The Technic of the Romantic Period

We have already seen that the classical school of playing persisted after the advent of the great Romanticists. Kalkbrenner (1788-1849), one of the greatest of the classical virtuosi, died in the same year with Chopin. Moscheles (1794-1870) outlived all the Romanticists. Hiller was born in 1811, Thalberg in 1812 and Henselt in 1814. Of these three only Thalberg is dead, and even he out lived all the great Romanticists except Liszt. Besides these there is a host of players who are classicists by tradition and principle.

These followers of the methods of classical technic were, indeed, more or less affected by the Romantic influences which surrounded them, but these influences showed themselves rather in attempts at characterization and the embodiment of a Romantic content than in any borrowing of the peculiar effects of the distinctively Romantic technic. Indeed, Mendelssohn himself was essentially a classicist in much of his technic, no less than in the clearness of his forms. Even in the Songs without Words, there is little which cannot be referred back to the technical principles of Clementi.

These principles depended mainly on the construction of compositions from five-finger passages, scales and arpeggios. The rules of fingering required that a five-key position should always be taken when possible; that a position once taken should not be changed unnecessarily ; that all passages derived from scales and arpeggios should be fingered like the arpeggios or scales on which they were founded ; that the thumb and little finger, being shorter than the others, should not be used on black keys, except in positions where their shortness produced no disadvantage. These principles suffice for playing all classical compositions in the monophonic style.

But Mendelssohn, in many of his Songs without Words, introduced passages where a melody with an accompaniment to be played by the same hand could be delivered properly only by changing the fingers on successive keys while holding them down with a continuous clinging pressure.

This changing of fingers was not wholly new, for Bach had used it in polyphonic playing, and occasional instances of it had occurred since, in Clementi’s works and elsewhere; but with Mendelssohn it assumed new and greater importance. His Songs without Words became the fashion, served as models to many composers, and intensified the already great and growing interest in the purely lyric style.

This interest was greatly heightened by the lyric pieces of Chopin. But Chopin’s relation to technic was much more important than Mendelssohn’s. He was an innovator ; as original in his technical methods and treatment as he was in his ideas and his harmonies. Above all others he thoroughly understood how to write for the pianoforte, and how to produce effects hitherto unattained. He improved the legato playing of chromatic passages, especially in double thirds and other intervals, by putting the fifth finger under the fourth and third in descending and the third and fourth over the fifth in ascending. He showed how to produce a smooth, even chain of tones in arpeggios dispersed in wide intervals, and in extended chords. He wrote arpeggios so interspersed with passing-notes and appoggiaturas that no rules of fingering previously known would apply to them, and showed how they could be played with ease and certainty.

Schumann also had a peculiar technic, but one which seemed, at least, less perfectly adapted to the requirements and resources of the pianoforte. Apparently, his innovations were not, like Chopin’s, based on a thorough mastering of all previous technical achievements and a clear perception of new effects to be produced by a further natural development. They were dependent rather on the requirements of emotional expression, to which the pianoforte must adapt itself if it could ; if not, so much the worse for the pianoforte.

The new difficulties consisted partly in obscure and involved rhythms, partly in the peculiar relations of the melodies to their accompaniments, partly in the use of extended chords in awkward positions, and partly in the participation of both hands in the delivery of the same phrase.

In all these cases the thought is first in importance with the composer and facility of execution seems to be an entirely subordinate matter.

Schumann’s innovations, therefore, had, for a long time, comparatively little influence on the technical treatment of the pianoforte. But of late years, a generation of players and composers has sprung up who have been powerfully affected by the Schumann cultus, and have thoroughly accustomed themselves to his technic. It now begins to be said that some of his powerful effects imply and demand many of the most important technical qualities, both in player and instrument, which have heretofore been credited to Liszt, and which Liszt was certainly the first to popularize, both among players and pianoforte makers. The new school of writers represented by Brahms, Tschaikowsky, Moszkowski, the two Scharwenkas, the Brassin brothers and Sgambati, is deeply marked by the Schumann peculiarities.

Chopin excepted, no composer has wrought such remarkable changes in technic during his life time as FRANZ LISZT. He was born October 22, 1811, at Raiding, near Pesth, in Hungary. His father gave him his first lessons in playing the pianoforte at the age of six years.

The boy at once showed the most remarkable gifts. His sight-reading, comprehension and execution were astonishing. At nine years of age he was able to play a difficult concerto in public, and roused the admiration of all who heard him by the fire and spirit of his performances.

He attracted the attention of two Hungarian noblemen, who gave him a pension of six hundred gulden (about three hundred dollars) a year to enable him to prosecute his studies. His father then took him to Vienna and placed him under Czerny’s instruction. The boy also studied theory with old Salieri.

