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Comments on European Musical Topics.


An account of the modern French school, in the Signale, invites comment on that school. It is now over eighty years since the birth of its founder, César Franck—a long period in musical history when we consider that a like interval would extend from the death of Mozart to the Bayreuth festivals. But Franck’s works were almost unknown during his lifetime, and America is not even now fully acquainted with his disciples. It is even considered an unusual event for us to hear the master’s “Beatitudes,” or the great D minor symphony.

Franck was modest and unassuming by nature, and lived his life as teacher, organist, and composer in undeserved obscurity. Yet his pupils honored him with unbounded enthusiasm. “He stands out from his fellows as one of another age,” said de Ropartz. “They are scoffers, he was a believer; they vaunt themselves, he worked in silence; they seek glory, he let it seek him; he has left us the noblest example of artistic uprightness.”

He has also left us much interesting music; modulatory in character, sometimes mystical in expression, but great with a massive solidity and grandeur. His involved polyphony and chromatic style prevent the success of his Viking opera, “Hulda,” but are employed in masterly fashion in his symphonic poems: “Psyche,” with chorus, “Les Eolides,” “Les Djinns,” and “Le Chasseur Maudit.”

Of Franck’s disciples, it may truly be said that some were born great, some have achieved greatness, while others have had greatness thrust upon them. That is to say, a few have shown evidences of real musical genius; others, more in number, have wrought something by earnest application; while many are drawn into undue prominence by the present success of the school.

Vincent d’Indy, the chief living representative, may almost be rated in all three classes. He has genius, as shown in the “Lied Maritime” and many of his shorter works. But his symphonies and operas speak frequently the word “effort.” The composer strives to find something new in the world of harmony; not with the frenzied strength of a Richard Strauss, but in a more calmly deliberate and far less inspired manner. Some of the modern French compositions lack all traces of feeling, emotional expression, or melodic charm. They are merely exercises in tonal mathematics, and have led the French critics to invent the term “Cerebral music.” D’Indy inclines too much to this style.

Of the many Frenchmen who have attempted legendary subjects in opera, Chabrier has succeeded best, with his “Gwendoline.” He has the most virile and forcible expression of all, the rather labored realism of Bruneau seeming decidedly less natural. Bruneau won an early success with his “Attaque du Moulin,” but followed with a series of partial or total failures. “L’Enfant Roi” is in lighter vein, but for the more captivating side of music one must still turn to such works as Massenet’s “Jongleur de Notre Dame.” One operatic master has arisen among the younger men—Charpentier. The realism of his “Louise” is impressive in its intensity, but even this work succeeds in part because of its powerful plot. Charpentier is everywhere expressive—in “Louise,” in “La Vie du Poête,” in the lively “Impressions d’Italie”; but his music is interesting rather than great. The works of Debussy, like the songs of Fauré, show the ethereal charm of delicacy; but even in these (or perhaps especially in these) is lacking the robust vigor and direct utterance of the Russian school. Chausson was a master of rich harmonic effects, as he proved by his “Roi Arthus” and other works. But their charm fades by comparison with Goldmark, or with the sixth symphony of Glazounoff. The French school as a whole seems to the present writer much overrated; time is needed for just appreciation, and a dozen years will clear the chaff from the wheat.

A discussion of exotic melodies, in the Quarterly of the International Musical Society, brings up the question of the value of folk-music in general. Fétis defines music as the art of moving the emotions by combinations of tone. At first glance, this might appear to exclude melody, which is a succession rather than a combination of tones; but that is evidently not what the historian intended. The quarter-tone croonings of the East Indians, the primitive harp-notes of savage African tribes, the favorite three- toned chant of the Abyssinians, and the caterwauling of the Chinese all cause the liveliest delight to their hearers.

Among the more civilized countries, nearly all have possessed a flourishing school of folk-music, at some time. When this material is adapted by trained composers, a truly national school is brought into being. Russia is the most famous example of this fact; even Tchaikovsky, characteristic as he is, is hardly claimed as a nationalist. The great group of five (Balakireff, Cui, Moussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakoff) went directly to the popular songs of their country for inspiration. Grieg did the same with the beautiful melodies of Norway. The young Smetana, hearing Herbeck remark that the Czechs were merely reproductive, at once determined to strive for a true Bohemian school, and the world is only now learning to realize the result of his efforts. It was national appreciation that caused the success of Humperdinck’s “Hänsel and Gretel,” no less than the earlier triumph of Weber’s “Freischütz.” Per contra, national taste may sometimes work evil. Rossini wrote trivial melodies because the Italian public demanded them; “Guillaume Tell” showed that he could do something better.

Not all music is national. Bach’s exquisite polyphony and Beethoven’s classic tonal architecture belong not to Germany, but to the whole civilized world. The ideal sentiment of Schumann, the poetic fire of Chopin, the fairy-like grace of Mendelssohn, the brilliance of Liszt, the superbly colored scenes of Wagner, these are not essentially German, Polish or Hungarian, but belong to all the world. America has not brought forth a truly national school, because our education has been too cosmopolitan. Dvorák, in his great “New World” symphony, showed us the path to nationalism, but no one seems eager to follow his lead. It may be that strong ability is lacking, but the desire seems equally lacking. Meanwhile, we plod along in semi-conscious imitation, and wonder why we have not yet set the musical river on fire.


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