Progress Of Art
( Originally Published 1922 )
It is thus that art progresses and transforms itself. And the modest workers who thus contribute to its slow evolution may be compared to those microscopic madrepores, of which Michelet speaks : "From the day when optics allow us to perceive the infusoria, we see them making mountains, we see the madrepores paving the Ocean." They do a great deal more than pave it, they lift it higher and submerge entire islands, thus changing the geography of the globe; they have their part to play in creation. Each of them builds his cell a little higher than those already constructed, just as the artist, by taking as his base and support the works of his predecessors, should try to elevate still a little higher, according to his means, the construction of the edifice of art, of which he will never be more than one of the labourers whatever the force of his genius may be.
And let him not regard this comparison with an animalcule as something to wound or belittle his part. On the contrary, it is this spirit of abnegation, per-sonal disinterestedness and devotion to Art, that raises him above all others and makes him a priest of the Beautiful, that eternal cult, and may justify that fine remark of Proudhon's : " Of all classes of society, that of the artists is the richest in strong souls and noble characters." That is precisely how the artist should be regarded. He who would place his personal interests above that of Art would be as despicable as a politician who would take advantage of temporary position by furthering his own affairs to the detriment of those of his country ; a thing which I greatly hope is never seen, and will never be seen anywhere. This does not happen to the artist, for he has too deep a love of the Beautiful not to have also a love of the Good, which is almost inseparable from it. The true artist is essentially good and generous, always affable, cordial and kind, always ready to protect and help his brothers at need, to aid with advice and often with his purse those young people who show a desire to embrace his career, which is at once so hard and so full of attraction, to show them the right road and to guide them with inexhaustible kindness by trying to make it easier than it has been for him, to smooth their way and serve them as a ladder by which they may reach a higher level than he himself has been able to attain. Is not this the part. of a fine character? Those who do not answer to this description are not really great artists at heart, they are artisans who may indeed be estimable practitioners or manufacturers of art, more or less skilful in their calling, but who have no right to the noble title of Artist, taken in the high and proud acceptation of the word.
Voltaire, greeting Grétry, said to him: " You are a musician and a man of mind, sir ; it is a rare combination." He could not say this to-day, because for a long time, nothing has been more common among great artists than high mentality, unless it is heart and affability.
The artist—I mean here the composer—should be first of all a creator ; he should be ceaselessly inventing, considering this as his mission. " Art is to man what the creative faculty is to God."
In the hierarchy of music, the composer occupies the first rank ; the brain that creates being superior to the organ that executes. And it is in this also that he differs entirely from the Singer and the Instrumentalist, who are interpreters, and whose function consists in faithfully transmitting and bringing to the comprehension of the public the author's ideas, embellished more or less by the prestige of their own talent. Their part is none the less beautiful for that ; they are the advocates and heralds of talent and genius, which very often owe half their success to them ; and they thus contribute powerfully, on their side, to the evolution of musical art, which could not do without interpreters ; but theirs is not to invent, that is even forbidden them, while it is not only the right, but the duty of the most insignificant of composers.
Now, since for more than two centuries the greatest geniuses have worked ceaselessly to bring modern poly-phony to perfection, it would not be extraordinary if this marvellous mine were nearly exhausted. There remains the resource indeed of seeking to create still new forms, but this cannot go very far; the discovery of unknown riches in the domain of Harmony, already thoroughly explored in every direction, seems exceedingly improbable ; to do better than has been done, without changing the order of ideas, and this for a long time still, seems to border on the impossible.
It is therefore probable enough that we shall shortly arrive at a kind of turning-point in the history of music, one of those points that have already been found at other times, where Art, not being able to go any further in the path that it has followed for several centuries, and not being able to remain stationary either, which is contrary to its nature, must effect an evolution and open up a new road for itself in countries of an entirely different aspect, perhaps explored formerly, but into which it now penetrates bringing with it the materials for colonization and investigation acquired in the course of its former travels, with processes of fertilization not yet applied to those regions.
