Otto Feder – Articles on the Guitar, 1856

Published by Robert Coldwell on

Otto Feder (1820-??), a native of Germany, was a guitarist active in the United States from the mid-1850s to 1869.

Very little is known of his background. He arrived in the US some time before 1855. In 1856 he wrote a series of four articles for the New York Musical World. In 1858 he published a method for the guitar with Oliver Ditson. In 1858 he became professor of modern language, guitar, vocal culture and calisthenics at the Pittsfield Young Ladies Institute, which later became the Maplewood Institute, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1869 apparently returned to Darmstadt, Germany.

1858-07-30 Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, MA)

Here is presented the complete text from his 1856 articles. Note the mentions of Schulz and the vague reference to Regondi.

New York Musical World (Sat, Oct 25, 1856, p. 532)

Articles on the Guitar:

By Otto Feder.

No. I.

New York, Oct. 17 ,1850.

[My Dear Mr. Morand:—I have noticed with great pleasure, that the music published in the Musical World is not limited to Pianoforte pieces and accompaniments, but that the Guitar has also found favor. I conclude from this, that you feel confident of a participation in your taste by a great number of your subscribers. If you think that a few remarks of mine, assuming the shape of a series of articles on the Guitar, would be of interest to your readers, I should be happy to contribute my mite to propagate what I consider a right understanding of the instrument. I enclose the skeleton of an essay in the garb of an introduction, which, if it please you, is at your service.

Yours, with sincere respect, Otto Feder.]

When a musical instrument is recommended to the practice of an amateur, one may often hear it stated with peculiar emphasis, that the instrument in question is a beautiful instrument; while as frequently another, with a view to disparagement, is merely said to be difficult. Seeing these two qualities so strangely contrasted, we might ask:–Is there an instrument, capable of music, that is not both beautiful and difficult?

As regards mechanical difficulties, it is more than probable that, when complete mastery is contemplated, all instruments are difficult alike; for each requires a perfect command over certain muscles, enabling the performer to use them freely, that is, independently of those with which they have a natural tendency to act in concert. The apparent difference between instruments, in this respect, seems merely relative to the physical endowments of the student. Long after these impediments are removed, the musician’s feeling may be uncertain as to the manner of rendering a musical conception, and in this region, difficulties of the mind are encountered, which genius alone can master.

As regards the beautiful—a term so vague might justify a man on the verge of an argument, to look for a definition. Alas, that there should be none within the reach of our philosophy. Yet, from the impossibility of an exact definition we have the satisfaction to infer, that man’s sense of beauty is unlimited, or, in other words, susceptible of an infinite development. With respect to the beauties of music, the public mind must certainly have progressed in sensibility within a few centuries, as appears from the circumstance that, in former times, the singing of solo-parts was a privilege appertaining almost exclusively to high voices; the beauty of the bass, the baritone, and the contralto voice not being so thoroughly recognised as to warrant their introduction as principal features. Even in Shakespeare’s time there must have been a general impression of this kind, for Hamlet asks, with reference to juvenile actors: “Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing?” Showing that, after the age of boyhood, a male voice was not thought fit for singing. We all know better now, and it follows, that since that period, people’s faculty of appreciating the beautiful in the province of music, must have been considerably enlarged.—If this be borne in mind, it seems rather hazardous to bestow the crowning epithet of beautiful upon any one particular instrument exclusively; for each will probably appear to a mind of well-developed musical sensibility as a peculiar means of reflecting beauty; and with reference to their capacity of realizing the ideal of the beautiful, musical instruments may, perhaps, be compared to as many lines starting from different points of the compass toward a common centre, which none of them actually attain; so that the more perfect a performance on one instrument, the more nearly the sensations it produces will resemble those that are awakened by an equally perfect performance on another—each instrument being just imperfect enough to preserve the charm of peculiarity.

Now, though an exclusive preference for one particular vehicle of musical sounds would betray a very limited susceptibility, it cannot be surprising that a certain constitution of the nerves should make a person more keenly alive to the beauties of one instrument than to those of another. Mere association may have much to do with this; for the greater the harmony between the natural disposition of a person, and the images and ideas which an instrument is apt to call to mind, the more powerfully will he be affected by the music it produces. In many cases it may be doubtful whether the charm is principally the result of association, or whether there is something peculiarly sympathetic in the mere sound of the instrument. There is much to be said in favor of the latter supposition.

