The Music Lover And The Higher Law
( Originally Published 1911 )
The good of all ages who have been imbued with a passion for righteousness, have never hesitated to spend themselves generously for the cause they loved, the advancement of goodness; nor should those who care for what is beautiful ever hesitate to give themselves as liberally to make beauty prevail in the world- BLISS CARMAN, The Poetry of Life.
In the foregoing pages I have endeavored to show the amateur, who begins with no knowledge of musical theory, some of the principles of musical design and expression. I have tried to correct the common opinion that nothing is needed in the culture of the listener except frequent association with beautiful works and the frank surrender to immediate impressions. I trust also that I have succeeded in demonstrating that a knowledge that will immensely increase the permanent benefits to be derived from music can be obtained by any one who is ignorant of musical science, by following methods which are applied, mutatis mutandis, to the study of the arts of design.
There still remains a doubt in the minds of many earnest people, who will refuse to entertain the claims of art unless they can see that it makes a positive contribution to moral and intellectual progress. What has it to do with conduct? they will ask. How does it help one to meet the practical issues of every day? Does it give steadfastness to one's higher purposes? Are the hours which its votaries dedicate to it a preparation for faithful service in the world, or are they an indulgence which tends to weaken the will and promote a selfish indifference to the prosaic commonplace interests upon which, nevertheless, the health of the community depends? Is not the passion for art, when given free scope, mentally and morally injurious, or at best ethically neutral, because it tempts one by visions of exquisite ,delight away from the active duties and the larger sympathies?
These questions, which are constantly raised an respect to art and to aesthetic culture, seem at first sight to apply more directly to music than to the representative arts and literature. The latter are more closely connected with constant life and with mental and moral ideas. They bring life and its permanent activities directly before us. We can-not resist the thought that they are designed to instruct as well as to give pleasure, to bring the consciousness into contact with physical or mental energies as well as to make the sensibilities more delicate. They unite the world of outer experience directly with the inner world of emotion. A large acquaintance with life, therefore, seems necessary for their full appreciation.
Music, on the other hand, remains enclosed in a palace of its own creation, which seems almost like a prison so excluded is it from the world of change and conflict. It is in the world, but apparently not of it. It seems at times little more than a fair illusion; to us, as to Jean Paul Richter, it tells of that which we have not seen and shall not see. When Matthew Arnold proclaims his famous dictum that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life the application of ideas to life even if we re fuse to accept it as a complete statement, we confess that it contains a large measure of truth. If he had also applied the same test to painting and sculpture we should not reject it utterly. But no one, I think, would assert that music is a criticism of life the application of ideas to life. Arnold's further claim that "the substance and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness," would again not be wholly inapplicable to the other representative arts, but could hardly be made for music. Seriousness, yes; but to speak of truth in connection with music would be to use a term without meaning unless we apply to music Keats's declaration, questionable elsewhere, that "beauty is truth, truth beauty." It is, therefore, hardly a cause for surprise that Paytone+Ones and moralists often look with suspicion upon the fascinations of music, and would restrict musical indulgence on intellectual and ethical grounds, or else would insist that some practical counter interest should be at hand to neutralize the spell which the enticing goddess of sound throws over her adorers. William James has thus solemnly spoken from his professorial pulpit: "The habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves nor musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a street car, if nothing more heroic offers but let it not fail to take place."
Professor Vida Scudder assumes a still more austere mien as she brings this sweeping charge: "There is a class to whom the stimulus offered by music is on the whole a demoralizing influence. In their quiet and well ordered existence, where the sensational must be found not in external events, but in subjective experience, the thirst for a subtle form of emotional excitement becomes the dominant motive of life. If the end of life be purposeful activity and the function of emotion be simply to stimulate to action then it must be seen that among the influences to which the oversensitive nature can subject itself there is none more dangerous and pernicious than music. For, more than any other power on earth, music arouses emotion without furnishing any hint of an end to which the emotion shall be directed."
