Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/440

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425
PROGRAMME MUSIC


in nature except sounds, it has a range of contrast and a power of climax that is profoundly emotional in effect; and the emotions it calls up may resemble those of some dramatic story, or those produced by the contemplation of nature. But chromatic scales, reiterated notes, emotional contrasts and climaxes, are also perfectly normal musical means, of expression; and the attempts to read non-musical meanings into them are often merely annoying to composers who have thought only of the music. Some distinguished Writers on music have found a difficulty in admitting the possibility of emotional contrasts and climaxes in an art without an external subject-matter. But it is impossible to study the history of music Without coming to the conclusion that in all mature periods music has been self-sufficient to this extent, that, whatever stimulus it may receive from external ideas, and however much of these ideas it may have embodied in its structure, nothing has survived as a permanently intelligible classic that has not been musically coherent to a degree which seems to drive the subject-matter into the background, even in cases where that subject-matter is naturally present, as in songs, choral works and operas. In short, since sound as it occurs in nature is not sufficiently highly organized to form the raw material for art, there is no natural tendency in music to include, as a “ subject, ” any item conceivable apart from its artistic embodiment. Explicit programme music has thus never been a thing of cardinal importance, either in the transitional periods in which it has been most prominent, or in the permanent musical classics. At the same time, artistic creation is not a thing that can be governed by any a priori metaphysical theory; and no great artist has been so ascetic as always to resist the inclination to act on the external ideas that impress him. No composer writes important music for the voice without words; for speech is too ancient a function of the human voice to be ousted by any a priori theory of art; and no really artistic composer, handling a living art-form, has failed to be influenced, sooner or later, by the words which he sets. It matters little if these words be in themselves very poor, for even false sentiment must make some appeal to true experience, and the great composers are quicker to seize the truth than to criticize its verbal presentation or to suspect insincerity. The earliest mature musical art was, then, inevitably descriptive, since it was vocal. S0 incessant is the minute onomatopoeia of 16th-century music, both in the genuine form of sound-painting (Tonmalerei) and in the spurious forms to which composers were led by the appearance of notes on paper (eg. quick notes representing “ darkness " because they are printed blackl) that there is hardly a page in the productions of the “golden age” of music which has not its literary aspect. Programme, music, then, may be expected to derive many of its characteristics from ancient times; but it cannot properly be said to exist until the rise of instrumental music, for not until then could music be based upon external ideas that did not arise inevitably from the use of words or dramatic action.

The resources of the modern orchestra have enabled recent composers to attain a. realism which makes that of -earlier descriptive music appear ridiculous; but there is little to choose between classics and moderns in the intellectual childishness of such realism. ' Thunderstorms, bird-songs and pastoral effects galore have been imitated by musicians great and small from the days of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to those of the episode of the flock of sheep in Strauss's Don Quixote. And, while the progress in realism has been so immense that the only step which remains is to drive a real flock of sheep across the concert-platform, the musical progress implied thereby has been that from inexpensive to expensive rubbish. Whatis really important, in the programme music of Strauss no less than that of the classics, is the representation of characters and feelings. In this respect the classical record is of high interest, though the greatest composers have contributed but little to it. Thus the Bible Sonatas of J. Kuhnau (published in 1700) and Bach's early Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, which is closely modelled on Kuhnau's programme music, show very 4-25

markedly the tendency on the one hand to illustrate characters and feelings, and on the other hand to extract from their programmes every occasion for something that would be a piece of incidental music if the stories were presented as dramas. Thus, though Kuhnau in his naive explanatory preface to his first Bible sonata seems to be trying, like a child, to frighten himself into a fit by describing the size and appearance of Goliath, in the music it is only le bravate of Goliath that are portrayed. Thus the best movement in the Goliath sonata is a figured chorale (Aus tiefer Nath schrei' ich zu Dir) representing the terror and prayers of the Israelites. And thus the subjects of the other sonatas (Saul cured by David's music; The Marriage of Jacob; Hezekiah; Gideon; and The Funeral of Jacob) are in various quaint ways musical because ethical; though Kuhnau's conceptions are far better than his execution. In the same way Bach makes his Caprieeio descriptive of the feelings of the anxious and sorrowing friends of the departing brother, and his utmost realism takes the form of a lively fugue, very much in Kuhnau's best style, on the themes of the postilion's coach horn and cracking whip. Even Buxtehude's musical illustrations of the “ nature and characters of the planets ” are probably not the absurdities they have been hastily taken for by writers to whom their title seems nonsensical; for Buxtehude would, of course, take an astrological rather than an astronomical view of the subject, and so the planets would represent temperaments, and their motions the music of the spheres. Nearly all the harpsichord pieces of Couperin have fantastic titles, and a few of them are descriptive music. His greater contemporary and survivor, Rameau, was an opera composer of real importance, whose harpsichord music contains much that is ingeniously descriptive. La Poule, with its theme inscribed “ co-co-co-co-co-co-cocodai, ” is one of the best harpsichord pieces outside Bach, and is also one of the most minutely realistic compositions ever written. French music has always been remarkably dependent on external stimulus, and nearly all its classics are either programme music or operas. And the extent to which Rameau's jokes may be regarded as typically French is indicated by the fact that Haydn apologized for his imitation of frogs in The Seasons, saying that this “ franzosische Quark ” had been forced on him by a friend. But throughout the growth of the sonata style, not excepting Haydn's own early work, the tendency towards gratuitously descriptive music is very prominent; and the symphonies of Dittersdorf on the M metamorphoses of Ovid are excellent examples of the way in which external ideas may suggest much that is valuable to a musician who struggles with new forms, while at the same time they may serve to distract attention from points in which his designs break down. (See SYMPHONIC POEM.) Strict accuracy would forbid us to include in our survey such descriptive music as comes in operatic overtures or other pieces in which the programme is really necessitated by the conditions of the art; but the line cannot be so drawn without cutting off much that is essential. From the time of Gluck onwards there was a natural and steady growth in the descriptive powers of operatic music, which could not fail to react upon purely instrumental music; but of programme music for its own sake we may say there is no first-rate classic on a large scale before Beethoven, though Beethoven himself could no more surpass Haydn in illustrating an oratorio text (as in the magnificent opening of The Creation) than Haydn could surpass Handel. IIozart's M urikalischer S pass is a solitary example of a special branch of -descriptive music; a burlesque of incompetent performers and incompetent composers. The lifelike absurdity of the themes with their caricature of classical formulas; the inevitable processes by which the “ howlers ” in composition seem to arrive as by natural laws, further complicated by the equally natural laws of the howlers in performance; and the unfailing atmosphere of good nature with which Mozart satirizes, among other things, his own style; all combine to make this work very interesting on paper. The effect in performance is astonishing; so exactly, or rather so ideally, is the squalid effect of bad structure and performance kept at a