The Place of Music in General History
( Originally Published 1915 )
Music is only now beginning to take the place due to it in general history. It seems a strange thing that concepts of the evolution of man's soul should have been formed while one of the strongest expressions of that soul has been ignored. But we know what difficulty the other arts have had in obtaining recognition in general history, even when they were more favored and easier of approach by the French mind, Is it so long ago that this did not apply to the history of literature and science and philosophy and, indeed, the whole of human thought? Yet the political life of a nation is only a superficial part of its being; in order to learn its inner life—the source of its actions—we must penetrate to its very soul by way of its literature, its philosophy, and its art, where the ideas, the passions, and the dreams of its people are reflected.
We know that history may find resources in literature; we know the kind of help, for example, that Corneille's poetry and Descartes' philosophy may bring to the understanding of the Treaty of Westphalia; or, again, what a dead letter the Revolution of 89 might be if we were not acquainted with the thought of the Encyclopedists and eighteenth-century salons.
Nor do we forget the valuable information that the plastic arts give us about different epochs, for in them we behold an age's very countenance—its type, its gestures, its dress, its fashions, indeed its whole daily life. What a storehouse for history! One thing hangs to another: political revolutions have their counterpart in artistic revolutions; the life of a nation is an organism in which all is bound together—economic phenomena and artistic phenomena alike. In the resemblances and differences of Gothic monuments a Viollet-le-Duc could trace the great highways of commerce in the twelfth century. The study of some detail of architecture—a belfry, for instance—would show the progress of royalty in France, the thought of the Ile-de-France imposing a peculiar construction upon provincial schools from the time of Philip Augustus onward. But the great service that art renders history is to bring it close to the soul of an epoch and so let it touch the springs of emotion. On the surface, literature and philosophy may seem to give us more definitive information by reducing the characteristics of an age to precise formulas. On the other hand, this artificial simplification may leave us with inelastic and impoverished ideas. Art is modeled on life, and it has an almost greater value than literature because its domain is infinitely more extended. We have six centuries of art in France, and yet we are often content to judge the French spirit by four centuries of literature. Further, our medieval art, for example, can show us the life of the provinces, about which our classical literature has hardly anything to say. Few countries are composed of elements more disparate than ours. Our races, traditions, and social life are varied and show evidence of the influence of Italians, Spanish, Germans, Swiss, English, Flemish, and inhabitants of other countries. A strong political unity has dissolved these antagonistic elements and established an average and an equilibrium in the civilizations that clashed about us. But if such a unity is apparent in our literature, the multiple nuances of our personality have become very blurred. Art gives us a much richer image of French genius. It is not like a grisaille but like a cathedral window where all the colors of earth and sky blend. It is not a simple picture but like those rose windows which are the product of the purely French art of the Ile-de-France and Champagne. And I say to myself: Here is a people whose characteristics are said to be reason and not imagination, common sense and not fancy, drawing and not coloring; yet this is the people who created those mystical east-windows!
And so it is that acquaintance with the arts enlarges and gives life to the image one has formed of a people from their literature alone.
Now by turning to music we may extend this idea still further.
Music perplexes those who have no feeling for it; it seems to them an incomprehensible art, beyond reasoning and having no connection with reality. What help can history possibly draw from that which is outside ordinary matter and there-fore outside history?
Well, first of all it is not true that music has so abstract a character, for she has an undoubted relationship with literature, with the theater, and with the life of an epoch. Thus no one can fail to see that a history of opera will throw light on the ways and manners of society. Indeed, every form of music is allied with some form of society and makes it easier to understand; also, in many cases, the history of music is closely connected with that of other arts.
It constantly happens that the arts influence one another, that they intermingle, or that, as a result of their natural evolution, they overflow their boundaries and invade the domains of neighboring arts. Now it is music that would become painting, now painting that would be music. "Good painting is music, a melody," said Michelangelo, at a time when painting was giving precedence to music, when Italian music was extricating itself, so to speak, from the very decadence of other arts. The doors between the arts are not closely shut as many theorists would pretend, and one art is constantly opening upon another. Arts may extend and find their consummation in other arts; when the mind has exhausted one form, it seeks and finds a more complete expression in another. Thus is a knowledge of the history of music often necessary to the history of the plastic arts.
