Music-Education and "Automatics"

LET US undertake at once to define the musical scope of self-playing instruments, since that will be helpful in defining the realm of their educational usefulness. Whatever rosy presentation of their powers may be made by the enthusiastic salesman, we should not permit ourselves to believe that they are a substitute for a gifted interpreter, nor that they can, in matters of expression, duplicate the renderings which a soulful amateur can attain. There may be an exception to this statement in the case of one modern and very expensive foreign product. But this instrument, — the Welte-Mignon, — depending for its records upon the individual performer, can be shown to be less valuable for educational purposes than its more mechanical rivals. As to other automatic instruments, even the most perfect hitherto devised cannot, at will, select from any point in the gamut tones to be emphasized. It cannot, in a word, produce variations in tone-quality for the several tones sounding at the same instant. This single fact is sufficient to establish the inadequacy of the instrument to reproduce completely the efforts of ten or twenty fingers governed by one or two brains.

One might suppose that a recognition of this fact would immediately relegate automatic instruments to the limbo of the artistically unimportant. Such is, however, far from being the case. If we would shape our views correctly on this point, we ought to try to trace the evolution of the average musical intelligence, — or, indeed, the evolution of that musical intelligence which comes finally to embrace, after years of careful observation and training, the whole realm of musical art. And, lest we find ourselves forced to deal in musical technicalities, we may turn to literary art and consider similar developments in that field. In following this analogy we ask merely that music be regarded as a language of some sort. What music treats of, we need not attempt to define; that is one of the problems which interest metaphysicians and æstheticians, and we may allow them still to find it a baffling problem. But we must accept the statement that music is a language. We ought further to be willing to accept the statement that it is a definite language, — not as giving definite information on any subject, but as conveying a definite message from the mind or soul of the composer, through the interpreter, to the hearer. This must be true, since, after listening to a great musical work, the hearer is satisfied. He has been attentive for a time to an utterance in tone, and, at the conclusion of that utterance, he has received an impression which he knows to be the result of a clearly defined plan combined with a mastery of the means of communication sufficient to carry out that plan with complete success. He is satisfied with the result. He will not be able to render in words any portion of the discourse; but he is fully aware of the significance of the composer’s message, of its completeness, as well as of the precision which characterizes the processes of conception and communication of that message. Music is, then, a language, because it embodies itself in an orderly discourse. Its definiteness is proved by the concurrent evidence of millions of satisfied — and a smaller army of satiated — auditors.

The task of the mind in the presence of any verbal or written discourse has at least two phases: to discover the literal meaning of the message, and to discover the spirit of the message. In the word “spirit” — which, as we are using it, is suggestive rather than specific or even quasi-scientific — we are including such phases of the utterance as appeal to the emotions. We are stirred by this or that feature of the discourse in question, apart from the verbal meaning of the thing. What might be called the “clothing of the thought” comes to our observation along with the message which the words themselves bring to our purely intellectual perception. We set up in our consciousness, in connection with the ideas expressed, many activities which interest us in proportion as the author shows his view of life to be large or meagre, graceful or uncouth, sumptuous or squalid. Or, in some cases, we may perceive that his soul-outfit is rich, but that his technique of expression is undeveloped. In certain literary products, we recognize that the “spiritual ” element has a dominant value; in certain others, we note that it plays but a small part; but, in any case, we are likely to find, in the process of recognition of the element of the spirit, a considerable portion of the artistic enjoyment which we experience.

Now, the spirit can give its full light only when we have fully comprehended the letter. We are likely to be contented with a partial perception of the spirit, because any and every nook of a great artist’s soul is so delightful to look into. What delight, then, to explore fully and freely a considerable section of such a soul, as it has expressed itself in a significant work of art! And how readily we get the maximum effect of the spirit, as soon as we have understood the verbal substance of the utterance! Any receptive soul finds, for its respective stage of development, full communion with the soul of the great artist, when once the purely intellectual elements of the artist’s utterance are comprehended.

