Music - The Beauty Of Melody And Rhythm
( Originally Published 1911 )
In the foregoing discussion the word form has been used rather vaguely, for my purpose is to study the action of music upon the mind of the music lover so far as it has to do with his immediate enjoyment, and not to draw up a treatise on the scientific materials of music which would pass muster before an examining board of theorists. In speaking of form I have had in mind what Gurney calls "the individualizing element, the element by which things are known and recognized." Form—melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic—is that which imparts a notion of plan, order, consistency, organization among successions either of single tones or masses of tones. Whether under such a designation as "sonata form" including the whole compass of a composition, or the contour of a component as small as a single motive, or a chord combination that establishes a definite tonality or group of tonalities—form consists in any arrangement of auditory images which gives the notion of some-thing individual and self-consistent. The recognition of design and unity amid variety is, as I have tried to show, the prime condition of the appreciation of a musical composition as a work of art. On this basis we can discuss a composition with our neighbor, confident that we have both received impressions that are sufficiently definite to permit comparison of opinions.
Among the components of musical effect melody seems to claim the first consideration, for whatever may be said of the sensuous charm and expressional value of harmony and tone color, it is certain that the fundamental musical consciousness is that of progression from point to point, with the rhythmic melodic outline as the essential agency that binds the whole together into a coherent self-supporting entity. Rhythmic accent is doubtless still more fundamental as mere sense impression, but as beats of varying degrees of force, or periodic variations of tone lengths, do not in themselves produce a musical outline without a perception of definite changes of pitch, the impression of tune-fulness, with a more or less apparent rhythmic distribution, is the prime source of the average musical experience. Both taught and untaught music lovers are more distinctly aware of rhythmic melody in the first hearing of a piece than of any other feature, and among the untaught hearers nine out of ten are distinctly observant of nothing else, except, perhaps, certain dynamic and color effects in performance. That one passage is louder than another, or that a piccolo 'shrieks or a kettle-drum rumbles, would, of course, be noticed even by a child; but it could hardly be said that intelligence is at work in such an observation. When the mind is able to put impressions together in orderly relations, it is melody first of all that awakens the joyful sense of beauty.
Since the consciousness of melody seems to be so nearly instinctive and universal, the question naturally arises, Can an appreciation of melody be increased by instruction? If by this is meant, Can a love of good melody be awakened by technical explanations; can the points of superiority in certain melodies be pointed out in such a way that general principles can be deduced to serve as in-fallible tests for melody in general, the answer must be negative. If a listener does not feel in his heart that Schubert's "Who is Sylvia?" or the theme of the Larghetto of Beethoven's Second symphony is not a better tune than the latest popular song* that came last week and will be forgotten to-morrow, there is no possible way of convincing him. We may tell him that a fine tune has individual character, a sort of positiveness that distinguishes it from others and takes firm hold upon the memory, and he will ask us if "Yankee Doodle" does not meet these conditions. If my friend asserts that "Pop goes the Weasel" is a better tune than Wolfram's "Invocation" I may assert the contrary; but my assertion is purely dogmatic, and I may have no recourse at last except to call him hard names. The only method of bringing the Philistine to a better mind would be to give him a course in themes by the great masters if he would submit to the discipline, and if he inquired why we made these particular selections we should be obliged to fall back on the general consent of the musical world as our warrant. To so slight a degree does anything like established law reign in matters of melody that we are sometimes almost provoked to say that a taste in tunes is as irresponsible as a preference in salads or millinery.
Standards of good and bad in melody we feel that there must be, but when we try to draw conclusions that will serve as laws we find decisions of equally intelligent arbiters varying with periods, nationalities, customs, and temperaments. There are melodies, to use Hanslick's expression, which "once were beautiful"; and we may also believe that there are melodies, now friendless, that some-time will be beloved. When "Tannhäuser" first appeared, the stock accusation against it on the part of many professional musicians and critics was that it had no melody. The same charge was at one time brought against Gounod's "Faust," although to many this will seem incredible. At the first performance of Beethoven's "Fideiio" in one of the Italian cities, an indignant hearer called out, "That isn't music, that's philosophy." Wagner is now recognized as a great melodist, but many ardent Wagnerians deny the melodic gift to Strauss and Debussy. They may be correct in this, but in view of past instances a cautious man would hesitate in putting himself on record with such an affirmation. Many lovers of Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin do not find melody in the organ and piano works of Sebastian Bach, while to the Bach disciple these works are flooded with melody of a high order of beauty. The precisely opposite effects of Liszt's melody on different critics are well known. Even the fact of spontaneity and originality, which would seem at first thought as to determine, is constantly in dispute.
