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On Harmony Teaching

By Homer A. Norris.
 
It is true that during the past fifteen years an extraordinary interest has developed in this country in the study of harmony, but the statement that we take this study more seriously here than they do in Europe is not warranted by evidence. America has been progressing, but so, too, has Europe, and, judged by her art exports, it is safe to say that the latter quite holds up her end. Whence come our composers and their interpreters, the singers, players, and conductors? Parochialism is opposed to progress, and it does us no harm to admit that in matters artistic we yet are but a pale reflex of the more experienced and better-disciplined thinkers across the sea. Only by estimating things at their true value and learning their exact sense of proportion can we best help matters here.
 
It yet remains a fact that the great interest now taken in this country in the study of harmony is extraordinary. Through his teaching, and perhaps still more through his pioneer book, "The Elements of Harmony," Stephen A. Emery created an interest in this study which now seems to have arrived at the fulness of his prophecy. "Everybody" nowadays studies harmony—that is, everybody who is anything of a student in the art of music. We have done a great deal in a little while; Americans always do a great deal in a little while, and often one thing at a time at the expense of others of equal value. It is right, and certainly well-pleasing, to know all about the formation of chords, the academic resolution of dissonances, and to be able to "analyze"—the goal of the average harmony-student!—but the study of harmony may lead one, and by very reason of its significance, its comprehensiveness, and its wealth of attractions, into pedagogic silliness. It gives the student a mass of material, but does not show him how to handle it.
 
Academic music may be said to be divided into two branches—the harmonic and the contrapuntal. The former regards music chordwise, perpendicularly ; the latter lays stress upon melody, and regards music horizontally. In the harmonic school music moves in solid chord-blocks ; in the contrapuntal there must be an approximate degree of interest in each voice. When the two are fitly joined together, so that, although each voice has its individual melodic contour, these voices when sounded together may be reduced to chords (if you will), there results the consummate master, like Bach. This same principle, applied to more modern harmonies, is strikingly illustrated by Wagner in the overture to "Die Meistersinger."
 
It is as inexplicable as it is true, that to day, in America, there exists just about the same indifference to the study of counterpoint that existed twenty years ago for the study of harmony. It is not surprising that the average student, who has a vague notion that counterpoint is hopelessly uninteresting, should wish to avoid it; but for an intelligent teacher, who should know that it may be made most attractive, and that in essence harmony and counterpoint are not two studies, but only two branches of one greater study, such an attitude is inexplicable. If signs which seem unmistakable in their import are not misleading, twenty years hence harmony and counterpoint will not be separated as they are to-day, and the latter will have been recognized a charming study.
 
I have suggested that too great value may be given to the study of harmony alone, and that I believe we have gone to that extreme in America. Proof of this may be found upon examination of the songs written by the younger generation of American composers who have not studied in Europe, where harmony and counterpoint go hand-in-hand. The most serious fault with nearly all of these writers is that they are too harmonic. The chords move in solid blocks in the accompaniment, while the melody (the essential part of a song) moves in any one of the several ways in which a melody may move, with a given harmonic mass underneath.
 
Harmony should precede counterpoint for a brief period, and at this time, just before the season opens, the teacher is examining past results to see if they correspond to the amount of labor expended. He is asking himself if he has the best obtainable text-book. A student demands more than he did a decad (sic) ago. Then, about all he expected was a mathematic marking out on paper of certain problems.
 
To-day he is promised, after a certain amount of study, "to hear with his eyes, and to see with his ears." If the teacher is wise, he will not choose that text book which promises to simplify everything. There are several harmony text-books by American authors, and almost all of them are valuable. Any one that I have seen is better than any of the wretchedly translated German text-books, and better than any written by Englishmen.
 
It is fair to test any system by its results, and thus far the English have given us nothing in the way of absolute music. They have given us good church music and dreary " cantatas," and " oratorios " which in substance are nothing but extended, undramatic church anthems ; and they certainly have given us the dreadful modern ballad,—that exasperating compilation of phrases conventionalized from the pages of the masters,—but little or nothing else.
 