Listen, for instance, to an Æolian Harp, played upon by the untutored winds of heaven. How thrilling is the effect, when the first sigh of the breeze, translated into music by the trembling chords, invades your ear; a pensive mood steals over you; you seem almost to breathe a perfumed atmosphere, and graceful fancies rise within your brain, without any effort of the imagination. Although the mind soon craves for more definite impressions, yet the first sensations go far in support of the above hypothesis.

Among the instruments whose sound is in itself apt to interest the ear and excite the feelings the Guitar occupies a prominent position. Poets have sung its praise, for an imaginative mind is easily roused by the suggestive whisper of its chords. Its strength lies in the pathetic; its voice, though unobtrusive, entices you listen, and without a commanding volume of tone, its delicate inflections woo and persuade your sensibility, speaking a language like the eye’s, clear, yet vague enough to give full scope to fancy. Its brilliancy, when dexterously brought to light, is of that subdued kind that causes it to compare with other instruments as does the pearl with the ruby or the diamond. It reflects the rays of the central sun of beauty from its particular place in the circle, and in its own; way and it were absurd to expect from it the same color or intensity of musical light that is peculiar to some other instrument. Its beauty is peculiar, yet if properly set forth is sure to be appreciated by every mind whose sense of the beautiful is not narrowly limited in its proportions.

Its management as a solo instrument must be very skilful and delicate; the former, because any failure in one of the parts cannot be easily concealed by a super abundance of tone in the others; the latter, from the character of the music to which the Guitar is best adapted. This music may be infinitely diversified in form and substance; it may touch upon every chord of sympathy that vibrates in the human heart; but its character as a composition should always be tinctured with a dash of that feeling, which the peculiar tone of the instrument is apt to arouse. This peculiarity of tone is chiefly the result of the action of the soft fingers upon the strings without the intervention of any kind of mechanism. The simplicity of this mode of producing the tone gives room for all the varieties of touch so much aspired after by performers on the pianoforte, and compensates by the sweetness of sound for the want of the superior facility afforded in other respects by the keyboard of that instrument.

Though difficult, the Guitar can no more be said to be pre-eminently so than other instruments, for the reasons above stated. They all require years of patient practice before any masterly display of their qualities can be attempted. It is, therefore, only when mere mediocrity is contemplated, or when physical conditions interfere, that the difficulty of mechanical execution becomes a point of importance.

Whatever charm romantic associations can impart to an instrument, so signally appertains to the Guitar, that it is conceded by general consent, and makes any further comment on that part of the subject unnecessary. I may therefore next proceed to consider the instrument and its proper treatment somewhat more in detail.

[To be continued.]

New York Musical World (Sat, Nov 1, 1856, p. 555-556)

Articles on the Guitar:

By Otto Feder.

No. II.

It is perfectly natural, that the treatment of an instrument which in many countries of Europe is to be met with under almost every roof, from the palace to the cottage, should be considerably modified according to the national character, the musical taste of the people, and the purpose it is made to serve. Thus, two different methods of playing the Guitar have originated, which are known by the name of the Spanish style, and the Italian or German style.

The Spaniards who frequently appeal to the Guitar for music wherewith to enliven their national dances, have cultivated a kind of touch which elicits a piercing and wiry tone from the strings, to match the clatter of the castagnets and mark the measures of their Boleros and Fandangos. A shrill tone is, under these circumstances, a greater object than a sympathetic touch, so that the Castilian Guitarero, when playing for the dance, seems to have no troublesome regard for other things, not even for the prohibition of consecutive fifths, and similar scruples relating to progression in harmony. He, accordingly, sweeps across the strings with his nails, and proceeds from one chord to another in the most straightforward and expeditions manner.— Not so with the Italians and Germans, who are trained to greater respect for the rules of counterpoint and seem also to incline with more constancy to the cantabile and arioso than to the strains adapted to Spanish dances. They touch the strings with the fleshy part of the finger, to combine sweetness with force, and subject the right hand to a careful schooling in the practice of scale sand arpeggios, as performed on the Pianoforte or Harp.

