Two Modern Classicists in Music: In Two Parts. Part One
“ QUOT homines, tot sententiæ ” is a saw the application of which might well be extended beyond its current limits. It is not only upon our opinions that we cannot escape setting at least a faint stamp of our own individuality, —though this impress may often seem obliterated by our modes of expressing them, —but our understanding, our perceptions, our very seeing and hearing are indefeasibly and inveterately our own. Language is at best a makeshift by which we seek to impart to others an approximate notion of our meaning ; but, use it as we may, there is always room for doubt as to whether we have really made ourselves understood. That which we call a word is but the shadow of our thought; it may mean this to us, but that to another. Written language, unaided as it is by the plastic imagery of gesture and the innuendo of emphasis, is an especially rough tool; we write a word, and every reader makes of it what he can — lucky for us if he have the honesty not to make of it what he please ! The idea-conveying force of the word will be what it means to him, not what it means to us. If we would be distinctly understood, we must beat about the bush and explain ourselves; our word, left to itself, will have as many meanings as there are men who read it.
But, to quit generalities and come down to a definite point, how many different meanings in as many minds has not this one word “ classicism ” ! Classic, classicism, classicist, have grown to be very vague terms. To those who look for the meaning of a word in its etymology they are impregnated with a flavor of the academy, they reek with associations with the categorical imperative, the “ thou shalt ” and “ thou shalt not " of the schools. To others they convey an idea of authority based on a survival after long sifting and a gradual recognition of what is fine, worthy, and, as the Germans say, mustergiltig. To others, again, they imply merely something old, that was doubtless admirable once, but has had its day like other dogs, and should by rights be obsolete now. And who shall say that any of these interpretations is wholly without warrant? What we call a “ classic ” has become so in virtue of being recognized as fine and worthy by successive generations, and should be looked upon as a model in its way, as far as it goes ; being a model, it naturally has been held up as such by the schools, and departure from its scheme has been deprecated, with more or less reason. Again, as it is of necessity old, inspired by the afflatus of a time when the conditions of life, thought, and even emotion were different from ours, when men had other ideals than ours, is there not unavoidably an element of obsolescence in it? May we not assume that its mature growth, like all mature growth, has brought with it the potentiality of decay ? All these meanings of “classic ” and “classicism ” have truth in them ; it is only by holding too fast by one, to the exclusion of the others, that we run the risk of error.
Yet, although these interpretations of the word “ classicism ” are all more or less true, they are still too general and vague for my present purpose. If I have dwelt on them at all, it was to ward off at the outset any prejudice, any foregone conclusion, in the mind of my readers, — either in the way of partisanship or opposition, pro or con, — by showing that no single one of them covers the whole ground ; and that, consequently, so soon as we hold fast by the special truth contained or implied in one, discarding that implied in the others, we thereby place our chosen truth as it were in vacuo, thus inviting error to flow in and surround it. I would address myself here neither to the enthusiasm of the so-called classicist, nor to the militant scorn of the modern comeouter ; I would as far as possible paint a faithful picture of something that has been and the true significance of which seems to me of lasting importance.
To my present purpose neither the authority, the Mustergiltigkeit (” modelworthiness ”), nor the age and possible obsolescence of musical classicism is of any consequence whatever; I wish to look at the subject from a totally different point of view. I would specify what the true gist, the quintessence in the last analysis, of musical classicism was in its heyday, apart from all definitions, with all that was merely external and unessential eliminated. What I speak of is an æsthetic point of view which history shows us was the dominant one during the periods in which the great masterpieces were written which are by common consent called classic to-day. And, in examining this point of view, I trust far less to the evidence furnished by anything of the didactic sort written or read during the periods to which I refer than to the internal evidence of the masterworks themselves.
If it be true of any art that its real essence is the expression of emotion, this is doubly true of the art of music. And it may be well to state here that in all epochs in the history of music which have since been rated as classic — the great Italian period of strict vocal counterpoint, from the immediate forerunners of Palestrina, the two Gabrielis, and Orlando Lasso down to such decadents as Orazio Benevoli (a period extending from early in the sixteenth century to near the close of the seventeenth) ; the great “ Neapolitan ” period of opera and oratorio writing, from Alessandro Scarlatti down to Pergolesi and Sarti; and the great German period, from Sebastian Bach and Handel down to Beethoven — the art of music was unhesitatingly looked upon as distinctly an independent art. The idea that music was an art immediately dependent on poetry was that of the ancient Greeks ; it cropped up again for a while under the Florentine Music Reform of the early part of the seventeenth century, and has since made its reappearance with Richard Wagner; but it had absolutely nothing to do with any period or school generally or properly known as classic. In all classic epochs the art of music was regarded as an art by itself, following its own course of development, and subject to its own inherent laws. This was one part of the classic point of view ; it was axiomatic. But, based on this axiom, the true quintessence of the classic point of view was this : that in music — as in the other fine arts—the expression of emotion must be realized through perfect beauty of form and a finely and stoutly organized construction. The recognition of the indispensableness of this, so to speak, “architectural ” side of music was the most distinctive and characteristic mark of the classical point of view ; as I have said, it is the very quintessence of classicism.
