Test Of Musical Worth
( Originally Published 1905 )
WHILE those who are learned in finance are finding it difficult to agree among themselves as to what terms will express the relative worth of an ounce of gold, a bushel of wheat, or a day's labor, and what they shall choose as a standard unit of value, it -is indeed a matter for congratulation that no necessity exists for putting an absolute appraisement upon The Art of the Musician. Like health, the physician's visit to the sick baby, the consolations of religion, or a good reputation, music is simply invaluable ; and while investments in opera-houses, church organs, piano factories, engraved plates, and instruction afford some data in getting at a commercial valuation for the habiliments of the art, the lowest estimate might seem extravagant to him who has no music in his soul, and the highest would seem to the devotee a bauble to offer in exchange for the pure delight, the spiritual uplift, the soul revelation and communion granted to humanity in the " divine art."
But the present chapter contemplates no monetary equations, no calculations as to the therapeutic value of music in the treatment of phthisis or melancholia, or of its moral utility in the neutralization of evil resorts or temptations. It is simply intended to afford some data for an estimate of the relative value of musical performances, and of compositions, good, bad, and indifferent, that appeal for a hearing pretending to be products of The Art of the- Musician. In what way may musical worth be tested ? How may the amateur know upon what works he may most wisely feed his musical nature ?
The typical American from his earliest infancy, at least in reputation, is disrespectful toward authority. Particularly in matters of taste is he prone to regard his intuitive feeling a court of last appeal. Musicians have learned to expect those laymen who have official relations to their art (theatrical managers, Boards of Education, Church Music Committees, and the like) to avow technical ignorance about it while nevertheless insisting upon the carrying-out of musical activities to which they are officially related, in accordance with their own judgment or taste. They not only explain that they " know what pleases them," but they imply that what pleases them will please the majority of all concerned — what may be more agreeable to the professional musician, these self-appointed guardians of taste are sure will be unwelcome to the public. In such cases it is usually of little avail to suggest that in the education of taste it is not of so much importance to inquire what does please as what ought to please ; but the latter question may be presumed to have the greater interest to those who really desire to acquire a sound judgment of musical worth. Whatever in music stirs or thrills, or uplifts or sooths you, is doubtless good for you, but in matters of art, cultivated taste is better than natural instincts. It makes some difference who and what you are that are so easily pleased.
Probably the easiest, trustworthy standard of musical excellence to apply is that of combined endurance and vogue. Were this double standard to be relied upon exclusively, it would give very inadequate results and be responsible for very distorted judgments. The Gregorian chant is not entitled to a high place in the temple of art — in fact, it may even have its claim to any consideration as an expression of musical art challenged ; yet it is very old and very widely in use today. In a lesser degree the same thing is true of some old chorales and even some popular melodies. But while one will not be led astray by trusting to the rule of endurance and vogue as giving to such things some real worth, one will not go far toward the cultivation of a broad or catholic taste by the study of such simple tonal arrangements or by restricting his attention to the older examples of The Art of the Musician. Music as we know it today is the youngest of the arts, and much that is of great value has not yet had the opportunity to prove that it has vitality sufficient to hold an honorable position for over half a century. At this writing only the earlier works of Bach have attained to two hundred years, and but a portion of the Beethoven Sonatas are more than a century old. Yet Bach and Beethoven are the Milton and Shakespeare of music.
Works that are now issued by more than one publishing house without violation of the copyright laws of European countries, may pretty safely be assumed to belong to the worthier classes of composition. Yet this rule will give its sanction to that most detestible of abominations, a The Maiden's Prayer," and also to a lot of Etudes that have little to recommend them as technical material and less as artistic conceptions. Publishers are avowedly considering the question of profit. They publish what will sell regardless of high artistic standards or merits. If to the consideration of endurance and vogue could be added an examination of the taste of purchasers, one then would have little difficulty in selecting the best music.
Another standard that will give most excellent results is to be found in the names of the accepted great composers. One cannot familiarize himself thoroughly with the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and others of their fame, or even with the compositions of any one of them, without acquiring a cultivation of taste that will at least secure the student from acceptance of the unworthy as really valuable. Yet, who has not learned that at times the highest have descended to pot boilers " ? It is undeniable that even the greatest composers have put out works of questionable merit, that a wide difference in the quality of even famous works exists in the case of all great composers, and that many critics, by pinning their faith too closely to the style of men of established reputation have come to think of contemporary work with prejudiced and harsh judgment. There is no royal road to learning or to an authoritative individual verdict upon the learning or skill of others. The good old plan of omnivorous, hard study, critical comparison of details and general effect, and examination of the views of the wise and 'their foundation, is the only one that can be warranted to produce an authority upon any subject.
