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Lessons in Musical History.



In the logical order of thought, the consideration of the nature of music naturally precedes the investigation of its function. But its function was undoubtedly perceived ages before there was any thought of investigating its nature on scientific principles. We shall not go astray, then, perhaps, if we first try to imagine to ourselves what the first music in the world must have been and why people practiced it. If we can get at the real motive which impelled people to make music we shall surely become enlightened as to its real function in the economy of human nature. The insight we thus gain will serve as a sure guide through all the mazes of musical history.


We may assume as certain that the first elementary efforts at music were vocal, and not instrumental. For the human voice was certainly in existence before any other musical instruments were invented. People sang before they had instruments to play on. Mothers crooned to their babes, rocking them backward and forward in their arms as they hushed them to sleep. Men shouted defiance to their enemies in inarticulate cries and yells. Young men and maidens danced, and sung to their dancing. We may be sure of these things, because they are to be found among the most primitive and savage peoples of our own time, and because we have authentic accounts of them among ancient primitive peoples. Human nature is essentially the same in all ages and under all conditions, and we cannot doubt that the impulse which leads to such manifestations now led our remotest ancestors to express their feelings in similar ways.


This phrase “express their feelings” suggests at least one of the motives which impelled people to sing. The savage yells at his enemy because his yelling is the natural expression of his emotional excitement. The mother croons to her babe because she feels like doing so. It is the natural expression of her emotional state. But this is not all. She does so because of its effect on the child. She knows intuitively that this monotonous, measured flow of sound, the expression of her own quiet happiness, will soothe the infant into a restful state of feeling and dispose it to slumber. The warrior feels that the expression of his rage by means of violent sounds will excite his comrades to valor and perhaps strike terror into his enemies. The singing of the dancers is equally expressive of their emotional state, and tends to excite those feelings to still greater activity. Vocal music, then, is a natural product of human nature, and its function is to express and excite feeling.


In the primitive music above referred to we find two of the essential elements of all music— Melody and Rhythm. Melody is a succession of single musical sounds, differing more or less in pitch. Rhythm is a succession of beats or pulsations occurring at regular intervals. There is a natural tendency in human nature to make all melody rhythmic. The mother’s low song to her babe naturally falls into regularly recurring rhythmic divisions, accompanied by corresponding movements of the body. Rhythm is of the very essence of the dance; and the rhythmic motions of the dancers are accompanied with rhythmic song, the clapping of hands and the stamping of feet. The element of rhythm becomes most strongly marked in war dances. In these the motions are violent, the songs loud and harsh and the rhythm often marked by the striking of war clubs on hollow logs or on some resounding instrument of percussion.


Instruments of percussion were, doubtless, the first to be invented. From marking the rhythm by pounding on a tree or post with a club, it was not far to covering the end of a hollow log with a stretched skin, thus producing a rude drum. Progress was then easy toward the whole family of drums, tom-toms, gongs, cymbals, tambourines, etc., the latter kind as soon as metals and metal working had been discovered. Wind instruments were probably invented by some such accident as hearing a broken reed give forth a musical tone when blown across by the wind. The Egyptian and Greek myth has it that the god Hermes, walking by the Nile bank, picked up a tortoise shell which had some sun-dried membranes stretched across it, and that this gave him the idea of the lyre. It is not improbable that some such accident as this really occasioned the invention of stringed instruments. Or perhaps the idea came from a tightly-stretched bowstring. However this may be, the first instrumental music must have been associated with vocal music, and must have been essentially the same in its nature and function. That is, it consisted of rhythmical successions of sounds, which owed their origin to the innate impulse to express, convey and excite feeling.


As time went on and the savage developed into the barbarian, and from the barbarian into the civilized man, there was, we know, a gradual growth in refinement. This improvement showed itself in musical perception as well as elsewhere. The power of discriminating qualities of tone, like other faculties, grows with use and attention, and sensuous beauty of tone gradually came to be regarded as a refined sensuous pleasure in itself. It was enjoyed apart from its emotional significance, just as the perfume of a rose is. So we find it now. There are persons who lay undue stress on the element of sensuous beauty in music, disregarding other and higher considerations. To such, music becomes a sensuous indulgence—refined, indeed, but still involving a minimum of intellectual and moral quality.


In the course of time the awakened human intellect began to deal with music as with other subjects in which men were interested. Philosophers began to investigate the physical and mathematical relations of tones, and thus arose the science of Acoustics. Composers began to analyze rhythms and to balance groups of small rhythmical units against each other to make symmetrically larger units, and thus began the science and art of Melodic Form. They also began to combine two and afterward more melodies sounding at the same time into one whole, and thus arose Counterpoint.*

§ 8. UNITY.

They learned to secure Unity in these compositions by using the same melody as a second voice-part, only beginning it some time after the first. Thus arose Strict and afterward Free Imitation. From this principle were developed, in the strict style, Canon and Fugue. From the free treatment of imitations were developed all the modern forms. This unity of idea, secured by developing a composition through varied repetitions of a few melodic ideas (Themes or Motives), is called Thematic Treatment.


