Nationalism in Music

NATIONAL, music, if such a thing there be, is a form of art the very mention of which causes many excellent people to shudder. It offends their musical ideal, which is that of pure sonority unperplexed by the suggestion of anything outside of its own beauty. The confusion of tongues cannot reach it; it dwells far from the clash of races. According to this view, to stamp music with national characteristics is to reduce it from the proud position of being the one language which all can understand to a speech split up into a hundred dialects, some of them as incomprehensible to the generality of mankind as pigeon-English. Here and there, one of these idealists will grant to folk-song national flavor, just as there may be dialect poetry, or flowers may develop traits peculiar to the part of the world in which they are found. But that the peculiarities of folk-song are to be met with in the music of the masters, or, if found, would become its dignity, this they deny, firm in the conviction that the fluctuating qualities of race and nationality cannot be expressed in an art so pure and abstract as music.

On the other hand, it is pointed out that our generation has not lacked composers who chose to write in what they deemed their national idiom — Liszt as a Hungarian, Grieg as a Norwegian, Moussorgsky as a Russian. Believers in the nationalism of song assert that the best work of the masters is national, and, in support of this view they point to the resemblance — a resemblance which they declare not to be accidental — borne by the best melody of the great composers to the folk-music of their native land. In this resemblance they see a fitness based on the inherent dignity of national character; for a folk-song in its best form is the people’s praise of love and heroism, their hatred of tyranny, their reaching out after the divine.

When Napoleon forbade, under penalty of death, the playing of the ‘Ranz des Vaches’ in the hearing of his Swiss soldiers, lest they should desert, as they had often done, sometimes in whole companies, he was bearing testimony to the existence of something in this mountain music that had a meaning for the Switzers which it possessed for no one else. Was the charm merely a sentimental memory, or had some quality allied to the genius of the race insinuated itself into the notes? On this point hinges the whole question of national music, whether by that term we mean the song of the folk or the compositions of the professional musician. Mountain melody has a character of its own. The bold skips and arpeggios of Styrian song may be paralleled, in significantly different melodic texture, in the songs of Norway and the Scotch Highlands. Moreover, strains inspired by the hills have a richness of harmonic suggestion, the reason for which we must seek in the echoes of cliff and hollow.

The emotion aroused in the Swiss soldiers by the ‘Ranz des Vaches’ has its explanation in some deep-seated kinship between the melody and the scene which called it into being. To say this is merely to assert the existence of an analogy between the physical character of a country and its music. The songs of Britanny recall certain mist-drenched pages of Pierre Loti; the airs of southern France, on the other hand, are languid with the fragrance of the honeysuckle. Compare the Breton hymn, ‘ Ar Barados,’ with the Southern song of ‘Magali.’ Germany has ‘woodnotes wild’ that suggest the sombre beauty of the Black Forest, notes that were well known to Karl Maria von Weber. Musicians, like painters, draw their inspiration from the land in which they dwell, and the image of the old home will slip into their compositions much as the wood-clad hills of Umbria slip into the Biblical backgrounds of Perugino.

Playing over Redskin melodies on the piano, people have sometimes been struck by their apparently Celtic character. Now, if Celt may be confounded with Indian, music as an index of national character is grotesquely deceptive. The confusion of types, however, is to be attributed, not to the similarity of melodies, but to the imperfections and limitations of our system of notation. The music of the Indians is largely based on a scale of five whole tones — our major scale with the halftones left out. Celtic music has likewise a pentatonic basis. A purely theoretical examination would leave the impression that Celtic and Indian music used the same notes, were built of the same material, and therefore, apart from considerations of contour and rhythm, might be expected to sound much alike. But it is only necessary to hear Indian chanting and compare it with an Irish song sung ‘in the Irish way,’ or a coronach played by a Scotch piper, to be convinced that between the music of the American Indians and that of the Celtic peoples there is a wide gulf.

Our system of notation has this capital defect, that it obliterates tonal peculiarities. In many countries the diatonic scale is subtly modified. As interpreted by the piano, that scale is neither the ‘scale of nature’ nor the scale of any primitive people, but a succession of sounds arbitrarily modified so that the instrument may be played in all the keys — an impossibility if it were strictly in tune.

The pianistic scale differs markedly from that of the Celts, with the result that Irish melodies lose much of their flavor when played in it. Julien Tiersot discovered that the Arabs use a scale analogous to our own, composed of tones and half-tones; but the pitch of certain notes differs from that of the corresponding degrees in the scale of northern Europe. To represent these shades of difference on a keyed instrument is impossible; our system of notation treats them as non-existent. Yet they are of the very essence of national song. Take the analogous subject of language. No matter how well a Frenchman or a German may speak English, a hundred fine shades of difference in pronunciation and intonation will declare him a foreigner. So it is in music, and the grave objection to our habit of deferring to the piano as the form of musical expression is that, unlike the violin or ’cello, it is incapable of any speech but its own narrow and individuality-destroying vernacular.

