FOR two years past the orchestral compositions of Richard Strauss have been the exciting features of the leading orchestral concerts in this country. They have fairly set the musical cognoscenti of the United States by the ears. The strenuous German artist is yet a young man, and what he may achieve in an uncertain future is a fruitful subject for critical speculation. What he has already done is to stir up the musical world as it has not been stirred since Richard Wagner proclaimed his regenerative theories of the musical drama. Strauss has turned the technic of orchestral composition topsy-turvy, and has made orchestras sing new songs. He has in certain ways discredited Beethoven and the prophets, and has shrunk the orchestral wonders of Berlioz and Wagner to the dimensions of a Sunday afternoon band concert. He has caused the critical heathen to rage and the longhaired people to imagine vain things. In fine, the simple question now frankly discussed in the sacred circles of the inner brotherhood is just this: “Is Richard Strauss a heaven-born genius, or is he merely crazy ? ”
Usually when musical composers have ventured out of the beaten path, just found by the critics after much thorny wandering through the jungle of error, the cry has been that they were going astray. The poor critics have never been able to understand how any genius could depart from the beaten path without being lost in the woods, as they themselves generally are. In nine cases out of ten the composer who does so depart is lost, and hence the critic’s calling is not altogether one of sorrow. The prophet who has ninety per cent of “I told you so ” in his retrospective views is not wholly a subject for commiseration. But there is that tenth man, who is always an explorer, and who always sets to cutting new paths through the forest. The critic says, “You ’re going to get lost, ” and he replies, “I may lose you, but not myself.” After a time he comes out of the forest into a new and beautiful land, and the critic, limping slowly and painfully after him, murmurs, “You were right; it is good for us to be here.”
And so the music critics, who long ago reduced their comments on Beethoven and Weber and Schubert and Schumann to an exact science, and who have made it possible for any old reader to predict precisely what will be said on the morning after a purely classical concert, have fallen over the music of Strauss into a confusion like unto that of the army of Pharaoh suddenly overtaken by the waters of the Red Sea. It was about eleven years ago that this music began to echo through the concert-rooms of America. Strauss had begun to write early in life, but his first works were imitative of the older masters. The real Richard Strauss began to reveal himself in 1887, when he produced Macbeth, the first of his series of symphonic poems. The others are Don Juan (1888), Death and Apotheosis (1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895),Thus Spake Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and A Hero’s Life (1898).
What has Strauss done in these works to “so get the start of the majestic world ” ? He has asked us to listen to orchestral compositions made with wide deviations from the established outlines, with a new melodic idiom, with a harmony which frequently affects the ear precisely as lemon juice affects the palate, with instrumental combinations of overpowering sonority and harshness, and, above all, with attempts at a detailed definiteness of expression which demand the closest application of the hearer’s powers of analysis.
He has excited curiosity of the liveliest kind among those who hold that there is a real difference “ ’twixt tweedledum and tweedledee.” To those who accept music, as they accept soup, as one of the conventional details of a polite existence, all this pother about Strauss must seem unnecessary, yet since it has come, they naturally desire to know what it is all about. They must, then, begin by recognizing the fact that the modern orchestra has developed from a collection of ill-assorted and misunderstood instruments into a single instrument, the most eloquent at the disposal of the composer. It is majestic in power, royal in dignity, brilliant in gayety, convulsing in sport, inspiring in appeal, melting in supplication. Its variety of tonal shades is exhaustless. Its scale ranges from the profoundest bass to the acutest treble. Its dynamic power modulates from the faintest whisper of a pianissimo to the thunderous crash of a fortissimo. It sings, it laughs, it weeps, it woos, it storms, it hymns, it meditates, — all at the command of the composer who knows how to utilize its powers.
Yet it is still an imperfectly understood instrument. Remember always that music is the youngest of our modern arts. Remember, too, that although we can trace its beginnings back to the fourth century of the Christian era, we find that twelve hundred years were occupied with the development of a single form of music, —vocal polyphony, the form in which the mighty masterpieces of the Roman Church down to the day of Lasso and Palestrina were composed. The masters of this vocal polyphony were engaged in studying how they could compose for the liturgy of the church music in which several voice parts, each singing a melody, could sound simultaneously and yet produce agreeable harmonies. The discovery of the principles underlying this method was made slowly, yet it was essential that this discovery should be made. Without it musical art could not advance, for the laws of counterpoint and harmony are the first principles of musical art.