How well he read at sight will appear from a single anecdote. He went one clay into a music store where some musicians were examining a new and difficult concerto of Hummel. Knowing that he played almost everything at sight, they gave him this as an extraordinary test. He played it at once with apparent ease.

Of course, for such a pupil there could be few difficulties, and before long young Liszt had completely risen above all the demands of technic as then practiced and had begun to invent new effects of his own. He also mastered the whole range of existing compositions for his instrument.

In 1823 his father took him to Paris and the following year to London, in both of which cities his playing excited surprise and admiration.

In 1827 his father died, and young Liszt, now sixteen years of age, went to Paris to seek his fortune as pianist and teacher. He became at once a prominent adherent of the extreme Romantic school.

Soon after he went to Paris, Hector Berlioz publicly produced some of his fantastic ” programme music.” Young Liszt was strongly attracted by its peculiar style and impressed by its unquestionable power, as well as by the evident mastery of all the resources of the orchestra displayed by this extremely eccentric and original composer. He soon set to work to transcribe these works for the pianoforte. The problem he set for himself was to reproduce, with the limited resources of an instrument poor in melody and monotonous in tone-color, the effects of the full orchestra with all its different families of instruments. A stupendous task, indeed, and one impossible to discharge except in remote approximation. But the degree of his success was astonishing, and his playing of his transcriptions was an exhibition of virtuosity which completely threw into the shade the performances of all other virtuosi in the capital. He followed up these works by numerous transcriptions of orchestral works, including some of the Beethoven symphonies, and afterwards transcribed numerous opera melodies, songs by Schubert and others, Hungarian Gypsy melodies (Rhapsodies), and some of Bach’s organ fugues.

The impulse to this work was greatly quickened by the violin playing of Paganini; who appeared in Paris in 1831. It was young Liszt’s ambition to become the Paganini of the pianoforte. With this end in view he studied and experimented constantly to produce new effects in melody, harmony and brilliant passages, to increase the power and sonority of his touch, to vary the quality or “color” of his tones by different kinds of touches, to discriminate the different elements of a piece as widely as possible, and to make his playing effective by violence of contrast, force, fire, spirit, delicacy and refinement all carried to the highest attainable pitch of excellence. In all this he was successful, and attained such mastery as was not only the despair of all the players of that time, but remains, by general consent, unrivaled by any of the great pianists who have since been formed on the principles of his own technic.

These principles were, first, the development of the greatest possible strength and power of discriminative emphasis in the individual fingers, and second, a much greater use of the hand playing with a loose wrist than had hitherto been customary.

For the first, he held the wrist higher than other players, and left it perfectly flexible, but still in such a position that the fingers had all possible mechanical advantage for the production of a powerful tone. He also invented simple and radical exercises for developing the strength of the fingers in the shortest possible time. For the second, he made great use of single and double trills, runs, arpeggios, interlocking passages, etc., to be executed with the two hands alternately. This produced a totally new class of effects by means of wrist action.

These brilliant pyrotechnics, though really not much more difficult of attainment than the effects of the older technic, were thought at the time to be impossible for any one except Liszt himself, and pieces like his ” Rigoletto ” Fantasie, now effectively played by some boarding-school misses, were then thought too difficult for great virtuosi.

Between the years 1836 and 1848 Liszt played a great deal in all the principal cities of Europe and even in Constantinople, and was honored as few artists have ever been, alike by kings, princes, nobility and commoners.

In 1848 he became conductor of the Grand Duke’s Opera at Weimar and since that has seldom played in public. He gave up his conductorship in ,859, and has since lived at Weimar, Pesth and Rome, always surrounded by friends and admirers, and by young pianists seeking his counsel.

To these he has always shown himself a friend and benefactor.

But Liszt’s generosity has never been confined to artists. Wherever there was distress or need, there he was always ready with money, sympathy and powerful influence for help. No artist was ever more loved than he, and none ever seemed more influential in his own time.

Liszt has devoted himself of late years to the composition of great choral and orchestral works. He had previously written many etudes, two concertos and many other original works for the pianoforte. In these pieces, as in his transcriptions, the prime consideration is their relation to the public. His original ideas are seldom or never profoundly significant. Few of his original pianoforte works, at least, are conditioned on an inward necessity for emotional expression so much as on the desire to affect others. And again, the desire is not to affect others by the communication of great thoughts and feelings which press for utterance and crave sympathy, but to make effect, to produce sensation, to dazzle, astonish, overwhelm by a display of force, brilliancy and mastery of effects unattainable by others.

Liszt’s works are always exciting, but few of them are poetic or inspiring. They are imposing in their sonority and in the bold and striking character of their effects, and imposing also in the sense that they appear at first to be much more significant than they really are. After we have a little recovered from the first shock of the powerful sensations they produce, we discover that these stormy passages are grandiose, not grand ; noisy, not sublime ; sensational, not profound.

