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The Art of Criticism Indispensable To Musical Education

Perhaps the most neglected side of the study of music is one which is most necessary to all who are interested in music whether directly or otherwise, and that is the ability to criticise either oneself or some one else.
When all is said and done there is no subject that is regarded in such an ignorant manner as is music which, long before the present time, should have taken its place among those arts and sciences which are accorded respectful deference. But, alas! No. Music is talked about by everyone, from the butcher to the grand dame in her drawing room, and often the butcher knows as much and more about the matter than does the lady. People will talk of music—for this there is no help, and that nothing has been offered to force them to talk understandingly   is the incomprehensible thing. It must not be supposed that persons love to talk and to think in an ignorant manner; but many do not know how to get certain information, and for others the exertion of study is too much.
The opportunity is here for a line of education which would be received with pleasure, and will do more toward the raising of the musical standards in this country than anything that has been suggested for a long time.
The Study of Musical Criticism.
First we must make perfectly clear to ourselves and to everybody the exact meaning of the word "criticism," and the function of the critic. This has been very sadly mistaken, and a pity it is to say that it has been misunderstood more frequently by the critic himself than by anyone else. To criticise does not for a certainty mean to cavil. It is not difficult to find fault, for nothing is perfect—faults exist, and they can be created by the imagination if they do not exist. To criticise one must be able to see the good as well as the bad; the smooth as well as the uneven; the subtleties as well as the gross; and beyond the ability to see them, one must have the power to make others see them.
Music as taught in the public schools may or may not be of value; but that the art of understanding and criticising a musical program should be included in the daily studies cannot be doubted. In the same manner as people are made able to judge of the true worth of the literature of all countries and all days, so should music be regarded. However, since it is not, it is for the musicians themselves to devise a plan by which the general public, or those who are desirous of gaining this information, may be informed and led into the light out of the pitiful darkness in which most people grope at the present time. It may be further removed from the possibility of the teacher of music to reach those who are now men and women than it is to gain the interest of the younger element, and, as this is within the power of every one to whom the musical education of children is intrusted, it behooves all to include a course of training in musical criticism.
What is Musical Criticism?
The question must arise at this point: What is musical criticism? Musical criticism requires an understanding of certain principles without which no one can be said really to understand music. But these very principles are usually the most neglected, as the importance is not apparent to any but a thinking mind, and unfortunately all who busy themselves concerning music are not blessed with thinking minds. One of the few examples of seriously neglected subjects is herewith given and I shall endeavor to show the connecting link between the subject itself and the study of music.
Everybody talks of modern music as distinct from classical, but that this is more than a figure of speech perhaps does not enter the heads of nine- tenths of them. From what modern music has developed, the assistance that it has had through the construction of the modern piano and other instruments, the growth of the drama and through that the modern appliances which make new conditions in opera a necessity, the influence that this has upon music, the searching around for effects, the sensational in daily life, and the attempt to translate these sensations into music, all lend their influences to swerving music out of the lines of marble classic form which were compulsory in the days of limited means and limited instruments. It is obvious that before one can enter the portals of a Richard Strauss tone-poem and compare it to the creations of a Haydn or a Mozart there should be something upon which to base a point of departure.
It is not difficult to see that in a certain sense criticism is based upon a study of form, and form is based upon history. Now, history can be mastered, although one may live hundreds of miles away from the advantages offered by a great city; and, whereas this does not constitute criticism, it does lead into it; and it is the unmistakable foundation upon which the rest is built.
From the Side of Technic.
How one who is not a practical musician can be made to understand the right and the wrong in a technical performance must bring about several questions. It will not be the matter of which technic is correct, but what are the principles of the different schools, and what are the probabilities that an individual may develop a technical treatment that fits his individual case and is perfectly compatible with that which artists have accepted as correct.
