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The Great American Composer. The Where, the Why, and the When

By W. S. B. MATHEWS

What will be the distinguishing marks of the American composer, when he actually reaches us in a complete way? Will he speak a dialect peculiarly American? Will he stand out as a reformer? Will he confine himself to American subjects? Will he address himself to the popular taste or to those who really know music?

Nationality in Music.

The national strain in art is as clear as any other feature of its products. The Italian composer, for instance, is well known. He runs to melody and emotionality. His harmonic attributes are subject to the sensationalism of his melody. The Mascagni “Intermezzo” from “Cavalleria Rusticana” could not possibly have been written by any composer other than an Italian. No German could have done that, although from the Kaiser down they have all done worse things. It is “Italiano, Signor!” So, again, of anything of Schumann, especially the songs, no Italian, no Frenchman, no Russian, even, could have come anywhere near them. They are unmistakably German. The impassioned melodic line of the bel canto has given place to a melodic line which is frankly harmonic and poetic, yet strangely expressive. Schumann has moments of bel canto; for instance, take the beautiful, the exquisite song, “Moonlight,” and when it is well sung it is a melody of rare beauty. Or take Tchaikovsky. Look at his highly impassioned cantilena—how Italian it is; and yet, no Italian could by any possibility have written it, any more than an Italian could have written the Tchaikovsky fifth symphony, still less the sixth. Yet where are we to look for the distinctly Russian note in these works? Is it here and there in a reminiscence of the people’s song, as in that marvel of lightness and floating beauty, the 5-4 waltz in the fifth? No doubt there are various traces of actual effects common in Russian folk-song, but the Russian element is more in the national temperament, the grinding pessimism of openings, the barbaric contrasts and the tremendous emotionality of the music—this is Russian in the extreme. Indeed, the late Theodore Thomas maintained to me, more than once, that these symphonies of the great Russian were not symphonies at all—being intensely emotional music, great, very great in their way, but not symphony, rather a song or opera without words.

Take the French writers all along the line. What lightness of touch, what brilliance of instrumentation, what occasional daring. Yet this evasive fabric of tones, which seems to a German to lack the very heart of music, somehow persists, picks up friends and endures. Remember Berlioz, and think of his curious melodies. Berlioz was, in a measure, a theatrical artist, who manages with a few colors and some yards of canvas to create an illusion of fairyland, while nevertheless it is not a land in which creatures like us may live, breathe and enjoy themselves forever. The music expresses the French temperament, polite, gracious, effective at times; but almost never confidential or even conscientious. It stands rather on one side of the world-swim of the art of music, even while contributing to the general note various distinctive elements. Even that great but misused master, Cesar Franck, is great only at times. He was also mystical, liable to fall into revery, even before the public. But he was a Frenchman first, last and all the time, even when most contrapuntal.

And consider the case of Germany as it is today, the country where for a half century or more Music has had its home, where the art is cultivated in all its aspects, yet where, just now, they have no composer at all who is distinctly of the first class. For we must not forget that the much-discussed Richard Strauss bears the earmarks of a temporary fad, a side light in music and not an expression of the art in its purity, breadth and majesty. But be he bad or good, the German composer is always German; his music could by no possibility have been written by a native of any other country.

Even when a composer has conflicting blood in his veins, as Rubinstein, who was of Israel, of Russia, a musician of Germany, and a composer who believed in the classics—all these things come together and so clash in his music that they leave us in doubt most of the time in which of his composite nationalities he ought at the moment to be catalogued. Yet it is Russian music despite the other elements. Think of his pianoforte concerto in D minor, where he is perhaps quite at his very best. It is pianistic in the Rubinstein way, German frequently, but always Rubinstein and Russian in its tremendous energy, its nearness to downright brutality.

The Case of Edward Elgar.

