What Price Harmony?


TRAVEL and sojourn in strange lands teach us more about ourselves than about those lands and the people living in them. They give us a view of ourselves from a new angle, and standards of measurement which bring out our traits in curious and previously unperceived proportions. I found this especially so as regards music.

Being fond of music and somewhat trained in it, for many years I felt my keenest joy in listening to it. Certain great musical experiences of the past lose none of their vividness even in memory. But after months with the negroes along the Niger River, after a year with the Moors, I find myself reluctant to touch my piano and averse to going to concerts.

My education had been usual enough. My piano instructors had preached Bach to me. I accepted him, lived by him musically. The day came when I went to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to hear the B-minor Mass. All that the world of learned musicians had said about the greatness of Bach then seemed true, and more. The Haydn quartettes, the Mozart symphonies, filled me with joy, which not even the history books and the professors, which not even my own professing, could temper. Then there was Beethoven. He too was one of the great composers. Him, like the others,

I accepted and worshiped. Once in Paris, shortly after the war, I heard an inspired performance of the Fifth Symphony under Gaubert in the Salle du Conservatoire. On coming away from the concert I chanced to catch the remark of an American behind me in the street. ‘I have heard only one performance to equal this,’ he said. Though he was a stranger to me I knew he meant a performance under Karl Muck in Boston some years before; and he told me he did mean that one. The coincidence seems proof of the objective reality of certain musical experiences.

There was Schubert, who unfortunately could not master the larger forms, but whose songs were divine; there was Schumann, whose fantasy soared beyond his skill, yet who was almost the perfect Romantic in music; and there was the stern Brahms, with his admired bleakness. I accepted them all; they were the world’s great composers. The world’s, mind you!

They were Germanic; but we are all more or less Germanic. Of course, we had our snacks of other races. There was Chopin, with his Polish rhythms and his sick soul; but he wrote only for the piano. Liszt thundered a dozen rhapsodies and more from Middle Europe. Carmen could not be the greatest opera because a Frenchman had written it, and with borrowed color. Grieg brought us a bit of Scandinavia, charming, but not suited to the exalted forms. The gorgeous Russians came upon us, and we scratched them to find musical Tartars. Verdi was generally spurned by the upper musical classes. He was an Italian, and Wagner had spoken slightingly of bel canto.

Opinion has changed, somewhat, with the times. But for me all has changed. I have lived for a short period among the negroes of West Africa and among the Moors, whom no education — and it was for a long time my business to educate American youth in music — could ever persuade into accepting Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, not as great musicians, but as musicians at all. These three, whom we have set up as the world’s greatest! Other races of the world outnumber us, and they have music. We say it is not music; and they say that ours is not. Two Hindu musicians, after they had given over showing me how much they knew about our music, which was a great deal, avowed that they still considered it noise, though admirably complex.

We have, then, composers great only in our music. Beside their masterpieces I now put other music: against the Bach Mass, the Beethoven symphonies, Parsifal, I put a little Spanish fisherman singing along the Moroccan coast, an oboe from a mosque tower in Fez during the month of Ramadan, and a great negro who came out of the gloom into the light of the fire round which our boatmen sat skinning a goat they had stolen from a Tuareg shepherd. He played a flute to them and to us, music that welled up from the deepest heart of Africa. There were three virtuosi of the lute vying with each other in a Moroccan café; there was a drunken guitarist in Teneriffe. Each of these represents for me an experience in music as real and as deeply moving as any I had previously within the confines of the great European masters.


It is well-nigh impossible to describe the effect of music without recourse to terms of other than auditory experience. If I should try to describe the effect of the music I have heard in Africa, I could do little more than describe the setting in which I heard it and the suggestions it carried of a life new and strange to me. So I should give the impression that the music itself was a small element in the pleasure I received, that the color and the surroundings were all.

