Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Long-Suffering Accompanist

We return from a brief hiatus to present this crucial musical observation on the the merits of support vs. fame.

By Dr. Annie Patterson

The art of playing “second-fiddle" is at all times a difficult and thankless one. It takes a philosopher to realize the hidden truth that lies beneath Shakespeare’s Coriolanus having preferred “a place below the first.” Fame, at which it is natural most public artists should aim, is connected mainly with solo work of some description. In a sense, this is right and proper. But that those who so effectively serve to beautify and adorn solo work, and without whom the most attractive solo would sound lacking and bald, should so frequently go without recognition or be dismissed with scant courtesy, calls for reform. The efficient concert accompanist belongs to this class.

The Accompanist's Requirements

First, let us briefly consider the duties which fall to, say, a pianoforte accompanist. He must be, in the first place, an accomplished musician. No point in theoretical and executive knowledge should be unknown to him, no mark of expression beyond his comprehension. He should be familiar with all styles of vocal music, whether in oratorio, opera or of a purely lyrical nature. Technically, he should be expert at interpreting all kinds of accompaniments, and this often at first sight. Nor does his art end there. He needs to be able to adapt himself to the idiosyncrasies of particular singers, supporting the nervous and uncertain, and generally accommodating the ofttimes elastic ideas which many vocalists have about time and pace in the rendering of a song. At the basis of such adaptability lies the very necessary possession of a quick and sympathetic intelligence, which anticipates rather than waits upon the wishes of the solo performer.

 If we reverse the picture, and consider what are the acquirements of the individual soloist, the marvel of  the fully accomplished accompanist's all-around facilities grows upon us. The accompanist has to take his chances often in reading a complicated or badly manuscripted score. Vocal slips, hurried tempi, missed bars, are of frequent occurrence on the singer's part, and they generally pass without notice or comment. If the luckless accompanist errs similarly, the criticism of soloist and listeners seldom fails to be his lot.

The Accompanist's Trials 

By these remarks we do not claim an invidious distinction for one type of artist over the other. We would only plead for equal sympathy with and recognition for the respective talents of each. Seeing that modern accompaniments are bristling with difficulties, singers should give an accompanist every facility for previous rehearsal for the sake of all concerned. Frantic requests to transpose at sight, when the performers are actually coming upon the platform, should not be made unless under the most urgent circumstances. Some respect should be shown to the accompanist in the matter of asking him to play from tattered or badly manuscripted scores, and this especially when every facility exists for the purchase of well-printed sheet music. Organizers of concerts might also consider the one who “presides” at the piano more than they do. A good instrument is as essential for an accompanist as for solo playing. Dusty keys, low, unadjustable seating accommodation, bad light, and unwieldy or unstable music desks are some of the many impediments with which accompanists are continually wrestling. The writer has frequently known of a spotless handkerchief having to be whisked surreptitiously across grimy or clammy keyboards, an appeal for side candles during the course of a performance, or the amusing episode of an outdoor wrap or coat serving for an impromptu cushion! All this shows lack of the true organizing spirit, and is, in short, culpable want of thought upon the part of those who are responsible for the well-ordering of musical entertainments.

A Question of Consideration and Courtesy

If we think, at a single concert for example, how often the accompanist comes upon the platform - in a program of, say, eight vocal items not counting concerted numbers, from twelve to fourteen times if we allow for encores - the mere physical exertion, the constant strain, deserves our admiration and respect. Usually all this is done with the most sincere good-nature and obliteration of self. Plaudits are loud and vociferous; but the accompanist stands aside. Applause is not for him or her. Recalls are frequent and urgent, but who thinks of giving an accompanist an encore? In how far the encore is brought about by the skill and self-possession of that very accompanist seldom enters the mind of even the best disposed of singers. Now and then a gracious vocalist will thank, and thank heartily, some one who has afforded a most fitting framework to a charming picture. This little courtesy never fails to please and encourage. It cannot be paid too often.

The Law of Compensation

But apart from all these considerations that call for reform, the accompanist has his compensations. The task, even in its subordinate character, is a pleasing one. Those who are adepts get honestly fond of their work. They, perhaps, more than even the public or the singers themselves enter into the inner beauties of the compositions which they interpret, for the simple reason that they see them from a very full point of view. Think, for instance, what a study of artistic adaptability are the accompaniments of Schubert’s divine songs! To give the requisite spirit of terrific rush and tense anguish to the “Erl-King,” or the needful delicacy to the framework of “The Linden Tree,” needs the soul and ardor of the true musician. A good accompanist can convey, imperceptibly as it were, this love and pride in a work to the singer, and so feel, even if unnoticed, that his or her devoted playing has shared in earning the meed of applause addressed to the soloist. On a grander scale still comes the work of the accompanist of concerted and choral music, the massive achievements of our great church organists, and, in an extended sense, the massed effects of all well-constituted orchestras. “A place below the first" by no means indicates inferiority. It is rather the hallmark of excellence to fill such a position effectively and contentedly. Soloists themselves are recommended to cultivate this side of their art if it were but occasionally to enter into the very special joys thereof. Only the singer who can, when required, play his or her own accompaniment, gets a fair view of all sides of a fascinating picture.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Musical Thought and Activity Over the Seas

By Arthur Elson

Liszt at the Lesson

In Die Musik, Siloti gives a number of reminiscences of Liszt. He could be caustic enough when he wished. On hearing an acquaintance remark, “I don't know anything about music," Liszt at once replied, “Then you must become a critic." To a poor performer who came recommended by royalty, he said, “You had better study, and not beg letters from queens.” When an over-ambitious composer, who had imitated the “Faust” symphony rather closely, brought his score for Liszt’s inspection and autograph, the latter wrote, “To Herr X,
who can write like this, and better." 