Toward the close of the sixteenth century a change came over the spirit of music. The mass of the Roman Church had become so complicated and ornate in its style of composition that the congregations did not know what words of the liturgy were sung. The revival of Greek learning in Italy brought with it the study of the Greek Testament in the original, and this study revealed the defects of the Vulgate used by the church. A blow at Latin was a blow at the authority of the church, and the questionings aroused by the revelations of the Greek Testament touched the mass, and made the people desirous of hearing the text and knowing what it was about. Such a demand called for a simplification of musical style. This demand was strengthened by the invention of printing. The people began to get books and to read, and that led them to think and inquire. Furthermore the chaste beauty of Greek art had become known, and its influence promoted the simplification of musical style in the church. The broad and dignified hymns employed by the great reformer, Martin Luther, were another powerful argument in favor of simpler music in the sanctuary. The church was not blind to the signs of the time, and its composers made some efforts toward clarifying their style.
The revival of Greek learning led also to an attempt to resuscitate the dead Greek drama, or rather to reconstruct the Italian play on its lines. The fact that the Greeks had chanted rather than declaimed their dramatic texts suggested the little band of Italian enthusiasts led by Galilei, Peri, and Caccini, an attempt to reproduce this musical delivery. Their efforts resulted in the invention of dramatic recitative and the birth of opera. With the advent of this form of vocal art the supremacy of church polyphony was overthrown. It did not cease to exist, but it lost its dominion over the musical world, and it almost stopped developing. To this day the works of Palestrina composed in the second half of the sixteenth century remain the model and the despair of church composers. Handel and Bach, introducing more modern harmonies and employing the resources of the orchestra, which Palestrina and his predecessors never used, carried vocal polyphony a little further, but their advance was external rather than fundamental.
It was at this stage of musical progress that the orchestra made its appearance, a feeble, tottering, purposeless instrumental infant. Collections of instruments had of course existed. Millionaires of the Middle Ages drowned the inanities of their dinner conversation with banquet music, just as the moderns do. But their assemblies of instruments were merely fortuitous. Any instruments which chanced to be in the house, and for which there were players, were utilized. There was no music specially written for these orchestras. We may suppose that they played the popular tunes of the day. When the opera came into existence, some sort of orchestra had to be extemporized. Here again in the beginning any instruments easily accessible seem to have been taken up. It was not till Claudio Monteverde began his experiments in instrumental combinations in his operas in the early part of the seventeenth century that anything like method in instrumentation was discernible.
Monteverde began the exploration of the resources of each instrument in characteristic expression. He endeavored to measure the powers of the viol, the trumpet, the organ, and certain combinations of instruments as illustrators of dramatic action. He invented some of the now familiar tricks of orchestration, such as the tremolo and the pizzicato. Furthermore he created an instrumental figure to imitate the galloping of horses and another to depict the struggle of a combat, and thus was really the artistic progenitor of Richard Strauss, with his battle dins and his pirouetting maids. Succeeding composers were not slow to follow the suggestions offered by the work of Monteverde. The opera became a field for instrumental experiment, and the orchestra, as employed by the operatic composers, was continually in advance of the symphonic orchestra in the variety and extent of its combinations and in the utilization of the special powers of each individual instrument. This continued to be the case up to the time of Liszt,Berlioz, and Wagner, when the technics of conventional orchestration were so thoroughly established that the demands of the new romantic school of composers affected the orchestra simultaneously in opera and symphonic composition.
