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Declamation In Music Post by :jante123 Category :Essays Author :Edward Macdowell Date :November 2011 Read :2946

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Declamation In Music

There is one side of music which I am convinced has never been fully studied, namely, the relation between it and declamation. As we know, music is a language which may delineate actual occurrences by means of onomatopoetic sounds. By the use of more or less suggestive sounds, it may bring before our minds a quasi-visual image of things which we more or less definitely feel.

Now to do all this, there must be rules; or, to put it more broadly, there must be some innate quality that enables this art of sounds to move in sympathy with our feelings. I have no wish to go into detailed analysis of the subject; but a superficial survey of it may clear up certain points with regard to the potency of music that we are too often willing to refer back to the mere pleasing physical sensations of sound.

Some consideration of this subject may enable us to understand the much discussed question of programme music. It may also help us to recognize the astonishing advance we have made in the art; an advance, which, strange to say, consists in successively throwing off all the trammels and conventionalities of what is generally considered artificial, and the striking development of an art which, with all its astounding wealth of exterior means, aims at the expression of elemental sensations.

Music may be divided into four classes, each class marking an advance in receptive power on the part of the listener and poetic subtlety on that of the composer. We may liken the first stage to that of the savage Indians who depict their exploits in war and peace on the rocks, fragments of bone, etc. If the painter has in mind, say, an elephant, he carves it so that its principal characteristics are vastly exaggerated. A god in such delineation is twice the size of the ordinary man, and so it is in descriptive music. For instance, in Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony, the cuckoo is not a bird which mysteriously hides itself far away in a thicket, the sound of whose voice comes to one like a strange, abrupt call from the darkness of the forest; no, it is unmistakably a cuckoo, reminding one strangely of those equally advanced and extremely cheap art products of Nuremberg, made of pine wood, and furnished with a movable tail.

The next stage is still a question of delineation; but of delineation that leads us into strange countries, and the sounds we hear are but the small door through which we pass. This music suggests; by way of example, the opening of the last movement of the "Pastoral" symphony, the march from Tchaïkovsky's "Symphonie Pathétique," the opening of Raff's "Im Walde," and Goldmark's "Sakuntala." Such music hints, and there is a certain potency in its suggestion which makes us see things. These two divisions of music have been termed "programme" or "objective" music.

The other two classes of music have been termed subjective. The first is declamation, pure and simple; the singer may be telling a lie, or his sentiment may be insincere or false; what these sounds stand for, we know from the words, their grade of passion, etc. The last phase of our art is much more subtle, and is not amenable to such accurate analysis. If we may liken music to painting, we may, I think, compare the latter to the first three stages of this new language of music; but it can go no further. For that art must touch its audience through a palpable delineation of something more or less material; whereas music is of the stuff dreams are made of. It is hardly necessary to say, however, that our dreams are often much more poignant than the actual sensations caused by real occurrences would be. And it is because of this strange quality, I think, that dreams and music affect us in much the same manner.

The vital principle of Wagner's art was that he not only made startlingly vivid pictures in his music, but that he made the people in these pictures actually walk out of the frame and directly address the audience. In other words, his orchestra forms a kind of pictorial and psychological background from which his characters detach themselves and actually speak. If they speak falsely, the ever present orchestra, forming as it were a halo, unmercifully tears away the mask, like the mirror in old fairy tales.

In Wagner's operas, however, the intrusion of gross palpable machinery of the stage, as well as that of the actor's art, too often clouds the perfect working of this wonderful art conception. It is just this intrusion of materialism in Wagner's music dramas which constitutes their only weakness.

At this point I wish to insist upon the fact that in music it is always through declamation that the public is addressed most directly; not only that, but declamation is not necessarily tied by any of the fetters of the spoken word; nor is it subservient to any of the laws of articulate speech as we meet with them in language. This being admitted, I have no hesitation in giving my opinion that opera, or rather the music drama, is not the highest or the most perfect form of our art. The music drama as represented by Wagner (and he alone represents it) is the most perfect union of painting, poetry, and music imaginable to our nineteenth-century minds. But as regards representing the highest development of music, I find it too much hampered by the externals of art, necessary materialism in the production of palpable acts, and its enforced subjection to the laws that govern the spoken word.

