Catholicity in Musical Taste

IN the early years of our century, two German musicians were busy developing their respective and widely different gifts. Each genius was in advance of his day, and neither was very well able to comprehend his contemporary. One was at his best upon the stage, where he could take the written words of his librettists and make them more eloquent in the language of sound. It was in the concertroom that the other stood supreme, using this sound-language to express all that lies beyond reach of the written word. Both men were pioneers, steadily penetrating into solitudes of art never entered before ; but the trails they cut lay wide apart, and so they discovered different countries. To-day, we can travel, for our enjoyment, to either we choose, as one goes to the seaside, and at some other time seeks the hills. But Beethoven and Weber could not do this. They followed different roads without turningaside, inevitably so compelled by their unlike natures ; neither could have adopted the other’s course without doing violence to his own instinct; without, in fact, abandoning the goal he was seeking. If one bears this wide divergence of aim in mind, the fundamental failure of the two men to appreciate each other becomes its necessary consequence, instead of an apparent sign of jealousy or enmity or narrowness. The dramatic composer finds the symphony writer confused, obscure, his later works a straining search for novelty, a bewildering chaos. He says : “ My ideas are so opposite to Beethoven’s that I cannot imagine it possible we should ever meet. ... I, of course, cannot lay claim to the genius of Beethoven.” It is further recorded of Weber that, upon hearing the seventh symphony, he exclaimed that Beethoven was now ready for the madhouse. Ten years later, Beethoven, far sunk in the depths of his vast explorations, pronounced Euryanthe a mere collection of diminished sevenths, — chords which may be recalled by remembering that one of them accompanies Mephistopheles as he laughs at the end of his serenade in Gounod’s Faust.

These unjust, blind criticisms do not describe the symphony or the opera ; they merely indicate how wide apart the two composers had journeyed. They could no longer discern each other. Beethoven respected Weber for Der Freischutz, and Weber could admire Beethoven’s earlier compositions ; but this was because, at those points, neither man had struck off far from the traveled road.

That these two great artists should not have seen the meaning and value of each other’s work is not an isolated and accidental fact in the history of music ; it is a significant symptom which reappears at once when we come to Brahms and Wagner. Setting aside any personal qualities which might have made the men enemies had they been, not musicians, but doctors, or attorneys, or merely men of leisure at the same club, they stood as the commanders in chief of two hostile camps in art, and they inherited their quarrel much as vendettas descend. They were bitter about each other’s productions, and their lieutenants have been still more so. We find the chief henchman of Brahms, a clever and venomous person by the name of Hanslick, praising his master’s new symphony with such heat that his criticism loses its fibre, and melts into silliness ; while, on the other hand, he finds the first act of Die Meistersinger to be a wilderness, containing nothing but some rather happily devised stanzas for the hero. If we enter the enemy’s camp, there is Liszt telling a French pilgrim that “ Wagner has performed a new miracle, Parsifal; ” while as to Brahms, he informs a pianist, who was apologizing for playing badly a sonata by that composer, that she had played it “ quite well enough for a dish of macaroni like that.” “ Ready for the madhouse ” and “dish of macaroni” are chips from the same musical block ; and after such anecdotes, it is pleasant to remember that, upon Wagner’s death, Brahms sent a wreath to his tomb, and said, “ After all, he was a master.” The symphony writer had a respect for the dramatic musician, even if he could not sympathize with his compositions ; and in that simple speech and act concerning his great contemporary, Brahms shows the same nobility and breadth which radiate from his music.

It is interesting to have known three generations of a family, or to get any other perspective of heredity, and note the likenesses between sire and son or daughter ; not only how the nose of the old man who fought at Monmouth Court House may be seen in his portrait on the wall and on the face of the young woman who is giving you a cup of tea a century later, but also how the college boy writes a hand very similar to that of his ancestor in the letter lying before you, dated 1790. More interesting still are the coincidences of temperament, character, and intellect between grandfather and grandson, freakishly dislocated by the influence of an intervening strain of blood. But most interesting of all are the cases where there is no relationship in the ordinary sense ; where blood has had nothing to do with it, but where art is the subtle medium through which the man who writes or paints or composes in one generation derives his faith and his methods from a long-dead predecessor, whose works alone survive to reveal his nature, hopes, and aims, and mark the kinship. Such lineal descendants are common enough in every art, and it is only necessary to take pains, and see the permanent reality of traits beneath the transient fashions of dress, for us to recognize members of the same stock.