That the operatic orchestra should have taken the lead was perfectly natural. When vocal polyphony was deposed from its supremacy, instrumental music was in its infancy. Only the organ had achieved anything approaching independence, and that was because all the leading composers had been writing for the church and knew the church instrument. For practice at home they used the clavichord, one of the forerunners of the piano, and they began presently to compose special music for it, but in the style of their organ music. Gradually they fell into the way of writing for small groups of instruments, and after a time the orchestra found its way from the opera house to the church, and the orchestrally accompanied mass came into existence. But meanwhile the composers who wrote for the clavier, with the aid of those who wrote for the solo violin, were fashioning a form, and after a time the sonata began to assume a definite shape. Now it was borne in upon composers that their auditors would not arrive at the opera in time to hear the overture, for operatic publics were much the same then as they are now; and the poor composers had recourse to writing their overtures so that they could be played independently and having them performed at concerts. As these overtures were written in a form founded upon the principles of the sonata form, nothing was more natural than that gradually composers should be led to the composition of complete sonatas for orchestra, and a sonata for orchestra is a symphony.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, then, after Sebastian Bach had carried the piano solo through the splendors of his Well Tempered Clavichord, and the piano sonata had attained something like defined shape, we see Stammitz, Gossec, and, at length, Haydn producing thin, tentative weakly orchestrated sonatas for orchestra, and the real development of independent orchestral composition began. This was nearly a century and a half after the birth of the orchestra as an adjunct to the opera, and the same length of time after the beginning of independent composition for the clavichord. In other words, although the modern art of music may fairly be said to have begun at least as early as the beginning of the twelfth century, when the fundamental principles of counterpoint were enunciated by the French masters, the most splendid and powerful of all musical instruments, the orchestra, is to-day in its infancy. For if the masters of vocal polyphony took some twelve centuries to elaborate their science, it is fair to presume that, even though the general laws of music are now firmly established, the technics of the orchestra and of orchestral composition, which are a little over a hundred years old, are yet by no means fully understood.
The method of composition employed by the early masters of orchestral music was elaborate, yet not recondite. It was a system of architecture in tones, and its achievements were distinctly satisfying to the æsthetic discernment and to the appetite of the human mind for a logical arrangement of ideas. Four parts or movements were allotted to a symphonic work. Contrast of time, rhythm, key, and harmonic color was sought. Each movement differed from that next to it. Variety in unity was the ultimate object. But each movement had to have a well-defined shape within itself. Two melodic ideas, complementary to each other in key, rhythmic nature, and sentiment, were invented. They were held up for the inspection of the hearer at the beginning of the movement. Then the composer embarked upon what was called the “working out. ” He took the essential features of his two melodies and juggled them through the tricks of musical metamorphosis. He dressed them in new harmonies; he made them writhe in the embraces of counterpoint; he expanded them into new melodies ; he sang them with the different voices of the instrumental body. In the end he repeated them in their original shape, and brought his movement to a close. The entire purpose was the treatment of themes. The only aim was to make symmetrical, intelligible, interesting music.
In evolving this form the composers fell, as I have said, into a conventional use of their orchestra. They had three choirs, one of wooden wind instruments, one of brass, and one of strings played with bows. They allotted fixed functions to each choir and to the members of each, and there they stopped. Occasionally a hint from the operatic treatment of the instruments enlightened them and they made a slight advance, but nevertheless when Beethoven came to write his symphonies, in which he attempted to make orchestral music attain to something more than mere musical beauty, he found himself hampered by the conventionalities of symphonic orchestration, as well as by those of the symphonic form. It was the limitation of the form, indeed, which restrained the instrumentation. The form itself had first reached definiteness with Haydn, who died when Beethoven was thirtynine. Only in Haydn’s later years did he learn the use of clarinets, the most important members of the wood wind choir.
Beethoven, striving to make the symphony a vehicle for emotional expression, was compelled to busy himself with changes in the form, and he gave no special study to instrumental effects. He used such new ones as readily suggested themselves to him, but they were nothing more than elaborations of the old conventions. However, the seed sown by Beethoven speedily bloomed in the growth of the new romantic school. The principal tenet of this school was that music must express emotions, and that the form must develop entirely from the emotional purpose and plan of the work. Two distinguished explorers of this new style devoted their highest efforts to the production of orchestral composition.
Liszt endeavored to tell stories in music by erasing the dividing line between movements and writing his work all in one piece. He retained the two contrasting themes of the old symphonists, but he asked his hearers to affix a meaning to each of them. Then he proceeded to handle them in much the same way as the symphonists did, working them out, and varying them with much skill, though always with a view to suggesting the development of the incidents of his story. To such a purpose the resources of orchestral color lent mighty aid, and Liszt was not slow to perceive this. He began to draw away from the conventions of the symphonists, and to seek for new and striking instrumental combinations. Nevertheless in his compositions for orchestra Liszt was the debtor of two men much more remarkable than himself, namely, Wagner and Berlioz. From the former he got the idea of the use of themes with definite meanings attached to them. From the latter he obtained the suggestion of the employment of the orchestra to tell stories and much information as to its technics. Berlioz, however, continued the use of separate movements, and his attempts to use definitely representative themes were few and uncertain. He preceded Wagner, nevertheless, in the revelation of the resources of the orchestra, and he antedated Liszt in the use of the orchestra for romantic composition.
