The Piano Virtuoso Career: The Reality Behind The Glory

The piano virtuoso career. The following article is part of the book (chapters 1 through 9) "Great Pianists on Piano Playing" by James Francis Cooke. The last reprint of its edition dates back to 1917, thus making it a "Public Domain" book. I have found it extremely valuable, as it refers (with real interviews) to many famous pianists-the kind of we hardly find anymore. The book is now part of the Gutemberg Project but as I found out, one has to still pay a monthly subscription to download it. Furthermore, the original photographs of the pianists are not included in the Gutemberg eBook: what a shame! This book is a gem and has been of immense inspiration to both my piano performance as well as my teaching of it. I was fortunate enough to have found a beautiful bound copy (you see it in the photos I took),  So, I am uploading all of its chapters here (INCLUDING the missing photos!), so that you can read and enjoy them with no financial obligations! Consider it a precious gift from me to you-the piano performer, teacher or simply the ardent lover of high pianism.

The Piano Virtuoso Career: The Artist's Life

The father of a young woman who was preparing to become a virtuoso once applied to a famous musical educator for advice regarding the future career of his daughter. “I want her to become one of the greatest pianists America has ever produced,” he said. “She has talent, good health, unlimited ambition, a good general education, and she is industrious.” The educator thought for awhile, and then said, “It is very likely that your daughter will be successful in her chosen field, but the amount of grinding study she will be obliged to undergo to meet the towering standards of modern pianism is awful to contemplate. In the end she will have the flattery of the multitude, and, let us hope, some of their dollars as well. In return, she may have to sacrifice many of the comforts and pleasures which women covet. The more successful she is, the more of a nomad she must become. She will know but few days for years when she will not be compelled to practice for hours. She becomes a kind of chattel of the musical public. She will be harassed by ignorant critics and perhaps annoyed by unreliable managers. In return she has money and fame, but, in fact, far less of the great joy and purpose of life than if she followed the customary domestic career with some splendid man as her husband. When I was younger I used to preach quite an opposite sermon, but the more I see of the hardships of the artist’s life the less I think of the dollars and the fame it brings. It is hard enough for a man, but it is twice as hard for a woman.”

The Piano Virtuoso Career: The Golden Bait

Some cynic has contended that the much-despised “Almighty Dollar” has been the greatest incentive to the struggling virtuoso in European music centers. Although this may be true in a number of cases, it is certainly unjust in others. Many of the virtuosos find travel in America so distasteful that notwithstanding the huge golden bait, the managers have the greatest difficulty in inducing the pianists to come back. Indeed, there are many artists of great renown whom the managers would be glad to coax to our country but who have withheld tempting offers for years. One of these is Moritz Moszkowski, probably the most popular of modern pianoforte composers of high-class music. Grieg, when he finally consented to make the voyage to America, placed his price at two thousand five hundred dollars for every concert—a sum which any manager would regard prohibitive, except in the case of one world-famous pianist. Grieg’s intent was obvious.The inconveniences of travel in America have been ridiculously exaggerated in Europe, and many virtuosos dread the thought of an American trip, with the great ocean yawning between the two continents, and red-skinned savages just beyond New York or certainly not far from Chicago. De Pachmann detests the ocean, and when he comes over in his favorite month of June he does not dare return until the following June. Others who have never visited America must get their idea of American travel from some such account as that of Charles Dickens in his un- forgivable American Notes (1842), in which he said, in describing one of our railroads:

“There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek and a bell. The cars are like shabby omnibuses holding thirty, forty, fifty people. In the centre of the carriage there is usually a stove, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal, which is for the most part red hot. It is insufferably close, and you see the hot air fluttering between yourself and any other object you may happen to look at.”

There could have been but little improvement in our railroads in 1872 when Rubinstein came to America, for although he accepted $40,000 for 215 concerts during his first trip, he refused an offer of $125,000 for only 50 concerts when a manager tried to persuade him to return. American railroads now present the acme of comfort, convenience, and even luxury in travel, yet the European artist has difficulty in adjusting himself to journeys of thousands of miles crowded in a short winter season when he has been accustomed to little trips of a few hundred kilometers. He comes to dread the trains as we might a prison van. Paderewski resorts to a private car, but even this luxurious mode of travel may be very monotonous and exhausting.The great distances must certainly account for some of the evidences of strain which deform the faces and exhaust the minds of so many virtuosos. The traveling salesman seems to thrive upon miles of railroad travel as do the crews of the trains, but the virtuoso, dragged from concert to concert by his showman, grows tired—oh, so tired, pale, wan, listless and indifferent! At the beginning of the season he is quite another person. The magnetism that has done so much to win him fame shines in his eyes and seems to em- anate from his fingertips, but the difference in his physical being at the end of the season is sickening. Like a bedraggled, worn-out circus coming in from the wear and tear of a hard season, he crawls wearily back to New York with a cinematographic recollection of countless telegraph poles flying past the windows, audience after audience, sleeping cars, budding geniuses, the inevitable receptions with their equally inevitable chicken salad or lukewarm oysters, and the “sweet young things,” who, like Heine’s mythical tribe ofAsra, must love or perish. Some virtuosos have the physical strength to endure all this, even enjoy it, but many have confessed to me that their American tours have been literal nightmares.

