THERE is a kind of brain which regards music as mere formal sound and denies it any beauties save those of design. By persons cerebrally so constituted, the idea that music may possess virtues not to be measured by theoretical compasses is utterly scouted. They look upon the art of tone as a sort of audible mathematics, absolute in its processes as the growth of crystals or the polarization of light. That music can express ideas, feelings, suggest moods, present mind-states; that it is indeed a kind of language, unlimited by the conditions which set a term to the expressiveness of words,— this they absolutely deny; and, when music-lovers of another order persist in associating with certain compositions definite moods or emotions, these stern theorists accuse them of self-delusion. They deny that music can be anything more than an artistically ordered succession of sounds, or that it indicates the personality of the composer in any way save by a manner of arranging and combining the notes peculiar to himself. Holding this view, they remember with satisfaction that some of the finest numbers of The Messiah were originally written as love-songs; they remind us that, in its first estate, the German chorale, “ O Sacred Head now Wounded,” was an amorous ditty; they note with satisfaction that many modern ballads, played slowly, make capital voluntaries.
But there is another side to the picture. What was it that made George the Second rise in his place when they sang the “ Hallelujah ” Chorus, thereby setting an example which is followed to this day ? What was it in the Finale of the Fifth Symphony that drew the Napoleonic veteran to his feet with the exclamation, “The Emperor!” ? What sanctity in the Ambrosian hymns moved St. Augustine to tears ? During the wars of the French Revolution it was forbidden, on pain of death, to play the “ Ranz des Vaches ” in the hearing of the Swiss soldiers, for so acute a longing for home did it bring upon them that they deserted in hundreds. Are we to think there was no virtue in the music itself, and that the effect produced was the outcome of purely accidental circumstances? The Austrian government forbade Berlioz to play the “ Rackoczy ” march at Buda-Pesth, fearful of its effect on the inflammable Hungarians. Was the fire of patriotism kindled by the mere knowledge that the melody symbolized Hungary, or did the notes speak with tongues of flame ?
Music is not a substance to be analyzed in a laboratory, or a natural force to be tested by physical manifestations. Yet the law of cause and effect is as inevitably operative in art as in physics, though, in the former, its working is more difficult to follow. If a composer is a lover, a patriot, a man who delights in nature; if his compositions arouse the like feelings in others, then we have certitude (certainty belongs to exact science) that the emotion which he felt at the moment of creation has permeated his music. It is not wonderful that delicate tone-pictures should be variously interpreted. A Burne-Jones woman differs in meaning according to the mental complexion of the beholder; a passage of Browning may set in motion, in readers of diverse psychic experience, trains of thought seemingly contradictory, although they often prove not to be so. But there is no divergence of opinion as to the meaning of the great, positive things of art. Nobody misunderstands the grief of the Niobe group, or the deep meditation of Michelangelo’s Jeremias. In like manner the “ Forest Echoes ” of Siegfried affect the multitude with a uniform sentiment; the “ Dead March” in Saul compels universal grief; the” Blue Danube” suggests the intoxication of the dance to hearers of every age and nationality.
But the expressiveness of music is not limited to the portrayal of primitive emotions. It is as full of fine shades of meaning as poetry; its range is infinite. It can be naive as the shepherds in the miracle plays, melodious as the rival swains of Virgil and Theocritus, artificially rustic as Florian and La Fontaine, symbolistic as Mallarme’s fawn. For music is a tonal prism, which reflects, not merely the conceit which the composer has it in mind to set down, but something of the character of the composer himself. It tells the measure of his sensibility; it reveals the artistic ideal of the day in which he lived. Every age has its musical idiom, partly inherited from the past, partly original with itself; every people has its own dialect of the great musical language; every great musician has a way of singing which is peculiar to himself. Climate, civilization, experience, character, a hundred influences, combine to give the music of the masters a definite and recognizable personality, an ego. When, at some future day, the psychology of music is elaborated, it may be possible to discern a composer’s character in his work, to draw his musical portrait as firmly and truthfully as Holbein limned the courtiers of Henry the Eighth. For, if we put something of ourselves into what are commonly regarded as indifferent acts, how intimately must we express ourselves in anything which moves us so profoundly as music does!
