounted the discovery of the stethoscope and its use in listening to
body-generated sounds. He added some information about embalming.

Using layman's terms because of my inexperience, Dr. Burke briefly
compared Mrs.Corey's living body to an engine containing fuel of incor-
rect mixtures of glucose and fat. The combustion products from burning
this mixture lead to unconsciousness or diabetic coma. The acetone
breath scent came from these products and is characteristic of the disease. 
But a basket of overripe apples in a closed room will give off the
same saccharine revolting stench.

"Now," Dr. Burke continued, "the dying woman was too weak to exhale
all the stale air, but after death the movement of the body brought the
air forth. Other bodily complications caused a stagnation of blood in
face and neck to give the pink coloration."

Thanking Dr. Burke, I resolved to write a nursing manual and include
the rare occurrences that student nurse may encounter in post-mortem
care. I did.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Why The Masters Died Poor

By Chas. Doran

It has been said that the great composers, with few exceptions, have left the world no other inheritance than their compositions, and yet many of them received princely sums for their latter works and fabulous gifts from crown heads, to say nothing of the generous provisions made for them from the the treasuries of the states in which they lived. Yet they died poor.

Perhaps Chopin's words to a lady admirer, in reply to her question as to whether he was wealthy: "My only wealth is in the richness of my musical notes," may shed some light upon the subject, if we interpret the remark to mean that most of the noted composers cared not for any other kind of riches than that in which they could endow their works. We know that Verdi gave away much of his earnings to the poor of his native city, and that Schubert was so good to others that he was frequently reminded of his too great consideration of the needs of the poor by his bankers returning to him his order upon the bank with the words "No funds to your credit" written across the face of the paper. Schubert's generosity was proverbial and once caused him to write to a friend: "I suppose you are right, my charity to others has made a mendicant of myself."

One of Mozart's highest aims in life was to live to see the day when he had dipensed in philanthropic works a hundred thousand florins, and we are told by one of his biographers that before the great maestro closed his eyes in death he had given away three times this sum to the poor of the country of this birth. Beethoven loved money, and was very exacting with his publishers in the payment of royalties due him, holding them to account for the last penny, and his earnings must, too, have been very great, for like Verdi he was the idol of the hour, yet he left to his heirs but little money.

He wrote to one of his pupils who asked him for some advice: "Love money, but only for the good you can do with it, and save every mark you can until you have accumulated enought money with which to do some substantial good." Mendelssohn dreamed of the good he could do with the money he received from the royalties upon his compositions, and it is said carried out many of his dreams. He, like other great composers, left to the world little inheritance besides his marvelous musical creations.

Donizetti died poor, yet he could have gone to his grave a weathly man for his time. Liszt gave away money, but never without seeing first wherein it would accomplish the greatest good, and when he was on his deathbed he turned to his spiritual comforter and said: "I have given away my silver and leave to the world as an inheritance but the works that have brought me the silver."

Gounod classed composers among dreamers. "They live in an atmosphere laden with music, to them the world is either a waltz or a dirge, gladness or sorrow," and Gottschalk wrote of his own life: "A dream, the air about which has been music, today the softness and sweetness of a nocturne, tomorrow possibly the power and majesty of a requiem." And the composer of the "Last Hope" was no exception to the rule, he died a poor man, leaving to the world much wealth, but like other great composers a wealth of sublime music. He is said to have earned a fortune and yet he left not enough money with which to raise a fitting monument over his grave. Great musicians, like poets, have nearly all been very visionary; "they have lived in the world and yet been no part of its material advancement," as Von Bulow put it, when writing of the lives of two of his fellow composers.

The world has been a beautiful dream in which they have produced the music with which to enchant the forms that have appeared in it. Money, worldly possessions have been but as the means to sustain the body while the mind dreamed and the fingers penned the sublime notes that inspirations brought forth from the heart.

Fame seems to have had no other meaning to the most of the world's greatest composers than as the wherewith, so to speak, with which they were to meet the physical needs, while the spiritual, seemingly, was given sway that the world might be endowed with a riches of song and melody for which it was forever after to pay its tribute of gratitude to their creators.