The Spanish style of playing has been the means of introducing a number of so-called effects into Guitar music; such as promenading the nails backwards and forwards on the strings; imitating the drum; and other comicalities, inconsistent with serious and regular compositions. Unfortunately, the facility with which such tricks are acquired, has spread the practice of them far and wide, and caused the instrument to sink, not only in the eyes of sober musicians, but also in the opinion of the public generally, who soon grow tired of a performance which speaks neither to the heart nor to the understanding. Thus, many persons have been brought to believe, that the Guitar is actually incapable of classical music; an impression which would soon be removed, if the Guitarists of the Spanish school would play more of the compositions of the Spanish maestro, Sor, who ranks among the best composers for that instrument.

It is strange, however, to think how much even Sor must have labored under the influence of early impressions and examples. He seems to have had no faith in the good effect of florid passages, rapid scales, and well sustained divisions in thirds, sixths, and octaves, such as you encounter in every concerto for the Violin, Harp, or Piano, and all this, most probably, because the Spaniards play more from the wrist of the right hand than from the roots of the fingers, which rather favors a summary dealing with chords than a sure command of touch in elaborate passages and embroideries. Hence the left hand is severely tasked in Sor’s compositions, whereas, its companion, though generally more gifted by nature, is let off comparatively easy.–Having thus limited himself in the means of execution, the genius of Sor had to provide a compensation by intrinsic beauty of thought, originality and correct writing. The performance of his works is not dependent on any particular kind of touch.

The Spanish method of playing, it should be observed, is not without its charms, when the ear is once accustomed to the nasal tingling of the strings; and the coryphei of that school, such as Huerta, have astonished and delighted their peninsular audiences, to ecstasy. The great objection to it is, firstly, that, by interposing a hard medium—the nails—between the nerves of touch and the strings, it destroys the principal feature— sweetness—which, when the Guitar is compared with the Pianoforte, atones in some measure for the absence of certain facilities for execution which the complicated mechanism of the keys present, and, in the second place, from being ill adapted to promote a regular discipline of the right hand, it is apt to lead to the effects already mentioned which, in their turn, tend to corrupt the taste and to degrade the instrument.

The opposite school was, in the early part of this century, headed by Mauro Giuliani, an Italian, residing chiefly at Vienna, whose compositions seem to have established the Guitar as a regular concert-instrument, which he treated, in accordance with its structure, as a compound of the Violin and Harp. The interpretation of his concertos requires a perfect development of both hands. His adherents, therefore, support the right hand by planting the little finger on the sound-board, not only to keep the hand steady and to secure an unerring aim at the strings, but also to enable the fingers to strike with the extreme edge of the point, which produces the best tone, and to oblige them to act independently of the wrist, acquiring in this manner the suppleness and strength without which the certain execution of brilliant passages would appear impossible. He was one of the most fertile writers for the Guitar, and, as a performer, seems to have been without a rival in his lifetime.

It is asserted, that Sor frowned upon Giuliani on account of his style as being detrimental to the beauties of the Guitar. If the saying is true, it only shows, that the struggle between the conservative and the revolutionary spirit is carried on in every sphere to which the activity of the human mind extends. Giuliani has the merit of having enlarged the scope of the instrument so far, that comparatively little could be added to it after him. All that could be done in this direction has been accomplished by Leonard Schulz, a native of Vienna, residing for many years in London. The traditions of the days of Giuliani were transmitted to him almost before they had become traditions, and he continued the work commenced by that great master with a genius which, if possible, overtopped that of his predecessor. Both as a composer and a performer he stands first, and compels the most determined sceptics to admit that, “if played like that, the Guitar is a beautiful instrument indeed!” The secret of his success lies not only in his perfect execution, or in his exqusitely [sic] tasteful delivery, but also in the merits of his compositions. His original works come mostly within the difinition [sic] of good Guitar-music given in the preceding article.

Those who intend to cultivate this instrument should, besides emulating a style of playing which, instead of appealing to national sympathies for effect, promises to qualify them eventually for the performance of serious music, be very careful in the selection of material for practice. There are moments in the period of musical apprenticeship when the Student becomes thoroughly discouraged and feels inclined to give up his attempts in despair; it is evident that, at such times, unmeaning trivialities dignified by the name of exercises or pieces, are not calculated to re-animate his zeal or to rouse his ambition. He ought to fortify his patience by thinking of the labor required by other instruments, and having mastered the elementary difficulties, he should study a selection from the works of Sor, Giuliani, and Schulz, which will not only develop his physical resources, but increase his respect for the instrument as he becomes more intimately acquainted with it.

