Sigismund Stojowski

Sigismund Stojowski was born at Strelce, Poland, May 2, 1870. He studied piano with L. Zelenski at Cracow and with Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire. At the same institution he studied composition with Léo Delibes. His talent both as a composer and as a pianist was considered extraordinary at that time and he was successful in carrying off two first prizes, one for piano and one for composition (1889). At that time Stojowski’s great fellow countryman, Paderewski, assumed the educational supervision of his ca- reer and became his teacher in person.

Stojowski’s orchestral compositions attracted wide attention in Paris and he met with pronounced success as a vir- tuoso. Mr. Stojowski came to America in 1906 and he entered immediately into the musical life of the country, taking foremost rank as a composer, pianist and teacher. Aside from his musical talent he is a remarkable linguist and speaks many languages fluently. His articles written in English, for instance, are unusually graphic and expressive. Once when complimented upon his linguistic ability he remarked “We Poles are given the credit of being natural linguists because we take the trouble to learn many languages thoroughly in our youth.” In 1913 Mr. Stojowski made a highly successful tour abroad, his compositions meeting with wide favor.

Sigismund Stojowski: What Interpretation Really Is

The Composer's Limitations in His Means of Expression

It is difficult for some people who are not versed in the intricate mysteries of the art of music to realize how limited are the means afforded the composer for communicating to the interpreter some slight indication of the ideal he had in mind when writing the composition. It may be said that, while every great composer feels almost God-like at the moment of creation, the merest fraction of the myriad beauties he has in mind ever reach human ears. The very signs with which the composer is provided to help him put his thoughts down on paper are in themselves inadequate to serve as a means of recording more than a shadow of his masterpiece as it was originally conceived. Of course, we are speaking now in a large sense—we are imagining that the composer is a Beethoven with an immortal message to convey to posterity. Of all composers, Beethoven was perhaps the one to employ the most perfect means of expression. His works represent a completeness, a poise and a masterly finish which will serve as a model for all time to come. It must also be noted that few composers have employed more accurate marks of expression—such as time marks, dynamic marks, etc.

In all these things Beethoven was obliged to adhere to the conventions adopted by others for this purpose of attempting to make the composer’s meaning clearer to other minds. These conventions, like all conventions, are partly insufficient to convey the full idea of the composer, and partly arbitrary, in that they do not give the interpreter adequate latitude to introduce his own ideas in expression. The student should seek to break the veil of conventions provided by notation and seek a clearer insight into the composer’s individuality as expressed in his compositions. From this point of view the so-called subjective interpretation seems the only legitimate one. In fact, the ones who pretend to be objective in the sense of being literal and playing strictly according to the marks of expression and admitting little elasticity in the interpretation of these are also, as Rubinstein pointed out, subjective at heart. This may be more concisely expressed thus: Since all things of permanent value in music have proceeded from a fervid artistic imagination, they should be interpreted with the continual employment of the performer’s imagination.

On the other hand, the subjective method, right as it is in principle, can become, of course, according to the Italian saying, Traduttore, traditore—that is, an absolute treachery to the composer’s ideal, if the performer’s understanding and execution of the composition is not based upon long and careful investigation of all the fundamental laws and associated branches of musical study, which are designed to give him a basis for forming his own opinions upon the best method of interpreting the composition. Inadequate training in this respect is the Chinese Wall which surrounds the composer’s hidden meaning. This wall must be torn down, brick by brick, stone by stone, in a manner which we would call “analytical practice.” It is the only way in which the student may gain entrance to the sacred city of the elect, to whom the ideal of the composer has been revealed.

Sigismund Stojowski: The Interpreter Must Cooperate With The Composer

In a certain sense the interpreter is a coöperator with the composer, or, more definitely expressed, he is the “continuer” along the line of the musical thought and its adequate expression. Music, of all arts, is the unfinished art. When a great painting is completed, time, and time only, will make the changes in its surface. When the great masterpieces left the brushes of Raphael, Rubens, Holbein, Correggio or Van Dyck they were finished works of art. When Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms put their thoughts down upon paper they left a record in ink and paper which must be born again every time it is brought to the minds of men. This rebirth is the very essence of all that is best in interpretative skill. New life goes into the composition at the very moment it passes through the soul of the master performer. It is here that he should realize the great truth that in music, more than in any other art, “the letter kills and the spirit vivifies.” The interpreter must master the “letter” and seek to give “rebirth” to the spirit. If he can do this he will attain the greatest in interpretative ability.

From the literal or objective standpoint, then, an insight is gained into the nature of the composer’s masterpiece,— by close and careful study of the work itself, by gaining a knowledge of the musical laws underlying the structure and composition of a work of its kind as well as the necessary keyboard technic to give expression to the work,—but the veil is torn from the composer’s hidden meaning, only becoming intimate with his creative personality as a master, by studying his life environments, by investigating the historical background of the period in which he worked, by learning of his joys and his sufferings, by cultivating a deep and heartfelt sympathy for his ideals and by the scrupulous and constant revision of one’s own ideals and conceptions of the standards by which his masterpieces should be judged.

Sigismund Stojowski: Studying The Historical Background

To exemplify what I mean, I could, for instance, refer to Paderewski’s interpretations of Liszt and Chopin. During the time I was associated with the master pianist as a pupil I had abundant opportunities to make notes upon the very individual, as well as the highly artistically differentiated expressions of his musical judgment. It was interesting to observe that he played the Rhapsodies with various extensions and modifications, the result of which is the glorification of Liszt’s own spirit. On the contrary, in order to preserve Chopin’s spirit, the master would always repudiate any changes, like those of Tausig, for instance, by which some virtuosos pretend to “emphasize” or “modernize” Chopin’s personal and perfect pianism. Differences in treatment are the outcome of deep insight as well as the study of the time and conditions under which the work was produced.