This would be a formidable indictment if its premises and its implications in regard to the nature and consequences of the musical experience could be wholly accepted. As a general principle it is undoubtedly true that the end of life is purposeful activity, but surely this does not mean that we should be in a condition of physical or mental restlessness every hour of our waking existence. As it is the duty of some to think in solitude while others perform in the great world's eye, so there is a time in each man's life for escape from the duties that grind and wear, and from the emotions that know no peace until they have gone forth in action. There is a place for contemplation, for the refreshment that follows a visitation of heavenly beauty, for the inward happiness which may indeed strengthen us for purposeful activity when the proper time for it comes, but which our instinct tells us is a worthy and wholesome thing in itself, regardless of ulterior aims. In poetry, in art, in music there is, in Bliss Carman's words, "a power that stills our superficial, unnecessary self and allows our wiser, deeper self a moment or an hour of free-dom." James implies that the first duty after a musical experience is to forget it as soon as possible, implicitly denying that one carries away from the concert hall anything that can profitably be re-lived in memory and become a restorer of the jaded spirit for the next day's toil. Music is an expression of life, and the works of the great composers are the projection of the spirit of men who thought deeply, wrought heroically, and imparted to their music the strength they won from conflict with the baffling mysteries and the stern oppositions of the world. "To quicken our life into a higher consciousness through the feelings is the function of art," said Professor Dowden, and every one who takes music seriously and has come to understand its breadth and height would indignantly combat an assertion that music does not possess this quickening power. "The emotions which I experience while hearing music," says John Addington Symonds in his Diary, "in beautiful scenery, before fine pictures, in cathedrals, at the thought of noble men these enable me to understand and to en-joy, intensify the glow of life, and raise me to a higher sphere." Any one who feels in himself this consequence of great music need not distress his soul with fears that his active energy will thereby be undermined.
It must nevertheless be confessed that there is a side of aesthetic indulgence in which peril lurks, and no honest lover of art will refuse to face the di-lemma. On this subject a few things may perhaps profitably .be said. In the first place these perils are not confined to music, and there is a rank in-justice in singling her out as a more dangerous seducer than her sisters. Certain writers are fond of asserting the superiority of poetry, painting, and sculpture to music because, as one of them declares, "they give us ideas to apprehend as well as beauty to enjoy." There is nothing more profitless than discussions over the superiority or inferiority of one art to another, but it may be asked, what is it for which; h the world has always adored art its "ideas" or its beauty? The harm that the art enthusiast may incur is in a too passionate love of the sensuous, in detaching a special beauty from its proper relation to life, and in so concentrating his gaze on a superficial fascination as to permit it to hypnotize him and paralyze his will. It is a matter of record that this evil is as often found in a devotion to poetry and the arts of design as to music, and the fact that they are more directly connected with actual Iife does not make their enchantments any less malign. I am not alluding to their ability to corrupt by actual representation, but rather to the tendency of the art voluptuary to yield to that subtle, deceiving form of self-indulgence which exhausts his sympathy with the toils and sorrows of his. fellow men while he imagines he is cultivating the finest capacities of his nature. D'Annunzio, in his novel, II Piacere, has vividly portrayed in Andrea Spirelli a nature whose moral decadence had been accelerated by his surrender to the utmost allurements of the senses. "Urbanity, atticism, love of all delicacies, predilection for singular studies, aesthetic curiosity, refined gallantry were hereditary qualities in the house of Spirelli." Following his father's maxim that "one must make one's own life as one Takes a work of art," Andrea had adopted as his one aim in life the ambition to develop his sensitiveness to impressions at every cost. Penetrated, impregnated with art, thirsty for pleasure, tortured by an ideal, by nature and education abhorring pain, he was vulnerable every-where. "In the tumult of contradictory inclinations he had lost all volition and all morality. The will, in abdicating, had yielded her sceptre to the instincts, and the aesthetic sense was substituted for the moral sense." Eventually corruption did in him its perfect work.
