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The Artistic Musical Temperament

And What a Few Kings Did in the Tonal Art
By Louis C. Elson
Etude Readers will find the noted Boston critic in his happiest mood in this very readable and instructive article
Some years ago I read a book on The Ethics of Music, in which it was stated that as music was the most inspiring and ennobling of all the arts it was self-evident that musicians were better and nobler than the average of mankind. I had a little doubt about this conclusion, and that doubt grew larger when I found, in the study of musical history, flaws more or less great in the characters of nearly all the great tonal masters. Only Bach and Palestrina went safely through the fiery ordeal of microscopic examination.
It is a pity, therefore, that these two could not be added to the list of musical saints. St. Johann Sebastian and St. Giovanni Pierluigi would be more advanced musicians than St. Carlo Barromeo and St. Philip Neri, who are about the only professional ones in the calendar, if we except the rather vague St. Cecilia, who apparently played on a very diminutive organ, if we may trust the paintings of her.
In entering upon an examination of the attributes and tendencies of the artistic temperament I can begin with prehistoric man. Ages and aeons ago there were two dissimilar races upon the earth; one race was short, with a very low and slanting forehead, wide saucer eyes, very long arms, and was covered with hair like a dog or a monkey. The other race was tall, well-formed, had a finely formed head and had artistic instincts. The members of this race drew skillful pictures on shoulder blades of reindeer and on other pieces, of bone, and on the walls of caves (especially in Spain and France) and also left a primitive flute or two, with finger and blow-holes drilled into the bone. It is a pity that we cannot clearly trace this race. It perished altogether in some mysterious cataclysm, and as that race possessed a larger brain than even the modern musician, or any other human being of the present does, it is a personal loss to us all. We descended (or rather ascended) from the less gifted race described above.
But when in the course of history we come to the second uprising of the artistic temperament we are not altogether satisfied with the exhibit. The songs of the Greeks usually were a military intoxicant, exciting to war and bloodshed. In Rome we find a gentleman, with a strongly artistic temperament, named Nero. He did not "fiddle while Rome was burning," as the proverb says, for the effective reason that the fiddle was not then in existence, but he sang a properly savage song, The Destruction of Troy, which answered the purpose quite as well.
When Nero began a song it was hard to stop him. Some of his songs lasted five or six hours, and if an auditor yawned his mouth was generally closed forever—by one of Nero's soldiers. Yet Nero received the highest salary known in vocal history. His senators knew of no better way of bribing him than by hiring him to sing at their houses, and one of these once paid Nero $37,500 for a single appearance at such a soiree musicale.
Ptolemy Auletes, of Egypt, was very fond of the flute (''Auletes" may be translated "flute-lover") ; whether the behavior of his daughter, Cleopatra, was an inheritance of the artistic instinct I cannot say.
In the Middle Ages the artistic temperament broke out violently with the Troubadours, Trouvères and Minnesingers. A few of these again prove that this temperament does not always lead to good balance and proper conduct. The first composer, in our modern sense of the word, may be considered Adam de la Hale, a trouvère. His chief work, Robin et Marion, was the earliest comic opera. But he also wrote another work called Le Jeu d'Adam, in which he held his wife up to ridicule. The conceit which led modern composers to throw bouquets at themselves (and missiles at their enemies) in laudatory musical autobiographies, as Wagner in Die Meistersinger and Richard Strauss in Feuersnot, Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica, had its beginning in Le Jeu d'Adam in the thirteenth century, but at least the later composers did not abuse or satirize their conjugal partners in their works.
But the troubadours were never lacking in self- conceit, which is certainly an ingredient in many an artistic temperament. Many a troubadour song begins by vaunting what its composer can do, how many languages he speaks, what skill he has in the tournament or in hunting, how well he can ride, or swim, or even carve at table. Many a monarch or prince was in the troubadour ranks, from Richard I of England down to Alfonso of Spain.