It is in this sense, and in this sense alone, that I shall use the words classic, classicism and classicist in the present article. In contradistinction to classicism, I would take musical “ romanticism ” to imply the aim to express emotion in music by more or less picturesque and suggestive means, by the imitation or suggestion of natural (extramusical) modes of expression, in short by any means in the power of the art not necessarily connected with beauty of form and stoutness or symmetry of organic structure. By this I do not mean that the modes of expression peculiarly characteristic of musical romanticism are necessarily inimical to or discrepant with beauty of form or stoutness and symmetry of organism ; the two circles of connotation of “ classicism " and " romanticism ” may intersect, and a certain domain be common to both ; the two elements may pull together toward one and the same artistic goal. But, for the sake of clearness, I here limit the meaning of each of the two terms to that which is distinctively characteristic, and hence essential, in it. I take classicism to imply the endeavor to express emotion musically through beauty of form and stoutness and symmetry of organic construction ; romanticism, the endeavor to express emotion by other musical means, for the present no matter what.
The last great classic master in music, universally recognized as such, was Felix Mendelssohn. It is true that he was more famous in his own day, and is to a great extent so still, as a romanticist than as a classicist; indeed he was both. But he was distinctly a classicist jusqu’au bout des angles; strongly romantic as his native bent was, and full rein as he gave it for his time, he never indulged it at the expense of his classicism. With all his imaginative romanticism, he was and remains the last Worldfamous classic composer, so far. His classicism and romanticism went hand in hand and were, like Sebastian Bach’s, in perfect equilibrium. Robert Schumann cannot compare with him in this respect; with Schumann the romantic side preponderated over the classic. Even if we admit that his artistic aims may have been as classic in spirit as Mendelssohn’s, — which a careful study of his works gives some reason for believing,— the accident of lacking early training made him far less in condition to compass them than Mendelssohn, whose technical musical education was phenomenally thorough. Perfection of musical form was something that Schumann always had to struggle for ; with Mendelssohn it was a second nature.
But if Mendelssohn was the last universally recognized great musical classicist, there were two men, younger than he and less widely famous, whose lives were intimately associated with musical life in Boston, whose memory is green in the hearts of many of us, and in whom the spirit of the truest classicism still breathed in as perfect purity as in Mendelssohn himself : Robert Franz and Otto Dresel. They were stanch and life-long friends; their agreement on musical subjects was as complete as their friendship; they both worked together toward the same end, though they lived long apart ; neither of the two gave anything to the world without its passing through the ordeal of the other’s criticism ; they died within two years of each other. It is well to speak of them together.
In both of those men was to be found, in its highest perfection, what I will call, for lack of a better name, the sense for musical beauty ; the keenest sense for beauty of expression, beauty of form, proportion, and color. And, so strong was this sense in them, so imperative in its demands, that neither of them could be content unless the whole of his sense for beauty was satisfied. Beauty of form alone was not enough for them ; truth and poignancy of expression, divorced from beauty of form, left them with the feeling that something indispensable was lacking; beauty of detail — in melody, harmony, or modulation — left them cold, unless there were also coherency of development and symmetry of design. Without beauty of color (a beautiful qualily of tone) their delight in music was sorely marred. For them music must fulfill all the demands a complete and spherical æsthetic sense could make upon it. I must own that I was rather surprised to find in Dresel—whom I knew personally and intimately, for with Franz I had only two or three years’ intercourse by letter — so keen a delight in musical color, to find him make such severe demands upon music in this respect. In Boston he had the name of being rather “ grim " in his tastes, and I knew his sense for form was so keen and fastidious that I thought it likely enough his demands upon beauty of clang-tint might be less exorbitant. But no : a disagreeable voice, a dry-toned pianoforte, a poor violin, unbeautiful orchestration, offended his ear as unpardonably as it could that of the veriest color-epicure in music ; Paderewski himself could not surpass him in fineness of musical color-sense. And speaking of the great Polish pianist (whom, by the way, he never heard) reminds me of something I heard Dresel say one day, in talking of pianoforte playing: —
“ I have heard almost all the great pianists; but of the whole lot I can think of only two whom I should call really remarkable for beauty of touch: Thalberg and Rubinstein.”
“ How about Gottschalk ? ” I suggested.
“Ah! yes, I had forgotten him; he certainly belongs with the other two; his tone on the pianoforte was phenomenally fine! ”
In a similar way I was somewhat surprised at first at the high value he set upon emotional expressiveness in music, especially upon the expression of individual emotion, upon the emotional personality and temperament of a composer. To be sure, these surprises came at a time when I knew him far less well than I did afterwards, near the beginning of our musical friendship, when I still had to take him largely for what his reputation with music-lovers in general painted him to be — something of a “dry” musical formalist. Yet even after I had become better acquainted with the emotional, romantic side of his nature, there were certain points in him that I still failed to understand ; points which seemed to me not to harmonize well with the rest of him. Indeed, to his death, I could never explain the to me extraordinarily cool attitude he assumed toward Gluck’s operas and the works of the older Italian contrapuntists, Palestrina, the Naninis, and others of that school. The Gluck matter, to be sure, did not trouble me overmuch ; but, as for Palestrina and his contemporaries, it seemed to me to border on the illogical for an ardent Bach and Handel worshiper like Dresel to ignore this older music, which was really one of the main foundations of the great Germans’ art. I never could get him to talk long enough on the subject, which evidently did not interest him in the least, to give me any clue to his inexplicable feelings in the matter. It was only after his death that Franz, to whom I had written on the subject, suggested an explanation that made me begin to see clearly into it. In a letter dated October 31, 1890, Franz answered my questions as follows : —
“ The questions you ask are not easy to answer. But I would remark before all things that it can not be required of a musician to bring an equal interest to bear upon all art-phenomena, a requirement which is no doubt a conditio sine qua non for the historian, not for the musician, for a lifetime would hardly suffice for the intensive study of them. Friend Dresel was, to be sure, guilty of many a harshness in his judgments, which unfortunately led superficial people to charge him with one-sided narrowness. I myself have not fared better ! I never had any talk with Dresel about his attitude toward Gluck and the old Italian school, so I am in no condition to give you any information about his aversion. Yet I can very well imagine that he did not sympathize with the frequent over-estimates of Gluck’s artistic expression. The somewhat cold objectiveness to which the subjects he treated forced this master could not possibly be sympathetic to so subjectively disposed an individual as Dresel unquestionably was — his cool sympathy is only thus to be explained. He seems to have assumed a similar, perhaps a harsher, attitude toward the old Italian school. In it the personal element withdraws almost wholly into the background, and is overwhelmed by the demands of the Catholic Church, which, as you know, does not consider the individual of any account. The expression of the masters of this school thus became so typical that one has some difficulty in distinguishing between, for example, the grand works of Palestrina. It was Protestantism that first loosed musicians’ tongues ; for in it the personal element, in contradistinction to the typical, gets its rights. The musical culmination of the liberated spirits is to be discerned in Bach and Handel — in both of them does the ‘Ego ’ celebrate its most brilliant triumphs. Nowadays we are told to fall back solely upon ourselves, a fact which has already led to a subjectivism that makes one’s flesh creep. In my opinion the individual element should subordinate itself to the universal, in which the artistic spirit of the noblest sort attains to self-consciousness ; and here it finds its limit. He who disregards this limit will sooner or later come to grief. The great crowd that rule the roast to-day should naturally be sharply distinguished from this ‘ universal; ’ for them everything is sensual pleasure, and they have no inkling of a katharsis in which, and in which alone, the true blessings of art are realized. After the crowd was emancipated, even in its relations to music, . . . then began the downfall, about which only blindness can have any doubts.
