Alfred Reisenauer was born at Königsberg, Germany, Nov. 1st, 1863. He was a pupil of his mother, Louis Köhler, and Franz Liszt. His début as a pianist was made in Rome, in 1881, at the palace of Cardinal Hohenlohe. After a concert tour in Germany and a visit to England he studied Law for one year at the Leipsic University. Not finding this altogether to his liking he resumed his concert work and commenced a long series of tours which included all the nooks and corners of the world where one might find a musical public. He was an accomplished linguist, speaking many languages very fluently. His work as a composer was not significant but in certain branches of pianoforte playing he rose to exceptional heights. He died October 31st, 1907.
“I can never thank my mother enough for the splendid start she gave me in my early musical life. She was a wonderful woman and a veritable genius as a teacher. See, I have here to-day on my piano a copy of the Schumann Sonata in F sharp minor which she herself used and which she played with a feeling I have never heard equaled. There is one thing in particular for which I am everlastingly grateful to her. Before I was taught anything of notes or of the piano keyboard, she took me aside one day and explained in the simple and beautiful tongue which only a mother employs in talking to her child, the wonderful natural relationships of tones used in making music. Whether this was an inspiration, an intuition, or a carefully thought out plan for my benefit, I cannot tell, but my mother put into practice what I have since come to consider the most important and yet the most neglected step in the education of the child. The fault lies in the fact that most teachers at the start do not teach music, rather musical notation and the peculiarities of the instrument.
Nothing could possibly be more stultifying to the musical instinct of the child. For instance, the plan generally pursued is to let the child grope over the white keys of the piano keyboard and play exercises in the scale of C, until he begins to feel that the whole musical world lies in the scale of C, with the scales of F and G as the frontiers. The keys of F sharp, B, D flat and others are looked upon as tremendously difficult and the child mind reasons with its own peculiar logic that these keys being so much less used, must, of course be less important. The black keys upon the keyboard are a ‘terra incognita.’ Consequently at the very start the child has a radically incorrect view of what music really is.
“Before notation existed,—before keyboards were invented,—people sang. Before a child knows anything of notation or a keyboard, it sings. It is following its natural, musical instinct. Notation and keyboards are simply symbols of music—cages in which the beautiful bird is caught. They are not music any more than the alphabet is literature. Unfortunately, our system of musical symbols and the keyboard itself are very complex. For the young child it is as difficult as are Calculus and Algebra for his older brother. As a matter of fact, the keys of F sharp, B, and D flat major, etc., are only difficult because fate has made them so. It would have served the musical purpose just as well if the pitch of the instruments employed had been adjusted so that what is now F sharp, would be the key of C major. That, however, would not have simplified matters and we have to receive our long established musical notation until we can exchange it for a better one.
“At a very early age, I was taken to Franz Liszt by my mother. Liszt immediately perceived my natural talent and strongly advised my mother to continue my musical work. At the same time he said ’As a child I was exposed to criticism as a Wunderkind (prodigy), through the ignorance of my parents, long before I was properly prepared to meet the inevitable consequences of public appearance. This did incalculable damage to me. Let your child be spared such a fate. My own experience was disastrous. Do not let your son appear in public until he is a mature artist.’
“My first teacher, Louis Köhler, was an artist and a great artist, but he was an artist-teacher rather than an artist-pianist. Compared with many of his contemporaries his playing suffered immensely, but he made an art of teaching as few other men have done. He did not play for his pupils to any extent, nor did he ask them to imitate him in any way. His playing was usually confined to general illustrations and suggestions. By these means the individuality of his pupils was preserved and permitted to develop, so that while the pupil always had an excellent idea of the authoritative traditions governing the interpretation of a certain piece, there was nothing that suggested the stilted or wooden performance of the brainless mimic. He taught his pupils to think. He was an indefatigable student and thinker himself. He had what many teachers would have considered peculiar ideas upon technic.
“While he invented many little means whereby technical difficulties could be more readily overcome than by the existing plan he could not be called in any way radical. He believed in carrying the technical side of a pupil’s education up to a certain point along more or less conventional lines. When the pupil reached that point he found that he was upon a veritable height of mechanical supremacy. Thereafter Köhler depended upon the technical difficulties presented in the literature of the instrument to continue the technical efficiency acquired. In other words, the acquisition of a technic was solely to enable the pupil to explore the world of music equipped in such a way that he was not to be overcome by anything. The everlasting continu- ance of technical exercises was looked upon by Köhler as a ridiculous waste of time and a great injury.
