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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1710/Pianist and Martyr

From The Examiner.


When Music, heavenly maid, was young, did she practise many hours a day? Did she train her fingers gymnastically with scales and shakes and exercises on five notes; and did she plod through the bars of toilsome fantasias, repeating them through weeks, a dozen times together, until at last the patient process had achieved the crown of success, and she could take the allegros, and for the matter of that the andantes too, at a fast prestissimo? And did she have next-door neighbors?

In our days there are many maidens, young and doubtless heavenly, who are perseveringly flattening their finger-tips with a view to becoming musical. They pursue their art of measured sounds ascetically, not to gratify a taste but to perform a duty. Left to their own instinctive aspirations, they would have been as likely to wish to learn bricklaying as instrumental music, but they, or their parents for them, know the moral proprieties, and therefore they set themselves to fulfil one of the chief purposes to which nature has destined them and acquire the womanly virtue of playing the piano. The better the girl the longer she practises. Miss Goodenough just passes muster with an hour a day. Miss Well-Bred takes rank as a pattern young lady with three, but Miss Nonesuch with five establishes her reputation as a glory and hope of her sex. The present writer has known two Miss Nonesuches whose merit was quoted in each case as immeasurably enhanced by the fact that the persevering votary of this "forceful art" was deficient in ear for music, and had no taste for it. One of them succeeded and became, for an amateur, quite a dexterous pianist, particularly neat in her fingering; the other, perverted by inclinations for drawing and for croquet, fell away after only two years' diligence, and by that instability lost more than all the ground she had gained during her period of melodious Juggernautism. It was absurd of her to plead that her two years' hard work had not enabled her to play any one of her "pieces" correctly and in time; if she played so badly there was all the more need for practising.

Putting aside any recollection of personal sufferings of our own, of chromatic ascensions next door of which each note seemed hammered into our aching heads, of bluettes, and pensées, and rains of pearls and roses and stars and all things droppable and drippable on the piano, setting our brains in a watery whirl as we painfully try to write or read and not to hear, of glib perpetual waltzes and too familiar "short tunes and long tunes" forcing themselves, like old acquaintances defiant of "not-at-homes," through our unwilling ears and churning on inside our heads when we want to write our epic or our recondite treatise on political economy — putting aside all subjective considerations, we must needs revere these martyrs to duty who are to be found in every English home and swarm next door. What they do they do because it is right. They do not know why they ought to give a large part of their young lives to a protracted attempt at mastering a craft which requires a rare and special talent not belonging to them, they only know that it is their vocation. Like Tennyson's linnet they do but sing because they must; but theirs is not the linnet's unreasoning self-indulgent must, it is the must of the civilized being, obedient to conscience and with a conscience obedient to public opinion. The taunt sometimes levelled at them that they seek and value musical acquirements as a means of winning a husband, is one which, in nineteen cases out of twenty at the least, is undeserved. Girls who consciously go to work to get married know very well that a well-placed sigh is worth fifty sonatas and that no amount of major and minor prestidigitation can win a triumph over the rival who, though a dunce at the music-book, is an expert in smiles and dropped eyelids; and the other girls, who, taking their lives as they find them, shut their eyes and see what chance will send them, simply accept their music, like their lace-embroidery, as a part of woman's mission to anybody or nobody. The patent fact that so many women "leave off music" after their marriage is no proof of their skill or no-skill having been attained with ulterior motives: other duties arise and multiply, life has become too hurried and too full of much small business for piano-playing as a duty, and it has never been, like the craft of the true musician, a necessity of nature — very likely not even a recreation.

Then, in spite of the theory that the reason the use of the piano ought to be a principal part of a girl's education is that she may be qualified to make a husband's home happy, most men rather dislike tête à tête musical entertainments where the wife is the solitary performer. They are sleepy, or they are studious, or they want to go away and smoke, or they are critical connoisseurs and do not like the domestic average, or they like the barrel-organ's cheerful and compendious tunes and are worried at the effort of conscious listening required to follow the melody as their divine Cecilia goes on "adding length to solemn sounds." If the husband can sing at all it is another matter, he wants his wife to accompany him, he votes himself musical, the pair practise together. But the majority of husbands do not sing. The proper and charitable feeling when one hears of a woman who before marriage gave up her time largely to practising "leaving off music" after marriage is that of pity for her that she ever was constrained to begin it, or — for perhaps, on the principle that you cannot tell if you can play the flute till you have tried, and to train the ear to some intelligent and pleasurable appreciation of harmony, a rudimentary musical education should be given to all children — the pity for her should only extend to her having been constrained to labor on at an uncongenial and utterly useless occupation. No person in whom any particle of the divine faculty of music had life could, after having attained a mastery over the mechanical difficulties of instrumentation and after having made its exercise a daily habit for years, renounce the habit and forego the mastery. If music had not been alien to the nature, it must have become a second nature. Of course this does not mean that there was a dislike to hearing music, any more than that the absence of the painter's temperament involves a dislike to seeing pictures, but simply that the gifts and predisposition which go to make the musician were wanting, as the soil and climate for azaleas are wanting on Norway hills. In fact the enjoyment of rhythmic sounds is so universal to mankind that, as a general rule, the last thing an unmusical man suspects about himself is that he is unmusical. Once one of the most excruciating and disunited of itinerant bands conceivable out of Hades was jerking through a popular set of quadrilles in a variety of keys and times, when a benevolent and cheerful auditor said to a silent sufferer pacing his garden with him, "Do you like music?" "Yes," was the answer of course, — who would own to being the man that has not music in his soul? — but the "yes" was languid and slow, for the noise the itinerants were making bore the generic name of music, and the thought had arisen, as it must have often arisen to most people, that the tuneful art gives too much pain for too rare a pleasure. "So do I; I delight in it," was the hearty reply, "I do enjoy this now. In fact I am so fond of music that there is no sort I don't enjoy. It gives me the greatest pleasure to hear even a common barrel-organ." Many respectable persons wholly without ear think they are fond of music, on much the same grounds. Some of them regret that they never learned music; some of them have learned it. Only the latter are objectionable in society.

It is a decided alleviation to party-goers in general, and probably to most of the martyrs to music themselves, that the barbarous custom of making oppressed young ladies bestow their vocal or instrumental tediousness on the oppressed company has gone far towards disappearing. The poor girls, called on to air their abilities before a roomful of strangers and indifferent or even hostile acquaintances, and aware from the comments themselves and their intimates pass on the performances of other girls and the manner in which they listen to them that they will have more critics than hearers and that criticism will chiefly mean censure, fall far short of their best where their best would not qualify them to take the places of fourth-rate professionals at public concerts. They have spent weary hours in practising up the song or the nocturne that was to earn the enthusiasm of the enchanted assemblage, and only mortification is the result; the compliments are forced and cold, and the thank-yous that echo the concluding chords are at least as likely to represent gratitude that the process is over as delight in its having taken place. Of the audience, those who understand music have wished they were hearing better, and those who wanted to talk have wished they were hearing none.

If a girl plays fairly well, or sings even but a little, her accomplishment may give real pleasure in the home circle, especially if her brothers and sisters are musical too. The young people get up duets and trios and choruses together, fearless of difficulties, and each too self-intent to be unkindly critical of the others; the elders listen in their easy-chairs, and if they do not exactly think their geese all swans, feel that such cheery melodious geese as theirs are pleasanter to hear than any swans in the world.

And yet are even these family evenings made wiser and merrier with well-timed music always worth the cost? Think of the hours and hours of practising. Think of the next-door neighbors.