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Will the Music of Ultra-Modernists Survive?

A Symposium By Eminent Musicians
 
The eminent American composer makes an interesting discrimination which will interest Etude readers.
The progress of music has so far been through evolution, not by means that negative all that has gone before; for which reason it seems to me that, for instance, Schönberg, as seen in his later works, will have not the slightest influence nor be considered in the future as anything but a freak. It is not fair to lump Debussy with him, for the former writes music as hitherto conceived, and I believe will turn out to have had at least some effect permanently on our way of thinking.
 
 
Dr. Damrosch is the director of the Institute of Musical Art; sees no reason to be concerned about the music of the futurists.
It is difficult to answer the question relative to "futuristic music" categorically. Wherever and whenever such music is able to reach the emotions of the listeners so that he responds to it sympathetically, it has proved its reasons for existence, but that does not necessarily mean that a new law of musical composition has been created, in accordance with which anybody may produce similar results by the use of similar means.
 
However, in Apollo's house also are many mansions. The so-called "futuristic music" will no doubt find adherence in future generations as it has in this, because some people like it, or think they like it, or make believe they like it. But the music of Wagner and Beethoven and their great predecessors will continue to delight and satisfy the great mass of music lovers for many generations to come. Some "futurists" have written and will write some real music, which proves that even they feel the need of solid ground occasionally. Meanwhile why worry? If "futuristic music" should crowd all saner kinds out some distant day, we will be dead and therefore safe. Gaudeamus!
 
Few men have been more directly connected with the modernist movement than Mr. Percy Grainger, the noted Australian pianist-composer.
I see in the best compositions of Delius, Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Schönberg, Cyril Scott, Scriabine and other extreme modernists deathless works of unchanging importance. Apart from that I view the message of novelty they bring us in the light of a priceless boon to living and future composers. From my personal point of view genuine art is always of equal value, at all times and in all races; progress, in the sense of going from worse to better, or better to worse, does not exist for me in art, since, to my mind, not skill, but emotional genuineness, is its most imperative attribute. But constant change is the breath of life and of art; hence the innovator is generally the vital artist.
 
Mr. Ganz's programs for many years have bristled with modernisms while his contemporaries have held fast to more conventional lines. The great Swiss virtuoso is naturally sympathetic.
As I am advancing in years my admiration and respect for the great masters of the past naturally deepens and it all seems to make life more worth while every year. But the same sentiments of respect and admiration I have for the masters of our time and also for those men who are just a bit ahead of our accepted habits. They are the pathfinders. People usually take for granted whatever lies within their mental or sentimental reach. This is the case as long as human feelings have been written and talked about. Stubborn we are born and—unless we train ourselves to receive with interest and a feeling of glad welcome everything that is of value above or below us or yet far off—we remain stubborn. I am speaking from experience. I have seen so many gifted and clever musicians change their mind about "modern" writers within a few months, from a stubbornly resisting attitude of "never" to one of "perhaps" and finally to the one and only of "yes, indeed." That's why I do not worry about most people being so slow in "waking up." So many who are in fear of having their "souls" torn to shreds in listening to "things news," are perfectly satisfied to sit through performances of bad playing, bad pedaling, bad intonation, unmusical phrasing, etc. They do not realize that involuntary "futuristic" cacophonies caused by amateurish or uneven professional performances are far more detrimental to the artistic ideals than the most cubistic "dare-everybody-and-dare-everything" of some musical anarchist.
 
There are a great many wonderful works—master works—from the pens of ultra-modern composers, works that have come to stay. Some have already withstood the battle with the old-timers in the concert halls and the harmony professors at home. It is a gallant list from which we could select a few names of men who are fighting for complete artistic freedom and whose inspirations are the guarantee that the future of music is safe, gloriously safe.
 
The noted Spanish teacher and pianist finds conviction in the words of Saint-Saëns, "the greatest living musician."
Music of the Modernists and Futurists! To me the self-chosen designation is as bewildering and incomprehensible as most of the musical pieces that go under the name of Futurism and Modernism. What is Modern and what is Future? Profound musicians have called Bach's music the music of the Future, and, indeed, how pitifully few of the masses understand it to-day. The last five Sonatas of Beethoven are yet little understood by the greater part of the musical public. After the hostile reception of some of his orchestral works Liszt said, "I can wait." Richard Wagner's struggle for recognition is well known. But because many a master work was not understood at first it does not exactly follow that everything incomprehensible is a master work.
 
