WHAT ARE THE INFLUENCING FACTORS IN DECIDING MUSICAL DESTINIES? WHO IS TO BE OUR SEVENTH HIGH-PRIEST?

For reasons inherent both in music itself and in man’s sluggish and
prejudiced perceptions, really great composers have usually to wait
longer for recognition than do those of mediocre capacities. Music
that is worthy of consideration is as individual as its composer’s
features or his unconscious habits. It is a tonal utterance of his most
intimate nature, an inarticulate but clear expression of his strongest
emotions,–a shadow-picture of his very soul. The more intense the
nature, the stronger the emotions; and the deeper the soul of the
composer, the less quickly can we apprehend the full import of his
writings, for they are characteristic of him and foreign to us. Each
period-maker adds so much to art resources and so materially modifies
art methods, that he may be said to originate a musical dialect, with
which our ears and minds have to become familiar before his poetic
schemes can assume for us sustained and clear significance.

Because of this alien character of pronounced originality,
high-priestly honors are usually posthumous, for they are bestowed
only upon those who have convinced the musical world of their fitness
through the life-long, patient, and intelligent use of supreme
endowments. It is the musical world only that has the power to confer
high-priestly honors, for that office is not at the disposal of
composers’ friends or adherents, nor of parties or clans. One must
have gained universal recognition as a beneficent and radically new
factor in art in order to secure the requisite suffrages, and that
requires so much time that but two of our six high-priests lived to
realize the honor. Even Beethoven did not live to feel full assurance
of immortality, but Wagner did. He knew that his innovations had
been accepted by the world, that his achievements broadened the
foundations of art and opened new channels for musical thought, that
his individuality shone brightly across the broad sea of modern
culture, a “beacon-light” of resplendent brightness, and that he was
a period-maker, whose impress upon art was too deep to wear away, for
he was a musician who abated not one jot or tittle of that which he
thought was art’s due.

This working throughout life for posthumous honors is not so depressing
as it would seem at first glance, for any man, however modest, if
blessed with supreme endowments, must feel his power, and be buoyed up
by the certainty of ultimate recognition. The art love, steadfastness,
ambition, individuality, and imagination of truly great men are proof
against the struggles and discouragements of the artist’s existence.

Time is then our final tribunal, the only adjuster of musical values
who makes no errors in judgment. The individual judge gauges the
merits of contemporaneous composers, guided by his or her personal
impressions. Time gathers composite impressions made upon races of
music-lovers during decades, and her verdicts, based upon these
impressions, are final. We are sometimes nonplussed, and even
rebellious, when the success of our favorite composer, or of some
especially sympathetic piece of music, proves ephemeral, but the
fittest always survives, and the fittest is the composer or work
which, in addition to the indispensable technical and æsthetic
qualities, is pervaded by the richest vein of altruistic individuality.

If time be our final tribunal, then professional critics are the
advocates who present the claims of artists at the bar of her court.
These advocates differ widely in ability and in character. A few of
them have great learning, acute perceptions, and honesty; they will
advocate no cause that is prejudicial to the interests of art, our muse
having, as it were, endowed them with a super-retainer. Such advocacy
embodies the highest and best of which the limitations of individuality
admit. From this ideal standard professional critics grade downward
until they reach assertive, prejudiced, and sometimes malicious
ignorance. In passing down the scale we first find capacity without
the essential confidence in convictions (timid ability is always a
weak factor in adjusting affairs, whether artistic or material), then
honesty and good-will unsupported by capacity, then capacity biassed by
prejudice or self-interest, and last and worst, the pettifogger. These
classes show arrogance, and attract attention (temporarily) in inverse
ratio to their abilities. If we scan the history of our tribunal, we
find that the more assertive the advocate the smaller his sphere of
influence.

The great public is the jury in this court, and its decisions, although
ultimately wise and just, are always so delayed by the babel of pleas
that dins in its ears, that I feel justified in devoting a little space
to these “moulders of opinion,” and to facilitate my purpose will use
a simile drawn from nature, which is less whimsical and more reliable
than man.

