On Hearing Good Music Done Badly


SOME years ago — no, what am I saying? — it was all of twenty-three years ago when I was strolling on Fortysecond Street one early spring evening with a friend who had been stage-director of one of the great European operahouses. The weather was the unseasonable kind of thing that New York’s dishonest climate puts on every once in a while to lure you into pneumonia at such a moment as ye think not, but we took a chance on it and sat for a spell on the bench behind the Public Library. I was wondering what we might do as an agreeable way to pass the evening, when it occurred to me that the Metropolitan’s season was still going — not that I was so keen about the Metropolitan’s way of doing things, but since my friend had been in the business, I thought he might be interested. I forget now what opera was on that night; nothing I cared for, anyway, or I should remember. Perhaps it was La Tosca. At all events, whatever it was, I suggested that we might walk over to Broadway and take a flash of it.

My friend did not reply at once; he was looking far off into the fading colors of the sky. Presently he said in a kind of hesitant murmur, apparently more to himself than to me, ‘I put . . . that opera on . . . in 1891 . . . with Ternina, de Lucia, Scotti and Plançon.’ Then, after a moment’s silence, he turned to me briskly, and said, ’No, I think not.’

His reaction struck me as natural enough. At that time it would have been mine; in fact, it was mine then and for some time afterward, when the occasion offered. To a person who had heard Fernando de Lucia and Edmond Clément sing there was nothing left for a tenor to do, so why listen to another? Why bother about basses after Plançon; or about baritones when one has heard Battistini and Gilibert at their best? Or sopranos, after Neshdanova and Selma Kurz? Why dress up and go to symphonies which one has heard directed by Mottl, Muck, Nikisch, Mahler, Weingartner? What has the Manzoni Requiem for one who has heard it at the Augusteo under Edoardo Mascheroni, with Russ, Espósito, Bonci and de Angelis? Let the original impression remain undisturbed; don’t sophisticate it, don’t mix it up and addle it with something inferior. So I felt, and therefore I gradually dropped out of music. For a considerable while I heard no symphonic music, never heard opera except at the Monnaie, and heard chamber music only occasionally when the programme presented something new to me which I thought probably might be interesting.

I was blasted out of this state of mind about fifteen years ago by the chance remark of a friend who has so long been an ever-flowing fount of profound wisdom for me that if it had all soaked in I should now be as wise as Israel’s king. In Brussels, late one afternoon, my friend and I were talking about going up to Antwerp to hear one of Mozart’s operas done in Flemish. I demurred. A fine bracing rain was blowing in off the North Sea, Antwerp seemed farther off than it had any right to be, one could much easier stay home and do something else, the performance would probably be poor; besides, I had heard that opera several times in Vienna under old Schalk, and I didn’t want to get the taste out of my mouth. My friend said simply, ’I think you’re wrong. I believe you have to hear a poor performance every now and then to make you realize fully how dam’ good the best is.’

This was a brand-new idea to me, an entirely new way of looking at the matter. I saw at once that there might be something in it, so I said no more. We went to Antwerp, heard the opera; the performance was not poor, not by a long shot. It was good, well put on, well directed, well sung and well acted; and curiously, the new canons of criticism which I was applying, or rather the new incidence of criticism, made it seem better than it was. My friend’s idea actually worked. My recollections of the Viennese performance were brightened and sharpened in a most remarkable way. Many little details of its exquisite perfection had sunk below the surface of my memory, and while this performance did not reproduce them, it dredged them all up again, one after another, alive and kicking. Even its omissions did this. My imagination instantly supplied a missing piece of ‘business’ or costumcry, a missing feature from the setting, a missing trill or roulade, and with it came the memory of how pleasing and delightful the reality had been. I went back to Brussels that night quite jubilant at having tapped a new spring of happiness, and horribly out of conceit with myself for being such an ass as not to know I might have done it long ago. The revolution had begun.


I have no idea of what a real musician would think of this. Mr. Stock or Mr. Damrosch might say it is all moonshine, that I am trying to debauch the public’s taste, and that my editor ought to be ashamed of himself for letting me do it. That is as it may be. I ought to make it clear, however, that I am but an amateur of the lowest order in musical matters, a rank outsider, and that I am merely exploiting something which has worked well for me, and might possibly work well for others like me; also, I do it with all proper diffidence and under correction of those competent to give it.

