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The Influence Of The Amateur In Music


Non-Professional Music-Workers Who Have Made Important Contributions to the Art.

The word “amateur” in its application to-day has strayed far from its original meaning. The amateur in art is one who loves it and who pursues it through that love rather than from any hope of profit or of bread-winning. This love for art may not lead to as much proficiency as the need of gaining a livelihood by it, but it often leads to a fresher interest and a greater enthusiasm than is present in the professional.

Over 200,000 years ago there were musical amateurs upon the earth who painfully and laboriously hollowed put bits of reindeer’s horn, and bored a blow-hole and finger-holes in it, in order that they might possess a musical instrument—the earliest ancestors of our flute, and the oldest musical instrument as yet discovered.

Many kings and queens have been musical amateurs with an influence beyond that of most professionals. Ptolemy Auletes (the latter word signifying “flute-lover”), the father of Cleopatra, was especially devoted to the flute, and possessed many rich and rare specimens of this instrument at a time when some flutes were sold at a sum equivalent to about $3,000 of our money. Ancient Athens was full of flute amateurs (among them Alcibiades), who placed that instrument in the foremost rank, until it became the religious and sacrificial instrument of many nations of the ancient world.


But the most famous amateur in music in ancient days was Nero, who sang and played the organ with some skill. The most interesting chapters of Suetonius are devoted to picturing this royal “fanatico per la musica” in his tonal studies and in his public exhibitions of the art. He sang in season and out of season. He warbled “The Destruction of Troy” while Rome was burning, whence came the misleading proverb, “Nero fiddled while Rome was burning,” which could not be true, since the ancient Romans had no fiddle! The Roman senators were shrewd enough to pander to his musical vanity by hiring him to sing at their houses. One senator offered Nero 1,000,000 sesterces for a single appearance. As this sum amounted to about $37,500, it may be considered the highest musical fee ever offered to a singer.

The Troubadours and Minnesingers of the Middle Ages were almost entirely amateurs, and more than one monarch was enrolled in their ranks. Alfonso X of Castile, William IV, Count of Poictiers, and even Richard I of England, were troubadours. Another royal amateur, before the Troubadour epoch (we count the musical abilities of Alfred the Great as mythical), was King Canute. In 1017, while rowing at twilight on the river Ely, he improvised a song, words and music, that remained for three centuries one of the most popular folk-songs of England. The melody has, however, entirely disappeared, and only one stanza of the poem remains:

“Murie sungen the muneches binnen Ely,

Tha Cnute Chung reu ther by.

Rowe, cnihtes, naew the land,

And here we thes muneches saeng.”

The above was good English in the year 1017, but to-day would require translation. It means:

“Merry sang the monks at Ely,

As King Canute rowed thereby.

Row men, near the land,

And hear we these monks sing.”


At a still earlier epoch in France Charlemagne was a devoted musical amateur, directing chorus singing each day at his court, and greatly influencing the establishment of the pure Gregorian Chant in his empire. Louis XIII was another royal French amateur, and he became a composer of no mean degree. Some of his compositions, still extant, show a good knowledge of counterpoint and a keen sense of melody. It may be mentioned, en passant, that the pretty gavotte entitled “Amaryllis,” which is always ascribed to him, was not his work, but composed by Baltazarini. Louis XIII did, however, compose a good four-part song by the same title.

Henry VIII of England was a good sight singer, an instrumental performer and a composer. He was one of the best of England’s royal amateurs. His two daughters, Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary,” as she has been called) and Queen Elizabeth, were both musical amateurs. Queen Bess exerted her influence chiefly in the direction of virginal playing, and many works on this instrument were written for her.


We have not space to dwell longer on royal amateurs, but we may end our list with Frederick the Great of Prussia. When crown prince. Frederick was always a skillful flute player. He showed his devotion to art by practicing at great risk, for his father, the half-mad Frederick I, wanted his son to become a soldier, and believed that no one could be that and a musician too. He threatened, if he ever caught the prince at flute study, that he would break the instrument over his head and hang his teacher. There is no doubt that he would have carried out both threats. Therefore, once, when during a secret practice hour in the palace the old king was heard approaching, the poor flute teacher, in an agony of terror, seized the flutes and music and climbed into the chimney—just in time.

That flute teacher was J. J. Quantz, who, when Frederick became king, was the favorite composer at Potsdam. Almost every flute composition bearing his name was composed for Frederick the Great, whose influence on the flute music of his time was a very marked one. One might add to the royal list of amateurs the names of Mary, Queen of Scots; Marie Antoinette, Albert Edward, the English Prince Consort; the Roman emperors, Caligula and Titus, and many others, not forgetting King David of Scriptural fame, a rather important amateur.

