Art And Music
( Originally Published 1905 )
THE statement that Music is an Art is likely to pass unchallenged. And yet it may not be amiss, in undertaking an examination of the work of composer and performer, to inquire at the outset as to just what we mean by Art, and just what by Music. There surely is much that is called Music in Nature — the song of the bird, the babble of the brook, the soughing of the wind —and Nature is the antithesis of Art. The melody that bursts unbidden from the untrained lips of a happy maiden, the hum of spindles that makes the sweetest of all music in the ears of the owner to whom their vibrations mean wealth — these and similar sounds are hardly to be comprehended in any accepted definition of art. And going a step further, can we concede the presence of art in the simple melody, the primitive folk-song, the reproduced or closely imitated "tune" that occurs without thought or study to one who has had his ears in the way of hearing similar ditties since his birth ? Surely no high art, no fine art is involved in such music.
For our thought of art is hardly so comprehensive as would be implied by the docile acceptance of the dictum of the lexicographers. The artist unquestionably possesses "the power or skill of doing something not taught by nature," but we hesitate to give so prized a title to the maker of cemetery urns and angels, to the designer of senseless caricatures in the daily press, even to the photographer. These are undoubtedly workers in art, yet no person of judgment would be likely to call them artists, or their productions art works. That widely accepted definition of the Fine Arts (for our discussion, of course, makes no account of useful arts) which distinguishes them as man's effort to give pleasure by his power or skill, is also somewhat beside the mark. The mechanical toy of the street fakir is not a natural product; it is not useful; it often shows much inventive and mechanical skill and does not necessarily offend the æsthetic sensibilities; its object is unquestionably to give pleasure, but who would call it an art work? And on the other hand, is the Laocoon, or some great picture of battle carnage, intended primarily to give pleasure? Pleasure we certainly find in appreciating the mastery of the tools, material, models, conception and expression, displayed by the artist, but the earliest emotion produced by such works in the mind of a cultured beholder can hardly be pleasure, nor can one think that the artist in-tended otherwise.
Another difficulty about defining art in terms of pleasure applies especially to music. Whose pleasure in a style or specific work of music, is to rank it among the art treasures of the race ? Time, of course, will settle the matter, but we want a standard that can be applied promptly. It will not do to say that that music is to rank as art that gives pleasure to persons of culture, for those whose instant admission to the jury on that qualification is assured, would render such variant opinions as could decide nothing. Nor would it greatly help matters to admit the verdict of those only who are possessed of musical culture, for such have not agreed as yet among themselves as to whether Franz Liszt was a great composer or a great charlatan, although his career began as far back as those of Chopin, Schumann, and Wagner, and he now has been already some years with the silent majority. Many who read these lines will doubtless recall the struggle for recognition by critics and musicians, through which Schumann, Wagner, and Richard Strauss have been required to pass.
In music one man's meat is another man's poison. One lover of the beautiful can appreciate the charm of the speaking voice, full, rich, and well modulated, or the solemn pealing of a distant deep-toned bell, but has no ear for sonatas or cantatas. Of two souls full of high thoughts and noble aspirations, loving to dwell upon lofty themes and poetic imagery, one will revel in a " Gospel Hymn " and loathe " Plain Song" ; the other will find inspiration and delight in a Gregorian tone, and wonder how anybody can tolerate flippant rhythms in or out of church. Clearly the artistic value of music cannot be settled by the pleasure it gives.
Music less than the other arts should have demanded of it that it give pleasure to the listener or abandon its claim to artistic excellence. Music has often been called the language of the emotions, and as a language it is quite as well qualified to express pain as pleasure, grief as joy. Music, too, is frequently associated with poetry, and, in the service of the church, also with the sacred themes of religion and the words of Holy Scripture. In these relations it is called upon to heighten the effect of grievous thought, to vivify the hatefulness of sin, the sufferings of a martyr. Shall it attempt to give pleasure by the fulfilment of these offices ? Surely not otherwise than by its perfect sympathy with its task, its perfect adaptation to its aim.
With a slight modification, particularly in the interest of music, the definition of Emerson may be accepted as best expressing the meaning of art. He has it that : " The conscious utterance of thought, by speech or action, to any end, is art. The spirit in its creation aims at use or at beauty, and hence art divides itself into the Useful and the Fine Arts." In view of considerations already sufficiently elucidated, the definition might be more thoroughly satisfactory if it read : A fine art is the conscious or intentional utterance of thought, by word or action, for the purpose of creating Beauty or expressing Emotion. Here, then, we have the definition of art that will underlie the following inquiry.
Music is a word that means many things to many minds. Bottom asserts : " I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and the bones." Emerson is doubtless correct in saying that "a jumble of musical sounds on a viol or flute, in which the rhythm of the time is played without one of the notes being right, gives pleasure to the unskillful ear. The newspapers had it that the Shah during one of his visits to Lon-don was entertained at an orchestral concert, and in reply to an inquiry as to which of the pieces best pleased him, named the "first " one. This, it was discovered, signified the tuning of the various instruments a revelry of unrelated sounds so offensive to music-lovers that now-a-days in the best concerts the directors are requiring the players to tune behind the scenes, and to give any necessary finishing touches to the instruments of unstable pitch as quietly as possible.
