Give A Musicale
by James Huneker
I had promised Mrs. Wegstaffe and so there was no escape; not that
my word was as good as my bondin the matter of invitations it was
notbut I liked Edith Wegstaffe, who was pretty, even if she did
murder Bach. Hence the secret of my acceptance of Mrs. Wegstaffe's
rather frigid inquiry as to whether I was engaged for the fourteenth. I
am a bachelor, and next to cats, hate music heartily. Almost any other
form of art appeals to my æstheticism, which must feed upon form,
color, substance, but not upon impalpabilities. Silly sound waves, that
are said to possess color, form, rhythmin fact, all attributes of the
plastic arts. Pooh! What nonsense, I cried on the evening of the
fourteenth, as I cursed a wretched collar that would not be coerced....
When I reached the Wegstaffe mansion I found my progress retarded by
half a hundred guests, who fought, but politely, mind you, for
precedence. At last, rumpled and red, I reached the men's dressing
room, and the first person I encountered was Tompkins, Percy Tompkins,
a man I hated for his cocksure manner of speech and know-it-all style
on the subject of music. Often had he crushed my callow musical
knowledge by an apt phrase, and thinking well of myselfat least Miss
Edith says I doI disliked Tompkins heartily. Hello! with a
perceptible raising of his eyebrows, what are you doing here? The
same as yourself, I tartly answered, for he was not l'ami de la maison
any more than I, and I didn't purpose being sat upon, that night at
least. My good fellow, I'm here to listen andto be bored, he
replied in his wittiest way.
Indeed! well I'm in the same boat about the music, but I hope I
sha'n't be bored.
But good heavens, man, it's an amateur affairmusicale, as the
Wegstaffes call it in true barbarous American jargonand I fear Edith
Wegstaffe will play Chopin!
This angered me; I had long suspected Tompkins of entertaining a
sneaking admiration for Edith, and resolved to tell her of this slur at
the first opportunity. I didn't have a chance to answer him; a dozen
men rushed into the room, threw their hats and coats on the bed and
rushed out again.
They're in a hurry for a drink before the music begins, said
Going slowly down the long staircase we found a little room on the
second floor crowded with men puffing cigarettes and drinking brandy
and soda. Old Wegstaffe was a generous host, and knew what men liked
best at a musicale. On the top floor four or five half-grown boys were
playing billiards, and the ground floor fairly surged with women of all
ages, degrees and ugliness. To me there was only one pretty girl in the
house, Edith Wegstaffe; but of course I was prejudiced.
It was nine o'clock before Mrs. Wegstaffe gave the signal to begin.
The three long drawing-rooms were jammed with smart looking people, a
fair sprinkling of Bohemians, and a few professionals, whose hair,
hands and glasses betrayed them. The latter stood in groups, eying each
other suspiciously, while regarding the rest of the world with that
indulgent air they assume at musicales. Everything to my unpractised
eye seemed in hopeless disorder; a frightful buzz filled the air, and a
blond girl at the big piano was trying to disentangle a lot of music.
Near her stood a long-haired young man who perspired incessantly. Ah!
I gloated. Nervous! serves him right; he should have stayed at home!
Just then Mrs. Wegstaffe saw me. You're just the man I'm looking
for, said she hurriedly. Now be a good fellow; do go and tell all
those people in the other room to stop talking. It's nine o'clock, and
we're a half hour behind time. Before I could expostulate she had
gone, leaving me in the same condition as the long-haired young man I
had just derided.
How tell them to stop talking? I madly asked myself. Should I go
to each group and politely say: Please stop, for the music is about to
begin, or should I stand in a doorway and shout:
Say, quit gabbling, will you? the parties in the other room are
going to spiel. My embarrassment was so hideous that the latter course
would probably have been adopted, but Miss Edith touched me on the arm
and I followed her to the hall.
Oh, Mr. Trybill! she gasped; I'm so nervous that I shall surely
faint when it comes my turn. Won't you please turn the music for me? I
shall really feel better if some one is near me.
I looked at the sweet girl. There was not a particle of coquetry in
her request. Dark shadows were under her eyes, two pink spots burnt in
her pretty cheeks and her hands shook like a cigarette-smoker's.
But think, think of your technique, your mamma, your guests, I
blurted out desperately. She shook her head sadly and I shuddered. Are
all amateur musicales such torturing things?...
The house was packed. A strong odor of flowers, perfumes and cooking
mingled in the air; one stout woman fought her way to a window and put
her head out gasping. It was Madame Bujoli, the famous vocal teacher,
three of whose crack pupils were on the programme. Not far from her sat
Frau Makart, the great instructor in the art of German Lieder
interpretation, a hard-featured woman who sneered at Italians, Italian
methods and Italian music. Two of her pupils were to appear, and I saw
trouble ahead in the superheated atmosphere.