The explanation of many of these anomalies and others similar : to them is to be found in habit. The well-known maxim, omne ignotum pro mag-nifico, does not apply to popular musical taste. Melody has undergone progressive changes, especially during the past century, and where melody is not recognized in a new work the explanation will commonly be found in the fact that the themes are unlike those to which the listeners have been accustomed. When composers such as Wagner and Schubert have failed to win approval at the outset the trouble has lain in the novelty of their melodic forms. The difficulty with the average man to-day is very much what it was with many cultivated musicians when "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin" were first performed-he accepts as melody only those successions of tones, in which there is a decided accent at equal distances, and in which the rhythmic phrases that result are so few and so evenly balanced that the mind can follow the simple design with the minimum of effort, and hence easily receives the impression of something distinct and complete. These brief melodic forms, which writers nowadays, following Wagner's appellation, call "tunes" or "dance tunes" to distinguish them from melody in which this simple mathematical proportion is avoided, are based on the more fundamental harmonic relations, with regularly returning cadences and half cadences. No disparagement is implied in this classification, for among these rhythmically square-cut tunes we find some of the finest inspirations of musical genius. Hymn tunes are of this character, also folk songs, countless themes of surpassing beauty by Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Schubert, Verdi, and all the great masters of song—melodies which the world has taken into its heart of hearts as a treasure incomparably precious. No training is required to appreciate these, but a restriction to them on the part of the average man forbids him to follow the broader flights to which melody, especially in the latter time, has adventured. Mark Twain, after hearing "Lohengrin," declared that there was only one good tune in the whole opera, meaning, of course, the "Bridal Chorus." It was not that each phrase in this melody would have seemed to him actually more beautiful than many other phrases in the work if an equally distinct impression could have been received; but here was something terse, brief, and regular, the whole thing hung together, it was grasped and retained in consciousness as some-thing distinct and tangible. Another hearer would find satisfying melody in the king's prayer and Elsa's appeal, but little or none in the first part of the second act. To many listeners the last act of "The Mastersingers" is a rather monotonous plain diversified by a few melodious outcroppings, such as Walther's "Prize Song," the Quintet and the "Mastersingers' March"; while in "Tristan and Isolde" no such salient points of vantage are to be found. The question here is not of good or poor melody, but the ability to recognize any melodic contour at all.
Whatever may be said of the possibility of developing taste in melody, it will not be denied, I think, that one persistent aim on the part of the immature music lover should be to develop the power of apprehension beyond the confines of the "tune" into those regions where the great composers have found the amplest melodic free-dom. The hearer must be practiced in following the melodic bounding line over larger and larger spaces. At the same time the unequal divisions, all the elevations and subsidences whose variety and abundance seem at first to. disappoint the instinctive demand for unity, must be perceived as essential items in the design. It is only a question of .extending the mental embrace to en-fold larger and larger and more and more intricate patterns. One takes for the starting point a short and symmetrical form, such as Brahms's "Slumber Song" or MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose"; the next step reaches a form that is larger but without rhythmic diversity, such as Schubert's "Wohin?" or the F major Etude in Chopin's Op. 25; then to "through-composed" songs of Schubert, Schumann, or Strauss, the selections systematically varying in extent and changefulness of structure. The release of the mind from bond-age to the four-measure and eight-measure ratio in metrical division means complete emancipation of the music lover in his appreciation of melody. He can now range freely in the newly discovered regions which modern music has conquered. In the vast serpentine line of Wagner's melos there is a titanic shaping power at work amid all the apparent melodic confusion; just as in the magnificent sky line of the Adirondacks seen from the hills beyond Lake Champlain there is balanced strength and symmetry in the seemingly irregular sweep of the majestic curves.
That this expansion of the powers of observation will be followed by an increase of taste in the matter of sheer melodic quality cannot be positively asserted, but it seems reasonable to suppose that it must be so. A hearer who has trained his mind to follow all the sinuous windings of the tone stream in a fugue by Bach, a symphony movement by Tchaikovsky, or an act in a Wagner drama, joyfully yielding his mind to every ebb and swell because he realizes that the highest ends of artistic expression are answered by this tidal motion, will surely not fail to catch the beauty of the tuneful phrases which are involved at every turn. A hew conception of melody will be his, one that will by no means deprive him of his old delight in melody of the simpler forms.