Saint-Saëns in his last book, École buissonière, speaking of the professed admirers of some of these musical abominations, said, "They are very lucky, for they enjoy a happiness which is denied me."
 
To these words of the greatest living musician I subscribe.
 
Commercialism and egotism will sound the death knell of fictitious works is the opinion of the distinguished American composer.
The children born of the same parents are not all favored with the same degree of beauty or talent.
 
The works of a creative artist are not all alike meritorious.
 
The art creations of a given country are not all equally valuable.
 
The art product of a given era is not uniform in quality.
 
Formal traits and stylistic peculiarities are unstable and variable factors. They afford us therefore no reliable criterion for the measurement of the merits of a poem, a painting or a symphony.
 
As to what one shall be permitted to enjoy in art, past, present or future, there can be formulated no rigid rules. But whatever a man of genius has brought forth as the result of sincere conviction—that will ultimately make its appeal, irrespective of method. On the other hand, just so surely will those works engendered by egotism and commercialism fail to earn more than a fictitious fame.
 
Mr. Randolph is the director of the Peabody Conservatory and is noted for his progressive tendencies.
 
The ultra-modern school of music seems to me an almost inevitable development of what has gone before, and as there is apparently no such thing in art as abstract right and wrong we shall probably become accustomed to unbroken cacophony and in time learn to like it. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling, personally, that if that is the path which music is destined to follow, its decline as an independent art has already begun, for in throwing aside concord altogether, as the ultra-modernists are doing, discord is robbed of its real significance and their compositions result in either an irritating monotony—when regarded as "absolute" music—or degenerate into mere descriptive noise.
 
Mr. James H. Rogers
Mr. Rogers has shown in his very successful compositions that he is alert to modern movements.
 
If the history of music teaches any one thing with inexorable logic, it is that the science, or the art, of creative music is never static. There are fallow periods when it may appear to be, but always there is a seed germinating in some dreamer's imagination, which in due time will leap into a bloom, different from anything the world has hitherto known. So it has always been, and so it must continue to be.
 
The reactionary is playing a losing game in music, as in every other department of life. There is much sound and fury signifying nothing in this "futuristic" and impressionistic" music of the day. Time will take care of that. The sifting process goes on eternally. Do you fancy there were only three or four composers at work in Bach's time, in Beethoven's, in Wagner's? So, in the decades to come, will there be an appraisal by the court of last appeal, to wit, the public, of what shall endure in the music of our own day. Out of the welter of conflicting purposes, removed from the clamor of partisans, the future will decide which names shall be put in the hall of fame and which shall be content with a line or two in an encyclopedia of muisc. (sic) He who being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, ventures a prediction, is rash indeed. Was there not a certain Bononcini, who was a serious rival of Handel in popular favor, yet whose sole claim on immortality now rests on a whimsical quatrain of Charles Lamb? And was there not a Francois Schubert, a highly esteemed composer, a personage at the Court of Dresden, possessor of dignities and decorations, who protested bitterly at the unkindness of fate in bestowing the same name on an obscure song writer in Vienna; and who was consumed by the fear that some one might suspect him of having written the Erl King?
 
Yet with all experience against me, I will boldly hazard the guess that Debussy and Stravinski will most typically represent the musical tendency of our time to coming generations.
 
Dr. Cornelius Rübner
Prof. Rübner as head of the Department of Music at Columbia is brought into constant contact with the New York radicals and has strong opinions.
 
The modernists and futurists have created a new world, one full of ideas, interesting combinations of harmony, new conceptions and new sounds, expressed both through the orchestra and through piano. But as a whole it seems more a process of experiment than a product of conviction. It seems unnatural, and this thought intrudes even when we are under the spell of its fascinating moments. That is because it seeks principally after the tonal effect of the moment, and pays little attention to broad lines of melody or form, which Wagner, who surely is not lacking in tonal effects, never fails to bring into focus at the proper time so that
 
the listener shall have the understanding and the comfort he needs.
 
Perhaps we do not yet grasp all the beauties of the works by the ultra-moderns. If so, it is probably because they represent too much a product of intellect and too little a product of feeling. The world of dissonances can be only of passing importance, can only exist rightly as a contrast with assonance, unless music is to be entirely an intellectual process, and I cannot believe that this is its tendency in any real sense. It seems to me that the Russians indicate the type of the music of the future.
 