Music is like a sensitive plant,–it flourishes only when each and
every condition is favorable to its growth. For this reason those
who find pleasure, edification, and comfort in its subtle qualities
should imitate the skilled gardener in his watchful and discriminating
culture of flowers. A professional gardener is to horticulture what a
critic should be to art. Each is supposed to bring trained faculties to
his task, but the gardener, familiar with the principles that govern
flower growth, studies the natures of his germs, and then adapts soil,
temperature, etc., to the requirements of each. He thus starts out with
one material advantage over his art _confrère_, in that his experience
enables him to recognize the genera of his germs and to anticipate
results. He deals with seeds, roots, slips, and bulbs; the art critic
with the mysteries of individuality, of which he most often judges from
the impressions made upon his susceptibilities by a momentary contact
of its outward manifestations. These manifestations are seldom full and
trustworthy indexes of creative capacity, especially in the cases of
young composers, because of the unfavorable conditions that so often
attend upon their development and presentation.

Communities are gardens in which music thrives, barely exists (the
most common condition), or entirely fails to take root. Propagation is
the crucial test of vitalizing qualities. A community that can produce
new varieties, really audacious talents, must possess a high degree of
fertility. The composers to be found living and creating in any given
place are therefore reflections of their musical environment, for the
faculties of musical organisms are more sensitive even than music
itself. Transplanted music will continue to exist under conditions that
afford no incitement to earnest creation, nor the elements from which
virility may be drawn. Beethoven’s works interest communities in which
his faculties would have remained latent.

The legitimate functions of criticism are to seek out and to nurture
true talent and to guide public discrimination in its initial judgment.
Critics and reviewers are experts to whose expressed opinions the
printing-press imparts degrees of convincing power not always
comportable with their merit, and spreads them broadcast for good or
ill. Printed criticism, because of this cogent quality, and because
it appeals, and may repeatedly appeal,–being in fixed form,–to so
broad a radius of intelligence, should be the most powerful as well as
the most active agency in creating the conditions essential to musical
growth; but a careful review of the past and present relations of
criticism to art culture would, to my mind, convince any unbiassed
thinker that the decision of our court had been delayed and not
facilitated by the average advocate, and that the productivity of our
garden had never been increased by the ministrations of professional
gardeners.

Nevertheless, printed criticism has a momentary influence. We do
not necessarily surrender when confronted by criticisms at variance
with our own ideas, but the undue weight with which printed matter
is endowed often causes even expert opinion to waver, protest to the
contrary as it may.

Printed news is not always authentic, nor are printed opinions on
finance, political economy, sports, weather, etc., infallible, although
usually written by specialists; but these matters, being material,
adjust themselves, and their editorial short-comings seldom do
irreparable harm; whereas our sensitive art, the elements of which are
emotional, and the supersensitive organisms which are blessed with art
productivity, are less capable of recovering from the shock incident to
misconception and misrepresentation.

Wagner was unique in this respect, for he endured years of calumny
and injustice without flinching. His nature was dual, as if his art
instinct had been grafted into an heroic character, like a noble oak,
from which it drew vitality, and whose wide-spread roots imparted
stability to its convictions without infusing into them any other
suggestion of its stern elements. Were all talented composers as firmly
rooted as Wagner, there would be less reason for protesting against
ignorance and carelessness in print.

The second question propounded in the headlines of this chapter can
be discreetly considered, but it can receive no conclusive answer
until time’s verdict is rendered. We can weigh the impressions made
upon our individual susceptibilities by the qualities of the more
prominent candidates for high-priestly honors, and compare these with
like individual conceptions of ideal attributes, but the result of
our speculations must necessarily partake more of the character of a
weather-vane, subject to the caprice of changing conditions, than of a
finger-post, giving reliable direction to our anticipations.

