In attempting to carry out this simple direction, however, we are confronted by another of the peculiar characteristics of music. Music, in distinction from the static, concrete and imitative arts, is always in motion, and to follow it requires an intensity of concentration and an accuracy of memory which can be acquired, but for which, like most good things, we have to work. We all know the adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that any work of art must be recreated in the imagination of the participant. The difficulty of this process of recreation, as applied to music, is that we have, derived from our ordinary daily experiences, so little to help us. Anyone can begin, at least, to understand a work of architecture; it must have doors and windows and should conform to practical ideas of structure. In like manner, a painting, either a portrait or a landscape, must show some correspondence with nature herself, and so we have definite standards to help our imagination. But music has worked out its own laws which
are those of pure fancy, having little to do with other forms of thought; and unless we know something of the constructive principles, instead of recreating the work before us, we are simply lost–“drowned in a sea of sound”–often rudely shaken up by the rhythms, but far from understanding what the music is really saying. As the well-known critic, Santayana, wittily says, “To most people music is a drowsy reverie relieved by nervous thrills.”
Notwithstanding, however, the peculiar nature of music and the difficulty of gaining logical impressions as the sounds and rhythms flood in upon us, there is one simple form of coöperation which solves most of the difficulties; that is, familiarity. It is the duty of the composer so to express himself, to make his meaning so clear, that we can receive it with a minimum of mental friction if we can only get to know the music. All really good music corresponds to such a standard; that is, if it is needlessly involved, abstruse, diffuse, or turgid, it is in so far not music of the highest artistic worth. In this connection we must always remember that music does not “stay put,” like a picture on the wall. We cannot walk through it, as is the case with a cathedral; turn back, as in a book; touch it, as with a statue.
It is not the expression of more or less definite ideas, such as we find in prose and poetry. On the other hand, it rushes upon us with the impassioned spirit of an eloquent orator, and what we get from it depends almost entirely upon our own intensity of application and upon our knowledge of the themes and of the general purpose of the work. Only with increased familiarity does the architecture stand revealed.
Beethoven, it is said, when once asked the meaning of a sonata of his, played it over again and replied, “It means that.” Music is itself.
The question for every music-lover is: can I equip myself in such a way as to feel at home in this language, to receive the message as directly as possible, and finally with perfect ease and satisfaction? This equipment demands a strong, accurate memory, a keen power of discrimination and a sympathetic, open mind.
Another paradoxical characteristic of music on which it is interesting to reflect is this: Music is the oldest as well as the youngest of the arts, i.e., it has always existed generically, and all human beings born, as they are, with a musical instrument–the voice–are ipso facto musicians; and yet in the boundless scope of possibilities it is just in its infancy. For who can limit the combinations of sound and rhythm, or forecast the range of the human imagination? The
creative fancy of the composer is always in advance of contemporary
taste and criticism. Hence, in listening to new music, we should beware of reckless assertions of personal preference. The first question, in the presence of an elaborate work of music, should never be, “Do I like it or not?” but “Do I understand it?” “Is the music conveying a logical message to me, or is it merely a sea of sound?” The first and last article in the music-lover’s creed, I repeat, should be familiarity. When we thoroughly know a symphony, symphonic poem or sonata so that, for example, we can sing the themes to ourselves, the music will reveal itself. The difference between the trained listener and the person of merely general musical tendencies is that the former gains a definite meaning from the music often at a first hearing; whereas, to the latter, many hearings are necessary before he can make the head or tail of the composition. Since the creative composer of music is a thinker intones, our perceptions must be so trained that, as we listen, we make sense of the fabric of sounds and rhythms.
It is evident from the foregoing observations that our approach to the subject is to be on the intellectual side. Music, to be sure, is an emotional art and so appeals to our emotions, but these will take care of themselves. We all have a reasonable supply of emotion and practically no human being is entirely deficient in the capacity for being moved by music. We can, however, sharpen our wits and strengthen our musical memories; for it is obvious that if we cannot recognize a theme or remember it whenever it appears, often in an amplified or even subtly disguised form, we are in no condition to follow and appreciate the logical growth and development of the themes themselves which, in a work of music, are just as real beings as the “dramatis personae” in a play. The would-be appreciator should early recognize the fact that listening to music is by no means passive, a means of light amusement or to pass the time, but demands coöperation of an active nature. Whether or not we have the emotional capacity of a creator of music may remain an open question, but by systematic mental the application we can, as we listen to it, get from the music that the sense which the composer meant to convey. Music–more than the other arts–demands, to use a happy expression of D.G. Mason, that we “mentally organize our sensations and ideas”; for the language of music has no such fixed grammar as verbal modes of expression, and the message, even when received, is suggestive rather than definite. In this way only can the composition be recreated in our imaginations.
For acquiring this habit of mind, this alertness and concentration, the start, as always, is more than half the battle. Schumann’s good advice to young composers may be transferred to the listener: “Be sure that you invent a thoroughly vital theme; the rest will grow of itself from this.” Likewise in listening to music, one should be sure to grasp the opening theme, the fundamental motive, in order to follow it intelligently and to enjoy its subsequent growth into the complete work.