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On Singing Songs With One Finger
by [?]

James Huneker has pointed out that lovers of the drama, who are sound judges as well, too frequently have so little taste in music that they tolerate or even approve the most atrocious noises emitted in the name of musical comedy; while lovers and sound judges of music are quite as often woefully remiss in their knowledge of stagecraft, accepting scenery and stage management in their opera which would put men less skilled in the creation of theatric illusion than David Belasco to the blush.

How true it is that unto him who hath shall be denied, and unto him who hath not shall be given what the other man could use to such advantage! The composer who can both pucker the lips of the gallery-gods and satisfy the ears of the musical critics, how infrequent a visitor on this planet! so that Offenbach and Sullivan must often have suffered from loneliness. The singer who can also act, how rare a song-bird! The interpreter of the lieder of Franz or Schubert or Grieg who will sacrifice vocal display to the composer’s meaning, and who has the fineness of soul to grasp and make manifest the mood of the lyric, how welcome a guest! And yet those who could write undying comic music if only they were composers, who could lift the hearts of their hearers into the skies with “Hark, hark, the lark,” if only they could sing, are legion in number. How often, in short, like those two in Lord Houghton’s poem, are temperament and technique–“strangers yet.”

So are they in me, alas! total strangers. From my earliest years I have been filled with the joyous impulse of song, but never were ears more false to the one true pitch than mine, never was voice less commensurate with ambition. My youthful dreams, when they were not of foot-ball or swimming, were all of the Sirens, and I deemed Ulysses, if prudent, none the less a lack-sentiment sort of hero, not inspiring to know, because he stopped his ears to their song. The jeers of my fellows long ago taught me the bitter lesson to keep my melody to myself, but the impulse is still in me to sing, the myriad moods of music are still mine, and I still consider Ulysses the first of the Philistines.

For some time I thought my own case unique, but acquaintance with a music critic who cannot hum a tune, and with a celestial tenor (such tenors are so rare I fear this may be too personal for print) who was the most stupid of men, without the slightest capacity for high passion of any sort, convinced me of my error: and many subsequent conversations with men and women like myself incapacitated by nature for self-expression, as well as much listening to bad singers with good voices, have but forced conviction home. And now, when unfeeling relatives and scoffing friends smile the superior smile of the “musically talented” at sight of my piano which I play with one finger, and at the pile of music upon it, I let them smile, calm in the assurance that songs and instrument are mine by better right, perhaps, than theirs, who can raise voices quite on pitch to the accompaniment of eight fingers and two thumbs.

For, when none of them is by, I play with my one finger the airs of the world’s great lieder, and hear from that slight suggestion the songs as they should be sung. As I would rather read Hamlet in my library than see the average actor attempt the part, so I would rather play Der Atlas with one finger, with my own imagination calling forth the tragic power and grief, the superb climax of surprise and thunder, than hear it sung by any man at present on the concert stage. The poignant sadness cross-shot with humor of another of Schubert’s songs, The Hurdy Gurdy, vanishes in the concert room, melts hopelessly into the dulcet tones of the young lady soprano, whose friends titter when she is done, “What a pretty song.” But my one-fingered rendering–aided in this song by occasional jabs with three fingers of the left hand–brings to my inward ear the pathos of the barrel-organ, heard over the distant hum of a careless city, laden with the sorrow of all the world; brings memories, too, of that consummate singer of songs, Marcella Sembrich. Under the touch of my blunt forefinger the songs of MacDowell distill their delicate melancholy, that in the homes of my friends, where daughters ripple well-dusted piano keys and display expensive voices, yield only treacle and honey. Why should I mind the supercilious smile of my neighbor next door when he occasionally catches me at my unidigital performance, he who is a soloist in a noted church choir, but who, I very well know, prefers The Palms or Over There to Purcell’s I’ll sail upon the Dog Star, if, indeed, he ever heard the madly melodious boast of the “roaring boy”?

After all, there is nothing wonderful in this. It but shows that the genius which creates and the imagination which appreciates are akin, even as Professor Spingarn has asserted. Even operas and symphonies were composed at a piano. Strauss heard the one hundred and five instruments which are called on to represent the cry of the baby in his Symphonia Domestica all tooting and scraping in the notes his ten fingers evoked from his piano keys. (Personally I should rather have heard them so!) And why cannot I hear at least a simple little song in the melody that my one finger plays? The numerical ratio is in my favor, surely, although my neighbor would doubtless rudely suggest that I am not Richard Strauss. At any rate, for me there is a great joy in singing songs as they ought to be sung, if only with one finger, which has done much to console me for the technical powers nature has so plentifully denied me. I offer the same solution to all others who are in my case, only suggesting that it would be wise of them, perhaps, to learn while they are yet plastic the use of all ten fingers. They will not thereby secure ten times as much enjoyment, but their families will thank them.