Crash! went the piano. They're off! hoarsely chuckled a sporting
man next to me, with a wilted collar, and Moszkowski's Nations welled
up from the vicinity of the piano, two young women exploiting their
fingers in its delivery. The talking in the back drawing-rooms went on
furiously, and I saw the hostess coming toward me. I escape her by
edging into the back hall, despite the smothered complaints of my
I got into the doorway, or rather into the angle of a door leading
into the back room. The piano had stopped; while wondering what to do
next my attention was suddenly attracted by a conversation to which I
had to listen; it was impossible to move away. So she is going to
sing, is she? Well, we will see if this great and only true Italian
method will put brains into a fool's head or voice into her chest.
This was said in a guttural voice, the accent being quite Teutonic. A
soprano voice was heard, and I listened as critically as I could. The
voice sang the Jewel Song from Faust, and it seemed to me that its
owner knew something about singing. I understood the words. She sang in
English, and what more do you want in singing?
But the buzz at my left went on fiercely. So the Bujoli calls
that voice-production, does she? Humph! In Germany we wouldn't call
the cows home with such singing. It was surely Frau Makart who spoke.
There was a huge clapping of hands, fans waved, and I heard whispers,
Yes, rather pretty; but dresses in bad taste; good eyes; walks
stiffly. Who is she? What was it she sang?
More chatter. I wriggled away to my first position near the piano,
but not without much personal discomfort. I was allowed to pass
because, for some reason or other, I was supposed to be running the
function. Upon reaching the piano Edith beckoned to me rapidly, and I
slid across the polished floor, where she was talking to that hated
Tompkins, and asked what I could do for her.
Hold my music until I play; that's a good fellow. I hate to be
considered a good fellow, but what could I do? Edith, who seemed to
have recovered her aplomb, continued her conversation with Percy
You know, Mr. Tompkins, Chopin is for me the only composer. You
know, his nocturnes fill me with a sense of nothingnessthe divine
néant, nirvana, you call it. Now, Grünfeld
Tompkins interrupted rudely: Grünfeld can't play Chopin. Give me
the 'Chopinzee.' He plays Chopin. As Schumann says: 'The Chopin
polonaises are cannon buried in flowers,' Now, Grünfeld is a
No poet! said I, indignantly, for I never could admire the chubby
Viennese pianist. Tompkins turned and looked at me, but never noticed
Oh, Miss Wegstaffe, he continued vivaciouslyhow I hated that
vivacitydid you hear that new story about a wit and the young man
who asked him to define George Meredith's position in literature?
'Meredith,' said the other, pompously, 'Meredith is a prose Browning,'
and the young man thanked the great man for this side light thrown on
English letters, when the poet added with a twinkle in his eye,
'Browning himself was a prose Browning.' Now, isn't that delicious,
Miss Wegstaffe; isn't that
A volley of hists-hists and hushes came over the room
as I vainly tried to see the point of Tompkins' story. Every one
laughed at his jokes, but to me they seemed superficial and flippant.
The piano by this time was being manipulated by a practical hand.
Herr Wunderheim, a Bulgarian pianist, was playing what the programme
called a sonata in X dur, by Tschaïkowsky, op. 47, A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
I listened: I didn't understand it all, but I was sitting next to Edith
and would have endured the remainder of the alphabet rather than let
Tompkins gain one point.
The piano thundered and roared; lightning flew over the keys, and we
were of course electrified. Herr Wunderheim jammed the notes in an
astounding manner, and when he reached the letter G the sporting man
said to me in a pious whisper, Thank God! we didn't go to
Haltogether, but near it, my boy, near it! I shrugged my shoulders
and longed for my club.
Mighty was the applause. Herr Wunderheim looked delighted. Mrs.
Wegstaffe, sailing up to the distinguished Bulgarian pianist, said
Dear Herr Wunderheim, charmed, I assure you! We are all charmed;
dear Tschaïkowsky, charming man, charming composer. Dear Walter
Damrosch assured me that he was quite the gentleman; charming music
The pianist grew red in the face. Then, straightening himself quite
suddenly, he said in tones that sounded like a dog barking:
Dot vasn't Schykufski I blayed, lieber madame; dot vas a koprice by
Even the second drawing-room people stopped talking for a minute....
The musicale merrily proceeded. We heard the amateur tenor with the
cravat voice. We heard the society pianist, who had a graceful bow and
an amiable technic; then two of Frau Makart's pupils sang. I couldn't
get near the Italian contingent, but they chattered loudly. One of the
girls sang Dvo[vr]ák's Gute Nacht, and her German made me shiver. The
other tried a Brahms song and everybody talked. I turned to ask Edith
the girl's name but she had goneso had Tompkins.
This angered me but I couldn't get up then. Opposite me was a Yankee
college professoran expert on golfing poetrywho had become famous
by an essay in which he proved that Poe should not have written Poe;
next to me sat a fat lady who said to her daughter as she fanned
herself vigorously, Horrid music, that Brahms. He wrote 'The Rustic
Cavalier,' didn't he? And some nasty critics said it was written by
No, mamma. He wrote more buzzing and I fled upstairs.
