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The Survival of the Fittest in Music

How the Great Works of the Tonal Art Remain Through the Centuries, While Those of Less Value Are Doomed to More or Less Certain Oblivion.
 
By LOUIS C. ELSON.
 
[Editor's Note.—Mr. Elson's article is upon one of the most obvious but at the same time least discussed phases of musical history. The recently published monumental work by John Towers (Dictionary of Operas and Operettas) contains the names and composers of 28,015 operas and operettas. We remember that not more than one hundred operas at the most are performed upon the stage in this day. We are inclined to ask what has become of the other 27,915. The manner m which the really worthy works "hold their own" is certainly remarkable.]
 
Tempora mutantur et Musica mutatur in illis! Music changes with the times even as much as we change with them. Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest is carried out in Art, even as it is in Nature. Works that were once held to be marvels of tone production have been placed upon the shelf. Other compositions that have been reviled or held in slight esteem during the lifetime of their creators have become the models and standards of modern times. It is possible that such changes are greater in Music than in the other Arts, for these have fixed laws, while, the rules of Music are constantly changing. Painting has its fundamental laws rooted in Nature, but the simplest harmonic progression, an authentic cadence, for example, cannot be demonstrated by natural laws.
 
Music, then, is an Art made by man, for man and it changes, even as mankind changes, from epoch to epoch. Palestrina's "Mass of Pope Marcellus" moved another Pope to say: "It must be such Music that the angels sing in the new Jerusalem!" William Dufay wanted one of his compositions (a Motette— "Ave Regina") sung at his death-bed, after he had received Extreme Unction, in order that the music might soothe his last agonies. Yet if we heard either of the above-named works we of the twentieth century would find them ascetic, abstruse and quite unemotional. On the other hand, if Dufay or Palestrina were suddenly to come back to earth and listen even to such an inspired work as "Tristan and Isolde" they would think that our composers had become utterly unmusical. Time, however, sifts the different schools of Music with unerring hand, and sees to it that Palestrina's music is not lost because of Wagner's.
 
Some of the epochs in Music are in striking contrast with each other, and the taste of the world has made some startling deviations. The epoch of the old Gregorian chant was decidedly different from the epoch of Flemish counterpoint. Luther, who reveled in the contrapuntal complexities of Josquin Desprès, might not have been in sympathy with the monodic effects of the first operas, that came somewhat later. The wealthy Florentine amateurs who loved these operas would scarcely have grown enthusiastic over Bach's B-Minor Mass of the succeeding century. From this Mass to the style of Haydn is another wide leap. From Haydn to Wagner, from Mendelssohn to Richard Strauss, are long sweeps of the pendulum.
 
"IS THERE NOTHING NEW IN MUSIC?"
Yet this lesson may be gained from studying the remarkable changes in our Art—one school of Music never obliterates another. The good in every school survives in spite of the sharp changes of general popular taste. Yet there are many instances of prominent musicians imagining that all music is cast in the mold of their own time. It was about 1722 that Rameau wrote lamenting that all possible changes had been experimented with in Music, and nothing new was left to be evolved. "Music is moribund!" he cried, and he predicted its early death. Yet at that time there had been not one of those that we term the musical giants known in France. Bach and Handel were living, to be sure, but Rameau had no inkling of the power of their "new school." Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Weber, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Strauss, Brahms, and all the rest of our great ones were yet to come. Music had not fairly commenced, even, when this writer thought it was ended.
 
It may further impress the lesson of such mistaken views to pass rapidly in review some of the changes which time has wrought with especial works, some of the mistaken judgments and erroneous criticisms that have strewn the paths of Art during the last two centuries.
 
In the case of Bach, we find not so much of lack of comprehension as of indifference. Yet the true appreciation of Bach's greatest works did not come during his lifetime. There is a peculiar parallel between Shakespeare and Bach. Both were recognized as great in their own time, but their full grandeur was not understood. Both were relegated to semi-oblivion for a considerable period immediately after their death. Both had a modern revival, after which they came into their true position in Art. With Shakespeare the revival was begun by Colley Cibber. With Bach it was inaugurated by Mendelssohn.
 
