Symphonies and Their Meaning Part 1

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Symphonies and Their Meaning; Third Series, Modern Symphonies.

by Philip H. Goepp.


Criticism of contemporary art is really a kind of prophecy. For the appreciation of the cla.s.sical past is an act of present perception, not a mere memory of popular verdicts. The cla.s.sics live only because they still express the vital feeling of to-day. The new art must do more,--must speak for the morrow. And as the poet is a kind of seer, the true critic is his prophetic herald.

It is with due humility that we approach a view of the work of our own time, with a dim feeling that our best will be a mere conjecture. But we shall the more cheerfully return to our resolution that our chief business is a positive appreciation. Where we cannot praise, we can generally be silent. Certain truths concerning contemporary art seem firmly grounded in the recorded past. The new Messiah never came with instant wide acclaim. Many false prophets flashed brilliantly on the horizon to fall as suddenly as they rose. In a refracted view we see the figures of the great projected in too large dimension upon their day.

And precisely opposite we fail to glimpse the ephemeral lights obscuring the truly great. The lesson seems never to be learned; indeed it can, of course, never be learned. For that would imply an eternal paradox that the present generation must always distrust its own judgment.

Who could possibly imagine in Schubert's time the sway he holds to-day.

Our minds reel to think that by a mere accident were recovered the Pa.s.sion of Bach and the symphonies of Schubert. Or must we prayerfully believe that a Providence will make the best prevail? And, by the way, the serious nature of this appreciation appears when we see how it was ever by the greatest of his time that the future master was heralded.

The symphony of the present age has perhaps fallen somewhat in estate.

It was natural that it should rush to a high perfection in the halcyon days of its growth. It is easy to make mournful predictions of decadence. The truth is the symphony is a great form of art, like a temple or a tragedy. Like them it has had, it will have its special eras of great expression. Like them it will stay as a mode of utterance for new communities and epochs with varying nationality, or better still, with vanishing nationalism.

The tragedy was not exhausted with Sophocles, nor with Shakespeare nor with Goethe. So the symphony has its fallow periods and it may have a new resurgence under new climes. We are ever impatient to shelve a great form, like vain women afraid of the fashion. It is part of our constant rage for novelty. The shallower artist ever tinkered with new devices,--to some effects, in truth. Such is the empiric course of art that what is born of vanity may be crowned with highest inspiration.

The national element will fill a large part of our survey. It marks a strange trait of our own age that this revival of the national idea falls in the very time when other barriers are broken. Ancient folk-song grew like the flower on the battle-field of races. But here is an anxious striving for a special dialect in music. Each nation must have its proper school; composers are strictly labelled, each one obedient to his national manner. This state of art can be but of the day. Indeed, the fairest promise of a greater future lies in the morrow's blending of these various elements in the land where each citizen has a mixed inheritance from the older nations.

In the bewildering midst of active spirits comes the irresistible impulse to a somewhat partisan warfare. The critic, if he could view himself from some empyraean perch, remote in time and place, might smile at his own vehemence. In the clash of aims he must, after all, take sides, for it is the tendency that is momentous; and he will be excited to greater heat the stronger the prophet that he deems false. When the strife is over, when currents are finally settled, we may take a more contented joy in the impersonal art that remains.

The choice from the ma.s.s of brilliant vital endeavor is a new burden and a source almost of dismay. Why should we omit so melodious a work as Moskowski's _Jeanne d'Arc_,--full of perhaps too facile charm? It was, of course, impossible to treat all the wonderful music of the Glazounows and the Kallinikows. And there is the limpid beauty of the Bohemian _Suk_, or the heroic vigor of a _Volbach_. We should like to have mentioned _Robert Volkmann_ as a later Romanticist; and _Gade_ has ever seemed a true poet of the Scandinavian symphony.

Of the modern French we are loth to omit the symphonies of _Chausson_ and of _Dukas_. In our own America it is a still harder problem. There is the masterly writing of a _Foote_; the older _Paine_ has never been fully valued in the mad race for novelty. It would have been a joy to include a symphony of rare charm by _Martinus van Gelder_.

A critical work on modern art cannot hope to bestow a crown of laurels among living masters; it must be content with a view of active tendencies. The greatest cla.s.sic has often come into the world amid least expectation. A critic in the year 1850 must need have omitted the Unfinished Symphony, which was then buried in a long oblivion.

The present author prefers to treat the main modern lines, considering the special work mainly as example. After all, throughout the realm of art the idea is greater than the poet, the whole art more than the artist,--though the particular enshrinement in enduring design may reflect a rare personality.


NOTE: Especial thanks are owed to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a free use of its library, and to Messrs. G. Schirmer Company for a like courtesy.--P.H.G.



