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The Influence of Our Composers Upon Vocal Art in America.


In presenting this subject, I am not unstrangely reminded of our recently much lamented littérateur, Frank Norris. There is such a close parallelity in youth, in spirit of work, in promise and in power, between him and the American song writer, that I cannot help using it as the medium for making known by way of introduction, the object of a series of papers on American composers, which will appear in The Etude from time to time.

The untimely death of Mr. Norris has awakened the literary world to the fact that a great influence has been unfolded in it; it feels that it has had within its circles a man affiliated with Truth, not by convention, not by superstition, not by tradition, but by raw nature. Why such an affiliation is rare, we do not know. Obvious it is that it is the basis and purifying element in every art, for all art is truth, and all truth is art, whether it be the hesitant confession of the child to its mother or the soul-charged of the brilliant orator. Norris interpreted the truth as he saw it, and because his divergence is so far from the accustomed way, he compels our consideration.

Briefly stated, Frank Norris was a young American; his body, new red blood and strong muscle; his mind, searching, discriminating, and imaginative; his spirit, sincere, aggressive, and convincing. Such diverse qualities could hardly parent any but somewhat undisciplined work at first, yet this very license on structural form and present-day conventions signaled uncommon strength. He came at a time when American fiction literature stood for nothing substantial, and threw the force of a personality that had no desire, no capacity, I might say, save for truthful delineation. The influence of such a personality is tremendous. It is the greatest purifying force that can come to any art, for art, like morals, tends ofttimes toward corruptency, and needs must exert over it an influence, purifying and reclaiming. The influence of such a personality is tremendous, did I write? Yes, and now its light is already gone out. Would that we could discern such power before “death brings it to life”! Would that we had said one word of encouragement, expressed just once our belief in him! It might have given peace to mind and soul,—not that peace that begets idle contentment, but that peace which stimulates calm courage to the expression of greater things.

With this in mind does it not behoove us to turn to our own art and see what influences are being exerted on it by the pen? Are there men like Frank Norris, with new light in their souls, unperceived by us; are there men baring the divinity of their natures to unresponsive condition; baring truth to convention and seeing it spurned, even swallowed up? Be it to our remorse if the light of another such life goes out, unacknowledged. Vocal art is influenced by whatever affects the thoughts and feelings of a people, and the most potent of such influences are race, epoch, and surroundings. We cannot justly estimate any vocal art without an acquaintance with national traits of its composers, the general character of the age in which they live and the physical and social conditions by which they are surrounded.

It has been questioned whether we have a national vocal art. Whether we have or not depends almost entirely on the individual’s idea of what constitutes a national vocal art. For myself, I beg to voice the sophistric conclusion of Mr. Rupert Hughes.

Of American music in general (and I appropriate the remark for its relativity to vocal music in particular), he says: “First, we lack a strictly national school; secondly, a strictly national school is not desirable; and thirdly, we must assuredly have a national school.” You will notice that in this last he is careful not to use the word “strictly,” leaving us to infer, that while we have a national school, it is not national in the sense that other so-called “national schools” are national.

Art becomes national, it seems to me, only when it expresses the egotism of the race. There must be a subconscious certitude of being before there is the impulse to voice those sentiments which individualize a nation. This certitude an American does not and cannot feel, for in a sense, we are as yet a non-existent nation. We are not American-Americans, but German-Americans, Franco-Americans, Italo-Americans, etc. We are strangers to each other, and, as such, share not those thoughts and feelings that parent musical art; and this cosmopolitan condition can never be sifted down to one of provincialness. Therefore a national school of musical art, particularly vocal art (for a nation interprets its musical feeling more naturally by voice than by instrument), can never exist in America under the same forces that engender it in Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Hungary, and other nations. Art can only be impelled under such conditions by individuals, who, feeling their individuality, have the courageous wish to project something of it into the future, beyond the narrow circle of their years. Nor is this wish a selfish one, knowing that we are saved by the fulfilment of our natures, and not by the restraint of them. It is inevitable truth to him who would deal seriously with the symbols of art, for it is art itself.

But to return—in America this impulsion must come by individuals rather than by masses, and for this reason we lack that basic element and emotion perpetuating agency, folk-song, but are ahead of our youth in maturity of art growth. By this I do not mean that our composers are out of touch with their period, in the sense that geniuses are said to “write ahead of their time,” but rather do I mean that their work is mature by reason of their catholic capacity for the potent influences of the world, by reason of its practicalness and moralness, by its connection with conscience and its suggestion of purity and beauty and holiness in all things.

This, then, is the unique position of American song writers, and because of its uniqueness it is an arduous task and will require some hardness of heart to select those composers who have ventured their individuality so far as to be acknowledged as the first exponents of the American musical character.

(To be continued.)

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