Andrea Spirelli is by no means an isolated phenomenon in modern literature. In fact romancers of recent times, especially the French, seem to take an almost morbid pleasure in depicting the causes, progress, and results of those spiritual maladies that arise from over-indulgence in delicate specialized sensations. And it is not in fiction alone that we meet examples of moral decline accompanied by the most exquisite aesthetic sensibility. The lives of such men as Alfred de Musset, Paul Verlaine, and Ernest Dowson illustrate the dire possibilities that attend the cult of that form of beauty whose sacraments are not consecrated by virtue and administered in holy fear. There are also more robust spirits than those I have named, men and women whose ideals of art have been lofty and whose labors have been of lasting benefit to society, yet in whose lives there have been episodes that point an equally salutary if less melancholy moral. So numerous are the instances of intense artistic activity coupled with indifference to certain generally accepted ethical sanctions, that it is not strange that many should incline to the belief that it is the natural tendency of the aesthetic passion to undermine the foundations of the sterner virtues.
Such a conclusion is grossly exaggerated and can be held only in company with a superficial view of the nature of art and its history. It cannot be denied, however, that there are peculiar temptations against which the art enthusiast and the artist also should be fortified. The artist and the art lover live in an ideal world, and their elevation above the prosaic routine of ordinary life seems often to lift them above the conventional virtues and obligations. Examples of ethical unconcern in union with superior artistic achievement occur most conspicuously in those periods of art, such as the Renaissance and the nineteenth century romantic epoch, when all the conditions stimulated an in-tense individualism. In periods such as that of the Gothic architecture and sculpture, where the artist works upon general ideas and hides himself in production of a common type, the artist's temper is serene because he feels no antagonism. The artists of the Renaissance and the romantic period, on the other hand, were in arms against an established order, and the latter especially, in defying traditional authority and asserting independence in emotion and its expression, were frequently led into revolt against social usages which seemed to them involved in the Philistinism against which they waged a sort of holy war. License in matters of conduct seemed to them a logical corollary from the freedom of thought which they rightly claimed. A somewhat similar error will beguile the eager connoisseur if he is not on his guard. Even when actual moral relaxation does not ensue, there may be a luxurious abandonment to a one-sided culture which entails impatience with humdrum responsibilities, and eventually an enervation of that motive force that is needed for the efficient performance of commonplace domestic and social duties. The art voluptuary is always in danger of falling into that state of which Gautier speaks when he says of Gιrard de Nerval that "the progressive invasion of dreams had gradually rendered it impossible for him to live in an environment where realities move."
The life of an artist offers a compensation for his frequent loss of hold upon . external fact; he puts his emotion into form, he creates an-other fact; often so pure and lovely that his own detachment becomes a virtue because it is a necessary condition of a productiveness so beneficial. The dilettante, on the other hand, receives and enjoys at the cost of another's toil, while himself producing nothing. He often sinks into a state in which effort, for the time being at least, would he a burden, and the very work that was brought into existence with labor and pain may become to him a cause of languor and apathy.
Does this homily, it may be asked, at all concern the music lover? Is there any risk in the musical infatuation equal to that which often lies in the other aesthetic cravings? On one side of the indictment a defense can be entered. The fact that "music arouses emotion without furnishing any hint of an end to which the emotion shall be directed," in-stead of constituting an especial snare, it seems to me comes near being a saving grace. Poetry and painting present to the imagination and the sight not only emotions, but objects and ends. This mu-sic cannot do. I am aware that many hold the belief that music can be moral or immoral, religious or irreligious per se. This is an error that is closely related. to the notion that music alone can represent or describe actual concrete objects and definite sentiments. The demoralizing influence which some ascribe to the music of certain operas is not in the music, but (if it exists at all) in the texts and situations. A degrading idea may be associaated with a musical strain,. but the probability is that this idea will fade away when the music is re-called. Music has a wonderful cleansing property. Professor George Santayana's statement that "art registers passions without stimulating them," and that "in stopping to depict them it steals away their life," while somewhat in excess of the truth in respect to literature and the representative arts, is very near the truth in respect to music. It is doubtful if music has the power of registering passion; it can hardly even suggest it unless one is predetermined to find it there. Certain it is that music often throws over an unworthy theme a veil of such magical illusion that ugliness is turned into beauty, vice into purity. It is her glory that when permitted to act in freedom her communications are always innocent. We may call music good or bad, but we mean that it is well or ill composed. We may call it strong or weak, noble or trivial, refined or coarse, but we use these terms in a musical sense, not attaching to them any notion of approbation or disapprobation on ethical grounds. Sensuous de-sire and gross intrigue disappear from Beaumarchais's "Marriage of Figaro" when Mozart exorcizes the evil spirit by the touch of his happy, guile-less music. Many people find it hard to accept these statements; the music has become so blended in their minds with the idea or picture that has been arbitrarily attached to it that they impute the effect of one to the other. Moreover, those who philosophize are often more prone to imagine experiences of others than to make an exact study of their own.
