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Æsthetic Versus Structural Analysis.


It has been, and still is, the general custom among most musicians, when called upon to analyze a composition for the enlightenment of students or the public, or in the effort to broaden the interest in their art, to think and speak solely of the form, the structure of the work, to treat it scientifically, anatomically—to dwell with sonorous unction upon the technical names for its various tones, to lay bare and delightedly call attention to its neatly fashioned joints, to dilate upon the beauty of its symmetrical proportions, and show how one part fits into, or is developed out of another—in brief, to explain more or less intelligently the details of its mechanical construction, without a hint or a thought as to why it was made at all, or why it should be allowed to exist.

With the specialist’s engrossing absorption in the technicalities of his vocation, they expect others to share their interest, and are surprised and indignant to find that they do not. They forget that to the average hearer this learned dissertation upon primary and secondary subjects, episodical passages, modulation to related and unrelated keys, cadences, return of the first theme, etc., has about as much meaning and importance as so much Sanscrit. It is well enough, as far as it goes, in the class-room, where students are being trained for specialists, and need that kind of information; but it is only one side, the mechanical side, and the general public needs something else; and even the student, however gifted, if he is to become more than a mere technician, must have something else for composition and interpretation. Both have their mere technic, as much as key-board manipulation, which is, however, only the means, not the end.

Knowledge of and insight into musical form is necessary to the player, but not to the listener, even for the highest artistic appreciation and enjoyment, just as the knowledge of colors and their combinations is essential to the painter, but not to the beholder. The poet must understand syntax and prosody, the technic of rhyme-making and verse-formation, but how many of his readers could analyze correctly from that stand-point the poem they so much enjoy, or give the scientific names for the literary devices employed; or how many of them would care to hear it done, or be the better for it if they did? The public expects results, not rules or formulas; effects, not explanations of stage machinery; food and stimulus for the intellect, the emotions, the imagination, not recipes of how it is prepared.

The value of æsthetical analysis is undeniably greater, in rendering this food and stimulus, contained in every good composition, more easily accessible and more readily assimilated, by a judicious selection and partial predigestion, so to speak, of the different artistic elements in a given work, and a certain preparation of the listener to receive them. This is, of course, especially true in the case of the young, and those of more advanced years, to whom, owing to lack of training and opportunity, musical forms of expression are somewhat unfamiliar, or, in other words, those to whom the musical idiom is still more or less strange. But there are also very many musicians of established position who are sorely in need of something of the kind to awake them to a perception of other factors in musical art besides sensuous beauty and the display of skill; to develop their imaginative and poetic faculties, in which both their playing and theories prove them to be deficient; and the more loudly they cry against it as useless and illegitimate, the more palpably self-evident becomes their own crying need of it.

Æsthetic analysis consists in grasping clearly the essential artistic significance of a composition, its emotional or descriptive content, either with or without the aid of definite knowledge concerning the circumstances of its origin, and expressing it plainly in a few, simple, well-chosen words, comprehensible by the veriest child in music, whether young or old in years, conveying in a direct, unmistakable, and concrete form the same general impressions which the composition, through all its elaborations and embellishments, all its manifold collateral suggestions, is intended to convey, giving a skeleton, not of its form, but of its subject-matter, so distinctly articulated that the most untrained perceptions shall be able to recognize to what genus it belongs.

Of course, when it is possible, as it is in many cases, to obtain and give reliable data concerning the conception and birth of a musical work, the actual historical or traditional material, or the personal experience, which furnished its inspiration, the impulse which led to its creation, it is of great assistance and value; and this is especially so when the work is distinctly descriptive of external scenes or human actions: for example, take the Schubert-Liszt “Erlkönig.” Here the elements embodied are those of tempest and gloom, of shuddering terror, of eager pursuit and panic-stricken flight, ending in sudden, surprised despair.

These may be vaguely felt by the listener when the piece is played, with varying intensity according to his musical susceptibility, but if the legend of the “Erlkönig,” or “Elf-king,” is narrated, and attention directly called to the various descriptive features of the work, the gallop of the horse, the rush and roar of the tempest through the depths of the Black Forest, the seductive insistence and relentless pursuit of the elf-king, the father’s mad flight, the shriek of the child, and the final tragic ending, all so distinctly suggested in the music, the impression is intensified tenfold, rendered more precise and definite, and the undefined sensations produced by the music are focused at once into a positive, complete, artistic effect.

Who can doubt that this is an infinite gain to the listener and to art! Again, take an instance selected from a large number of compositions which are purely emotional, with no kind of realistic reference to nature or action, the “Revolutionary Etude,” by Chopin, opus 10, No. 12. The emotional elements here expressed are fierce indignation; vain, but desperate, struggle; wrathful despair. These are easily recognized by the trained æsthetic sense. Indeed, the work cannot be properly rendered by anyone who does not feel them in playing it, and they can be eloquently described in a general way by one possessing a little gift of language and some imagination; but many people find it hard to grasp abstract emotions without a definite assignable cause for them, and are incalculably aided if told that the study was written as the expression of Chopin’s feelings, and those of every Polish patriot, on receipt of the news that Warsaw had been taken and sacked by the Prussians.

Where such data cannot be found concerning a composition, one can make the content of a work fairly clear by means of description, of analogy and comparison, by the use of poetic metaphor and simile, by little imaginative word-pictures, embodying the same general impression; by any means, in short,—any and all are legitimate,—which will produce the desired result; namely, to concentrate the attention of the student or the listener on the most important elements in a composition, to show him what to listen for and what to expect; to prepare him to fully receive and respond to the proper impression, to tune up his æsthetic nature to the required key, so it may reecho the harmonious soul-utterances of the Master’s, as the horn-player breathes through his instrument before using it, to warm it, to bring it up to pitch, to put it in the right vibratory condition.

The plan of æsthetic analysis, in more or less complete form, was used by nearly all of the great teachers, such as Liszt, Kullak, Frau Schumann, and others, and was a very important factor in their instruction. It was used by all the great writers on music who were at the same time eminent musicians, like Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz, Ehrlich, and many more.

Surely with such examples as precedents, not to mention other good and sufficient grounds, we may feel safe in pursuing it to the best of our ability, in print, in the teaching-room, in the concert-hall, whenever and wherever it will contribute to the increase of general musical interest and intelligence, in spite of the outcries of the so-called “purists,” who see and would have us see in musical art only sensuous beauty and the perfection of form, with possibly the addition of, as they might put it, a certain ethereal, spiritual, indefinable something, too sacred to be talked about, too transcendental to be expressed in language, too lofty and pure to be degraded to the level of human speech.

Who, I ask, are the sentimentalists; they, or we who believe that music, like every other art, is expression, the embodying of human experiences, than which there is no grander or loftier theme on this earth.

Trust me, it is not music nor its subject-matter that is nebulous, indistinct, hazy, but the mental conceptions of too many who deal with it.

If art is expression, as æstheticians agree, and music is an art, as we claim, then it must express something; and, given sufficient intelligence, training, and insight, that something—the vital essence of every good composition—can be stated in words. Not always adequately, I grant, but at least intelligibly, as a key to the fuller, more complex expression of the music; serving precisely like the synopsis to an opera, or the descriptive catalogue in a picture gallery. This is the aim and substance of aesthetic analysis.

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You are reading Æsthetic Versus Structural Analysis. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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