Later imitators of Berlioz and Liszt failed to perceive anything except the vast color schemes of their orchestration. Borrowing a few of the conventional figures of the older writers, such as Haydn’s sea waves and Beethoven’s thunderstorms, they asked us to see things through a kaleidoscope of instrumental color. They forgot that we could not understand them when they made no logical appeal to our intelligence.
Richard Strauss, standing upon the vantage ground made for him by Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner, has evidently tried to carry the direct expression of the orchestra to a higher plane by utilizing the best elements of their work. He has sought to make the orchestra tell stories, but he has not made the error of supposing that he could ignore the fundamental principles of musical form which constituted the ground plan of the old symphony. He has utilized themes with definite meanings attached to them, as Wagner did, without confining himself to two, as the older writers did, and as Liszt did in most of his works. He has returned in his later compositions to the fashion of clearly separated movements, while he has made them pass before the hearer without pauses between any two of them. He has developed his themes according to the principles laid down by the symphonic masters, and has striven to enforce their meaning with all the effects of orchestral color. And withal he has endeavored to compose only music with a purpose, never music for its own sake. In short, Strauss has shown that the principles of musical form which the earlier writers painfully evolved out of their attempts to produce nothing beyond musical beauty, not only can be, but must be, utilized by the composer who cares nothing whatever about musical beauty, and who aims only at making music a means of expression.
This I believe to be Strauss’s greatest and most significant achievement. It is the legacy which he will leave to his successors, and which will influence the progress of musical development. His handling of the orchestra itself is a natural outgrowth of the researches of Berlioz and Wagner. The former left little to be learned about the capacity of each individual instrument; the latter developed to an extraordinary degree the employment of many voice parts and the use of striking combinations. The early writers, for example, used violins always in two parts, whereas Wagner divided them sometimes into as many as fifteen. Flutes, oboes, and clarinets were used by the classic masters in pairs; Wagner began to employ them by threes. Strauss uses three or four of each. He makes his orchestra sing in many parts, and he keeps the various voices weaving and interweaving in marvelously learned counterpoint. When he wants a great climax of sound, he gets one that is overwhelming. Furthermore he habitually introduces solo voices among the mass of tone. He individualizes his instruments, and in some compositions fairly casts them for definite dramatic impersonations. Musicians will understand me when I add that he has asked every orchestral player to be a virtuoso. He writes formidably difficult passages for horns, for trombones, for oboes. He makes no concessions to the technical difficulties of the instruments, as the older writers did. He treats the instruments, as Wagner treated human voices, simply as means of expression. The players must master the difficulties.
The critical quarrel with Strauss is based upon three grounds: first, that he endeavors to make music tell a complete story; second, that he seeks materials which are unsuited to musical embodiment; and third, that he writes ugly music. Composers have yielded to the temptations of their fancies since the earliest days. Away back in the fifteenth century Jannequin tried to describe The Cries of Paris in four part vocal polyphony. Later composers fashioned piano pieces which were supposed to tell whole histories. Ambros, the distinguished German historian of music, felt it incumbent on him to write a book to show where the communicative power of music ended and the aid of text must be called in. Wagner declared that music unassisted could go no further than Beethoven’s symphonies, and that the last movement of the Ninth Symphony was a confession of that fact.
It was long ago conceded that music could depict the broader emotions. It has generally been denied that it could go into details or explain to the hearer the causes of the feelings which it expressed. Yet by the judicious use of titles and the establishment of a connection between a composition and some well-known drama or poem, the imagination of the hearer is stimulated to conceive the meaning of many details otherwise incomprehensible. Strauss goes the furthest in the elaboration of detail. He uses numerous themes, each a guiding motive in the Wagnerian sense, and he asks us to follow them through a myriad of musical workings out, all having direct significance in telling a story. The stories are not without unpleasant incidents, and the music is rasping in its ugliness at times. But this is not for us to judge. What is said of the music of Strauss now was said twenty-five years ago of Wagner’s. But a few years and the acidulated croakings of the singer of Munich may be as sweet upon our ears as now are the endless melodic weavings of Tristan und Isolde.
