New Books on Music

OF biographies of Richard Wagner there are already a good many. There is the master’s own Autobiographical Sketch, published in Volume I. of the Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, and translated into English in Burlingame’s Art-Life and Theories ; then there are the biographies by Dannreuther, Gaspéerini, Glasenapp, Hueffer, Jullien, Kobbé, Muncker, Nohl, Pohl, and Tappert. Yet few of these works have made much way with the general reading public : the Autobiographical Sketch, although eminently good reading, is but cursory, and extends only to the year 1842 ; the biographies, except those by Glasenapp and Jullien, cover more ground, but are all more or less summary and incomplete. The charge of sketchiness can hardly be brought against Glasenapp’s book, though it, too, is not complete, ending as it does with the first Parsifal year (1882) ; but, with all its careful detail, it has the disadvantage of being unreadable ; none but the maddest enthusiast for the subject would care to wade through that morass of words. It also deals almost exclusively with Wagner the poet and composer ; there is little in it concerning Wagner the man. Jullien’s work is by far the best of them all: it is masterly in style and arrangement, thorough, easily readable. Unfortunately, Jullien, as a Frenchman, had little appreciation of, and less sympathy with, so inveterately Teutonic a nature as Wagner’s, well as he estimated him as an artist, and the picture he draws of his character is all too distorted and trivial; now and then, too, he is not entirely accurate. At last comes Mr. Finck, of New York, with a two-volume biography,1 which is even more detailed than Glasenapp’s or Jullien’s, and may be accepted as exhausting all the documentary material as yet available; beyond this, it goes more fully into an examination of Wagner’s personal character than any of its predecessors. It is at once a life and a critico-biographical essay.

Mr. Finck’s book has conspicuous merits. The author is an acknowledged Wagnerian, even a pretty ultra Wagnerian ; but he has not the would-be-philosophical cloudiness of most of his fellows in faith; neither has he that fondness for a ponderous and involved style that makes most Wagnerian writing next to impossible reading. No one can say to him, as I Hanslick once said to Hans von Wolzogen : “ My dear Hans, if you would only go over your manuscript carefully and strike out every third adjective, then go over it again and do the same once more, and then repeat the process a third time ; then, when you had thus cleared away the worst underbrush of your style, you might perhaps be able to see clearly what was still lacking! ” Indeed, Mr. Finck shows distinct native literary ability, even talent; his book is eminently readable and interesting. To be sure, his style is in general rather careless, often slipshod; he writes on in what seems to be a desultory way, without very apparent plan or method. But this makes surprisingly little trouble for the reader. Mr. Finck is so thoroughly possessed with his theme, writes at such a white heat of enthusiasm, and tells his story so vividly that you follow him willingly and without effort; he impresses facts and ideas so clearly upon your mind that you feel none of the evil effects usually incident to an ill-considered literary plan. The picture he draws of Wagner the man and of Wagner the artist leaves nothing to be desired in clearness of outline and vividness of color. He can be witty, too, at a pinch. What could be more delicious than, for instance, this about the quondam estimate of Wagner in Germany ? " The funniest part of this business is that, in a country where almost every man suffers from megalomania, the one man who had the best claim to the title of genius should have been pronounced a lunatic!” Of humor he has less ; he is too desperately in earnest for that; and though he does a good deal of laughing at times, his laugh is rather bitter, and has no very spontaneous ring.

Upon the whole, it is a lack of humor more than anything else that prevents his book being thoroughly good. He wholly ignores what was really the most serious difficulty in his task, his proximity to his subject. He shuts his eyes to the fact that Wagner and his works are still too recent to be viewed in due historic perspective. As mathematicians arrive per saltum at a point they name “ infinity,” for the practical purposes of calculation, so does he often appear to be looking back upon Wagner from a coign of vantage in the as yet dim future, where he has set up an imaginary pou sto from which to work his critical lever. He regards the fierce controversy over Wagner as not only ended, but so completely ended that not a scar remains to show that any of the surviving combatants were wounded in the mellay ; he not only assumes that Wagnerianism is triumphant along the whole line, with all the enemy’s guns spiked, but that all the world — that is, all the world worth mentioning — knows it and cries “ Io pœan! ” with him. The humorous element in this attitude of his does not seem to strike him.

