Is the Musical Idea Masculine?

SOME years ago, an American girl married a composer who at that time was known on both sides of the Atlantic, who is known to-day all over the world. A certain great mercantile man, an acquaintance of the bride, heard of her marriage with scorn bordering on disgust.“A composer ! ” said he, and shook his big business head over the hopelessness of her lot. Had she chosen a milliner or a dressmaker, her fate could not have been worse, nor so bad; the successful ladies’ tailor must have high practical qualities as well as an artist’s eye. And yet this mercantile man was not all a Philistine ; he could sometimes listen to music, provided it was not too modern, and he read Homer for relaxation.

In the practical business world generally music has not been reckoned one of the manly arts. The composer is only a part of a man; a very charming part, perhaps, but at the best only a poor sort of poet, a maker of empty sounds ; nothing more. Music is all very well, one of the necessary luxuries of mankind, — chiefly of womankind ; it must needs be that music exist, but woe unto them by whom it exists! (And truly, for the most part it has been woe to them. If the blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church, the woes of composers may be said to have been the seed of all that is great in the House of Sweet Sounds.) Yet music is acknowledged, even by our scornful merchant, to be one of the fine arts. This being so, the artists — those worthy the name — deserve consideration, if not social recognition. And who are the artists ? Men, not women. Never women, though there is, indeed, a list of nearly fifty women who have written music of sufficient importance to deserve record. But who knows their work ? A few song-writers, like Virginia Gabriel, have won a well-merited fame, yet not one of these has given us a melody, the lowest form of music, which has caught and clung, and which promises to live forever. For the rest, — composers of sonatas, concertos, operas, and overtures, — their names, if mentioned, would be unrecognized by the larger part of the musical world. Even Fanny Mendelssohn, perhaps the best known of all, who in her short day gained a certain Success with songs and piano music, is not only accorded no separate mention in the musical encyclopædias, but is not spoken of therein as a composer. It is said that some of the Songs Without Words, now attributed to her brother Felix, were written by her: yet supposing that the very choicest numbers in that charming collection were proved to be hers, she could hardly on that account claim the title of great composer.

No, women have not produced great music, not even remarkably good music. What is the reason ? When it is asked, in regard to other matters, why women have accomplished so little, the question is promptly answered by saying that they have not been given the opportunity, or that opportunity has not as yet been theirs long enough to show their full capabilities. But this reply will not serve for the present case. If there is one thing, outside of household affairs, the pursuit of which has been permitted to woman in all ages, that thing is music. Whatever else was denied her, this was granted. The lute was put into her hands many centuries before the pen, and musical notation must have been familiar to her while book knowledge yet remained an unknown province.

Moreover, since music — and let it be understood that by music is here meant the musical thought or idea, not the expression of it by harmonic symbols, nor the interpretation of it by voice or instrument— since music has for its sphere the emotions, which sphere is claimed to be also especially woman’s, the wonder redoubles that an art so feminine in its essence should have found in her no supereminent exponent. If ever a woman had been born with a true creative musical genius, it seems reasonable to suppose that she would have evinced it; and to those who consider the subject for the first time, the fact that she has not done so seems inexplicable. For this gift develops spontaneously, nor is a liberal education required for its highest fruition. Few of the great composers, not one of the very greatest, had any education to speak of, being born and reared in poverty and obscurity.

The musical idea is more persistent than the poetical, even: the latter is easily stunted, crushed, or blighted ; the former wall struggle forth and live and grow and flourish without encouragement, as the pine-tree grows strong and tall amid rock crevices, often with less earth about its roots than goes to nourish the commonest garden plant. Its name is precocity ; it waits not for the full growth of other powers, but is born full fledged and coeval with the soul. It is, as Schopenhauer said, “ itself the idea of the world ; not an image of the ideas, as the other arts are, but an image of the will itself.”Hence it needs no help from phenomena; outward knowledges are not its models; “ Godlike, it sees the heart only.”