“I also hold this opinion. Let us suppose that I were to sit at the piano for six or seven hours and do nothing but play conventional finger exercises. What happens to my soul, psychologically considered, during those hours spent upon exercises which no man or woman could possibly find anything other than an irritation? Do not the same exercises occur in thousands of pieces but in such connection that the mind is interested? Is it necessary for the advanced pianist to punish himself with a kind of mental and physical penance more trying, perhaps, than the devices of the medieval ascetics or the oriental priests of to-day? No, technic is the Juggernaut which has ground to pieces more musicians than one can imagine. It produces a stiff, wooden touch and has a tendency to induce the pianist to believe that the art of pianoforte playing depends upon the continuance of technical exercises whereas the acquisition of technical ability should be regarded as the beginning and not the end. When pupils leave your schools you say that they are having a ‘Commencement.’ The acquisition of a technic is only the commencement, unfortunately too many consider it the end. This may perhaps be the reason why our conservatories turn out so many bright and proficient young people who in a few years are buried in oblivion.
“When I had reached a certain grade of advancement it was my great fortune to become associated with the immortal Franz Liszt. I consider Liszt the greatest man I have ever met. By this I mean that I have never met, in any other walk of life, a man with the mental grasp, splendid disposition and glorious genius. This may seem a somewhat extravagant statement. I have met many, many great men, rulers, jurists, authors, scientists, teachers, merchants and warriors, but never have I met a man in any position whom I have not thought would have proved the inferior of Franz Liszt, had Liszt chosen to follow the career of the man in question. Liszt’s personality can only be expressed by one word, ‘colossal.’ He had the most generous nature of any man I have ever met. He had aspirations to become a great composer, greater than his own measure of his work as a composer had revealed to him. The dire position of Wagner presented itself. He abandoned his own ambitions—ambitions higher than those he ever held toward piano virtuosity—abandoned them completely to champion the difficult cause of the great Wagner. What Liszt suffered to make this sacrifice, the world does not know. But no finer example of moral heroism can be imagined. His conversations with me upon the subject were so intimate that I do not care to reveal one word.
His generosity and personal force in his work with the young artists he assisted are hard to describe. You ask me whether he had a certain method. I reply, he abhorred methods in the modern sense of the term. His work was eclectic in the highest sense. In one way he could not be considered a teacher at all. He charged no fees and had irregular and somewhat unsystematic classes. In another sense he was the greatest of teachers. Sit at the piano and I will indicate the general plan pursued by Liszt at a lesson. Reisenauer is a remarkable and witty mimic of people he desires to describe. The present writer sat at the piano and played at some length through several short compositions, eventually coming to the inevitable “Chopin Valse, Op. 69, No. 1, in A flat major.” In the meanwhile, Reisenauer had gone to another room and, after listening patiently, returned, imitating the walk, facial expression and the peculiar guttural snort characteristic of Liszt in his later years. Then followed a long “kindly sermon” upon the emotional possibilities of the composition. This was interrupted with snorts and went with kaleidoscopic rapidity from French to German and back again many, many times. Imitating Liszt he said,
“First of all we must arrive at the very essence of the thing; the germ that Chopin chose to have grow and blossom in his soul. It is, roughly considered, this:
Now consider the thing in studying it and while playing it from the composer’s attitude. By this I mean that during the mental process of conception, before the actual transference of the thought to paper, the thought itself is in a nebulous condition. The composer sees it in a thousand lights before he actually determines upon the exact form he desires to perpetuate. For instance, this theme might have gone through Chopin’s mind much after this fashion:
“The main idea being to reach the embryo of Chopin’s thought and by artistic insight divine the connotation of that thought, as nearly as possible in the light of the treatment Chopin has given it.
“It is not so much the performer’s duty to play mere notes and dynamic marks, as it is for him to make an artistic estimate of the composer’s intention and to feel that during the period of reproduction he simulates the natural psychological conditions which affected the composer during the actual process of composition. In this way the composition becomes a living entity—a tangible resurrection of the soul of the great Chopin. Without such penetrative genius a pianist is no more than a mere machine and with it he may develop into an artist of the highest type.”