The lover of literature, if he seeks acquaintance with a play of Shakespeare, must first decipher the meaning of many a richly significant or ornate period. He must interpret for himself many an archaic phrase. He must see, in their proper perspective, many utterances of chief and secondary personages. To attain these ends, the lover of literature does not necessarily seek every opportunity to see a play performed; or, if he is studying a poet, he does not frequent public recitals of the poet’s works. In fact, if his knowledge or appreciation of dramatist or poet depended solely upon facilities for the public hearing of works, his growth in literary grace would be lamentably slow. He buys the work or works in question, or finds them in a library, and studies them at his leisure. He takes a scene from a Shakespearean play, reads it slowly, frequently halts and re-reads, looks up unknown words, traces allusions to their sources, compares one passage or section with another; and thus, by a process which is frequently laborious, builds for himself a conception of the work. That conception may be imperfect in many respects. It is subject to extensive revision under the suggestion of a great commentator or of a great interpreter. The student’s own life-experience may modify his appreciation very greatly. In other words, his personal maximum of appreciation is subject to the ordinary laws of the evolution of personality. But the fundamental basis of any genuine appreciation whatsoever must necessarily be the power to think the author’s thoughts. The power to be swayed by his emotions is a normal man’s birthright. We respond with our complete personal maximum of emotional appreciation, as soon as we have caught the complete statement of the artist’s thought. We may be sure, then, that the phrase “cultivation of the emotions” needs new definition for some of us. What we really mean by it is “cultivation of ability to appreciate the lofty expressions of emotion,” as that expression embodies itself in great works. It is easy to feel the emotion; it is frequently difficult to grasp the expression of it. It is easy to thrill in sympathetic vibration with a great soul; it is often difficult to remain completely in the company of a great soul as it “thinks itself forth” into full expression of itself.

I will not undertake to draw comparisons, as to their respective artistic importance, between the classics of literature and the classics of music. Probably all will concede that the classics of music are works of art of considerable importance, and that acquaintance with them is distinctly worth cultivating. As we must think Shakespeare, if we would appreciate him, so must we think Beethoven, Bach, and all the rest, if we would be among their intelligent devotees, if we would attain our personal maximum of appreciation of them. We must therefore have facilities for reviewing or rehearing their significant diction as fully and freely as those afforded by the printed pages which present to us the great works of literature. Without such facilities, we must ever be content with a partial appreciation.

Perhaps, for some, I need to define the process of “thinking music.” Let him who seeks a definition permit a familiar tune like “America,” “Old Hundred,” or “Home, Sweet Home,” to pass through the mind. Let it be divested of all verbal association. Or, let a pianopiece which has recently been scores of times repeated by some earnest student, be subjected to the same treatment. One is thus “thinking music.” Now, if the individual in question happens to be at all familiar with the first few measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, let him try the same process upon these. He may be able to review with completeness the first three or four measures, but will find himself at a loss as to the secondary instrumental parts before the twentieth measure is reached. If, with the score before him, he is able to aid his memory, he can make a better record. Probably the one who needs a definition of “thinking music” would not be able to think through the whole first movement in this way. Such ability is not at all necessary for complete appreciation of the work. If we expected or required that, we should be expecting and requiring the trained scorereader’s ability to translate signs into tones. Such ability, obviously, can be acquired only by technical studies. The lay hearer has accomplished the feat of thinking a work when, as it is performed, he recognizes fully what is heard at a given instant and would be able immediately to detect any departure from correctness in the performance.

Any definition of “thinking music” which connotes extra-musical suggestion is, for our present purpose, out of place. We are not considering music with a “ programme,” or any form of vocal music. The hearer who values music as an aid to thinking about something else is probably not making the most profitable use of his hearing, no matter how attractive the evoked visions and experiences may be. Perhaps the most difficult point to make clear to the “halfexperienced ” music-lover is precisely that upon which we are now touching. Such a listener, frequently earnest in his desire to understand music, is likely to suppose that a musical thought is a phrase the meaning of which can be expressed perhaps in words, perhaps in gesture, perhaps in a mood or in some outward evidence of an emotional state. Let it be clearly understood that, for us, thinking music means thinking nothing but music; and let it also be understood that the genuine music-hearer, if we may so term him, finds music beautiful or ugly, significant or stupid, in itself, and not because of its extra-musical suggestiveness.