After the long dominance of German masters of the musical art, a reaction could not fail to come with the restless tendencies of other nations, who, having learned the lesson, were yet jealous of foreign models and eager to utter their own message. The later nineteenth century was thus the age of refraction of the cla.s.sic tradition among the various racial groups that sprang up with the rise of the national idea. We can see a kind of beginning in the Napoleonic destruction of feudal dynasties. German authority in music at the beginning of the century was as absolute as Roman rule in the age of Augustus. But the seed was carried by teachers to the various centres of Europe. And, with all the joy we have in the new burst of a nation's song, there is no doubt that it is ever best uttered when it is grounded on the lines of cla.s.sic art. Here is a paramount reason for the strength of the modern Russian school. With this semi-political cause in mind it is less difficult to grasp the paradox that with all the growth of intercommunication the music of Europe moves in more detached grooves to-day than two centuries ago. The suite in the time of Bach is a special type and proof of a blended breadth and unity of musical thought in the various nations of Europe of the seventeenth century. In the quaint series of dances of the different peoples, with a certain international quality, one sees a direct effect of the Thirty Years'

War,--the beneficent side of those ill winds and cruel blasts, when all kinds of nations were jostling on a common battle-ground. And as the folk-dances sprang from the various corners of Europe, so different nations nursed the artistic growth of the form. Each would treat the dances of the other in its own way, and here is the significance of Bach's separate suites,--English, French and German.

Nationalism seems thus a prevailing element in the music of to-day, and we may perceive two kinds, one spontaneous and full of charm, the other a result of conscious effort, sophisticated in spirit and in detail. It may as well be said that there was no compelling call for a separate French school in the nineteenth century as a national utterance. It sprang from a political rather than an artistic motive; it was the itch of jealous pride that sharply stressed the difference of musical style on the two sides of the Rhine. The very influence of German music was needed by the French rather than a bizarre invention of national traits.

The broader art of a Saint-Saens here shines in contrast with the brilliant conceits of his younger compatriots, though it cannot be denied that the latter are grounded in cla.s.sic counterpoint. With other nations the impulse was more natural: the racial song of the Scandinavians, Czechs and other Slavs craved a deliverance as much as the German in the time of Schubert. In France, where music had long flourished, there was no stream of suppressed folk-song.

But the symphony must in the natural course have suffered from the very fulness of its own triumph. We know the Romantic reaction of Schumann, uttered in smaller cyclic forms; in Berlioz is almost a complete abandonment of pure music, devoid of special description. Liszt was one of the mighty figures of the century, with all the external qualities of a master-genius, shaking the stage of Europe with the weight of his personality, and, besides, endowed with a creative power that was not understood in his day. With him the restless tendency resulted in a new form intended to displace the symphony: the symphonic poem, in a single, varied movement, and always on a definite poetic subject. Here was at once a relief and a recess from the cla.s.sic rigor. Away with sonata form and all the odious code of rules! In the story of the t.i.tle will lie all the outline of the music.

Yet in this rebellious age--and here is the significance of the form--the symphony did not languish, but blossomed to new and varied flower. Liszt turned back to the symphony from his new-fangled device for his two greatest works. It has, indeed, been charged that the symphony was accepted by the Romantic masters in the spirit of a challenge. Mendelssohn and even Schumann are not entirely free from such a suspicion. Nevertheless it remains true that all of them confided to the symphony their fairest inspiration. About the middle of the century, at the high point of anti-cla.s.sical revolt, a wonderful group of symphonies, by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt, were presented to the world. With the younger Brahms on a returning wave of neo-cla.s.sicism the form became again distinctively a personal choice.

Finally, in the spontaneous utterance of a national spirit on broad lines, as in the later Russian and Finnish examples, with the various phases of surging resolution, of lyric contemplation and of rollicking humor, the symphony has its best sanction in modern times.

To return to the historical view, the course of the symphony during the century cannot be adequately scanned without a glance at the music-drama of Richard Wagner. Until the middle of the century, symphony and opera had moved entirely in separate channels. At most the overture was affected, in temper and detail, by the career of the n.o.bler form.

The restless iconoclasm of a Liszt was now united, in a close personal and poetic league, with the new ideas of Wagner's later drama. Both men adopted the symbolic motif as their main melodic means; with both mere iteration took the place of development; a brilliant and lurid color-scheme (of orchestration) served to hide the weakness of intrinsic content; a vehement and hysteric manner cast into temporary shade the cla.s.sic mood of tranquil depth in which alone man's greatest thought is born.

But a still larger view of the whole temper of art in Europe of the later century is needed. We wander here beyond the fine distinctions of musical forms. A new wave of feeling had come over the world that violently affected all processes of thought. And strangely, it was strongest in the land where the great heights of poetry and music had just been reached. Where the high aim of a Beethoven and a Goethe had been proclaimed, arose a Wagner to preach the gospel of brute fate and nature, where love was the involuntary sequence of mechanical device and ended in inevitable death, all overthrowing the heroic idea that teems throughout the cla.s.sic scores, crowned in a greatest symphony in praise of "Joy."

Such was the intrinsic content of a "Tristan and Isolde" and the whole "Nibelungen-Ring," and it was uttered with a sensuous wealth of sound and a pa.s.sionate strain of melody that (without special greatness of its own) dazzled and charmed the world in the dramatic setting of mediaeval legend. The new harmonic style of Wagner, there is good reason to suppose, was in reality first conceived by Liszt, whose larger works, written about the middle of the century, have but lately come to light.[A] In correspondence with this moral mutiny was the complete revolt from cla.s.sic art-tradition: melody (at least in theory), the vital quality of musical form and the true process of a coherent thread, were cast to the winds with earlier poetic ideals.