The secret of the ability to follow all the fluctuations of melodic outline and to grasp the multifarious changes of structure, lies in the cultivation of the sense of rhythm. Music, "the ideal motion," consists of a succession of moments filled by sound, and the gratification that comes to the hearer depends for its intensity very much upon his consciousness that the tones and phrases are swayed by some law of order. Everywhere in the universe rhythm persists; wherever there is life there is ebb and flow, action and reaction, oscillation, vibration, compensating forces that support and relieve one another, giving to the observer as he surveys them an impression of ease combined with power. If we mystically interpret music as symbolic of the inner life of the universe, it is by virtue of its rhythmic motion.
It is the opinion of many scholars that rhythm precedes melody in historic sequence, that among the lower races pleasure in the production of tones in regular beats is more primitive than the desire for changes in pitch. Says Richard Wallaschek: "Rhythm, taken in a general sense to include keeping in time, is the essence in music, in its simplest form as well as in the most skilfully elaborated fugues of modern composers. To recall a tune the rhythm must be revived first, and the melody will easily be recalled. Completely to understand a musical work ceases to be difficult when once its rhythmical arrangement is mastered; and it is through rhythmical performance and rhythmical susceptibility that musical effects are produced and perceived. From these several data I conclude that the origin of music must be sought in a rhythmical impulse in man."
In this dependence upon division of time for intelligibility music conforms to the great law of proportion by which all art is sustained—proportion in space in architecture, painting, and sculpture, proportion in time in poetry and the dance. Richard Watson Gilder sings:
"No poet he who knows not the great. joy That pulses in the flow and rush of rhythm; Rhythm, which is the seed and life of life,
And of all art the root and branch and bloom."
In music the marked differences of taste and comprehension among people otherwise of equal intelligence is chiefly due (where tone-deafness does not exist) to the disparities in the ability to perceive order and plan. People say, for in-stance, that they do not "understand" such and such musical compositions. They mean by this that the mind does not adjust itself to the rhythmic plan of the music, that the combinations are too intricate and changeable to be apprehended as definite coherent form, and a sense of bewilderment ensues which is fatal to pleasure. No one ever professes inability to understand a simple dance or a march. One may not like it for any reason or no reason, but it will be easy to follow in its rhythmic arrangement and therefore intelligible. Unity without variety is as unsatisfying, in a different way, as variety without unity. One reason of the dislike for dances or marches which many feel may be the monotony of the reiteration of strong beats, a perception of regularity that is agreeable at first becoming annoying, because the nerve centres affected are soon wearied by the persistent at-tack upon them. It is evident that the full degree of pleasure is derived when there is variety enough to keep the expectation constantly alive, and a clear enough accomplishment of unity to give an impression of reason and order in the result.
The experiences of the individual in his con-tact with ever-increasing variety and freedom of rhythmic design is paralleled by the experience of the race. Composers who have pushed the art of music onward have done so by enlarging their resources of rhythm and producing works which were beyond the ability of most of their contemporaries to grasp with intelligent satisfaction. It has been writers like Mendelssohn, who did not put any new burden upon the rhythmic appreciative faculty, who have been at once understood and approved.
The first business, therefore, of the lover of music who wishes to keep pace with the progress of the art and open his mind to the beauties that meet him in the works of the best composers, is to strengthen his ability to comprehend complex rhythmic relations. He will find that there are certain tone patterns that are uniform in their regularity and very obvious in their reiteration of a few simple figures. The "tunes," which were spoken of in an earlier part of this chapter, are of this class, as well as all passages in which a dancelike movement is given by means of sharp accents recurring at short intervals. It requires no education to recognize and follow these persistent beats and parallel phrases—nothing but the ability to keep step in a march or to beat time uniformly to a dance. As music becomes more highly organized these simple rudimentary forms give way to freer forms, and the listener whose rhythmic reactions are narrowly limited finds himself utterly confused by the complex tone patterns which, in their displacement of accents, avoidance of cadences, their interweaving of melodic lines and harmonic mass-es, their cross currents and eddies of shifting tones, seem to avoid every semblance of order and system. And yet it is only a difference of degree. Unity and plan are there as well as in the rudimentary figures that are so gratifying to the beginner's elementary perceptions. He must simply go to work, with the assistance of some one more adept in these mysteries, to learn the method by which these puzzling combinations resolve into coherence and symmetry.
