University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Introduction

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The Beginnings of Modern Music[edit]

In regard to the question, At what point can the history of modern music strictly be said to begin? few authorities, probably, would wholly agree; but one thing may be taken as certain, that for its beginnings we must look far back into the mists of the Middle Ages, when history is barely distinguishable from romance, and fact and fiction stand side by side. First of all it is necessary to find out precisely what we mean by modern as opposed to medieval music, and in what essential points the one differs from the other.

In a word, then, the main characteristics of modern music as opposed to medieval are rhythm, harmony, and the key system. The evolution of our modern system of harmony from the weird "organum" of Hucbald, and of our keys from the ecclesiastical modes, was so gradual that it is impossible to fix upon any date as the precise moment when one gave way definitely to the other.

The idea of rhythm is, of course, as old as the human race itself. The primitive efforts of a savage to give musical expression to his feelings are rhythmical without being musical, and the idea of melody is a far later and more advanced development. Yet, in spite of the hoary antiquity of rhythm, what we may call its artistic employment is of comparatively recent growth, and it is the use of rhythm in this sense that forms one of the main characteristics of modern as opposed to medieval music. To the union of rhythm with harmony modern music owes its birth, and it is to the first dawn of an attempt to incorporate these two mighty forces that we must look if we wish to date the beginnings of modern music.

From the time of St. Ambrose onward the river of music flowed in two channels, parallel but independent. The course of ecclesiastical music under the leaden sway of the Church was so little removed from actual stagnation that it was not until the tenth century that the first feeble attempts at harmony were made by Hucbald, and it took another five hundred years to arrive at even such mastery of counterpoint as is exhibited by the composers of the fifteenth century. Meanwhile, the music of the people pursued it way independent of ecclesiastical influence. Ignored or at any rate despised by the monks, the self-elected guardians of intellectual development, it flourished wherever men had hearts to feel and voices to sing.

The folk-songs of the Middle Ages, which happy accident has preserved to us, have all the freshness, melody, and rhythmic force that the Church music of the period is so conspicuous without. Nothing can express more vividly the narrow outlook upon life of the medieval Church than the fact that this rich store of music ready to speak to every man's hand should have been allowed, so to speak, to run to waste. Yet from time to time some holy brother, less dehumanized than his fellows, had glimpses of the musical possibilities of folk-song. In England, for instance, far back in the thirteenth century, a monk of Reading took the lovely folk-song, "Sumer is icumen in," and, with a grasp of the principles of counterpoint which for that period is nothing short of amazing, mad of it a round for four voices upon a drone bass given to two voices more. He even went so far as to hallow it to the service of the Church by fitting sacred words to the music. Whether it was sung in the choir of Reading Abbey or not we cannot say, but if it was it ought certainly to have revolutionized Church music on the spot, for after singing that liquid and lovely melody, harmonized with so much charm, to go back to dreary plain chant and the ear-lacerating harmonies of the "organum" must have been, one would think, more than even a thirteenth-century monk could endure.

However, both as an example of folk-song being used as the foundation of Church music and as a contrapuntal triumph, "Sumer is icumen in" appears to have been an isolated phenomenon. Nothing like it of the same period has been preserved. Certainly it cannot be taken as typical of any tendency of the time toward a more natural and truthful method of expression. In the thirteenth century the epoch of freedom was still far away. If we compare "Sumer is icumen in" with the Tournay mass, which was written about a hundred years later, we find ourselves back once more in the dismal darkness of the Middle Ages. In this mass, written for three voices by some unknown Fleming, there is very little advance on the earliest strivings toward harmonic expression of the tenth century. Hucbald's system of consecutive fourths and fifths—the so-called organum—is still in full swing, and the result to our ears is indescribably hideous.