Proceeding with my musical memories, then, it seems to me that I must have been born knowing every note of the Kreutzer. I heard it played time and again from my childhood up, played in all sorts of ways, good, bad, indifferent, for I come of musical folk on both sides of my family, and especially in my earlier years they were having other musical folk about them day and night. I always felt a peculiar love and reverence for the Kreutzer, and cherished a lasting scunner on Count Tolstoy for throwing mud at ‘the second movement with its silly variations.’ Evidently the great and good old man’s notions of music were one of the few things on which I can’t follow him. Sometimes I heard renderings of the Kreutzer which I thought were very fine, and still they left me with the vague sense of something in it which I had never heard quite brought out. Then, when I was still a young man, I heard Ysaye play it — twice within a few days I heard him play it with exactly the kind of pianist his playing called for. That finished me with the Kreutzer. I said I would never listen to it again until, if, when and as, I might hear it in heaven; and in fact I did not hear it again for a number of years.

Offenbach’s music was played, sung, hummed and whistled around my cradle.

Offenbach and I arrived in America at very nearly the same time. My arrival did not arouse so much public interest as his. He gave New York a faint and faroff intimation of the Second Empire’s glamour, and His music was immensely popular with those who were susceptible to such impressions. The Second Empire may have been a tinsel empire, as some have said it was, but it was a lovely tinsel. Nor as a matter of fact was it a tinsel empire, not by any manner of means. France got eighteen years of roaring prosperity out of it, which her grateful brood of épiciers promptly forgot as soon as the news from Sedan came in; thus proving themselves good sound natural-born republicans, blood-brothers of our noble selves. That, however, is another matter, and is not to be gone into at the moment.

In one way and another, by the time I was thirty-five or so I had got some of Offenbach’s operettas pretty well by heart. I am not sure I could make a success of conducting the Orphée, the Grande Duchesse and the Vie Parisienne without a score, but even now, if I were not too old and frail to stand the unaccustomed strain, I should admire to take a chance on any of them or on all three in a row. I heard various performances which ranged all the way from fair-to-middling up and down; in the season, up to a few years ago, you could usually find a slim repertoire of his operettas going somewhere in Paris. Then latterly, by pure luck I happened to be on hand when one of the great European opera-houses put all its resources behind a six-weeks post-season run of operetta — an unheard-of thing. They put on the three I have named, and also the Belle Hélène and the Jolie Parfumeuse. I would wager all I have in the world that there were never such performances given anywhere at any time, not even in the days of Hortense Schneider and Zulma Bouffar, with Offenbach himself conducting.

If this had happened before the revolution, I would have shut down on those operettas as I had shut down on the Kreutzer and on many other things, including Offenbach’s Hoffmann after I had heard it at the Monnaie some twenty years ago. But the revolution worked great wonders. I have heard Hoffmann three times with pleasure at the Opéra-Comique, and one Saturday afternoon I went into the Metropolitan to hear with pleasure what I firmly believe was the very worst travesty on it that was ever put on any stage. With pleasure even have I heard the ‘silly variations’ of the Kreutzer sentimentalized to death by those most dreadful beings, the Infant Phenomena of the Violin, beside whom Mr. Crummies’s atrocious little brat is a sweet and lovely cherub. I have listened with pleasure to indifferent recordings of songs from the Vie Parisienne

— and here let me interject a plea. When she has nothing else to do, won’t some good French or Belgian lyric soprano who is intelligent enough to understand what she is singing — someone who can do just that special kind of thing in just the special style that Mme. Bakkers, Emma Luart, Vina Bovy or Marthe Coiffier would have put into it

— won’t she make a twelve-inch record of the Letter Scene to rejoice a garrulous old man’s heart? If she will, I’ll besiege every editor from Antwerp to Marseille to give her puffs. The only records available make a great song very trivial. But coming back to the point, not one of my post-revolutionary adventures in the realm of music but has left me as my wise friend said it would, with a sharper, clearer, more intelligent and satisfying sense of how dam’ good the best is.


