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Musical Thought and Action in the Old World



After a period of deep thought on the psychology of musical æsthetics, one finds the subject not wholly clear. But the theory of chord development along the overtones, reviewed last month, suggested a search as to how or why we enjoy music; and here goes.

A large part, of course, is due to association. We recognize a march, a waltz, a minuet, etc., by the rhythmic structure, which we have already learned to couple with the action implied. Other factors enter, of course. In general, high pitch is brilliant and cheerful while low pitch is not; and one would trace this directly to the fact that an increased vibration-note causes an increase in the number of tiny sensations received in the brain. The low tone is louder, and carries farther in boat whistles, but the high note causes more of the vibration sensation that is the basis of cerebral attention and pleasure. This may indicate why, after we learn the major scale, the minor mode seems gloomy. If we learned the minor first, the major would seem more than ever brilliant. But folk-songs and popular music teach us major effects even before we begin to study. They are, in fact, based on the overtone series, the “chord of nature.”

Similarly, in rhythm, rapid notes seem more brilliant than slow ones, and loud notes more striking than softer ones. The bright scherzos of the Beethoven symphonies are often as fast as the swiftest galop. If in marches the tempo is less rapid, we find a new factor to attract attention—a noticeable regularity of pace and accent. This, with the usual loudness of a march, is sufficient to give it a cheerful character as well as martial associations. Some new factor, like the minor mode, is needed if a march is to be made gloomy. Constant softness will also modify the effect somewhat; not an expected softness, like Roff’s picture of the departing army in Lenore, but an unexpected softness without apparent reason. Anything that we hear after actually being led to expect it would heighten the interest and cheerfulness.

This expectation factor gives the charm to the higher forms of counterpoint. We know what to expect—themes and figures that will play their part over again in the different voices. We may listen to the freedom of an invention or the stricter form of the fugue; but if the composer uses his themes with skill, we are constantly attracted through the mental process of recognition of the expected. The same is true in large degree of symphonic development, and to some extent of all musical form.

But psychology is now going deeper. In the review of Friedrich Bösenberg’s work, in Die Musik, several ideas appear. A two-noted interval, for instance, is regarded as a psychological unit, the notes at each end serving to show a certain scale-distance, just as it takes two marks to show an inch space on a ruler. This, of course, plays its part if the notes occur successively, as in melody. Some give each pitch its special character, but it is far more important to differentiate between the degrees of any given scale. There is also a monistic and a dualistic theory of intervals, the former apparently claiming that any interval when possible take its place in the chord of nature; E and G, for instance, suggesting the tonic triad of C rather than that of E minor.


In last month’s notes it was seen that recognition of vibration-rates, i. e., scale positions, was the chief factor that entered into the appreciation of harmonic as well as melodic progression. When we hear a chord, we unconsciously refer it to something else—either the original keynote, or that of a key to which we have modulated. When we hear the following chord we compare it with what went before, and notice in what way the relationship to the keynote is changed—what new part in the scale is played by the chord. If the second chord differs from the first so much that a new keynote is implied, we do not at once supply it, but wait for the third chord. The latter usually determines the key in connection with its predecessor, just as two intersecting lines determine a point.

This brings us again to Marnold’s theory that musical appreciation has developed along the overtones.

The pre-classical period, he notes, was accustomed only to the fifth overtone, and relied on triad effects. The romantic school brought in the sixth of the series, making seventh chords usual; while the moderns rely on perceptions of ninths and even more advanced chords. While this is true, it is hardly fair for Marnold to consider it a final justification of certain composers. Because a new chord grows familiar, it does not signify that the old effects are superseded. They should be merely amplified; composers should use the full range of possibilities, and not limit themselves to a mere revel in what is new and comparatively strange. In this respect a Debussy and a Schönberg show themselves extremists, where a Wagner or a Liszt was broad enough to blend the old effects into the new, and build on a solid foundation.