A century later came Willem Dufay, one of the most important names in the history of early music, who was a contemporary of the English Dunstable and of the Burgundian Gilles Binchois. With Dufay the influence of popular upon ecclesiastical music first takes definite shape. He wrote masses which are founded upon the melodies associated with popular songs, a practice which, though it afterward led to strange and scandalous developments, unquestionably had the immediate effect of giving life to the dry bones of Church music. Further, we may note in the music of Dufay and his period a feeling for definite rhythm such as could only have been produced by the influence of popular music. Modern music was now fairly started upon its career. The generation that succeeded Dufay, of which Okeghem may be taken as a typical figure had an unmistakable feeling for sheer musical beauty, and we find the composers of his day actually attempting to describe the sight and sounds of nature in tones of music. By the side of these interesting aspirations there was a disheartening tendency toward cleverness for its own sake. Okeghem and his fellows were never so happy as when inventing abstruse "canons"—musical puzzles which taxed the resources of the most learned to solve. Nevertheless, these exercises could not but give technical dexterity, and as a matter of fact during this period the mechanical side of music was developed to an astonishing extent.

In the middle of the fifteenth century Josquin des Près was born, the first man who can properly be called a great composer in something like the modern acceptation of the of the term. In Josquin's music there is a beauty which can be appreciated without any reference to the man's position in the history of music. Josquin is the first musical composer who gives a modern hearer the impression that he knows how to get the effects at which he is aiming. The purely pioneer stage of musical development is over. For the first time we are in the presence of an artist. A glance at Josquin's music reveals the importance of his position with regard to the development of modern music. He shows us for the first time a highly gifted composer consciously blending popular and ecclesiastical music. From the popular he gets his freshness of melody and his sense of rhythm, from the ecclesiastical his knowledge of the principles of harmony and counterpoint. In his secular music, in the part songs and canzonets of which he was practically the inventor, we find what are obviously harmonized versions popular airs, little gems of melody such as "Petite Camusette" which are as entrancing now as on the day he wrote them. And in his sacred music the popular influence is scarcely less noticeable. Take, for example, the "Ave Maria," which has been printed by M. Charles Bordes in his "Anthologie des maîtres religieux primitifs," and compare it with a motet by Dufay or Dunstable written only a generation earlier. Instead of the long unrhythmical sweep of the Gregorian tunes, we have short crisp phrases, sometimes treated canonically, but often harmonized in simple chords, just in the modern fashion. The motet, too, is constructed in a curiously advanced style, the flow of the piece broken by a delightful little passage in triple time, in which the influence of popular music is unmistakable.

The importance of Josquin's work was speedily proved by the generation that succeeded him. Willaert in Venice, and Jannequin in Paris, to name only two of his pupils, carried his tradition far and wide. In England, where general progress was retarded by the Wars of the Roses, the music of the early part of the sixteenth century shows little trace of Josquin's influence, but in other European countries the iron traditions of Church music began to yield at the touch of popular song. In Germany folk tunes, such as "Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen," were openly annexed by Luther and the Reformed Church, and used as hymns, a proceeding akin to that of the Salvation Army in our day. In Italy the invasion of the Netherlanders was followed by the establishment of music schools, that of Goudimel at Rome, where Palestrina was a pupil, being the most famous. At Venice Adrian Willaert is said to have introduced antiphonal writing into Church music, fired thereto by the presence of two organs in St. Mark's Church, of which he was organist; the "Ave Maria," for instance, to which reference has already been made, to find there the germs of antiphonal writing, as indeed of much else that is attributed to a later age. The sixteenth century saw the rise of the madrigal, which with its offshoots, the canzone, the balletto (the latter designed for dancing as well as singing), the villanelle, and other delightful forms of unaccompanied vocal music, speedily gained wide popularity in Italy, and before the end of the century in England as well.

In music of this kind we find not only the most brilliant display of technique, but an ever-growing feeling for musical beauty. Allied to this was a rudimentary taste for realistic effects, taking form in an attempt to echo the sounds of nature and of human life, at first purely imitative, as in Gombert's musical imitation of bird-calls and Jannequin's famous "Bataille de Marignan," and afterward more artistic, as in Luca Marenzio's lovely madrigal, "Scaldava il sol," with its chirping grasshoppers, or his still more beautiful "Strider faceva," with its imitation of shepherds' pipes, or the numerous "cuckoo" pieces by English composers, in which the bird's cry is used as a definite musical motive with admirable effect.