“These cursory remarks to a certain extent explain Dresel’s attitude. His negative judgment on Gluck and the old Italian school is but the outcome of a passionately mobile inner nature, for which, in neither case, does the blood pulsate quickly enough, and one that could not possibly come to an understanding with the false objectiveness of our doctrinarians. Dresel’s opposition to the NeoGermanic school, too, has its interesting side. Its intolerance of all barriers (ihre Schrankenlosigkeit) was necessarily antipathetic to his measure-loving nature ; in which matter he may perhaps now and then have overshot the mark.”
I quote this merely to show that Dresel was very far from being the “ dry formalist ” in music that many thought him. In truth, the romantic side of his nature was as fully developed as that in any of the musical “ new lights ” of to-day ; only with him it went hand in hand with, and was counterpoised by, an equally well-developed spirit of classicism. And what was true of Dresel in this respect was quite as true of Franz ; in many of his long musical talks with me, the former continually quoted Franz, not as authority, but to show that he himself was not alone in his views.
What separates the classicism, the sense for beauty of musical form and proportion, of Franz and Dresel from that of almost all “ classicists ” to-day, — and the spirit of musical classicism, if possibly obsolescent, is by no means quite so dead yet as some persons would have us believe, —what made them, in a sense, the last of the Mohicans of a now bygone period, is more a difference in kind than in degree. I do not think it any exaggeration to say that their perfect purity, chasteness, and nice discrimination of specifically musical sense are now a thing of the past. Our musical instincts nowadays run in other channels ; we follow other ideals, and are not only willing, but eager, to sacrifice things to them that our fathers would not have consented to forego. For the absolute fineness and delicacy of musical sense of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, and Mendelssohn, we have no doubt substituted something else ; we can stand things — ay, and take delight in them, too — that would have set their teeth on edge ; we can find a certain ideal coherency, of mood, poetic or dramatic purpose, or emotional expression, in things that would doubtless have struck them as utterly chaotic. I am not even prepared to deny that our modern musical sense may have, or may be developing into acquiring, a somewhat larger scope than theirs ; but that it has not the perfect fineness of fibre of theirs I am sure. I am not criticising either them or us ; I am merely stating what seems to me an undeniable fact. No doubt there are many musicians, especially of the older generation, now alive (albeit fewer than is generally supposed) who have enough of this old fineness and purity of musical sense left to know what it is ; but those of them in whom it still has sufficient vitality for them to make its complete satisfaction a sine qua non of musical enjoyment must be exceedingly few and far between. Franz and Dresel were the last prominent figures in that goodly company of musical purists ; with their death the old fineness of musical sense became virtually extinct. And if I call them purists, I do so hesitatingly, and because I can think of no better term. In the invidious sense, they were really not purists at all; for they did not throw greater stress upon purity of form and style than upon other elements in the art. Nothing was farther from their nature than æsthetic dandyism ; only for them parity of form and style was a sine qua non.
