The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About

Musical Taste in Modern Times

The sense for the mysterious is gradually disappearing in these days in consequence of the irrepressible desire to prove everything, to explain everything; yet there is something which will always remain mysterious—and that is Taste. Be it understood that here “taste” is used only in its application to music—a subject already difficult enough, for the question of taste enters into close contact with innumerable feelings and nuances in feelings which are one with, and inseparable from, the word “Taste.” In most cases the question is evaded with the usual assurance that “about taste and color it is impossible to argue.” This argument is just as vain as when someone pounds his fist on the table in support of his pet view.
Lucrece, the first who unrolled the papyrus on which a Greek writer had copied the treatise of Epicurus, from which he learnt “the manifoldness of things, and the usefulness of thinking,” said: “I would rather have taste than genius.” A beautiful African enchantress, who still found him to possess too much genius, gave him a love-draught (according to the legend told by Father Hieronymus). Having swallowed this draught, the poet forgot all the Greek words which were on the papyrus. He became demented, and experienced for the first time the taste of love; and, as he had drunk poison, he also experienced the sensations of death. Probably only a man who dared to go into similar adventures could teach us the value of the word “Taste,” if he had not previously paid with his life for the candor of his opinion.
Beethoven is another of those men whose genius is an absolute certainty, and yet he had not taste. To make this assertion is, of course, to expose oneself to the anathema of all his devotees. But it is impossible not to observe that Beethoven, in pursuit of a faultless form, was often led to neglect the contents. In his works it may frequently be seen how the intense graduation of a period ends with a noisy dissolution into a soothing banality. It is not the intention here to diminish the fame of Beethoven. In such cases it is only a malicious trick of the fairy “Good Taste,” who had not been invited to the christening. However, where Mozart is concerned, this same fairy—these rare ladies are privileged to be capricious—never failed to make her appearance. Mozart never falls into the error with which we here reproach Beethoven for, in addition to his wonderful gifts, he has the precious instinct of choice in his thoughts.
Many will find that the whole matter is of little importance. Perhaps they will go so far as to use the word Byzantinism, which comes so readily to one who does not want to understand what is in question. We are not of that opinion. Genius can certainly do without taste, but it may be permitted us to deplore the fact when it is lacking. Anyway, it is easy to place the genius of taste which was peculiar to Mozart in opposition to the sinister genius without taste of Beethoven, since it is possible to satisfy one’s insatiable desire for classification just through this peculiarity which is existent in Mozart and which is non-existent in Beethoven. How else would discussion be possible?
Let us give a moment to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach—this charitable god, to whom all musicians should offer a prayer before they sit down to their work in-order that he may save them from “sin” and guard them from mediocrity—that colossal work which we do not thoroughly know yet, and in which can be found all music, from a capricious rhapsody to those wonderful religious effusions which have never been surpassed. It will be in vain to look for an error in taste in Bach, either in the Preludes, where the surest fantasy plays without effort with the rules of the strict setting, or in the Passions, the beauty of which has the austere quality of a majestic forest.
Shakespeare’s Portia speaks somewhere of the music which each person has within him. “Woe to him,” she says, “who hears it not.” Because Bach listened continually to this inner music he became the greatest among the great, and retained that position in spite of the gnawing work of centuries. Others have gone without any one knowing why they really came, because they did not observe this rule, because they did not hear their inner music; but only listened to that which was dictated by the fashions of the day. This is a delicate point which we touch here, but we shall illuminate it further, without fear.
There were—there are still, in spite of all the destruction which civilization has wrought, peoples and tribes who have learned music, no one knows how. They know no conservatories, no music professors, no composers. We may be sure that we should never admit that their music is charming and musical. A rather ugly European feeling prevents us from appreciating it. We treat this art as bizarre or barbaric. That saves us the trouble of understanding it, and we preserve our prejudices for our own music.
Notwithstanding, the Japanese music observes a counterpoint which is found again in similar manner in the masses of Palestrina and Orlando Lasso… . . The Anamese present a sort of embryo of lyric drama after a tetralogical formula with the most elementary means. There it is enough to have a small clarinet and a tom-tom, in order to guide the sensations, to depict the situation    it is not necessary to have a specially furnished playhouse nor a hidden orchestra. Only one instinctive desire for art seeks for means—to satisfy itself; and here there is no sign of bad taste!
Is it possible that the members of the musical profession ruin the civilized countries, and that the complaint is sent to the wrong address when it accuses the public of loving only light or even bad music?
Accurately speaking, there is neither light nor heavy music. Every music has to find its right for existence in itself, whether it borrows its rhythm from a waltz or a symphony. It is the specialists who arbitrarily declare certain kinds of music as more musical than others.
Nevertheless, it will always be true that a waltz even in a café chantant—may contain more true music than a symphony with official stamp and seal. The cause of the public’s bad taste can be found much more readily. First of all, it should not be said that the cause lies in a greater or lesser education of the people. A people is not educated. It is conquered by force. It is made to bow down to beauty as the wind makes the stalks in the field bow down to earth. It may at times revolt and grumble on its way home—the success has been attained in spite of it.
No. That which entertains bad taste is mediocrity—is that music which falsely adopts the name of great music, and the lie of which is supported with all the blast of trumpets of réclame. How can it be expected of a people that good taste should find its way among the booths of this fair, where each one is crying his own wares and praises his bridge-playing or his five-legged rabbit? The noise drives people mad. They do not know whither they go nor what they hear. They even believe that they are amusing themselves. How are these people to guess that so near to these noises of the fair the pure springs of melodic music rush forth under the great trees of the forest? Must not the help of the mysterious Taste be welcomed as a philanthropist, as a saviour for the preservation of future beauty?
And if a definite stand is to be taken, and an opinion voiced, so that it does not seem as if one were simply juggling with subtly-colored words, then this can be said: The beauty of a work of art cannot exist without mystery. That is, it cannot be accurately ascertained in a work of art “how it is done.” …. Let us preserve this particular charm to music, at any cost. By the very nature of its art, music is more sensitive to this than any other form of art, for everything in it is mystery. We know nothing about its beginning. Learned savants claim that man sung before he spoke—that song existed before speech. This opinion seems too poetic—altogether too contrary to the barbarism of primitive ages. Let us rather accept the theory that it was the warbling of the birds which first gave man the thought of music.
When the god Pan listened to the wind among the reeds, and bound together the seven pipes of his flute, he first imitated the long drawn-out, melancholy note of the toad complaining in the moonlight. It is most probable that not until much later did he vie with the songs of the birds. Even for the Olympic god the lyre was difficult to master.
As is seen, music has the right and even the duty to preserve something of mystery… . . Do not let us try to rob her of it; on the contrary, let us strengthen it with the divine piety of “Taste.” It is the only natural barrier which can protect art as well from the barbarians with their coarse fists as from the civilized with their learned spectacles.
May Taste remain the protector of sacred Mystery!

<< Great Pianists at the Keyboard. Series I. A Lesson in Position.     From Beethoven to Wagner >>

Monthly Archives


The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music