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Moral Influence of Music.


This subject has been so frequently handled and so variously and voluminously presented, pro and con, that it is difficult to find even a name for a paper upon it which has not been repeatedly used. Yet the last word has by no means been said up to the present time, and perhaps can not be said until a race has arisen so much higher on the ladder of evolution than our own, so much keener in logic, so superior in introspective perception as to obtain a far clearer insight and more definite knowledge concerning the real connection, relation, and mutual interplay of the intellectual, emotional, and moral faculties.

On the one hand, we have many able and confident writers eloquently insisting upon the direct and powerful influence of music by means of its own inherent, though not very definite, qualities as a character-builder, as an awakener and stimulator of the moral and religious nature, as a softener of the heart, a quickener of the conscience—in short, as an “art pathway to God,” as T. T. Munger puts it. They maintain upon general principles, irrespective of many seemingly contradictory facts, that no man can be a real musician without possessing a high moral character; therefore that no immoral man can be a fine musician, and they cite many eloquent passages in literature in support of their position.

On the other hand, we have a large number of perhaps equally able and certainly equally emphatic writers asserting that music is a strictly sensuous, not to say sensual, form of pleasure; ministering only to and exciting that love of enjoyment which leads always downward; appealing in the best sense neither to the heart nor the brain; producing merely a certain more or less unhealthy excitation upon the sensory nerves, according to the susceptibility of the listener; and positively pernicious and degrading to the higher moral sense, therefore directly prejudicial in its influence to the best development of the race. This view is held and urged by many eminent clergymen, lecturers, college professors, and other active educators who have the good of the rising generation at heart; and this attitude in high official quarters has been one of the chief reasons why the progress of music as a factor in education has been so impeded and handicapped in the past. They cite as basis for their theory the lives and examples of many eminent musicians, both creative and interpretative, which certainly lend some show of reason to their claim.

However, it is a promising sign of the times that their number is steadily decreasing,as enlightenment regarding the true nature and function of genuine music gradually forces its way into their reluctant ranks. Hitherto, in many of our largest educational institutions, the dubious morality and ideals of the Greek and Latin poets and the polytheistic and polygamous legends and mythologies of which they mainly treat have been regarded as a more salutary diet for the growing mind of youth than the melodies and harmonies of a Beethoven, a Schubert, or a Chopin, deemed sensual and frivolous in comparison; and an acquaintance with languages as dead, but not always as sweet and clean, as Egyptian mummies, has been considered vastly more important than familiarity with a living idiom which has only the merit of expressing, with unequaled completeness and delicacy, the moods and ideas, past and present, of the most gifted of human beings, in the most ideal, the most forceful, and the most universal of yet discovered forms of utterance.

The opinion of the general public ranges all along the line, from those who hold music to be the highest phase of education, inseparably connected with religious growth, and who are ever falling back upon its original birth and early exclusive use as an adjunct of divine worship, to those who declare it to be the most trivial and worthless of pastimes, enervating and degrading in its tendencies—in short, a special invention of the devil, and one of his favorite weapons against mankind; who class “wine, women, and song,” in the worst use of these terms, in one sweeping category of condemnation.

Where doctors and laymen alike disagree so radically and so fiercely, what remains to be said? Simply that here, as in most cases, both extremes are in error. Their partizans judge hastily from false premises, based upon misconception and ignorance, or upon only partial knowledge of the fundamental fact involved, namely, that music is not a cult but a language, in which any and every cult may be expressed. It is not a thing or an entity, but a means—a medium; not a system of thought or an emotional habit, but a vehicle through which ideas and emotions may be conveyed to others in a direct and attractive form. Intrinsically, it is neither moral nor immoral, neither good nor bad, any more than poetry or painting. It simply lends itself, like words or colors, to the expression of whatever moods or feelings are in the mind of the master responsible for its creation. He alone, and not the passive medium, deserves blame or credit for the result.

Because Christ taught in Hebrew, it does not follow that Hebrew is necessarily the best and purest language in existence. Because Boccaccio wrote his licentious tales in his native vernacular, does not prove that the Italian language is intrinsically depraved. If we hear an intelligent, pure-minded lecturer discoursing in English of the loftiest ideals and grandest theories of right living, we have no right to assume that the language made the man, and that the English tongue is therefore an indispensable means of raising the morals of humanity as a whole. On the other hand, if we chance to overhear a “Bowery tough” uttering his bar-room sentiments in the same speech, we need not be driven to the conclusion that the English language is essentially vile, degrading all who use or study it, and that it should be forbidden to young people. Yet this is very much the principle on which music is often defended or defamed.

