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Music And Supermusic Post by :elmoiii Category :Essays Author :Carl Van Vechten Date :October 2011 Read :3394

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Music And Supermusic

"To know whether you are enjoying a piece of music or not
you must see whether you find yourself looking at the
advertisements of Pears' soap at the end of the program.

Samuel Butler.

What is the distinction in the mind of Everycritic between good music and bad music, in the mind of Everyman between popular music and "classical" music? What is the essential difference between an air by Mozart and an air by Jerome Kern? Why is Chopin's G minor nocturne better music than Thecla Badarzewska's La Priere d'une Vierge? Why is a music drama by Richard Wagner preferable to a music drama by Horatio W. Parker? What makes a melody distinguished? What makes a melody commonplace or cheap? Why do some melodies ring in our ears generation after generation while others enjoy but a brief popularity? Why do certain composers, such as Raff and Mendelssohn, hailed as geniuses while they were yet alive, soon sink into semi-obscurity, while others, such as Robert Franz and Moussorgsky, almost unrecognized by their contemporaries, grow in popularity? Are there no answers to these conundrums and the thousand others that might be asked by a person with a slight attack of curiosity?... No one does ask and assuredly no one answers. These riddles, it would seem, are included among the forbidden mysteries of the sphynx. The critics assert with authority and some show of erudition that the Spohrs, the Mendelssohns, the Humperdincks, and the Montemezzis are great composers. They usually admire the grandchildren of Old Lady Tradition but they neglect to justify this partiality. Nor can we trust the public with its favourite Piccinnis and Puccinis.... What then is the test of supermusic?

For we know, as well as we can know anything, that there is music and supermusic. Rubinstein wrote music; Beethoven wrote supermusic (Mr. Finck may contradict this statement). Bellini wrote operas; Mozart wrote superoperas. Jensen wrote songs; Schubert wrote supersongs. The superiority of Voi che sapete as a vocal melody over Ah! non giunge is not generally contested; neither can we hesitate very long over the question whether or not Der Leiermann is a better song than Lehn' deine Wang'. Probably even Mr. Finck will admit that the Sonata Appassionata is finer music than the most familiar portrait (I think it is No. 22) in the Kamennoi-Ostrow set. But, if we agree to put Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and a few others on marmorean pedestals in a special Hall of Fame (and this is a compromise on my part, at any rate, as I consider much of the music written by even these men to be below any moderately high standard), what about the rest? Mr. Finck prefers Johann Strauss to Brahms, nay more to Richard himself! He has written a whole book for no other reason, it would seem, than to prove that the author of Tod und Verklarung is a very much over-rated individual. At times sitting despondently in Carnegie Hall, I am secretly inclined to agree with him. Personally I can say that I prefer Irving Berlin's music to that of Edward MacDowell and I would like to have some one prove to me that this position is untenable.

What is the test of supermusic? I have read that fashionable music, music composed in a style welcomed and appreciated by its contemporary hearers is seldom supermusic. Yet Handel wrote fashionable music, and so much other of the music of that epoch is Handelian that it is often difficult to be sure where George Frederick left off and somebody else began. Bellini wrote fashionable music and Norma and La Sonnambula sound a trifle faded although they are still occasionally performed, but Rossini, whose only desire was to please his public, (Liszt once observed "Rossini and Co. always close with 'I remain your very humble servant'"), wrote melodies in Il Barbiere di Siviglia which sound as fresh to us today as they did when they were first composed. And when this prodigiously gifted musician-cook turned his back to the public to write Guillaume Tell he penned a work which critics have consistently told us is a masterpiece, but which is as seldom performed today as any opera of the early Nineteenth Century which occasionally gains a hearing at all. Therefor we must be wary of the old men who tell us that we shall soon tire of the music of Puccini because it is fashionable.

