IN considering the almost innumerable songs and ballads that are continually appearing in sheet form, we find that in one respect, at least, there is a marked improvement upon similar publications that were popular some fifteen or twenty years ago, namely, in the great attention that composers of this class of music now pay to the instrumental accompaniment. Passing over, as not worthy of note, the vast amount of music of the sentimental negrominstrel stamp, music which is about as faithful an exponent of the true negro musical spirit as our sensation dramas, like “Under the Gaslight” and “Across the Continent” are of the manners and customs of so-called fashionable American society, this feature in the vocal sheet music of to-day seems worthy of notice as indicative of an advance in musical taste and appreciation in our as yet not highly cultivated musical community. Before the songs of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Robert Franz, and the operas of Meyerbeer and Gounod, had become as generally known as they are now, the popular songs and ballads both of English and American composers were generally modelled upon the Dempster ballads,—songs which, if not of any great musical significance, were, at least, thoroughly respectable compositions, —or upon the Italian operatic music of Bellini and Donnizetti. Old Scotch ballads like “Auld Robin Gray” were not without their imitators ; and reflections of the national Scotch and Irish spirit might be found in many songs written both here and in England some years ago. As the star of Dempster’s popularity began to wane, the songs of Franz Abt, a composer who has caught much of the Suabian and Tyrolese spirit, came into vogue, and at one time “ When the Swallows homeward fly,” and a few others of the same stamp, bade fair to banish even such standard favorites as “ Auld Robin Gray ” and “ Cornin’ thro’ the Rye ” from the musicracks of our singing amateurs. Although the models after which these various songs were fashioned were naturally widely different in character, they had one great family resemblance. They were all more or less perfect representatives of the national folksong of their respective countries, and their most striking feature was their purely melodic character. They were as simply harmonized as possible, and the accompaniment acted as little more than the barest support to the voice. The same three or four simple modulations from tonic to dominant or subdominant, with some few minor chords, were to be found in them all; and anything like an accompaniment in itself musically interesting, much less an instrumental obbligato standing in contrapuntal relations to the principal theme, was not to be thought of. This simplicity of harmony was not in itself anything derogatory to the musical spirit of the time. Neither the Scotch, Irish, nor German folk-song demanded anything more than the simplest harmonic progressions, and the brilliant and finished vocal writing of the Italian operatic school would have been rather embarrassed than helped by any so-called karned harmonizing, or contrapuntal elaboration in the instrumental part. But as the old saw has it, “Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi.” The many imitations of national folk-songs and Italian opera came in time to be so much alike that at last their similarity amounted to the dreariest sameness. Sometimes a song-writer would imitate all the different schools at once, and not unfrequently Scotch, Irish, German, English, and Italian characteristics would be huddled together in the same song in most artless confusion, and always with the same old tonic, dominant, subdominant, — subdominant, dominant, tonic, in the accompaniment. It soon became difficult to tell one song from another. One would begin Scotch, then pass through a phase of Suabian or Tyrolese lightheartedness, and end off with a burst of Italian fire; while another, beginning in the depths of Italian sentimentality, would, by a consoling transition through Scotch or Irish quaintness, come to a happy ending with a reminiscence of the Tyrolese Jodel. The result of this curious mixing of styles was that, from being a conglomeration of the melodic characteristics of many countries, the popular ballad came to be a thoroughly characterless form of art which embodied the musical spirit of no country. The vigorous people’s-song and the artistically finished Italian opera melody, which were the prime sources of the ballad of to-day, became so diluted and vulgarized that all artistic merit vanished with their distinctive national characteristics, and instead of having a genuine hold upon the popular taste, these feeble imitations of an imitation were forced to content themselves with a mere fashionable notoriety. Real popularity must have some firm foundation in the sincere sympathy and applause of the people, but anything may become fashionable if it only have the suffrage, either real or apparent, of some prominent popular favorite. A practice that has always existed to a greater or less degree became unpleasantly prevalent some years ago, namely, the custom for composers and publishers to pay prominent singers to bring certain songs before the public. The éclat which a brilliant performer can give even to the flattest piece of music rarely fails to result in the happy publisher’s pecuniary benefit ; and people are never wanting who are incapable of distinguishing between a good composition and an effective performance, and when they have heard anything at a concert that particularly pleases them, forthwith rush to the nearest music-seller to buy a copy. Thus hosts of songs have successively become fashionable from no merit of their own, but because some popular singer has chanced to make a hit with them. Such a system cannot but have the worst effects upon general musical education, and we are daily feeling its evils to a most lamentable extent in the performances of the various miscellaneous concert-troops that wander about our country.
