The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About . Donate .

The Bearings of Literature Upon Music.

The arts are at bottom one. They may be called the converse of the senses; for as we have various organs which hold commerce with the physical world, bringing in from divers quarters their freightage of impressions, so the human soul, by a mystical law of its nature, returns itself to the outer world in that buoyant recoil which we call art. This strange impulse to impress his imaginings upon matter is one of the radical, primitive and indestructible instincts of man. The savage reveals the imaginings of his mind by tattooing his skin. Raphael endeavors to image forth on canvas the ineffable mysteries of the spiritual world. The two results spring from the same root. The beginnings of art are interlaced; only their later stages release them. He who lives in an advanced state of human society is subject to the constant embarrassment of riches; the question is not what to study, but what to discard. If you go to the great centres of plastic art, your eyes ache and your brain swims with the plenitude of pictures; if you undertake to hear all the concerts which enliven the season in any one of our great cities, you will acquire a new sort of satiety, probably unknown to ecclesiastics; if you enter a great library, you feel as if a mountain had been heaped upon you. Mr. Spofford, the librarian of Congress, is said to have read every book in that vast library, insomuch that a witty congressman said, “I do not read the library; I read Spofford.” The same enormous expansion has taken place in the realms of science. Bacon might say, with some shadow of truth, “I take all knowledge to be my kingdom.” But how idle would be such a windy boast in this prolific era. The necessity for specialism and concentration is driven in upon us from all sides, and holds us to our places as the air though a fluid most volatile holds our bodies with a pressure of tons. In no pursuit is the desire and practice of specialism carried to such an extreme degree as in music. Our art divides and subdivides itself like some gorgeous Gothic cathedral, where transept and nave, with side chapels and oratories, compose a wilderness of solemn chambers; thus music gives us the organ, the piano-forte, the voice, the violin, the many-voiced orchestra, and a vast literature for each, so that he is a great man who can conquer two or three of these provinces, and no man perfectly subjugates more than one.

There is an amusing anecdote of a German anatomist, who, having spent thirty years studying the structure of a mouse, regretted that he had not confined himself to the ear only. Musicians furnish an analogue. For the piano is apparently a little kingdom, yet what diversity; how many divers talents live and flourish, strike root and spring to fame in this tiny plain, with its fifty-two ivory and its thirty-six ebony rods lying cold and silent, but instinct with elastic obedience to him who has learned the spells. Each pianist achieves celebrity for one or two special gifts; thus, Thalberg taught the centre of the key-board to sing and the extremes to murmur with arpeggios; Gottschalk was the diamond cutter; Dreyschok was the greatest player of double-sixths the world has ever seen; no one gets the crystal sparkle of Joseffy’s staccato; who can phrase and define the ideas, as if with a stamping-mill, like the accurate Bülow, and Rubinstein, rich in many gifts, is richest in passion. When this necessity for specialism is mixed with ambition in the mind of a pupil it produces results which are always damaging to art, and frequently ruinous to health.

Hundreds of young ladies, who have systematically disregarded the laws of exercise and taught music with patience and prolixity in regions rural and semirural, come to our city centres every year with purses replenished to a temporary plethora by stern economy, and, being limited in time, dive headlong and madly into the Stygian depths of technique, and the inky river engulfs the vast majority. The causes of these countless disasters are surely not far to seek. Bewildered by the stunning fortissimos, captivated by the evanescent diminuendos, amazed by the fingers of the virtuoso as they quiver into invisibility, the student rushes home, and imagines that, by working with frantic energy, she can teach those marvels to her flaccid muscles in the course of one brief winter. If she escapes nervous shipwreck, she does not escape that withering of the thoughts and dwarfing of the intellect which makes her short-sighted for all that lies beyond the musical domain and clear of vision even for the deepest beauties of music itself. Music is something far better than mere wonderment or idle admiration of difficulties o’erleaped with winged ease, music has some valuable messages for the intellect and a thousand for the heart. But just here arises a perplexing question: How is one to receive and interpret these messages if the imagination has been dwarfed, like Solomon’s genii, in a little bottle of technique? how shall one hold commerce with the great and subtile geniuses of the tone kingdom, if his own individual intellect has become nothing but a slave driver for the platoon of ten fingers? Other things being equal, he will get in two hours the technical profit of four whose brain is rendered alert by general cultivation, while the sensitiveness of an imagination, by training made delicate as a photographer’s plate, through varied exercise, will transmute itself into a warm glow of expression suffused over the performance, as radiant an illusory as the rainbow hanging amid the summer tempest.