If our analogies have had any force, it must be clear that great efficiency in thinking music is not merely desirable but essential to appreciation. One may have keen delight in observing changes of color, contrasts of harmony, conquests of technical difficulties, and all the other outward characteristics of a musical performance. But, unless one is fully able to think the work, he lacks the most important element in the appreciation of it. The concert-room experience of many musiclovers would cause them to hesitate to take literally the foregoing statement. Such doubters may find helpful suggestion in another analogy. Many will remember the elder Salvini and will recall the enthusiasm of his American audiences. More recently Bernhardt, Coquelin, Mounet-Sully, and Réjane have been admired here. One frequently hears an expression of enthusiastic appreciation of these actors from those who do not understand the language spoken. A common remark is: “I knew from the action exactly what was being said.” It is not to be denied that the hearers in question got enjoyment from the performances of these gifted actors. But no one would dare to maintain that appreciation of dramatic virtuosity is full, or in any important sense reliable, unless the hearer not only understands the language, but is able to catch, with what might be called syllabic detail, the thoughts expressed. Even one who practically knows the play by heart in another language cannot attain his own maximum appreciation; one absolutely must know the language used. To maintain the contrary would be tantamount to saying that the histrion’s care as to detailed interpretation of the text is an unimportant element in his performance. Like the alien listener’s appreciation of great histrionic art, so the average musiclover’s appreciation of a great interpreter’s art is sadly incomplete. It is probably quite safe to say that such a con cert-goer counts his time well spent if he really understands one-tenth of what he hears at a concert of high grade. He gets entertainment from several other sources while the concert is in progress: there is the social charm of the audience, interest in the personality of the performers, delight in observing the conquest of technical difficulties. All these and other things make part of his enjoyment. As for the music, one tenth of the understanding which he would expect to have of a lecture or reading is probably as much as he attains.

Those of us who have “been through the mill ” know a different sort of appreciation. We are perhaps inclined to lay the flattering unction to our souls that this appreciation of ours is a special recognition by Providence of the special gifts with which we have been endowed. We cannot believe that one who knows little or nothing of theory, little or nothing of technicality, little or nothing of musical history, can attain this same completeness of appreciation. We are wrong. We forget that music is a language, and that, like all languages, it is susceptible of being fully learned by any one born to it, who can find opportunity to hear it continuously and significantly — and, of course, correctly — used. Indeed, does not each of us know some one who, wholly lacking technical knowledge but having had cultivated musical surroundings, has developed the highest and keenest musical appreciation ? As for myself, I have been able to gather evidence enough to justify the statement that the only essentials to full appreciation of music are: first, an innate love for music (being born to the language); second, an opportunity to hear much music. Everything else follows in the wake of this original outfit and this opportunity. The former has been and is possessed by many; the latter could be secured by only a few until the modern mechanical player was invented, the player which is capable of rendering symphonic works.

Until such players came upon the market, the lover of music could not readily get into tonal form that which the composer has committed to paper. Many years of study were necessary to the acquisition of technical ability to render a two-hand or four-hand arrangement of an overture or symphony. Still longer technical preparation was necessary to the performance of great compositions for a solo instrument. Obviously, such playing ability could be acquired only by those with rare opportunities and special gifts. Furthermore, opportunities to hear performances of great compositions were very few. The zealous concert-goer, living at a metropolitan centre, would hear in a decade perhaps ten performances of Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Symphonies, four performances of one of Mozart’s last three symphonies, as well as of Schubert’s Unfinished and Schumann’s First and Second. The foregoing estimate is too large rather than too small. During that decade ten performances of any single fugue of Bach would certainly not have been heard in public. The concert-goer might perhaps have opportunities to hear the above-named and other symphonies in four-hand arrangement; but this could happen only if accomplished performers were in the circle of his friends.

The automatic instrument has removed this disability. The average man can now pass the thought-substance of musical masterpieces in review at will. Thus is established the possibility of consistently developing power to think music. Since this power is fundamental to all musical cultivation, and since its development in high degree is possible to every one born to the language of music, the automatic instrument is the most serviceable agent of musical education which has come into being since instrumental composition became independent of vocal. And this would be true, even if automatic instruments permitted the giving of no color or expression to renderings, — which is, of course, very far from being the actual case.

Some have thought that it was an offense against art to permit an individual to play upon an automatic instrument a great work in wrong tempo and with errors of emphasis. It is true that, if there were no possibility of correcting earliest impressions, there might be a basis for this view. But, just as we still are glad to have children memorize masterpieces of literature, even though they may be incapable of applying correct emphasis or of grasping fully the significance of what they are learning, so should we be glad to allow the musically inexperienced to come in contact with a great work, even though there may be a certain distortion of the original during the period of early acquaintance. Certainly one may safely opine that the possibility of repeating this experience indefinitely, and of varying it by the use of a great number of masterpieces, means the attainment of a “good ” before which the so-called offense against art dwindles into insignificance. For one who is note-perfect in his acquaintance with a great work, the composer has become a definite artistic personality; and the interpretation of that work under a great conductor, or at the hands of a great performer, can begin to have its due effect. To increase one’s equipment and susceptibility in these matters is obviously the chief goal of all musical education. Hence, as we have said, among the agencies of musical education, the automatic instrument is the most efficient yet discovered.