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The Influence of the Folk-Song on German Musical Art

From an Interview with the Eminent Composer and Director

Secured expressly for THE ETUDE
Mr. Mahler gave his opinions to our interviewer partly in German and partly in English. Consequently it has been impossible to employ his exact phraseology
[EDITOR’S NOTE—Gustav Mahler, who is now recognized as one of the very foremost composers and directors of our time, was born at Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7th, 1860: Neither his father nor his mother were musical. Notwithstanding this lack of hereditary influence, he manifested musical talent at a very early age, and started to compose when he was but a mere boy. Mahler now looks lightly upon these juvenile efforts, but they are said to have indicated his very pronounced talent. His first teachers were little known musicians located in small towns in Bohemia. Later he catered the Gymnasium at lglau and later at Prague, Bohemia. The German Gymnasium corresponds to the high school and college in America. Mahler’s academic education was completed at the University of Vienna, and his musical education was continued at the Conservatorium in Vienna, where he came under the influence of Bruckner. In 1880 he started his career as a conductor; which has made him one of the most renowned musicians of our time. Success followed success, and he passed in triumph through various posts at Cassel, Prague, Leipsic, Pesth, Hamburg, Vienna, and eventually came to New York as conductor of the German Grand Opera at the Metropolitan, later taking his recently resigned position as director of America’s oldest orchestra, the “New York Philharmonic.” This orchestra during the past ten years has been under the direction of the most renowned living conductors, including Seidl, Strauss, Henry Wood, Gustav Kogel, F. Weingartner, Colonne, W. Safonoff and several others, yet it has never received so much praise as has been bestowed upon it this season. As a composer, Mahler has produced eight notable symphonies which have been enthusiastically received in Europe and in America. As a conductor he is a virtual emperor, and his enormous ability and great erudition make his performances of the master works from Bach to Debussy authoritative in every sense of the word. The ETUDE feels that it is exceedingly fortunate in securing an interview such as the following from Herr Mahler since he has refrained from giving similar interviews upon subjects of this kind for many years.]
THE influence of the folk-song upon the music of the nations has been exhibited in many striking forms. At the very root of the whole matter lies a great educational truth which is so powerful in its effects, and so obvious to all, that one can almost make an axiom: “As the child is, so will the man be.” We cannot expect an oak to grow into a rose bush and we cannot expect the water-lily to become a palm. No amount of development, care or horticultural and agricultural skill could work miracles of this kind. So it is with children. What occurs. in childhood makes an indelible impression. The depth of this psychological impression must ever be the rock upon which all educational systems are founded. So it is in music, that the songs which a child assimilates in his youth will determine his musical manhood.

The music which the masters have assimilated in their childhood forms the texture of their mature musical development. It cannot be otherwise and I am unable to understand why the great educators of our age do not lay even greater stress upon this all-important point. I have said assimilated,.—you will notice that I did not say appropriated. That is quite a different matter. The music is absorbed and goes through a process of mental digestion until it becomes a part of the person, just as much as the hair on their heads, or the skin on their bodies. It is stored away in their brain-cells and will come forth again in the minds of creative musicians, not in the same or even similar form, but often in entirely new and wonderful conceptions.
I have often heard composers who claim to seek individuality above all things state that they purposely avoid hearing too much music of other composers, fearing that their own originality will be affected. They also avoid hearing the songs of the street or folk-songs for a similar reason. What arrant nonsense! If a man eats a beef steak it is no sign that he will become a cow. He takes the nourishment from the food and that transforms itself by means of wonderful physiological processes into flesh, strength and bodily force, but he may eat beef-steaks for a lifetime and never be anything but a man.
In some cases we find that the great composers have actually taken folk-melodies as themes for some of their. works. In most cases of this kind they have given the source of the theme all possible publicity. In some cases where they may not have done this a few critics with limited musical knowledge and no practical ability in composition have happened to find these instances, and being at a loss to write anything more intelligent, they have magnified these deliberate settings of folk-themes into disgraceful thefts. The cry of plagiarism is in most cases both cruel and unjustified.
The master who has the skill to develop a great musical work certainly possesses the ability to evolve melodies. When he takes a folk theme as the subject of one of his master-works, it is for the purpose of elaborating and beautifying it as a lapidary might take an unpolished diamond, and by his skill bring out the scintillating and kaleidoscopic beauties of the stone. After all, the handling of the theme is even more significant than the evolution of the theme. Consider for one moment the incalculable benefits to the literature of the world brought about by the Shakespeare treatment of plots, which otherwise would have been absolutely forgotten. Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Cæsar, all of them plagiarised, but gloriously plagiarised.

The early folksongs were by no means the product of trained musicians, but often came from the soul of some untutored genius who told his love, his sorrow, his mirth or his joy, in melody. At first they were transmitted from generation to generation solely by ear. Naturally many changes took place in this manner, and it often happened that one and the same song was sung in several quite different manners in different parts of the country. The monks of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did not hesitate to take the folk-songs for their sacred texts.  When the first Protestant choral book was made in 1524, the compilers helped themselves very freely from folk-song sources for the melodies to the chorals. indeed it has been said that over one-half of the melodies in the old folk-song books were of secular origin.
The early composers also realised that in order to make their work understandable and more readily received, it behooved them to employ folk-themes as the basis for some of their more complicated works, so that the public, that heard them could grasp the significance of the work more readily.

