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The Tendencies of Music.


There has been throughout all the ages of animal and vegetable existence a gradual extermination of certain forms of life; and a survival, according to Darwin, of the fittest. The evolution of musical instruments reveals a similar phenomenon, the law of the “survival of the loudest” being plainly in evidence.

Since the earliest times there has been a growth from works which, when produced according to their author’s intentions, were thin and transparent, acoustically speaking, to those that are sonorous to a marked degree. Every new composer of the first rank is accused by his contemporary critics of being a producer of mere noise. Yet, in a few years, his symphonies seem delicate salon pieces compared with what a later genius turns out. What thunderous symphonic poems the future has in store only posterity will know. Beethoven has certainly arrived at that pass where most of his pieces are regarded as truly popular music in the large cities, and well adapted for small halls. Wagner is still in the van so far as ponderosity is concerned, but that he will be overtaken none need doubt. The piano of to-day is to the harpsichord of yore as wine unto water: incomparably stronger. The organ in a modern church is as compared to Pan’s scrannel pipes as Niagara unto Tennyson’s “Brook.” Inventive genius will some day put a great orchestra under the control of the virtuoso’s fingers.

Another tendency of music is from harmony to discord. Mr. S. P. Warren, the veteran organist, once told me that there seemed to be an amazing love for the harsh abroad in the land. He did not express himself as being hostile to it, nor altogether in sympathy with it; he merely noted the result of his observations.

Harmony, as we now understand it, is a relative term. Most terms are used relatively as the world grows wiser. Once, science spoke of living and of dead organisms. Now, they say “alive” and “more alive,” since nothing is perfectly animated and nothing entirely inert. Perfect harmony is the unison of two tones, each pure and devoid of harmonics or overtones. Such harmony is only theoretically possible. In such identical sounds the waves would accurately correspond and reinforce each other. The octave comes next, in which interval the waves coincide one time in two, as everybody knows. In the fifth the coincidence is once in three; in the third, once in five; the intermediate harmony, once in four, being supplied by the double octave. Simple relations such as these are easily comprehended by the untutored ear, and constitute what early musicians called concord. True, even very early musicians used more involved chords; but they treated them as unmusical noises to be “resolved,” as pains to set off pleasures, as shadows to make the harmonic figures stand out of the canvas, so to speak.

But as certain schools of painters learned to love shadows, not as contrasts merely, but for themselves; so the tendency in music has been to regard more and more discordant intervals as beautiful in themselves, and the twentieth-century ear can listen with complacency to combinations of tones whose coincident vibrations are very remote. In other words, education seems to rends the ear capable of recognizing relations more and more remote. For it is relationship perceived between simultaneously sounded tones, doubtless, which gives the sense of concord; just as it is relationship perceived between successive tones which gives the sense of melody, speaking of pitch; or rhythm and meter, speaking of power and duration.

It would appear at first glance as if there was a tendency from the easy, technically speaking, to the difficult. This conclusion, however, should be received with a grain of salt. It is true that new styles involve new difficulties, but is it not also true that new difficulties are not necessarily greater difficulties? To think Mozart simple of execution is to reveal your ignorance to the observing. The virtuoso who has mastered Brahms is not necessarily master of Bach. When public taste demands the same perfection of finish in interpretations of the new masters which it does in interpretations of the old, it may be shown that there has, indeed, been an evolution toward actually increased difficulty in musical compositions. At present modern works are not familiar to many, and an audience which would detect flaws in the playing of a classic might lose sight of similar faults in a brilliant impressionment of a novelty. The greater complexity of the latter would contribute to this.

If I were to say that there had been a drift in taste from short pieces to long my readers might cry, “You have put the cart before the horse.” It is easy, for the piano-teacher especially, to fall into the error of supposing that composers write more briefly than formerly. This is on account of the remarkable improvement of the short piece which has been made: an improvement dating from the time of Chopin. But great works are still long works, as a general thing. The grand style never dies out, it only languishes in some ages. It cannot even be said to languish now. And when we consider that “passages,” connecting passages I mean, have been relegated by an enlightened taste into limbo, it will be seen that, so far as significant measures are concerned, modern works of the first rank contain them in greater number than works of the old schools. It is not now sufficient that a passage performs a useful function in rounding out some predetermined “form.” If it do nothing but that blue-pencil it. It must mean something of itself; and stand on its own legs, so to speak. This sudden determination—and sudden it was, and we owe it again mainly to Chopin, or perhaps to Chopin and Schumann—this determination, I say, to do away with all “packing,” all “filling,” all “leading” (to use a printer’s phrase), had of itself a tendency to shorten the number of measures which a given theme was likely to be developed into.

We cannot say that the tendency of our art has always been in a direction toward greater and greater complexity without limiting the statement somewhat. Of contrapuntal complexity the Belgians made the reductio ad absurdum, and in form it would seem, considering the matter superficially, that the movement has been in the opposite direction. But be not too hasty in making such assumption. True, the composer is no longer bound to the strict contrapuntal formulas laid down by Cherubini, nor to the sonata and allied rondo forms of Haydn and Mozart; but he must satisfy a higher necessity than tradition, and it is only because the practices of living authorities have not been crystallized into set rules that they appear formless. Besides, so long as any particular factor has been specialized, just so long has the tendency been evident for that factor to become complex.

At present, emotional content is the all in all, and will anyone deny that Pergolesi appealed to more primary emotions than Wagner? In the depiction of finer shades of feeling, the feelings of highly developed civilizations, there is always a danger that the art which reflects them will pass away with the ephemeral conditions which produced it; and permanent artworks must arise from conditions which underlie all ages and all societies. But the fact I wished to bring out is that our composers do express a complex content. It is easily supposable that this may degenerate into a fad, as did counterpoint and the rondo. Eventually a happy mean, a state of equilibrium, seems to be reached by all things.

There is a tendency to make a fetich of speed at present. Composers have become “note-splitters,” in the phrase of an old German professor, and from the Longa have gone to the One-hundred-and-twenty-eighth note; not on account of increased speed in their meter, of course; but in the desire to subdivide the rhythm into remarkably fine particles. And virtuosi—who can tell where their velocity will end? In something slower, let us hope; unless the human mind is to accustom itself to thinking with ease at what now appears a killing pace. Excessive speed is probably a mere pendant to that restlessness which our emotional times have impressed of necessity upon the content of contemporary art.

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