The first glance at an elaborate musical score seems to offer to the neophyte a spectacle of heterogeneous confusion, for if he marks off with his eye the little compartments within the perpendicu-lar bar-lines he discovers a bewildering diversity in the appearance of their contents. A keen listening, however, reveals to him that within this pro-fusion of "sounding arabesques" there are distinct pulses or beats which appear to supply the need of an underlying system of order. In marches, waltzes, and in a multitude of compositions beside, these beats are very aggressive and are followed without much strain upon the attention; in other works, such as fugues, many forms of church music, long sections of Wagner's dramas, the solid bony frame-work, if we may use such a comparison, is dissolved in a fluid, seemingly shapeless progression of sounds. Nevertheless, in all instrumental compositions and the vast majority of vocal pieces, the mass of sound—twisting, twining, condensing, expanding into every variety of tone 'outline—rests firmly upon a steady support of beats and simple measure combinations, and the recognition of the underlying principle of order gives to the hearer the happy intimation that within the flood of music there is definiteness and reason. Just as the profusion of ornament upon capitals, architraves, friezes, and cornices rests upon columns or arches standing at equal distances from one another, so in music the multifarious forms of rhythmic figuration are saved from incoherence by the throb of the steady pulses within Or we may compare the arrangement to curves or waves, the basic or typical curves, which are regular, being overlaid by other curves which are free to take any length, to interlace, even at times to interfere with one another. Comparisons are more or less confusing, but analysis shows that in music are united two rhythmic conceptions —one, which we may call the figuration, giving variety, the other, which we may call the metre, giving simplicity, definiteness of structure, and regularity. The unit of metre is the measure, corresponding in a general way to the foot in verse. The measure is either double or triple in respect to its accent scheme, these fundamental accents occurring at intervals of two, three, or four beats, as indicated by the measure sign-2/4 3/4 6/8 etc. The measure units are themselves combined into distinct groups known as sections, phrases, and periods, the points of separation and union among them being made apparent to the ear by melodic and harmonic means (known to theorists as cadences, half cadences, interrupted cadences, and the like) which give the impression of little points of rest to which the music strives, only to take a new leap in its career; or else, still oftener, points where this expectation of a subsidence of movement is disappointed, this expectation nevertheless affording a definite point of support for the attention. The normal arrangement of measures which form the sustaining arches of the tone edifice, is in groups of fours, eights, and sixteens. This standard plan is frequently modified, and the eight and sixteen measure outline gives way to divisions of six, nine, twelve, and other irregular successions. Even where the multiple of four is retained, the composer loves to evade the formality of the plan by harmonic and rhythmic devices that keep the attention poised • over longer curves. A large amount of metrical freedom is allowed the composer, but only on the condition that he shall not abuse the privilege and violate the law of balance and proportion.
It is the comparatively simple metrical order, therefore, on which the hearer must base his attention. He must feel the metrical pulse beating in the veins of his .own musical consciousness, and from out the tangle of harmonies, melodies, and ornamentation there will emerge the firm out-line of a design which makes everything coherent, and gratifies that innate sense of order which governs the instinctive human activities and is also the ruling principle of art.
The failure mentally to accompany the rhythmic progress of a piece of music is often due, not to a congenital lack of rhythmic faculty, but to the distraction of the attention from the characteristic beat and metrical divisions by other elements which are for the moment more engaging—brilliant pas-sage work, perhaps, or glaring tone color. The last of the merits in good piano playing to be appreciated by .the average listener is the phrasing; but phrasing is simply making the rhythmic structure apparent to the ear. First a general knowledge of the foundation principles of musical design in distribution of metrical accents and groups of accents, then the attention which sets in motion analogous beats and waves in the consciousness, and the listener will soon find a new world of pleasure opening within him. The most intricate patterns will unfold a world of beautiful balanced forms. With experience there will come the ability to compare work with work and composer with composer, penetrating many secrets of style, estimating merit and gladly recognizing mastery. The comparison of the music of a writer like Mendelssohn, who is often subject to rhythmic monotony; with the rhythmic affluence and constant surprise of Schubert or Schumann; the study of the remarkable development of Wagner in the command of this side of his art from "The Flying Dutchman" to "Tristan and Isolde"; the analysis of the subtleties and mannerisms of Brahms, of the resistless logic within the passionate ebb and flow of Beethoven, the solution of the rhythmic puzzles offered in some of the works of the Russian school — these interests en-ter strongly into the business of the music student; and as fast as they are brought to the attention of the amateur they enlarge the reach of his intelligent judgment. As the sounding shapes which once seemed all confusion begin to move in his consciousness in reasoned order and mutual aid his mind dilates with a sense of ease; he seems to play, as in a native element, in these waves of tone. The contrivances for temporary disturbance such as syncopation, irregular rhythm, and cross rhythm; interlacing curves in fugal counterpoint, where unlike melodic figures seem struggling for the mastery and rhythm seems lost in its own very abundance; the restraint of the tonal whirl from lawless confusion by the grasp of a few master figures or (as often in Beethoven) by a single master figure; the devices for imparting a sense of tension, concentration, and climax, or of relaxation, subsidence, and relief, — these tokens of creative genius, almost rivalling the living forms of nature in affluence and beauty, are to music what the nervous system is to the human organism. Through this vibrating network the soul of the music is revealed. It is not merely the means of obtaining unity amid diversity, it is the very life of music itself.