Take, for instance, the old English ditty, “ How should I your true love know?” sung by Ophelia in Hamlet. It has the simplicity and directness of the lovelorn idyll which it tells. The melody is as documentary as the ballad; it could only be the outcome of the English genius. Its sadness has that characteristic note, inclined to the sinister, somewhat smelling of the mould, which Taine detects in the poetry of the Saxons. Compare this strain with the beautiful air, “ La Belle est au Jardin d’Amour,” a flower of the French hedgerow of Ronsard’s day, or Villon’s. Simple it is, but not shallow. There is something deep in its ingenuousness, a profound clarity, like that of the water of a well; it is prophetic of the soul-searching music in which Debussy pictures the soul of Melisande. In the Southern song of “Magali ” we catch the aroma of the honeysuckle, a prophecy of the cloying sweetness of Gounod, The peasants of the Midi sang rose-scented notes centuries before Ambroise Thomas wrote “ Connais tu le Pays ? ” Germany too, though she commonly loves in a more full-blooded way, is familiar with the lotos strain. It dreams in such songs as Franz’s “ Es hat die Rose sich beklagt,” and Schumann’s “ Lotosblume.” More characteristically Teutonic, however, are the love songs of Franz Schubert, themost beautiful ever written. What a tremor of gossamer wings in “ Love’s Message; ” what rapturous expectation in “ Ungeduld; ” what devotion, fathoms deep, in “ Who is Sylvia ? ” what morning ecstasy in “ Hark, Hark! the Lark! ”
Puccini, in La Bohême, shows what the Italian genius can do with the hothouse sentiment of Murger’s Bohemia. So potent, however, is the influence of the littérateur that the composer becomes Gallic. When Mimi sings, “ My name is Lucia; but they call me Mimi, I know not why,” the spirit of the music is French, not Italian, and yet the phrases have a honeyed something about them chat belongs to the South. Music is full of such perplexing amalgams of temperament. The Polish Moszkowski, for instance, loves to write in the Spanish vein. So too did Bizet. Carmen’s song, “ Amour est tin oiseau rebelle,” is purple with gypsy fatalism, blood-red with the passion of Spain. Where is the casuist in cases of musical conscience who will explain how this wonderful ” Habanera ” found expression through the brain of a Gaul ?
Shakespeare’s saying about the jest’s success is applicable to music. The fortune of a composition “ lies in the ear of him that hears it.” Each of the love-songs just mentioned is beautiful in itself, and needs no recommendation but its own loveliness. Yet it is impossible for “ How should I your true love know?” to make the same moving appeal to a hearer ignorant of Hamlet that it makes to one who wept over Ophelia in childhood, and, even in age, cannot withhold the tribute of a sigh. The figure of the hapless lady smiles wistfully through the music. So again, “Know’st thou the Land ? ” puts on new beauty when Mignon is part of our dreams. The harmonies of Debussy, with their hues of mother-of-pearl, assume an even more delicate spirituality if we know Melisande through the poetry of Maeterlinck.
The simplest folk-songs are vested with a rarer beauty for him who hears in them the naïve first attempts at self-expression of a people in the dawn of artistic consciousness. Music depends in part for its meaning upon the hearer. We listen with the mind and soul, as well as with the outward ear. It is probable, therefore, that no composition sounds just the same to any two auditors. In this fact we may find an explanation of the differences of opinion as to the meaning of certain compositions between people of taste and learning. Weber utterly failed to appreciate Beethoven as a symphonist, while Berlioz, creatively Weber’s inferior, knew him for one of the Olympians. So sharp a cleavage of opinion could only be the outcome of difference of mental outlook. The mind is a mirror and modifies the image which it receives, just as the trembling surface of a lake modifies the reflection of overhanging boughs. Weber looked first and foremost for perfection of form; to Berlioz the all-important consideration was the spiritual content.
It is surely unphilosophic to have regard only to the thing heard, and refuse to recognize the bearing on music of the character and temperament of the hearer. To the critic who takes a broad view, a composition will not seem clear until he know’s the ego of the composer, with all those predisposing conditions of mind, body, and environment, which affect a work of art as the atmosphere affects a landscape. It would be possible to regard the “ Dies Iræ ” as merely a string of notes; but, rightly understood, it is the mystery of death and judgment put into music. Why otherwise would SaintSaens parody it? He makes it a valse, with the devil for musician, fiddling for the midnight merriment of the dead. It is uncanny, grotesque, weird. Irreverently clever, he perverts the solemn chant of the Church into the diablerie of the witches’ sabbath. Verdi sophisticates it in another way. He substitutes for the liturgic thrill of the ancient death-chant the vociferous grief of opera; the music throbs with melodramatic woe. The great Italian is like the servant-girl who loves the story which makes her weep. Nor is this entirely a fault in him, for, in the hands of a master, servant-girl sentiment may be the medium of great art. The hymn of the Bagpipers, sung before the crib in St. Peter’s, by Calabrian peasants on Christmas morning, is childlike in its simplicity. Yet on this very hymn Handel based the “ Pastoral Symphony ” of The Messiah. Bach, too, felt the magic of its ancient rhythm, — the lilt of the Pastorale, timeout of mind,—and developed it in the “ Shepherds’ Music ” of his Christmas Oratorio — one of the brightest stars in the firmament of music.
In the same field of worship-music must be remembered the “ Ave Maria ” of Arcadelt, with its memories of some Belgian carillon, heard long before the composer became famous. How differently does the same prayer inspire Gounod. Taking as his undersong the noble first Prelude of Bach’s “ Well-Tempered Clavichord,” he weds it with a strain of tender rapture. Wagner’s sacred music never quite frees itself from sensuousness. The “ Grail ” music in his Lohengrin overture is typical. It is an orchestral ecstasy, the music of shimmering light, but more like a volatilized thing of sense than such pure music of the spirit as, say, Palestrina’s Mass of Pope Marcellus. When Mozart wants to end his grandest symphony on a note of sublimity, he takes the Gregorian intonation of the “ Gloria in Excelsis,” and upon it builds a fugue of unsurpassable grandeur. It is apocalyptic; it is the expression in tone of that glimpse into heaven which Milton gives us in his “ Blest Pair of Sirens.”