Popular judgment is apt to be based upon little experience and too narrow a view. Americans have been so thoroughly convinced that the study of music consisted in learning to play upon an instrument, or perhaps to sing, regardless of what music was played or sung, that even when fashion tolerates or dictates masterworks for the concert room, the interest is still chiefly centered upon the performance. A series of eminent pianists heard at the metropolitan concerts are compared as to their touch, execution, force, brilliancy, magnetism, method, or what-not ? but the message they should be first concerned to interpret is well-nigh a sealed book to the auditors. A remarkable sameness of program has been noticed at such concerts, but whether it is due to the demand of the audiences or to a desire on the part of the pianists to be compared as performers of the same standard works, it surely does not indicate that the first musical interest is the message of the composers. When the music students begin to interest themselves in rhythmical peculiarities, harmonic richness, thematic germs and their scholarly development, formal structure, and inherent meaning, there will be more of true artistic culture and sound judgment, and in consequence wider dissemination of worthy music and a: greater educational value in its study.
For as the worth of poetry may be measured by the closeness of its approach to the definition, "Great Thoughts Expressed in Beautiful Language," so the worth of music may be estimated by its approximation to the realization of "Great Feeling Expressed in Beautiful Sounds."
The application of this test to artistic interpretation has already occupied our attention. How many hundreds of beautiful pianists there are whose playing leaves one cold, for one who can touch the heart ; and how much more is the one to be prized than the hundreds. A player with really great feeling — not sickly sentimentality or maudlin hypocrisy —can even be forgiven some deficiencies of technic, execution, or memory ; yes, cultured music lovers will extend their pardon to questionable taste in selection if genuine soul-revelation is displayed in interpretation. But combine such heart outpouring through sounds with really perfect production of the sounds themselves, and the pianist so equipped with feeling and technic has the ear of the whole musical world.
So superior in beauty of tone is the cultivated human voice to -any instrument, that many sins of omission are forgiven the singer. Ordinary soloists, especially such as are frequently found in church choirs, seem bent oftentimes upon displaying their powers of vocalization or their " beautiful tones," without disclosing thought or expression even as to balance of parts, much less as to emphasis or clear enunciation of words. Well-paid choirs will sing week after week with-out emphasizing a poetic or religious sentiment or emitting a tender tone ; yet their work is approved and continued, perhaps for lack of better, perhaps for lack of intelligent criticism, perhaps because of their personal beauty, taste in dress, good conduct, good voices, or because the friendly feeling and social influence in their behalf of important pewholders are as highly esteemed as good music. But let the rare singer be heard who, with all the vocal equipment and training that go to secure the " Beautiful Sounds," has also the " Great Feeling" and the, gift of giving it adequate expression, how incomparable does she seem.
The " Gospel Singer" who touches the heart does more to advance civilization and culture than can the machine pneumatic or human—who plays " beautiful sounds" faultlessly but soullessly. Had that point been given its due weight in our general music study- (so called), the recent astonishing popularity of the mechanical piano-player could hardly have been created. In previous chapters it has been willingly and freely conceded that the vogue of such machines has had. a helpful tendency in certain important lines of musical investigation. They have borne much the relation to music that have photographs to painting and sculpture, or " pony translations" to foreign literature. The idea that they make real music, however, that they play with " expression," that they reveal the soul of the masters of tone-poetry to listeners, that they conjure dreams, feed imagination, or form an avenue of communication between heart and heart, is one that, could only have gained even a moment's credence because of the vulgar confounding of the technical study of fingerboards or voice with music study.
True art is worthy of the most perfect setting. The art of the tone creator demands and tends to induce the utmost perfection in the special art of the tone interpreter. The love and study of music will not deteriorate, but rather will exalt the quality of technical training and incite to higher achievements than have yet been known in the mastery of instruments of expression. Great music stimulates great technic ; but when we shall have gained a true conception of what music study means we shall not concern ourselves to spend hours upon scales, arpeggios and etudes, and only brief moments upon tone-poems. A finished and perfect performance is delightful, creditable, the only fit setting of a masterwork; but does not. he resemble the man with the muckrake, who while ignorant of the wealth of tonal imaginings strives day after day under the lash of the metronome to attain a velocity of a thousand notes a minute ? What can be more ravishing than a beautiful, highly cultivated voice ? but think you, is the expanding of our higher natures and the uplift of the community in the things of the spirit better conserved by slavish devotion to the care of a delicate throat, or by the stimulating, cooperative study of the great oratorios and cantatas, by well organized and trained church choirs, and by well-sustained orchestral concerts ? That form of musical art that insures the united effort of the largest numbers, and most completely sinks the individual and discourages personal display, is the form that has the largest influence upon character and culture is moat to be approved.