What did the baby Mozart know when, at five years, he brought to his amazed father a concerto “too difficult to be played ” ? God whispered him something in the ear, and he wrote it down. Why did not God whisper something in his sister’s ear ? She, too, could have written it down as well as her brother Wolfgang. Would the father have refused to look at her work because it was a girl’s ? Doubtless not, for she was very accomplished in the performance of music, and made grand concert tours with her little brother.

When excuse is demanded for woman’s artistic or scientific deficiencies, it is customary to urge marriage, motherhood, and the cares of domestic life as tending to quench her creative fires. And they certainly have this tendency, though they did not interfere with the production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, nor prevent Mary Somerville from becoming adept in the most abstruse mathematical science. Besides, of late years, among civilized nations, the marriageable age has been considerably set forward; and, moreover, marriage itself has not been regarded as an absolute necessity for women. Why, among the thousands of unmarried girls of leisure and education, has no musical genius even approaching the first rank arisen ? I answer, that because woman, as the lesser man, is comparatively deficient in active emotional force, she cannot for this reason produce that which, at its best, is the highest and strongest of all modes of emotional expression ; part, at least, of which sentiment has, I am aware, a rather old-timey flavor in these days of the Emancipirte Frauenzimmer, of girl athletes, of senior wrangleresses and the triumphant petticoats of Harvard Annex. Woman has of late fallen into the way of posing as the greater man, and people are found everywhere who believe her capable of anything she may be allowed to try her head or hands at; insomuch that rumors are already on the wing to the effect that “envious men” are bethinking themselves, as in “ antique times,” how to

“ Coin straight laws to curb her liberty.”

One runs the risk of trial as a heretic who dares, in this year of grace, so much as to hint at an inequality in the sexes.

But “ lesser ” does not of necessity mean “lower.” It may have reference to quality rather than to quantity ; nor in this sense need it be taken to mean “ poorer,” as linen lawn, though so slight a thing in comparison with canvas, cannot be said to be poorer than it. There are very high purposes which require the lesser instruments for their execution. Can the circular saw do the work of the plane or the chisel ? Is the lancet less noble than the sword or the battle-axe ? And —though this is outside of the argument— is there any eternal reason why woman should enter every one of the lists set up for man, and why she should be expected to come out of them all peer, if not conqueror ?

But there are, perhaps, many who are willing to admit more than is here asked for as to the secondary position of woman in the scheme of the universe, who will at once scout the assertion regarding her emotional inferiority. If she is not emotional, it will be asked, who then is ? The answer has already been hinted at: man is. Man, not woman, is the emotional being par excellence. And heaping heterodoxy on heterodoxy, I will still further assert that, so far as musical composition goes, woman is better equipped intellectually than emotionally. She can master the exact science of harmony, thorough bass, counterpoint and all; but, as somebody said of a wonderful German girl who spoke fluently in seven languages, “ she can’t say anything worth listening to in any one of them.” And this is because of a certain lack in her emotional nature.

The ready-made opinion of the world is flat against this view ; almost every one will, at first blush, dispute it. Hut I believe the opposite view to be a fallacy, founded upon a popular and erroneous idea of the term “emotion.” Much of what passes in women for true emotion is mere nervous excitability. Because they are easily moved, because they habitually judge and act by their feelings, it is therefore assumed that as emotional beings they are the superiors of men, who rarely show feeling, but are the embodiments of reason, living by conscious deduction, induction, and similar cold, calculating faculties.

But though men do live mostly by reason, not feeling, it is hardly fair to deny them the latter. The tradition of manhood must not be overlooked. The boy baby cries no less than the girl baby ; the little boy is quite as sensitive as the little girl, and as demonstrative in his sensitiveness as she, until he hears the word or breathes in the idea “ manly.” Then he begins to smother his feelings, which a stronger frame, if not a stronger will, enables him to do ; and the requirements of his whole life, from the time that he sloughs off his petticoats, put emotionalism out of the question for him.