The Guitar lends itself very readily to accompaniments, especially of the voice, blending so easily with it, that a few notes which would hardly be a tolerable support if played on the Pianoforte, will do perfectly well, if proceeding from the Guitar. This seems to prove that the quality of its tone stands, to a great ex tent, in lieu of fulness of chords and volume of sound. The quality in question, however, is materially deteriorated when the strings are struck with the nails, so that this kind of touch lessens the legitimate effect of the instrument even when used merely for accompaniment, which is a further reason for deprecating the practice of it.

It is chiefly through its facilities for accompaniments that the Guitar has found its way into the hands of the people of Germany and Italy; in this manner, it has done perhaps more towards refining the masses there, than any other instrument; and it is a great point in its favor, that, whilst it amply repays the pains which a working man can bestow on it, it affords room for the display of all the powers of an artist.

[To be continued.]

New York Musical World (Sat, Nov 8, 1856, p. 579)

Articles on the Guitar:

By Otto Feder.

No. III.

One of the principal reasons why the Guitar is sometime said to be ungrateful as a solo-instrument is, that the tone commonly drawn from it, is comparatively thin and weak. There is a certain degree of fulness and power of sound requisite to give effect to a solo performance by affording a sufficient latitude for a distinctly recognisable variety of pianos and fortes. If we look for the cause from which the Guitar often appears deficient in this respect, we shall find it principally in the inferior quality of the instruments ordinarily in use, and not in the Guitar as such. It is true that the improvements which have been attempted from time to time, had for their sole object an increased volume of sound, which shows, that richness of tone was considered the weak side of the Guitar. Some have sought to solve the problem by placing the instrument on a hollow pedestal of brass; others have imagined the remedy to consist in a huge size of the body of the Guitar; some have made that body very deep; others, very shallow; again, experiments were made with a peculiar kind of strings; etc, etc.; but all, so far, with out any striking result. The latest and probably real improvement, which in its skilful application promises to accomplish all that is desired, seems to be that known as Tilton’s improvement, which tends to relieve the soundboard of the longitudinal strain of the strings, giving it thereby more liberty for uniform vibration.

The necessity for increasing the power of the Guitar is, however, chiefly felt, when it is played in the concert-room, where a moist and heated atmosphere, affecting the material of the upper strings, is apt to damp the sound and to impede it in various ways; so that, unless the hall is built on acoustic principles, and the instrument is of a very superior kind, its notes do not fill the vast space with those energetic vibrations which the ear is accustomed to expect in such localities. As to the drawing-room, it must be a poor instrument indeed which cannot assert itself there. Yet even this is often the case, and naturally enough; for how can it be expected that an instrument which is bought for a few dollars should bear any comparison with one that sometimes costs forty or fifty times as much. It is the very popularity of the Guitar that operates against it in this respect, for in order to meet the wholesale demand, a very inferior article is manufactured, which has lowered the general standard and obliged the makers to study cheapness rather than excellence. The evil consequences of this state of things result not only in a direct reduction of the capacity for sound; they extend so far as to interfere with the facility of playing, which re-acts unfavorably on the tone both in regard to power and quality. Not only is the proper height of the strings, that is the distance between them and the sound and fingerboard, frequently disregarded, but the fingerboard itself, and the neck, to which it is attached, are often very clumsy contrivances. It would be difficult to describe exactly how the neck ought to be shaped, the main feature being a certain curve which is partly regulated by a due proportion of breadth and thickness, favoring the action of the hand, and which can readily be felt, but not correctly conveyed without a diagram. The breadth of the finger board, the curve of its surface, the spaces between the frets, the frets themselves, all these, and many other things which might fill a technical pamphlet, and which affect the performance, and consequently the tone, in a very high degree, are neglected in the manufacture of cheap Guitars. No wonder, then, that there should be a lack of fulness and strength of tone, where so little is done to promote either.

The second objection made to the Guitar as a solo instrument is the alleged excessive difficulty encountered in mechanical execution. As the act of playing involves a manual effort which on the part of the left hand differs entirely from that of the right, each hand must be considered separately.