Between a notation that misrepresents, and instruments that pervert, national idiom, if it had not in itself something imperishable, would be lost. The only conclusive way in which this vexed question of tonality in national music can be settled, as matters stand, is by the comparison of phonographic records. Such a test would probably show that German, Celtic, Arab, and Redskin music are based on as many variations of the universal diatonic as there are peoples. If races had not an intonation peculiar to themselves, the chant of an Indian would often resemble a Scotch or an Irish tune. It does so on paper, but hardly in practice.

We can learn something of a man’s character by observing his walk. The sailor’s gait tells its own story; so does the tread of the ploughman. The movement of music is equally significant. Every race has some rhythm which it prefers to others. When the composer thinks of classic Italy, his muse may fittingly chose the lilt of the Pastorale, the measure to which it is not unphilosophic to imagine the Sicilian shepherds dancing while Theocritus ruminated on his idyls. Nor has it perished with the years. Bach and Handel loved it. When we are moved to tears by ‘He shall feed his flock,’ or uplifted heavenhigh by the Shepherds’ Music from the Christmas Oratorio, our thanks are due not only to the composers, but to the rustics of Italy who enriched music with this beautiful rhythm. How different is the merrymaking in the Pastoral Symphony. Here the humor is robust, uproarious even; the Austrian peasants have no aversion to getting tipsy. The change is not merely one of scene, but of temperament. Beethoven loved to watch the villagers at their revels and, like Goethe, he has left us a picture of the Teuton in holiday humor that men will relish as long as they love art. Here the dance is a waltz, footed with a bacchanalian zest. Mozart’s Germans dance as though they wanted to be Italians. His minuets are own cousins to the measures of Padre Martini. Occasionally, however, when the grace of God is stronger than the fashion of the day, he slips into a Teuton mood. A Haydn symphony would be incomplete without some page in which elegance is redeemed from formality by humor borrowed from the life of the people. Why is it that so many composers — French, German, Polish —have written works avowedly in the Spanish spirit? It is because of the allure of the bolero, the fascination of the jota. Carmen, the work of a Parisian, is a series of tableaux painted in the hues of Spanish romance.

Even scholasticism may be given a national turn. A canon by Rameau is apt to be as gracefully French as one of his rondos. Apart from the exercise of greater contrapuntal freedom, the polyphony of Bach differs from that of Palestrina by virtue of some quality which enters into the shape and articulation of the melody. The work of these great musicians differs in the same way that Dürer’s Song of the Chosen differs from Raphael’s Disputa. One is the expression of Gothic rapture, the other is the mystic ecstasy of the Latin; one suggests the ‘Gloria in excelsis’ of the B minor Mass, the other may be compared with the ‘Et vitam venturi sccculi’ of the Missa Papæ Marcelli.

Because for a century and a half Germany has had a preponderating voice in the shaping of the destinies of music, her scholars sometimes mistake their idiom for the speech of humanity. So successful have they been in imposing this view on the world at large, that composers have hardly dared to sing with the accent nature gave them. It needed all Liszt’s encouragement to stiffen Grieg in his resolution to be his own Norse self, and not an imitation German. One of his German critics wrote that he had ‘stuck in the fjord’ and could not get out of it. These men had come to think that music which did not realize their ideal of what music ought to be, must be bad music. They forgot, or did not realize, that their own greatest composers were militantly national; not invariably so, of course, for it is not every day that a man is allowed to be the spokesman of his race and there are dull pages in Beethoven, in Wagner; but when they are at their best their music is the voice of the Fatherland. I hear the unconverted absolutist exclaim, ‘Lay your fingers on the traits that declare “Casta diva ” Italian, Schubert’s “Aufenthalt ” German, and Gounod’s “Quand tu chantes” French.’ I reply to this objection. ‘Tell me by what token you recognize a German face or know a girl for Irish before she has opened her lips.’ To ask for precise definition of all the things that go to make men or art national, is as reasonable as it would be for parents to exact of their child a detailed analysis of the charms of the well-beloved. It is demanding the reduction of the mystery of personality to terms of Euclidean precision.

The great masters prove their appreciation of the force of the race-spirit by their occasional use of a foreign idiom. Bach did not disdain to copy Vivaldi and develop an Italian manner. The Itahanism of Handel is so marked that, in listening to Corelli, we sometimes seem to have come upon an early Handelian masterpiece. Mozart’s arias betray the influence of southern cantilena at every turn, and, when Wagner wishes to express rapture, he makes Brunhilde sing fioritures à la Bellini. Yet, in spite of their occasional use of some foreign mode of expression, the master composers touch their highest point when they sing their native strains. Beethoven departed from the Teutonic idiom less than any other of the Viennese trinity. He is a true German; the virtue of his music belongs to the German folk. It is the glorified echo of songs sung by men whose ancestors listened to the Minnesingers and grew large-eyed in wonder at tales of the haunted Rhine. Turn to the opening movement of the Seventh Symphony, to the Allegro Vivace which follows the introduction. In no music is Beethoven more solidly himself. How quickly the spell asserts itself. The rhythm takes possession of you; it dominates you, gliding off eventually, when the sound of the instruments has ceased and the mind is left to itself, into folk-strains like the old ‘Grandfather’s Dance’ or the genial ‘Es ritten drei Reiter zum Thore hinaus,’ while the heart gratefully confesses that the master musician wrote — not in a vein of impersonal classicism but in the heart-speech of the German folk. When he wants to picture the fraternizing of humanity, he weds Schiller’s poem to an air so gloriously German that it seems as if the spirit of the Fatherland had sought embodiment in a song and chosen Beethoven to compose it. The canon which he wrote for his friend Maelzel becomes the Allegretto Schersando of the Eighth Symphony; when he wants a contrasting theme for the Waldstein Sonata, he writes an air which breathes the spirit of the German hymn.

