Horatio Parker, Deems Taylor, Roy Harris
( Originally Published 1929 )
SUCH charges have actually occurred. There is an American music, or music by Americans, quite autonomous in material, integral in form and expression, walking the world in its own good right. Numerically, the works born of the smaller forces, those insufficiently powerful to make of their exercise a satisfaction requiring no support and sanction, still predominate. Perhaps they will always do so. But something has moved, grown stronger, in recent America. For the first time, we in the west have a music, a treatment of sonorous material and an expression; immediately declarative, like our other growing arts, of impulses requiring no selfjustification through conformity with prevalent aesthetics; and making independently for style.
The earliest; in certain respects the least advanced, of these, are Horatio Parker's oratorio Hora Novissima and opera Mona. Neither of these virile compositions lean either on literature or on the aesthetics of other times and composers. Whatever limits the breadth and richness the material may have, the material itself is independent and sturdy; and the method of treatment, appropriate to it. This does not mean that Horatio Parker was either an exuberantly gifted or universally comprehensive musician. Pronouncedly a composer of the religious type, his capacity for releasing musical form, and giving expression to the human being, was narrow in comparison to that of even so circumscribed a musician as César Franck, in many points of style and attitude his best counterpart. For example, Flora Novissima, Parker's choral setting of Bernard de Morlaix's tender Rhythm on the Celestial Country and celebration of the mystic union of the Creature and the Creator, offers us the excellent and the mediocre, the magnificently textured and the thinly textured, intermingled like the greener and greyer lichens on a mossy rock. Anything but unctuous, such numbers of the oratorio as the bass aria Spe Modo Vivitur and the tenor aria Urbs Syon Aurea, verge closely on conventional modern church music... . Parker undisputably had a tendency toward hard and angular writing, and an-other toward its complement, the florid and rhetorical; and for some strange and doubtless Puritanic reason, succumbed to one or the other most frequently in handling the solo voice. His songs are his least representative works: for the single Across the Fields we have several such indifferent affairs as I Will Come Back and The Lark Now Leaves His Wat'ry Nest. The conspicious exception to Parker's comparative unsuccess with the solo voice occurs in the first act of Mona, during the heroine's immensely dramatic narrative. Yet, despite the distinction between the individual numbers of Hora Novissima, the work as a whole remains, with Les Béatitudes, one of the few successors of Beethoven's loftily pitched Solemn Mass. The choice among the numbers of the oratorio is never between a merely good and merely bad; but between two sorts of things that, no matter how far the lesser diverges from the greater, still remain within the common bounds of the warm, the eloquent, the necessary. None of the less attractive numbers actually break the lofty mood and character of the work. We invariably feel that a musical state of being, some
thing sweet and full, is lyrical; and the better pages, the choral passages, have a fine majesty and vigour. The vocal masses are moved with brio and skill, and the quartet, the a-capella and the accompanied choruses, sing the severe, strangely bitter-sweet and nonetheless masculinely yea-saying music, characteristic of Parker at his best; provocative, as nothing previous in American musical art, of a thoroughly unhesitating response.
Mona ranks with Salomé, Pelléas, Sette Canzoni and the other notable post-Wagnerian operas; but like Hora Novissima, the score is uneven. The music of the first act is shortwinded, scarcely interesting before the heroine begins her great narrative. The prelude and dance-scene opening the second act, have lilting waltz-like cadences: very ordinary; anybody's music. And Mona's final speech gives evidences of labour. The strength and weakness of the score is illustrated by the prelude of the first act, where the poetic introduction in b-major is following by a theme in g suggesting Hymns Ancient and Modern and Sun-day evening song-services. Parker was an organist, and his affection for the black ecclesiastical instrument at times got between him and the orchestra. Like Reger's, not a little of his writing has the thickness of organ-phrasing; and at moments, a psalmodizing vein overmasters it. Yet, upon the hymn tune of the prelude to Mona follows a broad, massively worked up climax; and after that, comes a pentatonic passage of ripest inspiration. It is a music entirely Parker's own, characteristically bitter and sweet, passionate and reserved. Such pages of music, recurring through the score, give the little opera its permanence. One's admiration for it is greater today than at the time of its production in 1912. Mona is a veritable drama per musica. Not only action and music, but word and music, are well-mated in it. Parker worked to bring out the values of the text, and to achieve a declamation, and recitative and lyrical style, true to the genius of English speech; and Mona's narrative in Act I seems to us not only superb as music, but one of the artistic triumphs of English opera. The close of the first and second acts magnificently embody Parker's feeling for the choral medium. The love scenes glamorously straying voices and pearly pianissimos retain a rare enchantment. Above all, the third act, with its strong, mournful opening; and the orchestral soliloquy following the death of Gwynn (the plangent brasses in acrid intervals) stands untroubled with colors that do not run; certainly the high mark of American music up to the most recent time; and perfectly worthy in its quality of the best scores of any contemporary European or American.