Popularity is scarcely a test. I have mentioned Mendelssohn. Never was there a more popular composer, and yet aside from the violin concerto what work of his has maintained its place in the concert repertory? Yet Chopin, whose name is seldom absent from the program of a pianist, was a god in his own time and the most brilliant woman of his epoch fell in love with him, as Philip Moeller has recently reminded us in his very amusing play. On the other hand there is the case of Robert Franz whose songs never achieved real popularity during his lifetime, but which are frequently, almost invariably indeed, to be found on song recital programs today and which are more and more appreciated. The critics are praising him, the public likes him: they buy his songs. And there is also the case of Max Reger who was not popular, is not popular, and never will be popular.

Can we judge music by academic standards? Certainly not. Even the hoary old academicians themselves can answer this question correctly if you put it in relation to any composer born before 1820. The greatest composers have seldom respected the rules. Beethoven in his last sonatas and string quartets slapped all the pedants in the ears; yet I believe you will find astonishingly few rules broken by Mozart, one of the gods in the mythology of art music, and Berlioz, who broke all the rules, is more interesting to us today as a writer of prose than as a writer of music.

Is simple music supermusic? Certainly not invariably. Vedrai Carino is a simple tune, almost as simple as a folk-song and we set great store by it; yet Michael William Balfe wrote twenty-seven operas filled with similarly simple tunes and in a selective draft of composers his number would probably be 9,768. The Ave Maria of Schubert is a simple tune; so is the Meditation from Thais. Why do we say that one is better than the other.

Or is supermusic always grand, sad, noble, or emotional? There must be another violent head shaking here. The air from Oberon, Ocean, thou mighty monster, is so grand that scarcely a singer can be found today capable of interpreting it, although many sopranos puff and steam through it, for all the world like pinguid gentlemen climbing the stairs to the towers of Notre Dame. The Fifth Symphony of Beethoven is both grand and noble; probably no one will be found who will deny that it is supermusic, but Mahler's Symphony of the Thousand is likewise grand and noble, and futile and bombastic to boot. Or sai chi l'onore is a grand air, but Robert je t'aime is equally grand in intention, at least. Der Tod und das Madchen is sad; so is Les Larmes in Werther.... But a very great deal of supermusic is neither grand nor sad. Haydn's symphonies are usually as light-hearted and as light-waisted as possible. Mozart's Figaro scarcely seems to have a care. Listen to Beethoven's Fourth and Eighth Symphonies, Il Barbiere again, Die Meistersinger.... But do not be misled: Massenet's Don Quichotte is light music; so is Mascagni's Lodoletta....

Is music to be prized and taken to our hearts because it is contrapuntal and complex? We frequently hear it urged that Bach (who was more or less forgotten for a hundred years, by the way) was the greatest of composers and his music is especially intricate. He is the one composer, indeed, who can never be played with one finger! But poor unimportant forgotten Max Reger also wrote in the most complicated forms; the great Gluck in the simplest. Gluck, indeed, has even been considered weak in counterpoint and fugue. Meyerbeer, it is said, was also weak in counterpoint and fugue. Is he therefor to be regarded as the peer of Gluck? Is Mozart's G minor Symphony more important (because it is more complicated) than the same composer's, Batti, Batti?

We learn from some sources that music stands or falls by its melody but what is good melody? According to his contemporaries Wagner's music dramas were lacking in melody. Sweet Marie is certainly a melody; why is it not as good a melody as The Old Folks at Home? Why is Musetta's waltz more popular than Gretel's? It is no better as melody. As a matter of fact there is, has been, and for ever will be war over this question of melody, because the point of view on the subject is continually changing. As Cyril Scott puts it in his book, "The Philosophy of Modernism": "at one time it (melody) extended over a few bars and then came to a close, being, as it were, a kind of sentence, which, after running for the moment, arrived at a full stop, or semicolon. Take this and compare it with the modern tendency: for that modern tendency is to argue that a melody might go on indefinitely almost; there is no reason why it should come to a full stop, for it is not a sentence, but more a line, which, like the rambling incurvations of a frieze, requires no rule to stop it, but alone the will and taste of its engenderer."