But the essence of the great interest of art lies in the way it reveals the true feeling of the soul, the secrets of its inner life, and the world of passion that has long accumulated and fermented there before surging up to the surface. Very often, thanks to its depth and spontaneity, music is the first indication of tendencies which later translate themselves into words, and afterward into deeds. The Eroica Symphony anticipated by more than ten years the awakening of the German nation. The Meistersinger and Siegfried proclaimed ten years before-hand the imperial triumph of Germany. There are even cases where music is the only witness of a whole inner life which never reaches the surface.
What does the political history of Italy and Germany in the seventeenth century teach us? A series of court intrigues, of military defeats, of princely weddings, of feastings, of miseries, and of one ruin after another. How is one, then, to account for the miraculous resurrection of these two nations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? The work of their musicians gives us an insight. It shows in Germany the treasures of faith and activity which were silently accumulating; it shows simple and heroic characters like Heinrich Schütz who, during the Thirty Years' War, in the midst of the worst disasters that ever devastated a country, quietly went his way, singing his own robust and resolute faith. About him were Johann Christoph Bach and Michael Bach (ancestors of the great Bach), who seemed to carry with them the quiet presentiment of the genius who followed them. Beside these were Pachelbel, Kuhnau, Buxtehude, Zachau, and Erlebach—great souls who were shut up all their lives in the narrow sphere of a little provincial town, known only to a few men, without worldly ambition, without hope of leaving anything to posterity, singing for them-selves alone and for their God; and who, among all their sorrows of home life and public life, slowly and persistently gathered reserves of strength and moral well-being, building stone by stone the great future of Germany. In Italy there was, at the same time, a perfect ebullition of music which streamed all over Europe. It flooded France, Austria, and England, showing that Italian genius in the seventeenth century was still supreme; and in this splendid exuberance of musical production a succession of thoughtful geniuses like Monteverdi at Mantua, Carissimi at Rome, and Provenzale at Naples gave evidence of the loftiness of soul and purity of heart which was preserved among the frivolities and dissoluteness of Italian courts.
Here is a still more striking example. It is scarcely likely that there has ever been seen a more terrible age than that of the end of the old world—the time of the decomposition of the Roman Empire and the great Invasions. The flame of art, however, continued to burn under that heap of smoking rubbish. A passion for music served to reconcile the Gallic Romans with their barbarian conquerors, for the detestable Caesars of Rome's waning empire and the Visigoths of Toulouse had an equal relish for concerts; and both the Roman houses and the half-savage camps resounded with the noise of instruments. Clovis had musicians brought from Constantinople, And the remarkable fact was not that art was still loved but that the age created a new kind of art. From this upheaval of humanity sprang an art as perfect and as pure as that of the most finished products of happier times. According to Gevaert, the Gregorian chant made its first appearance in the fourth century in the Alleluia song—"the cry of the victory of Christianity after two and a half centuries of persecution." The musical masterpieces of the early church seem to have been produced in the sixth century, between 540 and 600; that is to say, between the invasions of the Goths and the invasions of the Lombards, "at a time which we imagine was represented by an uninterrupted series of wars, massacres, pillages, plagues, famines, and cataclysms of such a kind that St. Gregory saw in them evidence of the decrepitude of the world and premonitory signs of the Last Judgment." In these chants, however, everything breathes of peace and hope in the future. Out of barbarity sprang a gentle art, in which we find pastoral simplicity, clear and sober outlines like those of Greek bas-reliefs, free poetry filled with love of nature, and a touching sweetness of disposition "a speaking witness of the soul of those who lived amid such terrible disturbance." Nor was this an art of cloisters and con-vents, shut away in confinement. It was a popular art which prevailed through the whole of the ancient Roman world. From Rome it went to England, to Germany, and to France; and no art was more representative of its time. Under the reign of the Carolingians it had its golden age, for the princes were enamored of it. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious spent whole days in singing or listening to chants and were absorbed by their charm. Charles the Bald, in spite of the troubles of his empire, kept up a correspondence about music and composed music in collaboration with the monks of the monastery of Saint-Gall, the musical center of the world in the ninth century. Few occurrences have been more striking than this harvest of art, this smiling efflorescence of music which was gathered, in spite of everything, amid the convulsions of society.
