A Defense of Whistling: (September 1910)

WHISTLING girls and crowing hens have been bracketed together by the wisdom of the ages, but ‘bad ends’ have been allotted these ladies because they have not as yet learned to perform in tune, not from anything inherently bad in whistling per se. Unfortunately the proverb has, however, by a fatal association of ideas, reflected on a noble art. Because girls and newsboys pipe ‘ragtime’ without regard to the diatonic scale, why should my avocation be banned by polite society? It would be quite as absurd to consider singing outré because burly baritones persist in roaring ‘Wake not, but hear me, Love,’ at afternoon concerts; or to put the piano down as vulgar because a certain type of person is always whanging Chaminade out of season. (For my part, I have never discovered Chaminade’s season; but then I am only a fiddler.)

My avocation consists in whistling to myself the most beautiful melodies in existence, and I go about in a state of perpetual surprise that no one else does likewise. Never yet have I heard a passing stranger whistling anything worth while; but I have my plans all laid for the event. The realization of that whistle will come with a shock like the one Childe Roland felt when something clicked in his brain, and he had actually found the dark tower. I hope I shall not be

a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the

sound, and so lose my man among the passers-by. When I hear him I shall chime in with the second violin or ’cello part perhaps, or, if he has stopped, I shall pipe up the answering melody. Of course he will be just as much on the alert as I have been, and will search eagerly for me in the crowd, and then we shall go away together, and be crony-hearts forever after. I am constantly constructing romances, each with this identical beginning, for what could be more romantic than to find by chance the only other one in all the world who shared your pet hobby? But I am growing old in the quest, and sometimes fear that I may never find my stranger, though I attain the years and the technique of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The human whistle is the most delightfully informal of instruments. It needs no inglorious lubrication of joints and greasing of keys like its dearest relative the flute. It is not subject to the vocalist’s eternal cold. It knows no inferno of tuning and snapping strings, nor does it need resin for its stomach’s sake and its often infirmities. Its only approach to the baseness of mechanism is in a drainage system akin to that of the French horn, but far less brazen in its publicity.

I love my whistle quite as I love my violin, but in a different way. They stand, the one to the other, very much in the relation of my little, profanely extra-illustrated school Horace to that magnificent codex of the fifth century, the gem of my library. The former goes with a black pipe and a holiday, with luncheon under a bush by a little trout stream: the latter implies scholarship, or else visitors and Havana cigars.

One of the best qualities of the whistle is that it is so portable. The whistler may not even have rings on his fingers, but he shall have music wherever he goes; and to carry about the wealth of Schubert and Beethoven and Chopin is more to me than much fine gold. Brahms is one of the most whistle-able of composers, and my two specifics for a blue Monday are to read Stevenson’s Letters and to whistle all the Brahms themes I can remember. I will begin perhaps with concertos, then run through the chamber music and songs (which I prefer without words), reserving the overtures, suites, choral works, and symphonies for a climax. The most ultramarine devils could hardly resist the contagious optimism of a Brahms whistling bout, and I believe that if Schopenhauer, ‘that prince of miserabilists,’ had practised the art, it would have made him over into a Stanley Hall.

Whistling to keep up the courage has passed into an adage, but the Solomons have said nothing about whistling to keep up the memory. Yet nothing is better for the musical memory than the game of ‘Whistle.’ A whistles a melody. If B can place it, he wins the serve. If he cannot, A scores one. If the players have large repertoires, the field should be narrowed down to trios, or songs, or perhaps first movements of symphonies. I still feel the beneficent effects of the time when I used to sit with my chum in a Berlin cafe into the small hours, racking my brain and my lips to find a theme too recondite for him. For such purposes the whistle is exquisitely adapted. One often hears it remarked that the violin is almost human; but the whistle is absolutely human and, unlike the violin, is not too formal to take along on a lark. Though it cannot sing to others

Of infinite instincts, — souls intense that yearn,

it will stick loyally anti cheerily by you through thick and thin, like

the comrade heart
For a moment’s play,
And the comrade heart
For a heavier day,
And the comrade heart
Forever and aye.

The whistle is one of the best tests of musical genius. Not that the divine spark lurks behind truly puckered lips, but you may be sure that something is amiss with that composer whose themes cannot be whistled; although, of course, the converse will not hold. He lacks that highest and rarest of the gifts of God — melody. Certain composers nowadays, with loud declarations that this is the Age of Harmony, are trying to slur over their fatal lack by calling melody antiquated, a thing akin to perukes and bustles — and sour grapes. By changing the key twice in the measure, they involve us so deep in harmonic quicksands as to drown, momentarily, even the memory of Schubert. If this school prevails it will, of course, annihilate my avocation, for I have known but one man who could whistle harmony, and even he could not soar above thirds and sixths. I shudder when I imagine him attacking a D’lndy symphony!

The whistle has even wider possibilities than the voice. It is quite as perfect and natural an instrument, and exceeds the ordinary compass of the voice by almost an octave. It can perform harder music with more ease and less practice. It has another advantage: in whistling orchestral music, the drum taps, the double bass, the bassoon may be ‘cued in’ very realistically and with little interruption by means of snores, grunts, wheezes, clucks, et cetera.

The whistle’s chief glory is that it is human, yet single. Sometimes, especially during certain operas, I am inclined to think that when Music was ‘married to Immortal Verse’ she made a mésalliance. The couple seldom appear to advantage together; their ‘winding bouts’ are sad public exhibitions of conjugal infelicity. Instead of coöperating, each misrepresents and stunts the other’s nature. Both insist on talking at the same time, so that you can understand neither one plainly, and, as is generally the case, the lady gets in the first and last word, and shouts poor I. V. down between whiles. You would hardly take her, as she strides about red-faced and vociferous, for the goddess to whom you gave your heart when she was a maiden. But there, you must remember that I am only a fiddler who prefers ‘absolute music,’ and believes in the degeneracy of opera as a form of art.

The whistle has almost as many different qualities of tone as the voice, although it is so young as still to be in the boy-chorister stage. Who can predict the developments of the art after its change of whistle? I, for one, fear that it will be introduced into the symphony orchestra before long, and this, I am sure, will make it vain, and destroy its young naïveté, and its delicious informality. It would be like punching holes into my dear old black pipe, fitting it with a double reed, and using it in the future works of Max Reger as a kind of piccolooboe. I go about furtively looking at conductors’ scores for fear I may see something like this: —

Whistle I

Whist. II

Whist. Profondo.

But with all my heart I hope that my avocation may not be formalized until after I have hung up the fiddle and the bow on the staff of my life as a sort of double bar.