Or take the case of England. For the two hundred years during which modern music has been blossoming and bearing such prodigious fruit, from the days when Handel and Bach began down to the close of the nineteenth century, England has had not one single composer of the first class. Many and many clever writers she has had, but no one really great. Yet late in the last decade of the nineteenth century a new voice is heard; it attracts attention, and with “Gerontius” and the “Apostles” of Edward Elgar, suddenly England finds herself with a composer promptly recognized the world over as likely to be counted permanently in the first class. Now what is it in Elgar that gives him this wonderful preeminence?

The thing which first attracted attention to him was his masterly technic, his grasp upon the possibilities of harmony and contrapuntal development. He knew how to weave a web of tones with few or no fatally thin places in it. And in these later works he displays such elegance of style, such consummate beauty of conception, such masterly musical working out of refined and noble conditions of heart and mind, and rises in his great moments to such tremendous powers, that he holds us, impresses us, creates in us that magic which Wagner described as the peculiar province of music—he awakens the sense of the Infinite.

Bare Qualities of a Great Composer.

A really great composer is a combination of extremely rare qualities. He must have personality, temperament, emotional possibilities, great imagination, and above all, as specialized endowment, the genius for this imagination to display itself to tonal combinations; in other words, lie must have the musical faculty in a preeminent degree, which means that richness of endowment which rarely or never comes except after some generations of musical heredity. Granted these purely personal qualities, whether he will come to anything will depend upon his industry to gain technic (mastery of the medium through which he will speak), and insistent nobility of purpose and an environment.

No great creative artist in any line, so far as I have read, has ever been produced except amid an environment congenial to his work. The painter learns to paint and continues to paint, after learning, only where incitation abounds; profusion of color-blendings, rich apparel, graciously costumed men and women, and so on. And the musician is even more a creature of environment than the painter, because while nature does a lot for the painter, no matter where he lives, she does nothing at all for the musician, except to fill his soul with stirrings, aspirations and suggestions of what might be done; but of the particular principles for producing and combining sounds corresponding to these impressions, she affords him no assistance whatever.

Handicaps of American Composers.

The musician in America is doubly handicapped. He can hear relatively but little music; and he can have his own work produced not at all. We always have a German sitting upon the safety valve, lest American steam should sizzle out and the imprisoned genius, when once let loose, prove as difficult to manage as the fabled one of the brass bottle in the “Arabian Nights.” I say this without disrespect to the admirably qualified foreigners who direct our orchestras and operas, most of our theatres and the majority of our music of every sort. They are well- meaning gentlemen, “made in Germany,” made well, no doubt, but not adaptable. All Germans have it for a ground principle ( a sort of Satz vom Grund— sufficient reason as Schopenhauer calls it) that “the American is not musical.” And while no German can decently do business in this country as head of a great orchestra and not perform a few musical works by American writers with a strong pull, you may be quite sure that in his heart he thinks it pretty poor stuff; much poorer stuff than the mediocrities he is continually passing off on us as novelties, “made in Europe.” It is the fashion to state this differently; but the above is the cold truth, and every man at all on the inside knows it.

And so it happens that we have a few composers more prominent than the rest, who have acquired a certain technic in what we might call literary expression (or academic expression—that correctness of expression which a man may get by study and criticism) with personal influence enough to get their work played once; this is by no means the same thing as an American composer having his work played because the public liked his last previous work and desires more; or like having a keen-minded and sympathetic musical director who is desirous of bringing out talent and encouraging all that is promising.

The Value of Festivals.

Take this case of Elgar. They have in England every year several festivals, in which it is the custom to offer up a lamb for sacrifice, “a lamb of the first year”—in other words to “do” one new work by an Englishman. This gives three fellows each a chance to try a work for at least this once. It was by such a road that a dozen or so of capable and influential English musicians have made first appearances as composers in large forms. Within the last few years the Englishman has gotten into the habit of sitting up and taking notice when something by Elgar has been brought out. And so after a few trials Elgar suddenly takes the head of the class with his “Gerontius” and “Apostles,” new works of masterly technic, exquisite beauty—highly promoted by the environment which enabled him to try out things before committing himself to the limit.