Certainly, if I should take the oboe player from the mosque tower in Fez, whence his rapturous music poured down into streets all full of moonlight, and set him to playing on the stage of Carnegie Hall, a great deal of the magic would vanish from his art. But, if I set the mightiest of our orchestras to playing on the roof of a mosque in Fez, its music would ridiculously lose both grandeur and authority. I would not venture to say which music would suffer more by transportation out of its native surroundings. Both belong in a certain setting.

We have taken ours in from out-ofdoors. Along with this we have enfeebled and sweetened our instruments and studied sonorities which lose their resonance elsewhere than in the concert hall. That setting has more color and more meaning than we usually reckon. The empty hall filling, the concert-goers meeting and gossiping, the men of the orchestra coming unattached upon the stage and tuning their instruments, the hush, the arrival of the conductor, his gestures, the applause — all these contribute to create an ‘atmosphere’ as proper and perhaps as indispensable to our music as the firelight in the jungle to my negro playing his wild flute. Indeed, the atmosphere of the concert hall is a connotation of our racial spirit and the development of our art which should not be disregarded.

We have, to be sure, other settings: the cathedral for religious music, the chamber for string quartettes, and the theatre for opera. In the theatre we sometimes make a setting of the outdoor world and use music to enhance the suggestion which is before our eyes; but still we have our sonorities, which would dissipate in the open they are fancied to realize. We are so addicted to the concert hall that we feel little impropriety in bringing our Masses and our operas into it for a hearing; our emotional deeds and our religion have become abstractions. The radio and the phonograph now bring us music to the home and free us from the discomforts of public places. This still seems a reduced music; but it is too early to say whether because of imperfections in transmission or because thereby music loses the aura which vibrates round it in the auditorium for which it was conceived.

My description of the effect of a strange music must include not only its setting, but also the suggestions, in which it was so potent, of the life of the people from which it sprang. When in the African night a little band of negro drummers plays for me, and other drummers come from round about till there are eighteen, beating rhythms beyond our experience, I feel some moving sympathy with what lies in the centuries behind them. If I hazard a description of this I am accused of enriching the music. It was not, I am told, the music itself which stirred me so deeply, but all it spoke of.

This is surely true; but what is no less true is that our music moves us similarly through suggestion. What is the orchestra itself but a combination of instruments with each one of which is associated a definite tone color — that is, an almost explicit suggestion? The trumpets are martial, the trombones solemn; the oboe is pastoral, the flute pure. Bassoons make jolly and the organ is majestic. Besides, we have our drums and cymbals, our celesta and our chimes. It is a collection of voices speaking directly out of the past and out of all the various life which has made us.

Even could we strip every instrument and every voice of the poignant suggestions with which they are fraught, our music must still call to us out of the feelings which are ours, and which moreover, in being ours, are defined. Our whole response is but a recognition. The music of Bach is as unmistakably imbued with the nostalgic self-pity of Protestant mysticism as is that of the negro with longing and superstitious fear. For us the music of the Moors is uncouth; for them Beethoven is bombast. Each lacks the cue to the other, that is all. And this goes to show how little we realize that the beauty and the emotional meaning of our music are no less affected by place and suggestion than are the beauty and the emotional meaning of exotic music.


What modified my feeling about our own music, then, was not, essentially, the ‘atmosphere’ of Africa, but my experience there with a musical stuff different from that of which we have chosen to build our masterpieces. How far our temperament made that choice inevitable, one cannot say; but it is plain to see that as time went on we Europeans, out of a melodic heritage from Byzantium, from Greece, from Southern Rome, — who knows? — selected for our art only what was adaptable to an interweaving of several musical strains at once, which the musician calls harmony. The rest we cast aside. It is worthy of note that harmonic development seems even peculiar to Northern Europe. The Italians and the Spaniards have rarely surrendered the single melody wholly to it. If some day the testimony of music is taken into the councils of the anthropologists, we may hear of melodic and contrapuntal races as well as Mediterraneans and Nordics. For music, elusive as it is, is astonishingly faithful to all the diversities of temperament.