It may be that he really feels quite secure in his position ; but it must be admitted that he behaves rather suspiciously, as if he had a sub-conscious inkling of something being the matter. He has a nonchalant way of saying the most astonishing things as if they were mere every-day commonplaces, which sounds very like gasconade ; he keeps his countenance remarkably well, but you cannot help feeling that he is pretty well aware that his hair-raising utterances will excite wonder, and that his impassive manner is assumed, partly pour épater la palerle, partly to shame contradiction into submissive silence, as much as to say, “ If you don’t see these things as I do, you really are not in the swim at all! ” In a word, he is often very saucy indeed. Take, for example, the way he has of speaking of Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, and Weber’s melodies as “dance tunes; this is pure sauciness, for it is really nonsense. The classic melodic cut, based on four-measure sections, may have been originally derived from the dance ; but there is no more propriety in calling Beethoven’s melodies ” dance tunes ” than there would be in calling Wagner an ape because he probably had simian ancestors. Mr. Finck ignores a whole important process of evolution.

With Mr. Finck’s frankness no one need quarrel. If, for instance, he really considers Tannhäuser and Lohengrin greater operas than, say, Don Giovanni or Fidelio, there can be no earthly objection to his saying so ; but when he adds, “ To-day it seems funny that any one could ever have doubted this,” he implies a general consensus of opinion, the existence of which is at least open to question. The time is not yet come when the man who still thinks Don Giovanni a greater masterpiece than Tannhäuser is to be looked upon in a merely humorous light. Mr. Finck is also characteristically incautious as to whom he ranks on his side. He makes capital out of Robert Franz’s well-known outburst of enthusiasm over Lohengrin in 1852, his glowing letter published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and his dedication of a book of songs “ to the Composer of Lohengrin,”to prove that Franz was essentially a Wagnerian. Now, the fact is that this Wagner enthusiasm of Franz’s was exceedingly short-lived, and that, from not long after 1852 to his dying day, Franz was about as thorough and determined an antiWagnerian as could he found in all Europe. Mr. Finck is very careful to show how Wagner outgrew some of his earlier opinions on music; but of Franz’s change of heart in re Wagner he says nothing, and does not even hint at the possibility of the Halle master’s regarding the imputation of Wagnerianism as little short of an insult.

Still, if Mr. Finck’s boundless enthusiasm for and faith in Wagner somewhat obscure his sense of humor,—think, for instance, of his printing a chapter of quasi-Messianic prophecies, foretelling the advent of the great master ! — they are a genuine source of strength to him as a biographer. The eye of sympathy sees more keenly than the circumspect eye of calm criticism ! The picture he draws of Wagner as a man, of his personal character, is probably the best and most lifelike that has yet been given to the public ; it shows Wagner as essentially a noble, high-souled nature, furiously concentrated upon one single aim in life, terribly sensitive to criticism, and ever yearning for sympathy. His volcanic petulancy, which often seemed like spite, was but a symptom of persistent ill health. Mr. Finck flatly denies the charge of meanness and ingratitude often brought against him. To be sure, here as elsewhere, Mr. Finck looks obstinately on the sunny side, and gives the impression of being rather preternaturally naïf; some of the instances he gives to show that Wagner was not unmindful of benefits conferred upon him look a little as if he were bent on making an ounce of gratitude go a longway, and his rehabilitation of the great man’s character would have been more convincing had he shown a little less zeal. But, with all its redundancy of rose tints, the portrait is probably a far better likeness than Jullien’s. His estimate of Wagner’s works will most likely be accepted by Wagnerians only; but this is by no means to be urged against him. He has followed the wisest course, putting his own side of the question as strongly as possible, and leaving the opposite side to be defended by others who know more about it than he.

