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Interview with Arthur Hartmann

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Arthur Hartmann is distinctly and unmistakably a personality. He stands out even in that circle of distinguished contemporary violinists which is so largely made up of personalities. He is a composer--not only of violin pieces, but of symphonic and choral works, chamber music, songs and piano numbers. His critical analysis of Bach's _Chaconne_, translated into well-nigh every tongue, is probably the most complete and exhaustive study of "that triumph of genius over matter" written. And besides being a master of his own instrument he plays the _viola d'amore_, that sweet-toned survival, with sympathetic strings, of the 17th century viol family, and the Hungarian _czimbalom_. Nor is his mastery of the last-named instrument "out of drawing," for we must remember that Mr. Hartmann was born in MatÈ Szalka, in Southern Hungary. Then, too, Mr. Hartmann is a genial and original thinker, a _littÈrateur_ of no mean ability, a bibliophile, the intimate of the late Claude Debussy, and of many of the great men of musical Europe. Yet from the reader's standpoint the interest he inspires is, no doubt, mainly due to the fact that not only is he a great interpreting artist--but a great artist doubled by a great teacher, an unusual combination.

Characteristic of Mr. Hartmann's hospitality (the writer had passed a pleasant hour with him some years before, but had not seen him since), was the fact that he insisted in brewing Turkish coffee, and making his caller feel quite at home before even allowing him to broach the subject of his visit. And when he learned that its purpose was to draw on his knowledge and experience for information which would be of value to the serious student and lover of his art, he did not refuse to respond.


What Violin Playing Really Is

"Violin playing is really no abstract mystery. It's as clear as geography in a way: one might say the whole art is bounded on the South by the G string, on the North by the E string, on the West by the string hand--and that's about as far as the comparison may be carried out. The point is, there are definite boundaries, whose technical and esthetic limits may be extended, and territorial annexations made through brain power, mental control. To me 'Violin Mastery' means taking this little fiddle-box in hand [and Mr. Hartmann suited action to word by raising the lid of his violin-case and drawing forth his beautiful 1711 Strad], and doing just what I want with it. And that means having the right finger on the right place at the right time--but don't forget that to be able to do this you must have forgotten to think of your fingers as fingers. They should be simply unconscious slaves of the artist's psychic expression, absolutely subservient to his ideal. Too many people reverse the process and become slaves to their fingers.


The Problem of Technic

"Technic, for instance, in its mechanical sense, is a much exaggerated microbe of _Materia musica_. All technic must conform to its instrument.[A] The violin was made to suit the hand, not the hand to suit the violin, hence its technic must be based on a natural logic of hand movement. The whole problem of technical control is encountered in the first change of position on the violin. If we violinists could play in but one position there would be no technical problem. The solution of this problem means, speaking broadly, the ability to play the violin--for there is only one way of playing it--with a real, full, singing 'violin' tone. It's not a question of a method, but just a process based on pure reason, the working out of rational principles.

[Footnote A: This is the idea which underlies my system for ear-training and absolute pitch, "Arthur Hartmann's System," as I call it, which I have published. A.H.]


"What is the secret of this singing tone? Well, you may call it a

secret, for many of my pupils have no inkling of it when they first come

here, though it seems very much of an 'open secret' to me. The finished

beauty of the violin 'voice' is a round, sustained, absolutely smooth

_cantabile_ tone. Now [Mr. Hartmann took up his Strad], I'll play you

the scale of G as the average violin student plays it. You see--each

slide from one tone to the next, a break--a rosary of lurches! How can

there be a round, harmonious tone when the fingers progress by jerks?

Shifting position must not be a continuous movement of effort, but a

continuous movement in which effort and relaxation--that of dead

weight--alternate. As an illustration, when we walk we do not

consciously set down one foot, and then swing forward the other foot and

leg with a jerk. The forward movement is smooth, unconscious,

coordinated: in putting the foot forward it carries the weight of the

entire body, the movement becomes a matter of instinct. And the same

applies to the progression of the fingers in shifting the position of

the hand. Now, playing the scale as I now do--only two fingers should be



[Illustration: Musical Notation]


I prepare every shift. Absolute accuracy of intonation and a singing

legato is the result. These guiding notes indicated are merely a test to

prove the scientific spacing of the violin; they are not sounded once

control of the hand has been obtained. _They serve only to accustom the

fingers to keep moving in the direction in which they are going_.


"The tone is produced by the left hand, by the weight of the fingers

plus an undercurrent of sustained effort. Now, you see, _if in the

moment of sliding you prepare the bow for the next string, the slide

itself is lost in the crossing of the bow_. To carry out consistently

this idea of effort and relaxation in the downward progression of the

scale, you will find that when you are in the third position, the

position of the hand is practically the same as in the first position.

Hence, in order to go down from third to first position with the hand in

what might be called a 'block' position, another movement is called for

to bridge over this space (between third and first position), and this

movement is the function of the thumb. The thumb, preceding the hand,

relaxes the wrist and helps draw the hand back to first position. But

great care must be taken that the thumb is not moved until the first

finger will have been played; otherwise there will be a tendency to

flatten. In the illustration the indication for the thumb is placed

after the note played by the first finger.