One has but to read the biography of a great composer to see that his life was a living proof of the saying, "Music makes man love man," and agree with Liszt when he wrote of Chopin: "He was kind, noble and generous, Chopin, giving to his fellow man whatever he could spare of his earthly goods and leaving to the world no other inheritance than his music." Yet one endowed his name with as much love as the other has endowed his name with and endless fame.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Music Lovers Digest

George Bernard Shaw on the Growth of Harmony

The technical history of modern harmony is a history of the growth of tolerations by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians. By senseless I mean, in the case of a discord, that you cannot forsee its resolution or relate it to a key. Great composers anticipate the rank and file of us in this sort of perception, and consequently in the toleration of combinations which seem unbearable in the absence of any such perception.

Musicians had to confine themselves to thirds and fifths until somebody - we used to say it was Monteverde - ventured to pile a minor third on top of the fifth in a very cautious way, introducing the new note first as a third, fifth, or unison in the previous chord, and letting it sweeten itself into a concord again in the following one; preparation and resolution, as we call it.

It took quite a long time before the battle over the toleration of this discord of the seventh was so thoroughly won that it could be expelled without preparation on an audience in any position. I can still remember the time when its last inversion - with the seventh in the bass - sounded strange and dramatically momentous, as in the first finale in Don Giovanni, and especially in Beethoven's early Prometheus overture, which opens with an abrupt third inversion of the seventh, fortissimo.

By that time, however, minor ninths, then called diminished sevenths, were familiar; and Wagner's battle began with unprepared major ninths, which, joyously blared forth in the second act of Tannhauser, sounded as scandalous as anything in Richard Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica does today.

Who cares about an unprepared major ninth now, or an eleventh, or a thirteenth? Yet when you have accustomed people to these, you have conquered the whole diatonic scale, and may sound every note in it simultaneously, leaving nothing for future generations to discover but the art of making chords out of combinations of different keys, an art in which we are already making experiments.

- From the Proceedings of the London Musical Association

How the Fake Composer Works

The procedure of the fake composer illustrates very well the fable of "The Ass in the Lion's Skin." I can only speak of him as far as my personal experience goes.

A man, whom I afterward recognized as one of the most successful popular song writers of his day came to me some years ago and told me that he had heard of me as a good musician, at which I bowed gratefully. He then proceeded to tell me that he had composed a song. I asked him, with polite interest, to play or sing it for me, at which he looked at me with blank amazement, telling me that if he had been able to do this he would not have required my services.

It was then my turn to gaze at him with surprise, until he explained that he had invented (!!) a melody, which he had learned to whistle almost without a mistake, and all that he wanted me to do was to jot it down as he whistled it and to harmonize it. For this he would magnanimously pay me the fee of five dollars. I answered that even if I could be induced to do this work for him, I would like to adopt a nom de plume. He then became quite indignant, stating that as he was the composer, he would have only his own name used. I leave to the reader's imagination the termination of the interview.

This is not by any means the only case of its kind that has come to my notice, and in fact, this man very frankly told me that he only came to me, because the regular staff of "drudges" who performed this ask at his publisher's for him, were too busy that day taking down the inventions of other "composers."

- Andre Benoist in Musical America (New York)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Psychology of Music: Where Feeling Comes In

by W.S.B. Mathews

In the first paper of the present series we traced the origin of music and its development through the ferment of the harmonic principle acting upon the musical imagination - which is to say, the educated imagination, acting upon selected material for hearing. (The ear hears much besides that restricted part of what it hears which we name music.) It was concluded that the prime object of music is the production of tonal beauty, attractive tonal discourses, which have in them something in common with all human discourse, namely, a series of connected sounds (rationally related sounds) succeeding each other in time and forming a variety of smaller and larger unities, which the listener, if intelligent, apprehends. Music has also the attractiveness of educated speech, in its agreeable sound; it has also much that is peculiar to itself, inasmuch as these tonal successions and ideas appeal to the educated musical sense and are not fully intelligible to the ordinary uneducated person. Thus we have left over from the first paper the nature of music as primarily tonal, and, second, the attitude for enjoying it intelligently, as in expert play with tones, - namely, what might be called an “objective” attitude, the attitude of curiously examining and following a rational discourse. It was admitted that music also has power over the feelings, but the question of the source and scope of this power was left for later consideration. The first thing is to hear and to hear music, which is not the tone, but the ideas, unities, which the tones take on or express through their organization modes. What we now come to is to trace, if we can, the nature of the transactions which take place in the brain of the listener, beginning at the moment when the first sound of the musical stanza falls upon the ear, and ending with moment when the consciousness of the listener has the sense of the whole and has experienced a certain change of attitude or state in consequence. This sounds rather formidable, but inasmuch as it belongs to everyday experiences we ought to be able to make some headway in the investigation.