Much could also be said of wealthy amateurs who have sustained and helped the great composers. The princely house of Esterhazy is interwoven closely with musical history in this matter. They helped Haydn and Schubert in their careers.

In the same manner Baron Heydegger and George I and II helped Handel. Prince Lobkowitz and the Von Breunings, wealthy music lovers, assisted Beethoven in many ways.

But the most famous instance of such an amateur aiding a composer is found in the friendship of King Louis of Bavaria for Richard Wagner.

Spite of all that Liszt and the Wesendoncks had done for Wagner, they were not able to bring about a public performance of his larger works. This was done by King Louis, and it required a king for so great a task. It is no exaggeration to say that had not the musical amateur, Louis II of Bavaria, existed, the world to-day might be ignorant of the great culmination of opera as shown in the works of Wagner. The whole Wagnerian school might have been unknown, and the entire course of modern music greatly changed.


Among poets and litterateurs we find many who have been influential musical amateurs, and some whose musical views have inspired great composers. Schopenhauer, the philosopher, was addicted to the flute, and his views on music tended decidedly to the melodic side; yet his writings led Wagner to his Trilogy and to his abnegation of melody for the Melos, the measured recitative. Neitzsche was also a weak performer and composer, with strong musical views. He influenced Wagner almost as strongly as Schopenhauer, at first, but when “Parsifal” was written the anti-religious philosopher attacked his former friend with the utmost bitterness in his “Der Fall Wagner.” This erratically musical amateur also influenced Richard Strauss in the greatest attempt ever made to set metaphysics to music, in “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which has been well characterized as “a sick man’s dream of robust health!”

Goethe, the German poet, was a musical amateur and the friend of many great composers. He appreciated Mendelssohn perhaps too highly. His influence on music through his masterpiece, “Faust,” was very widespread. Berlioz Frenchified it in music; Gounod took a single episode, that of Faust and Marguerite, and made a most successful opera of it; Wagner, on the contrary, pictured the hero alone, without his Marguerite; Schumann in his cantata came nearest to the full idea of the poet, and many other settings might be mentioned.

Heine, a keen musical amateur, the friend of Chopin and of Georges Sand, influenced the songs of the world by his short bits of lyrical expression. Schubert, in his last days, came under his spell; Schumann was inspired by him to the best German Lieder ever composed. Robert Franz, Brahms, and many other musicians, owe a direct debt to Heine. His “Du bist wie eine Blume” has been set much more frequently than any other poem ever written. There are hundreds of different musical presentations of the two simple stanzas of this poem.

We dare not go into the study of Shakespeare as a musical amateur, for this topic would require an essay in itself. Shakespeare was undoubtedly a good vocal amateur and a jovial singer of tavern music also. He was a good dancer as well. The music his plays have influenced—well, that is another story!

What the musical amateur Robert Browning knew of the art our readers may seek for themselves in his “Abt Vogler,” his “Toccata of Martini Galuppi,” and his “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha.” He has made occasional errors in his musical allusions, as in his “Sixths, diminished sigh on sigh” (the “Toccata” above mentioned), which would be an ugly succession of consecutive fifths in disguise. But other poets have joined him in such mistakes, as when Coleridge, in his “Ancient Mariner,” speaks of “the loud bassoon,” meaning the trombone, or when Tennyson builds up a band—in “Come Into the Garden, Maud”—of violin, flute, bassoon,” a score which we should not stay long to hear.


In the domain of musical literature the amateur has frequently attained to the front rank. The largest dictionary of music and musicians in the world was carried out by Sir George Grove, a civil engineer. The greatest biography of Bach that exists is by Philip Spitta, who was a professor of theology, although he afterwards became a professor of musical history and founder of a Bach society. The finest life of Mozart was written by Otto Jahn, who was a learned archæologist and philologist. This biography was the first effort to deal with comparative history in music, for in it he described the state of music before Mozart’s time and logically showed his hero’s connection with the musical advance. Jahn also composed many songs and some part-music, and edited Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

Thibaut, who was the friend of Schumann and influenced him at one stage of his career was professor of law at Heidelberg. This did not prevent him, however, from writing a volume on “Purity in Music,” a splendid eulogy of the old pure school of counterpoint.

The greatest life of Schubert was written by Kreissle von Hellborn, who was “Doctor Juris,” in Vienna, and subsequently secretary in the Ministry of Finance of Austria.