Thus music shows us the continuity of life in apparent death, the flowering of an eternal spirit amidst the ruin of the world. How then should one write the history of these times if one neglected some of their essential characteristics? How should one understand them if one ignored their true inner force? And who knows but that such an omission might falsify not only the aspect of one period of history but the whole of history itself? Who knows if the words "Renaissance" and "De-cadence" do not arise, is in the preceding example, from our limited view of a single aspect of things? An art may decline, but does Art itself ever die? Does it not rather have its metamorphoses and its adaptations to environment? It is quite evident, at any rate, that in a ruined kingdom, wrecked by war or revolution, creative force could express itself in architecture only with difficulty; for architecture needs money and new structures, besides prosperity and confidence in the future. One might even say that the plastic arts in general have need of luxury and leisure, of refined society, and of a certain equilibrium in civilization, in order to develop themselves fully. But when material conditions are harder, when life is bitter, starved, and harassed with care, when the opportunity of outside development is withheld, then the spirit is forced back upon itself, and its eternal need of happiness drives it to other outlets; its expression of beauty is changed and takes a less external character, and it seeks refuge in more intimate arts, such as poetry and music. It never dies—that I believe with all my heart. There is no death or new birth of the spirit there, for its light has never been extinguished; it has died down only to blaze anew somewhere else. And so it goes from one art to another, as from one people to another. If you study only one art you will naturally be led to think that there are interruptions in its life, a cessation of its heartbeats. On the other hand, if you look at art as a whole, you will feel the stream of its eternal life.
That is why I believe that for the foundation of all general history we need a sort of comparative history of all forms of art; the omission of a single form risks the blurring of the whole picture. History should have the living unity of the spirit of humanity for its object and should maintain the cohesion of all its thought.
Let us try to sketch the place of music in the course of history. That place is far more important than is generally thought, for music goes back to the far distances of civilization. To those who would date it from yesterday, one would recall Aristoxenus of Tarentum, who made the decadence of music begin with Sophocles; and Plato who, with sounder judgment, found that no progress had been made since the seventh century and the melodies of Olympus. From one age to another people have said that music had reached its apogee and that nothing but its decline could follow. There are no epochs in the world with-out their music, and there has been no civilized people without its musicians at some time in its history-even those whom we are accustomed to regard as least endowed with the gift of music, as for example, England, which was a great- musical nation until the Revolution of 1688.
There are historical conditions more favorable than others to the development of music, and it seems natural, in some respects, that a musical efflorescence should coincide with the decadence of other arts and even with a country's misfortunes. The examples which we have quoted from the time of the Invasions and from the seventeenth century in Italy or Germany incline our belief that way. And this would seem quite logical, since music is an individual form of thought and for its expression demands nothing but a soul and a voice. An unhappy person, surrounded by ruin and misery, may nevertheless achieve a masterpiece in music or poetry.
But we have been speaking of only one form of music. Music, although it may be an individual art, is also a social art; it may be the offspring of meditation and sorrow, but it may also be that of joy and even frivolity. It accommodates itself to the characters of all people and all time; when one knows its history and the diverse forms it has taken throughout the centuries, one is no longer astonished at the contradictory definitions given to it by lovers of beauty. One man may call it architecture in motion, another poetical psychology; one man sees it as a plastic and well-defined art, another as an art of purely spiritual expression; for one theorist melody is the essence of music, for another this same essence is harmony. And, in truth, it is so; they are all right.