The recognition of relation of effects, then, lies at the basis of musical perception, unless we are going to create a new system of music. Thus we have grown to a point where a unison melody will imply its own harmony in large degree. The reverse is true, that harmonies may imply a melody, as in the Gounod-Bach Ave Maria. The mind naturally takes the simplest course first; but it is for the composer to give us something more ambitious. When we hear the music of the masters, we see that it is better than what we could have written. The secret is, to some extent, variety. The mind cannot focus itself on one object for any time, without having a “mind-stream” of other things suggesting themselves. So in music we note a series of changes in vibration relations. These changes themselves should have variety without continued abruptness. In fact, this variety and contrast, this constant solving of relation puzzles, applies also to rhythm and all other factors in music.

It is another matter to say why certain of these relation puzzles should cause certain emotions when the ear solves them. One would be pleased to have expert psychologists attack this problem. In general, one may suppose that a progress from simple to complex changes, if not too abrupt to be followed, would heighten interest, while a return from complex to simple (in its briefest form a cadence) would give the satisfaction of a solved problem. Chords that suggest solutions are particularly expressive; and among these first place goes to those that suggest the tonic—i.e., the dominant, the dominant seventh, the sub-dominant, and the sub-dominant triad with the third below, or seventh chord of the second degree. The major seventh, as found on the fourth degree of the scale, is noticeably strong in effect. That on the first degree is less pronounced, being, nearer the tonic. An example of strong chord expression may be found in the theme in the second part of Chopin’s 12th Nocturne—

The last five chords give the pronounced major seventh, the inversion of the seventh on the second degree, two sub-dominant forms, and the tonic; while the first two changes of chord were brought about by the movement of a single note through one degree, and the two later changes were almost equally simple. It seems from this as if the secret of expression would lie in unexpectedly great harmonic changes, produced by simple means, and proceeding from complex to simple formations. But that may be only one of many methods, and it may be that not everything built on that plan would prove attractive. Meanwhile one would like to see recognized authorities take up this subject in the magazines.


Among novelties, Arnold Schönberg’s works express the word in its fullest sense. Leonhard Welker in Die Musik praises the three piano pieces, Op. 11, and seems to think that Schönberg is enlarging the possibilities of the piano; but one may doubt the enlargement. The present writer once knew a little girl who invented words of her own for “good,” “bad,” and other terms of a child’s vocabulary. It is a safe bet that she gave these up in later life. But the composer need never renounce his peculiar idioms, for in music some one will always be ready to worship what is new and strange. Schönberg’s trick of having the right hand press noiselessly on octaves above the left hand notes, to let the strings vibrate in sympathy with certain overtones, may be effective, but has no great value.

Ariadne auf Naxos seems to be going well. The overture shows humorously the non-musicianship of M. Jourdain. Act I has a serenade, a pastoral duo, a minuet with the dancing master, a tailors’ dance, and so on. Act II brings the Ariadne entertainment, given by M. Jourdain. The thirty-five players have hard work, but the score seems interesting. If the Rosenkavalier is a labored echo of Figaros Hochzeit, then Ariadne may be a fantastic reflection of Die Meistersinger. But D’Indy was wise in saying that Strauss is a follower of Berlioz rather than of Wagner; Richard the Lesser does certainly “cipher with notes.” He is now said to be writing a ballet on a biblical subject connected with Joseph.

New operas include De Lore’s Trois Masques, Grellinger’s Hans in Schnockeloch, and Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne. Puccini’s next is to be called “Gayety of Heart,” while two of Mascagni’s are Cleopatra and The Rose of Cyprus. Madrid will hear operas by Breton, Del Campo, and Arregui. Madrid orchestral composers include Calés, Villar, and De La Vina. Reger’s new Romantic Suite will be given at Dresden. Berlin heard Van der Pals’ violin concerto and Baussnern’s third symphony, while the fourth of Sibelius proved rather a puzzle to London. D’lndy’s Jour d’été dans la Montagne was much liked in Paris.

A Richter story seems of interest. Richter was a great horn-player before conducting; and when Wagner submitted to him a hard passage from the Meistersingers, he proved it practicable by playing it. Later, at a Munich rehearsal led by him, the horn-player balked and called the passage too difficult. Richter at once seized the instrument, played the phrase, and shamed the man into his duty. Oddly enough, the recalcitrant one was the father of Richard Strauss, who now makes the players work harder than ever.


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