IT is not often that a musical curiosity is anything more or better than a mere curiosity. M. Bourgault-Ducoudray, professor of musical history at the National Conservatory in Paris, has published a collection of authentic Greek and Oriental songs,1 which are decidedly interesting from a purely musical point of view. In 1875, M. BourgaultDucoudray was sent on a special mission, by the minister of public instruction, to study Oriental music in Athens, Smyrna, Constantinople, and the islands in the Ægean. The publication of the collection of songs in question and of two interesting pamphlets 2 has been the result. There can be little doubt that the author was just the person to send on such a mission : a professor of musical history is ex officio conversant with the character of the old Greek modes and of the modes of the plain chant, and these modes are still in general use in the East; if not to the total exclusion of the modern European major and minor scales, at least in sufficiently predominating use to make them especially characteristic of Oriental music. Although the published songs form but a small part of the collection he made on his Eastern trip, one cannot but feel that he has made a wise choice, and has given to the world the cream of the material he had at command. It were idle to object that the essential musical value of these songs is not to be appreciated at once by the general musical public, nor even by the average musician. To Western ears they sound very strange, and often distinctly horrible and unmusical at first; but we should remember that in music, as in other matters, we must first habituate ourselves to an entirely new order of physiognomy before we can begin to feel its beauties, or even clearly distinguish between different individual examples of it. To our eye, for instance, the Japanese cast of feature is not only distasteful, but we find a certain difficulty in recognizing individuals of that nation. One Japanese looks to us about like another. The general national characteristics of the race are so striking that we have no discriminating eye for individual peculiarities. Just so in music: we must first accustom our ear to the characteristic physiognomy of the Oriental modes before we can be enough at home in them to appreciate the beauty of melodies written in them. Suffice it to say that the thirty songs in M. BourgaultDucoudray’s collection will richly repay careful study. They are indubitably fine examples of Oriental folk-music, and have a peculiar charm which cannot fail to make itself felt by any one who has rid himself of all exclusive prejudice in favor of our major and minor modes.

There may be room for doubt, however, about the propriety of the manner in which the author has harmonized these songs. He says in his preface, “ In our harmonizing we have systematically refrained from forbidding the use of any chord. The only harmonies we have proscribed are those the character of which appeared to us to contravene the modal impression made by the melody to be harmonized. Our efforts have had for their object to enlarge the circle of modalities in polyphonic music, and not to diminish the resources of modern harmony.” And yet it seems to us as if M. Bourgault-Ducoudray had tried to put new wine into old bottles with a vengeance. Both in these songs and in many of the examples he gives in his pamphlet (Conférence) on the Greek modes, he seems to have been more solicitous to follow an empirical system blindly, and to its farthest conclusion, than to assure himself that his system was really sound. Had he been a German musical theorist, we should not have been surprised at this, because no more astounding examples of sheer empiricism can be found than in German treatises on harmony. But for a professor at the Paris Conservatory, where Fétis’s Traite d’Harmonie is used as a text-book, to have pursued such a course is astonishing indeed. M. BourgaultDucoudray’s reckless use of free dissonances is not only diametrically opposed to the essential character of the Greek modes, but is often simply excruciating. There is unquestionably no prescribable limit to the use of free (unprepared) dissonances in modern harmony founded upon our Western tonal system. But a glance at the history of this tonal system of ours will suffice to show that the use of free dissonances is compatible with it, but with it alone. As soon as Monteverde found that the musical ear would readily accept the dissonance of the minor seventh without preparation, if heard simultaneously with the imperfect fifth or the tritone, he discovered the chord of the dominant seventh, and thus laid the foundations of modern tonality. By the introduction of this most important and distinctive discord the las dan mode of the plain chant became our modern major mode, and the Æolian became our minor mode. The use of this one free dissonance is essentially characteristic of our tonal system ; if in our day we easily accept other and harsher dissonances without preparation (as appoggiaturas), it is because we feel a certain analogy between them and the dominant seventh. But as the chord of the dominant seventh neither does nor can properly find a place in the Greek modal system (for that system was practically overthrown by it, and by it alone), all other free dissonances are naturally debarred with it. We are sufficiently certain, on purely theoretical grounds, that M. Bourgault-Ducoudray’s method of harmonizing melodies in the Greek diatonic modes is a fundamentally false one; but the absolutely frightful harmonic excesses which the blind following out of this method has led him into, in some instances, give an equally significant practical proof of it.