Or is harmonization the important factor? Folk-songs are not harmonized at all, and yet certain musicians, Cecil Sharp for example, devote their lives to collecting them, while others, like Percy Grainger, base their compositions on them. On the other hand such music as Debussy's Iberia depends for its very existence on its beautiful harmonies. The harmonies of Gluck are extremely simple, those of Richard Strauss extremely complex.

H. T. Finck says somewhere that one of the greatest charms of music is modulation but the old church composers who wrote in the "modes" never modulated at all. Erik Satie seldom avails himself of this modern device. It is a question whether Leo Ornstein modulates. If we may take him at his word Arnold Schoenberg has a system of modulation. At least it is his very own.

Are long compositions better than short ones? This may seem a silly question but I have read criticisms based on a theory that they were. Listen, for example, to de Quincy: "A song, an air, a tune,--that is, a short succession of notes revolving rapidly upon itself,--how could that by possibility offer a field of compass sufficient for the development of great musical effects? The preparation pregnant with the future, the remote correspondence, the questions, as it were, which to a deep musical sense are asked in one passage, and answered in another; the iteration and ingemination of a given effect, moving through subtile variations that sometimes disguise the theme, sometimes fitfully reveal it, sometimes throw it out tumultuously to the daylight,--these and ten thousand forms of self-conflicting musical passion--what room could they find, what opening, for utterance, in so limited a field as an air or song?" After this broadside permit me to quote a verse of Gerard de Nerval:

"Il est un air pour qui je donnerais
Tout Rossini, tout Mozart, et tout Weber,
Un air tres-vieux, languissant et funebre,
Qui pour moi seul a des charmes secrets."

And now let us dispassionately, if possible, regard the evidence. Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, admittedly one of his weakest works and considered very tiresome even by ardent Straussians, plays for nearly an hour while any one can sing Der Erlkonig in three minutes. Are short compositions better than long ones? Answer: Love me and the World is Mine is a short song (although it seldom sounds so) while Schubert's C major Symphony is called the "symphony of heavenly length."

Is what is new better than what is old? Is what is old better than what is new? Schoenberg is new; is he therefor to be considered better than Beethoven? Stravinsky is new; is he therefor to be considered worse than Liszt?

Is an opera better than a song? Compare Pagliacci and Strauss's Standchen. Is a string quartet better than a piece for the piano? But I grow weary.... Under the circumstances it would seem that if you have any strong opinions about music you are perfectly entitled to them, for the critics do not agree and you will find many of them basing their criticism on some of the various hypotheses I have advanced. H. T. Finck tells us that the sonata form is illogical, forgetting perhaps that once it served its purpose; Jean Marnold dubbed Armide an oeuvre batarde; John F. Runciman called Parsifal "decrepit stuff," while Ernest Newman assures us that it is "marvellous"; Pierre Lalo and Philip Hale disagree on the subject of Debussy's La Mer while W. J. Henderson and James Huneker wrangle over Richard Strauss's Don Quixote.

The clue to the whole matter lies in a short phrase: Imitative work is always bad. Music that tries to be something that something else has been may be thrown aside as worthless. It will not endure although it may sometimes please the zanies and jackoclocks of a generation. The critic, therefor, who comes nearest to the heart of the matter, is he who, either through instinct or familiarity with the various phenomena of music, is able to judge of a work's originality. There must be individuality in new music to make it worthy of our attention, and that, after all is all that matters. For the tiniest folk-song often persists in the hearts and minds of the people, often stirs the pulse of a musician, pursuing its tuneful way through two centuries, while a mighty thundering symphony of the same period may lie dead and rotting, food for the Niptus Hololencus and the Blatta Germanica. We still sing The Old Folks At Home and Le Cycle du Vin but we have laid aside Di Tanti Palpiti. Any piece of music possessing the certain magic power of individuality is of value, it matters not whether it be symphony or song, opera or dance. What most critics have forgotten is that in Music matter, form, and idea are one. In painting, in poetry the idea, the words, the form, may be separated; each may play its part, but in music there is no idea without form, no form without idea. That is what makes musical criticism difficult.

January 24, 1918.

(The end)
Carl Van Vechten's essay: Music And Supermusic

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