Of the two, Franz alone was a creator. Dresel, to be sure, composed to a certain extent, and what he wrote was often surpassingly fine; but in him the spirit of self-criticism was stronger than the creative impulse. After publishing a few things, a pianoforte trio and some smaller pieces, when still a young man, he kept countless songs in his portfolio, waiting for the time when his own musical sense should have sufficiently matured for him to trust it implicitly ; he would give nothing to the public that he might be sorry for or ashamed of later. He had a horror of letting anything callow go on record ; he was not content with satisfying his ideal for the time being, but must wait until he could be sure of satisfying his perfected and firmly grounded ideal. And the maturing process in him went on almost indefinitely ; it seemed as if it would never end; until at last, shortly before his death, he did publish one small book of songs — songs written years before, which had survived decades of cumulative selfcriticism, and which he was at last willing to father as something worth doing. The wonderful beauty of these songs might make one lament that Dresel kept them back so long, instead of giving them to the world at once, and making them the point of departure for flights into other and loftier regions of composition, did one not recognize the fact that, where genius is truly creative, the creative instinct is ever stronger than that of self-criticism, and has in itself a certain inborn fearlessness that prompts it to compose, and give to the world without regard for consequences. The man of genuine creative genius can not help flooding the world with his creations. He may not, and probably does not, satisfy his own highest ideal; but that matters little to him : he has done his best for the nonce, and can not wait to work over it longer; he must give it to the world for what it is worth, and try to do better next time. That Dresel had not creative genius of this sort seems evident enough ; and we should be thankful for the beauty of the few songs he did persuade himself to publish rather than regret that he did not publish more. Upon the whole, there is no such thing, nor was there ever such a tiling, as an unborn master-work; for it is, and ever has been, the prime characteristic of the embryo of a masterpiece that it will and must be born ; it struggles uncontrollably toward birth, and nothing under heaven, save fell death alone, can prevent its being born. There is no more futile lamenting on earth than that over the great things this or that man did not do. Devout thankfulness for the little and insignificant things men have not done is infinitely wiser; for it is profoundly true — though the truth thereof is too often overlooked or misappreciated — that in art, as in other matters, the world really wants nothing but masterpieces. All else it is well able to do without.
Franz, on the other hand, distinctly was a creative genius; and, like all true geniuses, as distinguished from men of mere talents, he was a man of progress. He carried the German Lied to its highest known pitch of perfection. Uniting the purely lyric element one finds in such splendor in Schubert with the wondrously subtile and mobile expressiveness of every varying shade of emotion that characterized Schumann, fusing these two elements so that their union was absolutely — one might say, by a not too daring figure, “chemically" —complete, Franz gave the finishing master touch to the plastic form of the Lied. Franz’s songs are as truly lyrics, in the most exact sense of the word, as Schubert’s ; at the same time, they are to the full as emotionally expressive, as picturesquely and poetically suggestive, as vivid pieces of tone-painting, as Schumann’s. And, more than this, he has given them the most stoutly organized, pure, and concise form known in songwriting. Of what Schubert and Schumann did before him Franz brought the natural and logical completion ; he crowned the edifice.
In thus comparing Franz with Schubert and Schumann as a song-writer, I have intentionally left his own personal individuality out of consideration ; I have spoken only of his continuing and completing their work in establishing and perfecting the form of the German Lied. But, apart from this, his own genius had the finest, the most unique aroma; it was as individual as that of any man who ever wrote. Indeed, after looking through all modern art, one finds Franz to stand utterly alone and companionless in one high respect; to find a parallel to the spirit that breathes through his songs, one must go back to the old Elizabethan love poetry ; nothing else in our own day has their peculiar aroma. Franz’s songs have just that unforced felicity of cadence and expression, that wholesome out-of-door freshness, that refinement without priggishness, warmth without feverishness, above all that native reverence for purity and beauty, that we find in the English love poems of Elizabeth’s day. No lover can be too passionate to sing them, no maid too pure to hear them.
Their “ vocality,” to coin a vile word to fit an abominably abused thing, has often been called in question ; indeed, Franz’s songs are by no means always written according to the rules of the Italian bed canto, and it has longbeen the fashion to consider songs that do not obey these rules as pieces of bad vocal writing. But this objection is really foolish. Because even the finest and best developed vocal technique of great Italian singers is not fully equal to conquering certain technical difficulties in Franz’s songs, there is no more reason to call them essentially unvocal and badly written for the voice than there would be for saying that Chopin’s nocturnes and preludes are pieces of bad pianoforte writing because, say, Moscheles or Hummel could not have played them. The only difference is, that the peculiar technique needed to play Chopin has been very fully developed in pianists to-day, whereas the peculiar vocal technique requisite to sing Franz has been only very sparingly developed in singers. And as for bel canto, the Franz songs differ diametrically from much of the vocal music written to-day in that they are but seldom declamatory in character, but almost always are purely lyrical; they have a bel canto of their own,— not the Italian, but another, — and imperatively demand that it shall be done full justice. The vocal technique required by Franz’s songs still remains to a great extent a problem that singers will have to solve for themselves ; some few have already solved it, but mastery over it has by no means become general as yet. I myself, moi qui vous parle have heard Franz’s songs sung as purely, as smoothly, sustainedly, and with as perfect emission of tone as I ever have “ Casta diva ” or “ Una furtiva lagrima ” by the best Italians. But I admit that it has not been often !
It has been regretted that Franz, as an original creator, confined himself so exclusively to the Lied, instead of spreading a wider wing in flight through larger musical domains. His technical equipment was probably more thorough than that of any other composer of his day. Perhaps he felt the short song to be his most congenial sphere, and had no inner spurrings to attempt larger things. But one may suspect there was something else that kept him from trying the larger forms of vocal composition or any form whatever of instrumental writing. And I am led to guess that this something else may have acted quite as effectually upon Dresel as upon him, preventing him from overstepping the limits of the song, and discouraging Dresel almost wholly from doing original work in any field. To explain what this something, this mysterious influence, was, let me quote again from Franz’s letters.
In a letter dated November 23, 1890, after beginning thus—
“ I am very glad that you agree with my explanation of Dresel’s attitude. If you lay strong stress upon these points of view in your intended article,1 many a misunderstanding about our friend will be cured thereby.
“You are quite right in calling Liszt’s composing in the archaic style reflective, for every imitation drags after itself the loss of naïveté, and thus leaves the domain of all true artistic creation. The Berlin matadors,-,-,-, etc., labor under the same deficit.”