Nearly all conceivable sounds and combinations of sounds, from the screech of a locomotive whistle, or the yell of a wild beast, to the breathings of an aeolian harp, or the imagining of the harmony of the spheres, have been called music by some enthusiast whose soul has been enraptured by them. One person will claim to be "passionately fond of music" and will talk loudly during the entire time of a musical performance given, perhaps, at his own request. Such a person must be accounted a member of that large class of empty-headed devotees of fashion who pronounce the theater, the reception, the summer-resort hotel, the excursion steamer " so dull " without " music," and are consequently largely responsible for the strumming upon pianos and harps, the scraping upon violins, and for much of the grindings of barrel-organs, pianolas, and the like, by means of which trash under the name of music, or mechanism in the guise of art, is disseminated in public places, to the detriment alike of good conversation in ordinary tones of voice, and to habits of respect for, and attentive listening to, real music. Such persons know nothing of, and care nothing for, music. They simply prefer musical sounds in their ears to the emptiness in their minds.
A certain prominent pianist, musician and teacher, not long ago gave it as his serious conviction, that the cause of good music was greatly injured by the number of pianos in use, and by the style of teaching and character of playing which frequently were fostered by the easy accessibility and tremendous vogue of this instrument. Just as appreciation of, and reliance upon good work in medical science are hindered by quacks, advertised nostrums, and old wives prescriptions, so growth in musical taste is retarded by the abundant facilities for the production of quasi musical noises. Yet it cannot be doubted that many persons derive much pleasure of a perfectly innocent sort from the drummings upon pianos, the tootings of the street band, and the wheezings ground out by the crank of the organ man. The familiar air scraped from a fiddle by a blind beggar will start a dozen children to singing the words with evident enjoyment; and the shallowest and most flippant of Gospel Hymns, if it but attract from the slums to better influences and stimulate the degraded mind to better thoughts, is in just so far and to persons of such attainments, educative, uplifting, artistic. Let us not forget that he also climbs who only gets upon a post to see further over the heads of the rabble, as truly as he who ascends a mountain peak to gain a wider view of nature's beauty. While strongly contending that much that passes in what is called "good society " for music is not really music at all; while holding that many things heard in our churches and theaters are as well worthy of a performance there as an illustration cut from a daily newspaper would be of a place in a portfolio of engravings; one may still point out that there is a legitimate and even educational place and use for the simplest and crudest combinations of musical sounds. À thing is elevating or degrading according to its relations to our standards ; and it is lamentable that the musical standards of persons of good general education are so shamefully low. Even the commonest of ditties has served as a stepping-stone to higher and better things. Even the stupidest of sentimental ballads has occasion-ally been lifted by the interpretive treatment of a consummate artist till it has become a medium for the conveyance of powerful emotional effects.
And that leads directly to the question as to whether we are to consider that only as music which can be heard, or whether we shall restrict the term to the conception of the composer as expressed in notes. As has been already obscurely intimated, a vast amount of music exists only in the mind of the hearer. A lady who can exclaim : "Did you ever hear anything so perfectly exquisite ? " after listening to a flute and piano duet by amateurs whose instruments varied a quarter of a tone in pitch, must necessarily have derived her evident enjoyment of the performance from the recollection that her dead son or lover used to play the flute, or from some other association in her own mind awakened by the character of the performance. The playing of a Beethoven Sonata by a country school girl, by a pianola, and by a Paderewski, will result in three widely different effects, none of which may fully accord with the original conception in the mind of Beethoven which he attempted to commit to paper. If music is an art, it follows that the playing of a Sonata by a pianola is not music. If music is a language, it follows that the performance of such a work by what (for lack of a better designation) we will call the country school-girl, is not music. If music is the conception (including the conception of its audible results) in the mind of the composer, then no one enjoys the music of a composer but he who hears the composer him-self perform it, or gets his idea of it from the printed page alone without translation into audible sounds. But if music be the fundamental, creative conception plus the interpretive sounds, then the interpretive artist is an essential element in its production, and is as truly an artist as the composer.
This point needs especial emphasis, for the character of the studies about to be undertaken in The Art of the Musician, must necessarily be almost restricted to the Art of the Composer. Even the most vivid conception of the composer, unheard—be it the conception of the deaf Beethoven himself —can scarcely approximate in power and effectiveness the worthy sonant interpretation of that conception. Hence the interpreter must be given a high, an honorable place; - perhaps even the highest place in music belongs to him.
We conceive of music primarily as sound—as something heard. There is something incongruous in the thought of a man as a musician who can neither play nor sing, and yet a number have taken high rank as composers whose playing or singing has been at most unimpressive. While statistics would be hard to accumulate upon the subject, and opinions would differ greatly, the present author inclines to the view that fewer persons have attained to the first rank as executants and interpreters than as composers. Probably a far larger number attempt to play or sing than to compose, yet of the larger number, fewer reach commanding excellence. Is it because interpretive power is more difficult to obtain ? It is a point to touch upon lightly ; yet in a work that must consider music chiefly as found upon the printed page, let this tribute stand to the inestimable value to the art of the man who can absorb the musical ideas of another, make them his own and so vitalize them through voice or instrument that their power and beauty can impress and sway the multitude of listeners. The interpretive artist deserves a place no whit beneath that of the composer. No two composers have influenced musical progress in America more strongly than have Anton Rubinstein by his playing, and Theodore Thomas, who was not a composer.
The Art of the Musician, then, is the conscious, intelligent or intentional handling or combination of sounds, rhythms, musical conventions, and inspirations, into works displaying beauty or expressing emotion. The musician is not responsible for the physical laws of vibration or their results; he is not the creator of the ravishing tones of the violin or the human voice; it is no honor to him that common chords vibrate harmoniously; even charming melodies must be looked upon more as his inspirations, as gifts to him, than as his creations. All these things are his materials. Let him show by his handling that he has the mastery of them all, that he has had a vision of beauty, that he has something in his heart to reveal through them, and how gladly will we listen to his tone poems, honor his skill, and thank God for his art! The music is in the thought conveyed through the sounds—not in the mere sounds themselves.