Set to Music

— This whole matter of the relation of words to music in the songs we not only used to sing, but sing now, is full of interest to any one who speculates on the part which song may play in the art of the future. The libretto of an opera in the original tongue of the composer is apt to be greatly subordinated to the music, and viewed as verse is usually but a weak and meaningless affair. Even the conscious effort of Wagner to equalize the two is literature to Wagnerians only. But when the Italian or German is still further diluted into an English version, it becomes as the vin ordinaire of the cheap French cabaret which has been watered to the standard of street railway stock ; nothing is left but the color and the twang.

It was the opposite rule which obtained in the case of Moore’s melodies. In these there was just enough of musical expression to carry the really poetical verse. In many cases it was cadenced recitation which was attempted, requiring no very great quality or cultivation of voice, only proper feeling and sympathetic utterance. Some of Lockhart’s Spanish Ballads were most effective when thus rendered. Any one who ever heard Mrs. Fanny Kemble Butler sing some of these will not soon forget the dramatic fire with which she gave Ye Mariners of Spain, or The Bridal of Andalla.

In the union of words and music, as in wedlock, there may be many happy marriages, but few strictly equal and reciprocal ones. As the French proverb has it, in a kiss, one takes, the other holds up, the cheek. The words are only the vehicle of the music, or the music is for the sake of the words. Usually the former rule prevails.

There is a story told — if I remember rightly, of Malibran, certainly of some prima donna — that in a discussion of English and Italian music she took the air of “ Polly, put the kettle on,” and changing only the tempo, and using meaningless though melodious Italian words, held her auditors spellbound. This, if not true, is strictly available to illustrate what I say. The best vocal music is not meant for this. Instrumental music is pure musical expression ; hut, on the other hand, vocal music ought to carry the thought and the words and lift them on its wings. N. P. Willis in one of his letters from London describes the sensation caused by a composition which was the setting of the reply of Ruth to Naomi to most impressive music, but music thoroughly subordinate to the passion and sublimity of the words.

I am perfectly aware that the whole drift of the day is toward technique. I venture, nevertheless, to put in a word in behalf of the old song-singing, where good words were made more precious by musical rendering. There need be no quarrel between the two, nor is music degraded by having to minister to the expression of thought any more than sculpture is degraded by ministering to the beauty of architecture. This is a day when the mere art of metrical composition has all but reached perfection. One daily sees verses in which is realized the famous dictum from Alice in Wonderland, “ Take care of the sound, and the sense will take care of itself.” To adapt music to such verse cannot be difficult. On the other hand, the requirement of true musical setting is that the musical emphasis shall correspond to the stress of the idea. Let any one try to put to music Lovelace’s 舠Tell me not, sweet,” or Tennyson’s Bugle Song, and it would be impossible to miss the right expression. The words would shape the notes. What is wanted is that poets should write songs to be sung, songs musical with the unwritten melody in the author’s brain. Their expression should be a power constraining the composer, bidding him refrain from tricks to display his dexterity, and making him study to give a worthy poem a fit setting. These are days of frame-making and photography. In true art the frame may be the work of Grinling Gibbons, but it must not draw the eye from the picture ; if it does, the truth of art is violated. Let us put the frame into a cabinet, or else take away the picture and substitute a curtain.

I should like to believe that there would be a genuine revival of interest, not among the cultivated few, but in the community at large, in the old English ditties which were flung out from the one genuinely native period of English musical art. But I am bound to say that I see no immediate likelihood of this. Song-singing finds it hard to stand its ground against the musical culture which insists upon the highest artistic excellence or nothing at all. Even such admirable societies as the Apollo Club of Boston seem for the most part chiefly interested in the difficulties which modern German song music presents. The Wagnerian fervor which looks down upon all Italian and French opera as poor and trivial, the wealthy leisure which delights only in that which costs vast sums, will scorn or be indifferent to that which comes not up to their exclusive tastes or exclusive purses. They set the fashion, and much I fear that the coming generation will lose one of the delights and comforts of the last, — the song which in the home circle moved to tears or smiles, and which thrilled with simple pathos or noble sentiment the hearts of those who were “ not too bright or good for human nature’s daily food.”