Henry VIII of England had the artistic temperament. Possibly he sought refuge from his domestic troubles in the art of music. He sang, played on the lute, and even composed pretty well—for a king. His daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both were musical.
Since I am speaking of royal temperaments it is but fair to dwell upon Frederick the Great, who pursued flute-playing under the most adverse circumstances. His father, Frederick I of Prussia, was a martinet of the worst character. He was a collector in a most peculiar branch; he collected tall grenadiers. He once paid a very large sum to an Irishman seven feet tall to enter his regiment. But such an expensive collection was too valuable to be exposed to the perils of war, and, although he drilled them almost to death, he would not allow these costly giants to be shot at.
This royal lunatic conceived the idea that if a man was musical he could not be a good soldier. Therefore, when he heard that the young Frederick was secretly studying the flute, he threatened that if he ever caught him at it he would break the flute over his head and would hang his flute teacher. This nearly came to pass one time when the prince heard his father's footstep on the stairs leading to the chamber in the palace in which he was taking a lesson surreptitiously.
Poor Quantz, the teacher, thought his career was ended then and there, but desperation, like necessity, is the mother of invention, and he caught up the flutes and the music, and climbed up the chimney just in time to save himself. The king, finding Frederick alone and reading a book, went away grumbling.
Quantz lived to write many flute compositions for Frederick, when the latter became King of Prussia, and Frederick took his flutes, music and tutor on many a campaign, where after or before a battle he would soothe himself by playing the instrument. That the crazy old king would have carried out his threat may not be doubted, for once, when Frederick ran away from his unbearable home, he had him tried as a deserter from his regiment and sentenced to be shot, and only the pressure brought to bear by the English Ambassador saved the life of the crown prince.
Some flute compositions and an entire opera—Il Re Pastore—written by Frederick himself, and numerous flute compositions written by Quantz for his royal master and pupil, attest the artistic temperament in this case and show that it may be wedded to military genius.
The artistic nature may be found, however, in many different characters. Still pursuing the royal line, we find Charles II. of England musical up to a certain point. He sang with a good, round bass voice, an authority of his time assures us, and took interest in music of the light French type. But I hesitate about citing this monarch as really an artistic temperament, since he allowed some of his court musicians to starve, and he could never understand the merit of the noble contrapuntal music of Old England. Once his Secretary of State, not knowing these limitations of the king, gave him a banquet at which he had a band of musicians play some of the best works of the Elizabethan and Jacobean music. The king bore it in silence for a time, but finally broke out with: "Stop! Stop! Play something with a tune to it!" And when the secretary (Williamson) urged that the selections were considered the very best in the native repertoire, the royal critic answered simply but emphatically: "Have I not ears?" It is fortunate that this monarch with his melodic cravings was not obliged to listen to an ultra-modern, twentieth century concert, for they had no Schoenbergs or Stravinskys in those days.
But it often happened thus when a monarch of musical tendencies came in contact with a composer who was too deep for him. The Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef, after hearing Die Entführung aus dem Serail said to Mozart: "Too many notes!" and Mozart ventured to answer, "Just enough for the subject, your Majesty."
But the real tyrant in this domain was the great Napoleon. He met, however, with more resistance from his musicians than from his allied enemies, and found it more difficult to carry off the victory. Once he became so disgusted with the violins of the Opera House that he asked Mehul if they could not be dispensed with, if he could not write him an opera entirely without violins. Mehul undertook the strange task and composed Uthal, in which the violas are constantly pushed to the highest positions, taking the place of the higher strings. The success of this experiment may be judged by the remark of Gretry, who attended the first performance. After the first act had ended he exclaimed: "I would give a hundred francs for one violin tone."
Napoleon was not more successful in ruling, or trying to rule, Cherubini, for that severe classicist left Paris and France altogether, rather than be ruled by the conqueror who ruled everybody else, even brother monarchs, from which we may deduce that obstinacy is an ingredient of the really artistic temperament.