One does not have to delve very deep into the works of Haydn to realise what a keen appreciation he had for the beauty and simplicity of the folk-song. Although Haydn’s music seems extremely simple when compared with the intricate rhythms and harmonies many composers are wont to introduce in their scores of to-day, this very music was in its time considered revolutionary by Haydn’s contemporaries. Among other things, his interpretation of the idiom of the streets was strongly condemned. His melodies were called plebeian and often regarded as trivial. Haydn was unquestionably one of the most sincere of all composers. He spoke the music he knew and felt as his natural language. Notwithstanding his aristocratic surroundings in later life in the Palace of the Esterhazys, Haydn was a child of extremely poor parents, and during his youth was visited with the most severe poverty. Naturally this brought him close to the common people, as did his long service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, where he was a choir boy. When he come to produce his great works, he was so thoroughly imbued with the musical language of the people that the folk-song character and influence keeps crop- ping up all the time. This is, perhaps, not quite so much the case with Mozart, whose musical father, Leopold Mozart, took every pains to have his phenomenal son surrounded with the very best -music of his day. Notwithstanding this, one cannot help feeling that the folk-songs which the wonderful child must have heard from his little playmates were assimilated, although their influence is not so pronounced as in the case of Haydn. Anyone who is at all familiar with the Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, will detect this influence at once.
Although the actual instances where Beethoven used real folk-songs as themes or as suggestions for his works are limited, it is nevertheless the fact that this gigantic genius conceived in his most exquisite and moving melodies thematic, designs which when analyzed are really very simple and often of the character of folk-songs. No composer has excelled the majesty of Beethoven, and his masterpieces, like all great works of his, are so simple, chaste and unaffected that their similarity to the folk-songs—or shall we call them the heart-songs of the people?—may easily be traced.

The magnificent road which Beethoven opened should, to my mind, point the way to all great composers of symphonic music, just as the architecture of Athens. Rome and Corinth indicates the most secure path for the builder of great buildings.

I do not think that the tendency to use the idiom of the people will ever die out, and I do believe that music which has the true melodic characteristics will exist long after the furies of cacophony have worn themselves out of existence. All this I have said as a composer, but as a director I am thoroughly eclectic. I am tremendously curious about all new music, and seek to give each new work, regardless of type, the interpretation nearest that which the composer intended. This is my duty to myself, to my art and to the public which attends my concerts.

Since my residence in America I have been so busily engaged in the mission for which I came to this country that I have not had, perhaps, the right opportunities to investigate musical conditions as thoroughly as possible. Nevertheless, what I have observed, and what has been related to me by expert’s who have lived in the country for a lifetime, leads me to believe that a musical condition exists in this country which makes it extremely difficult for the American composer to work with the same innate feeling which characterises the work of some of his European contemporaries. I respect the efforts of American composers most highly, and shall gladly do everything in my power to assist them when possible, but the subject of the folk-song bears such a direct relation to this matter that I cannot fail to avail myself of this opportunity to discuss the matter.

I have previously expressed the somewhat axiomatic truths through which we learned that the musical influences which surround the child are those which have the greatest influence upon his after-life and also that the melodies which composers evolve in their maturity are but the flowers which bloom from the fields which were sown with the seeds of the folk-song in their childhood. Therefore when I am asked whence the future American composer will come I am forced to inquire: “Where is the American folk-song?” I cannot be quoted as an authority on American music, but depending upon the information received from friends whom I consider keen observers, and upon what I have heard myself, it seems to me that the popular music of America is not American at all, but rather that kind of music which the African negro transplanted to American soil has chosen to adopt. It must be remembered that the music of the African savage, be he Zulu, Hottentot, Kaflir or Abyssinian, rises but a trifle above the rhythmic basis. When these people, the ancestors of the present American negroes, made their compulsory voyages from the jungles of the Dark Continent to the New World, it should be remembered that they were in most cases savages pure and simple.

While I have the very greatest respect for the accomplishments of a few of the American negroes who have risen above their surroundings to high places and to distinguished attainments, I cannot subscribe myself to the doctrine that all men are born equal, as it is inconceivable to me. It is not reasonable to expect that a race could arise from a savage condition to a high ethnological state in a century or two. It took Northern Europe nearly one thousand years to fight its way from barbarism to civilisation. That the negroes in America have accomplished so much is truly amazing. In their music they doubtless copied and varied the models of the white people to whose households they were attached. Their love for song and their sense of rhythm assisted them in this. But to expect that they would evolve a new, distinct and original folk-song is preposterous in itself. They are great imitators, I am told, but that is no reason why the American composer should imitate their distorted copies of European folk-songs. The syncopations introduced in negro songs under the name of “rag-time” are not original, but may be found in the folk-songs of Hungary and other European nations. Syncopation as a part of national folk-songs existed in Europe before the first negroes were transported from Africa.

Just why the American composer should feel that he is doing something peculiarly American when he employs negro folk-songs is difficult to tell. Hungarian composers are prone to employ gypsy themes, and the music of Hungary has become marked in this way so that it has become gypsy music and not Hungarian music. Surely American music based upon the crude themes of the red-skinned aborigines, or upon the appropriated European type of folk-song which the African Americans have produced, is not any more representative of the great American people of to-day than are these swarthy citizens of the New World representative of all Americans.

So long as young Americans have to content themselves with the kind of trashy popular songs which are ground out by the thousand every year and howled mercilessly in the music halls of the country, just so long will America be forced to wait for its great master in music. But I am told by educators, America is awakening to this condition, and American children are being furnished with ever-increasing opportunities to hear good music. The music of the public schools is based upon the best folk-song melodies of all Europe. The music in the best churches, instead of being modeled upon the kind of tunes not very remote from crude negro melodies in themselves, is now following the best models of the world, and I know in my own sphere as a conductor that America is now being afforded splendid opportunities to hear the great masterpieces played by famous instrumentalists and sung by world-famous singers. America thus hears the music of all nations played by performers from all nations. One does not have to be a prophet to see that some day when this marvelous amalgamation of Teuton, Celt, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Czech, Slav and Greek is more advanced, America may look for results in music far beyond the fairest dreams of the most optimistic.

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