We have in this country also one or two festivals— Cincinnati, for instance. But I do not see them encouraging American art much. It is true that they executed a work by Dudley Buck once, twenty years ago, but I haven’t hard (sic) of their discovering any other American composer since.

In Boston, even, it took a great effort to get the late Prof. Paine’s oratorio of “St. Peter” performed by the “Handel and Haydn Society,” and between ourselves I imagine it would have taken a still greater one to have secured for it a second performance. And yet they have undoubtedly played a round dozen of works since 1871 which were poorer than this sincere work by Prof. Paine.

Take even the case of Mr. MacDowell, a charming personality in many ways, and an excellent composer, of ambition and of considerable technic. I have not observed any decided tendency to introduce his sonatas, symphonies, symphonic poems and overtures into orchestral programs. Personally I do not think Mr. MacDowell has fully attained in his large works; I think a certain cleverness of ear has enabled him to do better in his orchestral works than in his very difficult piano sonatas.

No! We must admit that the case of the American composer has been rather hard, and still is so. He needs a more cordial environment. But it is not easy. Even when he writes teaching material for the pianoforte it takes a long time for it to get into current usage, if it ever does. Teachers have to learn what the new tools are capable of. Some never do learn.

What the American composer needs at this stage of the game is a greater profusion of good orchestras, opera in a dozen cities—first class opera in the English tongue—with American singers, American players and an American director (if possible a reasonable-minded gentleman) and some festivals of one kind or another, with a fashion of encouraging American creative activity by selecting and performing at least one strong American work every year. Thus, in time the American composer would be able to hear a great deal more music than he now can, new works of his own and others, and so, little by little, mellow and refine his style.

The Basis of American Composition.

The other question, whether the great American composer will found his music upon Negro or Indian suggestions of melody, does not interest me, except to this extent, that there is an American folk-idea in music which is truly our own. We have a taste for simple melody upon which it would be possible for a great genius to idealize a really beautiful ecstacy (sic) of the lyric, as Beethoven did in his slow movements upon the people’s song manners just before him; as Brahms did in the slow movement of his first sonata, where he builds a quaint and charming slow movement upon an old Minnelied, and as Dvorak did in his “New World” symphony, in the quaint manner of Negro melody.

But to build the principal movements upon crude motives, whether Indian or Negro, appears to me unfruitful, unwise, and hampering; to my ear, as it plainly was to Dvorak in that same symphony, where his pentatonic motives leave the development rather inelastic and wanting in the plastic element. It is the same story again as Bach’s finding it necessary to take a subject of his own, when he would improvise a six-voice fugue for the great Frederick; a common subject would not prove plastic in the contrapuntal developments which each had in such wonderful mastery. So will it be with the American composer. Besides, these Indian and Negro motives are almost completely foreign to the average American. They suggest nothing at all.

And let us not forget that we are having a lot of composers of lower grades who show genius, such as L. M. Gottschalk, a true product of the South and the Creole environment; Nevin, and a lot of serious and idealistic composers of great merits, such as Chadwick, MacDowell, Foote, and the like, composers who, in smaller forms, where they have had an educative environment (such as in songs and piano pieces, especially in song) have created works of extremely great distinction, perhaps as good as any of our times.

And we are certain to have presently (I do not know just when) an American composer, perhaps several, who will just quietly walk out into the center of the stage, as if he had hired the hall himself, and we will all know without waiting for any testimony farther away than that of our own ears, that we are for once up against the “real thing.” It will be American, but not illiterate, even in spots. It will be American in sincerity, nobility of conception, earnestness of carrying out; and American above all in that swing and “go” which distinguishes so many of the one-man operations of our country; we do not cooperate well, and our government as yet fails to get the note. But it is our note. “Get the best.”

 

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You are reading The Great American Composer. The Where, the Why, and the When from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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