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What Does the Layman Hear in Music?


[In a review of one season of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, contributed to the Chicago Inter-Ocean, Mr. Gunn considers the hearing of music from the point of view of the lay concert-goer. We reprint a por­tion of the article.—Editor.]

How does music sound to the other man? This is a question which musicians may find it profitable to ask themselves. If it is possible to find an answer, it is obvious that much information of value to the artist, the teacher, the writer on musical subjects, and to the layman and amateur, from whose ranks such representative audiences as those which gather from week to week at the Thomas Orchestra concerts are so largely recruited, may be disclosed.

But at the first attempt to find an answer one is confronted by difficulties which all who have ever tried to give a written or verbal account of a piece of music will be quick to recognize. Even the musician finds it hard to describe to a colleague a work which is familiar to both. He may, by making use of techni­cal terms, designate the various subdivisions of the work, analyze the rhythms, outline at least vaguely the thematic development, and give some hint of the harmonic and dynamic coloring. He may indicate in a general way the prevailing mood of the composition, and possibly even some of the more striking phases of emotion which are portrayed. But if he desires to give a particular and graphic account of the emotional con­tent of an extended piece of music, he is obliged to make liberal use of metaphor and simile. In other words, he must tell a story, make a program for the work, as Wagner did on his description of the “Eroica” Symphony, and those who know that masterpiece of Beethoven, and know also Wagner’s analysis of it, will realize how inadequate was even his eloquent pen to describe tones in words.

One may definitely describe a painting or a master­piece of architecture. One may express in words each detail of a dramatic performance, and it not infre­quently happens that an able dramatic critic’s analysis of an actor’s methods is much more effective than is the actual witnessing of the performance. But where will one find a definite vehicle for musical thought other than in music itself? Music is a world apart. It appeals to all, but with varying force. Even as no two pairs of eyes see the world alike, so no two persons find in even the simplest song the same pleasure. The musician analyzes it from a technical standpoint, and at the same time has a keen perception of its esthetic and emotional sides. But the layman can enjoy it only from the latter standpoint. His pleasure is, as a rule, sensuous rather than intellectual. He may feel music, but he seldom thinks about it.

In this fact is found the explanation for the modern tendencies of music toward a more and more definite expression of material and external events. The program music of to-day is therefore in reality a concession to popular demand just as much as a logical result of evolution. Already musicians are in open revolt against it and are clamoring for a return to truer art forms.  

In the meantime the “program” evil has grown apace, and where the composer himself has not sup­plied a “program” for his music there have not been wanting writers who are quite prepared to do it for him. This was rather amusingly illustrated at the recent performance of the Ninth Symphony by the Thomas Orchestra. Mr. Stock and his men had just given a profound and scholarly reading of the first movement, and, after the customary pause, plunged with splendid energy into the scherzo. They had not played the first sixteen measures before a young woman sitting behind me whispered to a white haired and stately matron near her, “This, mother dear, is the soul struggling for happiness.”

“It is also a remarkably fine scherzo, madam,” I wanted to say. But I wisely held my peace, and wisdom had its reward, for the old lady sighed con­tentedly when the movement closed, and said: “Wasn’t that pretty?” Pretty! The scherzo of the Ninth Symphony pretty! But we should, I presume, be grateful for even that small measure of appreciation. Twenty years ago the good old lady would have found it quite stupid, I am sure. Thanks to Theodore Thomas and the unknown writer who sees “soul struggles” in the incisive rhythms and brilliant counter­point of the scherzo, she and her daughter have ad­vanced many leagues beyond some of the people who patronize the orchestra.

For example, it happened at the same concert that a very eminent artist was the guest of a boxholder, and when the symphony closed his hostess turned to him, and having assumed an expression of deep rever­ence and appreciation, delivered herself of the follow­ing instructive remark: “Wasn’t it sweet? I sup­pose Beethoven is to-day considered the most prominent composer, is he not?”

So the Ninth Symphony is pretty and sweet to some people. However, it is obviously unjust to measure the Thomas audiences by these two instances. They too frequently give evidence of sound and discriminat­ing artistic judgment. They never fail to recognize those performances which are most impressive to the musician. All that is big and commanding in scope, that is dramatic in content, that has some strongly characterized rhythm, and that attains to great dy­namic climaxes appeals to them with unmistakable power. They always respond with enthusiasm. But most surely are they reached by a graceful melody and a piquant rhythm.

Works of extended compass and great complication of thematic structure appeal to the majority solely by virtue of their emotional content and such elements of rhythmical and melodic character as are easily to be perceived. Those structural problems which so keenly interest the musician pass, for the most part, unperceived, in spite of the careful and explicit analysis furnished in the program book. Where the musician sees a thousand beauties of melody and counter-melody, of striking harmonic progression and clever figuration, what does the layman find to hold his in­terest and kindle his enthusiasm? I have often asked myself that question, and have in this very paragraph attempted some vague and entirely general answers.


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You are reading What Does the Layman Hear in Music? from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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