Somebody once called melody "the A B C of music,”intending to speak slightingly; but he was doubtless correct enough, since all primitive music, whether of civilized or of uncivilized races, so far as we are aware, consists simply of single unaccompanied notes in a series bound together by some sort of rhythm, although, in the earliest examples, showing little of what is now known as form, which means a studied correlation of pitch in the notes or groups of notes. Many changes have been wrought in the art, many discoveries made in the science, but how stands the taste of the world on this particular point to-day, and what does that taste betoken?
It cannot be denied that numerous persons, without “ ear “ and with no real fondness for music, can endure — nay, after a fashion enjoy — a melody. True, these folk usually require for their full enjoyment the strongly marked beat of dance or march measures, or the lilting of the Scotch “snap;” or, if their ideas rise above mere accent, and they are sensible of pitch at all, they demand in addition something violently contrasting and sensational in the intervals, such as “ Ta-ra-ra boom de ay ” affords.
Next come the class to whom music, though they are ignorant of it theoretically and practically, gives a genuine and perhaps deep delight, but of a wholly emotional kind. They are less influenced by a definite taste than by early associations. To these persons there is “nothing like the old songs,” —all the old songs, of course, being essentially melodies.
Rising a step higher, we come upon a large and important class, undoubted music-lovers, and more or less educated in the art, who confess without shame that operas, symphonies,—yea, all manner of concerted and solo morrceaux, — avail them naught so long as melody be wholly wanting.
One step more brings us to the top. What do we find there ? We find the Wagnerites, taking them to stand for the whole class known as intellectual lovers of music, many of whom profess to despise melody, and who claim that in harmony alone is for them a sufficiency of both sensuous and spiritual nourishment. Well, what of them ? We may possibly judge what of them when we find Wagner himself — who, whatever he may have been guilty of in his early days, would not in his later life risk even the accusation of perpetrating anything of conventional lyric form — actually throwing what looks very much like a sop to his prospective listeners; telling them that in lieu of the arias they had grown used to, and in default of satisfaction from the fragmentary Leitmotiv, he would furnish them forsooth with the “ unending melody,” a species of melodic contrivance which takes an entire opera (not to say several operas) to show the pattern of ; requiring, therefore, a thoughtful, patient hearing of the entire opera to comprehend. Thrice clever Wagner! O admirable, worldly-wise Wagner ! Right well thou knewest how all the world loves a tune, though it but sneakingly admit the fact, and so didst lay thy lure, having resolved upon conquering mankind unto thyself, which thou hast indeed, for the most part accomplished.
Musical mankind has cause to thank him, too, for it is largely by means of this artifice of the unending melody that operagoing folk have at this late day learned the two lessons of promptness and of sustained and respectful attention.
This matter is none the less amusing for being also serious ; and serious it certainly is, since it concerns the whole modern musical movement. But my own bump of humor is sensibly touched at finding in this solemn Teutonic giant among composers an unmistakable streak of the Yankee ! Yet supposing that what I have named artifice be such in no ill sense of the word, all the same is the unending melody a tribute, though unintentional, to a welluigh universal taste.
Ruling out the common jingling tunes that take the common uneducated ear, and even the many really charming and pretty themes that year by year rise, flourish in favor, and perish, I should like to ask, and perhaps partially answer, a few questions apropos of this interesting subject. Is the taste for melody necessarily a low one ? Does the taste for harmony rather than for melody invariably argue a truer love for music as music ? Does it require less genius to invent a melody of the highest type, one that shall live in men’s hearts and be sung by them throughout ages, — is it less of an honor to be the originator of such a melody than to have composed one of the modern miracles of harmony, which unquestionably implies the utmost of study to conceive, the utmost of hard labor to produce ?
Nordau well describes melody by saying that in music it “ corresponds to what in language is a logically constructed sentence, distinctly presenting an idea, and having clearly marked beginning and ending.” Accepting this as far as it goes, we may add that a melody really worthy the name, — a melodiously perfect one — corresponds more nearly to a poetically constructed sentence (logic implied), since the “idea” Nor dan speaks of must in music be distinctly rhythmical, while its musical contents (logic apart) should express emotion or sentiment, which in language the logically constructed sentence need not do. Hence the inventor of a line melody must be at once a musical grammarian and logician, and a poet too ; moreover, it is required that he shall be an artist, having practical knowledge of construction, in order that his “beginning and ending” be not alone “ clearly marked,” but also clearly balanced, the one artistically answering or completing the other.
I myself, a Wagnerite of a somewhat pronounced type, freely confess to a belief that, could the spontaneous operations of genius be measured or weighed, and the palm awarded for true superiority in the production, it would be given to the makers of pure melody, like Bach’s Air, Händel’s Largo, the theme of Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3, the Russian National Hymn, or that soft woman-time (these others being so essentially masculine), The Last Rose of Summer, rather than to the makers of “ tonemosaics.”
Great orchestration is a mighty thing, and the mastery of harmony means the possession of mind in addition to mere musical gifts ; yet in time harmony grows archaicseeming, and must change its fashion from age to age, ever developing to meet the requirements of new poet musicians who find the old forms insufficient to convey their messages, while melody, the primal essence of music, — the A B C, if you like, —is the eternal thing ; so that all perfect examples of it remain as perennially welcome and dear as are youth and springtime and love.
It cannot be all nor even largely attributable to association that the most sternly and exclusively classical hearts melt when listening to My Lodging is on the Gold Ground, O Tannenbaum (better known in the United States as My Maryland), Ar hyd y Nos, Afton Water, or The Flowers of the Forest, — this last more elaborate than the others mentioned, but preëminent among its kind being, as it were, enriched with the souls of all melodies.
It is, I say, something more than association that causes the exquisite pleasure which these airs awaken in us ; that pleasure proceeds directly from the airs themselves, for, besides possessing the intrinsic simplicity, grace, and tenderness which, independent of words, would always commend them to the ear, they are notable specimens of faultless melodic structure.
They are, in fact, what few of the more pretentious musical compositions can claim to be, namely, beyond criticism, — true “gems” of art, diminutive but flawless. For this reason have they lived and come down to us fresh as when first conceived; for this reason must they— unless the heart of man changes essentially—“ever live young.”