The left hand has to prepare the notes by shortening or stopping the strings at the frets. This produces, at first, an unpleasant sensation in the points of the fingers, until they are inured to their task. To take this into account, however, would be trifling; nor does the weakness which generally clogs the action of the fingers in the beginning, deserve a more serious consideration, for a few weeks’ practice will show how rapidly these obstacles may be overcome. The difficulty of stretching the fingers to their prescribed places, is a more weighty matter; but if we remember how much is accomplished in this respect on the Violin or Violoncello, where there are no frets to assist in finding and stopping the notes, the fear of this drawback will easily subside.

In fact, though the labor alotted to the left hand seems, at first, calculated to absorb all the energies of the student, he will soon discover that the real difficulties have to be mastered by the right hand. The difficulties are increased, when the performer, as is but too often the case, has no clear idea of the fingering of scales. Chords almost finger themselves for either hand; for where two, three, or more notes are to be stopped or played simultaneously, there is but little choice as to the fingers to do it with; but quick passages in single notes must be fingered in various ways, according to circumstances. The fingering of the left hand is then ruled by a consideration of smooth connection of notes stopped in different regions of the fingerboard; and that of the right hand, by the necessity of alternating the fingers on consecutive notes, and proceeding, at the same time, from one string to the other in a manner which, as far as possible, conforms to the natural disposition of the hand. Thus, for instance, we should, in an ascending series of notes, step from one string to the other up wards by using for the first note on the higher string one of the right-side neighbors of that finger which has struck the last note on the lower; so that the progression from string to string is fingered; 1st, 2d; or 1st, 3d; or 2d, 3d; etc.; but not 2d, 1st; or 3d, 2d; or the like. In descending, the inverse order ought to be observed.

It is true, that this plan cannot always be strictly adhered to, chiefly on account of the notes of the accompaniment, but it forms nevertheless a basis for a system of fingering which seems, as yet, to be understood by a few only, and strange to say, is not even hinted at in any of the instruction-books hitherto published. If this system is adhered to, there is no reason why a rapid execution of scales should be impracticable. And since the six strings of the Guitar, embracing ſour octaves, when the ordinary harmonies are taken into account, are so tuned as to admit of a correct modulation in four parts through the twenty-four keys, and considering, that for single and double stops its facilities are much greater than those of the bow-instruments, whilst the strings are under the immediate control of the left hand—a circumstance which is invaluable as a means of expression—it is difficult to imagine, why a good Guitar should be so limited in resources as to deserve being called an ungrateful instrument.

[To be continued.]


New York Musical World (Sat, Nov 15, 1856, p. 605)

Articles on the Guitar:

By Otto Feder.

No. IV.

If after the preceding remarks it should be conceded, that the Guitar is not necessarily incapable of repaying the trouble of practising it, and that the disadvantages under which it seemed to labor, are merely the natural consequences of bad manufacture, bad style of playing, and bad fingering, it may yet with justice be observed, that the music generally played on it, is far below the standard of ordinary instrumental music. Here again, the fault lies not with the instrument itself.

The most eminent performers on the Guitar happened to be precisely those who have since been recognized as the most gifted composers for this instrument. They, very naturally, wrote, in the first instance, for themselves, and rarely condescended to take the exigencies of average talent into account. They wrote occasionally for their pupils, but the exercises intended for them were not only very few in number, but the greater part thereof show, that the writers had ceased to be aware of what the student considers as mechanical difficulties. As the Guitar came more and more into favor, the want of proper material for tuition was felt, and an array of inferior talent started forward to supply the demand. A host of names, especially of Italians, became thus familiar to Guitarists whose repertories were, however, not materially enriched by the acquaintance, in as much as a few stray ideas of sterling value, brought to light under their auspices, were smothered in volumes of unpardonable insipidities. Amateurs, who could not be expected have the experience, or the discrimination, necessary to select the few grains of wheat from the great accumulation of chaff, would, unless guided by conscientious masters, study compositions whose worthlessness became apparent in the same ratio in which time and patience were wasted upon them, until they were finally thrown aside in disgust.