Experiments of this kind led naturally to innovations in harmony, and long before the end of the sixteenth century composers began to be uneasy in the fetters of the modal system. The process of development which ended in the Church modes being replaced by our modern key system was very gradual; in fact, it was not until the age of Bach that the older system ceased to exercise some sort of influence upon music, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century the battle was practically over. All through the sixteenth century the composers of Italy and the Netherlands were continually enlarging the borders of permissible harmony, and every innovation meant a nail in the coffin of the modal system. The increasing use of accidentals, which in the strictest days of the modal system were only permitted with many restrictions, and the gradual acquisition of the principles of modulation had the effect of effacing the subtle distinctions which existed between the various modes. The laws of evolution worked here as consistently as in the animal kingdom. The fittest of the modes survived and became the major and minor scales of the new key system; while the others, though lingering for a while in Church music, soon ceased to have any vital influence upon the development of music.

The English composers of the Elizabethan age were among the hardiest innovators of this period. Not only were they continually making experiments in harmony, often with hideous if interesting results, but they appear to have been in advance of their Italian and Netherlandish contemporaries in their grasp of the principles of modulation. The attempts of Byrd and Orlando Gibbons to express the emotions of pity and terror by crude violations of the accepted rules of harmony are among the first signs of a revolt against the laws which governed the polyphonic school; while in the madrigals of Wilbye we find a consummate ease of technique and a graceful flow of modulation such as are rare even in the most accomplished Italian writers of the period, and are certainly not to be found in the productions of the Netherlandish school, at any rate before the days of Sweelinck. But in spite of the beauty of the English madrigals, it is in the sacred music of the Italian masters that we find the most perfect utterance of the time, and of all the Italians the most gifted was Palestrina, whose name stands for all that is best and purest in the music of the Church, in whose development he played so striking and so formative a part.

The Secularization of Music[edit]

The opening of the seventeenth century saw a revolution in music such as has never been paralleled. With Palestrina and his school, music, as it was then known, reached a climax of perfection beyond which progress was scarcely conceivable. But the productions of this school, though perfect in degree, were narrow in kind. The Church musicians of the sixteenth century, with all their highly wrought technique, worked in a restricted field. The genius of their age tended to expansion and discovery. The result was unavoidable, though it came, as it seems to us, with strange suddenness. Leaving behind them, as it were, the gorgeous palace so carefully erected by generations of earnest workers, the new generation of musicians set forth boldly upon an unknown and stormy ocean, in craft ill-built and without rudder or compass. That in time they arrived at the wished-for port was due certainly to no care or forethought on their part, but rather to the happy genius of the Italian race for adapting itself to circumstances and circumstances to itself.

As a matter of fact the revolution was by no means so sudden or so drastic as it appears now to us. In spite of the new departure which music took in the early years of the seventeenth century, the old school lived on under the wing of the Church for many years, at first untouched by the revolutionary ideas of secular composers and afterward only gradually affected by them. But the rise of opera, of instrumental music, and in fact of secular music as a separate entity gave a new complexion to the whole world of music. The circumstances of the new departure would surprise us were they not repeated in almost every revolution of the kind. The founders of the secular school were resolved to make an entirely fresh start. Their primitive efforts owed nothing to the work of their predecessors. They had ready to hand a musical organization of exquisite complexity and consummate finish. They ignored it completely.

The little band of Florentines who set themselves to create the new music worked as if unconscious that a thousand years of development lay behind them. They had no science and no experience. Their first strivings after expression are pathetically ineffective. By the side of the majestic oratory of Palestrina their works appear like the incomprehensible gibberish of childhood. Yet the truth was in them, and from the humble germ that they planted sprang one of the noblest developments of music. But before the fathers of opera were justified of their offspring, weary path of experiment had to be traversed. Unlike many sister forms of art, opera had to work out its own salvation. Printing and oil-painting sprang full-grown from birth. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the first book printed, the Mazarin Bible, and the first great picture painted in oils, Hubert and Jan van Eyck's "Adoration of the Lamb," for beauty of conception and perfection of execution have never been surpassed; but it was many years before opera became even articulate; even now, after three hundred years of incessant development, it is easy to believe that the zenith of its achievement has not yet been reached.