We begin, then, with the listener in a receptive attitude, as when one says to him: “Listen now, I have a curious and interesting thing to tell you!” The listener pays attention -that is, directs his attention to what is about to be said and keeps it there until the story is completed. In understanding the story there are certain elements not unlike these that take place in understanding music. First, a series of words, which the listener both hears and recognizes, and also understands as he recognizes them - as the “autocrat” used to say, understands them “as one drinks water without stopping to taste it.” Suppose, for instance, it is a sentence like this: “A beautiful girl, elegantly dressed, was standing by the crossing of the street when a ruffian came up and struck her.” Observe the unities which form themselves in the mind during the moment just after the words have been heard without stopping to taste them: “A beautiful girl” (we all know the kind), “elegantly dressed” (we have seen that sort); and now a larger unity, “a beautiful girl elegantly dressed was standing by the crossing of the street” (here the street crossing emerges in its own completeness and becomes associated with all that went before), “when a ruffian” (we swallow hard after “ruffian”; we know that kind) “came up and struck her?’ The key has changed to minor and the chords are distinctly Wagnerian.

Suppose I hold in my hand the printed copy of the piece of music some one is going to play for me. I cast my eyes over the notes, following from left to right, slowly along the line, just as I would do if playing from the notes; I read it conscientiously and musically, that is in the proper tempo, whatever it is. As my eye passes along the line it encounters successive chords, each of which is accompanied by a little vertical mark, those from the right-hand notes commonly stemming out of the right hand side of the round notehead; those of the left hand stem out of the left-hand side of the notehead (as they commonly turn down). These vertical lines may stand for the moment when the successive chords’ fall upon the ear.

Laying aside now the printed music, in order to have the attention more complete to what we hear, let the music begin. First consider the chords, the harmonic movement. Observe that in a really important. piece of music the tension within the chords varies extremely. For instance, take the first phrase of the Adagio of the “Sonata Pathetique,” by Beethoven, and note that, while only Tonic and Dominant occur for several chords in succession, the relation of the bass to the chord gives rise to varied tensions, which if space permitted it would he interesting to trace. If we come to a very modern work we find the tensions much more varied, owing to the presence of dissonance. Now, a word for these tensions.

By repose in a chord we mean the effect of a Tonic chord well placed, with the root in the lowest part and in the highest. This is the only absolute repose there is in music. Any change o-f position, bringing the third or fifth in the treble, changes the tension; and any inversion adds still more tension. From this zero point, out of which all music springs and into which all music returns, we come next to the most reposeful chord after the tonic. This chord is the Subdominant, because, either by nature or by habit, we expect the Tonic to follow it. When we hear the Dominant after the Tonic, we know that we can still see home. While the actual consonance of the chord is quite the same as that of the Tonic, the tension is greater, because the mind is looking for something later. Thus we add the positions of the Dominant.

Then we come to the minor chords of the key, universally recognized as of a pathetic or unsatisfied character. This color lies in the chord itself, which is not consistent throughout with its predominant fundamental. While not technically a dissonance, the minor triad is acoustically such. Then we come to the various chords of the seventh, with greater tensions and more clamorous appeals for progression and resolution. To these "we add whatever dissonance we please, each one being in fact a temporary displacement of a consonant tone of the chord, appealing for resolution. In this way we get a great variety of what we might call acoustical tensions, owing to the perfect agreement or imperfect agreement of all the vibratory elements with a given fundamental, and the very evident fact with many of them that they sound dissonant. In this way I think we might enumerate forty or more grades of tension residing in the chord itself, chords which we are liable to hear at any suitable part of a discourse. 

Besides these tensions, which are inseparable from hearing, there is a second grade of tensions due to place in key -that is, due to our expecting something suitable and definite to follow. The range of tensions due to place in key, and especially to a momentary digression into foreign keys, is very great, and the experiencing of these tensions is an indispensable prerequisite to any intelligent and sympathetic hearing of the music as to its beauty and strength. That most of my readers have never before thought of them is merely a tacit reflection upon the musical education they have had. In popular music these tensions are vastly fewer and less subtle. That is one reason why unmusical persons find what is called classical music uninteresting. They do not respond because they are unawakened to these delicate musical distinctions.