It seems that even good bird-dogs are wiser than I was. In the days when I used sometimes to shoot a little, I had seen them ‘sharpening their scent,’ as my fellow-huntsmen called it, on a decayed fish or some equally unpleasant object. It seemed a revolting way to get results, but apparently it worked. Since the revolutionary principle had turned out so well in musical matters, I began to think that perhaps ‘life is like that,’ and I decided to see how it would work in other fields, such as literature and history, where I felt perhaps a little less helpless and more at ease than in the field of music; and by coincidence it was again a remark about music which turned my attention that way. I had an acquaintance who reviewed music for a newspaper, as a rule very generously as well as ably, but the debut of a young tenor as Ernesto in Don Pasquale broke him down, as in all justice I can say it should have done, for I heard that performance. His only notice of this tenor was that he ‘instantly put me in mind of Bonci and Anselmi, not because his singing was like theirs, but because it wasn’t.’

There I saw at once precisely the right turn which one would have to give the new principle in order to apply it to literature and history. In my former frame of mind, for example, I would never have read Herr Hitler’s Mein Kampf, not even if my pastor had laid the reading of it on me as a religious duty. I still keep to Emerson’s rule of not reading any book until it has been out a year, detective-stories excepted, which I doubt that Emerson ever read, but which in moments of deplorable weakness I sometimes do, and forget utterly in the next ten days. When the year of quarantine was up, I tackled Mein Kampf, and I am free to say it did me a world of good because it at once reminded me of Frederick the Great; not because it is the kind of book which Frederick would or could have written, but because it so profoundly and unmistakably and unquestionably isn’t. It sent me back on Frederick’s trail, not as it is marked out by Mr. Carlyle — no, nothing like that. It sent me back to Frederick’s correspondence with Voltaire, first of all, and then to the record of many incidents in his career which bring him out (mistakes and all) as a philosopher, an almost fanatical lover of justice, an able and tireless promoter of his people’s good, and a faithful friend of sound traditional culture. Thus Mein Kampf has put me permanently in its debt for giving me a fresh and lively sense of what a deuced whaling big man old Frederick really was.

There is a lot to be had out of such comparisons as this, regarding them disinterestedly as mere studies in conduct and character. One gets the same suggestions out of reading Napoleon’s memoirs as I got out of Hitler’s. Napoleon was never quite the real thing; always trying his best to make himself the real thing, he never quite could — the Corsican arriviste was continually cropping up. Frederick was the real thing, without trying — he simply was. The point seems to be, I think, that if you want the real thing, you must go to birth and breeding to get it. The fact that you don’t always get it there does not at all militate against the fact that you can’t get it anywhere else. Ernest Renan said austerely, ‘Man does not improvise himself’; and if you want it in homelier terms, you may take it from a housekeeper of the old school, who, when I mentioned a neighbor’s way of dolling up cabbage in some newfangled style, said simply, ‘That’s nonsense. You can’t make anything out of biled cabbage but biled cabbage.’ Put one of the Comrades on an imperial throne, and while he won’t be a Comrade any longer, the accidents of birth and breeding which permitted him ever to be a Comrade will remain in force as long as he lives. You can easily imagine a modern Napoleon as having been a Comrade somewhere on his way up; you can’t possibly imagine a modern Frederick as having ever been one. When Napoleon was at the top, and from then on, was he ever more than a sort of glorified Führer or Duce? Precious little. Frederick was a vast deal more than that. In fact, of the two Napoleons I always thought, Napoleon III was much nearer the real thing in emperors than the other, and I believe I could prove it.