We have tried to show how the popular ballad of the day is the degenerate, mongrel offspring of the old Scotch and Irish ballad, the English ballad through the Dempster songs, the German Volkslied through Franz Abt and others, and finally, of the Italian opera melody. But even before Franz Abt’s star appeared above our horizon, another influence was at work which was destined sooner or later to have its effect upon popular vocal music in this country. Two or three songs by Franz Schubert became not only widely known, but almost universally popular. The few Schubert songs that were first heard here were, as far as form is concerned, hardly different from the Abt songs that soon followed them ; in fact, Abt may be said to have founded his style upon Schubert. But the older composer handled his musical materials with a firm, masterly grasp that was not so easy to imitate as the sentimental mannerisms of his weaker follower. Where Abt daintily appropriated certain naive turns and peculiarities caught from the national Volkslied, and arranged them, not unskilfully, we must admit, to suit the public taste, much as a Parisian milliner copies forms from peasant costumes and catches hints among the mountains for those triumphs of her skill that show themselves on the boulevard, Schubert reproduced with all the added brilliancy with which his fertile genius could surround it the very people’s song itself. To the vigorous, sincere melody, drawn from that purest spring of musical inspiration, the heart of the people, he added a richness of harmony and a variety in modulation that place many of his songs in the very first rank among compositions in that form. After we had become acquainted with a few, and by no means the greatest of Schubert’s songs, it was some time before the public taste in vocal music made any further advance, and the popular ballad ran its gradual down-hill course unimpeded. But in a few years a new light began to dawn upon us; Robert Schumann, more introspective and moody than Schubert and at times more obscure, in a certain sense more romantic, full of the divine fire, and with such an unconquerable determination to give form to the musico-poetical idea that was strong within him that he was of necessity great, if only from the very violence of his victorious struggle after expression. Next came to us the Robert Franz songs, in which the artistic form of the German Lied has attained its highest perfection. These influences, all of them good, worked quietly, and if slowly all the more surely upon the popular taste. Another influence which we will only hint at in passing has been the public performance of the best orchestral works of the great masters, as well as of the oratorios of Handel, Mendelssohn, and others. But great and good as this influence has been upon the popular taste, it has only indirectly affected our song composers. The good seed sown by the Schubert, Schumann, and Franz songs is already beginning to bear fruit; fruit of rather questionable quality sometimes, for the soil has often been none too concongenial, but fruit that shows that efforts are making in the right direction, however faulty they may as yet be. Instead of the old rum-ti-tum guitar chords, We now find songs written with something that deserves the name of an accompaniment. No doubt the passion for abstruse and unexpected modulation will have to run a little wild here as elsewhere, and all manner of violence will be done to musical grammar and form before a reaction sets in which shall bring matters into the proper channel. The great popularity of Gounod’s Faust has probably given an additional impulse in the direction of reckless modulation, and we doubt whether its influence has been entirely good in this respect. Young composers sometimes seem to think that keys were made to be modulated into much as the school-boy thought that doorknobs were made to be wrenched off, and in the shortest song they will skip from C Major to F♯ Minor with an easy nonchalance quite wonderful to behold. But even this very extravagance has had one good effect. Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was next to impossible to go to a musical party without having one’s ears scorched by hearing some sweet-voiced amateur, generally, we regret to say, of the female sex, sing a popular ditty while her fair fingers went through some mysterious evolutions upon the keyboard, producing a series of distressing sounds which she fondly imagined were the accompaniment to her song. Almost all singers have found out a certain simple series of chords in several keys, and in accompanying themselves are too prone to forget that the proper efficacy of a chord, like that of the decimal point, depends in a great measure upon its coming in the right place. But we doubt whether any singer would be adventurous enough to attempt to accompany “ by ear ” many of the songs that are written nowadays. Thank heaven, singers have at last begun to learn their accompaniments, or, still better, to let some competent pianist play for them. In spite of all the unnatural harmony, forced modulation, and bad counterpoint with which many of the modern attempts at song-writing abound, we hail these very blunders as indications of improvement, inasmuch as they prove that composers at least take pains. Musically considered, one of Bishop s old ballads with its beautifully finished simple harmony is worth scores of these modern vagaries, and can, as far as form is concerned, be placed beside many Schubert, Schumann, or Franz songs without suffering by the comparison. But we nevertheless hold that the German and even the modern French song-composers, such as Gounod and J. Massenet, unfold to us a wealth of harmony which will in the end better repay study and imitation than Bishop’s simple perfection of style.