Josef Stransky
The renowned conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra modestly abjures the role of a prophet.
 
Why attempt to be a prophet in art? Prophesies are almost invariably wrong. What actually happens is usually wholly different from the words of the prophet. It is better not to make prophesies, but let music develop as it must and will without interference. If the so-called "futuristic music" of to-day indicates the type of music of the future, that can only be determined fifty years hence. At that time few of us will be alive. But should our progeny enjoy such music they would have my sympathy. Of one thing I am convinced, and that is that if music of the so-called futurist kind were the only music of to-day, I certainly would not have chosen the career of a musician.
 
Sigismond Stojowski
Mr. Stojowski as composer, pianist and teacher (and famous in each branch) has a three-fold aspect upon this important subject.
 
"The future of futurism? I do not stutter—but am I far-sighted enough?"
 
"Qui vivra verra"—and that old rascal of a Voltaire added in his usual spirit: "Nos enfants verront de belles choses." He did not predict what we were going to hear and what would become of the Shakespearian "concord of sweet sounds." At the table a guest once shouted: "There is no God," and Voltaire gently interfered: "If you will, Sir, but don't say so before the servants, they would assassinate us tomorrow." To circulate the futuristic bomb in a democracy might be more dangerous than some supposedly broad-minded people imagine! It has worked some havoc already. It has blinded many to beauty—which does not necessarily belong to explosives only.
 
To me modernism is like the old god Janus—who never was so actual-double-faced; inasmuch as it is a craving for breaking the fetters of routine and conventionality it is respectable and stimulating, inasmuch as it implies sweeping iconoclasm, it is the cheapest mental attitude that exists. When Mr. Debussy uttered his "pronunciamento": "too long, the prejudices of harmony and form have crippled music," he perhaps meant to be taken "cum grano salis."
 
His art is, after all, rather one of careful elimination than of violent negation. But lo! behind the clever Frenchman were lurking: the adaptable Slav ever anxious to outdo the most daring Western innovations, the "logical" German ever ready to systematize any nonsense, the candid Britisher willing to believe it, the wealthy American eager to purchase. All over the world the critics cheered: for the first time in history, music desperately needed their prose. And youth that has to lean on something, or someone when entering life, finds it comfortable to lean with both elbows on the keyboard. The gesture is easy: and if it be true that conquered difficulty is an element of beauty in art, there is much in futurism that has to be discarded on that ground. The easier to produce, the harder the jumble may be to endure—although the human ear, "like the back of a mule," Mr. Damrosch recently told New Yorkers, "if beaten long enough becomes insensible." Is it not an ill omen for the future of futurism that it rests not upon the power to discriminate, the noblest attribute of man's mind and senses, but upon the atrophy of an organ, physiological deficiency? That martyrdom is enjoyed by martyrs seems a precarious foundation for a new theory of aesthetic pleasure.
 
Mr. Schoenberg argues that none of his critics could oppose to his views any logically conclusive objection. Perhaps not. But there is a geometry which steers clear away—most logically—from the undemonstrable Euclidian axioms into the realms of pure abstraction. To our world, however, it is not applicable. Now art, too, is not a logical, but a practical matter primarily. Whether it be a limitation of the human mind or the expression of a higher order which we only can perceive and obey, but neither create nor explain, it is governed by psychological laws. Of course, human law is forever incomplete; hence there is room for discovery, progress or merely change. All science is relative, all art artificial: yet, imperfect as they be, they are the august vehicles of the Spirit, built by man's toil for man's own use, comfort and uplift. "Music is free"—Mr. Busoni asserts. But alone the spirit is free in this universe where everything is conditioned: "Fiat ubi vult" the Ancients already knew, and we moderns have to admit, that, within the sphere of music, it potently blew and stirred while the "prejudices of harmony and form" still reigned.
 
Let us bow down with reverence and whole-heartedly welcome the Spirit, regardless of its times and ways! But let us remember that where all is continuity and evolution, liberty, the ever-alluring syren, is but a vision, not a tangible reality. And in him who throws away the past, repudiates Father and Mother, to proclaim that he holds the absolute, let us recognize, whether he wears the armor of a Junker or is merely veiled in the fashionable Parisian dress, the false prophet, a modern embodiment of Beckmesser, the old enemy of Truth and Beauty.

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