Brahms is Beethoven’s descendant, and the family likeness is patent. Both men have written vocal music, one has even left an opera; but how often is Fidelio performed, compared with several of its author’s concert works ? He is so much more identified with instrumental music that when we speak of “ the ” second or third symphony we mean Beethoven’s, and not that of any of the half dozen other distinguished composers who have also written at least three symphonies. And the descendant has adopted his ancestor’s models. The faith and methods of Brahms are the same as Beethoven’s ; his great work, too, is in symphonies, sonatas, quartets, and kindred forms, all expressing in the language of music those things which lie beyond reach of the spoken word. If we could imagine a gallery of musicians’ portraits where the character of their music regulated their features, we should see Brahms retaining Beethoven’s likeness, and suiting only his costume to the fashion of his time. He has not written even one opera; and as Beethoven condemned Euryanthe, so he condemns Wagner. On the other hand, this direct descendant of Weber tried the symphony, and abandoned it, as his ancestor did ; but as Der Freischutz once won its way, so now Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger have swept the world.

From these two couples of distinguished opponents in the musical art of the early and late nineteenth century, we could continue with Haydn and Glück, and, proceeding backward along the parallel courses of musical development, trace the great men of each line, and their Montague -Capulet attitude, until we reached the town of Florence, three hundred years ago. We need not make this alarming excursion, deeply interesting though it would be to expose and discuss the feud from its beginning, the dissensions between the various Tybalts and Romeos, and what the matter was. At the bottom it has always been the same : the fight lies between polyphonic, subjective, and absolute music on the one hand, and monodic, objective, and relative music on the other hand. These are dreary and ambiguous words, though convenient for doctors to disagree in. “Polyphonic,” for example, gives no hint of its application in piano music, where it describes the compositions of Schumann, but not those of Chopin ; nor would you, on the face of it. suspect this learned word of classifying the innocent gambols of Three Blind Mice as contrasted with the equally innocent Home, Sweet Home, which, like Chopin, is monodic. Again, if you tell an educated but not musical man that the sixth symphony is mainly objective and relative, but that the seventh is subjective and absolute, he will scarcely feel sure what you mean, until you say that the former is about things that may also be described in words, in the language of speech, such as birds and brooks, while the latter deals with that mysterious part of human nature for which music seems to be the only direct vehicle of expression.

Three Blind Mice and Home, Sweet Home, have been chosen as types, because these humble lyrics have been with us since the nursery ; and in pausing to think each one over, we see at once the very real difference in their construction. In the former, three singers begin, one after the other, to sing the same tune. It is like a handicap, only they do not race, but keep the same distance apart, as they cover the same circular course. Each sings the tune and words independently of his predecessor and follower, and their blending, though a collision of three sets of words and three sets of notes, is musically coherent. If you listen to the total effect, the words are incomprehensible, because, since the last singer began before the first had finished, each is at a different stage; but you can single out any one, and follow the thread of his discourse from the beginning of the verse and tune to their end. This species of music may also be compared with a rope, which, if untwisted, divides into a set of complete independent strands.

Home, Sweet Home is plainly different. Only one melody is going at once ; and if it be silent, the instrumental or vocal accompaniment will fall meaningless as a sentence without a subject.

Here, then, are the two types whose upholders have quarreled, and they include all music, whether serious or light. A waltz, Schubert’s Erl King, Handel’s Largo, and Siegfried are on the Home, Sweet Home principle, monodic ; while Offenbach’s brigands, entering as beggars and asking for bread in Latin, sing a chorus that is burlesque polyphonic ; and to this class of music belong Bach’s fugues, and any symphony. No matter how long and elaborate a musical work may be, either Three Blind Mice or Home, Sweet Home contains in its primitive architecture the principles on which the more stately edifice is built. Just as blank verse is better for Hamlet than rhyme would be, so the polyphonic composers maintain, and rightly, that their style is necessary to express adequately the greatest and deepest musical conceptions,— those which other languages fail to touch. Their opponents are generally aiming at something quite different, — to express and intensify ideas already suggested by some other art. They have found monodic music better for this purpose. This controversy definitely began when Peri, in 1597, wrote an opera called Dafne, and intentionally disregarded polyphonic rules, thereby instantly scandalizing every one who believed in Palestrina. Monteverde followed his example. His operas took two cities captive ; but since he had conspicuously failed in polyphonic music, the polyphonists concluded he could not write music at all. Since then, each side has been extravagant in its denial of the other’s right to exist, down to Brahms and Wagner.

