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The Teaching of Musical History.



[In reply to a letter from The Etude as to his views on reforms in the teaching and study of the history of music, Professor Niecks, the biographer of Chopin and Professor of Music in the University of Edinburgh, sent us a copy of an address on the subject which he delivered before the Musical Association of England. We have selected the following from his very exhaustive paper.—Editor.]

The state of matters which all serious musicians must deplore, and must wish to be changed, consists in that the history of music is too little taught, and, when taught, oftener improperly taught than properly. Nothing could be more lamentable than the neglect of musical history in music-schools. My remarks apply not merely nor especially to England. In fact, the teaching of the subject in Continental schools is, as a rule, so unsatisfactory that our own schools may be greatly superior to them, and yet far below the level of what they ought to be. In most cases the directors neither appoint a properly-qualified teacher nor exact the attendance of the pupils; or, if they appoint a qualified teacher, fail to secure the conditions that would enable him to impart his knowledge. Few students care for anything but playing, singing, or composing. Theory is irksome to them, and shirked as much as possible; and history they regard as a superfluity and fatuity. Those who are ambitious of becoming virtuosi do not know that being a singer or player is not synonymous with being a musician; they do not see that a musician’s training comprises many more things than technic; they have no suspicion that the prodigious vocal or instrumental acrobat may, after all, be but a poor creature as an artist. Rubinstein’s words about music-schools not fulfilling their task deserve to be taken to heart. He gives two reasons for the failure. Lack of money is the first; the second, the exclusively technical and too little ideal instruction, with the consequent defective practical education of the pupil. “Thanks to the technical drilling he gets, the latter manages to pass his final examination and obtain a diploma, but rarely is ripe for independent work.” Unless a music-student acquires a thorough knowledge of the texture and structure of the art, which harmony and counterpoint, on the one hand, and form, on the other, teach, he will never outgrow the helpless stage of artistic infancy.


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There are many students and masters of music who ask: What is the good of studying the history of music? Of the many reasons that may be adduced in favor of the study, let me cite two given by the historian Ambrose: “I understand the developed art,” he writes, “only after understanding its earlier stages and its gradual growth.” And, again: “The artist learns from the history of art a serious truth which otherwise he might not often comprehend—the truth that, also in times which the gay world of to-day no longer knows, the noblest lived and labored, and left rich treasures for humanity; that, also, in the domain of art as elsewhere, the sum of our experiences, but not the intelligence and talent, has become greater; and that there can hardly be a worse mistake than the one indicated by the following words of Jean Paul: ‘In the centuries before us humanity seems to grow up; in those after us, to wither away; and, in our own, to burst into magnificent bloom.’ ” But, after all, the greatest of the benefits derived from the study of the history of music is that it takes the musician out of conventionality, fashion, and individualism into universality; out of technical narrowness and emotional dimness into intellectual freedom and clearness; that, in short, it opens up before him an infinitude of infinite vistas.

The cause of the disbelief should not, however, be wholly ascribed to the evil disposition of the disbelievers. The quality of the usual history teaching is probably, to an equally-large extent, responsible for the lack of faith. This brings us to the common defects of history teaching, which, however, have already been hinted at.

Facts, unless we know their meaning and connection, are as good as valueless; it is of little use to burden our memories if we do not at the same time enlighten our intelligence. There could be, however, no greater mistake than to think that this way of studying history makes the study more difficult. Quite the contrary is the case. Having acquired a knowledge of the great movements and chief stages of development of the art, it is easy to fill in and remember the details; for these are then no longer items in a chaos, but parts of an organized whole.

It is hardly necessary to point out the distinction between history and biography. Fétis, a great biographer as well as a great historian, says truly: “A thousand things ought to find a place in a dictionary of biography which would be altogether unsuitable in a history of the art.” The ideal of a history of music may be symbolized by the human organism: the chronology by the bones; the technic by the sinews and muscles; the work and workers by the flesh; the social conditions by the blood; and the philosophy by the mind.