The notion that musicians are magicians, mere wonder workers and beguilers of an idle hour, the uncanny Prosperos of a world of ebony and ivory sticks, disguised Lucifers permitted to shed a sulphurous suggestion of chaotic morals if they but amuse and amaze sufficiently, is, unluckily, not quite dead even in a world where Bach was the honest father of twenty children, where Beethoven was as stern in chastity as Michael Angelo or St. Paul, where Mendelssohn embodied the ideal of talent and culture united; but let us hope that it may be buried in the grave of Liszt. The time is at hand, (not yet ripe perhaps, but ripening) when the musician will be enthroned high among other intellectual magnates, and it will be demanded of him that he shall be both a man and a gentleman, that he shall have a mind and a soul wisely developed, and not be merely the proprietor of ten fingers highly magnetized.

Gœthe said, “A man acquires a new soul with each new language that he learns.” He also said, “A man is better for every good song that he hears,” and Gœthe was the originator of a pretty bit of catachresis used by George Sand, and often quoted since, to the effect that “Architecture is frozen music.” It is so obvious as to scarcely need statement, much less elaborate proof, that music is something more than mechanism, and that he who would sound its depths must have a fathoming line of prolonged collateral study, and must attach to this line a plummet ball of intellect somewhat weightier than a feather. Those who have sharp-cut and compact diamonds of antithetic aphorism, may consider the following: “An educated man should know everything of something, and something of everything.” The musician, like any other intellectual worker in literature, science, art, should specialize and generalize both with judgment. Let him not only adopt one particular instrument, but let him work in the literature of that instrument some definite and peculiar vein, the one most cognate to his special gifts; but let him enrich his mind the while with suggestions of the widest intellectual amplitude. The star that shimmers in a dewdrop is inconceivably remote.

All things intellecual (sic) are interlaced with all other things by ties of affinity, varying in strength, but as subtle and indestrucible (sic) as the laws of gravitation, which link together the sand grain and the sun. No affinity is closer than that between music and literature. In all likelihood, the first human speech was a musical chant, and as the increasing complexity of life has separated the tone and the word, they have not lost their family feeling. In the elder days of art among the Egyptians, the Hebrews, the Greeks and the Catholic Christians of the Middle Ages, music was almost exclusively vocal, and the business of the composer was to reinforce the words of the poet. But the bearings of literature on music have now become far more subtle, but not one iota less real and weighty. Those composers who have done most to exalt pure instrumental music—Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt,—furnish countless instances of this delicate but indissoluble bond betwixt music and poetry. Beethoven, when asked to interpret the D. minor Sonata for pianoforte solo, Opus 31, No. 2., said: “Read Shakspeare’s Tempest.” In the C minor Sonata, Opus 10, No. 1, he paraphrases a poem of Schiller, “The Parting of Andromache and Hector.” The overtures to Coriolanus and Egmont are musical mirrors of those dramas, and in the ninth symphony Schiller’s “Hymn to Joy” was added as a choral crown to the great tone poem, that its significance might be incontestibly certified.

The testimony of Beethoven to the value of literature as a stimulus to the musician is confirmed by the fact that Plato, who was as much a poet as philosopher, Gœthe, the epitome of modern life, Shakspeare, the emperor of poets, and James Thompson, the poet of nature par excellence, were his constant reading. Of Schumann, whose keen and imaginative criticisms are as precious as his music, it may be said, without extravagance, that every composition he produced had an occult meaning and arose from remote suggestions. The pictures from the Orient are a translation of a set of German poems. The Fantasie in C major, Opus 17, has a mystical motto from Schlegel; the Kinder-Scenen, the Album, the Forest Scenes, and indeed all his works, are imaginative in the secondary sense, that is, they are suggestive. The symphonic poems of Liszt are based upon literary or artistic subjects, the poem of Dante, the Faust-legend, Byron’s Mazeppa, the story of Tasso, and many others. Berlioz has adapted scenes and characters from Shakspeare in his Romeo and Juliet, and others in other works, and has given a complete reproduction of the Faust legend in his Damnation of Faust.

Now, what can any student make of all these works, if he rejoices in abysmal ignorance of the parallel works which suggested them, and furnished their skeleton of thought. It might be urged, perhaps, that music is a thing of itself and needs no secondary sophistication of occult meaning; and this would be true enough of simple melodies, or short compositions, but elaborate works need more vertebræ than that to give them organic unity and form, without which there is no such thing as beauty. No literature is deeper or more varied than that of the English language; and in no way can a music student so readily or successfully relieve the strain of concentrated effort, or fertilize his mind with new artistic impulses than by its critical study. Through these channels of collateral study the current of the mind may be partially drawn off and the energies carried abroad to make other fields of thought fresh and smiling, that those energies may no longer rush, headlong and destructive, in the narrow channel of technique. A significant and hopeful sign of a broader life among musicians may be found in the fact, that the College of Music of Cincinnati has recently established a regular chair of English Literature.  J. S. Van Cleve.


<< Edison's New Phonograph.     New Publications. >>

Monthly Archives

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music