Such is the main controversy; and when divested of technical words its nature shows clear enough. But why it should be, for what reasons these composers could not find room in the world for each other, requires further analysis.

There seem to be two reasons. Musical art was born when all other arts were old. Humanity had been producing and understanding perfect sculpture for centuries before the year 1600, and by that time there was little left to discover in painting, poetry, or prose. But it took Western thought and civilization till then to render human apprehension sufficiently subtle to discover or understand the language of sound. It may be that other languages still more subtle are in store for us when we are ready for them. However that may be, all the music we listen to has been written since 1600, and consequently the field for exploration has been so vast that men have lost sight of one another in it. That is one reason; the second is still more cogent. The musician is the only artist whose vehicle of expression is not external to himself. The world provides the others with objects, animate and inanimate, and events and thoughts, which they record by using shapes or colors like those they see around them, or words which they hear. The painter expresses what he has to say by representing a tree or a face ; but the melodies and harmonies of a Beethoven or a Wagner lie wholly within the man. By your sense of sight you may see around you the raw material that suggested any picture ; but what sense shows you the material that went to make a symphony ? There is absolutely nothing outside for the musician to listen to and imitate when he is composing; his whole fabric, raw material and finished work, emanates not only from the invisible, but from the inaudible. This unique source of music, isolating it among all arts, is so extraordinary and lies so far beyond research that no one has succeeded in doing more than point out the fact. Hence, since the musician must so dive into himself, — and the greater and newer his work, the deeper the plunge,— it is most natural that from his own depths he should find it more difficult to understand a different sort of musician than it is for one painter or poet to understand another

Hugo says that music is to poetry what reverie is to thought; Pascal says that the heart has reasons which Reason does not know ; and it is Richter, I think, who bids Music depart, for she speaks to him of things which are not as if they had existence somewhere. These several remarks bound as precisely as can be done the absolute domain of music.

Every art, I take it, is chief holder of some territory, but I can think of none except music that is sole proprietor of a region which no other art can enter. Nature and the human face belong to painting, but sculpture has a share in one, and poetry in both. And so you may go on, finding the arts overlapping each other, Paolo and Francesca represented now on canvas and now by the orchestra, till you come to a symphony such as the seventh, — and who shall say what that is about ? Its subject cannot be named, yet its eloquence is at once perfectly definite and entirely inexpressible. No dictionary contains its nouns and adjectives ; the heart has reasons which Reason does not know, and music a language no tongue can translate. This “ absolute ” music has a grammar, a syntax, and a rhetoric of its own, which are as essential to its production as the rules of drawing and perspective are to painting. But directly a musician comes out of his exclusive territory, and enters the realm of painting or poetry, these rules either partially or totally cease to apply. When Schubert unites with Goethe to tell us of Gretchen at her spinning-wheel, he abandons the style of his symphony in C because it would swamp the song. He becomes monodic, and in his accompaniment even imitates the whirring of the wheel. Here we are quite in the middle of that “ relative ” music so denounced by the other party. Yet who would lose Gretchen am Spinnrade because it is written in a style that cannot express the profounclest depths of music ?

The steps from what may be called bed-rock nature up into grand opera are direct and easily traced, and such a song as this is one of them. Every race has its battle songs, love songs, death songs, where words and music have sprung from the national heart. Their brief strains contain the universal; the single blow they strike goes home to all mankind. It is difficult to argue away any such spontaneous beauty by calling it monodic or objective. The words seem to fall a little outside of common sense. The only difference between these folk songs and the poems of Goethe or Uhland set by Schubert or Schumann is, that in the latter we know the authors’ names. Deliberate lyric art at its highest can sometimes pass for a folk song. These songs often contain a drama; and from such a song as the Erl King the step to the stage is logical and immediate. The personages shall speak for themselves, instead of a narrator speaking for all; and the only aim of the musician remains what it has been from the first, dramatic truth. Like Schubert in his Gretchen or his Erl King, the composer in his opera pays no attention to the rules that govern and limit a symphony, but varies his melody and harmony with the varying tone of word and situation ; stringing new ideas along as they become appropriate, and, to speak roughly, following the Home, Sweet Home method because that of Three Blind Mice would in a very few minutes divorce him utterly from his drama. Don Juan opens with the comic complaint of an overworked servant; a murder follows almost at once. Mozart has to break the laws of strict polyphonic development which would compel him to continue his comic music, or at any rate soon to return to it.