But it cannot be that he loses his feelings by smothering them, though it is frequently stated (by woman) that he does ; already more intense than hers, they gather intensity by concealment. And compensation holds beautifully here : woman’s finer, frailer organization, subjected to constant demands from her nervous system and from her affections, would be torn to pieces were her emotions excessively powerful; while man needs the stronger emotional nature — though he may not make lavish display of it — to balance his other stronger faculties; without it, he would be an unlovable monster, which he distinctly is not.

This conservation of force fits even the average man for exhausting and sustained labor such as would kill any but the very strongest woman. The average woman, on the other hand, possessed in the start of less emotional force, spends what she has to little or no purpose. That man is possessed of a more intense degree of force in this direction than woman I believe to be logically true. The actual strength of emotion must be proportionate to physical and intellectual vigor. This can be proved from women themselves, leaving men altogether out of the question. Weak-minded or stupid women are rarely emotional, in the high sense of the word ; they are often seemingly without the least capacity for true feeling, which includes not only the passive idea of mere soul sensations, but also the idea of a forceful, moving power. On the other hand, women in whom this moving power is of the strongest are conscious that it may be materially weakened by illness, and often, for a time, almost suspended by great fatigue. In every case that I can now recall, it is the well woman, or the mentally vigorous woman, or, notably, the woman who is both well and mentally vigorous, whose movements of the mind and of the soul are at all energetic or profound. And if, as I maintain it to be, her whole makeup, even at its best, is slighter than man’s, it follows that she must fall below him in the strength of these soul movements which we name emotions. Hence, it seems to me, however fine her mental equipment, aided by education, may be, she must come out behind in the long run, when matched against man in the highest spheres of attainment; at least, in those spheres in which the greatest amount of emotional force is required, such as music. For music is emotion ; its conception, its working out, demand concentration not of the intellect alone, but of the very forces of the soul. Woman cannot endure this double strain. Her soul movements are true, pure, lofty, but not powerful. Her emotional fires burn clearly, steadily, but their heat is insufficient ; her intellect may be finely composed and well balanced, yet fail of certain high accomplishments because of a defect in the driving-force. For emotion, not intellect, is the fire of life, it is the true creative force; emotion keeps the intellect going ; it turns the machinery that turns the world.

When we look for what woman has accomplished in other spheres of art besides music, what do we find ? Plenty of thought, evidences of deep and broad observation, no lack of technical skill, abundance of feeling, using the word to express the sympathetic qualities. But evidences of great emotional power we rarely find ; not in her poetry, not in her pictures. It is there,— I am not trying to prove her wholly destitute in this regard. any more than I am trying to prove that every man is superior in every way to any woman, — it is there ; she is a human being ; she is homo, but — homunculus.

Turning to prose fiction, success in which presupposes a more comprehensive array of faculties than any other art, let us take “ the two Georges ; ” it is only fair to take the greatest. The works of these women are not ranked with women’s works, but with men’s. In construction, in description, in appreciation of types, in analysis of character, in broad, rich humor, in pathos, in deep philosophical observation, these two are behind no one. But I challenge anybody to show me in either writer a passage which has the almost elemental emotional force of certain scenes in Esmond, A Tale of Two Cities, Richard Feverel, Anna Karénina.

So much do these two great women — the Georges — possess, so near do they come to the greatest men, that it seems quite natural to say there is no difference. Yet they do stop short; there is a lack, not in knowledge of life nor of books; it is something inherent, essential, something that makes itself felt even in the comparatively weak or stupid man : it is virility, the dynamo of the emotions, which gives to brains, as it gives to muscles, a quality such as no femineity can infuse. George Eliot, undoubtedly the peer of men in everything but this, must step down when the question is of emotion. I could name a dozen writers, men of the second, yes, and third rank, who outrival her on this score.