Yet I must not give the impression that bad qualities are prominent in such a temperament. Even where such are present the ideals are high. Beethoven's inspirations were of the highest. Often, as in the sonatas Op. 7 and Op. 27, No. 2, or in the seventh and eighth symphonies, he was inspired by a refined affection for some worthy woman. Judged in a matter-of-fact way, it seems almost comical, this falling in love and out again in constant succession. Eleonora von Breuning, the Countess Erdödy, Bettina Brentano, Giuletta   Giucciardi, Amalia Seebold, etc., make a list that reads almost like Leporello's Catalogue Aria in Don   Giovannia, but in Beethoven's case there was always a lofty and pure ideal; it may have been imaginative, yet the imagination crystallized into great music.
Nor were these the only inspirations of Beethoven. A love of liberty, a belief in the universal brotherhood of mankind, led to such music as the Egmont Overture and the ninth symphony. Yet one may class Beethoven as a most illiberal liberal, a very tyrannical lover of freedom, and these seeming contradictions and paradoxes are to be found in many an artistic temperament. If his affections were unstable, to him they seemed real; if he was a tyrant to his relatives and friends, he none the less longed for universal freedom. It is a pity, however, that his biographers do not try to give a juster balance in the writings about such a composer. Beethoven's sister-in-law, whom he so charmingly nicknamed "Queen of the Night," was not worse than many a Viennese dame of her station and epoch. The nephew, who is written up (or rather down) in a manner that wins him the personal hatred of every reader, had very much to bear from the loving, hectoring, generous, nagging old uncle. That same nephew, who certainly was a scapegrace in his youth, grew up quite respectable, leaving a good record both in the army and in commerce, after he had sown his wild oats.
Wagner the Great, Wagner the Little
Probably the most striking instance of the opposite and contradictory qualities which sometimes go to make up an artistic temperament may be found in the case of Wagner. The instance is as strange a blend as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I am always disposed to define this composer as Wagner the great and Wagner the little. In one sense Wagner was the purest minded, the highest idealed composer in history. On the other hand he was little more than a criminal. It is not necessary for me to thresh out again in these columns the long array of vices. There was an egotism beyond all compare. There was absolute dishonesty in the treatment of creditors. The sacrifices of Minna Planer, his first wife, during the days of poverty, cannot be exaggerated; she did the washing, the household drudgery; she took in a lodger during the dark days in Paris, to make both ends meet; she blacked the boots of husband and lodger; she had given up a career of her own to be the slave of this genius; she was deserted and set aside when prosperity came.
Von Bülow and Wesendonck both helped Wagner with might and main, with service and with money; he alienated the affection of the wives of both.
One could go on much further with the catalogue of crimes, but it is pleasanter to dwell on the bright side of the picture. After Wagner had written Rienzi he had only to go on in the same vein to achieve a comfortable position in art. He loved comfort; he was an actual sybarite; but he saw higher ideals and his artistic conscience would not allow him to betray them. Finally he began work upon a music-drama that was to occupy four nights in the performance. There was no chance of any manager ever staging such a work. Yet he went on with it for nearly a quarter of a century in obedience to the artistic "Must" which is felt only by the greatest and often by the martyrs in art.
"If I live to complete it," he wrote about the Triology, "I shall have lived gloriously; and if I die before it is finished I shall die for something beautiful."
The Paradoxical Doctor
Here is the art-hero. But what about the man? In Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma there is a character typical of the artistic temperament, and I have often thought that Wagner gave the incentive to the artist there portrayed, who cheats everybody, betrays every woman's trust, and is idolized by them just the same. It presents most strongly the puzzle of the "artistic nature." Disagreeing, therefore, totally with the statement quoted in the opening sentence of this essay one can put in its stead this statement: The artistic temperament is much more emotional than the average, and this is sometimes a danger; the moral character may sometimes become weaker than the average. Even then we may apply the words which were written of Robert Burns, "The light that led astray was light from Heaven!"

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