September 26, 1914
Page 21

Holding the Mirror up to the Artistic Nature as Observed in Audition before a Manager—Lack of Self-Criticism a General Defect—Classification of Those Soliciting Engagements—Instances of Deluded Singer and Drug Fiend Genius


THE dictionary gives several definitions of the word “secretary,” one of which states, among other things, that a secretary is an article of furniture. I am a secretary in the office of a well-known metropolitan concert director, and while not exactly an article of furniture, I am more or less wooden-faced. Long experience has toned down the lustre of any veneer or polish that I may have formerly possessed into an exterior so forbidding that it is impossible for portal supplicants to see any reflection of their own artistic finish. Being wooded-faced, all underlying emotions such as the desire to shriek, the inclination to giggle, or a tendency to weep from sheer sympathy are concealed from the sharpest scrutiny.
Now the duties of a secretary are many and wanton. Among the more important is the ability upon occasion to evince a three-fold stupidity while employing extraordinary acumen; to become when necessary a liar as clearly defined as one who might venture to express a difference of opinion with Mr. Roosevelt personally; to answer sweetly and with apparent zest the same question repeated with a maddening iteration many times a day, and to be an adept in the gentle art of “stalling.”
I do not find the word “stall” defined in the dictionary in the modern or metropolitan sense, so I shall hazard a definition of my own making; a “staller” is one who procrastinates either for personal or an employer’s reasons, and who in so doing creates a sense of gratitude in the individual “stalled” for favors he has not yet received but hopes for. Continued amicable relations among human beings is becoming more and more impossible without a training in the nuances of this art.
Stalling usually involves prevarication, which in turn becomes the favorite mode of expression in the course of a concert season. Like Clyde Fitch’s heroine in The Truth, I am apt to lie from choice rather than necessity. Usually this is accompanied by no harrowing qualms of conscience; on the other hand, I sense a certain inward complacent glow when I fan into flame the fading spark of self-esteem in some poor damsel who has released her tortured soul in the “Meditation” or who has sybillantly whispered “Will o’ the Wisp” to the delight of an imaginary audience and the relief of the accompanist, who knows, like the dog that bit his tail with suicidal intent, that this is the end.
During the eight active months comprising the concert season many call but few are chosen. Not one applicant in fifty given an audition ever evinces talent which will warrant hope of their arriving in the broader sense, yet hope remains with them as persistently as with a consumptive.
Illusions Destroyed
It has been my observation that vocalists retain their illusions longer than instrumentalists. They seem to lack critical introspective qualities. I have heard highly intelligent persons—individuals blessed supposedly with a fair sense of humor, but of ordinary vocal ability—refer continually in tones of profound respect and consideration to their voice and all the technical minutiae remotely connected with its functions and culture. To venture a criticism of the voice of such a person other than favorable would be to incur their everlasting resentment. A clear case of “Love me, love my song.”
Yet this lack of ability for self-criticism is not confined entirely to singers. During an audition which occurred the beginning of last season a lad played the violin for me in a most musicianly fashion. His tone and technique for one of his age showed remarkable development, and he revealed a talent bordering on genius, despite the handicap of an obviously inferior instrument.
His number was followed by a couple of singers, after which another violinist, a woman, essayed the “Zigeunerweisen,” that celebrated display piece for the violin, which she played until she finished—literally. Later in the course of a conversation with her I asked her what she thought of the boy’s playing. “Well enough,” she said, “but I do not care for his method of bowing.” Then she calmly quoted me her lowest price for a public appearance. Instinctively there occurred to me the Golbergian wail, “It’s all wrong!”
People soliciting appointments with the concert director with a view to possible engagement may be divided by sexes into two classes. I pass by an opportunity to introduce a time-honored jest relative to the epicene quality of tenors. The female class may be subdivided roughly (yet without Pankhurstian violence) into the cock-sure, the truculent, the violently partisan friend, the wildly eccentric, with an occasional real musician. To these one might add the lady ambassadors calling in the interests of sequestered and carefully nurtured tenors.
The last mentioned type is perhaps the most deadly. In the presence of one of these I am made to feel the gravity of the situation at once. I stare as one hypnotically fascinated squarely into the eyes of this splendid .material for a book agent with an assumption of vast interest, while she extolls the Caruso-like quality of this blushing, as yet unseen tenor. Watching carefully when she takes breath, I attempt a wedge-like verbal interruption of her glowing panegyric in the hope of damming or derailing it, but get no further than such bromidically futile remarks as “Yes, madame,” “Is it possible?” etc. Physically glued to the spot, but minus my wits, which long since have slipped their moorings, I am only brought back to earth by the jarring-ly straight to the point question: “How much do you intend paying him?” This before either the concert director or myself have heard a single one of his alleged thrush-like tones!