The pains Mr. Finck has evidently taken with his work deserve the fullest recognition; his accuracy — saving an occasional error, perhaps a slip of the pen, in matters of minor importance — seems unquestionable. The book is handsomely got up, paper, type, and paging being equally good ; in the matter of proof-reading, however, it leaves something to be desired.

Hadow’s Studies in Modern Music2 is a book which has its reason for being more in the author’s admirable and finished literary style than in anything else. It comprises four essays : Music and Musical Criticism, a Discourse on Method; Hector Berlioz and the French Romantic Movement; Robert Schumann and the Romantic Movement in Germany; Richard Wagner and the Reform of the Opera. Of these the first is incomparably the best; the others contain little, if anything, that is new. The essay on Musical Criticism is well worth anybody’s reading: its general tendency is to extend the basis of modern criticism commensurably with the larger and wider scope of modern music, to establish standards of musical value by which modern works can be more justly measured than by the pedantic misapplication of once valid rules. In his whole discourse on the subject Mr. Hadow gives evidence of immense common sense, backed up by innate and cultivated artistic perceptions. He does not give one the impression of being a specialist; indeed, what he says sometimes has a slight tinge of amateurishness ; but his judgment is in general admirably well poised, his critical method excellent, and he shows a special aptitude for making nice distinctions between things which the more careless observer might be in danger of confounding with each other. No doubt the application of Mr. Hadow’s method will make the professional critic’s business decidedly more arduous than it has generally been considered to be heretofore ; but this is wholly in its favor. As Oscar Wilde once said, criticism should be an art, if it is anything, and, as was equally well said by a certain late lamented musician, “ the very worst method in any art is that which tries to make it easy.” Upon the whole, this essay of Mr. Hadow’s is one of the best things regarding the art of music we have seen since Edmund Gurney’s The Power of Sound ; it has many of the same conspicuous merits, if possibly also some of the same shortcomings.

The other essays are all interesting ; more so perhaps to readers unacquainted with the subjects they treat of than to one already well up in them. Still, Mr. Hadow’s style, his way of putting things, makes them excellent reading; and though they contain less fine and original thought than the essay on Musical Criticism, one now and then comes across a sentence in them such as would make even longer articles worth reading. For instance, the whole world has been long waiting for such an admirable characterization of Hector Berlioz as that he was a man of “ a keen though rather intermittent sense of humor.” This one touch is worth its weight in gold. Mr. Hadow’s accuracy of statement in the biographical parts of his work is not invariably unquestionable, and he sometimes leads one to suspect him of a bent toward romancing. But the lives of Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner have already been written with all-sufficient care for accuracy of detail, and Mr. Hadow’s sometimes rather fanciful statements can easily be corrected by referring — especially in Berlioz’s case — to Hippeau’s Berlioz Intime (which Mr. Hadow seems to have ignored) rather than to Jullien’s Life. Still, as has been said, the best part of the book is unquestionably the first essay.

In Zahm’s Sound and Music 3 is to be found a thoroughly good compendium of the results of ancient and modern scientific research in the field of musical acoustics. The book comprises ten lectures delivered by the author before the students of the University of Notre Dame in Washington, which lectures were copiously illustrated by experiments with perfected instruments made by Dr. Rudolph Koenig and M. G. Masson, of Paris. These experiments are carefully described in the book, the description being accompanied in every case with diagrams or woodcut illustrations. The explanations given are for the most part unusually clear and easy to follow ; now and then they may remind one a little of the old t"tigna bina sesquipedalia;” but lucidity is the rule, and obscurity the exception.