All this seems to me so plain that when I find even learned musical critics imputing ethical or unethical qualities to abstract music without words, scene, or even title, I confess myself sorely bewildered: A well known writer of our day finds Chopin's music "saturated with the color and mood of sex." Schumann's D minor symphony is " that obvious autobiography of triumphant love." Notice the word "obvious." Brahms, Liszt, Raff, Tchaikovsky "were thrall beyond any other allegiance to the persuasions of sexual emotion; music makers haunted and enchained by the glamour of the erotic." The writer is not offering this as a mere subjective impression the erotic music of these men, he asserts, "makes no concealment, as it admits no doubt of its origin." Is there not here an odd jumble of psychologic and aesthetic confusions? The music of Brahms (Brahms the austere, Brahms the academic, so often pedantic, so often, we must confess it, dull) making no concealment and admitting no doubt of its origin in sexual emotion! Perhaps, also, certain music is pea-green, while other music smells of heliotrope or garlic, such asseverations have been solemnly made. There is harm in such lucubrations as I have quoted because they mislead many confiding music lovers, persuading them, it may be, that poison lurks in a thing that is really pure, and this is almost as reprehensible a disservice as to persuade one that a harmful thing is innocent. A unique property of music is in that plasticity which enables it to take whatever stamp the fancy may choose to impress upon it. It suffers the hearer to conjure up what-ever imagery his temperament or his theory may suggest; but when he is enthralled by visions that seem to him to assume reality within this tone world of magic, let him consider that he is en-tangled, like Merlin, in spells of his own weaving.
In this realm of the impalpable, toward which music so smilingly beckons, there may be pitfalls concealed among the flowers. But we shall not escape them by wholly misconceiving their nature.
When we speak of an emotion without an object, objectionable because there is no outlet afforded for instant action, we are in danger of falling into the trap that lies in an uncertain meaning given to the word emotion. To feel pity at the sight of real suffering, and then let it evaporate in tearful regret taking no trouble to relieve, such abortive emotion is more likely to weaken than fortify the character. But when we use the word emotion to signify the mental stirring before a work of art, it carries very different connotations. The feelings aroused by a drama are not the feelings that would be aroused by corresponding incidents in real life. The illusionized spectator in the story, who leaped upon the stage to assault the successful villain, quite misunderstood the province of art. The murder of Desdemona has not the horror of reality. The loves of Antony and Cleopatra do not tempt us to emulation of their unholy excess; and it is not the warning of the tragic consequence that defeats the evil suggestion, but the intellectualizing, idealizing power of poetry. It is hardly correct to say that the emotion felt in musk and other noble art has no end to which it may be directed. It is itself an end in the same sense that a religious emotion is itself an end. No one is reasonably required to turn every high mood into an instantaneous impulse to action. If this mood, whether it comes from music or any other pure source, makes one to any extent or in any particular a better man, then a worthy end is served. The deeds will follow.
When the proper occasion comes for them. And so music, while it may not arouse a zeal for speedy effort, may yet have other offices not less worthy. Through its power to soothe and refresh, to symbolize what is pure and holy, to promote the social consciousness by effecting, a sense of fellowship with others in a refined experience, to brace the mind for coming duties by the tonic of joy, to lighten care and soften the hardness of adversity through these blessed ministries has music earned the praises which the wise ones of the earth have always lavished upon her as an inspiring ally in moral culture and humanitarian progress. When a man feels himself thus exalted by music, when the glow of tenderness pervades his being as he goes home from a concert hall, he should not be ready to banish the impression. Even so kindly an act as speaking genially to his aunt would be wrong for him were it to bring him down abruptly from the soul's height which, as Wordsworth reminds us, is so difficult to keep.
