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First Prize Essay - The True Value of the Study of Music.


When we engage in anything which demands so great an expenditure of time and money as is needed for the study of music, we are generally anxious to direct our efforts so as to gain the greatest possible return. How many among the thousands of music students in our country understand what constitutes the greatest value of the study in which they are engaged, and realize how the greatest benefit is to be obtained? I fear no large proportion. If it were a question of teachers and methods, the solution would not be difficult; but it is a question chiefly of aim. So many different motives lead to the study of music. Some undertake it in the hope of earning a living by teaching or concert work; many more pursue it simply as an accomplishment, because it is “the thing” to sing or play a little; here and there may be found a student who is actuated by pure love of music. Now what we get out of anything, depends largely on what we look for in it. What ought we to look for in music?

The highest view does not regard the money-making power, nor the mere entertainment to be derived from music. Music is a fine art, and any way of approaching it which leaves out of consideration its dignity as art, is desecration. Most of us are in the habit of using lofty terms in connection with music. We call it the “divine art,” and speak of “soul” and “inspiration.” It is time that the full measure of truth involved in such forms of speech should be generally recognized, though a little less glibness of speech might be well. All art is an attempt to realize the ideal, which is a manifestation of Divinity. Every true work of art is a revelation of beauty, a message which was transmitted through the mind of the artist, but did not in strictness originate there, the expression of a vision of something beyond the limits of ordinary human life. Music is in no wise behind her sister arts in this respect. Think for a moment what are the elements of music,—rhythm, harmony and melody. The first of these is a universal law of motion; it symbolizes symmetry, proportion, that living balance of forces which makes varied, yet consistent, activity possible. Again, what ideas does harmony suggest: the existence of many in one, the relation of parts to the whole, the principle which governs the constitution of every organism,—man, the State, the solar system, the universe. And melody brings in addition a charm which melts the heart, calling forth its deepest admiration, its truest love. All this may be discerned in music. In this art the discoveries of science, the divinations of philosophy, the moral aspirations of religion, all find a parallel, not as abstractions, but as glowing concrete realities, which “find their way into the secret places of the soul,” arousing its fullest activity, and making themselves part of the very nature of the sincere lover of music.

The highest value of music lies in the fact that it embodies in forms which powerfully appeal to us, these great principles of order, harmony, proportion, variety in unity,—in a word, beauty. The kind of study which is of the most service to us, is that which enables us to perceive and absorb these principles. Plato says that “he who has music in his soul will be most in love with the loveliest.” This is the secret of the highest culture. Devotion to what is beautiful, that is, to what is truly, beautiful, not pretty merely, is in every way ennobling. Love and admiration worthily bestowed are the means of growth to the soul.

The great thing, then, is to get music into the soul. How is this to be done? Surely not by pursuing it as an accomplishment, or a means of amusement. Music must be studied as a literature. We must make ourselves acquainted with the thoughts of the great composers, and fill our minds with the images of beauty which they have created. This should be the aim of every teacher and pupil. We should cultivate a wise discrimination between what is great and excellent and what is trivial. The great music of the world is alone worthy of prolonged study. Trifles have their place in life, but we give them much attention at our peril. In these days of good, cheap editions of the masters no one can say that the best music is inaccessible. Study, then, the great composers,—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,—everybody knows the names. Dig down deep into the works, analyze the form, memorize, at least, the themes, ponder over them in leisure hours. Study the music more than the art of getting the fingers over the keys. When hearing music, think more of what the composer has to say to you than of the singer’s beautiful voice, or the player’s marvellous technic. Music studied in this way sinks into the soul and there springs up as a well of living water. The great thoughts of the masters become your own, and their works serve as a means of expression in moments of exaltation, as consolation in hours of sorrow.

The earnest student can accomplish this for himself. The student who is not in earnest must with difficulty be led by his teacher. All need encouragement, and all profit by intelligent direction. In order to do anything in this line with any class of pupils, the teacher must be thoroughly in earnest, thoroughly in love with music, thoroughly devoted to the cause of inspiring that love in others. To this end, constantly bring your pupils into contact with the best music. Implant in their memories as many as possible of the grand, yet simple, themes with which musical literature abounds. Try to draw their attention to the deeper qualities of the works they study. Analyze compositions for them, and show them how complicated works grow out of simple germs. If possible, give them suggestive verbal interpretations of the musical thought. Interest them in the lives of composers. Try in every way to impress upon them the dignity and grandeur of music. Remember, for your own sake and for the sake of your pupils, that the most persistent industry falls short of attaining the highest results unless inspired by a lofty aim. Bear in mind what Bach says of music: “Its final cause is no other than this, that it minister to the glory of God, and the refreshment of the spirit; whereof, if one take not due heed, it is no proper music, but devilish din and discord.” Above all, cultivate in yourself and others the spirit expressed by Beethoven in the following words: “And would you know the true principle on which the arts may be won? It is to bow to their immutable terms, to lay all passion and vexation of spirit prostrate at their feet, and to approach their divine presence with a mind so calm, so void of all littleness, as to be ready to receive the dictates of Fantasy and the revelations of Truth. Thus the art becomes a divinity, man approaches her with religious feelings, his inspirations are God’s divine gifts, and his aim is fixed by the same hand from above which helps him to attain it.”

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