So history leads us, not to doubt everything-far from it—but to believe a little of everything; to test general theories by opinions that are true for this particular group of facts and that particular hour in history; to use fragments of the truth, It is perfectly right to give music every possible kind of name, for it is an architecture of sound in certain centuries of architecture and with certain architectural people, such as the Franco-Flemings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is also drawing, line, melody, 'and plastic beauty, with people who have an appreciation and admiration for form, with painter and sculptor people like the Italians. It is inner poetry, lyrical out-pouring, and philosophic meditation with poets and philosophers like the Germans. It adapts itself to all conditions of society. It is a courtly and poetic art under Francis I and Charles IX; an art of faith and fighting with the Reformation; an art of affectation and princely pride under Louis XIV; an art of the salon in the eighteenth century. Then it becomes the lyric expression of revolutionaries, and it will be the voice of the democratic societies of the future, as it was the voice of the aristocratic societies of the past. No formula will hold it. It is the song of centuries and the flower of history; its growth pushes upward from the griefs as well as from the joys of humanity.
We know the important place that music took in ancient civilizations. Greek philosophy testifies to this by the part assigned to music in education, by its close connection with the other arts, science, literature, and drama especially. We find in classic times hymns sung and danced by whole nations, Bacchic dithyrambs, and tragedies and comedies steeped in music; indeed, music enveloped all literary forms, it was every-where, and it reached from one end to the other of Greek history. It was a world that never ceased to evolve, and its development offered as many varieties of form and style as our modem music. Little by little, pure music, instrumental music, played an almost extravagant part in the social life of the Greek world. It shone with all magnificence at the court of the Roman emperors, among whom were Nero, Titus, Hadrian, Caracalla, Helagabal, Alexander Severus, Gordian III, Carinus, and Numerian, who were all keen musicians and even composers and virtuosos of remarkable ability.
Christianity, as it grew, took into its service the force of music and used it to conquer souls. St. Ambrose fascinated the people, he said, by the melodic charm of his hymns; and one perceives that of all the artistic heritage of the Roman world, music was the only art which was not only preserved intact at the time of the Invasions but even blossomed forth more vigorously. In the years that followed, in the Romance and Gothic periods, music kept its high place. St. Thomas Aquinas said that music occupied the first rank among the seven fine arts, that it was the noblest of civilized sciences. It was taught everywhere. At Chartres from the eleventh to the sixteenth century there flourished a great school of music, of a sort both practical and theoretical. At the University of Toulouse there was a Chair of Music in the thirteenth century. At Paris, the center of the musical world in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, one may read in the list of professors of the University the names of the most famous theorists of music of that time. Music had its place in the quadrivium, with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. For it was then a study like science and logic, or at any rate pretended to be so. A quotation from Jerome of Moravia at the end of the thirteenth century shows well enough how the esthetics of that time differed from ours: "The principal difficulty," he says, "in the way of making beautiful notes is sadness of heart." What would Beethoven have thought of that? To the artists of that time individual feeling seemed a hindrance rather than a stimulus to art; for music was to them something impersonal, demanding first of all the calm of a well-ordered mind. Yet its power was never more mighty than in this age when it was most academic. Besides the tyrannical authority of Pythagoras, which was transmitted to the Middle Ages by Boethius, there were many reasons for this musical intellectualism: moral reasons belonging to the spirit of a time which was much more rationalistic than mystical, more polemical than inspired; social reasons coming from the habitual association of thought and power which linked any man's thought, if it were original, to the thought of all men—as in the motets, where different airs with different words were bound together without concern; and lastly, there were technical reasons connected with the heavy labor which had to be undergone in order to shape the unformed mass of modern polyphony, then fashioned like a statue ready for the life and thought that were afterward to enter into it. But this academic art was soon followed by the exquisite art of chivalrous poetry with its amorous lyricism, its glowing life, and its well-defined popular feeling.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century a breath blown from Provence, a first intimation of the Renaissance, made itself felt in Italy. Already the dawn was breaking upon the Florentine composers of madrigals, cascie (chassés ), and ballate, of the time of Dante, Petrarch, and Giotto. Through Florence and Paris the new art, ars nova, was disseminated in Europe and produced at the beginning of the fifteenth century that harvest of rich vocal music and its accompaniments which are now gradually being brought to light. The spirit of liberty, originating in profane music, began to be assimilated by church art; by the end of the fifteenth century there was a glory of music equal in brilliance to that of other arts in that happy age. The musical literature of the Renaissance is of perhaps unparalleled richness in history. Flemish supremacy, so marked in painting, asserted itself even more in music. The Flemish masters of counterpoint spread over Europe and were leaders in music over all other people. French and Flemish dominated in Germany and in Italy at Rome. Their works are magnificent structures of sound, with branching outlines and rhythms and of an abundant beauty, though at first sight they may seem more formal than expressive. But after the second half of the fifteenth century, individualism, which was making itself felt in other arts, began to awake everywhere in music; personal feeling shook itself free; there was a return to nature. Glarean wrote concerning Josquin: "No one has rendered better the passions of the soul in music." And Vincenzo Galilei called Palestrina "that great imitator of nature."
