Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/427

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

at his best, and point to Cornelius as one of the most beautiful and original spirits of the 19th century.

In the song-work of the 19th century, though Schubert remains the rock upon which it has been built, Schumann represents the most directly inspiring influence, even when, as in the case of Adolph Jensen (whose spontaneously melodious and graceful, if not very deep, songs deserve mention), there are importations from such widely divergent sources as those of Mendelssohn and Wagner.

The application of the principles of Wagnerian music-drama to lyrical work, allied, as was natural, with the exaggerations and unconventionalities of Liszt and Berlioz, was sooner or later bound to come, bound also for a time to issue in confusion; to rescue song from which was the work of two men of genius, who, though approaching the task from standpoints removed by the whole distance of pole to pole, may be considered as placing the crown of final achievement upon the aspirations of 19th-century song—Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms.

Wolf exhibits an entirely unconventional and original style. He is as untroubled by tradition as Schubert, whom he resembles not often, as in “Fussreise,” and “Der Gärtner,” in pure melodiousness, but in the intensity of his power to penetrate to the very heart of poetry. To him may also be most fitly applied the epithet clairvoyant. He is the first who published songs for voice and pianoforte, not songs with pianoforte accompaniment, thus finally asserting the identity of singer and accompanist in true lyrical interpretation.

The unerring sagacity of Brahms discerned that the possibilities of song on the lines set by Schubert were far from being exhausted: his practical mind preferred to develop those possibilities rather than to seek after strange and novel methods, conforming thus in song to his practice in other branches of composition. A broad melodic outline is for him an essential feature: equally essential is a fine contrapuntal bass. In form the majority of his songs follow the orthodox A B A pattern, the central portion being so organized as to offer, with the least possible introduction of new unrelated material, a heightened contrast with the opening portion by means of new treatment and new tonalities and at the same time to justify itself by producing the mood in which the return to the opening portion is felt as a logical necessity. Chromatic effects in Brahms’s scheme of melody are rarely introduced till the middle section, the opening being almost invariably diatonic. It must however be admitted that Brahms’s formal perfection involves occasionally an awkward handling of words, and that in a few instances (see Magelone-lieder, Nos. 3 and 6), they are frankly sacrificed to that formal development of his material which has been criticized in the cases of Mozart and Beethoven. No part of his songs deserves closer study than the few bars of instrumental prelude and conclusion, in which is enshrined the very essence of his conception of a poem. It may almost be said that, since Schumann set the example, the first and the last word has passed from the voice to the instrument. Accompanist, like singer, must understand poetry as well as music: but with no composer is his responsibility greater than with Brahms. Complete mastery in close organization of form was allied in Brahms not only with the warmth and tenderness of romance, but with the imagination and insight of a profound thinker. Concentration of style and of thought have nowhere in the whole history of song been combined on a plane so high as that which is reached, with all perfection of melodic and harmonic beauty, in “Schwermuth,” “Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht,” “Mit vierzig Jahren,” “Am Kirchhof,” “O wüsst’ich doch den Weg zurück” and the “Vier ernste Gesange,” which closed the list of his 197 songs. The alliance to song of so dangerous a companion as philosophy, or at any rate of thoughts which are philosophical rather than lyrical, proved no obstacle to Brahms’s equal success in the realm of romance. This side of his genius may be illustrated by numerous songs from the Magelone cycle (notably “Wie froh und frisch” and “Ruhe, süss, Liebchen”) and by others, of which “Liebestreu,” “Die Mainacht,” “Feldeinsamkeit,” “Wie rafft' ich mich auf in der Nacht,” “Minnelied” and “Wir wandelten” are a few examples picked at random.

It has already been indicated that Brahms was a deep student of Schubert. If he had not Schubert’s absolute spontaneity of melody, he restored it to its Schubertian place of supreme importance. In spite of all the tendencies of his age he never shirked that supreme test of a composer, the power to originate and organize melody: but it is melody often of a type so severe in its outline and proportions as to repel those hearers who are unable to attain to his level of thought and feeling. All mere prettiness and elegance are as alien to his nature as even the slightest approach to sentimental weakness on the one hand, or to realistic scene-painting on the other, so that for the world at large his popularity is jeopardized by an attitude which is felt to be uncompromisingly lofty and severe. It has hardly yet had time to reconcile itself to the union of modern lyrical poetry with a style whose elaborate contrapuntal texture differs as much from the delicate polyphony of Schumann as that in its turn differed from the broad harmonic system of Schubert. But that Brahms was never difficult without reason, or elaborate when he might have been simple, appears plainly from the preference he felt for his slighter songs in the Volkstümlich style and form, rather than for those which were durchcomponirt. He was strongly influenced by the Volkslieder of his country, the words of which he loved to repeat to himself, as they suggested ideas even for his instrumental compositions. His arrangements of Volkslieder mark an epoch in that field of work.[1]

In the history of song Brahms’s name is likely to stand for the closing of a chapter. It is difficult to conceive of more complete work on lines that are essentially classical. The soundest traditions find in him their justification and their consummation. He has enshrined the best thought and the noblest feeling of his age in forms where elaboration and complexity of detail serve essential purposes of interpretation, and are never used as a brilliant artifice to conceal foundations which are insecure.

It is not proposed to discuss the work and tendencies of contemporary German composers—of whom Felix Weingartner (b. 1863), Max Reger (b. 1873) and Richard Strauss have attracted the largest share of attention. The above summary, though necessarily incomplete and confined only to the most conspicuous names, may yet provide some points of view from which the songs of other countries than Germany may be regarded, especially those in which German conceptions and German methods of technique have been dominant factors. Actual settings of German lyrics figure largely in the works of many non-German composers, and these it is hard to judge except by German standards. But, strongly as German influence has been felt in Russia, for instance, in Norway and in Finland, yet the last half century has seen the rise of more distinctly national schools of song in all these countries, and to this result the cult of the folk-song has very largely contributed. Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, César Cui (b. 1835), and Moussorgsky in Russia, Nordraak (1842–1866) and Grieg in Norway, Sibelius (b. 1865) in Finland, are conspicuous names in this connexion.

The Latin countries have, as is natural, been but little subject to German influences; of these France alone seems to be working her way towards a solution of artistic problems which has interest for those who live beyond her borders and which bears emphatically her own hallmark.Modern French Song. The melodious style of Gounod, which has so powerfully

affected composers like Massenet, Godard and Widor, has

  1. Their value may be tested by comparing them with the small volume containing arrangements by R. Franz, which are sympathetically done but without inspiration, with those of Tappert, which are models of what such things ought not to be, and with the dull, uninviting work of A. Saran. Many of Reimann’s arrangements, however, deserve cordial recognition as both sympathetic and scholarly. One fact emerges clearly from the study of folk-song arrangements, in Germany and elsewhere, that success depends upon qualities which are as rare as, and are seldom dissociated from, the power of original composition. Only a great composer can be a great arranger.