In truly great music we seem to be assisting at the unfolding of a drama, not merely as spectators, but as participants, — our fate bound up, in some mysterious way, with what is taking place. The composer seems to have crystallized in himself the aspirations and the vague terror of humanity. How else can we explain the poignant interest we take in such a work as Tschaikowsky’s “ Pathetic ” Symphony ?
All art is autobiography. There is more than drama in Shakespeare’s plays. The poet’s life-story is there, could we but read the mystic hieroglyphs. So it is with music. Tschaikowsky admitted that the “ Pathetic” Symphony had a programme, and significantly added that it should never be known. But there is no need of personal assurance to declare the work tragic. Its grief is tidal; frantic insurgence against fate alternates with deepening despair. Truth to tell, Tschaikowsky is not brave. He loves to parade his sorrows, to unpack his soul with music. But the work, as it stands, is eloquently descriptive of the man. The themes droop as though, like Seneca in the bath, his life-blood draining off through the opened arteries, he felt the vital forces ebbing away. How different is the sadness of Beethoven in his “Appassionata ”! Shut out from the world of sweet sounds by every channel save the imagination, parted from the “Deathless beloved one,” solitary as Dante, the grief of the grand Teuton becomes heroic. Nor is he obsessed by sorrow. The Allegretto of the Eighth Symphony shows him jovial as the immortal gods.
All is grist that comes to the composer’s mill. Like Molière, he takes his fortune where he finds it. A temporary dweller in America, Dvorak interprets the New World with characteristic ingenuousness, preferring to see it through the Negro and Indian airs in which his sensitive and childlike nature found comfort. His “ New World” Symphony is, in reality, not a symphony at all, but stories of love and mystery, babyhood dreams and goblin dread—such tales as might be told by an old darkey mammy, by the fireside on a winter’s night. Stephen Heller translates his rumblings into “ Wanderstunden.” If Henley had been a musician, his London Voluntaries would probably have been cast in the Heller mould.
Nor is humor a stranger to music. Bolzini’s“ Dancing Doll” is Hans-ChristianAndersen-like in its whimsicality. In Gounod’s “ Funeral March of a Marionette ” we have the dirge of Punchinello, humorous and melancholy in turn. The clumsy drollery of Bottom and his Athenian “ mechanicals,” Warwickshire men all, is done to the life in the Bergomask in the Midsummer Night’s Dream music.
Nor does music lack the genius of place, nor yet the race-spirit. MacDowell’s “Deserted Farm” is haunted by a New England wraith, and in his Indian sketches the hapless idealist interprets the Redman’s affinity with forest and mountain as deeply and as truthfully as Longfellow did in verse. In his picture of the steppes of Central Asia, Borodine gives us the magic of those wild wastes where the Tartars rode. Schumann’s “ Oriental Pictures,” Goldmark’s “ Sakuntala,” and Grieg’s “ Anitra’s Dance,” are the musical equivalent of literary orientalism. What these composers painted in pigments of tone was the Orient of their dreams. To literary inspiration we also owe Massenet’s “Phèdre ” Overture, and the shapely Hellenism of Gluck. Reading Shakespeare, young Felix Mendelssohn caught the tripping of fairy feet and the drowsy measures which smooth the couch of Titania.
No page of life, or of the poetic interpretation of life, but has its musical analogue. Do we want the pride and gallantry of seventeenth-century Spain ? Mozart gives it us in his Don Giovanni Minuet, with an opulence of suggestion unrivaled in painting or poetry. The wit of France, when Molière turned the Précieuses into immortal ridicule, still sparkles in the miniatures of Rameau and Couperin. Wagner read the whole spirit of England in the opening measures of “ Rule Britannia,” and the same firm note of self-reliance rings in the familiar “Pride and Circumstance” theme of Edward Elgar.
There is something distinctive in the music of every race, an element immediately recognizable, yet so subtle as to defy analysis. Whoever took “ Au Clair de la Lune ” for anything but a French chanson, or “ Schöne Minka ” for aught but a Polish song? “ The Last Rose ” could belong to no people but the Irish; and, though most of us know it as “ My Maryland,” “ O Tannenbaum ” is as German as the Rhine.
If we would appreciate music aright, we must remember that its beauty depends, not upon the composer alone, but upon ourselves also. Deep calls unto deep; and the harmony of sound, though appealing primarily to the outward ear, must be answered by a harmony from within ourselves. The more culture we bring to the hearing of music, the wider our sympathy, the more exquisite will be the echoes which it awakens in the soul. If we would understand the composer’s message, we must coöperate with him. We must reach out to him with all our faculties. If we do that, the revelation of music will ceaselessly renew its beauty, ever turning unimagined aspects to gladden us.