The representation of nature and the expression of passion were in the eyes of contemporaries characteristics of the musical renaissance of the sixteenth century; such appeared to be the distinctive traits of that art. It does not strike ourselves so much, for since that time music's endeavor to reach spiritual truth has been unceasing and has brought about a continual advance. But what does stir our imagination for the art of that period is the beauty of its form, which has never been surpassed, perhaps never even equaled except in certain pages of Handel or Mozart. It was an age of pure beauty, for beauty flourished everywhere, was intermingled with every form of social life, and was united to every art. At no time were music and poetry more intimately bound together than in the time of Charles IX; music was hymned by Dorat, Jodelle, and Belleau. Ronsard called music "the younger sister of poetry," and said also that without music, poetry almost lacked grace, just as music with-out the melodiousness of poetry was dull and lifeless. Baif founded an academy of poetry and music and endeavored to create in France a language adapted for song, giving as models metrical verses written after the manner of the Greeks and Latins--treasures whose rich boldness is hardly guessed by the poets and musicians of today. Never had France been so truly musical; for music then was not the property of a class but the possession of the whole nation, of the nobility, the intellectual few, the middle classes, the people, and both Catholic and Protestant churches. The same rich rising of musical sap was evident in England under Henry VIII and Elizabeth, in the Germany of Luther, in the Geneva of Calvin, and in the Rome of Leo X. Music was the last branch of the Renaissance, but perhaps it was the biggest, for it covered the whole of Europe.
The striving for more and more exact expression of feeling in music, during the whole of the sixteenth century, in a series of picturesque and descriptive madrigals, culminated in Italy in the creation of musical tragedy. The influence of former ages intervened at the birth of opera as it did in the formation and development of the other Italian arts. Opera, in the mind of its founders, was a resurrection of classical tragedy and was thus more literary than musical. Indeed, even after the dramatic principles of the first Florentine masters had fallen into oblivion, even after music had profitably broken the bonds which attached it to poetry, opera continued to exercise an influence on the spirit of the theater, especially at the end of the seventeenth century, in a way that has not been fully realized. It would be wrong to regard the triumph of opera in Europe and the morbid enthusiasm it excited as something of small account. We may affirm that without it we should scarcely be acquainted with half the artistic mind of the century, for we should see only the intellectual side of it. It is through opera that we best reach the depth of the sensuality of that time, with its voluptuous imagination, its sentimental materialism, and, in short, if I may so put it, the tottering foundations on which the reason, the will, and the serious business of French society of that great century rested. On the other hand, the spirit of the Reformation was putting out strong roots in German music, English music was also kindled but died out after the expulsion of the Stuarts and the conquest of the Puritan spirit. Toward the end of the century the thought of Italy was lulled to sleep in the cult of admirable but empty form.