Really, it seems impossible to push much further the science of harmonic and orchestral combinations that modern art has developed to their extreme limits, and which have arrived at their summum. The route followed has led us up a peak, probably the most elevated that has ever been attained, for it is indeed dizzying; but beyond which we cannot dream of mounting higher; moreover, we are threatened with famine. It is necessary therefore to descend into the valleys again there to seek and gather some flowers which are melodies, and perhaps replenish our provisions there be-fore dreaming of ascending some other mountain as yet unknown, the distant summit of which is for the moment, and perhaps for a long time to come, veiled from us by the clouds of the future.
It has always happened thus, and thus also it will always be, because it is impossible that it, can be otherwise.
We are witnessing the complete blossoming of the system of art inaugurated in the second half of the Seventeenth Century, the most illustrious representatives of which were Bach and Handel for Germany ; Scarlatti, and, a little later, Pergolese for Italy; and Lully and Rameau for France. Their geniuses so diverse gave birth to three great national Schools, two of which particularly, the German and the French, have imposed upon themselves the mission of developing, although in different ways, the grand symphonic style and modern counterpoint, thus putting to new use the materials accumulated by the preceding musical civilizations, which kept religious art principally in view, almost the sole employment of the voices, and ended in the creation of the Fugue.
Likewise, the treasures of harmonic combinations and the discoveries in instrumentation accumulated for three centuries by the present schools will not be lost by those that follow. This is a rich inheritance that belongs to them, that it is their right and duty to cultivate so as to make it serve for what will be their ideal, pruning away certain superfluities or useless complications, just as the masters of our time have known how to do in rejecting all that has seemed to them puerile and anti-artistic in the fantastic ornamentation of the old Counterpoint of the Middle Ages, whilst making the best use of the strong blocks of the dead art bequeathed by our ancestors for the erection of their admirable building.
Such transformations are not produced suddenly; they are the fruit of centuries of efforts, and many generations toil in obscurity for them until the day when a man of genius who combines them all appears in all his glory. A new peak has been climbed on which he plants his standard, and which henceforth will bear his name. But how many modest pioneers, unknown to fame, have had to illuminate his path, pointing out the dangers and rocks, blazing it, so to speak, and harnessing themselves to his triumphal chariot.
One must not despise these bold soldiers of art who construct the works of approach, never fearing to enter courageously into unexplored and sometimes blind paths, and who, in very truth, do more for the march and progress of music than those who, walking in the steps of the leader of the file, seek only the success and applause of the multitude. " Art does not exist in order to procure wealth. Be a noble artist and the rest will be given to you into the bargain," says Schumann, who knew how to preach by example. Everybody must bring a stone; no matter how small it may be, the contribution will never be useless, provided it is sincere and brought in good faith. Alfred de Musset was not afraid to write:
An artist is a man, he writes for men. Liberty is the priestess of the temple.
The composer, filled with the nobility of his mission, should not therefore apply himself to doing again what has already been done, for there is no advancement in this, but to creating anew, to venturing ceaselessly into paths where there may be something to =discover, and to inventing ingenious methods. But when I say venture, there are at least two ways of venturing: we may venture heedlessly or venture prudently ; here is where the rôle of talent intervenes, crying " stop," if we have taken the wrong road. Then it is at least useless to push research in the direction of careers already exploited, where we can discover nothing but what has been discovered already by others ; or, if we do this, let it be knowingly and with the intention of going farther. Hence the utility of erudition and intimate knowledge of the Masters of the past, in a word the History of Music.
What will be the coming Art? That is impossible to predict.
Nevertheless, after the manner in which the pre-ceding evolutions have announced and produced them-selves, considering also certain tendencies which manifest themselves in the highest representatives of the art of today, we may conjecture that a return to the tonalities of Plain-Song or the Greek scales, much richer than ours, with a preponderance given to the melodic element, allied to a far greater simplicity of procedure, is not improbable. Everybody knows that in every species of art the greatest effects are produced by the simplest means, and that in everything, good taste and distinction do not consist in producing embarrassment nor a parade of one's knowledge. Now, the farther we have strayed from this simplicity of method, the greater the chance that we shall return to it ; the same reason should attract composers to the antique modes, which, long forgotten and embellished with prodigious artifices of Harmony, now appear as novelties. Likewise, it seems natural that the purely melodic element which latterly has been in truth too much disdained, will claim its ancient rights. Who lives will see. Not till two hundred years hence shall I know if I have been a good prophet.