In view of the conditions that prevail in this country and the mental habits of our people, it does not appear that either music or any other form of art is destined soon to become an influence that makes for social anemia. But we may reach that point at last. If one uses art in such a way that it becomes a de-intellectualizing agency, to the demoralizing stage is only a step. The national reproach lies in the fact that, while we are beginning to encourage art, we use it as a detail in our pursuit of ostentation and pleasure, not for the incorporation of noble ideals or as an element in the dissemination of such ideals among the various ranks of society. We have not learned to take art seriously; we have no distinct knowledge of the purpose that the arts, when made a part of religion and patriotic aspiration, have fulfilled in history; we have no resolute ambition to bring them into the deeper currents of our life. A superficial dilettantism is still characteristic of many who take notice of art, while the attitude of the great majority is that of stupid disrespect. It may be that this indifference is slowly giving way, but if so the danger is that those who leave the crowd of the obtuse and join the circle of the amateurs will do so with-out bringing with them any very stern determination to use art as a means of adding to the true riches of the soul. The gain is not great if there is merely a multiplication of the horde that sees only the sensuous side of art, skimming its surface for a taste of momentary delectation, finding nothing that strengthens the understanding or reinforces the agencies that make for enlightenment and virtue.
So far as music is concerned (and the rules of health are the same in all the arts) the individual's safeguard against the enfeeblement which may result from over-indulgence in the sweets of this most intoxicating of aesthetic enjoyments is, it seems to me, twofold. In the first place we may say, paraphrasing a well known maxim respecting the evils of democracy, that the cure for the possible ills of music is more music. By this I mean more music of the highest order, together with a preparation of mind that enables one to discriminate between the qualities that fade and the qualities that endure, and an artistic conscience that refuses to find satisfaction in work that is not sincerely felt and skilfully wrought. Anything less than this is injustice to one's self, injustice to the art, and injustice to the musician who asks that he shall not be exposed to the temptation of degrading his work in order that he may live.
In the second place, the conscientious amateur will escape the danger that lies in wait for those who are too much at ease in the musical Zion, if he will add his own momentum to those blessed efforts, that are springing up all over this country, to bring the sweet companionship of music to those who live far from the centres of culture, to those who are forming their taste in colleges and schools, and to those who toil with their hands for daily bread. In this age of humanitarian endeavor, he is indeed an alert observer who can count the movements for the welfare of men which make their appearance every day; it would not be strange if he overlooked the efforts which are organized in many of our cities for the musical benefit of the masses. This is not the place to enumerate them or to de-scribe the happy results that flow from them. It is enough to say that the common belief that the people prefer bad music to good is everywhere refuted. The tribute that has been paid by a prominent critic to the service of the People's Symphony concerts in New York would be applicable to other similar institutions. In speaking of the large and enthusiastic audiences he says: "These people are learning what music is; what the composers have created and set before them for the information of their intellect and the warning of their imagination. They are true and humble and devoted music lovers, and in their homes the tone art will be a part of the daily thought of their children and come into its own."
In spite of the influences that are now in action for the dissemination of good music among all the social groups, the taste of the vast majority is still debased, and the amount of vulgar, trashy music heard at the thousands of cheap pleasure resorts is appalling. Yet there is comfort in the belief that the masses seize eagerly upon music of the "cheap and nasty" variety because they have not been able to hear any other. Good music, at least decent music, prevails when it is given a chance, and although Gresham's law may be true in the world of finance it has no counterpart in the world of tone. No one ever devoted himself with unselfish zeal to the improvement of the public taste who did not find encouragement, and, if he persevered, a reward beyond his hopes. Philanthropists have only just begun to see what the elevation of the people's amusements would do for public contentment and public morals. Here is a field in which all can try experiments. One result at least is sure, any one will find that his artistic pleasures will contribute to his moral growth if he seeks cordially to share them with his neighbor. If any harm ever comes from the indulgence of a love for art it will be because that love is egotistic, because it loses sight of the fact that the enjoyment of one, however refined and pure it may appear to be, is a delusion unless it is of such a kind that it can unite with the interest of all.