Opera, like so many other things, owed its foundation largely to accident. When late in the sixteenth century, a small band of Florentine enthusiasts proposed to themselves the task of reviving the lost glories of Greek drama, nothing was farther from their thoughts than the creation of a new art-form. They worked upon what they believed to be antiquarian lines; they wrote plays, and because they fancied that the Greek drama was sung or rather chanted in a kind of accompanied recitative, they decided to perform their plays in the same way. Their first efforts have very little musical value. They are almost entirely set to a bare monotonous recitative, varied at rare intervals by simple passages of short instrumental interludes. From beginning to end there is nothing that can be called a tune, and the accompaniment merely supports the voice by occasional chords contributed by a harpsichord and three instruments of the lute type.

It was in 1600 that Cavalieri produced the first oratorio, his "Rappresentazione di anima e di corpo," which was performed at Rome in the Oratory of San Filippo de' Neri. In general structure Cavalieri's work resembled that of his Florentine contemporaries, but it has decidedly more musical interest. The solo parts and the choruses are more expressive, and the instrumental sections are considerably more elaborate. Unfortunately Cavalieri died in the year in which his oratorio was produced, and little attempt seems to have been made to follow up on his initial success until the time of Carissimi, whose oratorios are an interesting attempt to graft the new dramatic style upon the rich and solid polyphony of past ages. At Florence, on the other hand, the seed fell upon good ground, but no definite advance can be traced until the appearance on the scene of Claudio Monteverde.

Monteverde was the first trained musician who devoted himself to the new music. He had been thoroughly grounded in the traditions of the contrapuntal school. Had he fallen upon a dull, pedantic era when everything that had a tinge of novelty was derided, he would have accomplished little or nothing. But the way, in many respects, had been prepared for him, and his accomplishments, as our sketch of his life shows, was great. His success soon found him followers, of whom Cavalli is one of the most famous. In the matter of form he improved upon Monteverde. In Cavalli's works, as in the later operas of Monteverde, we begin to pass from the first merely experimental stage of opera. Cavalli avoids the pitfalls into which Monteverde's inexperience had led him, but on the other hand his music his music has not the concentrated dramatic force of his predecessor. Still Cavalli is an important figure in the history of music. In his operas we find for the first time a regularly developed aria, varying the monotony of the interminable recitative. He had the true Venetian love of color, and he tried to make his orchestra give musical significance to the sights and sounds of nature, such as the murmuring of rivers or the sighing of the winds.

Cesti was another of Monteverde's most famous followers. In his time opera had advanced still further on the path of development. Cesti's music is tuneful and charming, and many of his airs would probably be as successful now in pleasing public taste as on the day they were written. In his works we find for the first time the da capo regularly used, that is to say the repetition of the first part of an air after the end of the second part. Excellent as this invention was in giving cohesion to the musical fabric of an opera, it was much abused by subsequent writers, and is largely responsible for the degradation of opera in the eighteenth century to the level of a concert on the stage.

In Cesti's time the rivalry between the various opera houses of Venice was very keen, and it is easy to believe that the managers tried to outbid each other in the favor of the public by staging their pieces in the most magnificent manner. At any rate the accounts of the scenery used sound very elaborate. Operas were still an important feature at court festivals, and here, as in the court masques in England, gorgeous staging was a matter of course. Engravings still survive of the scenery used when Cesti's opera, "Il pomo d'oro" was produced at Vienna in 1668, which give some idea of the elaborate nature of the entertainment. At Parma the old theater still stands in the Farnese palace, just as it did in the seventeenth century, but in such a wrecked and dismantled condition that it is not easy to realize what it looked like in all the splendor of a court festival. Nevertheless those who have visited Parma, and have read the accounts that survive of the magnificent performances given under the auspices of the Farnese family, can well amuse themselves by trying to recreate the scene in imagination.

It would serve no good purpose here to enumerate the composers who, during the seventeenth century, furnished Italy with operas. Their name is legion. Throughout the country the musical activity was amazing. Hardly a town was without its opera house, and the libraries of Italian cities furnish convincing proofs of the enormous quantity of music produced at this period. What may be called the first period of Italian opera culminated in Alessandro Scarlatti, a composer of extraordinary genius and fertility, who definitely established the form of Italian opera which prevailed during the eighteenth century. Scarlatti found opera still to some extent in the tentative stage; he left it a highly developed art-form of exquisitely ordered proportion, an instrument capable of expressing human emotion with beautiful certainty and force. Historians, noting the fact that after Scarlatti's day Italian opera soon degenerated into a concert upon the stage with little or no dramatic significance, have found in his works the seeds of decadence, and have not hesitated to describe Monteverde's primitive struggles after expression as more "dramatic" than the ordered beauty of Scarlatti's airs, without seeing that the germs of all that Scarlatti accomplished are to be found in Monteverde, though often in so undeveloped a state as to be barely recognizable.