Not long ago I read a novel, a very good one, of the vintage of 1935 or thereabouts. It made me think of Tourgueniev; again, not because it is at all the kind of novel Tourgueniev wrote, but because it so distinctly isn’t. It left the reader nothing to do but read. It described everything for him, explained everything, built up everything, brought out everything, and set the whole before the reader like a housewife coming in from the kitchen with a ‘made dish,’ all hot, ripe and ready to be forked in. Hence I should say on an estimate it ran to something like 120,000 words. I am not disparaging the novel; I say again, it was good. All I say is that when I was through with it I felt as if I had had a square meal — a comfortable-enough feeling, certainly — but my imagination had not been exercised, it had been left asleep throughout, and in order to wake it up again and give it something to do, I went back to Tourgueniev. I reread Old Portraits, The Brigadier, Phantoms, and marveled afresh at the consummate skill — so plainly discernible even through the medium of a translation — which by no more than a word here, a turn of phrase there, keeps the reader’s imagination going at such speed as to fill out the story completely, one might say with no help at all from the writer. Tourgueniev could have easily put the whole novel I speak of into ten thousand words, and in such terms as to produce an impression which one would never forget. The writers of the Gospels had this skill; no one knows how they came by it, but they unquestionably had it. The stories of the Crucifixion and of the Prodigal Son, for example, must have been the fascination and the despair of every storyteller since their time.

Again, only day before yesterday a friend put in my hands some stories written by a young man whom I used to know slightly. They are interesting, charming, delightful, and thus in themselves they did me a service, but a greater service because they sent me back promptly to Theocritus. They do not resemble the idyls of Theocritus, and for that reason they reminded me of them. This author believes in the romance, beauty and poetry of human life, and is deeply touched by modern literature’s neglect of them. All praise to him for that. A few lines from his general preface set the tone of his work; they are worth quoting. He says: —

I like the young writers of to-day. I like the hard, clear quality of their prose. But I do not believe that what they talk about is any more real than Little Red Riding-hood. . . . I know that falsehood and meanness, brutality and arrogance, have increased in the world during these last ten years. Still, there is no reason to make a cult of them.

So Theocritus might have prefaced his idyls, if it had occurred to him to do so, for he was a poet of the decadence, the Alexandrian period, from which the great Greek tradition had departed. A critic says that ‘austere spectators saw in Alexandria an Eastern capital and mart, a place of harems and bazaars, a home of tyrants, slaves, dreamers and pleasureseekers’— in short, very much such a place as the author I have been reading sees (and I also see as clearly as he) in New York. The entire civilization of the third century might have impressed Theocritus, if he had thought about it, quite as American civilization must impress any disinterested observer. But apparently Theocritus thought little about it; he was another Wordsworth —

The cloud of human destiny,
Others will front it fearlessly,
But who, like him, will put it by?

Hence from the idyls there is entirely absent any sense of deliberate effort, of purposeful strain, or any sense that in the re-presenting of life’s beauty and poetry Theocritus was going against a powerful spiritual current. This sense is not absent from the work I have just now been reading. I do not complain of the author on that account; far from it. He has worked in an atmosphere of desiccating spiritual aridity, the sky over his head is of iron and brass, and the wonder is that the sense of effort is no more obtrusive than it is. I say only that the greatest service His work has done me is by opening the way to a most valuable reappraisal of the bright and beautiful genius of Theocritus.


We might look at the principle from still another angle. Last year a young man who knows more about music than I do was telling me an incident of the days when he was a student at Munich under Wallnöfer. He and two or three other youths went to a concert one evening to hear a symphony of Haydn. Presently an older man joined them, a professor of music at Leipzig, if I remember correctly. When the symphony was finished, one of the young men said, ‘After all, Beethoven didn’t have very far to go.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said the professor, with a wave of his hand. ‘It’s all there.’

True enough; nevertheless Beethoven wrote stunning fine symphonies. The point is that there is nothing discouraging about looking back and discovering that somewhere or other what you are trying to do is already all there — quite the contrary. A fresh realization of how good the best is leads straight to a fresh sense of what to do about it. When Beethoven took to writing symphonies, he could hardly have helped getting a brand-new sense of what a tremendous fellow Haydn was, and if he made the right use of that sense, as no doubt he did, he must have found it bracing and sustaining. There is something so highly animating about the frank and free exercise of admiration as to make it a virtue in the traditional meaning of the term, the Roman virtus.