One of the greatest pianists was obliged to stay in New York for a while before attempting the voyage homeward. At the time he was so weak from the rigors of the tour that he could scarcely write his name. His haggard face suggested the tortures of a Torquamada rather than Buffalo, Kansas City, Denver and Pittsburgh. His voice was tired and faltering, and his chief interest was that of the invalid—getting home as soon as possible. To have talked with him upon music at that time would have been an injustice. Accordingly, I led him away from the subject and dwelt upon the woes of his native Poland, and, much to his surprise, left him without the educational material of which I had been in quest. He asked the reason, and I told him that a musical conference at that time could serve no purpose. As men and women, aside from the attainments which have made them illustrious, virtuosos are for the most part very much like ordinary mortals who have to content themselves at the foot of Parnassus. It has been my privilege to know thirty or more of the most eminent artists, and some have become good personal friends. It is interesting to observe how several very different types of individuals may succeed in winning public favor as virtuosos. Indeed, except for the long-haired caricature which the public accepts as the conventional virtuoso there is no “virtuoso type.” Here is a business man, here an artist, here an engineer, here a jurist, here an actor, here a poet and here a freak, all of them distinguished performers. Perhaps the enthusiastic music lover will resent the idea of a freak becoming famous as a pianist, but I have known no less than three men who could not possibly be otherwise described, but who have nevertheless made both fame and fortune as virtuosos.

The Piano Virtuoso Career: Freak Pianists

The anthropologist who chooses to conduct special investigations of freaks can find no more entertaining field than that of the remarkable freaks of the brain, shown in the cases of some astonishing performers whose intelligence and mental capacity in other ways has been negligible. The classic case of Blind Tom, for instance, was that of a freak not so very far removed in kind from the Siamese Twins, or General Tom Thumb. Born a slave in Georgia, and wholly without what teachers would term a musical education, Blind Tom amazed many of the most conservative musicians of his time. It was possible for him to repeat difficult compositions after hearing them played only once. I conversed with him a number of years ago in New York, only to find that intellectually and physically he was allied to the cretinBlind Tom’s peculiar ability has led many hasty commenttators to conclude that music is a wholly separate mental faculty to be found particularly in a more or less shiftless and irresponsible class of gifted but intellectually limited human beings. The few cases of men and women whose musical talent seems to eclipse their minds so that they remain in utter darkness to everything else in life, should not be taken as a basis for judging other artists of real genius and undisputed mental breadth. I have in mind, however, the case of one pianist who is very widely known and highly lauded, but who is very slightly removed from the class of Blind Tom. A trained alienist, one acquainted with the difference between the eccentricities which frequently accompany greatness and the unconscious physical and psychical evidences of idiocy which so clearly agree with the antics of the chimpanzee or the droll Capuchin monkeys, might find in the performer to whom I refer a subject for some very interesting, not to say startling reflections. Few have ever been successful in inducing this pianist to talk upon any other subject than music for more than a few minutes at a time. Another pianist, who was distinguished as a Liszt pupil, and who toured America repeatedly, seemed to have a hatred for the piano that amounted to an obsession. “Look,” he exclaimed, “I am its slave. It has sent me round and round the world, night after night, year after year. It has cursed me like a wandering Jew. No rest, no home, no liberty. Do you wonder that I drink to forget it?”