At the end of this long argument framed for the justification of the study of music. to the reason, and in deprecation of certain deductions which something .in music's nature seems so prone to encourage, the feeling comes over me that I have played an ungrateful, halftreacherous part in seeming to imply that any apology should ever be needed for whole souled devotion to this queenliest and most beneficent of the arts. When her pure ac-cents fall upon our ears, transmitted to us by those prophets and high priests of Beauty whom we call composers, when our whole being trembles with a joy which we know contains no admixture of evil because it is not of the world in which our feet stumble and our hands are soiled, in these rapt moments we may easily, be moved to think that our hard won scientific lore, our calm critical appraisals, are after all impertinent, for what can music ask of us, what can anything fair and holy ask of us, except unsuspicious acceptance and glad surrender? If we are told, while still under the sway of some sublime harmony, that music is of inferior worth because it is detached from life, we are tempted to ask our monitor, with something like indignation, what he means by life; if there is no life except what we can see and touch; and whence, if not from life life that is very full, very rich, and near to the centre of Being can a communication of such ineffable beauty proceed?
There is something inferior and partial in a phase of life that has nothing in it to which music can suggest a counterpart, for musk, more than any other form of human expression, tells us of a sphere into which we can rise where contradictions are removed and discords resolved. Perhaps the mystics to whom I have referred, such as Thoreau and Hearn, who are lifted by music "above the mire and dust of the universe," hearing "reminders of our destiny," who are haunted in music by "the pains and joys of lives innumerable," perhaps they have seen more deeply than the critics and theorists and are the true soothsayers. It is the unique praise of music that the humble and suffering ones, in every age and in every land, have sought in the folk song for abiding consolation; that religion has found her offices of worship grow cold when deprived of music's presence; that patriotism has found in melody its most potent stimulus to heroic deed; that every phase of domestic life, from the cradle to the grave, has always and everywhere been sweetened and sanctified by this blessed ministry. It has ever been ' the purpose of music to increase the joy of the world. In the last analysis this is the supreme aim of all art and its chiefest glory; and what words can there be that are eloquent enough to give sufficient honor to whatever helps to convince men that they are born for happiness?' And thus every man who brings beauty nearer to his fellows and makes them love it more is a missionary of a sacred cause, a herald of peace and good will.
There are agencies that lift men into moods that are blithe and hopeful, in which strength is renewed and faith rekindled, and one of them is music. In spite of exceptions so rare that they emphasize the rule, it is a fact of deep significance that music, the universal art, to which men have confided the most cherished experiences of 'their souls, is an art that tells of gladness. The student of the world's literature is constantly touching a vein of disillusion and despair, and his contact with many of its rarest minds often leaves him depressed. But at the sound of music cares and distresses are overborne, and the soul is set adrift on a tide that flows toward radiant horizons. Not that music has no sympathy with sorrow, but when she enters into places of mourning she does so not to make more poignant the agony of grief, but rather to console. And this triumph of the soul of which music testifies is no mere distraction, bringing false comfort by concealing the truth. It imparts strength because its majestic movement tells of tireless power; it opens vistas of hope because its golden tones bear no trace of the discordant sounds of earthly struggle and lamenting
Let us not fear, then, lest we bestow too much thought upon music, or lest we be overzealous in furthering its interests in the community. We have only to watch that we love it wisely, study it broadly and seriously, train our perceptions to catch the whole of its meaning and not a fragment, strive to discover the relation of music to life, and not vainly imagine that he honors music, or does good service to himself, who takes the flattering unction to his soul that his taste separates him from those who lack what he is pleased to call culture. Art, when' rightly understood, *promotes fraternity and not exclusiveness. The revival of art and its adoption into the system of popular education is a sign of health in our age, and to it every loyal citizen should give heed and lend his aid in bringing its benefits close to the public need. His preparation for this service, when the art of music is involved, will be first of all in his education as a true music lover. He. will. seek association with the great tone masters, he will confidingly yield his spirit to the healthful currents that flow from their strong spirits.. He will so nourish his musical appreciations that his consciousness of the vital things in the art will flourish with his general mental growth, with his advancement in taste, with his in-creasing reverence for all things that are excellent and fair. Convinced that strength and enlargement come from music when its social and individ ual quickening power is rightly applied, he will find the warrant of his discipleship in the zeal to assist every unselfish effort to open highways for this emissary of good in its gladsome errand among men.