In his Conférence we find the same unstinted application of an empirical system, resulting in melodic and harmonic forms which sound as atrociously as they look systematically well ordered on paper. Take, for instance, the astounding shape he makes the popular tune, Au Clair de la Lune, assume in the minor mode. All that can be said of it is that the third phrase (counting the repeat) is not music at all. The same fault is to be found with the way he puts the air “ J’ai du bon tabac ” through the whole list of Greek diatonic modes. (His harmony to it in the major mode, to which it really belongs, is already open to much exception.) He reaches the acme of unmusical frightfulness in his harmonizing of the Lydian scale, which is positively unbearable.

But apart from his attempts to make the modern use of dissonances fit the Greek modes, M. Bourgault-Ducoudray’s theoretical explanation of the Greek and Oriental modal system is of surpassing excellence. Nothing can be clearer or more interesting than his exposition of the whole subject. One omission, which might be easily rectified, tends to confuse the reader a little : the author should have stated that, although the authentic and plagal modes of the plain chant correspond exactly enough to the Greek diatonic modes, their Greek names do not. Thus the second authentic church mode is called the Phrygian, and corresponds to the Greek Dorian mode (harmonic division), whereas the Greek Phrygian mode corresponds to the Hypo-Mixo-Lydian mode (fourth plagal mode), of the plain chant.

Of the songs published, those in the Oriental chromatic mode are peculiarly fascinating,—especially as the modern harmony of M. Bourgault-Ducoudray suits the character of this mode far better than it does that of the Greek diatonic modes. Such melodies as Eἰs TOυ KOσ73956;Oυ TO T&3945;&31013;î73948;L (No. 2) are extremely difficult to sing, but they are not impossible, and their charm is easily felt even by Occidental listeners.

Whether the hope the author expresses of finding the means of infusing new vitality into Western music, by introducing an extended use of the Greek and Oriental modes to relieve the (fancied ?) monotony of our major and minor modes, will prove itself to be delusive or not is hard to tell. True, some of our modern composers have dipped more or less into the old modes in their compositions. The opening phrase of the song Le Roi de Thulé, in Gounod’s Faust, is plainly in the (Greek) HypoDorian mode. Herod’s air in Berlioz’s Enfance du Christ is in the Dorian mode. Perhaps the finest and at the same time the most famous example we have in modern music of the use of an old mode is the Canzone di Ringraziamento, in Beethoven’s A-minor quartet, Op. 132, which is in the (church) Lydian mode.

Yet in spite of these unquestionably fine sporadic examples, the fact still remains that our modern Occidental tonal system, with its two modes (major and minor), is the result of a higher development of the art of music than the Greek and Oriental modes, with their vague and indeterminate tonality. Our tonal system is not the result of a merely empirical selection, but is a natural musical development. To seek inspiration from the old modes is, in almost every case, to go backwards ; to write music in them is an actual tour de force nowadays, and in nine instances out of ten is nothing more worthy than an affected archaism. Yet, after all, it is not impossible, and cases may occur where the use of an old mode is at once felicitous aud æsthetically defensible.

  1. Mélodies Populaires de. Grèco et d’ Orient. Recueillies et karmonizées par L.-A. BOURGAULTDUCOUDRAY. Paris: Henry Lemoine.
  2. Souvenirs d’une Mission Musicals en Grèce et en Orient. Par L.-A. BOURGAULT-DUCOUDRAY. 2ième Edition. Paris: Librairie Hachette et Cie. 1878.
  3. Conference sur la Modalité dans la MuSique Grecque. Par L.-A. BOURGAULT-DUCOUDRAY. Paris : Imprimerie Nationale. 1879.