In this hearing there is, first, a moment of what we might call acute attention, when the successive klangs fall upon the ear; second, a time of suspension, until the phrase is completed, when all of a sudden the outline of the phrase as a whole shapes itself ill the mind, just as one sees the branch of a tree clear up in the stereoscope when the focus is perfected; but this is not the end; a second phrase defines itself, a third, and a fourth, and finally a complete period, in which all four of the phrases stand so clear in the vision of the tonal-imagination that a good musician can just as easily write out such a musical period from once hearing, as any person of common intelligence can write out the sentence last spoken to him. 

The organizing elements in the music are the harmonic (tending away from the Tonic and back again to it) and the rhythmic. The rhythmic does not place much strain upon the attention; through the accent the interest is culminated upon a certain harmonic point, and by this means the period takes a color it would not have had with an accent upon a different place. Here is much matter to explore, but we have no space. Enough for the present to point out that our acute attention gives us the actual sound of the successive klangs, and our suspended attention gives us the various connections and dependencies in the period. Moreover, while most of our music consists of melody and harmony, the tonal effects of melody is charged back to the harmony, all melodic motion taking place between two successive harmonies being charged to the harmony last heard. Rhythm cuts a great figure in melody. But this we must pass.

When the period has been truly heard in a musical manner in such a way that the musical hearer is able to write it out without the slightest hesitation or uncertainty, we are at an end of two classes of musical effect: First, the actual sound of the klangs themselves; second, the tension of klangs as affected by place in key. Now, what happens next?

There is something extremely personal and penetrating in music. It comes home to you. Our emotional state changes with the music. Why? There are two chief movers of emotional kind. The pulsation and rhythm themselves are characterizations. When slow and sedate in motivization, it tends to seriousness; when faster and more daring in motivization, it is more inciting and stimulating. Then there is the chord-color, the range and quality of tensions. When a composer is in such a state that he prefers dissonances and delights in syncopations and clashing sounds, you know perfectly well that he is not dreaming of heaven. It may be dyspepsia. The mind cannot get away from the idea that a preponderance of active tensions in music means excitement, sometimes almost madness. And just as a generation or two ago our fathers went wild over the uncanny “Confessions of an Opium Eater” (De Quincy), so in our days there are thousands to go wild over the same kind of thing in music.

And with better reason. Some of my readers have heard of Archdeacon’s famous watch. He pictures a savage finding a watch lying upon the sea shore. It has been recently dropped, and it is still running. At first he imagines it a new kind of turnip. He hears a mysterious ticking inside. He gets the case open and discovers the wheels and the moving balance. “No!” he says, “some man must have made this; it never grew.” Such is the famous argument from design. So in music. Nobody can hear music without recognizing it as a living action. It is a personally conducted progression through a range of life which may prove to be congenial or utterly foreign; nevertheless a life, the story of the actual heartbeats, the laughter, the tears, and the sorrows of men and women like ourselves. It answers to the great under deep of the subconscious in man, where memories linger, hopes lie dormant, aspirations strive and now and then emerge - it covers the whole range of the possible emotional states in man. Now sweet and pleasing, now more troubled, striving, building up energetically to a tremendous climax, never for two minutes the same--what can such a voice mean but to tell of a human soul in pain or joy, in sorrow or longing or aspirations? The emotional hypothesis forms itself instinctively in order to account for the preferences involved in the percentage of dissonance and other tension; and the idea of a personal creator is an inevitable conclusion from the very apparent play of design, repetition and recapitulation as the discourse proceeds. By accentuation and emotional swing, it can only be poetry; and by what it says, it is highly intense poetry of human imagination and feeling. No other hypothesis so easily forms itself. 

Then we must not forget that a very large department of music has always concerned itself with the direct effort to express human feeling. Dramatic characterization, they call it, but the one thing which opera lives for is to supply music to each scene and line of the drama, congenial as a suitable atmosphere or expression for the human loves and sorrows which then unfold before us. Thus arise a few “conventions,” such as the tremolo for suspense, when trouble is on the point of bursting; the sharp pizzicati of the violins for the strokes of swords in fencing, the quiet triplets and monotonous bass of a “pastoral” movement.

Nevertheless while feeling cannot be separated from music, and music without feeling should be sold by the yard and cut ofl' in pennyworths, feeling is after all not the primary object; but the story, in which character is the motive, and feeling the incident. Therefore, while to ignore feeling as a part of the content of music and to fail to educate in discerning it as it appears would be a serious defect in a musical education, it is even more true that to ignore the story, the characters, the individualities of tonal life would be a still more fatal defect. Moreover we also come back to the principle that, whether feeling be a primary or a secondary incident of music, the fact remains that the nature of the story and the feeling it contains are second results of hearing the music, the music itself as tonal story being the first thing one hears, while the person who hears not at all remains ignorant of all that the music contains. Therefore we begin by learning to hear and to hear more and more; and we then inquire what we hear - what it is all about.