Probably Beethoven had no idea of trying to improve on Haydn or beat him at his own game; he seems too much of a man for that. I dare say that, like a good artist, he simply went spieling along with what was in his own head, and let the seasoning and bracing influence of his new sense of Haydn’s greatness help to keep him up to the mark. Emerson was always exhorting men to live by their admirations and not by their disgusts. One can do that; and wholehearted admiration of the best that has been done is what opens the way widest to whatever chance there may be of matching it or even improving on it. If one lives by one’s disgusts, one stands a slim show of ever being able to improve on anything, least of all to improve on oneself.


But in order to become aware of how dam’ good the best is and to let it work its will with one, one must have some notion of what it is and where to find it; and here one has to rely on what the Scots philosophers called ‘the common sense of mankind.’ As the turmoil and welter of life goes on, the self-preserving instinct of humanity snatches out certain men, certain works, and puts them in a safe place, because it knows that humanity cannot permanently do without them. It knows that while humanity will again and again lose sight of them and disregard them, perhaps for long periods, it must finally come back to them, for otherwise man’s collective life cannot go on. These are what the common sense of mankind agrees to call the best. At some periods and in some regions — the age of Pericles in Greece, of Elizabeth in England, the mid-nineteenth century in France — the best is easier to find and recognize because the contemporary currents of thought and feeling are set more or less its way. At other times it is harder to find because contemporary currents are set against it. At present, and in our civilization, the best is extremely hard to come at because the influences which combine to disparage it and shoulder it aside are uncommonly many and powerful; and on this account a great deal of useful ability is condemned to a futile ineptitude.

This criticism of our times is quite sound, its analysis is correct enough, but it is ineffectual. So much of our literature, for example, we say makes rather painful reading on account of the embarrassment one feels for its authors who so obviously have had no edifying experience of how good the best is. But to be effectual, criticism does not stop here. It goes back to Diotima, the lovely learned gal of Plato’s Symposium who has shed a delightful perfume over two thousand years of literary history — charming creature that she must have been! — and who said that ‘herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself; he has no desire for that of which he feels no lack.’ Ignorance is not for the critic to pause upon; the self-satisfaction which ignorance engenders is. To undermine this, it is the critic’s business to show where and what the best is and why it is the best, to keep it continually to the front, and strictly to shape his own works and ways according to its measure.

We are beginning to look a little askance at the principle of universal suffrage, not only as applied to politics, but as extended over the whole range of Spiritual and social activity. Making mere number count for everything in every decision, from the election of a President to the make-up of a publisher’s list or a concert-programme, seems to be issuing in a swift and disturbing degeneration. The pseudo-democratic notion that we can all arrive at perfection by following our noses is losing force. To get a clear sense of all this and a correct view of its rationale, one goes back to the Athenian stranger in the Laws, who says, speaking of poetic contests: —

The ancient and common custom of Hellas, which still prevails in Italy and Sicily, did certainly leave the decision to the body of spectators, who determined the victor by a show of hands. But this custom has been the destruction of the poets, for they now habitually compose with a view to pleasing the bad taste of their judges, and the consequence is that the spectators instruct themselves. Also it has been the ruin of the theatre; they ought to be having characters better than their own put before them and thus receive a higher pleasure, but now by their own act the opposite result follows.

The spectators instruct themselves — there it is. As the professor from Leipzig said, it’s all there. Under the system of universal suffrage the spectators instruct themselves in politics, they instruct themselves in literature, music, art, religion, ethics, manners, everything, and the best is thus buried continually deeper under the accumulated mass of inert self-satisfaction which it is the business of criticism to loosen and dig away.

Even so, the best is always accessible. If criticism does its part, it is easier to be got at, but if not it is still accessible. My present concern, however, is not with this matter of accessibility, but with showing how all sorts of things, even indifferent poor things, if properly used, will light up the best and give it a new power of attraction. Shabby music will do this, shabby literature, drama, painting, sculpture; a shabby social life, shabby morals and manners, shabby people; shabby political ideals and practices, shabby jobholders. Perhaps my testimony to the good use that can be made of very poor stuff will have more weight because for so long I believed that there was no good use to be made of it; but if, on the other hand, it seems to be a little fanciful, the reader may make what allowance he likes for a convert’s proverbial excess of zeal.