The study of musical history reveals many very significant things which have a direct bearing not only upon the interpretation of the performer, but upon the degree of apprecia- tion with which the listener is able to enjoy a musical work. It was for this reason that I prefaced the first two recitals of my course of historical recitals given at Mendelssohn Hall, New York, during the past season, with a lecture upon the historical conditions which surrounded the masters at the time the compositions were composed.

Sigismund Stojowski: The Inadequacy of Musical Signs

I have already referred to the inadequacy of musical signs. Even the mechanical guide, the metronome, is not always to be depended upon to give the exact tempo the composer had in mind. Let me cite a little instance from the biography of Ries, the friend of Beethoven. Ries was preparing to conduct a performance of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. He requested Beethoven to make notes upon paper regarding the metronomic marks of speed at which the composition should be played. The metronome at that time was a comparatively new instrument. Maelzel, its inventor (or, rather, its improver, since the principle of the metronome was of Dutch origin), was a friend of Beethoven. At times they were on the best of terms, and at other times they were literally “at swords’ points.” Nevertheless, Maelzel, who had a strong personality, succeeded in inducing Beethoven to put metronomic markings upon several of his compositions. Naturally, the metronome was immediately accorded an important place in the musical world even at that day. Ries was consequently very anxious to give the Choral Symphony according to Beethoven’s own ideas. Beethoven had complied with the publisher’s desire and sent a slip of paper with the tempi marked metronomically. This slip was lost. Ries wrote to Beethoven for a duplicate. Beethoven sent another. Later the lost slip was found, and, upon comparing it with the second slip, it was found that Beethoven had made an entirely different estimate of the tempi at which he desired the Symphony to be played.

Even with the most elaborate and complete marks of expression, such as those, for instance, employed by Beethoven and by Wagner, the composer is confronted with his great poverty of resources to present his views to the mind of the interpreter. Extensive as some of the modern dictionaries of musical terminology seem to be, they are wholly inadequate from the standpoint of a complete vocabulary to give full expression to the artist’s imagination. It also gives full scope to an infinite variety of error in the matter of the shades or degrees of dynamic force at which the conventional marks may be rendered.

One might venture to remark that composers are the most keen, most conscious judges of their own works, or, rather, of the garments which fit them best. There is in all composition a divine part and also a conscious part. The divine part is the inspiration. The conscious part has to do with dressing the inspiration in its most appropriate harmonic, polyphonic, and rhythmic garments. These garments are the raiment in which the inspiration will be viewed by future generations. It is often by these garments that they will be judged. If the garments are awkward, inappropriate and ill-fitting, a beautiful interpretation of the composer’s ideal will be impossible. Nevertheless, it is the performer’s duty in each case to try to see through even unbecoming garments and divine the composer’s thought, according to the interpreter’s best understanding.

Sigismund Stojowski: Learning The Musical Language

Where interpretation is concerned, one is too often inclined to forget that while there is a higher part, the secrets of which are accessible only to the elect, there is also an elementary part which involves the knowledge of musical grammar, and beyond that the correct feeling of musical declamation—since music, after all, is a language which is at all times perfectly teachable, and which should be most carefully and systematically taught. I consider the book of Mathis Lussy, Rhythm and Musical Expression, of great value to the student in search of truths pertaining to intelligent interpretation. Lussy was a Swiss who was born in the early part of the last century. He went to Paris to study medicine, but, having had a musical training in the country of his birth, he became a good pianoforte teacher and an excellent writer upon musical subjects. While teaching in a young ladies’ school, he was confronted with the great paucity of real knowledge of the rudiments of expression, and he accordingly prepared a book upon the subject which has since been translated into several languages. This book is most helpful, and I advocate its use frequently. It should be in the hands of every conscientious piano student.

Sigismund Stojowski: Mistakes Peculiar to The Pianoforte Player

The nature of the keyboard of the piano, and the ease with which certain things are accomplished, make it possible for the performer to make certain errors which the construc- tion of other instruments would prevent. The pianist is, for instance, entirely unlike the violinist, who has to locate his keyboard every time he takes up his instrument, and, moreover, locate it by a highly trained sense of position. In a certain way I sometimes feel somewhat ashamed for the pianist profession when I hear players, even those with man- ifest technical proficiency, commit flagrant mistakes against elementary rules of accentuation and phrasing, such as, for instance, an average violinist acquainted with good bowing is accordingly prevented from making upon his instrument.

The means of discovering the composer’s hidden meaning are, in fact, so numerous that the conscientious interpreter must keep upon continuous voyages of exploration. There are many easily recognizable paths leading to the promised land—one is the path of harmony, without an understanding of which the would-be performer can never reach his goal; another is musical history; others are the studies of phrasing, rhythm, accentuation, pedaling, etc., etc., ad infinitum. To fail to traverse any one of these roads will result in endless exasperation. Find your guide, press on without thinking of failure, and the way to success may be found before you know it.

Sigismund Stojowski: Questions in Style, Interpretation,

Expression and Technic of Pianoforte Playing

1. What composer preserved the most perfect balance between artistic conception and expression?

2. How may the student break the veil of conventions?

3. What fundamental laws should underlie interpretation?

4. How may master works be born again?

5. Is one ever warranted in altering a masterpiece?

6. Tell of Beethoven’s attitude toward the metronome.

7. How may errors arise in the use of the terms of expression?

8. How may one be helped in learning the musical language?

9. State some mistakes peculiar to the pianoforte.

10. What voyages of exploration must the student make?

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