When shall we, profession and public alike, grasp clearly and once for all the basic idea that music is only one of the arts—that is, one of the man-made means of self-expression and intercommunication, morally no better and no worse than poetry or painting, in fact, differing from them only in material and method, not in purpose; somewhat less definite and tangible, somewhat more vivid and subjective, dealing less with external phenomena, and more with psychical experiences; but, like the others, capable of embodying almost every phase of human life.

The direct influence of music, as such, is then, rationally considered, neither moral nor immoral, any more than literature. All depends on the kind we select and the use we make of it. Some of the most infamous sentiments, as well as nearly all of the most exalted, have been embodied in verse; but shall we for this reason forbid poetry to ourselves and others, and refuse to teach children their letters, lest forsooth they should some time read some of this infamous verse and be degraded by it?

I now approach the mooted question of the alleged immorality of musicians. It is certainly true that many eminent members of the profession, creative as well as executive, have furnished us with examples which are neither a model for youth nor a credit to their calling; but may not the same be said of every class and rank of men, from kings and priests to clowns, not excepting the Christian clergy, to whom, as their special work and training is in the line of morals, we might be supposed to look for universally exemplary lives? Dare we condemn a class or a vocation on account of unworthy individual members?

Even in those cases among the ranks of the musical profession, so often and so triumphantly cited, it has not been the musicians but the men who erred, and their faults are by no means always so glaringly conspicuous as they appear in the garish light of publicity. Moreover, it was not because they were musicians, but rather because they were prominent, that they fell. Eminence in any line means power, financial resources, increased opportunities, as well as temptations in the line of personal indulgence, and, to a certain extent, freedom from normal restraints. That which we briefly and conveniently designate as evil is not usually a definite something, deliberately chosen in preference to recognized and definite good, it is a dissonance in the harmony of right, wise living; a blunder from the true path, resulting oftener from mistake than intention. It is the outcome, not so much of wilful depravity, as of a combination of adverse influences and circumstances, too strong for the weak will or too deceptive for the clouded reason to cope with.

The eminent musician is necessarily subject to a thousand seductive temptations of which the average burgher never even dreams, and to which his peculiarly sensitive, impressionable, nervous organism renders him exceptionally susceptible; but his temperamental vulnerability would not be lessened, indeed would probably be increased, by forcing him in early life into some other less congenial occupation, and so denying to his extreme moods this natural and legitimate channel of expression, while his temptations would be just as great and as numerous if he were equally eminent in any other line. So the danger is to be found, not in the music itself, but in the man and in his position. Safety lies always in the conservative, the commonplace, the mediocre; quite possibly the greatest degree of happiness as well. We must remember that it is easy to sneer at the slips of the daring climber on the icy slopes of the loftiest peaks, if one is himself solidly planted below in the safe center of a plowed field.

How many of our staid, severely upright, orthodox fellow-citizens, if deprived from earliest youth of all their now habitual restraints and safeguards, and flung alone into the dizzy whirl of gay society in a foreign capital, in which they found themselves treated like princes, surrounded by the limitless opportunities and myriad seductions which such a life entails, and endowed with a volcanic nature, like that of Liszt, for instance, would come through the ordeal with a cleaner record than his, even if they had not known one note of music from another? Possibly a few, but by no means the majority.

Moreover, the head that wears the laurel wreath is always the special object of public surveillance and criticism. If it loses for a moment its proud, erect carriage, the hoots of the envious crowd are loud and exultant; while those less distinguished may repose habitually in the gutter and attract little attention. Their very obscurity saves them from exposure. This is one of the many penalties of celebrity, and the publicity of every smallest fault in a man of genius and prominence magnifies and multiplies such faults almost beyond calculation.

Granting, as we must, and sincerely deploring as well, the many instances in which musicians have failed in reaching their highest possibilities as men; granting, even, the special susceptibility of the genuinely musical temperament to certain classes of error in which the emotional and nervous organism is at once the tempter and the sufferer, I nevertheless maintain that great musicians, as a class, are no more prone to vice than great soldiers, great statesmen, great authors, great capitalists, or any other class of men of equal power and prominence; while, if I mistake not, I have met many obscure individuals, among members of the learned professions, among men of business, even among ordinary butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers, whose personal lives and characters would not bear the strong search-light of publicity so well as the most tarnished of all the great names written in letters of gold on the pages of musical history. The most dissolute reprobate who ever disgraced his high calling and discredited his brother musicians can readily be matched by a dozen equally reprehensible instances from any given class or vocation, and by hundreds from the blooded aristocracy of Europe and from the more dangerous moneyed aristocracy of our own land. Let us not blame art for what is only the fault of poor humanity, which, alas, when weighed in the balance is always found wanting, in high places and in low.

(To be continued.)

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