He goes on, in reply to some expostulations of mine with the exceedingly black view he had taken of the future of the art of music, as follows : —
“ So you really believe that the individualism of our day, tearing down all barriers as it is, is but a process of fermentation, the precipitate of which must lead to a clarification promotive of art! If you mean the complete negation thereof, then I agree with you ; but if you think a new era of artistic productiveness possible as the result of this clarification, then our views go far asunder. Every development has, like everything in the world, its beginning and its end; the development of the organism of art like the rest. Now, you have only to look at the historical progress of Music to descry in it an uninterrupted chain of perfectionments and retrograde movements. To be sure, instances of disorganization occur, but their place is immediately taken by more vital forms in other domains. Vocal as well as instrumental music has gone through this process; neither of them could ever rise above a culminating point that was always followed by a rapid decadence. Church music lived to have this fate during and after the period of Bach and Handel; then the opera before and after ‘ Mozart,’ whose name I especially emphasize because his genius possessed the highest faculty of dramatic art: ‘ to create figures of flesh and blood; ’ 2 farther on the epic forms, which culminated in Beethoven ; and finally, we have arrived again at the beginning of all art, at the lyric, which seems likewise to have exhausted its springs to the very bottom, in achieving a fusion of poetry and music which can hardly be carried to a higher pitch of intimacy.”
In another letter, dated May 5, 1892, he says : —
“As I know you from your letters as an optimist incarnate, who even per tot discrimina rerum believes in a beautiful future, I will only remark that our art has been, in its noblest results and for divers centuries, its own object, and that it may at last be high time to take in hand the education of humankind, its higher mission. Trash will, of course, be excluded thereby, and what is genuine will come into its rights.”
These are but hints ; but they tend to show that Franz was fully persuaded that all forms of composition had been virtually worked out, and nothing new was to be done in them ; the field of original creation in music was closed, or fast closing, except to those adventurous modern spirits to whom pure individualism in expression was acceptable as a worthy aim in art. At any rate, as he himself could not accept the modern idea, the field of original musical creation was effectively closed for him, save in that one still perfectible form, the song. Yet it is easy to see by what he actually did that this beautiful, but narrowly circumscribed, form of composition did not seem to him to give a man of creative genius sufficient scope to make it worth his while to devote his whole life-work to it. Indeed, if we look through the history of music, we can find no single instance of a man of really high creative genius — even among those to whom we owe the perfection of very small musical forms—devoting himself exclusively to them. Take, for instance, Schubert, to whom we owe the establishment of the
Lied-form ; probably his most perfect and absolutely original work was done in that form ; but he was not content to apply his genius to it alone, he also worked in the larger fields of the symphony, the sonata, concerted chamber music, church music, and the opera. Take Schumann, who brought the short fugitive pianoforte-piece to such perfection and may even hb said to have created the genre, — for what Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven had done before him in this line was little more than a hint that something great remained to be done in it, and Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words were rather superficially than essentially a new development, being in reality little or nothing more than the application of the Lied - form to pianoforte writing ; 3 — even Schumann could not confine himself to the short morceau de genre for pianoforte, but exploited nearly all the largest and highest domains of composition. Chopin himself, who, barring a few songs and a piece or two of concerted chamber music, was exclusively a pianoforte composer, was not content to confine his genius within the limits of the mazurka, the waltz, the nocturne, nor the short free prelude, but must needs apply himself also to the sonata, the concerto, the scherzo, and the longer ballade ; and though Chopin brought the nocturne, the mazurka, and the short prelude to a pitch of perfection never equaled before nor since, and his most characteristic work was done in these small forms, he still was not satisfied with limiting himself to them alone. And it would have been strange indeed if a man of Franz’s genius had been content to immure himself in the restricted domain of song writing. Yet, as we have seen, he considered other fields of original creative work virtually closed to him. What he did do is well known; and why he did it is at least hinted at in the sentences, “ It may at last be high time to take in hand the education of humankind, its (music’s) higher mission. Trash will, of course, be excluded thereby, and what is genuine will come into its rights.”
There was one high field left for the musician of genius, even of creative genius, a field in which the great Mozart himself had done pioneer work, in which Mendelssohn had labored, but which had otherwise been left to men of mere talent and insufficient ability. This was the filling-out of the incomplete scores of Bach, Handel, and other great masters of their day. Here was work in the very highest field still remaining to be done! Nothing could contribute more to the higher musical “ education of humankind ” than the popularization of Bach and Handel; and by worthily filling out the vacant gaps in their monumental scores, what was “genuine ” would be enabled to “ come into its rights.” I remember Dresel once saying that he considered the completion of Bach’s and Handel’s scores the highest task now left for musicians to accomplish. One need have little doubt that this feeling, coupled with and in part springing from the conviction that all fields for purely original musical creation were virtually worked out and closed, was what impelled both Franz and Dresel to devote the better part of their lives to the work they did on Bach and Handel.
I have but small inclination to examine or criticise this conviction here. I personally cannot agree with it; I even find it difficult to imagine it; as Franz said, I still believe in a beautiful future, that the present barrier-spurning spirit of ultra-individualism, with all the chaotic and monstrous phenomena to which it has given birth, is really but a transitory “ process of fermentation, the precipitate of which must lead to a clarification promotive of art.” And I have perfect faith that the clarification will come in due time. Even the history of music — although it proves the contrary to Franz — only strengthens my faith, if it in any way needed strengthening. An almost precisely similar “ instance of disorganization (Verwilderung)” is to be found in the Florentine Music Reform of the seventeenth century ; there, too, was a temporary reign of barrier-breaking individualism, an utter subversion of all that was “ typical ” and “ universal.” Ask the classicists, the acknowledged great masters, of that day what they thought of Caccini, Peri, and Monteverde, with their stile rappresentativo and their establishment of the musicdrama, and whether they could see anything in the movement, or in the music that resulted from it, but sheer chaos regained ? There was a “ process of fermentation ” with a vengeance ! But the precipitate came, and with it the clarification ; music could not remain forever in the amorphous state into which the Florentines had thrown it, for that which has in itself the potency and power of organism tends irrepressibly to develop itself organically. Nay, one may even say with absolute truth that the particular ferment that raised all this Florentine row-de-dow contained the fructifying vital principle that made it possible for Bach and Handel to be born from Palestrina, the Gabrielis, and Orlando Lasso. History has but to repeat itself, and the “ clarification ” we now look for may come !