Of all the composers of recent times, Brahms attracted the largest
following of musicians, and with right, for the volume of his worthy
creations is larger than that produced by any of his contemporaries. He
wrote a vast number of songs, ensemble pieces for a great variety of
instrumental combinations, accompanied and unaccompanied piano-forte
pieces, and symphonies, overtures, etc., for the grand orchestra.
His work is usually characterized by rich harmonies, melodic
voice-leading, transparent form, and a varying amount of spontaneity
that at times fails to conceal evident effort. This effort makes itself
felt in peculiar and even grotesque harmonic successions and rhythms,
and it is traceable through all periods of his career. These, which
to me are forced methods, are the only features that individualize
Brahms’ music. He is greatest when self-forgetful, and these unnatural
features bespeak self-consciousness. Schumann, who was, as I said in
a previous chapter, Brahms’ musical god-father, was a genius with a
clearly defined individuality, the complete and natural expression
of which obliged him to invent means to supplement those that he had
inherited from his predecessors. These invented means were peculiar
harmonic compounds and erratic accents. Schumann usually employed
these devices with grateful results; for he makes us feel that they are
essential to the development of full significance in his tonal schemes.
Genius has a magical power over resources and modes, often transforming
eccentricities into felicitous, expressive means, and endowing that
which would be chaotic in other hands with logical import.

Brahms seems to have been dazzled by these extreme manifestations
of his great prototype’s individuality. He not only adopted, but
exaggerated these, and made them the distinguishing features of his
style. He was a masterly contrapuntist, had a clear sense of form,
handled the orchestra well, although he never exhausted its resources,
and was always a logical thinker. His skill in the treatment of themes
was so astounding that he often imparted significance to trivial
motives (_vide_ the “Academic Overture” and his sets of variations),
but he was not a great initial inventor (an originator of pregnant
themes) nor was he a resourceful colorist.

As I said before, Brahms was greatest when self-forgetful, for at such
times the artificial element dropped out of his diction and he became
a masterful musician, possessed of all the qualities but one that have
characterized our priestly line. This missing quality is to my mind the
most essential of all,–viz., a natural, distinguishing, and pervading
individuality.

Tschaikowski received brief mention while we were considering Russia’s
services to art in the fourth chapter. Because of Russia’s half-closed
door her art has, until recent times, been very much isolated. For
this reason Tschaikowski’s claims have not even now been fully laid
before our tribunal. It is a peculiar but characteristic circumstance
that America anticipated Europe by several years in her knowledge and
appreciation of this great creator. America is constantly eager for
novelty, and has not learned to seek it at home; Germany, and in a less
degree the other European countries, feel complacency in their own
achievements, and corresponding distrust and intolerance of foreign
products.

It was but six years ago that Germany was made aware of the fact that
a great genius had lived, created, and died outside of her sphere
of direct influence, and almost without her knowledge. Tschaikowski
had naturally been known in a way to well-read German musicians, but
it required such a blow as was struck by Professor Leopold Auer to
draw from our tocsin a peal sufficiently vibrant to penetrate to the
farthermost confines of the musical world and to herald the coming of a
new hero. Never was an act of justice and love more conscientiously and
adequately accomplished. Auer showed rare judgment in the selection
of his programme. His evident desire was to display as many features
of Tschaikowski’s versatile genius as possible. He therefore chose
the scholarly second, instead of the more assertively emotional sixth
symphony. The violin concert, the “Nutcracker” suite, and the symphonic
poem “Francesca da Rimini” followed. I know of no other composer of any
time whose works could furnish an equal variety of defined moods, each
bearing the unmistakable stamp of his individuality.

Professor Auer conducted the orchestral works and played the concerto
with a skill which drew its inspiration from the reverent memory of
his lost friend. His exaltation infected the orchestral players, and
finally the audience, making the evening memorable, and sending out
waves of enthusiasm that have carried Tschaikowski’s name and music to
the remotest corners of the musical world.

In my previous mention of Tschaikowski I accorded him virtues that
“place him at the head of symphonists of his time.” He had, however,
two frailties, one of which more or less pervades his works, while
the other shows itself but seldom. The former is a too great fealty
to his themes as at first announced, and the latter is an occasional
tendency to be melodramatic. Plastic compositions must be true to the
spirit, but not to the initial form of their themes, for pregnant
themes possess many phases of suggestiveness, and the more of these
phases a composer feels and displays, the richer the homogeneity of his
creations.

Were it not for these slight weaknesses in Tschaikowski’s work I should
not hesitate to predict that time would make him her choice for our
seventh high-priest, and he may win the honor in spite of them, for
his great qualities are overpowering.

There are no known candidates who are worthy of comparison with these
two giants, Brahms and Tschaikowski, one mechanically and the other
emotionally musical.