The theoretical justification for each form of music has now been stated. One is better for revealing that world which no other art can bring before us ; the other best expresses dramatic truth. But in art, as well as elsewhere, we can prove the pudding in the usual manner, and leave the theorist intelligently firing into the air his blank cartridges. And as symphony and opera have both had their audiences ever since they were invented, their lives are probably not in danger, even though Beethoven be ready for the madhouse, and Euryanthe is a collection of diminished sevenths.

For the service all these great men have done us, by providing hours of delight and refreshment forever, we could easily forgive them their lack of catholicity, even if this had not been the necessary consequence of the circumstances attending musical creation ; but there is no such excuse for the rest of the musical world, the world of critics and of concert and opera goers. Yet the babel that goes on among them is portentous. Not only must the symphony and the opera be mutually exclusive forms of enjoyment, but also German and Italian, and old and new. These little people are perpetually taking sides, as if for them, too, art was life, and did not permit you to serve two masters. “ I cannot listen to Trovatore, because I appreciate Tristan so acutely ; ” or, “ Give me Mozart and Haydn, but remove Brahms and all such new-fangled dreariness.”

Now, to a Beethoven art must indeed be life, and the Scripture rule about two masters cannot apply too solemnly ; he is the august inhabitant of his lonely world. But for his audience, ourselves, what presumption to pretend or assume that art is our life ; being at best nothing but appreciators, to pose as creators ! We step aside from business, sport, society, family, — the regions where we really live, — to listen for a parenthetical hour to music, and then complacently announce, not a preference, but a creed. “ There is no god but Wagner, and I am his prophet! ” Ridicule is a swift and searching Nemesis. Why the citizens, male and female, are not found out when they lay this humbug so bare to their neighbors would pass comprehension; only the neighbors are so busy exclaiming, “There is no god but Schumann,” or somebody else, that they lack the leisure to take notice. It does not seem to occur to the evangelists of polyphony or monody, or of Verdi against Wagner, that Shakespeare and Homer, Goethe and Molière, are not mutually exclusive tastes ; that the lovers of music, with other intelligent people, enjoy the drama, the novel, the lyric; yet their musical attitude is akin to the position that we cannot like Waverley because we admire Paradise Lost. For, you see, one is in blank verse, but the other is in prose, and breaks all the laws of iambic pentameter.

Thus is the spirit lost in the letter. Yet if catholicity exists in literary taste, why should it not in music ? Is it not a pity that three quarters of those who enjoy poetry and prose, tragedy and comedy, a sonnet by Wordsworth and a story by Mark Twain, should not have an equivalently broad musical appreciation, and add just so much more enjoyment to their lives ? If I believe that the Götterdämmerung is the sublimest height tragic opera has attained, I can still be happy on another night with Fra Diavolo or La Sonnambula; and Haydn delights me in spite of my admiration for Brahms. But so many go to the concert hall to gather figs of thistles !

The reason for all this is the fact that, to most listeners who would be thought music lovers, music is really alien, and they do not meet it as they meet literature. They know that a drama or a poem expresses human things, but they do not know that a symphony does, too. Music is a phenomenon to them, the fourth dimension of space. The man who has a real affinity for it; to whom it is not an exotic, or a rare, strange object, to be approached with respect because fashion says so, but is a mother tongue, a matter of course, received and understood, or not understood, just as he understands a remark, or requests the remark to be repeated that he may take it in, —such a man strikes no attitudes about this or that composer or kind of composition. Heavy or light, symphony or opera, Italian, French, German, or English, he stands ready to enjoy anything that comes, if it he good of its kind. That is all he demands.

Some day such listeners will be more numerous than they are at present. It has been easy for a long time to buy books and read them. But concerts and other means of growing familiar with music have been very scarce until recently. Also, a thousand people know how to read where one can play the piano. These considerations make the lack of catholicity in musical taste natural ; but what a pity !

Owen Wister.