The Piano Virtuoso Career: A Pathetic Example

And drink he did in Bacchanalian measure! One time he gave an unconscious exhibition of his technical ability that, while regrettable, would have been of immense interest to psychologists who are seeking to prove that music depends upon a separate operation of a special “faculty.” During his American tours I called frequently upon this virtuoso for the purpose of investigating his method of playing. He was rarely free from the influence of alcohol for more than a few hours at a time. One morning it was necessary for me to see him professionally, and when I found him at his hotel he was in a truly disgraceful condition. I remember that he was unable to stand, from the fact that he fell upon me while I was sitting in a Morris chair. He was barely able to talk, and just prior to my leaving he insisted upon scrawling upon his visiting card, “Zur freundlichen Errinerung, auf einen sehr späten Abend.” (Friendly re- membrances of a very late evening.) Since it was still very early in the morning, it may be realized that he had lost all idea of his whereabouts. Nevertheless, he sat at the piano keyboard and played tremendously difficult compositions by Liszt and Brahms—compositions which compelled his hands to leap from one part of the keyboard to the other as in the case of the Liszt Campanella. He never missed a note until he lost his balance upon the piano stool and fell to the floor. Disgusting and pathetic as the exhibition was, I could not help feeling that I was witnessing a marvelous instance of automatism, that wonderful power of the mind working through the body to reproduce, apparently without effort or thought, operations which have been repeated so many times that they have become “second nature.” More than this, it indicated clearly that while the better part of the man’s body was “dead to the world,” the faculty he had cultivated to the highest extent still remained alive. Some years later this man succumbed to alcoholism.

The Piano Virtuoso Career: The Pianist of Today

Contrasted with a type of this kind may be mentioned such men as Sauer, Rachmaninov, d’Albert, Paderewski, Godowsky, Bachaus, Rosenthal, Pauer, Joseffy, Stojowski, Scharwenka, Gabrilowitsch, Hofmann, Bauer, Lhévinne, to say nothing of the ladies, Bloomfield-Zeisler, Carreño, Goodson, et al., many of whom are intellectual giants. Most all are exceedingly regular in their habits, and at least two are strong temperance advocates. Intellectually, pianists of this class represent a very remarkable kind of mentality. One is impressed with the surprising quickness with which their brains operate even in ordinary conversation. Speaking in alien languages, they find comparatively little difficulty in expressing themselves with rapidity and fluency. Very few great singers ever acquire a similar ease. These pianists are wonderfully well read, many being acquainted with the literature of three or more tongues in the original. Indeed, it is not unusual to find them skipping through several languages during ordinary conversation without realizing that they are performing linguistic feats that would put the average college graduate to shame. They are familiar with art, science, politics, manufactures, even in their most recent developments. “What is your favorite type of aëroplane?” asked one some years ago in the kindergarten days of cloud navigation. I told him that I had made no choice, since I had never seen a flying machine, despite the fact that I was a native of the country that gave it birth. He then vouchsafed his opinions and entered into a physical and mechanical discussion of the matter, indicating that he had spent hours in getting the whole subject straightened out in his mind. This same man, a German, knew whole cantos of the Inferno by heart, and could repeat long scenes from King Lear with a very creditable English accent.

The average American “tired business man” who is inclined to look upon the touring virtuoso as “only a pianist” would be immensely surprised if he were called upon to compare his store of “universal” information with that of the performer. He would soon see that his long close confinement behind the bars of the dollar sign had made him the intel- lectual inferior of the musician he almost ignores. But it is hardly fair to compare these famous interpreters with the average “tired business man.” They are the Cecil Rhodes, the Thomas Edisons, the Maurice Maeterlincks of their fields. It is easy enough to find musicians of smaller life opportunities basking in their ignorance and conceit.

While the virtuoso may be described as intellectual in the broader sense of the term, he usually has a great fear of becoming academic. He aspires to be artistic rather than scholarly. He strives to elevate rather than to teach—in the strictly pedagogical sense. Some of the greatest performers have been notoriously weak as teachers. They do not seek the walls of the college, neither do they long for the cheap Bohemianism that so many of the French feuilletonists delight in describing. (Why should the immorality of the artist’s life be laid at the doors of fair Bohemia?) The artist’s life is wrapped up in making his readings of master works more significant, more eloquent, more beautiful. He is interested in everything that contributes to his artistry, whether it be literature, science, history, art or the technic of his own interpretative development. He penetrates the various mystic problems which surround piano playing by the infallible process of persistent study and reflection. The psychical phase of his work interests him immensely, particularly the phenomena of personal attraction—often called magnetism.