"The inviolable law of beautiful playing is that there must be no

angles. As I have shown you, right and left hand coˆrdinate. The fiddle

hand is preparing the change of position, while the change of strings is

prepared by the right hand. And always the slides in the left hand are

prepared by the last played finger--_the last played finger is the true

guide to smooth progression_--just as the bow hand prepares the slides

in the last played bowing. There should be no such thing as jumping and

trusting in Providence to land right, and a curse ought to be laid on

those who let their fingers leave the fingerboard. None who develop this

fundamental aspect of all good playing lose the perfect control of



"Of course there are a hundred _nuances_ of technic (into which the

quality of good taste enters largely) that one could talk of at length:

phrasing, and the subtle things happening in the bow arm that influence

it; _spiccato_, whose whole secret is finding the right point of balance

in the bow and, with light finger control, never allowing it to leave

the string. I've never been able to see the virtue of octaves or the

logic of double-stops. Like tenths, one plays or does not play them. But

do they add one iota of beauty to violin music? I doubt it! And, after

all, it is the poetry of playing that counts. All violin playing in its

essence is the quest for color; its perfection, that subtle art which

hides art, and which is so rarely understood."


"Could you give me a few guiding rules, a few Beatitudes, as it were,

for the serious student to follow?" I asked Mr. Hartmann. Though the

artist smiled at the idea of Beatitudes for the violinist, yet he was

finally amiable enough to give me the following, telling me I would have

to take them for what they were worth:




"Blessed are they who early in life approach Bach, for their love and veneration for music will multiply with the years.

"Blessed are they who remember their own early struggles, for their merciful criticism will help others to a greater achievement and furtherance of the Divine Art.

"Blessed are they who know their own limitations, for they shall have joy in the accomplishment of others.

"Blessed are they who revere the teachers--their own or those of others--and who remember them with credit.

"Blessed are they who, revering the old masters, seek out the newer ones and do not begrudge them a hearing or two.

"Blessed are they who work in obscurity, nor sound the trumpet, for Art has ever been for the few, and shuns the vulgar blare of ignorance.

"Blessed are they whom men revile as futurists and modernists, for Art can evolve only through the medium of iconoclastic spirits.

"Blessed are they who unflinchingly serve their Art, for thus only is their happiness to be gained.

"Blessed are they who have many enemies, for square pegs will never fit into round holes."



Arthur Hartmann, like Kreisler, Elman, Maud Powell and others of his

colleagues, has enriched the literature of the violin with some notably

fine transcriptions. And it is a subject on which he has well-defined

opinions and regarding which he makes certain distinctions: "An

'arrangement,'" he said, "as a rule, is a purely commercial affair, into

which neither art nor Êsthetics enter. It usually consists in writing

off the melody of a song--in other words, playing the 'tune' on an

instrument instead of hearing it sung with words--or in the case of a

piano composition, in writing off the upper voice, leaving the rest

intact, regardless of sonority, tone-color or even effectiveness, and,

furthermore, without consideration of the idiomatic principles of the

instrument to which the adaptation was meant to fit.


"A 'transcription,' on the other hand, can be raised to the dignity of

an art-work. Indeed, at times it may even surpass the original, in the

quality of thought brought into the work, the delicate and sympathetic

treatment and by the many subtleties* which an artist can introduce to

make it thoroughly a _re-creation_ of his chosen instrument.


*Transcriber's note: Original text read "subleties".


"It is the transcriber's privilege--providing he be sufficiently the

artist to approach the personality of another artist with reverence--to

donate his own gifts of ingenuity, and to exercise his judgment in

either adding, omitting, harmonically or otherwise embellishing the work

(_while preserving the original idea and characteristics_), so as to

thoroughly _re-create_ it, so completely destroying the very sensing of

the original _timbre_ that one involuntarily exclaims, 'Truly, this

never was anything but a violin piece!' It is this, the blending and

fusion of two personalities in the achievement of an art-ideal, that is

the result of a true adaptation.


"Among the transcriptions I have most enjoyed making were those of

Debussy's _Il pleure dans mon coeur_, and _La Fille aux cheveaux de

lin_. Debussy was my cherished friend, and they represent a labor of

love. Though Debussy was not, generally speaking, an advocate of

transcriptions, he liked these, and I remember when I first played _La

Fille aux cheveaux de lin_ for him, and came to a bit of counterpoint I

had introduced in the violin melody, whistling the harmonics, he nodded

approvingly with a '_pas bÍte Áa!_' (Not stupid, that!)




"Debussy came near writing a violin piece for me once!" continued Mr.

Hartmann, and brought out a folio containing letters the great

impressionist had written him. They were a delightful revelation of the

human side of Debussy's character, and Mr. Hartmann kindly consented to

the quotation of one bearing on the _PoËme_ for violin which Debussy had

promised to write for him, and which, alas, owing to his illness and

other reasons, never actually came to be written:


Dear Friend:

Of course I am working a great deal now, because I feel the need of writing music, and would find it difficult to build an aeroplane; yet at times Music is ill-natured, even toward those who love her most! Then I take my little daughter and my hat and go walking in the Bois de Boulogne, where one meets people who have come from afar to bore themselves in Paris.

I think of you, I might even say I am in need of you (assume an air of exaltation and bow, if you please!) As to the _PoËme_ for violin, you may rest assured that I will write it. Only at the present moment I am so preoccupied with the 'Fall of the House of Usher!' They talk too much to me about it. I'll have to put an end to all that or I will go mad. Once more I want to write it, and above all _on your account_. And I believe you will be the only one to play the _PoËme_. Others will attempt it, and then quickly return to the Mendelssohn Concerto!

Believe me always your sincere friend,



"He never did write it," said Mr. Hartmann, "but it was not for want of

good will. As to other transcriptions, I have never done any that I did

not feel instinctively would make good fiddle pieces, such as

MacDowell's _To a Wild Rose_ and others of his compositions. And

recently I have transcribed some fine Russian things--Gretchaninoff's

_Chant d'Automne_, Karagitscheff's _Exaltation_, Tschaikovsky's

_Humoresque_, Balakirew's _Chant du PechÍur_, and Poldini's little

_PoupÈe valsante_, which Maud Powell plays so delightfully on all her



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