Why then didn't Mona hold the stage? Why was it withdrawn from the Metropolitan Opera after four or five performances? There are several explanations. One of them has to do with the quality of the performance itself. The Metropolitan cast a number of American born members of its troupe for the principal roles, with the consequence that the words were lost. The one articulate performance was that of Albert Reiss, a German, assigned to the rôle of Nial.
Another explanation has to do with the intelligence of the public which supports the Metropolitan Opera, beautifully illustrated by the caliber of the one American operatic work successful with it: The King's Henchmen, by Deems Taylor. The characteristic of this ingenious composition is a thoroughgoing uninventiveness. The composer attacked not a single one of the problems presented to him, in a fresh spirit; allaying every one by the most trite and accepted means. Of course; this thoroughgoing uninventiveness of the music is in perfect keeping with the libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay. For' isn't that like so much of her work, a warming-over of the motives of past poetry?
Precisely this careful omission of everything not previously tried and done, recommended the work to the Metropolitan public. And not only to the public. Let no one suspect the New York newspaper critics of corruption. A more earnest group of gentlemen does not exist. No, if to a man they overplayed the importance of this preposterous affair, it was out of an indomitable devotion to the customary. Do they not all dote upon Tchaikowsky's music, let it but appear over the name of some "modern" like Honneger, and under that of Pacific 23 I ?
No matter. Opinion in these days is not made by the critics, but by the artists themselves. And what the artistic opinion of the composer of The King's Henchman is, may be gathered from the following anecdote. A young American author resident in Paris, being called to America and forced to leave his sick wife in medical care, arranged a cable-code by which she could keep him informed of her state. There were three words in it. The first, Bach, signified, Best Possible Progress. The second, Verdi, signified, Slow but Steady Progress. The third, was Taylor; and the meaning was: Discouraging but not Dangerous.
Mona's day, however, is with a vivid America. In Parker's opera and in Hora Novissima we have, for the first time in America some strictly traditional music, in the word's true sense. While these works do not greatly enlarge the boundaries of musical art, either in their material or in their conceptions, neither do they turn backward, or represent approximations to the forms and aesthetics of other men and times. They are a carrying over of elements inherent in race and environment, a building upon the experience of the past; and while the novelties they add to these elements and experiences are perhaps not of the first importance, the absence of such powerfully original elements is compensated for by the integrity, the autonimity, the fine selfhood of the edifice. That is to say that Horatio Parker, slighter than Brahms and Franck though he is, is still of their company; with Glinka, d'Indy, Hindemith and the other smaller authentic traditionalists. Parker's roots seem to have been half in the Protestant hymnology and half in the classic European music, just as Glinka's were half in Russian folksong and half in eighteenth-century opera. Wherever they were, they bore a fine flower. Whether the force that sent up this virile music of Parker's represented a last flicker or a new incandescence of the New England strain in American life, we cannot say; though the recent fecundity in artists shown by the Puritan stronghold—from E. A. Robinson to Phelps Putnam and Wallace Gould —makes us lean toward the happier interpretation. But whether it was a last gasp or a new beginning, this remains certain: that once again in New England there was sufficient force to carry a feeling, an earnestness about life into the world through an artistic medium; and free man for living, through sorrow, and through faith.
An even intenser rebirth of traditional,. probably Scotch-Irish, musical norms is embodied in the music of Roy Harris. Himself a very late arrival on the musical horizon (his discovery being said to have resulted from one of Elley Ney's last forays into the west) , the young Oklahoman constitutes one of the chief potentialities of American music; perhaps of modern music altogether. This eminence he primarily owes to the novelty and strength of his melodic writing; though the originality and exquisiteness of certain of his harmonic passages, principally in the piano sonata, is scarcely inferior to it. Harris's melodic line has an immense amount of variety, a principle coincident with that of continuity. At its best, say in the scherzo of the sextet and the alla cadenza passage of the scherzo of the piano sonata, it is sustained with exceptional ability, and careers, and dances, and keeps on leaping and renewing itself with a refreshing vigour. What actually happens is that Harris persistently reconstitutes his themes on notes and intervals and with accents quite different from those on which they were first conceived; preserving nonetheless their original characters. The continuity meanwhile is sustained by the pitch; for, apparently atonal, Harris's melodies actually move about groundnotes that remain implicit in spite of the fact that the melodies themselves never come quite to repose on them. This gives his melodic conduct a certain irregularity and looseness, makes it affect one like the sight of a body reeling from side to side, staggering a little and yet never actually losing its balance. Cowboys walk in that fashion, extremely awkwardly and extremely lithely; and so personal a piece as the scherzo of Harris's sextet brings to mind nothing so much as the image of a little cowboy running and reeling about on the instruments, toppling but never falling.