If this reasoning be sound, it must bear application nearer home. France and Germany have music of their own, why not America? Why not indeed? But it is to be remembered in this connection that the people of America are only politically a unit. Racially, sections of the populace speak with different voices. Saxon and Celt, Slav, Teuton, and Latin, are slowly blending into a racial whole; but, if we have to wait for American music until the process is perfected, we shall have to wait many generations. That, however, should not be necessary. Probably three fifths of the people have no European consciousness to-day; they think and feel as Americans. There is no apparent reason why a music characteristically American should not begin to manifest itself among them.

But what is to be the differentiating factor, by virtue of which American music shall be as different from that of Germany as the music of Germany is different from that of France? Will it be a matter of tonality, of rhythm, of style, or will it be a composite of all three? The question can be propounded, but not answered. The answer is for the future.

At the present moment the only music that can be recognized as incontestably American—and un-European — is that in which the native composer has made use of the melodies of the Redskins. Edward Macdowell’s Indian Suites are genuine American music. The elements of music he derived from the Old World; but they were not the discovery or property of any one people. They no more belong to a single civilization than does the alphabet. His musical scholarship he gained in Germany; but he was too strong a character to be warped from his native bent by the manner of a school. His way of thinking is his own and, when the subject matter is Indian melody, the three factors of acquired knowledge, personality, and thematic material combine in a formula which belongs to America, and to her alone.

It is different with the New World Symphony of Dvórak. There we have American themes; but the composer thinks as a foreigner. He paints us a series of pictures of Negro and Indian life as seen through the eyes of a Bohemian. Incidentally, this is the defect of his work considered as a symphony. If not actual songs, Dvórak’s themes have in them so much of the folk-ego, they are so personal, that they transform his symphony into genre music. Beethoven avoided this pitfall; he composed in the folk-song spirit; but the note is not individual, it is universal. When Gustav Mahler called the Indian melodies crude, he forgot that the musical worth of a melody is to be determined, not so much by its beauty, viewed as an isolated strain, as by its potentialities in the hands of a gifted composer. Undeveloped though the Indian may be in many respects, he has affinities with nature in respect of which the white man must pay him the deference due to an interpreter of things but dimly apprehended by the Caucasian mind. This aspect of the Indian character enters deeply into the music of the race, and the genius of Macdowell was quick to perceive its evocational power. Unlike Dvórak, he did not allow himself to be mastered by his material, but made it serve the artistic purpose which he had in mind.

Macdowell’s Indian Suites give an outlook in life and nature peculiar to the Western World. That they are the music of the whole American people I do not assert. The same phenomena that inspired the Indians — and, through them, furnished Macdowell with subject-matter — may lead to the composition of music very different from his when brought to bear on the descendants of Europeans without the intervention of the aboriginal intelligence. In other words, American music, like that of other countries, may have more facets than one. Yet all will be national, and, whatever music the sons and daughters of the New World create, we may be sure of this, that it will not have a European accent.

Not long ago we were visited by an orchestra of Russian balalaika players. One of their most beautiful numbers was a Volga boat-song. The oarsmen of the Nile have a similar song. Is it unreasonable to suppose that the Yukon, the Mississippi, and the St. Lawrence will inspire the American as the Volga has inspired the Muscovite and the Nile the Egyptian? May we not look for music of the Rocky Mountains which will vie in beauty with that of the Tyrol, yet have in it something which belongs to America alone? To admit that this may be possible does not involve the consequence, as many people seem to fear it may, that music must be purely a thing of the senses.

While the broad general aspects of nature — mountains, rivers, prairies, the sea — suggest distinctive types of melody, these types are susceptible, not merely of a national complexion, but of a charm that reveals the personality of the composer. It is inconceivable that the influences which make the wit of Touchstone English, and the beauty of the Phidian marbles Hellenic, should be inoperative in music. Can we logically seek the esprit gaulois in Rabelais, and omit to look for it in Couperin? The ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ proves its existence in Gounod. It is the functioning of the genius of race in the composer. That spirit is not to be limited to tonality and rhythm; it is diffused through melody and makes itself felt as the character of an individual shines in his countenance. We cannot reduce it to constituents more fundamental. It is the manifestation of something supersensuous and mystical. We can recognize its effects; we can follow some of its processes; but we can no more understand it, root and all, branch and all, than we can understand a mother’s love, or the infinity of space. To deny music the racial expression we find so significant in the human face is to withhold from art what nature has given to the flowers, to deprive melody of the color of language.