The Piano Virtuoso Career: The Magic of Magnetism

Magnetism is surely one of the most enviable possessions of the successful pianist. Just what magnetism is and how it comes to be, few psychologists attempt to relate. We all have our theories, just why one pianist who often blunders as readily as a Rubinstein, or who displays his many shortcomings at every concert can invariably draw larger audiences and arouse more applause than his confrère with weaker vital forces, although he be admittedly a better technician, a more highly educated gentleman and perhaps a more sensitive musician. Charles Frohman, keenest of theatrical producers, attributed the actor’s success to “vitality,” and in doing this he merely chose one of the weaker synonyms of magnetism. Vitality in this sense does not imply great bodily strength. It is rather soul-strength, mind-strength, life-strength. Professor John D. Quackenbos, A.M., M.D., formerly of Columbia University, essays the following definition of magnetism in his excellent Hypnotic Therapeutics: “Magnetism is nothing more than earnestness and sincerity, coupled with insight, sympathy, patience and tact. These essentials cannot be bought and cannot be taught. They are ‘born by nature,’ they are dyed with ’the red ripe of the heart.”’

But Dr. Quackenbos is a physician and a philosopher. Had he been a lexicographer he would have found the term magnetism far more inclusive. He would at least have admitted the phenomenon which we have witnessed so often when one possessed with volcanic vitality overwhelms a great audience. The old idea that magnetism is a kind of invisible form of intellectual or psychic electricity has gone down the grotesque phrenological vagaries of Gall as well as some of the pseudoscientific theories of that very unusual man, Mesmer. We all possess what is known as magnetism. Some have it in an unusual degree, as did Edwin Booth, Franz Liszt, Phillips Brooks and Bismarck. It was surely neither the art nor the ability of Daniel Webster that made his audiences accept some of his fatuous platitudes as great utterances, nor was it the histrionic talent alone of Richard Mansfield that enabled him to wring success from such an obvious theatrical contraption as Prince Karl. Both Webster, with his fathomless eyes and his ponderous voice, and Mansfield, with his compelling personality, were exceptional examples of magnetism.

The Piano Virtuoso Career: A Notable Example

Among virtuosos Paderewski is peculiarly forceful in the personal spell he casts over his audience. Someone has said that it cost one hundred thousand dollars to exploit his hair before he made his first American tour. But it was by no means curiosity to see his hair which kept on filling auditorium after auditorium. I attended his first concert in New York, and was amazed to see a comparatively small gathering of musical zealots. His command of the audience was at once imperial. The critics, some of whom would have found Paderewski’s hirsute crown a delightful rack upon which to hang their ridicule, went into ecstasies instead. His art and his striking personality, entirely apart from his appearance, soon made him the greatest concert attraction in the musical world. Anyone who has conversed with him for more than a few moments realizes what the meaning of the word magnetism is. His entire bearing—his lofty attitude of mind, his personal dignity all contribute to the inexplicable attraction that the arch hypnotist Mesmer first described as animal magnetism.

That magnetism of the pianist must be considered wholly apart from personal beauty and great physical strength is obvious to anyone who has given the subject a moment’s thought. Many of the artists already mentioned (in this book) who possess magnetism similar to that of Paderewski could surely never make claim for personal beauty. Neither is magnetism akin to that attraction we all experience when we see a powerful, well-groomed horse, a sleek hound, a handsome tiger—that is, it is not mere admiration for a beautiful animal. Whether it has any similarity to the mysterious charm which makes the doomed bird lose control of its wings upon the approach of a snake is difficult to estimate. Certainly, in the paraphernalia of the modern recital with its lowered lights and its solitary figure playing away at a polished instrument one may find something of the physical apparatus employed by the professional hypnotist to insure concentration—but even this can not account for the pianist’s real attractiveness. If Mr. Frohman’s “vitality” means the “vital spark,” the “life element,” it comes very close to a true definition of magnetism, for success without this precious Promethean force is inconceivable. It may be only a smouldering ember in the soul of a dying Chopin, but if it is there it is irresistible until it becomes extinct. Facial beauty and physical prowess all made way for the kind of magnetism that Socrates, George Sand, Julius Cæsar, Henry VIII, Paganini, Emerson, Dean Swift or Richard Wagner possessed.

