The Virtuous

There were all the showmen like Thalberg, Herz, Dreyschock, Gottschalk and other virtuosos who were the salonists, martinee idols, tinklers in their own ways. They were counter balanced by another group of great pianists, the real virtuous ones. The ones who dedicated themselves to be the best in music and the ideals of art.  Initially, they were a minority group but eventually they grew bigger and bigger and took over the field.

Interpreters started to emerge and seriously confine themselves to the music of the masters. A new breed of performer appeared where those who performed were not necessarily composers. The appearance of concert halls rather than salons promoted the concert as an institution had come into being.

By the 1860s, the concert programs had appeared every where just as is they were to appear today. Feliz Mendelssohn was a perfect instrumentalist as his public appearances were as a soloist with orchestra in his own music. He was on the level of Mozart as he started playing the piano at the age of four and composed at the aged of eight.  By then, he had memorized all of Beethoven’s symphonies and could play them on the piano. At the age of sixteen, he wrote an Octet and Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.

The young Mendelssohn aroused his teacher, Moscheles. Moscheles found the young Mendelssohn a finished artist at the age of fifteen. He had lessons every second day. He was a great improviser of musical history. Hiller described Mendelssohn at the age of sixteen as he improvised on a theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Hardly anyone was known with more skillful counterpoint and extraordinary execution, which characterized his playing.

Mendelssohn, 1809 – 1847

Mendelssohn’s playing was free, spirited, amazingly accurate, with spare use of pedal. He did not play salon music in his day. His touch was exquisite and the fingers sang as they rippled over the keyboard. He had a gift that no artist, no matter how talented, could succeed at or replicate. He scarcely touched the keyboard, similar to the pleasurable electric shock that passed through his audience and listeners and held them spellbound.

Charles Halle 1819 – 1895

There was Charles Hallé who was playing at the age of four and gave concerts at eleven, studied in Paris at seventeen and settled in England at twenty-nine. He had a very solid repertoires consisting of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. He was the first pianist in history to play Beethoven’s thirty-to piano sonatas in series of eighteen recitals. Hallé was one who always played from printed music score and had developed a mechanism operated by foot that turned pages. The most important ‘classical’ pianist of the nineteenth century was Clara Schumann. She deliberately set herself as the keeper of tradition by playing Mozart at the Festival in Vienna. She also edited the complete works of her late husband, Robert Schumann. Clara had been a great prodigy, a great pianist and had been married to the great composer.

Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s Father

Her father, Friedrich Wieck was a pianist of the old school and when Clara showed talent at the age of five, Wieck trained her very carefully with ferocious discipline. For a long time, she was not allowed more than two hours of daily practice. When she did not meet the mark of her father, she was crushed with his temper and tore up pieces of music before her eyes and would not give her another lesson. She was only allowed to play scales, Cramer’s, and Czerny’s for her studies.

Robert Schumann entered the Wieck’s household full of aspirations to be a pianist. When he injured his fourth finger on his right hand, he had re-invented a contraption to strengthen it but instead it ruined him for good. So, he turned to composition.  By 1830 Clara developed pianistically and made concert appearances through Germany.  Up through 1840, performing without the music score of a master showed no respect for the composer. Clara’s avoidance of music score aroused wide criticism. At the turn of the wheel, Clara became old, and she did not trust her memory and often used printed music.

Robert and Clara

Despite Wieck’s aggressive objections, Clara and Robert were both married on September 12, 1840. Naturally, her public appearance sharply curtailed as she took care of her family and their 8 children. In the absence of public appearance, Clara’s music education did not stand still but advanced. She lived only good music and consequently her playing had increased with intelligence and feeling. At her strongest, Clara never had the technique of Liszt, Thalberg or Mendelssohn. However, Clara’s playing was not the kind of playing which technique is the be-all and end-all.

During her marriage, she did make a few concert tours. After the mental breakdown of her husband in 1854, she had resumed her career with a formidable repertoire including Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. Four years’ after her husband’s death, by 1860 Romanticism had become fully and widely accepted in Europe. Clara re-entered her concert life as a touring pianist with a very heavy schedule. She became exposed to the music of Johann Brahms.

Johann Brahms 1833- 1897

They developed a very close relationship and there was no doubt that Brahms was in love with Clara. She was also attracted to him and no doubt her late husband had eternally stepped between them.

Clara played with the technique that her father has taught her. She avoided any kind of violence or excitement, fingers were kept close to the keys and the keys were squeezed rather than struck. Chords were played from the wrist instead of the elbow or arm.  Her hands were large enough to easily take a tenth. The blow of the fingers on the key should never be audible. Her father had cultured ‘the necessity for the formation of fine touch just as singing teachers rely on the culture of fine tone in order to teach singing well.’

Nothing ever sounded harsh or ugly in her hands; indeed, it may fairly be said that after hearing her play a fine work one always became aware that it contained beauties undiscovered before.” This was, no doubt, partly due to the peculiarly beautiful quality of the tone she produced, which was rich and vigorous without the slightest harshness, even in the loudest passage, by pressure with the fingers rather than by percussion.

Franklin Taylor, Clara’s Pupil

An Austrian critic, Eduard Hanslick, remarked on how Clara penetrated understanding of every kind of music. In other aspects, she may be surpassed by other players but no other pianist stands out quite as she does to give clear expression to each work. Everything was distinct, clear, and sharp. She detested speed and empty virtuosity.  

Clara took a teaching position as a head of piano department at Frankfurt Conservatory in 1878 until 1892. Deafness set in and her last performance took place in 1890. She died in Frankfurt in 1892.

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