Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/753

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PIANOFORTE-PLAYING.
741
 

passages acted as a contrast to the cantabile; but if that contrast is gradually reduced to a mere alternation of more or less rapid movement, the cantilene disappears almost entirely, and all becomes movement and bustle. The most insignificant figure is now swelled to the dimensions of an entire piece; thus the étude or study becomes the leading form of pianoforte pieces. Ever more brilliant and dazzling becomes the execution; effects are invented that may vie with those of the full orchestra; the physical strength required to thunder out the rapid octave-passages, the dexterity and almost electric rapidity in changing hands so as to produce the effect of three hands rather than two—indeed the number of qualities required to satisfy the various requirements of modern pianoforte-playing—is truly astonishing. Such increased force and rapidity demanded an alteration of the movement of the arm, hand, and fingers. The quiet unobtrusive position of the older players at the instrument, had to give way to a kind of swinging movement of the hand 'playing from the wrist'; or to a nervous force, that arises from a stiff elbow, and leads with some performers to the kind of playing commonly called 'thumping.' Spasmodic movements of the hands and arms, a continual rocking to and fro of the body, and a passionate, almost frantic, throwing back of the head, seem to be part of these exaggerated gymnastic feats. Curious to say, by these jerky movements the quality of tone suffered greatly; it lost its fulness and sustained power, and became shorter, drier, and less distinct. The greatest heroes of this period of pianoforte-playing were Thalberg, Liszt, Henselt, and Dreyschock; and in a lesser though still high degree, Willmers, Döhler, and Leopold von Meyer. Thalberg (1812–1871), whose exquisite playing caused quite a commotion among all who interested themselves in piano-playing,[1] possessed a wonderfully well-trained mechanism; the smallest details were polished and finished with the utmost care; his scales were marvels of evenness; his shakes rivalled the trill of the canary-bird; his arpeggios at times rolled like the waves of the sea, at others resembled the airy and transparent folds of the finest lace; his octaves were thundered forth with never-failing accuracy, and his chords seemed to be struck out with mallets of English steel rather than played by fingers. Indeed he was the Seigneur de Bayard of pianists, 'le Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche'; his tone was at once grand, delicate, and mellow, never harsh or short; the gradations between his forte and piano were exquisitely traced: in short, everything which concerned the technical execution was perfection.[2] The extraordinary ease and absolute certainty with which Thalberg played, was due to a practical mode of fingering, from which, after it was once adopted, he never departed, and from the fact that he never played a piece in public until he had made it the absolute property of his fingers. The feature which rendered Thalberg's so-called fantasias (in reality they are medleys on operatic airs, with variations) so celebrated, was his method of dividing the melody between the two hands, whilst at the same time the right hand performs in the higher register a brilliant figure, and the left hand exhibits a full and rich bass part, and supplements it with an accompaniment in chords. This device was, however, not invented by Thalberg [3]himself; it is anticipated in some studies of Francesco Giuseppe Pollini (1778–1847 [App. p.748 "1846"]), and was successfully applied by the still unrivalled English harpist, Eli Parish-Alvars (1808–1849). Thalberg merely extended it, and adapted it to the pianoforte. So eminently successful was this method, that even Mendelssohn, in his Concerto in D minor, could not resist employing it; and besides this illustrious composer, almost all contemporary writers for the piano have more or less followed Thalberg's lead. But whilst Thalberg devoted his intellectual and digital powers only to his own compositions, and seemed not to take any interest in the works of other authors, Franz Liszt, endowed with even greater abilities, devoted them to the musical art in general: his transcriptions, paraphrases, and arrangements, comprise not only vocal and orchestral works of German, French, Italian, and Russian composers, but also the national melodies of Europe, Asia, etc. In versatility Liszt has probably never had an equal; he has tried (and in most cases with success) to assimilate his own talent with everything of note with which he came into contact; his Spanish Cancion, 'El Contrabandista,' is essentially Spanish; his 'Rhapsodies Hongroises' are true tone-pictures of Hungary; his transcriptions of Wagner's operatic pieces reproduce the orchestral effects as well as they can be reproduced, and his famous arrangements of the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Franz, are justly esteemed and admired. Liszt has widened the domain of the piano to an extent which seems almost incompatible with the special nature of the instrument. His innovations in the art of playing are manifold; in transcribing Paganini's Caprices he secured for the piano technical figures never before applied; in arranging Beethoven's and Berlioz's Symphonies he expanded the chords to dimensions which, for the majority of players, are absolutely impossible. An adequate rendering of his pieces requires not only great physical power, but a mental energy we might almost call it a fanatical devotion which few persons possess. Liszt himself has these physical powers, this iron will, this spontaneous enthusiasm, but only a very few of his disciples can boast of possessing them in concert. If Thalberg was blamed because his successful Fantasias promoted the composition of shallow and worthless pieces, Liszt might be

  1. See the letters and papers of Mendelssohn and Schumann.
  2. Strange to say, his master was not a pianist, but an excellent bassoon-player, Mittag of Vienna.
  3. Some writers assert, erroneously, that it is foreshadowed by Beethoven, whilst another report attributes its actual source, still more erroneously, to the Prelude, op. 35, of Mendelssohn—Thalberg's Moïse-Fantasia having been composed previous to Mendelssohn's Prelude.