More wonderful still is the fact that magnetism is by no means confined to those who have finely trained intellects or who have achieved great reputations. Some vaudeville buffoon or some gypsy fiddler may have more attractive power than the virtuoso who had spent years in developing his mind and his technic. The average virtuoso thinks far more of his “geist,” his “talent” (or as Emerson would have it, “the shadow of the soul—the otherwise”) than he does of his technic, or his cadenzas. By what mystic means magnetism may be developed, the writer does not pretend to know. Possibly by placing one’s deeper self (shall we say “subconscious self”) in closer communion with the great throbbing problems of the invisible though perpetually evident forces of nature which surround us we may become more alive, more sensitively vivified. What would it mean to the young virtuoso if he could go to some occult master, some seer of a higher thought, and acquire that lode-stone* which has drawn fame and fortune to the blessed few? Hundreds have spent fortunes upon charlatans in the attempt. All artists know the part that the audience itself plays in falling under the magnetic spell of the performer. Its connection with the phenomena of autosuggestion is very clear. Dr. Wundt, the famous German psychologist, showed a class of students how superstitions unconsciously acquired in early life affect sensible adults who have long since passed the stage at which they might put any credence in omens. At a concert given by a famous player, the audience has been well schooled in anticipation. The artist always appears under a halo his reputation has made for him. This very reputation makes his conquest far easier than that of the novice who has to prove his ability before he can win the sympathy of the audience. He is far more likely to find the audience en rapport than indifferent. Sometime, at the play in a theater, watch how the audience will unconsciously mirror the facial expressions of the forceful actor. In some similar manner, the virtuoso on the concert platform said to possess that Kohinoor of virtuosodom—magnetism.

Some widely read critics have made the very natural error of confounding magnetism with personality. These words have quite different connotations—personality comprehending the more subtle force of magnetism. An artist’s individual worth is very closely allied with his personality— that is, his whole extrinsic attitude toward the thought and action of the world about him. How important personality is may be judged by the widely advertised efforts of the manufacturers of piano-playing machines to convince the public that their products, often astonishingly fine, do actually reproduce the individual effects which come from the playing of the living artist. Piano-playing machines have their place, and it is an important one. However, wonderful as they may be, they can never be anything but machines. They bring unquestioned joy to thousands, and they act as missionaries for both music and the music-teacher by taking the art into countless homes where it might otherwise never have penetrated, thus creating the foundation for a strong desire for a thorough study of music. The piano- playing machine may easily boast of a mechanism as wonderful as that of a Liszt, a d’Albert or a Bachaus, but it can no more claim personality than the typewriter upon which this article is being written can claim to reproduce the individuality which characterizes the handwriting of myriads of different persons. Personality, then, is the virtuoso’s one great unassailable stronghold. It is personality that makes us want to hear a half dozen different renderings of a single Beethoven sonata by a half dozen different pianists. Each has the charm and flavor of the interpreter.

But personality in its relation to art has been so exquisitely defined by the inimitable British essayist, A. C. Benson, that we can do no better than to quote his words:“I have lately come to perceive that the one thing which gives value to any piece of art, whether it be book, or picture, or music, is that subtle and evasive thing which is called personality. No amount of labor, of zest, even of accomplishment, can make up for the absence of this quality. It must be an almost instinctive thing, I believe. Of course, the mere presence of personality in a work of art is not sufficient, because the personality revealed may be lacking in charm; and charm, again, is an instinctive thing. No artist can set out to capture charm; he will toil all the night and take nothing; but what every artist can and must aim at is to have a perfectly sincere point of view. He must take his chance as to whether his point of view is an attractive one; but sincerity is the one indispensable thing. It is useless to take opinions on trust, to retail them, to adopt them; they must be formed, created, felt. The work of a sincere artist is almost certain to have some value; the work of an insincere artist is of its very nature worthless.”

Mr. Benson’s “charm” is what the virtuoso feels as magnetism. It puts something into the artist’s playing that he cannot define. For a moment the vital spark flares into a bewildering flame, and all his world is peopled with moths hovering around the “divine fire.”

The Piano Virtuoso Career: The Greatest Thing of All

If we have dwelt too long upon magnetism, those who know its importance in the artist’s life will readily perceive the reason. But do not let us be led away into thinking that magnetism can take the place of hard work. Even the tiny prodigy has a career of work behind him, and the master pianist has often climbed to his position over Matterhornsand Mt. Blancs of industry. Days of practice, months of study, years of struggle are part of the biography of almost every one who has attained real greatness. What a pity to destroy time-old illusions! Some prefer to think of their artist heroes dreaming their lives away in the hectic cafés of Pesth or buried in the melancholy, absinthe and paresis of some morbid cabaret of Paris. As a matter of fact, the best known pianists live a totally different life—a life of grind, grind, grind—incessant study, endless practice and ceaseless search for means to raise their artistic standing. In some quiet country villa, miles away from the center of unlicensed Bacchanalian revels, the virtuoso may be found working hard upon next season’s repertoire.

After all, the greatest thing in the artist’s life is W-O-R-K.


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