The author is especially to be thanked for assuming a less bumptious tone in what he says of the art of music than has been the habit with acousticians. From his remarks on Playing in Pure Intonation, in Appendix II., it is easy to see that he quite agrees with Helmholtz and other men of his craft; but he lays less irritating stress upon his opinions. Indeed, throughout the book one can see that he has some appreciation of the fact that the science of music is not quite synonymous with the science of acoustics, although it is equally evident that he does not wholly appreciate the exact relation these two sciences bear to each other. As far as the present writer has been able to discover, the musical acoustician 4 is yet to be found who will recognize the fact that the science of music is, or properly should be, a distinct science by itself, having to do with the methods of research by which the phenomena and laws of the art of music are to be explained; that, although many of these phenomena and laws can be in greater or less part explained by musical acoustics, the province of the latter science ends strictly there. Musical acoustics should always rest content with explaining musical phenomena and laws, but should never attempt to impose its own special laws upon the art, through the science, of music. From Pythagoras down to the present day acousticians have continually been falling into the error of trying to tell musicians what they ought to do ; which is quite on a par with the unscientific absurdity of which Kepler would have been guilty had he tried to tell the solar system what it ought to do. Musical phenomena are but so many data for the man of science to study, but upon them he should never attempt to exert a controlling influence. And if musical phenomena and laws seem at times to run counter to acoustical phenomena and laws in matters of detail, so much the worse for acoustics ; just in so far does it fail to explain them. Neither Helmholtz nor any other acoustician has the faintest scientific right to find fault with the equally tempered scale after Sebastian Bach has said that it was good ; no more than Professor Huxley would have any scientific right to find fault with the anatomical structure of the horse, nor Chasles with the imperfect isochronism of the rigid pendulum.

Still, be it said to Professor Zahm’s honor that he has made far fewer attempts ultra crepidam than most of his compeers ; his book is distinguished by a praiseworthy modesty in its dealings with the art of music. In so far as musical acoustics is concerned, the work is as comprehensive, well planned, clear, and readable as could be desired.

Mrs. Rogers’s Philosophy of Singing 5 contains much that is of great value, both in the way of precept and suggestion. According to the author, the gist of the philosophy of singing, as of all art, — art being the expression of emotion, —is that the emotion to be expressed should be profound, genuine, and absorbing, and all the physical or mechanical means of expression so much a matter of habit as to be purely automatic.

In the philosophical parts of the book Mrs. Rogers often betrays the ‘prentice hand : one finds in them a good deal of rather dilettante philosophizing. But they are none the less valuable: they are full of admirable suggestiveness. The want of philosophical balance, of clear logic, in them does not affect Mrs. Rogers’s fineness and correctness of artistic instinct; and if she does not succeed in giving her thought complete and logically convincing expression, her thought in itself is really profound and fruitful to him who can take a hint and develop a suggestion for himself. The whole spirit of the book is high, noble, and inspiring.

The technical part of the work is distinctly excellent; in all Mrs. Rogers has to say about the use of the voice, methods of training, and everything that regards the singer’s technique, she shows herself a thoroughly competent specialist, and yet a specialist of sufficient largeness of mind and culture to appreciate the true relation her chosen domain bears to the art of music in general. The book does not pretend to be a “method of singing;” it is rather an essay on the art of singing, which all singers, and indeed all musicians and music-lovers, can read and ponder over with profit.

  1. Wagner and his Works. The Story of his Life, with Critical Comments. By HENRY T. FINCK. NEW York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893.
  2. Studies in Modern Music. By W. H. HADOW, M. A. NeW York: Macmillan & Co. 1893.
  3. Sound and Music. By the Rev. J. A. ZAHM, C. S. C. Chicago : A. C. McClurg & Co. 1892.
  4. By “ musical acoustician ” is here meant the scientist whose special department is what should properly be called musical acoustics. This latter term, on the same principle as chemical physics, should apply to that department of the general science of acoustics which has a more or less direct bearing upon the science of music.
  5. The Philosophy of Singing. By CLARA KATHLEEN ROGERS. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1893.