But, though one need not agree with the view of the present and future condition of the art of music taken by Franz and Dresel, a conviction so thorough, honest, and unflinchingly lived up to as theirs cannot but command the most reverent respect. No matter whether their feeling and arguments convinced you or not, they were every inch true men, men of genuine genius, powerful brains, and wide culture ; in short they were men who abundantly deserved to be listened to. No men that ever lived were less fit subjects for mere pooh-poohing. And, when we consider what the results of this artistic conviction of theirs have been, we must find that the world has little cause to be otherwise than profoundly thankful that they were what they were and thought as they did. What they did for the incomplete scores of Bach and Handel is unquestionably to be counted among the things the world really wants, and hence cannot do without, as true master-work. Again, in a letter dated October 8 of the same year, he writes : —
The violent controversy between the small Franz party and the far larger “ historical ” party about the Bearbeitungsfrage, the question of filling out the gaps left by the old composers in their scores, is one which I need not go into at great length ; many of the arguments on both sides are so inseparably interwoven with musical technicalities as to make their rehearsal out of place here.4
But it will be none the less interesting to hear Franz himself talk about it a little ; not a few passages in his letters to me give a fine picture of the man himself, of the sturdy fighter for his own principles, unshaken in his faith, if somewhat embittered and turned to causticity by hard usage ; these passages also throw light upon the only element in the controversy which I shall permit myself to take up in this article. In a letter dated August 6, 1889, he writes, in reply to some remarks of mine on the general attitude of musical criticism in this country : —
“ With us, too, does criticism hold fast with convulsive grip by mere externals in judging of the question of additional accompaniments, and cannot get beyond the idea of instrumental retouching. Of the spiritual vitality, the afflatus divinus, that everywhere pervades Bach’s and Handel’s compositions, and to which the complementary additions must in some measure correspond, the gentlemen have no inkling, and have therefore nothing to say on the main point. But this in no wise prevents their incessantly trotting out their bornées opinions and looking down with envy upon endeavors that are beyond their miserable powers of comprehension. You are right, too, in saying that the boundless vanity of professional singers bears a substantial part of the blame for the current misapprehensions about Bach’s and Handel’s airs. These gentry never care for the thing itself, but only for their own personal success. As vocal music since Mozart has its centre of gravity in the cantilena, people think they may apply this to compositions of earlier periods also, which are almost without exception written polyphonically — whereby the remaining web of voices comes off badly enough. But we will not let ourselves be led astray by this crazy company and its adherents, but will now as heretofore let the honor be to Truth ; it will carry off the palm in the end, in spite of all.”
“That the Communications about Bach’s Magnificat5 do not dissatisfy you rejoices me greatly. The most valuable part of them is probably the side-remarks on the ideal contents (Gehalt) of the master’s works. If you could occasionally communicate some of these to your fellow-countrymen, you would compel my thanks. I read with astonishment in your letter that the magazines published in America refuse to accept the least word about Sebastian Bach. So there are queer people everywhere— not only here in this country! Bach has a future, like Shakespeare ; he but honors himself who acts on this point of view.
“ You are very right in saying that between the artistic perception and the historicophilological recognition of a fact there yawns a chasm that is hardly to be bridged over. Those who hold to the latter cannot even conceive how the historical must always be sublimated in the artistic. In his pamphlet, Robert Franz in his Additional Accompaniments to Old Vocal Works, J. Schäffer, after quoting a few sentences from my Open Letter,6 goes on to say: ‘ How surprisingly exact is the agreement of these sentences with Mattheson’s and Heinchen’s directions ! How deeply is the historian here thrown into the shade by the practical (ausübenden) artist! The former, albeit in possession of all historically established facts, remains still blind to them ; the latter, perhaps without any sort of suspicion of what stands written in the old books, achieves, through practical experiments and the divining faculty of genius, results which alone prove to be vouched for by history! ’ Why, it is axiomatic that every working-out of an old composition must penetrate the secret of its style, and so must be historically right. Bach’s and Handel’s sketches do not endure our modern expression, but must be completed in the forms of the day when they were written. But to this end one need not plough through the musty old books; one has but to question his own artistic conscience. He who does not comprehend that is a blockhead !
“ The German historical party think to have an easy job with me by denouncing me to the public as a mere songscribbler (Bänkelsänger), who dares to lay profane hands on Bach and Handel. The fools naturally do not know that my musical developments rest on the basis of polyphonic forms of expression, for they are much too high and mighty to look into such small wares. Luckily, the gentlemen’s stupid experiments facilitate our pointing out their sins against those masters. That they were in no condition to refute us has contributed much to swell their wrath. However, many enemies, much honor ! ”
Again, under date of July 14, 1890, he writes: —
“I willingly believe you that the true essence of Bach’s music, mystical depth combined with mathematical strictness, was not comprehended by - in ——, and was shorn over the same comb with common wares. But is it any better in this respect here in this country ? How low musical taste has sunk with us may be proved to you by this : that the young director of a famous conservatory dared to proclaim that Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words were ‘ sheer thoosymoosy feeling,’ and a noted young German author had the impudence to call Schubert’s songs ‘ hand-organ sentimentality.’ These are the consequences of modern realism ! What our ’strongminded ’ folk cannot grasp with their fists is cast without further ado into the rubbish-bin ! Whither in the world are we steering ?