The men's room was crowded to suffocation. Everybody was drinking
hard, and old Wegstaffe was telling a story to a group of young men
among whom I recognized the fat author of that affected book How to
play Chopin though Happy. He was pretty far gone.
Shee here, bhoys; thish bloody musicthish classhic musicmakesh
me shickI mean tired. I played Bluebottle for plashe to-day50 to 1
Another bottle was opened.
In a corner they were telling the story of Herr Schwillmun, the
famous pianist who was found crazy with wine in a Fourth Avenue
undertaker's shop trying to play the Dvo[vr]ák Concerto on the lid of a
highly polished coffin. The Finnish virtuoso thought he was in a piano
wareroom. Another lie, I knew, for Schwillmun was most poetic in
appearance and surely not an intemperate man!
Wherever I went I heard nothing but malicious remarks, slurring
accusations and tittle-tattle. Finally I joined a crowd in the upper
hall attracted by the appearance of a white-haired man of intelligent
aspect, who, with kindly smile and abundant gesture was making much
merriment about him. I got close enough to hear what he was saying.
Music in New York! There is none. You fellows ought to work for
your grub, as I do, on a daily, and write up the bosh concerts that
advertise. Humbug, boys; rank humbug! Modern music is gone to the
devil. Brahms was a fraud who patched up a compound of Beethoven and
Schumann, put in a lot of mystifying harmonic progressions, and thought
he was new. Verdi, the later Verdi was helped out by Boito: Just
compare 'Otello' and 'Falstaff' with 'Mefistofele'! Dvo[vr]ák, old
'Borax' as they call him, went in for 'nigger' music and says there's
no future for American music unless it is founded on plantation tunes.
Hence the 'coon' song and its long reign. Tschaïkowsky! Well, that
tartar with his tom-tom orchestra makes me tired; he should have been
locked up in the 'Ha-Ha House.' Rubinstein never could do ten bars of
decent counterpoint. Saint-Saëns, with his symphonic poems, his
Omphalic Roués, is a Gallic echo of Bach and Liszta Bach of the
Boulevards. The English have no composers; the Americans never will
have, and, begad, sir, we're all going to the dogs. Musicrot!
I was shocked. Here was a great critic abusing the gods of modern
music and not a dissenting voice was raised. I determined to do my
duty. I would ask this cynical old man why he belittled his profession.
Sir! said I, raising my voice, but got no further, for a household
servant, whose breath reeked, caught me by the arm and in a whisper
Oh, Mr. Trybill, Miss Edith is a-lookin' for you everywheres and
sent me to tell you as how you're wanted in the music-room. It's her
My heart sank below my boots but I waded downstairs, spoiling many a
tête-à-tête by my haste, for which I was duly and audibly execrated.
Why do people at musicales flirt on the stairs?
Upon reaching the front drawing-room I found Edith taking her seat
at the demon piano. Tompkins was nowhere visible, and I felt relieved.
The guests looked worn out, and knots of men were hanging suspiciously
about the closed doors of the supper room.
The musical part of the entertainment was about over, Edith's solo
being the very last. Suddenly all became still; every one had to listen
to the daughter of the hostess.
She looked positively radiant. Her eyes sparkled, and of her early
nervousness not a trace remained.
Do turn over the leaves nicely, that's a good fellow, Mr.
Trybillagain that odious phraseI feel so happy I'm sure I'll play
well. Naturally, I was flattered at the inference. I was near herthe
darling of my wildest dreams. Of course she would play well, and of
course I would turn over the music nobly.
She began. The piece was Liszt's Polonaise in E. My brave girl, how
proud I felt of her as she began. How she rushed on! I could scarcely
turn the leaves fast enough for my little girl, my wife that was to be.
How sweet her face seemed. I was ravished. I must tell her all
to-night, and she will put her plump little hand in mine and say,
Yes; the sweet little
Bang! Smash, crash-bang! Stupid fellow, I hate you! I awoke as
from a dream. Edith was standing up and in tears. Alas! Fatal dreamer
that I am, I had turned over two pages at once, and trouble ensued, for
Edith never memorized....
As I stood in horrid silence Mrs. Wegstaffe swooped down on Edith
and took her away, saying in a harsh voice, The young man knows
nothing of the divine art! Then the supper signal was sounded, and a
cyclone's fury was not comparable to the rush and crush.
Old Wegstaffe, in a very shaky condition, led a gallant band of
unsteady men in a gallop to the supper room, crying, Bluebottle's the
horsh for me. I lost heart. All my brilliant visions fled. As I stood
alone in the hall Mrs. Wegstaffe triumphantly passed me on the arm of
Herr Wunderheim. She looked at me a moment, then, seeming to pity my
loneliness, leaned toward me, saying in acidulously sweet accents:
Ah, no partner yet, Mr. Trybill? Your first partner is engaged, and
to Mr. Tompkins. Do go in and congratulate him, that's a good fellow.
She swam away in the bedlam of shrieks and clattering of dishes and
knives. I walked firmly upstairs, found my coat and hat, and left the
house forever. It was my first and last experience at that occidental
version of the Hara-Kiri, called a musicale.