Of the ideas which lie behind the music of Strauss less can be said in opposition now than could be said five years ago. Then we knew Strauss as the writer of Don Juan, an attempt to put into music the sensuality of a libertine, his final satiety, his utter coldness of heart; of Death and Apotheosis, a weird endeavor to portray with an orchestra the horrors of dissolution, the gasps, the straggles, the death rattle, the tremor mortis ; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a study in musical depiction of wandering vulgarity, of jocular obscenity, a vast and coruscating jumble of instrumental cackles about things unfit to be mentioned. We felt that the nineteenth century was closing with something like midsummer madness in art. With Ibsens, Maeterlincks, and Strausses plucking like soulless ghouls upon the snapping heart-strings of humanity, treating the heart as a monochord for the scientific measurement of intervals of pain, and finally poking with their skeleton fingers in the ashes of the tomb to see if they could not find a single smouldering ember of human agony, we had attained a rare state of morbidity in art. We felt that when Art had turned for her inspiration to the asylum, the brothel, and the pesthouse, it was time for a new renaissance. Strauss was our musical Maeterlinck, our tonal Ibsen. Vague, indefinable fancies, grotesque and monstrous mysticisms, gaunt shapes and shapeless horrors, seemed to be his substitutes for clean, strong, pure ideals; and when he set to music Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the philosophy of the solution of “world riddles,” we thought he had utterly gone mad. For in this work we found the highest skill in the development and polyphonic treatment of leading motives devoted to an attempt to make music lecture on metaphysics, when all the time it was perfectly obvious that without reading Nietzsche’s book no one could have any notion of the composer’s intent. The mastery of orchestration and of the technics of composition shown in this work convinced thoughtful critics that Strauss was not to be sniffed out of consideration. Here was a force to be reckoned with in musical progress, even though it was mistakenly wielded.
With the introduction of A Hero’s Life, Strauss seemed suddenly to have entered upon cleaner vision. To this day I am lost in wonder at the vast and appalling ugliness of some parts of the composition, but I know that custom will make dear to us musical idioms which now excite our antipathy. That is an old story. Artusi of Bologna said that Monteverde had lost sight of the true purpose of music — to give pleasure. A similar accusation was once brought against the mellifluous and tactful Rossini. It was shouted through Europe against Wagner. We may use it against Strauss, but if we do, we must chance the ridicule of the hereafter. A Hero’s Life, despite its frequent attempts to make music speak more definitely than music can, is based on broad moods which are suitable for musical exposition. Wild, chaotic, discordant as many of the passages of this remarkable work certainly seem to us now, there is no denying the extraordinary mastership shown in its thematic development. The Wagnerian method of modifying themes in rhythm and harmony so as to alter their dramatic significance is combined successfully with the methods of the classicists in working out. Modern polyphony, the polyphony of hazardous cross paths in acrid harmony, of the impinging contrapuntal curves, is handled with consummate ease. It is orchestral technic of the highest kind, but it all aims at making music which shall describe the minutest feelings, the finest shades of thought, and the most varied actions of personages whom the hearer must see with his mind’s eye.
It aims at a wider and more detailed expression than the repulsive Don Juan and the vulgar Till Eulenspiegel, but it is clean and wholesome in tone, and most of its material is safe from the charge of unfitness for publication. It is not impossible to conceive of Strauss after producing this work as looking back over his entire orchestral product and addressing us in the words of the inscrutable McIntosh Jellaludin: “Some of it must go; the public are fools and prudish fools. I was their servant once. But do your mangling gently — very gently. It is a great work, and I have paid for it in seven years’ damnation.”
It is too soon for us to say that Strauss will influence the future. He may leave us nothing but certain purely mechanical improvements in orchestral technics. Even these will have their value. Yet all recent attempts at progress in music have been in the direction of more definite expression, and Strauss may be only a stepping-stone in an advance toward that blissful epoch whose hearers will display as much imagination as its composers, that transcendent condition, in which genius understands genius. As in that faculty-free heaven celebrated in undergraduate song, no musical critics will be there. Every man will be his own critic. The millennium will have come.
W. J. Henderson.