“ Half a year ago the musical works of Frederick the Great were published by the firm of Breitkopf & Härtel, by order of Emperor William I, and under the chief supervision of the academic music-historian-. All the sonatas are written for flute with figured continuo, and therefore necessitate a working-out of the accompaniment. Old Fritz’s music is in the main capital, and contains Sicilianos such as Handel could not have written more soulfully ; in face of such genuine beauty the accompaniment should naturally show no falling-off. But now there has appeared in No. 17 of the Hamburger Signale an article which simply annihilates ——’s edition and proves the bungling character of the working-out by examples in notes—it swarms with fifths and octaves. The affair makes all the more painful an impression that our young Emperor has presented an exemplaire de luxe of his ancestor’s compositions to Jules Simon in Paris, where messieurs les Français can convince themselves what sort of spirits are cocks of the walk now in musical Germany. The high-school clique, with the renowned – at their head, are naturally in sheer despair, and have reason enough therefor.”
Under date of August 16, 1890, he goes on : —
“ The great– has tried to justify himself in a reply that runs over with futilities. According to his assertion, the accompaniment is the most indifferent matter in the world, which any one is at liberty to treat as he happens to please ; he may make changes at will without thereby injuring the substance of the composition in any way — in short, the scribble is an oratio pro domo pronounced by a thoroughly impotent man upon himself. If you will give a glance at my additional accompaniments, you will hardly look upon this domain as of secondary importance. To write in the style of the old masters, which is here absolutely necessary for the sake of unity, is not one of the tasks you can carelessly shake out of your sleeve. Neither does –make any bones of the fact that in those days men of Bach’s and Handel’s stamp sat accompanying at the cembalo or organ ; they did not write out the accompaniment, and must therefore be content with what we botch together in all haste, this way to-day and to-morrow that. Of course with such a dogma music can be raised out of her hinges — God help our children and grandchildren ! ”
The letter dated May 5, 1892, from which I have already quoted (page 496), begins : —
“Your letter contains little that is cheering about the condition of music to-day. Communications of the sort in no wise surprise me, however, for, since the principles have been suspended that ruled artistic expression from Palestrina to Beethoven, phenomena like those you describe must necessarily make their appearance. Up to Beethoven and his epigones people held fast by the idea that melody, harmony, and rhythm were the fundamental elements of music ; the neo-Germanic school has radically destroyed these and set up in their stead the absolute freedom of the personal element. Men like Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner could to a certain extent compensate for this by the weight of their personality ; but the army of those who have followed in their footsteps, not being able to throw such a weight into the scale, have necessarily, in face of this intolerance of all barriers, ushered in universal chaos.”
This was elicited by some accounts I had given him of new works of the latest French school that I had heard in Paris, where I had been spending the winter and spring of 1890–91. Later in the same letter he goes on to say as follows : —
“ The experiment of having the dear public sing, too, in the chorals of the Matthew-Passion 7 must have turned out badly enough, for, in his harmonization of them. Bach thought only of an ideal congregation. What can have come, for example, of the choral, ‘ Was mein Gott will, gescheh’ allzeit,’ especially at the place ‘und züchitiget mit Maassen ? ’ How much people hang on externalities in the rendering of Bach’s and Handel ’s works has been proved by the fight the London philisterium billed against me about my Messiah score. Even– did not dive to the heart of the question of additional accompaniments, the restoration of the musical style of the complementary parts, but had only to do with things that lie wholly outside that domain. And yet it is of the highest importance in this matter whether one knows how to write in the style and spirit of the old masters, or not. People ought to thank Heaven that the solution of this difficult problem has been striven after by me in decently fitting forms ! I never should have undertaken such work, had it been a question of nothing more than instrumentation, which the first town-piper that came along could have carried out effectively.
“ I have just received your article in the Contemporary Review,8 but must once more lament my being too little a master of the English language to edify myself therewith as it deserves. I shall send it to Dr. Prieger,9 who will communicate to me the staple of its contents. I am much pleased that you took in the two quotations from my Communications, for they contain the quintessence of what is needful for the understanding of Bach’s art. But when Herr– talks about polyphonic style and what hangs together therewith, then I am sick outright! He who hears in Bach’s world-famous motet, ‘ Singet dem Herrn neues Lied,’nothing but scales running up and down should not let his tongue coquet with the old master’s name and expression. On his visit to Leipzig, Mozart had the voice/parts — there was no score — laid before him, and cried out enchanted, ‘ Here at least one can learn something from a man ! How sharply this modesty contrasts with–’s impudent condemnation ! ”
I said that I would take up only one point in the controversy between Franz and the German historical party about the additional-accompaniments question: this is the utter misapprehension of Franz’s point of view by his opponents. This misapprehension has been so complete, so obstinate, that one is at moments tempted to think there could be nothing but partisan ill-will behind it. Yet I have found it in so many people who were not especially interested in the controversy, who could not possibly have any partisan prejudice in the matter, and were rather inclined to sympathize with Franz than otherwise, — not so much for what he really did as for what they thought he had done, — that it seems to me there is ground for believing the anti-Franzites to be not entirely dishonest. Indeed, it was very noteworthy that the author of one of the exceedingly few obituary notices on Franz that appeared in German newspapers shortly after his death, and of the most glowingly enthusiastic one, too, evidently shared this misapprehension with his most embittered opponents. What this misapprehension is may be seen plainly enough from the passage in the letters just quoted, where Franz says, “ With us, too, does criticism hold fast with convulsive grip by mere externals in judging of the question of additional accompaniments, and cannot get beyond the idea of instrumental retouching.” Even the author of the admiring obituary notice I have just mentioned speaks of his “ amplifying the monumental scores of Bach and Handel to satisfy the greater demands for sonority made by the modern ear.” Such a statement, coming from an “ admirer,” was fit to make the good Franz turn in his grave!
