Material Of Music
( Originally Published 1905 )
THERE is a certain incongruity in speaking of the imponderable, intangible elements out of which the musician creates his art works, as materials. Paper and ink, keys and pipes, strings and sounding-boards, air and ears—all these are matter ; but while the musician uses them as media, they do not constitute the material of his art. Music itself is a conception, a phantasm, a thought that exists now in the mind of the tone-poet, then in the mind of the hearer. At either point or anywhere between it may be called no music by the knowing. Yet great is its power and long its do-minion.
It can be discussed ; it can be analyzed. It may have .more of this or less of that. It is composed, and its component parts are varied in proportion as the composer chooses. What but his materials shall we call these elements mingled at the will of the artist?
Although we pretend to believe in the reality, greatness and strength of spirit and mind, and the transitoriness of things terrestrial, yet nothing can shake our deep-rooted faith in matter. The very prince of spiritualists persists in eating material food and comes in when it hails, for fear that the frozen mist may wound his corporeal frame. We talk of the " everlasting" hills and the "imperishable" marbles, even as we recall the destruction of Pompeii, or speed through some mountain by rail, or while we are engaged in discussing Praxiteles, of whose "immortal" statues not a vestige remains, but whose name and fame still endure. We persist in our anxious effort to lay up treasures upon earth, while yet we have tested and found Him true, " Who spake as never man spake" and who said,
Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my Words shall not pass away." We recognize as the most enduring and powerful influence in the world today the Spirit of Him who left no monument or canvas, who wrote only with His finger in the sand, who founded no institution and left no memorial save, "Do this in remembrance of Me." Shall we admit, then, that it is a weakness in the art of music that its materials are mere intangible and imponderable elements ? Shall we believe that the sculptor or architect, with marble or steel, can build a more enduring temple of beauty than that of the tone-poet constructed of gentle sounds which we do not care to fix and hold to conformity even in time and pitch by such scientific standards as we may possess in clock (metronome) and siren? The essence of music is not material, but it may prove more firm and enduring than the rocks themselves.
The greatest power in the physical world is sun-light; the greatest power in the spiritual world is love; the greatest power in the intellectual world is thought, which bodies itself most perfectly and easily in sound - the spoken word, the living tone. The musician works, then, with the subtlest, the most plastic, the most inspiring and significant material entrusted to any artist. He has vastly the advantage of the landscape gardener who, in his profession, has no contact with human life or passion; he has greatly the advantage of the architect who touches human life only indirectly and with but slight concern for its highest aspects ; he works in a far richer field than the sculptor who reveals human life and passion in but a cold and distant way; he outranks the painter in power and range in spite of the warmth of color and vividness of expression open to the artist upon canvas; only to the poet does the musician yield first place, and even over the poet he possesses a great advantage in that he speaks an universal language knowing no boundaries of race, nation or religion.
The very subtlety of his material removes from the musical artist some of the restraints that curtail somewhat the credit due to the work of those who aim at beauty in other fields. While every artist finds himself provided with a number of conventions which he did not originate and cannot defy; while every artist must allow some of the effect of his work to proceed from the beauty of his materials— the fine quality and polish of marble, the mass and solidity of building stones, the warmth and brightness of pigments, the sensuous charm of fine-toned instruments and rich voices; while in many cases the adventitious circumstances of place and surrounding objects add much to the effectiveness of edifice, statue, painting, or ode ; the musician and the poet alone are free from the re-strictions of a model. They have not to copy forms or introduce adventitious objects, but are at liberty to create for themselves any lines of beauty capable of realization in the materials they utilize. This freedom is undoubtedly a vast advantage to the musician, and high are the honors paid to those creative geniuses who have originated forms that have lived.
Sound, then, is the musician's material. Inspired by it, as the painter by the colors of the sunset or the sculptor by the beauty of the human form divine, the musician would learn how sound can be manipulated so as to create the beautiful. He seeks new combinations that shall yield expression to human emotion; he endeavors, through tonal inflections, to add force to the words of the poet, to develop new relationships in vibration ratios and sequences, and he strives to discover original methods of treating audible inspirations.
The difference in the quality of sounds seems to have attracted attention from the very earliest times, since the first record we have of any musical interest, in the fourth chapter of Genesis, distinguishes harp and pipe. There is evidence, too, that in Egypt and Chaldea in very ancient times great orchestras existed, made up of a large variety of instruments played simultaneously. Ancient musical notation was so imperfect that one must speak with diffidence regarding early tone-poems as to the character of both structure and performance ; but such marvellous stories have come down to us of the effects produced by music that great power on the part of the artists, or great susceptibility on the part of listeners must be assumed to have existed. To this day musicians recognize varied tone-colors as one of the prominent means of development and expression at their command, and it is easy to see why this must be so. Amateurs readily grant the high artistic value of orchestral effects and the easily appreciated significance in different qualities of tone; yet so–little is pure music understood that the maintenance of an orchestra is one of the most difficult practical problems in music life. Unless some liberal philanthropist, or a body of guarantors can be found, or a soloist capable of attracting a large audience, high class orchestral concerts are pretty sure to be given at a loss in even the largest and most musical of cities.
In other words, variation of tone-quality as a means of expression seems, strangely enough, to be one of the least attractive of the materials at the command of the musician. It should be noted that when this resource is employed, no other is thereby excluded or left unemployed --indeed, it is impossible to produce sound without the presence of all of its elements, and every listener finds a good quality of tone always a delight. But varied qualities of sound are not necessarily required for performance, and when employed liberally they seem to confuse and bewilder the ordinary listener to the extent of diverting his attention or possibly of lessening his pleasure in the music as a whole. Even effective registration, by which tone qualities are varied in playing upon the organ, has been decried as a distraction of the mind from such musical conception as can be ex-pressed by other elements of sound, and that too by organists, albeit of the cold-blooded, pedantic type.