Another evil soon joined the first. It became the fashion to arrange the popular music of the day for the Guitar, in imitation of the Pianoforte. Overtures, of which the Harpsichord could scarcely give a faint sketch, were arranged for one or two Guitars, and not very long ago, an excellent Guitarist in London arranged and played in public Thalberg’s Fantasia on “the Huguenots.” [ed. this might have been Regondi] It would hardly be more preposterous to arrange a Harp solo for the Flute. It will be easily understood that, in writing for any particular instrument, the composer takes the peculiarities of its structure, etc., into account, and endeavors to convert these peculiarities into a means for effect; if then the same piece be transcribed for another instrument, it is selfevident that, some rare coincidences excepted, the arrangement can, at best, be only a shadow of the original. Attempts of this kind frequently do harm in various ways. In the first place, they often give a hopeless direction to the energy and talent of the transcriber; next, they are apt to disappoint and discourage the student,; and finally, they block up the way of more useful and judicious productions.

When the tide of popular favor had been stemmed in this manner, the feeble policy of writing childish pieces for the sake of facility, could not re-animate the current. The leading artists adhered to their cherished method of composing for the gifted few, and the gap between ordinary Guitar-music and the standard works became wider and wider. This has been for a long time a source of trouble and annoyance to scrupulous teachers, who scarcely knew where to turn for good assortments of exercises calculated for the various capacities of their pupils. Those that were able to compose examples and little pieces resorted to this expedient for the especial use of private persons, and occasionally such productions were printed; but the quantity of unsaleable because worthless publications already on hand, producing a sort of stagnation, stood and stand yet greatly in the way of such undertakings, so that not even a careful compilation and progressive classification of the valuable studies actually in existence has yet been laid before the public. Consequently the paths that might lead a zealous student out of the sphere of tiresome monotony into more classical regions, are so obstructed with useless material, that to those who have no opportunities of looking beyond, the reproach mentioned above must seem but too well founded.

To clear the way, and place the Guitar on a level with its fellows, it would be necessary to consign two thirds of the music published for it to oblivion. The pure metal when cleared from the dross, would for a need be sufficient to satisfy the demand for the purposes of refined enjoyment: but the clearing process requires, above all, the introduction of new and genuine substance imbued with the subtle spirit of the age, to decompose and eliminate the mass of unprofitable matter which now acts as a dead weight on every spring that might give an impulse to reform.

When reviewing the history of music generally, we find that, while the sincere votaries of the art endeavor to steer in the direction or the intrinsically beautiful, there are others who seek to attain distinction by mechanical feats, flattering the sense of wonder rather than the sense of music; but the Guitar music alluded to is not even qualified to answer the latter end, much less the former; whilst it impoverishes the taste, it fails to develop manual dexterity and therefore deservedly meets with the contempt of every competent Professor. As soon as a more vigorous style succeeds in asserting itself, combining the richness and originality with the elegance and polish appertaining to the instrumental music of our day, many a stately pile of “stock music” must come under the less pretentious but more appropriate denomination of “waste paper.”

It requires but little penetration to see, that the sooner this change takes place, the better it will be for all parties interested in a just appreciation of the Guitar. It would seem, that particularly in this country, where the taste for music is being diffused so rapidly, and where, at the same time, the migratory propensity of the people is so very active, a portable instrument combining the powers of harmony and melody, adapted for accompaniment and solo playing, would soon become a general favorite, if the way to a respectable proficiency were made a little smoother and straighter than it has hitherto been. This might easily be effected, if Professors who possess the talent for composition, instead of yielding to the indolent habit of preparing superficial arrangements, were to exert their powers in the production of pleasing original works of reasonable difficulty, for the benefit of ordinary students, taking care that the progress, or tasteful innovations, exhibited on other instruments, be turned to account for their own, without either indulging in mere plagiarism, or losing sight of what is really practicable on the Guitar.

The period during which this branch of music has lain comparatively dormant, has been protracted enough to grace its revival with the charm of novelty. The efforts tending to that end would now be materially favored by the facilities with which the best instruments can be obtained; for the first-class Guitars manufactured in the United States are certainly equal, if not superior to those of the best makers in Europe.

If under these circumstances the cause here advocated should not flourish as well as it deserves, it will not be for any fault in the instrument, but in consequence of erroneous views or inadequate measures adopted by those who write for, or profess to teach it.

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