Few musical students realize how young the Science of Harmony is. Chords were formerly regarded as the offspring of the progressions of different melodies in counterpoint. It was not until 1722 that Rameau wrote a treatise on chords as entities by themselves. But this method was full of errors, one of the chief of which was the effort to derive the progressions of chords from Nature. In 1790 Catel, a Frenchman, brought forth a more practical system, but it was not until 1817 that a clear and definite system of Harmony, with the present system of marking of chords included, was given to the world.


Who was it that gave this new musical science to us? One of the great composers? Some professional tone-master? Not at all. It was Gottfried Weber, Doctor of Law and of Philosophy, Hessian procurator of State, living in Mannheim. A splendid lawyer, who had become a musical amateur and a composer of high note. He had attained the most of his musical knowledge by self-instruction (although his intimacy with the great Von Weber had also helped him), and the difficulties which he found in the methods of Kirnberger, Marpurg, Vogler, etc., led his logical mind to invent a better system, for which the world still owes him a debt of gratitude.

The best life of Beethoven, and one of the most thorough biographies in existence, is the work of an American musical amateur. Alexander Wheeler Thayer was born in South Natick, Mass., October 22, 1817. He graduated from Harvard College and was appointed assistant librarian there. During his six years of service in this capacity he became deeply interested in the work of Beethoven, and as he could find no satisfactory biography of his idol, he suddenly determined to devote the rest of his life to writing one. He was poor and was not a professional musician, and an American biographer was sure to meet with rebuffs in treating such a Teutonic subject, but no obstacle seemed to turn him from his purpose. He went to Germany (1849-5i) and gathered much material, meanwhile supporting himself by newspaper correspondence. Poverty forced him back to journalism in America, but in 1854 he was again in Germany working at his life task. A little later he found friends in Boston (Lowell Mason and Mrs. Mehitable Adams), who gave him material aid. The first volume appeared in 1866. It was in German, for Thayer had decided that he would give the first fruits of his labor to the composer’s own nation. Dr. Herman Deiters, himself a musical biographer of fame, translated Thayer’s English manuscript.


The attention of the world was now attracted towards this self-abnegating amateur. Thayer was appointed an attaché to the American embassy in Vienna, where he had splendid opportunities to continue his self-imposed task. Almost the last official act of Abraham Lincoln, before his assassination, was to appoint Thayer United States consul to Trieste, where he would be in close touch with his chosen labor. This post Thayer held until his death.

In 1872 came the second volume, in 1878 the third, and other volumes of Beethoven research were given out at intervals. English publishers offered large sums for the right of translation, but Thayer had planned to first complete the work in German and then to make a most thorough English edition himself. But he died (July 15, 1897) before he had quite completed even the German edition. The work is therefore an incomplete one, but it is interesting to note that the greatest life of Beethoven is in German, is the vastest musical biography ever attempted, and is the work of an American amateur.


One more, and a most decisive, proof that the amateur sometimes attains results that could not be achieved by the less enthusiastic professional may be cited in the fact that the Opera, the greatest of musical forms, was founded by musical amateurs. The great masters in the sixteenth century were giving all their attention to the development of contrapuntal forms. But in Florence, about 1575, a wealthy amateur, a nobleman, Giovanni Bardi, Count of Vernio, drew around him a circle of other amateurs who sought for a new mode of musical expression, something more emotional than the many-voiced music of the skillful composer was capable of giving. Corsi, Rinuccini, Del Cavaliere and others were in this circle. One or two of them were professionally in music, none of them were great composers, most of them were, as just stated, amateurs. Their chief object was to restore the Greek Drama in its fullest form, and this required more of declamation and less of musical intricacy than counterpoint afforded. They builded better than they knew; they brought forth something better than the Greek Drama, for out of their monodies and simple recitatives came, in 1594 and 1600, the Italian Opera. No professional composer would have brought this new school in existence. The Opera was the greatest gift that the musical amateur gave to art during the entire history of music, an overwhelming proof of the value of the services of the amateur.

In America, at the present time, we are enjoying the influence of the amateur in music in its most beneficent guise. Musical clubs and women’s clubs in every part of the country are educating their members in a most wholesome manner in the appreciation of art. The science of auditorship is being cultivated, and, thanks to this factor in our musical life, we are advancing far more rapidly than could be the case were professional guidance only employed. Therefore the valuable influence of the amateur, which we have sketched in this essay, is likely to be even more prominent in the immediate future than it has been in even the best ages of the past.

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