Reisenauer’s attitude toward the piano is unique and interesting. Musicians are generally understood to have an affectionate regard for their instruments, almost paternal. Not so with Reisenauer. He even goes so far as to make this statement: “I have aways been drawn to the piano by a peculiar charm I have never been able to explain to myself. I feel that I must play, play, play, play, play. It has become a second nature to me. I have played so much and so long that the piano has become a part of me. Yet I am never free from the feeling that it is a constant battle with the instrument, and even with my technical resources I am not able to express all the beauties I hear in the music. While music is my very life, I nevertheless hate the piano. I play because I can’t help playing and because there is no other instrument which can come as near imitating the melodies and the harmonies of the music I feel. People say wherever I go, ‘Ah, he is a master.’ What absurdity! I the master? Why, there is the master (pointing to the piano), I am only the slave.”
An interesting question that frequently arises in musical circles relates to the future possibilities of the art of composition in its connection with the pianoforte. Not a few have some considerable apprehension regarding the possible dearth of new melodic material and the technical and artis- tic treatment of such material. “I do not think that there need be any fear of a lack of original melodic material or original methods of treating such material. The possibilities of the art of musical composition have by no means been exhausted. While I feel that in a certain sense, very difficult to illustrate with words, one great ‘school’ of composition for the pianoforte ended with Liszt and the other in Brahms, nevertheless I can but prophesy the arising of many new and wonderful schools in the future. I base my prophecy upon the premises of frequent similar conditions during the history of musical art.
“Nevertheless, it is yet my ambition to give a lengthy series of recitals, with programs arranged to give a chronological aspect of all the great masterpieces in music. I hope to be enabled to do this before I retire. It is part of a plan to circle the world in a manner that has not yet been done.” When asked whether these programs were to resemble Rubinstein’s famous historical recitals in London, years ago, he replied: “They will be more extensive than the Rubinstein recitals. The times make such a series possible now, which Rubinstein would have hesitated to give.”
As to American composers, Reisenauer is so thoroughly and enthusiastically won over by MacDowell that he has not given the other composers sufficient attention to warrant a critical opinion. I found upon questioning that he had made a genuinely sincere effort to find new material in America, but he said that outside of MacDowell, he found nothing but indifferently good salon-music. With the works of several American composers he was, however, unfamiliar. He has done little or nothing himself as a composer and declared that it was not his forte.
“I find that American musical taste is in many ways astonishing. Many musicians who came to America prior to the time of Thomas and Damrosch returned to Europe with what were, no doubt, true stories of the musical conditions in America at that time. These stories were given wide circulation in Europe, and it is difficult for Europeans to understand the cultured condition of the American people at the present time. America can never thank Dr. Leopold Damrosch and Theodore Thomas enough for their unceasing labors. Thanks to the impetus that they gave the movement, it is now possible to play programs in almost any American city that are in no sense different from those one is expected to give in great European capitals. The status of musical education in the leading American cities is surprisingly high. Of course the commercial element necessarily affects it to a certain extent; but in many cases this is not as injurious as might be imagined. The future of music in America seems very roseate to me and I can look back to my American concert tours with great pleasure.
“One of the great difficulties, however, in concert touring in America is the matter of enormous distances. I often think that American audiences rarely hear great pianists at their best. Considering the large amounts of money involved in a successful American tour and the business enterprise which must be extremely forceful to make such a tour possible, it is not to be wondered that enormous journeys must be made in ridiculously short time. No one can imagine what this means to even a man of my build.” (Reisenauer is a wonderfully strong and powerful man.) “I have been obliged to play in one Western city one night and in an Eastern city the following night. Hundreds of miles lay between them. In the latter city I was obliged to go directly from the railroad depot to the stage of the concert hall, hungry, tired, travel worn and without practice opportunities. How can a man be at his best under such conditions?—yet certain conditions make these things unavoidable in America, and the pianist must suffer occasional criticism for not playing uniformly well. In Europe such conditions do not exist owing to the closely populated districts. I am glad to have the opportunity to make this statement, as no doubt a very great many Americans fail to realize under what distressing conditions an artist is often obliged to play in America.”
1. What should be the first step in the musical education of the child?
2. Why was Köhler so successful as a teacher?
3. Did Liszt follow a method in teaching or was his work eclectic?
4. Give Liszt’s conception of how Chopin developed one of his Valses.
5. Have the possibilities of the art of musical composition been exhausted?
6. Are other great schools of pianoforte playing likely to arise?
7. What was Reisenauer’s opinion of the works of MacDowell?
8. What may be said of musical taste in America when Reisenauer was touring this country.
9. What may be said of the status of American musical education?
10. What great difficulties do the virtuosos visiting America encounter?
Back to Great Pianists on Piano Playing:
Subscribe to my monthly Sxisma Publishing Newsletter and get all the news, insights and major discount coupons on all products!