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There is nothing more difficult and at the same time more interesting than the tracing of the origins of styles. Let me begin by laying down the proposition that there are no beginnings in the history of art—only developments. When we meet with a new style, form, or procedure, a little research will soon discover the germ from which it was developed. Now, if there are no beginnings, we ought not to speak of invention in this connection. Harmony, counterpoint, notation, instrumental composition, monody, the musical drama, the sonata form, etc., were not inventions made by ingenious individuals, but developments brought about by the labors of nations and generations. To speak of invention in these and similar cases is either a misreading of the facts or an abuse of language. The assertion of invention is, with comparative impunity, made in early history, where evidence is at best scanty, and often full of lacunœ.

Once more I say: There are no beginnings in the history of an art. Mendelssohn, although he first used the name “Songs Without Words,” did not invent the thing. We find songs without words among Schubert’s compositions, and not only among Schubert’s, but also among Beethoven’s, and not only among Schubert’s and Beethoven’s, but also among Couperin’s. How often has Haydn been called the father of the symphony! Nevertheless that wonderful child had many fathers. And how often has Wagner been called the creator of the music-drama!

Again, the increasing of the importance of the orchestra was likewise not an invention, but a general tendency. It was in the air. Program-music was in the air and a growing love for orchestral coloring. Review the operas from Beethoven to Wagner, noting particularly those of Weber and Meyerbeer. And who can doubt that Wagner learned something from Berlioz ?


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A grouping of the innumerable facts of history is necessary, for without it there will be chaos. We require a system of mental pigeon-holes into which to put a system of pegs on which to hang facts. And we require a skeleton edifice, which we may gradually complete as we acquire materials. To commit to memory the dates of a few important events and of the birth and death of a few of the most outstanding musicians, and group around these the other events and persons with which we become acquainted is a useful mnemonic aid, but it tells us nothing of the meaning of the facts, nothing of the movements, the developments, which are the soul of history. The most valuable and at the same time the most natural grouping is that based on movements. All other groupings are more or less artificial. If we base the grouping on these movements, we base it on internal and essential characteristics, which both bind together the facts of each group and distinguish from each other the several groups; whereas, if we have recourse to any other grouping, we shall have to base it on what is external, inessential, and accidental. Unfortunately, the movements in question are too numerous, and, above all, too much mixed. If the historian makes use of them at all, he can use them only by selection, choosing what seems to him most important, ignoring or subordinating the rest. It is a very interesting study to examine the groupings in the best-known histories of music. Most of them will be found to be artificial, and not only this, but also illogical, being, as a rule, based, not on one, but on two or more principles. This last deficiency, however, is unavoidable. A logical grouping might be possible, but could not be practicable, except in a bare outline. What militates against success in this respect is, on the one hand, a puzzling scarcity of facts, and, on the other, a bewildering superabundance of facts; the former we encounter in the earlier periods, the latter in the later.

Among the possible divisions of the history of music are the following: (1) According to the degree of formal and ideal development—into folk and art music; (2) according to the fundamental ethical nature—into sacred and secular music; (3) according to the destination—into church, stage, concert-room, and chamber music; (4) according to the elements—into melody, counterpoint, and melody harmonically accompanied; (5) according to the executive media—music; next into solo and choral vocal music; into instrumental solo, chamber, and orchestral music; into keyboard, bow, and wind instrumental music; and, lastly, into music for the individual members of these classes of instruments; (6) according to nationality; (7) according to periods—into centuries, reigns of political rulers, etc.; (8) according to schools; (9) according to poetical, moral, and social tendencies—into classical, romantic, neo-romantic, renaissance, rococo, Catholic, Protestant, etc., music; (10) according to the technical and intellectual qualities of the style—into Palestrina, Lullian, Handelian, Wagnerian  style, into Neapolitan, French operatic, German organ style, etc.; (11) according to the branches of the art—into composition, execution, and theory; and (12) according to epoch-making musicians.

Of all these divisions it may be said that they do not go far in covering the whole field. But for all that they are, without exception, in the highest degree instructive, and the historical student who wishes to master his subject must study history from all these points of view. Thus alone it will be possible to obtain an adequate impression and a firm grasp of it, both in its simultaneity and in its sequence; or, in other words, in its totality at any stage, and in the developments of its several departments and national sections.

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