Music is universal; Wagner's operas, by the inherent necessities of speech, are necessarily and irrevocably Germanic. "Les Maitres Chanteurs," "The Dwarfs of Niebelheim," "Elizabeta," are impossibilities, whereas, for instance, Beethoven's "Eroica" labours under no such disadvantage. "Goodbye, My Dearest Swan," invests part of "Lohengrin" with a certain grotesque colour that no one would ever dream of if there were no necessity for the singer to be tied down to the exigencies of palpable and certainly most materialistic language. The thought in itself is beautiful, but the necessity for the words drags it into the mud.

This certainly shows the difference between the language of music and what is called articulate speech, the purely symbolic and artificial character of the latter, and the direct, unhampered utterance of the former. Music can invariably heighten the poignancy of mere spoken words (which mean nothing in themselves), but words can but rarely, in fact I doubt whether they can ever, heighten the effect of musical declamation. To my mind, listening to Wagner's operas may be likened to watching a circus with three rings. That containing the music should have our closest attention, for it offers the most wonderful sounds ever imagined by any man. At the same time it is impossible for any human being not to have his attention often lured away to the other rings, in one of which Fricke's rams vie with the bird and the dragon; or where the phantom ship seems as firmly fixed as the practical rainbow, which so closely betrays the carpenter. In the other ring you can actually hear the dull jokes of Mimi and the Wanderer, or hear Walther explain that he has passed a comfortable night and slept well.

The music to these remarkable scenes, however, does not deign to stoop so low, but soars in wonderful poetry by itself, thus rejecting a union which, to speak in the jargon of our day, is one of the convincing symptoms of decadence; in other words, it springs from the same impulse as that which has produced the circus with three rings.

Summing up, I wish to state what I consider the four elements of music, namely, music that paints, music that suggests, music that actually speaks, and music that almost defies analysis, and is composed of the other three elements.

When we were considering the early works for harpsichord, I said that music could define certain things with quite reasonable exactitude. Just as in the Egyptian hieroglyphics a wavy line stands for water, so it can in music, with the latitude that it can mean anything in nature that we might consider of the same genre. Thus, the figure in Wagner's "Waldweben" means in that instance waves of air, and we know it by the context. His swaying figure of the "Prelude to Rheingold" is as plainly water as is the same figure used by Mendelssohn in his "Lovely Melusina." Not that Wagner plagiarized, but that he and Mendelssohn recognized the definiteness of musical suggestions; which is more than proved by their adopting the same musical ideas to indicate the same things.

More indefinite is the analysis of our second type or element of music. The successful recognition of this depends not only upon the susceptibility of the hearer to delicate shades of sensation, but also upon the receptivity of the hearer and his power to accept freely and unrestrictedly the mood shadowed forth by the composer. Such music cannot be looked upon objectively. To those who would analyze it in such a manner it must remain an unknown language; its potency depends entirely upon a state of willing subjectivity on the part of the hearer.

The third element, as we know, consists of the spoken word or phrase; in other words, declamation. In this, however, the composer cuts loose entirely from what we call language. It is the medium of expression of emotion of every kind. It is not restricted to the voice or to any instrument, or even to our sharps, flats, and naturals. Through stress of emotion the sharps become sharper, with depression the flats become flatter, thus adding poignancy to the declamation. Being unfettered by words, this emotion has free rein. The last element, as I have said, is extremely difficult to define. It is declamation that suggests and paints at the same time. We find hardly a bar of Wagner's music in which this complex form of music is not present. Thus, the music dramas of Wagner, shorn of the fetters of the actual spoken word, emancipated from the materialism of acting, painting, and furniture, may be considered as the greatest achievement in our art, an art that does not include the spoken word called poetry, or painting, or sculpture, and most decidedly not architecture (form), but the essence of all these. What these aim to do through passive exterior influences, music accomplishes by actual living vibration.


(The end)
Edward MacDowell's essay: Declamation In Music

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