The effect of them and of Liszt’s playing and teaching has been to revolutionize technic and to bring about great changes in the construction of the pianoforte in the direction of an enormous increase of sonority and of capacity to endure a powerful touch without injury to the quality of the tone.

But as regards creative and perhaps even interpretative Art, Liszt’s influence has been much less marked and does not seem likely to be permanent. After all, the kingdom of true Art, like ” the kingdom of God, cometh not with observation,” and is manifested not in the fire nor in the whirlwind, but in the ” still small voice.”

Liszt will certainly be known in the history of pianoforte music as the greatest virtuoso of his time. It seems not improbable that he will be credited with the development of the pianoforte and of its technical requirements to the extreme limits of the possibilities of both. At any rate, it is hard to see any capacities in the present instruments which Liszt has not exhausted, or what possible use of the muscles of the hand and arm in playing he has not discovered and practiced. He is the king of pianists and this title he seems likely to retain for all time.

To sum up this discussion: Besides the increased demands on the interpretative powers of the player made by the great Romanticists, there are peculiar intellectual requirements. Among these are the peculiar involved, intricate rhythms of Schumann and the extremely original harmonies and modulations of Chopin and Liszt.

But when these peculiarities have been perfectly grasped and assimilated in the mind of the player they are seen to involve mechanical difficulties of a character foreign to the classical technic.

1. The great increase of sonority demands greater development of strength in the hand and fingers without in the least impairing the flexibility of the hand and wrist. Indeed the demand for perfect flexibility and independence of all the muscles, joints and nerves involved is even greater than ever, for the demand for discriminative emphasis is greatly increased. Not only must the two hands be perfectly independent of each other, but each separate finger must be able to produce the most powerful tone of which it is capable, while other fingers in the same hand are producing tones of differing degrees of force. In short, there was never before such a demand for the blending of different degrees of force in touch, discriminating each with the greatest precision and nicety.

2. The peculiar harmonies and especially the employment of harmonic bye-tones in scale and arpeggio passages demands a different mode of fingering from that which sufficed for the playing of classical pieces. This fingering involves putting the fourth and fifth fingers under the others with entire freedom, and, in general, a much freer use of the thumb and little finger, especially on the black keys, than was formerly admitted.

3. The greater sonority attained by the use of chords in extended positions demands new stretches of the fingers laterally to make the new intervals effective. This involves both a greater development of the interosseous muscles of the hand, and a new lateral action of the hand from the wrist, some one of the middle fingers being used as an axis on which the hand turns loosely and rapidly to reach its new position. There has also been a great increase in the demand for long skips.

4. The demands for wrist action are also much greater than formerly, both as regards the alternate employment of the hands in trills and interlocking passages, and as regards full chords struck staccato, or in rapid succession.

Two important works intended to develop the necessary technic to meet the demands of the Romantic compositions are worthy of notice here The Tausig ” Daily Studies ” and Mason’s ” Pianoforte Technics.”

CARL TAIISIG (1841-1871), was perhaps the most brilliant of all Liszt’s pupils. A virtuoso of the very highest rank, for whom absolutely no technical difficulties existed, with a technic which seemed infallible, his performances were dazzling in the extreme. Moreover he was a thoughtful, intelligent, well-educated man and a practical teacher, so that he was every way admirably fitted to embody and communicate the results of his study and experience.

He taught some years in Berlin, and gradually elaborated a system of elementary technical exercises calculated to develop strength, flexibility and in short all the requirements of the modern technic.

He did not live to complete it however. It was finally edited and published by his friend, H. Ehrlich, another prominent teacher and pianist in Berlin, who incorporated many excellent ideas of his own in the work.

These exercises, though seemingly elementary, must be used with great discretion, if at all, in the earlier stages of instruction.  They are mainly useful to advanced players under the guidance of an intelligent teacher.

The Mason Technics, on the other hand, are simple and radical, and can be used with beginners. Indeed, there is no single exercise which will so rapidly develop strength, flexibility of wrist and hand, delicacy, force and discrimination of touch, in short, all the technical merits of good playing, as the two finger exercise elaborated by Mason in this work. He obtained the first hint of it from Liszt and afterwards developed and amplified it greatly.

The treatment of rhythm in this work is also admirable and exhaustive. The book is one which no teacher can afford to overlook.

Much of the clearness and force of statement which characterize the book, as well as some of the original work, are to be credited to the associate editor, W. S. B. Mathews (author of ” How to Understand Music “), who is wholly responsible for the letter press.

DR. Wet. MASON, author of the book, was born in 1829, and was a son of the well-known Dr. Lowell Mason. He went to Europe young, studied with Moscheles, Hauptmann and Dreyschock, and then went to Liszt about 1850, remaining with him some time. He became a very distinguished pianist with a world wide reputation. He has been settled as a teacher in New York since 1856, and has written many graceful, refined, excellent pieces for his instrument.