These positions explain one very curious fact in pedagogy. The thorough study of even a small number of pieces by Bach almost invariably promotes musical feeling in the player, more rapidly than perhaps the compositions of any other author whatever. And the player not taught to hear design in music always fails to find anything worth noticing in Bach. I take Bach as a test because he was probably the most perfect musician known as yet in musical history. He has pretty much everything: Infinite individuality and character in tonal design, most clever and evasive harmonies which never grow old to the hearer, a most dreamy melody, full of tender mysticism at times (as much so as Schumann) and a background of feeling and temperament which has not gotten cold during the two centuries his works have appealed. After Bach the next great master who fails of popular appreciation through ignorance of his consummate play of musical lines and evasive tensions is Brahms. 

Hence the summary of musical psychology: First, hear; second, understand; third, enjoy and sympathize; then, if you can, play.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Keeping Up the Enthusiasm

By Ralph Fisher Smith

What valuation do you put upon enthusiasm in your endeavors? Do you realize when Emerson said "nothing is ever achieved without enthusiasm" he told one of the greatest truths a preceptor can learn. Enthusiasm has almost wholly to do with the imagination. The original meaning of the word implied being possessed of a Godlike feeling that the impossible is attainable. It is a synonym for inspiration. It is one of the few things which an instructor can communicate to the pupil. If an instructor's enthusiasm burns brightly he or she may ignite a pupil's musical soul and foster a fire which may illuminate the whole world.

What makes the study of music in all its forms a drudgery to some? The failure of the preceptor or presenter in creating the right enthusiasm. This demands something more than mere high spirits and a glib tongue. It calls for inventive skill in devising ways to kindle the pupil or listener's interest into the flame of enthusiasm. For instance, in playing for an individual, the presenter should play with the same spirit he or she would employ at Carnegie Hall or the Royal Albert Hall before an audience of thousands.

Anything which will emphasize the "human" side of music will add to the listener's interest. The preceptor should employ pictures, biographical notes, historical anecdotes, in fact everything known about the composer which will make him stand in the listener's mind as a real man or woman, and not as some ink and paper effigy of a past long isolated from the living present. Even in teaching technical exercises an instructor must take great pains not to extinguish the sacred flame of enthusiasm by burying it under a needless mass of uninteresting digital contortions. Better by far take a few exercises at a time than attempt to give a whole long technical tome at once.

The greatest need for enthusiasm is at the start when the pupil or listener must traverse a somewhat dreary road through music theory and elementary technique. Once possessed of the ability which leads to the land of beautiful pieces, the pupil or listener will commence to develop a fire of enthusiasm which will light the way like a beacon.

An odd case is that of a man like me. One doesn't lead a natural life at all; yet to make it semi-natural, it would have to be much more artificial; somewhat as my artwork itself, which also finds no parallel in Nature or Experience, yet receives its new, its higher life precisely through the most consummate application of Art.

- Wagner

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Thoughts by the Way - Processes Unmusical

We hope the holidays were benevolent to all and we return from the holiday hiatus with an insight on processes unmusical tolerated as a means of arriving at a method of musical expression.

By Wilson G. Smith

The erstwhile prevalent idea that technique has only to do with mechanics, — a purely automatic means toward an end, — is fast falling into disuse among the intelligentsia, a fact that augurs well for the artistic standing of future musical representatives. The intelligent mind readily perceives the value and necessity of cultivating the brain as the instigator of muscular action. First comes the mental concept of technique, and then necessarily
follows its demonstration by the hands and fingers. The idea that pupils must go through a long and tedious drudgery in mechanical action without a mental conception is now buried with the Plaidy system which gave it birth. Nowadays pupils are not expected to practice technique, reading the while a book placed before them on the music rack of the piano. Nor does the intelligent teacher presume to require the student to obliterate the fact that emotional, not sentimental playing — in its best sense, — can be cultivated as to matter of tone and touch in a technical study as well as in a Chopin nocturne. Along this line of teaching is exploited the fact that the same study can be used in a great variety of ways in the matter of phrasing and touch, thereby gaining for the student a psychological as well as mechanical aspect of the technical problem under consideration. Neither do teachers of modern tendencies require pupils to practice technique in a manner not used as a method of interpretation. The old system of requiring pupils to assault technical exercises with a blacksmith style of touch under the supposition that it develops strength is fast becoming obsolete. With as much pretense a vocal teacher require students to spend hours of practice in shouting at the full extent of their lungs to attain vocal facility. A voice teacher advocating such methods would speedily find his occupation gone, and his citadel of learning unfrequented by applicants for wisdom as dispensed by him and his system.