In the eighteenth century Italian music continued to reflect the sweetness and ease and futility of life, In Germany the springs of inner harmony which had been gathering for a century began to flow like a swift stream in Handel and Bach. France was working at the foundations of a musical theater which had been sketched out by the Florentines and by Lully with the idea of building up a great tragic art after the likeness of Greek drama; and Paris was a kind of workshop where the finest musicians of Europe met together and vied with one another—French, Italians, Germans, and Belgians, all striving to create a style for tragedy and lyric comedy. The whole of French society took an eager part in these productive struggles, which carved the way for the musical revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, The best genius of Germany and Italy in the eighteenth century was perhaps their musicians. France was really more fruitful in other arts than in music; nevertheless, in that direction she climbed higher, I think, than in other arts; for among the fine painters and sculptors in the reign of Louis XV, I cannot find a genius comparable to Rameau. Rameau was much more than Lully's successor, for he founded French dramatic art in music, both on a basis of harmonic learning and on the observation of nature. Lastly, the whole French theater of the eighteenth century, and indeed the whole theater of Europe, was put into the background by the genius of Gluck, whose works are not only masterpieces in music but, to my mind, the masterpieces of French tragedy of the eighteenth century.
At the end of the century, music was expressing the awakening of a revolutionary individualism which roused the whole world. The enormous growth of its power of expression, due to the researches of French and German musicians and the sudden development of symphonic music, put at its disposition a richness of means without equal and a means which was almost new. In thirty years' time, the orchestral symphony and chamber music had produced their masterpieces. The old world, which was then dying, found there its last portraits, and perhaps the most perfect of these were painted by Haydn and Mozart. Then came the Revolution, which after being expressed by the French musicians of the Convention—Gossec, Mehul, Lesueur, and Cherubim found its most heroic voice in Beethoven—Beethoven, the greatest composer-poet of the Revolution and the Empire, the artist who has most vividly painted the tempests of Napoleonic times, with their anguish and sorrow, the strenuousness of war and the intoxicated trans-ports of a free spirit.
Then streamed out a wave of romantic poetry—the melodies of Weber, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Berlioz—those great lyricists of music, the poets and youthful dreamers of a new age, waking with the dawn in strange disquietude. The ancient world of Italy in voluptuous idleness had sung its last song with Rossini and Bellini; the new Italy, the brilliant, noisy Piedmont, made its appearance with Verdi, a singer of the struggles of Il Risorgimento. Germany, whose empire had been forming for the past two centuries, found a genius to incarnate its victory in the person of Wagner, the herald who sounded the advent of this military and mysterious empire, the despotic and dangerous master who brought the wild romanticism of Beethoven and Berlioz, the tragedy of the century, to the foot of the Cross, to the mysticism of Parsifal. After Wagner this atmosphere of mysticism was spread over all Europe by the help of Cesar Franck and his disciples, by Italian and Belgian masters of oratorio, and by a return to classicism and the art of Palestrina and Bach. And while one side of contemporary music used the wonderful means at hand that had been elaborated by nineteenth-century geniuses in painting the subtle soul of a decadent society, on the other side were the signs of a popular movement which was giving fresh life to art by seeking inspiration from popular melodies and by translating into music popular feelings, among the earlier protagonists of which were Bizet and Mussorgsky.
I hope my readers will forgive this rather rough sketch. I have tried to present only a panoramic view of this vast history by showing how much music is intermingled with the rest of social life.
The thought of the eternal efflorescence of music is a comforting one, and comes like a messenger of peace in the midst of universal disturbance. Political and social history is a never ending conflict, a thrusting of humanity forward to a doubtful issue, with obstacles at every step which have to be conquered one by one with desperate persistence. But from the history of art we may disengage a character of fullness and peace. In art, there is no thought of progress, for however far we look behind, we see that perfection has already been attained; and that man is absurd who thinks the efforts of the centuries have advanced us a step nearer beauty since the days of St. Gregory and Palestrina. There is nothing sad or humiliating in the idea; on the contrary, art is humanity's dream—a dream of light and liberty and quiet power. It is a dream whose thread is never broken, and there is no fear for the future. In our anxiety and pride we tell ourselves that we have reached the pinnacle of art and are on the eve of a decline. That has been said since the beginning of the world. In every century people have sighed, "All has been said; we have come too late." Well, everything may have been said; yet everything is still to say. Art, like life, is inexhaustible; and nothing makes us feel the truth of this better than music's ever-welling spring, which has flowed through the centuries until it has become an ocean.