But to plead for the true standards of judgment in relation to musical art is not to deny all value to the elementary forms. One may love gold as a material for a wedding ring or a watch case, and yet appreciate iron for a stove, or crockery for a flower pot. As one may harmlessly enjoy the colors on a palette or in a paintbox,. or gaze upon the curves of a pretty face in an advertisement, so one may enjoy the jangling wealth of vibration in a hymn tune played by steeple chimes, or drink in the melody of a simple ballad. A mechanical piano-player using a paper roll can aid in the dance or in the study of. harmonic progression, or of the history of compositions and as a drawing-room is more attractive for the wall paper with its, set design, and the book for its stamped spray of flower stems peeping over the edge, so the worship of the church is to very many more significant and soul-satisfying for the chant and the response. True, these are but upon the borderland of musical art, yet they allow of tonal richness that cannot be displayed in spoken words. He who loves tonal richness is certainly nearer to a love of real music than is he who cares only for rhythmic enunciation, and he who finds a musical satisfaction in hearing a chant is nearer to understanding tone poetry than is he who declares glibly that he is " passionately fond of music" and then talks all through its performance.
In short, there are no absolute standards in music beyond the most elementary considerations. As in literature we have certain rules of grammar and rhetoric which leave it an open question whether we shall get the most intellectual pabulum from and yield the most admiration to Homer, or Shakespeare, or Macaulay, or Kipling, so in music there are the laws of harmony and counterpoint, but they will never make the lover of tradition prefer Liszt to Bach, or the admirer of passionate expression prefer Palestrina, to Wagner. Beethoven stands towering head and shoulders above his contemporaries, but Tsehaikowsky has learned his secret, built upon his foundation, and enlarged the temple of art that he bequeathed ; and Nevin has fitted up a room in that same temple where many a musically simple one may sit and rest in peace who would only be wearied by a study of the plan or a contemplation of the façade of the great edifice. The learned musician, familiar with all the resources of musical art, often despises the simple things and overshoots the mark in his attempt to thrill either the congregation or the concert audience. He cares for structure and invention, and harmony and motives and mastery, and perhaps his heart is not as susceptible his brain to musical influences. On the other h the amateur responsive to tonal impressions and inspiriting rhythms, often fancies that he grasps and comprehends all there is of music, and questions the possibility of getting any enjoyment out of expositions, variations, contrapuntal imitations, thematic development and other artistic. refinements. He cares for melody, sentiment, and either stimulation or soothing. The realm of tones has need of them both and is large enough for all.
The great words are growth, education, imagination, thought, influence, beauty, character. The main point is to so 'use God's precious gifts of musical sounds and the skill to combine them, that by all means we may get an uplift from them. We need a higher appreciation of the powers of the human mind and of the beauty there is in the harmonious application of Divine creations to each other and to the exigencies of life and expression, however broad or narrow that life in the individual, however humble or exalted the requirements of expression. The question is of advancement, whether we must charitably grant the suitability of trivial music to the present status of untrained minds or humbly accept the judgment of the connoisseur as to the beauty and appropriateness of works of highly developed art which' are beyond the appreciation to which we have already attained. Musicians while laboring with a constant mind to secure the progress of art should not neglect to study adaptability and suitableness in selecting music for public use in mission chapel, street parade, in the cultured congregation, the amateur musical society, in the theater or concert room.
The appeal_ of music is to the emotions, but it is an intelligent appeal. Perhaps its greatest virtue is its power of lifting the mind above sordid cares and worries, and giving pleasure, stimulus, peace, and rest ; but that power is multiplied many times by a thorough understanding of the structure and secret of the art. We have put too much emphasis upon technic, performance, display ; too little upon expression, interpretation, education. We have been absorbed in sounds, rhythms, execution ; better things will result from turning attention more insistently upon imaginings, beauty, life. Music is called the " Divine Art ; " the " golden harps " make us dream of it as the art of Heaven. A proper use of our opportunities in Earth's School of beginnings may qualify us to enter Paradise with advanced standing in The Art of the Musician.