Visits from Mentally Deficient
A famous French philosopher once made the malevolently acute remark that “there is something in the misfortunes of our best friends not entirely displeasing to us.” The truth of this is shown in our barbaric enjoyment of the mentally deficient. The footlights of the concert stage exercise unusual fascination for numerous cerebral “not-at-homes” possessed of fantastic talents and innumerable schemes for the entertainment and enlightenment of an insatiable and sophisticated public. I have encountered many such.
Of late much has been written and commented upon regarding incompetent and unprincipled teachers of music, who continually bleed pupils of little or no talent, trading on their credulity by depicting in rainbow hues a roseate future for them in concert or grand opera. Personal experiences have led me to believe that this sort of charlatan is an unpleasant reality who will continue in his predaceous ways until both pupils and the teaching profession are protected by proper legislation.
Recently a young lady called upon me accompanied by a sweet-faced elderly woman, whom I learned later was her mother, and asked to see the concert director. She informed me that she was a pupil of Signor X and that she wished an audition with her mother present just to show what other authorities besides her teacher thought of her voice, which, she confided modestly, was a soprano of remarkable range, brilliancy and power.
“In fact,” she said, “I am going abroad with Signor X and his wife to study for three years more, and then I shall take up grand opera, singing leading roles.
At this point her mother took up the conversation. “Yes,” she said, “Father and I don’t want to be in the way or interfere where Janey’s voice is concerned. We have a little farm out West which Janey can have, or anything else we’ve got, to advance herself in her studies. I wish you could just hear her once.”
Her Face Not Her Fortune
I explained to her that I frequently heard people sing in the absence of the concert director, and that I should be pleased to give her daughter, who had brought an accompanist, an audition. Inwardly I was curious to listen to a voice that would be singing operatic roles in three years. It was apparent to me that if this girl plucked the laurel wreath and became a corset indorser or acted as godmother to a brand of cold cream it would be through her voice alone. 0. Henry once told of a girl whose “system of beauty would make a July magazine poster look like the cook on a Monongahela River coal barge,” but this was not the girl he meant. This young woman’s hours for study would never be cut into by “joy riding.” It was improbable that her honor would ever be assailed or even remotely threatened by fiends disguised as managers.
After the manner of singers, she insured herself against possible failure and provided her self-esteem with a bolster should it be needed, by referring to the terrible cold she had, the possession of which she verified by frowning vexedly, clutching at her bronchial organs and emitting hoarse, wheezy sounds, in an endeavor to prepare this organ for its function of producing tones of crystalline purity. For her “Preislied” she chose an aria full of trills and florid ornaments, but as devoid of feeling as a problem in differential calculus. The accompaniment was obviously written to show what an inferior—nay, degraded affair a piano or pianist is compared to the voice: It provided a scintillating harmonic background in the shape of an “um tla tla, um tla tla” shifting drowsily from tonic to sub-dominant to dominant and repeat. During her performance I felt terribly ashamed somehow, and while she was caracoling in the frenzies of an insufferably prolonged cadenza, it was with difficulty that I overcame the impulse to crawl under a seat and hide.
Her singing was a revelation of Signor X as to methods and morals—or rather his utter lack of either—and that astonishing inability for self-criticism peculiar to vocalists which I have mentioned before. At the conclusion of the aria she tossed off a tid-bit recognized by the quasi cognoscenti as a “dear little thing”—in reality a colorless saccharine sop to those who have lasted through a preceding lofty endeavor. Her mother wore a proud but puzzled expression, which, while doing credit to her maternal instincts, did not proclaim her the possessor of a discriminating artistic sense. Her face bore no trace of regret for the egg money that she had parted with to bridge the awful abyss between daughter and Mary Garden.
Blasting an Aspirant’s Hopes
At this juncture, the telephone which had remained courteously silent through Janey’s madrigal now jangled an insistent summons for her. It seems she had left word with a friend as to her probable whereabouts. I took this opportunity to speak to her mother alone, asking her if she would call again the next day, as I had something of importance to tell her regarding her daughter’s welfare as well as her own. She did so on the following morning, upon which occasion I “double crossed” the villain, took a throe out of grand opera and saved the old homestead out in Iowa in most approved third act fashion, thereby incurring Janey’s everlasting hatred. I would prefer telling a young mother that her first born looks like—what it does look like, to blasting another operatic career at its inception.
Long hair and genius don’t always hobnob under the same hat. Twenty years ago an unusual hirsute adornment proclaimed an uncertain artistic temperament. The expression “an old long haired German professor” is significant of the early aesthetic struggles of a country now rapidly becoming hagridden with culture. These days we view askance the unshorn male with a distrust born of experience. So it was with cold formality tinged with •suspicion that I greeted my first genius—for his hair was long.
He knocked at my doors long after business hours one cold January night and I let him in—a weird, unkempt, stoop-shouldered, down-and-out figure of a man—“a poor weak shivery churchyard thing”—with a face of chalk-like pallor and straight colorless hair falling stringily over his shoulders. A priest-like hat, a clerical collar and a long coat completed what might have been a faithful characterization of one of Stevenson’s figures in “A Lodging for the Night.” I was unable to determine his nationality from his accent, which I accounted for later upon discovering him equally conversant in half a dozen European languages.