Here is not the place to go into the merits of the case ; I will merely emphasize the fact that, whereas Franz — and with him Dresel — threw the whole weight of his arguments upon the real gist of the question, upon the musical style in which the additional accompaniments should be written, the historical party almost without exception dodged this issue and laid the whole stress upon what instrument, or instruments, the additional accompaniments should be written for. Franz knew as well as anybody that Bach and Handel used to fill out the vacant places they had left in their scores with improvised accompaniments on the organ or clavichord ; remember the passage in his letters where he says that “ in those days men of Bach’s and Handel’s stamp sat accompanying at the cembalo or organ; ” and, if he preferred to write his additional accompaniments for orchestral instruments, instead of for the organ or pianoforte (the modern representative of the clavichord, or cembalo), it was for reasons amply satisfactory to himself. But note this : he announced again and again that if conductors of choral societies did not agree with him in preferring orchestral instruments, but preferred the organ or pianoforte, he was perfectly willing to have them transcribe his additional accompaniments for one or the other of these instruments, so long as they preserved the musical outlines of what he had written ; that the question of instruments was in his mind one of utterly secondary importance. In one case 10 he even did this work of transcription himself, writing and publishing, beside his orchestral amplification of the score, a separate organ-accompaniment, to be used in connection with Bach’s original parts and without his own orchestral additions. But, pay what deference he might to other people’s preference for the organ or clavichord, announce as emphatically as he pleased that he was willing to have his orchestral parts played on either of these instruments, and that the musical style in which his additional parts were written was all he deemed of essential importance, he but spoke to deaf ears ; his opponents refused to see anything in his work but additional instrumentation, orchestral retouching, of the sort Sir Michael Costa permitted himself when he added trombones, bass-tuba, and big drum and cymbals to the already complete score of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Ils lie sortaient pas de là !
The reason for this persistent misunderstanding of Franz’s principle — apart from partisan obstinacy — was doubtless that hinted at by Franz when he said, “Between the artistic perception and the historico-philological recognition of a fact there yawns a chasm that is hardly to be bridged over.” Franz’s arguments were all based on his own highly cultivated artistic perceptions, upon ideas ; those of his opponents, on mere historical data. And the latter could not see that their historical data, the accuracy of which Franz never for a moment called in question, had really nothing to do with what he was talking about. Not being men of musical genius and the keen, profound insight into the genius of others that comes therewith, they could in no wise comprehend either the fineness or the trustworthiness of Franz’s perceptions ; they were unable to see that, with all their historical and biographical researches, they had sounded the mighty heads of Bach and Handel only wig-deep at best, and that Franz, with his artist’s intuition and sympathy, had penetrated not only their mighty brains but down to their very heart of heart. So all Franz might say about his principles was but Greek to them; they could no more understand him than a Tierra del Fuegian can understand the subjunctive mood. Again, it is not difficult to see why the arguments of the historical party should have had far more influence upon outsiders in general than those advanced by Franz; the " historical" arguments were all more or less on the principle that “figures cannot lie " — they were based on facts, and the public mind is peculiarly open to facts. But Franz’s arguments, being based on perceptions and ideas, were of a far more subtile and illusive sort; they were by no means so palpable to popular apprehension. Naturally most music-lovers did not take the trouble to examine into the question very closely; if they cared to look into the matter at all, they did so cursorily, as one would skim over a newspaper. It was perfectly natural for people in this state of mind, when they found that there were two opposing parties, and that one of them based its arguments on uncontroverted facts, to believe that this party must be right.
William F. Apthorp.
- An article I never wrote, by the way.↩
- This was in allusion to an article of mine in Scribner’s Magazine, on Wagner’s Heroes and Heroines, in which I had spoken of Wagner’s having “ created figures of flesh and blood.”↩
- Saint-Saëns well said that “ where Mendelssohn has given us the loveliest musical water-color sketches, Schumann has cut veritable cameos.”↩
- I have already treated this subject at some length in an article on Additional Accompaniments to Bach’s and Handel’s Scores, in the Atlantic Monthly for September, 1878. to which I would beg to refer the reader curious in the matter.↩
- Mittheilungen über J. S. Bach’s Magnifieat von Robert Franz, Halle, 1863.↩
- Offener Brief an Eduard Hanslick über Bearbeitumgen älterer Tonwerke, namentlich Bach’scher und Händel’scher Vocalmusik, von Robert Franz, Leipzig, 1871.↩
- This experiment turned out not to be quite so thorough–going as I had supposed before the performance, when I wrote to Franz about it. In some of the performances of the PassionMusic given by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, the audience was invited to join in singing the melody of some of the chorals not of all, as I had supposed. Of their singing the harmony there had never been any question whatever.↩
- On Johann Sebastian Bach.↩
- Erich Prieger, who published a few years ago a very able pamphlet abundantly proving the spuriousness of the St. Luke-Passion, attributed to Bach by Dr. Philipp Spitta and others before him, and recently published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig.↩
- In his edition of the cantata: “ Sie werden aus Saba Alle kommen.”↩