Middlemarch, one of the few greatest novels, lacks a really great scene. The most powerful portion of the Bulstrode episode is not where the pious criminal is confronted by his accusers, as it might so readily have been; it is rather to be found in those long analytical pages where we are wonderfully led through the labyrinth of Bulstrode’s mind. In her diary, George Eliot tells how she “ brought Dorothea and Rosamond together under great excitement; ” and in reading of the meeting we feel an intense interest, but somehow we do not experience the author’s degree of excitement. A certain amount of dynamic force must have been hers to produce the scene, which is a strong and beautiful one ; but there was enough only for herself, not enough to “ carry away ” her readers.

It is the same with all her other books. They are powerful, but their chief power is not emotional. Her wit and wisdom and humanity are unquestioned; she stimulates us delightfully ; she enchains, absorbs us; nor is her hold ephemeral ; but she is incapable of that soul-carrying rush, that culminating crescendo of emotional force, which makes largely the overwhelming effect of Browning’s poetry, of Macaulay’s and Ruskin’s prose, of Wagner’s operas.

Leaving art for a moment, let us consider life. How is it with love, the greatest of all emotional manifestations ? Here, surely, woman is preëminent. Can she not love more and love longer than man ? Is she not the very symbol of constancy ? Yes, she is, and rightly. In constancy to the actual being whom she loves no man can excel her. Yet I claim that her constancy does not arise from emotional superiority, but rather from a lesser faculty of ideality, a high degree of which faculty is necessary in the production of great artistic works, and especially of great music.

The maiden has her ideal as well as the youth, but she does not hold to it so firmly; she is ready to cast it aside for the first real man who, for one reason or another, strongly strikes her fancy. Nothing is more common than to hear from the lips of a young fiancée, “ I never dreamed of caring for this sort of man; my ideal was something quite different.” Nevertheless, she gladly takes him as she finds him; sees him as he is, in all his divergences from that loved ideal; and loves him in spite of those divergences, — nay, loves him the more tenderly on their very account, since a woman’s truest love is always strangely mingled with pity.

The youth, on the contrary, will never admit that his sweetheart is not the woman of his dream, whom he had “ never hoped to find.” He has found her, and his love is, assuredly, no less ardent than hers. It is, indeed, often a far more spiritualized — that is, idealized—thing than hers ; he loves the veiled being for what he desires and believes her to be. He demands that his wife shall be an angel ; she is content that her husband shall be a man. But just because he demands so much he is the more liable to disappointment; while she, having from the first steadfastly forced herself to see and acknowledge the actual being, her lover, has less to lose. Her ideal, feebly held, she relinquished long ago ; the real man, at least, remains to her unchanged. And so it comes that the man is frequently charged with inconstancy as with a crime, when it is but the inevitable result of his strong tendency to idealization ; which tendency, it goes without saying, results from his superior faculty of imagination.

And now some will be smelling out another heresy, — a heresy both heinous and absurd. What, then! is wretched woman, already deprived of her traditional emotional precedence, to be robbed also of her darling imaginative faculties ? No, not entirely, for, as before said, she is homo. Yet do I feel compelled to insist upon the inferiority in her of these same faculties. Here, again, certain weaknesses of her nervous organization get the credit of high mental manifestations ; while the sternly practical and material aspect of a man’s life often makes us forget that for success in large enterprises, even of the most prosaic nature, imagination is required no less than judgment, caution, and their kindred traits. Far more is it needed in the great businesses of the world than in a household. Imagination is “ the great spring of human activity, the principal source of human improvement.” It has its grades, or differing qualities ; the star of commerce differeth from the star of poesy. It varies in women as in men; but, quality apart, it appears at its highest in the most powerful organizations, and does any one question that such are generally found in men ? If women fail when they come to pit themselves against men in the great businesses, I believe it will be more on account of a lack in this spiritual quality of imagination than in the more practical requirements. And if this be so, it is a sufficient reason why there has not been nor ever can be a female Homer or Dante; it is a more than sufficient reason why there has not been nor ever can be a female Beethoven or Wagner.