From two or three centuries before Dante to the present day, the history of musical art in Europe is that of the development of a harmonic science, through several stages known technically as polyphonic, contrapuntal, and so forth. Always the end is the same: the interweaving of melodic strands or parts into a manifold texture of sound. The exactions of such interweaving determine our selection of musical stuff; by them we set our ideas of tone and pitch, of what is consonant and what dissonant. From the study of such interweaving emerge rules, long held as positive laws, on which the structure of our musical composition rests. Our whole system of music, from the very notation of its ‘measurable’ parts to its recondite theory, coheres and completes itself round the logic of harmony. But this has been a process of both development and restriction.

We have reared up an art which is imposing and sometimes sublime. We hold it up, like our other achievements, as a standard of civilization, by which other music is judged exotic or barbarous. Therefore here, as in all our perspectives, we fail to value, not only the amount, but the fine quality of musical material which the requirements of our own art forced us to discard.

A man needs no sojourn among strange peoples to see the limitations which our sense of art imposes upon expressive sound, within which limitations, moreover, our masterpieces are fixed. Quite of ourselves we have come recently to a day of reckoning. The terms ‘consonant’ and ‘dissonant,’ which might seem to be of fundamental significance, have lost all but a technical meaning.

There has come to us a stupendous doubt of what sounds well and what does not, a realization of the folly of trying to fix such values within a theory. And with these has come a sense of the restrictions we have placed upon music; irreparably, perhaps, upon melody, which we not only cramped within the gamut of two scales for the sake of harmony, but to which we gave rather a bad name. The melodic forms of music were the lesser forms. We worked with themes and motives, which alone were adaptable to the system. Within a few years we have begun to wonder if a transcendent melody of Verdi is not perhaps more truly music than a symphonic texture elaborated by Wagner.

Of the multiplicity of rhythms in life we chose two very simple ones, a rise and fall of two beats and a rise and fall of three. Perhaps we were doomed to that by our blood. Symmetry of phrase and regularity of cadence held our structures rigid. For the benefit of the system we compromised on pitch. The resonance of concert halls demanded a continual refinement of tone in instruments. Little by little, while we seemed to grow in intricacy and magnificence, we were cutting away from ourselves rich and supple substance in music; and the everincreasing volume of sound, which year by year flattered our security and our luxury, deafened us to our loss.

Of ourselves we have come to realize the relatively narrow limits of our art, and from that sense of limitation to suspect the vastness of musical material lying outside it. But a sojourn among strange people gives us an actual experience of music never fettered by harmony, of melody in which harmony is not even implied, and therefore free in pitch and rhythm, infinitely various and flexible. This is the musical line without our squares and angles, but curving, rising and falling, soaring, fluttering, tracing the immaterial swell of emotion. A single harmonic chord would weigh upon it like a block of stone; for a chord is dimensionable, and this is of the air.


All the strange people among whom I lived had an art of music. Art implies a fixation, and the melodies I heard were fixed by an artistic tradition natural to their singers. Some had been written down; but none would be even thus so fixed that it could not twine and hover in the feeling of the moment. The singer never sang his tune twice the same, but gave in each singing lengths of phrase, alterations of tone, pauses, fingerings, suddenly eloquent departures from the line to drop or float back to it, often slight, but intensely expressive, all inspired by present feeling which passed even in utterance. Not only the lark sang in unpremeditated strains; man sang so once, still sings so in Africa, still may sing so in every art of music save ours. For in all but our system freedom is left for the gush of music from the heart without premeditation — for what, naming it and condemning it, we call improvisation.

To this our art is now firmly closed by its complexities and its proportions. Conservatories give courses in improvising. It is the final proof of our enslavement to organization that we school people in spontaneity. The gradual disappearance of such freedom is interesting to trace, and the shrinking of the space allowed for it in growing musical forms. The public was fond of it; and only slowly did the art of structure and the tradition of composing every detail in a piece and writing it down, not to be departed from in performance, attain to despotism. As late as Bach, composers noted down in many types of music only a series of chords, on which the performer was free to improvise his own adornments. Fantasias and toccatas were played with the utmost freedom, blooming on the stage. Yet soon the freedom died out of it, and the performer, who made you music while you waited, must make music according to laws, following his head, keeping his wits about him.

