Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/423

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407
SONG


till the Italian school, which had stood as a model for the world, became identified with all that was trivial, insipid, conventional, melodramatic. Not that the Italian tendency in the direction of mere tunefulness was in itself either unhealthy or unworthy. It was indeed a necessary reaction from the severe earlier style, as soon as that style began to lose its earnestness and sincerity, and to pass into cold and calculating formalism. But the spirit of shallowness and frivolity which accompanied the reaction involved the transference of musical supremacy from Italy to Germany, the only country, which, while accepting what was necessary to it of Italian influences, steadily remained true to its own ideals.

Before speaking of German song, it is necessary to glance at what was being done outside of Italy in the 17th century. Reference has already been made to the French as pioneers in establishing solo song to lute accompaniment, which here, as in Italy, originated in adaptations of polyphonic compositions. But in France from the first the main influence was derived from popular sources, the native folk-song and the vaudeville, the ditties of country and of town. In both that union of grace, simplicity and charm, characteristic of the French nation, tended to produce an art of dainty unpretentious attractiveness, in strong contrast to the serious and elaborate Italian work. It preserved these characteristics in spite of the artificial atmosphere of the French court, in which it mainly flourished up to the time of the Revolution, in spite too of the somewhat different influences which might have been expected to affect it, derived from opera, the mania for which did not, as in Italy, kill the smaller branch of vocal music. Brunettes, musettes, minuets, vaudevilles, bergerettes, pastourelles, as the airs de cour were styled according to the nature of the poetry to which they were attached, may be found in Weckerlin’s Échos du temps passé, but the reader must beware of judging the real character of these songs from that which they assume under the hands of the modern arranger.

With the latter part of the 18th century came in the languid and sentimental romance, in which the weaker phases of Italian melody are felt as an enervating influence. The romance became after the Revolution the most popular form of polite song, leading by degrees to that purely melodious type of which Gounod may be considered the best representative, and which other composers, such as Godard, Massenet, Widor, have been for the most part content to follow and develop, leaving to more adventurous spirits the excitement of exploring less obviously accessible regions.

In England, as in France and Italy, the beginning of the 17th century brought into existence solo song. Its beginnings have already been alluded to in speaking of the songs of Rosseter, Jones, Campion and Dowland. The work of H. Lawes, and his contemporaries, Wiliam Lawes, Coleman and Wilson, was equally unpretentious and simple. A gem here and there, such as “Gather ye Rosebuds” (W. Lawes), is the student’s reward for a mass of uninspired, though not ungraceful, work in which is to be noted an attempt to come to closer quarters with poetry, by “following as closely as they could the rhythmical outlines of non-musical speech: they listened to their poet friends reciting their own verses and then tried to produce artificially exact imitations in musical notes” (Ernest Walker, History of Music in England, p. 130), producing what was neither good melody nor good declamation. Such tentative work, in spite of Milton’s sonnet to H. Lawes, could only have a passing vogue, especially with a Purcell so near at hand to show the world the difference between talent and genius, between amateurish effort and the realized conceptions of a master of his craft. Songs like “Let the dreadful Engines” and “Mad Bess of Bedlam” reach a level of dramatic intensity and declamatory power, which is not surpassed by the best work of contemporary Italian composers. “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly” is so familiar in its quiet beauty that we are apt to forget that melodies so perfectly proportioned were quite new to English art (though Dr Blow’s “The Self-banished” deserves fully to stand with it side by side). Monteverde’s “Lament of Ariadne” has already been alluded to. It is interesting to contrast its emotional force, obtained by daring defiance of rule, with the equally intense, but more sublime pathos of Purcell’s “Lament of Dido,” in which song a ground bass is used throughout. The “Elegy on the death of Mr John Playford” (quoted in full by Dr Walker, p. 176 of his history) exhibits the same feature and the same mastery of treatment. The “Morning Hymn” is scarcely less remarkable, and has likewise a ground bass. Purcell died in 1695; Bach and Handel were then but ten years old, and Scarlatti had still thirty years to live—facts of which the significance may be left to speak for itself.

It is among the ironies of musical history that so great a beginning was not followed up. There are echoes of Purcell in the generation that succeeded him, in Croft, Greene, Boyce and Arne: but they quickly died away. The genius of Handel first and of Mendelssohn later seem to have prevented English- men from thinking musically for themselves. At least this is the orthodox explanation: but it should be borne in mind that a list of English composers, who have been willing to sacrifice ease and prosperity to a life of devotion to artistic ideals, would be exceedingly difficult to draw up and would certainly not include many of the best-known names. From the death of Purcell to the Victorian era there is no consistent development of artistic song that is worth recording in detail. The only songs that have survived are of the melodious order; of these Arne contributes several that are still acceptable for an air of freshness and gracefulness which marks them as his own. “Where the Bee sucks” and “Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind” are typical of his style at its best, as “The Soldier tired of War’s Alarms” is typical of it at its worst. Song writers that followed him, Shield, Hook, Dibdin, Storace, Horn, Linley (the elder) and Bishop, were all prolific melodists, who have each left a certain number of popular songs by which their names are remembered, and which are still pleasant enough to be heard occasionally; but there is no attempt to advance in any new direction, no hint that song could have any other mission than to gratify the public taste for tuneful melodies allied to whatever poetry—pastoral, bacchanalian, patriotic or sentimental—lay readiest to hand.

The musical genius of Germany, which has created for the world the highest forms as yet known of symphony, oratorio and opera, is not less remarkable as the originator of the Lied—the term by which are most easily conveyed the modern conceptions of ideal song.German progress. Germany is moreover the only country in which in orderly and progressive development the art of song may be traced from the simple medieval Volkslied to the elaborate productions of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. If Germany is united to the rest of Europe in her debt to Italy, still her final conceptions of song belong to herself alone. And these conceptions have more profoundly influenced the rest of Europe than any Italian conception ever influenced Germany. When the rest of Europe was content with the vapid outpourings of Italian and pseudo- Italian puerilities, an acute observer could have read the signs in Germany, from which the advent of a Schubert might have been foretold. The student therefore is more profitably employed in studying the phases of song-development in Germany than in any other country. German ideals and German methods of technique have permeated the best modern song-work of countries differing as widely in idiom as Russia, Norway, France and England.

It is not necessary to dwell, except in very general terms, upon German song of the 17th century. There had been no development corresponding with that which produced the airs de cour of France and the ayres of England. The very literature necessary for such development was wanting. Indeed German art was too profoundly affected by the spirit which produced the Reformation to develop freely in secular directions. Even in the domain of the Volkslied the sacred songs can scarcely have been less numerous than the secular; and at the Reformation adaptations of secular airs to sacred words constituted