Among recently published songs 1 we notice especially Charles Gounod’s “ Nazareth,” with which Mr. Santley made such a marked impression last winter. This is perhaps one of the very best of the composer’s songs, written from beginning to end with wonderfully well-sustained verve, the ever-increasing figuration of the accompaniment adding renewed brilliancy and power to each successive verse. It is one of the best examples we know of in modern song-writing of a simple theme being gradually and effectively worked up to a really grand climax. Another song by the same composer, published with Charles Kingsley’s words, “ O that we Two were Maying,” is very beautiful, and well expresses the somewhat morbid sadness of the poetry, although in some passages the composer has allowed himself to be led into harmonies rather too sensuous to be quite in keeping with the words. For instance, the music to the words,—
Under the churchyard sod,” et. seq.,
expresses anything but a desire for so cold a place as the grave. Two songs to Jean Ingelow’s “O fair Dove, O fond Dove,”—one by Arthur Sullivan and the other by Alfred Scott Gatty, — are not without merit. Of the two songs Mr. Sullivan’s is the more artistically written, though in many places the harmony sounds forced and unnatural. Mr. Gatty’s song seems to have been written more spontaneously, though it is at best commonplace in character. “ Forevermore ” and “ Ay ! ” by Alfred H. Pease, are both pleasing and carefully written. The piano-forte is particularly well treated in both, and the sprightly little refrain of the second is quite taking. “ Lay thy weary Head to rest,” by Irving Emerson, is a most thoroughly charming lullaby. To a really fascinating melody the composer has united an unusually well-written and quite original accompaniment. In Baumbach’s Collection of Sacred Music there is much to praise, although we think it high time that the line of demarcation between secular and church music should be more definitely drawn than it hitherto has been in our churches. All good music is to a certain extent sacred, but we must protest against such barbarisms as the setting of “ Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” from Mozart’s Zauberflote, to the words “ Thou art, O God, the life and light.” Papageno and Papagena seem hardly in place in the church choir, however charming we may find them on the stage. Nevertheless there is much in the collection that is valuable, especially some very interesting selections from Orlando Gibbons. As we cannot well imagine anything in a book of this character to be intended as a joke, we suppose that the manner in which the words “Shout the glad tidings,”etc., have been set to the March from Tannhäuser is not meant irreverently ; but we confess to having seen nothing more absurdly ludicrous since the appearance of the famous Portuguese English phrase-book.
- Nazareth. By CHARLES GOUNOD. Boston : G. D. Russell & Co.↩
- O that we Two were Maying ! By CHARLES GOUNOD. Boston : G. D. Russell & Co.; also Oliver Ditson & Co.↩
- O fair Dove ! O fond Dove ! By ARTHUR SULLIVAN. Boston : G, D. Russell & Co.↩
- O fair Dove ! O fond Dove. By ALFRED SCOTT GATTY. Boston : Oliver Ditson & Co.↩
- Forevermore By ALFRED H. PEASE. Boston : G. D. Russell & Co.↩
- Ay! By ALFRED H. PEASE. Boston: GD. Russell & Co,↩
- Lay thy weary Head to rest. By IRYING EMERSON. Boston : White, Smith, and Perry.↩
- Baumbach’s New Collection of Sacred Music. Composed, arranged, and selected by ADOLFH BAUMBACH Boston : Oliver Ditson & Co.↩