In America we have done somewhat better. It is true that the majority of the Americans who write with authority have sought their inspiration, or at least gained their technic, from European sources, but their best work has been done after they have been at home long enough to have become Americanized, so to speak. And so it has come to pass that the text-books which have been written by Americans are better adapted to the needs of the student pursuing his course in this country than any translation of foreign books.
 
These American books contain little or nothing that is new, save that the last one before the public ought to include, among its "exceptional progressions" (?) the latest unusual phraseology of the latest musician who speaks with admitted authority. It remains with the teacher to choose that one which meets his particular need. It will be well to choose one which makes a specialty of harmonizing melodies—thus formulating the contrapuntal idea—and which remains longest on consonant harmony.
 
Nothing will arouse and hold the interest of the student so much as to encourage him to do bits of individual composition. When basses are first harmonized, ask the student to "compose" basses; do the same with melodies. Nothing will so soon show what may and what may not be done as this—that is to say, nothing save counterpoint. Continue this work as new elements are introduced, always keeping in mind the "rules." But besides this encourage the more individual and natural speech of pure fantasy.
 
Ask the student to depict a scene, express an emotional state—a tone-poem of any sort. Last season I urged a young woman, who was just beginning the study of the dominant seventh chord, to bring me something in the way of "program music." The next week she came with the Church Scene in "Faust." In about thirty-two measures she had crowded Faust and Marguerite, Mephistopheles, the angels and the demons, heaven and hell. The result was rude, unlettered, almost barbaric ; but individual, rugged, sincere, natural, and healthful. The next week there was a sea-piece. There was the storming sea, the crying sailors, the harping mermaids, then the crash on the rocks. At last accounts she was condensing one of Crawford's novels into twenty-four measures ! This is an effort in the right direction, and if carried on with the other work it will lead to the right kind of results.
 
We are told that Franck, the father of the more modern French school, sought, above all else in his teaching, to help his students to express the personal note. If a passage seemed to him ugly at first hearing, instead of discarding it at once, he tried it over again and again in order to get the composer's point of view. If there was to be progress there was to be a later articulation, and he didn't force his pupils to run their thoughts through old formulae.
 
A young man who has just returned from a course under Humperdinck tells me this is preeminently his method. He always lets a passage stand as the student wrote it, unless it contains some glaring fault which he is sure the student's riper judgment would discard. He gave me an instance: Humperdinck, when first looking at an unusual resolution of an altered chord, said, quickly, "That won't go!" Afterward, trying it over several times at the piano, he said, "No! I like it; leave it as it is; it is yours."
 
To all this there is strenuous opposition by those who are enshrouded in what I should call the Rheinberger tradition. These men claim that in trying to express the personal note the student usually gains no sense of proportion, loses all respect for tradition, and mistakes ambiguity and chromatic confusion for the instinctive speech of genius. " Go back," they say—" Go back and build on Mozart and Beethoven."
 
Such advice is senseless, viewed either from the page of history or in the light of reason. Every great composer has built on his last greatest predecessor, but he has also reached into the future, invented a new articulation, and done that at which all his smaller contemporaries have snarled and harried him. Certainly, one must become familiar with Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, but later men must be included, too. Include Brahms and Tschaikowsky and Richard Strauss (every one nowadays knows his Wagner), and don't listen to the middle-aged moss-bank, who tells you that Strauss "forgets that he is a musician."
 
In pursuing the course in teaching suggested by the above, extreme care should be taken in one particular. All academic study should be as severe as possible. Let not the slightest error pass uncorrected. In this follow all the traditions. Insist that the pupil adhere to all the rules that the best text-books on harmony and counterpoint formulate. In this way will the " hand," as the French say, become "formed." By encouraging individual expression, no matter how cacophonous, how chaotic, how formless, how "modern," and by insisting upon the strictest letter of obedience in academic work may we hope finally for results not only individual, but chaste and lucid in expression, and bearing the unmistakable impress of the trained musician.

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