It is a common error, especially among those whose knowledge of music is bounded by the works of Wagner, to suppose that the duty of operatic composers is to give musical expression to the ordinary inflections of the human voice. This is entirely to misread the convention upon which opera was founded. When song has been substituted for speech, realism of this kind is out of the question. Music like architecture depends for its effect upon the beauty of ordered design and proportion. The man who built the first log cabin probably took as his model the cave in which his ancestors had dwelt, but we do not therefore judge houses according to their resemblance to caves. It probably required a greater effort of creative genius to build the first log cabin than to build Westminster Abbey, but that does not prevent us from regarding Westminster Abbey as the finer work of art. Monteverde was a man of extraordinary genius, and the value of his work cannot be overestimated, but to speak of his music as a great artistic accomplishment is to misunderstand the man and his aims altogether. He would have written like Scarlatti if he could. His career shows a constant striving toward that goal. Anyone who compares his later works with "Orfeo" must see the enormous advance in form which he made during his lifetime.

The tendencies of modern opera toward formlessness and so-called "dramatic truth" and "realism" have blinded critics to main principles upon which opera is founded, so that a distinguished modern writer actually talks about Monteverde "regarding his early efforts in the histrionic and dramatic direction as a forlorn hope," and says that Cavalli "drifted away from his dramatic ideals in the direction of technical artistic finish and clearness of musical form," as though a dramatic ideal could be better expressed by imperfect than by perfect technique, by chaotic confusion than by assured mastery of form.

Scarlatti carried opera in Italy to heights far beyond the ken of his predecessors, but meanwhile further developments of the new art were claiming attention beyond the Alps. Lulli brought Italian traditions to Paris, where he grafted them upon the masques which already were popular at the French court. Lulli was an extremely clever man, and he speedily divined the instincts of the French people in musical matters, and suited his music to their peculiar taste. In Italy the trend of opera was more and more in the direction of sheer musical beauty, regardless of the meaning of the words, but the logical French mind insisted upon knowing what the music was all about. Thus we find that recitative retains an important place in Lulli's operas while airs are few and far between.

Vocalization was far less cultivated in France than in Italy, and long after Lulli's time French singers were famous for their ugly voices and bad singing. Dancing, on the other hand, for which the Italians seemed to have cared comparatively little, was much appreciated in France, and elaborate ballets are a prominent feature of Lulli's operas. Thus in Lulli's hands French opera soon developed into a distinctive art-form, very stiff and majestic compared with the melodious and flexible music of Italian writers, but vigorous and intelligent, and lending itself well to the elaborate stage display in which the French then as now delighted. Historically, Lulli is also interesting as having, if not invented, at any rate perfected what is known as the French form of the overture, a solemn introduction followed by a quick movement in a fugal style and concluding with a dance, which was afterward carried to the highest conceivable pitch of perfection by Handel.

In Germany the development of opera was relatively unimportant. The wars of the seventeenth century interfered with the progress of all kinds of art, and though performances of opera were occasionally given at German courts, the new art took no real root in the country, until the opening of the Hamburg opera house in 1678 and the rise of Keiser. Even then operas were given mainly in Italian, and the style of the music was for the most part thoroughly Italian, though occasionally modified by German influence in minor details.

The development of the new music in England will be shown in the sketch of Purcell contained in the present volume, wherein also the biographies of the great composers of the modern world present to the reader in practically a chronological order the lives and works of the masters through whom mainly the triumphs of musical art have been achieved.

Some compilers of works on great composers limit their lists to a few—less than twenty, perhaps—of the supreme names in musical history. In the present series the list has been extended to embrace a much larger number, to all of whom the word great, which is a relative term, may be, in one degree or another, justly applied.