After we were agreed upon German, with which I have a preparatory school acquaintance, as a medium of communication, he gave me to understand that he was a pianist and wished to play for me with a view to possible engagement. He was a most unprepossessing candidate—his whole appearance suggested woeful incompetence, musically and otherwise. I asked him to play something short as I wished to go home.
Studied with Rachmaninoff
Seating himself before the grand piano, he rubbed his hands together vigorously to restore the circulation. I noticed that they were beautifully molded. After striking a few vague, dissonant chords, the funereal figure before me•informed me that he would play a prelude by Rachmaninoff. To this I objected, thinking he referred to a familiar conservatory war horse which has become hackneyed through continual use during the last decade. But he shook his head saying “Not the one you mean. I studied this one with young master in St. Petersburg.”
Shades of the Abbé Liszt what a technic the man had! H. G. Wells in “Tono Bungay” describes a player piano as “a gorilla with fingers of equal length and a sort of a soul” and of this I was reminded during the first number that he played—a prelude, written with a marked military march swing. The music reflected the Slav temperament as clearly as a chapter of “Anna Karenina” or “On the Eve”; it revealed terrors as vividly as a canvas by the lamented Veretschagin. Ordinarily I do not visualize music, but here was depicted a savage Cossack horde, triumphant and irresistible. They passed through the snow, the tramp of thousands of feet echoing fainter and fainter far out on the Steppes toward the copper-hued segment of a slow descending Winter sun.
The music stopped and the player remained motionless and silent a moment with bowed head. Then looking out beyond the mirror reflection of the piano cover, he saw, as I did, an old garden in Majorca, redolent •with the odor of blossoms freshened by the rain falling silently through the drenched boughs of the overhanging willows; while from the windows of the old chateau, the poignantly beautiful Chopin “Rain Drop” Prelude echoed, as if played by its gentle creator to George Sand leaning over the piano, remorselessly analyzing and dissecting the soul she knew so well.
Plight of a Drug Fiend
Scarcely had the strings ceased vibrating before the pianist arose and began pacing up and down the room. He seemed very excited; the pupils of his eyes were extraordinarily dilated, and his face twitched nervously. I edged nearer toward the telephone, thinking that I was in the presence of a very ill or a very mad man, or both. Suddenly he crossed to me and grasped my arm fiercely. “Lend me a dollar!” he cried. “I must have it at once! I will return it—I must have it!” He lapsed into muttering then suddenly grasping his sleeve he bared his arm to the elbow. “See!” he cried, “I must have it to live!”
One glance at his arm which was covered by blotches resembling mosquito bites, and I understood. The poor wretch was a drug fiend. I took a dollar from my purse which he snatched and rushed out of the •door, doubtless making a bee line for the nearest place where he might procure the only balm in gilead in the whole world for him. He never came back, this slave of the needle with a touch of the divine spark, but from time to time I hear rumors of a pianist with strange and uncanny ability, who drifts from one tenderloin resort to another, astonishing the habitués with extraordinary rag-time playing interspersed with haunting excerpts from the greatest and best in musical literature. He stands out, an isolated figure among the hundreds of musicians who have appeared within my memory.
Another real musician, a beautiful girl with a still more beautiful soprano voice which delights thousands every season at the Metropolitan Opera House, was given her first New York appearance by the concert director with whom I am associated. Her face may be found adorning the pages of most any current magazine—I believe she is the one 0. Henry described.
As for the others, many exhibited a splendid talent which has since ripened into fine all-round musicianship. Their number is constantly augmented. Each recurring Autumn brings from all parts of the country thousands of young musical aspirants to metropolitan art centers, each with his or her little wagon hitched to a star—seldom of the fixed type—whose career they are determined upon emulating. Nature has mollified the hardness of life by bestowing upon each the inborn conviction that they are somehow different. Others fail, but fate cannot, shall not be so unkind to them. Away with the immutable law of averages! They are•exempt. Some day from the peaks of Parnassus they will mock at these ravens flying around the base, emitting futile raucous cries—those birds of ill omen who insistently asserted that there was not an equal chance for all!
Lure of the Aesthetic
It is by these hope-fed, often-deluded but determined proselytes that the stigma of materialism shall be removed from a nation which must eventually reign supreme in the realms of art. Each and every one of these aesthetic-bitten individuals afflicted with the longing for the unattainable shall be a potential unit toward better living. Each shall slip into the niche that fate has decided upon in which to work out artistic destinies according to individual ability. The concert stage for the heaven-kissed few; the lyceum for the adventurously inclined; the church for those whose inclinations and habits lead toward an institution singularly barren and unprogressive musically, compared to those fields over which the devil is popularly supposed to exercise territorial espionage; and the teaching sphere wherein they shall sow the seeds from which our children’s children shall harvest a princely heritage—a cognizance of life in its proper relation to art, resulting in a broad national culture.


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