It will also be well to bear in mind that many persons who should really know every side of technic are totally ignorant of the subject. That the general public is ignorant, as well, is no disgrace, but that a means might be created which would enlighten public and performers alike cannot be doubted. To everything there is a right and a wrong. In many cases it is easier to show that which is incorrect rather than that which is accepted as correct; but that technic should be confounded with velocity is really not necessary, as anyone should be able to explain away these fallacies, and make clear that which people think is perfectly clear. As a matter of fact, there is no relation between what they believe and things as they are.
Regarding Analysis.
Within the past few years there has been a desire on the part of many to present lectures and talks upon the analysis of music. For the greater part these talks are addressed directly to those who understand music, and they involve a great many technicalities which the amateur or the non-musician cannot possibly grasp. Let the lecturer lay his plans as though he were to talk to a woman's club, for instance, where he is assumed of intelligent listeners, notwithstanding the fact that they may know absolutely nothing about music. It is for him then to present to them such principles as melody, harmony, a phrase, the theme, the development of that theme and all those intimate details which would really be the key by which the portals of music might be thrown open to their understanding. Such persons are then prepared to hear concerts and to derive something from them. It may not be out of place for him to point out the fallacies, the faults, as well as the beauties. By so doing he will put it within the power of people who have not been educated in music, to distinguish the good from the poor; and in this way he is creating larger audiences, but beyond that more discriminating ones.
Here it is well to caution the lecturer, who, of course, is a musician, against the narrowness with which so many are beset. It is a pity to be forced to admit the fact, but the prejudices of most of the musicians are beyond reason, and really beyond pardon. If a man is to enlighten people upon the beauties of an art let him, at least, be broad enough and strong enough not to obtrude personal jealousy and bitterness upon his hearers. The danger of this is obvious; for if they take his word for anything they accept his statements for everything, statements which, oftener than not, are tinged with that biliary shade of musical jaundice against everything that is not in accordance with his own theories.
His uppermost thought should be to bring these persons into an intelligent understanding, the principal element of which should be the ability to enjoy. If he does this he has fulfilled his mission; for it is not his duty to make them so analytical and so critical as to destroy their power of enjoyment. Not speaking from the side of the professional critic, pleasure should be the primary mood and criticism should by all means occupy the secondary position.
Criticism in the Music Class.
The foregoing has dealt with musical criticism as an adjunct to general education. Now we will bring it down to the music student himself, and see what it has to offer that may improve his work.
From the very earliest day he should be made to look into himself and his work, calmly and without conceit. The flaws that he may find in others he must look for in himself—the flaws he finds in himself may make him more charitable toward others. But charity is neither here nor there; we are dealing with art. Yet we must never forget that perfection is unattainable in life, and our attempt must be to bring ourselves as near the highest degree as is possible; and so we must not decry others because they have not succeeded in attaining that height which no mortal has ever reached.
There is no side of music which involves human nature as does that of criticism. The tendency to jealousy is almost inevitable, but this element must be kept out of the question and judgment must supplant it. This will never be done until the teacher is powerful enough and intelligent enough to make all executants subservient to the art itself. Pupils are permitted from their earliest days to overestimate themselves, and to underestimate their art; and to this, trifling as it may seem, we must attribute much of the erroneous atmosphere that surrounds music. Every teacher should set one day in the week, or in the month, when his pupils shall be assembled to play for one another and to receive criticism from the class. If a criticism be offered the suggestion for a remedy should be brought forward at the same time, whether the pupil is able to do this or whether it must come from the teacher.
It is unreasonable to believe that the pupil can offer intelligent criticism or suggestions. He may be keen enough to feel the lack—his musical nature would assist him in that. But the subtleties of music are so great that it takes a scholar, we might almost say a philosopher, to be able to explain them, and here is the great opportunity. It is now for the teacher to reveal to his class the immensity of the art; what thought, what study, what devotion, what concentration it demands. It is a moment where every emotion, even to reverence, is called into play. The mind at this instant is able to sense that which during the lesson hour is not presented, and if nothing else has been accomplished, the pupil has been permitted to realize the immensity of the life work which he has undertaken, and to realize the climb which lies before him.

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You are reading The Art of Criticism Indispensable To Musical Education from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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