But there is yet another and, I think, a more conclusive reason why the themes and harmonies of Tristan and of the Ninth Symphony will probably never be matched in the compositions of any woman. The possession of the musical idea (which term, it will by this time be well understood, here means not the mere ability to make a tune, nor even to write good harmony, but the capacity for conceiving and expressing the greatest of musical thoughts, — such thoughts as we name immortal) presupposes more than the most tremendous active emotional force and high qualities of the imagination, which force and which qualities some women are found to have to a considerable degree. In order to awaken those “ unheard melodies ” that play through the soul in wondrous answer to the heard melodies of the masters, something else is essential. The imagination must be able to soar to the region of abstract emotion, for there has music its highest dwelling-place ; and not alone to soar thither, like a strayed bird that can but flutter and perish in the lofty, thin atmosphere, but to rise confidently, and to rest there unterrified, as in an assured abode, where lungs and wings have fuller, freer play, and where songs are more spontaneous and sweet.

Now, woman is not at home in the abstract. The region has undoubted attractions for her, — from a distance, — and sometimes she is led to visit it; but its vast, vague loneliness and chilly uncertainty drive her hack. She is like a cat in a strange garret, or a child in the dark ; or rather, to change the figure, she is like an unaccustomed swimmer, who, stepping farther and farther out through the breakers, is suddenly horror-struck at finding nothing but water beneath him, and stretches out his feet wildly for the comfortable ocean bed. So woman ventures timidly, ofttimes boldly, into the shoreless deeps of the abstract. For a while she may disport herself prettily there, — in the shallows, so to speak ; but she is never quite happy nor at ease unless the terra firma of the concrete be at least within reach. This makes her the unquestioning devotee in religion that she has always been ; it causes her to hold on to the material portions of the creeds ; more than man does she cling to the actual resurrection of the body ; it is difficult for her to divest heaven of its gates, streets, and harps. In discussions upon abstruse matters, she asks always for definite and familiar illustrations ; in argument, — if she can argue at all, — she tends to bring everything home to her own personal experience, or to the experience of those whom she knows.

This aptitude of hers for dealing with the concrete makes her a good housekeeper and manager of a family; it helps her admirably for working in organizations for benevolence or for mutual improvement; by it she may, even without great ideality, paint famous if not great pictures, as Rosa Bonheur has done ; especially does it fit her for producing works of fiction, which first of all must deal with the concrete life of every-day beings. Nor does it keep her from being a poet, in which department of art she has done some charming and noble work, her best being of the lyric order, short poems of her own feelings, sometimes narrative or descriptive poems, — the dramatic and epic in their highest forms being seemingly beyond her. And so, while her strong tendency towards the concrete has made it easy for her successfully to set to music simple words, such as express definite incidents or individual experiences, her instinctive shrinking from the abstract has kept her from interpreting, as in the composition of great operas, life and passion in their broad, universal aspects ; and from producing great symphonies, in which, in the transcendental realm of harmony, life and passion have their very essence. Such an art does not suit woman’s spiritual conformation. It is too vague and formless for her ; she cannot picture the hole after the pile of sand has been taken away. Moreover, — I say it at the risk of abuse, — I do verily believe that she is at all times more interested in the pile of sand than she is in the hole. At its best a hole is but an empty place, the mere contemplation of which makes one feel friendless and homeless ; while without the sand it is nothing less than the spectre of infinity!

The fact of this repulsion from the abstract felt by woman (evidences of which repulsion are met with in those most gifted in imagination and emotional force) makes it appear highly probable that, unless her nature be changed, — which

Heaven forbid ! — she will not in any future age excel in the art of musical composition, an art which, to quote Schopenhauer once more, “ never expresses phenomena, but solely the inner being, the essence of phenomena, the will; ” which, therefore, expresses not this or that single or particular joy, this or that sorrow, this or that pain or horror or exultation or hilarity or repose of mind itself, but, as it were in abstracto, the essentials of these, without their concomitants, and hence without their motives.”

Edith Brower.