The pastoral image is not fortuitous. Harris's music, at least the most significant part of it, is unquestionably related to the Scotch-Irish folksong surviving in the United States, particularly to that vein of it surviving in the cowboy ballads. Its jig-like turn, its prevalently melancholy, mystical and defiant humours, its favoritism of the Scotch intervals, its bareness, awkwardness and unvoluptuousness, are undeniably symptomatic. At the same time, Harris's music obviously has the integrity of the thing not made but created. It is no mere repetition or rearrangement of the traditional folksong surviving in pastoral and agricultural America; no pastiche. Harris is no musical folklorist, as for instance Henry F. Gilbert was. His compositions have a style, a pervasive individuality, even in some of their vaguest pages. Hence, we are at liberty to assume that they represent one of those marvellous recrudescences, those new burgeonings of stalks long dry and seeds long buried, with which life with an incomparable magnificence, occasionally regales us. No doubt, Harris heard the peasant tunes preserved by his stock all through his childhood. No doubt, they are inextricable elements of his picture of life. Whether they actually formed his style, we cannot say. Possibly it might have formed itself much as we now know it, had no cowboy songs circulated in the world into which Harris was born. It is probable that his agrestic, hence conservative circumstances, made the style inevitable. The ubiquity of the Scotch-Irish melodies doubtless merely speeded the inevitable process, helping to a rapid orientation the budding power.
Harris still figures somewhat more as a squire of music than as a fully spurred knight, largely for the reason that we do not yet possess a singly completely realized composition of his. With scarcely an exception, all of them are made up of movements somewhat unequal in value. It will be noticed that in speaking of Harris's extraordinary melodic line, we have had reference to the scherzi of his sextet and piano sonata. Well, practically all the instances of sinewy, racy, beautifully autochthonous writing found in his work occur under conditions of fast time. The slow tempi almost invariably marshal music that is slightly slack, slightly vague, and of undecided lineage. The melody is usually MacDowellesque, the solemn sumptuous sweetish harmonizations recall the works of César Franck. The single possible exception to this rule is supplied by the piano sonata, whose slow movement has an individual austerity and sharpness. But even this movement is slightly monotonous and prolix toward the close; in one spot dangerously reminiscent of one of Brahms's intermezzi. On the whole, the typical Harris composition remains a curious sort of now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don't; the discourse of a spirit speaking oftentimes wonderfully idiomatically and eloquently, and sometimes slackly and a little inexpressively. Just why there should be this disparity between Harris fast and Harris slow; between the scherzo and lento of his sextet, the finale and all the preceding movements of his symphony, say, it is almost impossible to tell. Perhaps the cause lies in the circumstance that the fast tempi embody the more motory, and the slow the more lyrical aspects of his impulse; and that, so far, the typical American psyche is more definitely motory? Perhaps it is part of the mere condition of youthfulness? But if the cause of the disparity is obscure, the fact of it is anything but so.
Add to this unevenness a certain inexperience and undeftness with the forms and mediums employed, and the present probationary status of this frequently starkly individual musician becomes comprehensible. Occasionally, as in the fugato of the two polyrhythms in the last movement of the sonata, Harris shows a masterly control; and his feeling for the pianoforte is invariably rich and idiomatic. Form, however, is not his forte, and his feeling for instruments other than the great solo one, is uncertain. He lately spoiled some very fine ideas, employed in the three choruses on verses of Whitman's, by some inexpert vocal writing. The treatment of the choral body was turgid and unsympathetic, and the union between the pianos and the voices anything but effective.
Still, very few American composers; indeed, very few composers throughout the world, give greater promises of growth than this awkward, serious young plainsman. An indubitable force is working about in him: he has put that awkward melodic line of his, born right out of the experience of his race, to important uses. Harris's allegro movements have impressive strength. They are authentically grandiose; bare, naked, and heroic. His range of emotion is somewhat broader than that of some other of his coevals æsthetically his superiors: while his music is inferior in point of architecture to Aaron Copland's, it communicates a more human experience; and while it is less savagely intense than Carlos Chavez's, it traverses a greater variety of moods. Harris's piano sonata carries the pathos of many lives beside his own. Its gaunt homely forms seem charged with the feeling of many struggling, patient, tragical existences on this continent; on the farms, in the homes, long ago, here now. Besides Harris appears to have the capacity for getting through with his experiences; his music has emotional progression and reaches round conclusions. And it is doubtful whether if he does fill in the rugged outline of a composer he has drawn, any other American composer, original or traditional, will bulk larger than himself.