June 8, 1918
Page 5
Hints on Building and Interpreting Song Programs, Proffered by Frank LaForge

Distinguished American Accompanist and Song Composer Recalls Sembrich’s Ideas on Program-making—Matzenauer’s Solution of Lieder Problem—Opposed to Women Singing Numbers Intended for Men—“lnterpret Old Masters According to Their Human Quality”

FRANK LA FORGE is a great accompanist and one of the foremost American song composers. Also, he has ideas about song recital programs. Most accompanists have ideas about song recital programs. Sometimes one wishes, after the manner of Dr. Johnson, that these ideas were impossible. Singers, being as a class void of brains, incline to place fatal reliance on the advice of the suave creature who operates the keyboard while they dispense their beguiling noises. Accompanists are not always as brainless as most singers, but in the matter of musical judgment there is startlingly little to choose between them. Think of the stuff it was necessary to live through this past season! There may be debate as to the exact percentage due to the accompanist’s advice, but his measure of guilt is probably large. Mr. La Forge’s notions on the subject of programs differ from those of most of his colleagues by taking musical worth rather than superficial effectiveness as the starting point. He believes in great music, in contrast, in good English translations, in conceiving style on a human basis, in the curtailment of those privileges women have long enjoyed in appropriating to their own uses songs intended for men. All of which sounds obvious enough. But judged in the light of the average contemporary program it takes the likeness of a pearl of wisdom.
Mr. La Forge is accompanist to Mme. Matzenauer and that contralto’s programs during the past winter were evidence of his co-operation. His theories are not the result of idle speculation. In the service of Mme. Sembrich he learned many things. That artist had an instinct and a genius for programs not to be encountered today. Much more went into their making that the ordinary person realized. Mr. La Forge relates that which probably few realize—that every song was selected as much with a view of key, variety as of contrast of mood. She carefully avoided two consecutive songs in the same tonality. Also she avoided, whenever possible, transpositions. She always did Brahms’s “Wie Melodien” in its original D flat rather in C, as one generally hears it now. She followed a symphonic principle in arranging the individual numbers of groups in so far as concerned the emotional nature of a lyric. Fast movements alternated with slow ones and vice-versa. Some extremely beautiful things she would not sing publicly at all because they did not supply, as it were, a logical context. “But she would often sing them alone in her home,’ relates Mr. La Forge, “though when it became a question of public performance she never allowed herself to be swayed from her artistic principles which were immovable.
Matzenauer’s Lieder Substitutes
“On the New York program given by Mme. Matzenauer this year she endeavors to make up for the elimination of Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and others by giving the part of the program usually assigned these masters to Grieg and certain Russians—the best substitutes for the great classics. Most singers are as yet entirely unawake to the finest things there are in the Grieg list. Mme. Matzenauer sings them in English, as should be the case. No doubt one always loses something in a translation—something perhaps of the poetic flavor or the precision with which a composer has set a certain word to a certain note. Yet what is the good of preserving these things if an audience, unfamiliar with the particular foreign language, does not get the sense of the thing at all? At the Cincinnati Festival Mme. Matzenauer sang the Immolation Scene from the ‘Götterdammerung.’ She used Ernest Newman’s translation—admirable in all save a few details which she improved herself. Her singing of that, by the way, was overwhelmingly impressive and her English was free from any trace of foreign accent.
“One thing that I have always opposed in recitals is the practice of women singing songs—love songs and other things obviously intended for men. It seems to be an unwritten law that women can sing men’s love songs with perfect propriety, though one does not hear the contrary to any extent. Not only is it foolish but the song always sounds far better as originally intended. Women should avoid, for example, such an air of Handel’s ‘Care Selve’ or the old Italian ‘Amarilli.’ What would we say to a man who should suddenly attempt to sing ‘Ah, fors e lui’? But, for a woman to do ‘Care Selve’ is, when· one comes to think of it, pretty nearly as foolish as if she were to sing the ‘Evening Star,’ from ‘Tannhäuser,’ or Rodolfo aria from ‘Bohème.’ In the case of a very few, like the ‘Lass With the Delicate Air,’ in which the colorature surpasses a man’s powers some indulgence may be allowed. But this is an exceptional case.
Old Songs
“Speaking of old songs, I have never· been able to see why artists think themselves bound to treat old sixteenth and seventeenth century airs like church music. When about to begin a song like ‘Amarilli’ a singer will lapse into a state of dreary solemnity and deliver the love song as if it were a hymn. We are told this is a matter of style. It is not. The people of that age were thoroughly as human as the ones of a more modern day. They should be interpreted according to their human quality. Not to do them so is to misinterpret them. It is as bad as the playing of certain Beethoven ‘specialists’ who are so afraid of humor in music that they miss the whole spirit of Beethoven—the musician above all others in whose music humor runs rampant. It is no wonder to me that some persons have a dread of these old classics. But the fault is entirely with the ‘stylists.’” —H. F. P.


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