Moreover, untrained listeners sometimes display a weariness due to too constant prevalence of a single tone color, and one who can play in some fashion upon a guitar will turn to a mandolin, a zither, or to the unspeakable banjo to add zest to his trivial tonal conceptions, although an instrument possessing real beauty of tone may be avail-able. The acknowledged difficulty of awakening interest in the performance of stringed quartettes is undoubtedly due to the lack in such concerts of variety of tone-color; and the unrelieved piano recital has to overcome the same obstacle, although in the latter case the greater facility of enlivening the performance by pronounced accentuation adds to its interest, and that is further heightened by the fact that the performer is a soloist whose work may take on a larger element of personal display — always a powerful attraction.
But if it is surprising when one thinks how little effect practically results from much earnest effort expended by a composer upon variety of tone-color, it is hardly less astonishing to note the strange qualities of sound that have been accepted by some who claim to love music. The banjo has already been mentioned, and the accordion and all instruments of its class, downward to the mouth organ and upward to the snarley reed instruments with key boards, are entitled to little more favor as musical art-media ; although it may be granted that some of these instruments have served a useful purpose that could not have been gained with-out their use. The straw fiddle and other toy instruments are to be considered mediums of buffoonery, and should not properly be counted among the implements of musical art. But what are we to think with regard to the acceptance as beautiful and worthy of imitation, of certain human voices that in the judgment of persons with well cultured ears lack every desirable quality ? After hearing some singers who have won a measure of success, one is compelled to fall back upon the oft-quoted statement that concerning matters of taste it is useless to enter into dispute. A good authority has recently asserted that the Japanese find our music barbaric !
Production of musical effects by varying the quality of tone used, and by blending together different tone qualities, is called " tone-coloring," because the effects depend upon modified rates of vibration. Colors change with the rates at which light vibrations impinge upon the retina, any change in the rate being appreciated as a change in tint or color. Sound vibrations as used in music are always complex. A pure tone -- that is, a tone made by a simple series of vibrations at one rate — is not an agreeable aural stimulant. Yet all musical tones, except those yielded by bells,* are produced by a predominating simple series of vibrations upon which the pitch of the sound depends. This predominating series of vibrations cannot be changed as to rate without changing the pitch of the resulting sound. But associated with this fundamental series of vibrations are other and fainter series — many of them — always constant for a single tone of a single quality. Variations in quality depend upon variations in the arrangement and relative prominence of what are called " overtones," produced by these fainter partial vibrations. Hence there is an appropriateness in speaking of tone-colors, since the effects so designated depend upon ratios of vibrations, although at a given pitch tones of every quality are found to have exactly the same fundamental vibration rate.
Tone-coloring is largely a matter of taste. As blue would hardly answer for painting flame, so the piccolo would hardly serve for the enunciation of the opening of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony ; and to a person of cultivated taste every passage suggests its appropriate instrumentation. " He Was Despised" must be sung by a contralto or suffer serious impairment of effect. Hence, true musicians always deprecate any attempt to transcribe great works or to essay their performance otherwise than as the composer directs. Yet this feeling can be carried too far. He who abandons Bach's "Well-tempered Clavichord " because the instrument for which it was written is no longer available, impoverishes his musical life. One of the great distinctions due to that consummate artist, Franz Liszt, was that he vastly accelerated the dissemination, and greatly heightened the appreciation of such works as Schubert's and Schumann's Songs by almost faultless transcriptions of them for the piano made at a time when they were but little known. As engraving and photography have advanced knowledge of painting, so transcription and even pianola performance have broadened musical culture. Great as is the charm of tone-color, any worthy work must and does possess beauties that will make themselves felt, even in a colorless reproduction. Better by far let the soprano sing Schubert's " Erl King " than go without hearing it ; and rare indeed is the singer of whatever voice that could not have learned something as to the interpretation of that particular song by hearing Rubinstein play it in transcription.
Length, pitch and force are chief among the other elements composing the musician's material. Force only can be disposed of in a few words. It furnishes the light and shade of tone-painting, but of far greater importance is its office of marking, through accent, the pulses by which the measures can be made out and the relation of note lengths to them or in them, be determined by the listener. In the technical training of the musical interpreter a large share of attention must be given to force, but its office in music is hardly different from that it fills in speech save as it is related to meter, and that relationship will be sufficiently apparent in the discussion of meter from its other aspects.
In ordinary speech the dynamic signs printed in the course of a musical composition are designated the " marks of expression." Passing over the limitation of expression that is thereby implied, it is noteworthy that performers, even those attaining high excellence in other directions, and especially singers, make but little use of gradation of power as a means of producing effect in public. Music as heard is generally loud or very loud. Nothing is more rare or difficult to obtain in chorus singing than pianissimo ; and the occasional extremes of softness produced by a great conductor from a well-trained orchestra seem little less than marvels both as execution and in their power over the audience. The inventor of the instrument producing sounds by the application of hammers to strings, named his device a " soft-loud " — piano-forte — no doubt thinking its range of power great gain. With the perversity of mortals, we have cut out the last part from the name and the first part from the use of the instrument. We call it the "piano," but we endeavor to get from it only power of tone as a general rule. It remains true, however, that gradation of power is one of the musician's materials, the one easiest to utilize, and one that is pretty sure to add to the effectiveness of performance if applied with even a modicum of good taste.