In his teaching, Liszt would apparently make very few adverse comments to the pupils; but in reality he expressed much. He could say a simple “Gut!” with more varieties of expression than the average student was aware of; and only a few were satisfied that his accent meant approbation. If the performance was only moderate, he would say, “I know half a dozen who play like that, and as many who do it better.” For rather poor work, he would exclaim, “Even the Princess (Elizabeth) plays that better.” Only once or twice a year would he have occasion to get really angry at wretched playing. Then he would ejaculate furiously, “I am no washerwoman, take your dirty linen to a Conservatory."

Liszt was usually the best of companions, though occasionally he would become nettled over a game of cards. Personalities sometimes made him lose his temper, too. Once a pupil, and one who has since become world-famous, imitated Liszt’s peculiar, hissing laugh behind his back; whereupon the master turned and gave the offender a solid box on the ear.

Instruments of Bygone Days

In the International Society's Quarterly, Curt Sachs writes of an old German poem, entitled “Der Minne Regel," and quotes from it a list of early instruments. Of these the Flegil was a form of flute, and,the Schachtbret an elementary spinet, while the Medicinale, which sounds more like a surgical than a musical instrument, is at present unknown. The other names, according to the writer, need no special explanation; but American readers may think differently when they see these names. They are “Cymbel, Harffe, Monocordium, Portitiff, Psalterium, Lute, Clavicymbalom, Quinterna, Gyge, Videle, Lyra, Rubeba, Phife, Floyte, Schalmey and Horn." How many readers can describe these instruments without further information?

Cymbals and harp are clear enough, and the rote was a small square harp. The monochord (tromba marina) was a single~stringed affair suitable for the unskilled. Clavichords were probably more primitive among the minnesingers than in Bach's day. The portatif (like the regals) was a small portable organ. The psaltery was a species of dulcimer, the Oriental
precursor of the piano; and the clavicembalo had an actual keyboard. Quinterna may be a form of gittern or guitar. Gyge suggests geige, the German name for the violin, and videle gives the same idea; but the instruments of the poet’s time must have been of the flatter and smoother-toned viol type. Rubeba (rebab) was the Arabian precursor of the violin. The schalmey was an early clarinet.

The minnesingers and troubadours had instruments enough, and their music was a much more pleasing affair than the crude efforts of the early contrapuntists. Adam de la Hale's thirteenth-century work, “Robin et Marion,” was really an effective comic opera, in which the over-boastful hero shows much unexpected cowardice when called upon to defend his sweetheart against the advances of a nobleman. The old lyrics, as shown by the songs of Gaucelm Faidit, King Thibaut, and others, were bright enough in style, and far more attractive than the puzzle-canons of later centuries.

The life of a troubadour, too, was not always unpleasing. When spring came, he would issue forth from his home, with a train of pages and jongleurs, to visit some neighboring castle. During banquets, the jongleurs would play various pieces, including whatever works their master had composed. In some meadow bower, or while taking the air on the walls, the troubadour might take a guitar and air his own skill in singing.

Where the minnesingers praised the more ideal side of love, the troubadours often chose an individual to receive their homage; and if she was married, as often happened, the troubadours' attentions sometimes caused trouble. One over-bold minstrel knight carried matters so far that his lady's irate husband killed him, and had his heart served to the lady at her next meal. When she had eaten it, the vengeful husband told her what the tasteful dish had been; whereupon she declared it had been so good that no other food should
ever follow it, and starved herself to death. But such cases, it would seem, were extreme, and the troubadour could usually enjoy life without making trouble for himself.

The jongleurs, however, became the real musicians. When wars had obliterated their original masters, the jongleurs became strolling players, earning a precarious living by music as well as by the juggling tricks that are named from them. The best was he who could play the most instruments; and one of them, according to the Bodleian manuscript at Oxford, could perform on “The lute, the viol, the pipe, the bagpipe, the syrinx, the harp, the gigue, the gittern, the symphony, the psaltery, the organistrum, the regals, the tabour, and the rote.” Most of these are found in “Der Minne Regel;" the tabour was a shepherd's pipe, the symphony (zumpogna) a sort of bagpipe, and the organistrum a primitive hand-organ with strings to be pressed against a turning wheel. On the whole, then, the instruments of those times would not have proven unworthy to be handled by some medieval Richard Strauss.