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Thought and Effect

By Dr. Robert Goldbeck.
 
Musical thought corresponds to thought in language. Words are verbiage when the life-giving thought is lacking; they are meaningless. Words may be flowery, beautiful in their association, but when they convey no idea affecting our feeling or instructing our intellect they are empty sound, mere effect. When they contain ideas perfectly familiar to us, often heard before, then there is meaning, but not originality. It is the same with music: it may be full of effect, but barren of thought, intellectually meaningful, commanding admiration; feelingful exciting emotion; or it may contain all these factors. Music is an art manifestation, analogous, in every detail, to poetry, painting, or any other art.
 
Thought in music means a succession of tones comprehensible to the intellect or possessed of power to move the soul—in one word, melody! If this is absent, then, no matter how beautiful the harmony may be, thought is absent. Harmony without melody, therefore, is mere effect, but with it harmony has varied and vast powers of its own; it gives deeper as well as more obvious meaning to the melody, just as well-chosen words fortify, beautify, and render clearer the thought they express; it invests the melody with greater power to impress and persuade, and it may give it vast, irresistible sway.
 
When melody has the character of a purely instrumental tune it requires no words to make it intelligible. Nor does such a tune necessarily gain by being associated with words, quite the contrary; both may become insipid or ridiculous when there is little or no unity between them. Such melody is musical thought and may have merit in structure and beauty, but when poorly adapted to poetry, as, for instance, in many operas of one or two generations ago, it loses much of its superiority. This was clearly understood by Gluck, Gretry, Wagner, and their adherents. A great part of their efforts at reform were directed to remedy this glaring inconsistency of lack of unity between music and poetry in opera.
 
Did they succeed? No; not fully! All three resorted largely to the recitative to express the words truthfully, in a musical sense. That, however, is not the true remedy, for it deprives music of its most characteristic and beautiful feature: melody, the emblem of soul elevation and higher aspiration. It is just this element of melody which makes music a complete art, capable of sustaining, in the first place, close analogy with other arts and taking equal rank with them ; secondly, to develop a life of its own.
 
Neither Gluck, Gretry, nor Wagner were wanting in the melody they combated. On the contrary, it is just their melodies which made them famous, not their recitatives which we endure with infinite pains. What do the musical people at large know and remember of Gluck ? His melody of the "Lost Eurydice." What best of Wagner in our very present? His "Pilgrim Chorus," "Walter's Prize Song," "The Evening Star," "The Bridal Chorus!" And what are they? "Tunes," utterly independent of any words; needing none.
 
It is possible, however, to unite melody and poetry in such a manner that each shall be beautiful alone, and still much more beautiful when united. Of this Wagner has written little or nothing, for with him it is either independent tune which no words can improve or recitative—miles of it.
 
Other composers, however, have successfully accomplished it. Who would deny that Schumann, Franz, Brahms, Grieg, Jensen, have given us worlds of ideal specimens in their musicianly songs of just that melody which is noble and perfect in itself, and yet the true and exalted expression of the words, usually selected from master-poets? Herein, in this principle, lies the higher future of the opera, which shall comprise the dramatic, the lyric, and the humorous, leaving alone the murderous tragic. All praise to the three pioneers, but thanks also for having left us something to do.
 
Effect is legitimate so long as it serves to reinforce and beautify musical thought. Mere orchestration; mere massiveness of sound, vocal or instrumental; mere delicacy or charm of sound, enchanting as it may be, is not the art demonstration which constitutes a solid stone in the immortal edifice of art.

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