The close parallel that exists between the ac-cents and rhythmic groupings of music and the posturings and evolutions of the dance is almost too obvious to require statement. It is not out of place, however, to call attention to the usefulness of dancing, both to the observer and the participant, through the exercise it affords to the rhythmic sense. The revival of the dance in our time on a higher plane than of old, both on the stage as an art of expression and in the public schools as a physical and aesthetic stimulus, is, I believe, a wholesome sign. The dance, like music, has a two-fold aesthetic potency: first, of complex and unified movement, giving pleasure to the eye by its flowing lines that interweave in living patterns of grace, and second, the communication of mental states through the symbolism of posture and gesture. "The artistic dancer," says Mr. Bliss Carman, "uses bodily motion as a poet uses words, as a musician uses tones, as a painter uses colors—as an appeal not so much to our reason as to our sense and spirit—as a means of enlivening and gladdening our nature, making us more sensitive to beauty, more spontaneous in glad emotion, more sane and balanced in general well-being." That the art of dancing, once cultivated by Paytone+Ones, law givers, and priests as an essential in the training of the body and in the free play of the spirit, has been degraded in the uses of the modern stage, need not deceive us concerning its possibilities of beauty both physical and intellectual. We can have little conception of what the ancient dance was in the period of its ripest culture. A few passages in the old writings "send the imagination wistfully across the ages, straining, as it were, to see what must have been some of the loveliest scenes in Greek life" (Royal Cortissoz). The only adequate indication of what the dance must have been when treated with profound seriousness by a people to whom beauty was a constant necessity of life, is to be obtained from descriptions of Japanese dances, such as the account of the ceremonies of the Bon-odori, the Festival of the Dead, in Lafcadio Heam's fascinating book, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. A troop of girls are dancing in the moonlight in the temple court, near the ancient place of tombs:
"Under the wheeling moon, in the midst of the round, I feel as one within the circle of a charm. Verily this is enchantment; I am bewitched, be-witched. by the ghostly weaving of hands, by the rhythmic gliding of feet, above all-by the flitting of the marvelous sleeves—apparitional, soundless, velvety as a flitting. of great tropical bats. . . . Always the white hands 'sinuously wave together as if weaving. spells, alternately without and within the round, now .with palms upward, now with palms downward; and all the elfish sleeves hover duskily together, with a shadowing as of wings; and all the feet poise together with such a rhythm of complex motion that, in watching it, one feels a sensation of 'hypnotism,- as while striving. to watch a flowing and shimmering of water. . . . More and more unreal the spectacle appears, with its silent smilings, with its silent bowings, as of obeisance to watchers invisible; and I find myself wondering whether, were I to utter but a .whisper, all would not vanish forever, save the gray mouldering court and the desolate temple and the broken statue of Jizo, smiling always the same mysterious smile I see upon the face of the dancers."
Such enchantments can be woven by but two of the arts — the dance and music. What is music but the transmigration into tone of the immemorial and world-embracing spirit of the dance? In ancient times music was feeble and insignificant, but a compensation, almost an equivalent, was found in the beauty and expressiveness of bodily movement. The decline of the dance in modern times may be due to the development of a still nobler substitute. Not only the spirit, but the form of the dance has passed into modern music; historically the rhythms of instrumental music, and by adoption the rhythms of secular vocal music, are. to a large extent derived from the popular dance. This may be almost intuitively discerned by one who, in listening to a performance by orchestra or piano, gives himself up, with closed eyes and rhythmic sense alert, to the swing and throb of the sounding forms. And whenever one has an opportunity to watch the dance in its best estate upon the stage, or in its most spontaneous form in folk dances, it will be found, I think, that the appreciation of the beauty that lies in music's "ideal motion" will be increased by the practice of the eye in tracing, amid the successions of bodily pose and gesture and evolution, the-harmony of regulated and balanced change.