In singing, as also in violin playing, tone production is always the preeminent desideratum, and why indeed should it not be the same in the study of the piano? It is the wise teacher who makes the same exercise serve many purposes. It saves time in learning for the pupil, and also awakens in the mind of the pupil an intelligent appreciation of tone values and dynamic coloring. Finished artists do not use in their interpreting of the masters such equivocal adjuncts as the hammer stroke, nor do they raise their fingers from the keyboard 
greater distance than is necessary to produce a vibrant, singing tone by the use of the pressure touch. An analysis of tone production will readily prove that the fullest and most artistic tone is produced by a downward pressure of the fingers and wrist, one that can never be evolved by a strident finger stroke. Clothe technique in the garb of temperament, and it is a dull pupil indeed who will not find pleasure in his practice. It becomes a mental process by which the imagination and musical intuition are awakened and developed. Is a scale or figurated passage any less the vehicle of thought and emotion because it is found in a Cramer étude rather than in a Mozart or Beethoven sonata? Can a student gain anything, from a psychological standpoint, by practicing the passage in a more mechanical style in the étude than he plays a similar technical passage in one of the accepted master works? I think not; and consistent with my belief, I am a strong advocate of rendering unto technique the same homage we give to things artistic. To acquire a fine grammatical and imaginative literary style, one would hardly be expected to converse or write in an opposite style. Why, then, are processes unmusical tolerated as a means of arriving at a method of musical expression?

Modern intelligence does not believe in any such hallucination. It rather teaches that when once the mind grasps the musical significance of a technical problem the fingers readily respond to its adequate expression. It is merely the old law of the domination of mind over matter. Technical materialism in the study of art is the implacable foe of idealism and poesy. Mechanics and art are far distant from each other, unless the latter dominates at all times and , under all conditions the utilization of the former. I have had (and am still having) pupils who, when they first came to me, had a wholesome dislike for technical work, as it had been associated by them with pure mechanical finger action and mental torpor; but when once I explained to them the superiority of a mental concept to the mechanical aspects of the problem, they soon enjoyed their technical work as much as what we commonly designate as “pieces.” There is as much opportunity for expressive playing and fine tone production in a Czerny étude as in any “piece” one may elect to study. There may be a difference in temperamental values but not in the artistic development of mental grasp and conception. It is folly to expect a pupil to play for a lesson a Czerny étude in the usual “hammer and tongs” style, and then closing the book interpret," with any degree of intelligence, a classic or modern composition. Yet in how many studios do we see such
methods prevail?

Personally I admire more the young mind that demands the whys and wherefores of any musical proposition than that which swallows — even without salt — my musical salads. This study of individuality and adapting one’s teaching to meet its requirements is the open sesame to success in teaching. And it is indeed a poor teacher who cannot learn much of value from his pupils. How often it is that a simple question leads to much serious thought and study upon the part of the teacher. How often the structural content of a composition or study explained in detail to the pupil gives to both mind and fingers a grasp that
the fingers alone could never encompass? It only proves again the necessity of training the mind and hands simultaneously. But the mind first. When, fresh from my Berlin studies, I began my professional work, I had but one method, and all pupils had to conform to it. Now I have as many methods as I have pupils; that is, in the manner of approaching their mental and temperamental equipment.  I can get as many results from one study, in its technical and temperamental possibilities, as I used to realize from whole books. So much have I learned in the adjustment of musical necessities to requirements. But to make intelligent and resourceful pupils one must also be intelligent and resourceful. Study the minds of your pupils more than you do their hands. Get the minds well equipped and the hands will take care of themselves. And the results you realize will be both logical and free from any taint of one-sidedness. Breadth of thinking and study begets breadth of capacity for imparting and receiving. It is the broad mind that inspires a similar trait in younger minds. Moreover do not restrict yourself to mere professional investigation and study. Look beyond your professional horizon and your pupils will look out upon great and noble vistas with you.