[Footnote A: The "Dante" Symphony of Liszt was written between 1847 and 1855; the "Faust" Symphony between 1854 and 1857. Wagner finished the text of _Tristan und Isolde_ in 1857; the music was not completed until 1859. In 1863 was published the libretto of the _Nibelungen-Ring_. In 1864 Wagner was invited by King Ludwig of Bavaria to complete the work in Munich.]

If it were ever true that a single personality could change an opposite course of thought, it must be held that Richard Wagner, in his own striking and decadent career, comes nearest to such a type. But he was clearly prompted and reinforced in his philosophy by other men and tendencies of his time. The realism of a Schopenhauer, which Wagner frankly adopted without its full significance (where primal will finds a redemption in euthanasia), led by a natural course of thought to Nietzsche's dreams of an overman, who tramples on his kind.

In itself this philosophy had been more of a pa.s.sing phase (even as Schopenhauer is lost in the chain of ethical sages) but for its strange coincidence with the Wagnerian music. The accident of this alliance gave it an overwhelming power in Germany, where it soon threatened to corrupt all the arts, banishing idealism from the land of its special haunts.[A] The ultimate weakness of the Wagnerian philosophy is that it finds in fatalism an excuse for the surrender of heroic virtue,--not in the spirit of a tragic truth, but in a glorification of the senses; just as in Wagner's final work, the ascetic, sinless type becomes a figure almost of ridicule, devoid of human reality. It is significant that with the revival of a sound art, fraught with resolute aspiration, is imminent a return to an idealistic system of philosophy.

[Footnote A: In literature this movement is most marked, as may be seen by contrasting the tone of Goethe with that of Sudermann; by noting the decadence from the stories of a Chamisseau and Immermann to those of a Gottfried Keller; from the novels of Freytag to the latest of Frenssen and Arthur Schnitzler; from the poems of Heine to those of Hoffmansthal, author of the text of Strauss' later operas.

Or, contrast merely the two typical dramas of love, Goethe's "Faust" and Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde."]

In the musical art even of Germany the triumph was never complete. The famous feud of Brahms and Wagner partisans marked the alignment of the cla.s.sical and radical traditions. Throughout the second half of the century the banner of a true musical process was upheld; the personal meeting of the youthful Brahms with the declining Schumann is wonderfully significant, viewed as a symbol of this pa.s.sing of the cla.s.sic mantle. And the symphonies of Gustav Mahler seem an a.s.surance of present tendencies. The influence of Bach, revived early in the century, grew steadily as a latent leaven.

Nevertheless in the prevailing taste and temper of present German music, in the spirit of the most popular works, as those of Richard Strauss (who seems to have sold his poetic birthright), the aftermath of this wave is felt, and not least in the acclaim of the barren symphonies of a Bruckner. It is well known that Bruckner, who paid a personal homage to Wagner, became a political figure in the partisan dispute, when he was put forth as the antagonist of Brahms in the symphony. His present vogue is due to this a.s.sociation and to his frank adoption of Wagner idiom in his later works, as well as, more generally, to the lowered taste in Germany.

In all this division of musical dialect, in the shattering of the cla.s.sic tower among the diverse tongues of many peoples, what is to be the harvest? The full symbol of a Babel does not hold for the tonal art.

Music is, in its nature, a single language for the world, as its alphabet rests on ideal elements. It has no national limits, like prose or poetry; its home is the whole world; its idiom the blended song of all nations.

In such a view there is less hope in the older than in the newer world.

No single, limited song of one nation can in the future achieve a second climax of the art. It is by the actual mingling of them all that the fairest flower and fruit must come. The very absence of one prevailing native song, held a reproach to America, is in reality her strength; for hers is the common heritage of all strains of song. And it may be her destiny to lead in the glorious merging of them all.



The path of progress of an art has little to do with mere chronology.

For here in early days are bold spirits whose influence is not felt until a whole generation has pa.s.sed of a former tradition. Nor are these patient pioneers always the best-inspired prophets; the mere fate of slow recognition does not imply a highest genius. A radical innovation may provoke a just and natural resistance. Again, a gradual yielding is not always due to the pure force of truth. Strange and oblique ideas may slowly win a triumph that is not wholly merited and may not prove enduring.

To fully grapple with this mystery, we may still hold to the faith that final victory comes only to pure truth, and yet we may find that imperfect truth will often achieve a slow and late acceptance. The victory may then be viewed in either of two ways: the whole spirit of the age yields to the brilliant allurement, or there is an overweighing balance of true beauty that deserves the prize of permanence. Of such a kind were two princ.i.p.al composers of the symphony: Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. Long after they had wrought their greatest works, others had come and gone in truer line with the first masters, until it seemed these radical spirits had been quite rejected.

Besides the masters of their own day, Schumann and Mendelssohn, a group of minor poets, like Raff and Goetz, appeared, and at last Brahms, the latest great builder of the symphony, all following and crowning the cla.s.sical tradition.

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Symphonies and Their Meaning Part 1 summary

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