Once the idea of combining melodies had been developed, the step was inevitable to thinking sounds in combinations, or Chords. It took a long time before men learned to think complex music otherwise than as combinations of simultaneously progressing melodies. They thought it horizontally, so to speak. But after a time they learned to think it perpendicularly. That is, they learned to think of each combination of simultaneously sounding tones (chord) as a musical unit; and they gradually found out the laws governing the natural relations of succession chords. The science of chords and of their successions and relations is called Harmony.


Finally, men developed the art of combining and contrasting the different qualities of tones produced by different kind of instruments so as to produce beautiful effects, and to heighten and intensify emotional expression. This is the art of Instrumentation, or Orchestration. All these belong to the intellectual element in music. Logically and historically, they come after the emotional and sensuous enjoyment of music.


The imagination is the great constructive faculty. In the beginning of music it had only the simplest elements of melody and rhythm as material with which to deal. But it dealt with these in their relation to feeling, and the folk-songs of all nations are the sincere, spontaneous expression of natural feeling. Gradually, as the sensuous perception and the intellectual elements in music were developed, the food for the imagination became richer and more varied, until we have now a wealth of musical material sufficient to tax the imaginative power of a Beethoven or a Wagner.

§ 12. SUMMARY.

To sum up, then, music is, in its nature, that one of the Fine Arts which has for its material musical tones. It affords us enjoyment on its lowest plane through the discrimination of refined from coarse tones and by combinations and contrasts of different qualities of tone. The pleasure thus derived is refined, but it is sensuous merely. Music adds to this very high intellectual enjoyment. In its more elaboratic forms, such as the fugue, the sonata, the symphony, the music-drama, it taxes the intellectual resources of both composer and student in equal degree with the greatest intellectual productions of the human mind in other fields of activity. It thus adds intellectual to sensuous enjoyment, and so ranks high in the scale of mental activities.

But its primary and ultimate function is to express, convey and excite feeling. To this the sensuous and intellectual elements are subordinate. The imagination reaches its highest flights and performs its most legitimate function when it deals with its musical materials in their relation to emotion.


The rank of a composer, like that of any other creative artist, depends, first of all, on the vigor, vividness and fertility of his imagination. Creative power means the gift of spontaneous invention. It can neither be learned nor taught; it is an original gift which can neither be acquired nor accounted for. This is it which is commonly called Genius. Nothing else can take the place of it. Wherever it appears, as it does here and there among men, and often under the most unexpected and apparently unpromising conditions, the world does not willingly let it die. Men may be slow in recognizing it; but once acknowledged, it becomes a precious and immortal possession for the whole race. Next to this in importance comes what is commonly called Talent. This means a special aptitude for artistic perception and attainment, and for applying acquired ideas, without much original power of invention. In its higher manifestations talent so closely approximates the lower orders of genius that it is often not easy to distinguish them, and there are many cases that have occasioned dispute among critics.


But whether a composer be possessed of genius or only of talent, it is absolutely essential that he should have his mind amply stored with musical material, and should have mastered music from the intellectual side. He must, first of all, have material for his imagination to deal with, must acquire musical experience. Accordingly, we find that all the great masters of composition have diligently studied the works of their predecessors and have missed no opportunities to hear the best music. They have studied them also from the intellectual and technical side; have become masters of the technic of composition. They have realized that no matter what ideas a composer may have, he can only become an artist by acquiring the power to express them. This they have done by infinite painstaking, and so much have they been impressed with the necessity of this, that the greatest of them have repeatedly said, in one form or other, that genius is only the art of taking pains!


But this is not enough. Given an original, creative mind, with acute musical perceptions, ample intellectual and technical attainments and a clear comprehension of the relation of music to feeling, it still remains for him to decide what kind of emotion he will choose to embody in music. He may choose noble or ignoble subjects; he may, if he chooses, treat noble subjects in an ignoble way. This has often been done by composers of music for religious worship and for the drama.

Nor can he escape moral choices even in purely instrumental music. He may make his music as high in aim as the Beethoven fifth symphony, or as unheroic, not to say frivolous and base, as an Offenbach waltz. This will depend on his own moral character. Base men cannot write great music, nor heroic men ignoble music; though even weak men may have their heroic moments, and noble men their weak ones. But, other things being equal, the rank of a composer will depend on the nobility of his feeling and of his moral purpose. The relative rank of his works will depend on the degree in which they embody the noblest and best that is in him.


The principles above set forth are those which will determine the judgments of composers and their works which are to follow in this book. It will seek to trace the development of the different factors in musical production and in musical enjoyment at different times and in different nations. It will seek to show how and why the course of musical history became what it was. This the author regards as of even more importance than an authentic record of historical facts.


[1] “Counterpoint” means “point against point.” The term was first used before our modern notes were invented, when points were used to indicate tones.



How do we seek to gain an insight into the nature of music?
What natural impulses of human nature produced primitive music? Give illustrations.
What are the primitive elements of music?
Give the probable origin of primitive instruments.
How did men come to a more discriminating perception of the difference in quality of tone?
Give an account of the intellectual element in music.
How many kinds of enjoyment are derivable from music?
On what does the rank of a composer depend?
Why do even gifted composers need study and experience?
What relation has music to the moral nature of man ?


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