A century after its first performance, Mendelssohn brought out the "Passion Music" (the St. Matthew version) in Germany, and the world at once hailed a masterpiece. It is a misleading statement in many musical histories to say that the work was not performed between the time of its production by its own composer and the revival by Mendelssohn. It had been produced several times in Leipsic, but chiefly as a religious function, and not as a tremendous art-work. But it was from the Mendelssohnian performance in Berlin, on March 11, 1892, that it took root, and it was from that date that we may reckon the renascence of Bach, whose real growth took place in the nineteenth century.
 
MISTAKES OF COMPOSERS.
We have already intimated that composers are the most apt to be limited in their views of other composers or of a school of music. Thus, we find Mattheson believing that Handel was greatly overrated, and was actually but a mediocre composer. Handel looked down most patronizingly upon Gluck. "He knows no more of counterpoint than my cook," thing of a musician, and counterpoint was, from cried he. But Handel's cook happened to be some that epoch, no longer to be the chief and only gauge of musical competency. Handel's "Messiah" and Gluck's "Orpheus" were masterpieces in different schools, and posterity accepted both
 
Spohr looked down upon Beethoven, and thought his music very affected, but Spohr has faded, and Beethoven has not. The exaggerated estimate of Spohr was fairly voiced by his wife in the epitaph— "He has gone to the only place where his works can be excelled," which epitaph pleased another widow so much that she copied it for the tomb of her husband, who, unfortunately, was a pyrotechnist a maker of fireworks! Weber said of Beethoven, after his fourth symphony: "He is now quite ready for the madhouse."
 
CRITICAL ATTACKS UPON BEETHOVEN.
Since we are speaking of the attacks upon Beethoven, it may not be amiss to reprint one or two criticisms, which we have translated literally from contemporary German musical journals. Regarding the Sonatas, Op. 10, we read:
 
"Mr. Beethoven goes on his own peculiar path, and a tiresome and rugged path it is. Learning, learning and learning, and not a bit of poetry, not a bit of song. And when we examine the learning displayed we find it to be a crude and undigested learning, which does not clearly express its own intention."
 
Another writes of the same Sonatas:
 
"After playing the work, we feel as if we had been invited by a friend to take a pleasure walk (Spaziergang), and having once got us in his clutches, he marches us up hill and down dale, until we get back home, without having had the least bit of pleasure, and are only tired out and quite exhausted."
 
Of Beethoven's style of variations, a reviewer writes:
 
"This composer should remember that not every theme is fit for variation. Let him study the works of Mozart until he understands what melodies to select for his variations."
 
Regarding the finale of the "Sonate Pathetique," we read:
 
''The movement is attractive, but the themes are not original. Although at the moment we cannot tell from where, we are sure that they are borrowed."
 
Such were the verdicts upon some of the earlier works of the great master. One is glad to add, however, that Beethoven's greatness was fully recognized before he died; his fame was by no means posthumous.
 
During his lifetime, however, Hummel was considered by many to be his equal, if not his superior, in the domain of piano composition—a verdict that posterity has reversed.
 
Mozart held Abt Vogler (immortalized by Browning) to be the veriest quack and charlatan. Yet, Vogler taught both Weber and Meyerbeer, and was held in high esteem by them.
 
CHOPIN RIDICULED.
Chopin was held in anything but high esteem by some of the old pianists and composers of his time. Moscheles, one of the most conscientious of teachers, had the gravest doubts about the value of Chopin's poetic innovations in piano composition. Many in Paris, in the earlier part of Chopin's career, held Kalkbrenner to be the superior pianist, if not the better composer. Chopin himself may have modestly shaded this opinion, since he thought of taking lessons of Kalkbrenner. The latter had the audacity to propose an apprenticeship of three years to Chopin. Mendelssohn said afterwards: "Chopin is worth twenty Kalkbrenners!"
 