For generations after Bach composers still conceded to the virtuoso a place in many of their compositions where he might play or sing a few moments following his own fancy. According to reports of the time, performers profited to the full by this break in the dikes, and much rapturous music must have poured forth. But it became a conventionalized test in virtuosity, and the composers fought it for the sake of proportion. It is plain to see what happened. Display and unruly emotion were damned as meretricious; the logic of form triumphed.

Here and there in the masterpieces one comes across a bit of improvisation, fossilized, as it were, in the form. For instance, the little solo phrase for oboe in the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth. The powerful advance of the orchestra suddenly halts; and, hung aloft in the deep emptiness like a star, a lone note of the oboe holds a moment, then slips down through a little phrase into silence. But if the note from which that phrase descends, the inkling of all the fluid substance of music out of which the symphony has been moulded, if that note were held the fraction of a second too long, for the sensitive musician the whole work would sag. The proper length is in relation, not to the intensity of the emotion which inspired it, but to all the other phrases and sections which compose the symphony.

But purely melodic music is free of such rigid relationships. Every tone is elastic, so that there is variation of rhythm and subtlety of expression to follow the finest shade of human feeling while it lasts.

It is by contrast with such flexibility, heard in the singing of the negroes and the Moors, that our music now sounds angular and pompous to me. I am convinced that the melodic systems, by destroying which we have built our own, are capable of a finer music than ours.

But to appreciate it we must be finer listeners than we have become. We must restore to ourselves a sensitiveness of hearing and response now deadened in us by our admired volume of sound.

In my opinion the most significant piece of modern music — the greatest, to use a word I cannot define — is Stravinsky’s ballet, ’Le Sacre du Printemps.’ In its break with the old tradition it has flung far the boundaries of the art, and it has restored to our music the fundamental emotionalism of which our masterpieces now seem more or less formal paraphrases.

In Africa one night I heard from a hotel the distant sound of drums beating continually, and I went out to follow the sound. Across the plain outside the village I came to a festal celebration in a native compound. There was hazy moonlight. Some thirty guests were assembled in the compound, chiefly in white robes, the men and women in separate groups. There were three musicians, professional artists: two drummers and one who played the big xylophone of the country, which is not unlike what we call a marimba. The music was almost too complex for my ears, which grasped only a continual repetition, yet I felt somehow that the repetitions were full of variety.

At intervals the men or the women stamped in a circle round the enclosure, with bent shoulders, and singing long phrases. The curve of the sung phrases, their accent, their loudness and their softness, were as fluid and unrestrained as the night breeze blowing and dying throughout the whole evening. The musical effect, recalling that of Stravinsky’s ballet, was yet more deeply moving. But here were three musicians and a few melancholy voices, whereas Stravinsky’s music had used an orchestra of a hundred pieces and heaven knows what variety of instruments.

Thus the proportions of our music stand out to me after living for a while with other music. I hear in it the logic which has destroyed melody; the restriction of an almost infinite variety of rhythm and pitch into conformity with a harmonic system, essentially massive, intricate without subtlety; the perfection of tone qualities which vibrate to their full meaning only indoors; and principles of form which have ultimately debarred rapture. I hear its noisiness: extremes which are only acoustically extreme, clashes and conflicts which have their significance by what we attribute to them. Let one lose for a moment the scale of importances fitting these attributions, and in the bewilderment of such loss the mighty abstractions of our world seem distorted. At a concert one has the sense of being hoaxed. One wonders what it is all about; until, settling back into the old habit, one forgets it is merely about ourselves and not about the world, not at all about the universe, in the echoless space of which its clamors sigh instantly away even as the song of a Niger boatman in the night.