Of the superiority which Mendlessohn (sic) assumed over Schumann we need not speak at great length. The two were such opposites that it was perhaps inevitable that they should not fully understand each other. But Schumann over-rated Mendlessohn (sic) while Mendelssohn under-rated Schumann. In England they still contradict this statement, but the fact remains that Mendelssohn's close friend, the critic, Chorley, went to the wildest lengths in abusing Schumann in the Athenaeum, while a mere suggestion from Mendelssohn would have stopped the flood of denunciation or have rendered it milder.
 
BRAHMS AND BRUCKNER.
If one reads the Von Herzogenberg letters to Brahms, recently published, it will be found that Brahms yielded at least a tacit consent to the abuse of Anton Bruckner. Here are some extracts from Frau von Herzogenberg's letters to Brahms, alluding to Bruckner:
 
"Remember us to Wüllner. Can't you cure him of Bruckner, who has become as much of an epidemic as diphtheria?"
 
"I should just like to know who started the Bruckner crusade, how it came about, and whether there is a sort of freemasonry among the Wagnerians. It is certainly like Taroc, that form of whist in which, when 'misery' is declared, the lowest card takes the 'trick.'"
 
"They think the Bruckner broth rich, just because they see an occasional grease spot floating on top of the water."
 
Brahms allowed these ebullitions to. go quite unrebuked, and once at least tacitly confirmed them. Brahms also heartily disliked the finale of   Tschaikowsky's fifth symphony, and much other of that composer's music, while Tschaikowsky was by no means fascinated with the music of Brahms. The world has, however, accepted both.
 
Had the phlegmatic Brahms but understood the fiery Hugo Wolf, it might have spared that composer many bitter trials. A genius was here scourged into insanity by lack of help in his thorny path.
 
But these misunderstandings form a rather dreary recital. One might add a list of faded celebrities who were believed to be musical giants in their day. Moscheles was one of them. "Now, none so poor to do him reverence." Gade was another. He gradually subsided into the position of moon to Mendelssohn's sun, so that the radicals called him "Mrs. Mendelssohn." Time has played sad havoc with some reputations.
 
One could supplement the list with choice gems of fatally false criticism, as misleading as the excerpts from Beethoven's detractors, quoted above. Chorley, who loathed everything that Schumann wrote; Hanslick, who found a thousand faults with Wagner; Bernard Shaw, who once discovered that "Paderewski almost displayed temperament" in one of the London concerts given before he became famous as the most temperamental of interpreters; Burney, who long ago wrote of Philipp Em. Bach as "undoubtedly much greater than his father."
 
THE NEED FOR BREADTH.
What will the survival be of the new French, German and Italian schools of Strauss, Reger, Debussy, D'Indy, Bossi, etc.? Will Gounod's "Redemption" be in the ranks of standard oratorios in the next generation? If we study carefully the lesson of the past, we find that almost every school of musical composition grew, culminated, and was succeeded by an era when mere skill in following its rules was mistaken for genius. It is possible that we are now in the midst of an epoch of this deceptive cleverness pushed to extremes. It is possible that we are upon the eve of the birth of a new school. The amount of striving in every conceivable new direction seems like a premonition of the passing of the present veins of composition.
 
But they will not be obliterated. We may rest assured that something of the work of the first decade of the twentieth century will remain.
 
We have learned the lesson that the advanced musician should strive to understand all the different schools of music. The disciple of Brahms must also comprehend Wagner. The lover of Strauss must not turn away from Haydn; the Debussy dreamer must also grasp the musical facts of Bach. We musicians need more of the breadth that is shown in literature. We have never yet found a true reader who has said to us: "You are fond of Shakespeare. Too bad! For you cannot enjoy Tennyson. Do not read Milton, for you ought to admire Walt Whitman!" Let the musician appreciate the fact that all the way from Palestrina to Humperdinck good composers supplement rather than oppose each other.

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