Imágenes de páginas

and despised so long, began again to be attended to. Corelli and others are known to have been so far sensible of the excellence of some of the old airs, both of their own and of other countries, as to have made them the groundwork of many of their sonatas. From about this period, the national melodies of Italy, of Scotland, and of Ireland, may, it is said, be traced in the compositions of the best masters. Some of the most celebrated operatic songs now known, have the same origin. And if a single instance may suffice, I may mention, that the far-famed “Nel cor piu” is taken, almost note for note, from an old Sicilian ballad. The success of the opera was an acknowledgment that songs are essentially dramatic; and it is confessed, in words at least, that, to the finished musician, feeling and expression are as necessary as science.

If sucħ be a tolerably correct sketch of the progress of this art; and if, as the course of events has seemed to indicate, the hypothesis of Rousseau be founded in truth, a key is afforded to the explanation of the many anomalies which music, in its modern practice, presents. That natural melody should be both neglected and depraved, appears to have been inevitable. The difficulties against which it has to struggle, are immoveable and overpowering. It is a most unequal conHict, to set Mr. Coleridge's “blind boy," with his “ pipe of sycamore," be his " notes as strangely moving” as they will, against the crash of a whole orchestra. Expressive melody must ever be in danger of being overwhelmed by mere harmony; and they who essay to rescue her from the depths of thorough bass, must, like Hot

spur, dare

« To dive unto the bottom of a sea
Where fathom'd-line did never touch the ground,

And pluck up drown'd melody by the locks.” It is a question, whether one air, during the last hundred years, has been composed by a professed musician, with any direct and intentional reference to any principle in nature, upon which musical expression can be founded. Strong as the assertion may seein, the chances are, that he who embraces music as a profession, and goes through an elaborate musical education, is less likely than other men to produce a naturally expressive combination of sound. This is no paradox, whatever may be thought of it. The fact is, that the harmopists have exterminated the melodists, as the great missal thrush does the common mavis. The race of bards, half poets half musicians, has disappeared, because it is next to impossible that such a being should continue to exist; nor, if he could, would he dare to bring forward one original composition. Ranking amongst the profounder studies, constituting a lucrative branch of trade, and giving employment to thousands, harmony must go nigh to overturn melody, by its very weight and momentum, if by nothing else. It is all-pervading. Now, who does not know how difficult it is for the greatest poetical genius to free himself, in any considerable degree, of those common-places and idioms which long custom, and eternal repetition of versifiers, have made a habit almost as inevitable as a natural tendency. In music this is ten times worse. The common-place “musical phrases," as they are styled, which have spread themselves every where through the medium of the voluminous and endless compositions of science,

have of necessity become almost a part of the nature of every one who is possessed of a musical ear. They fly abroad “upon the wings of the wind,” like the feathered seeds of the thistle or dandelion. There is no avoiding them. We hear them by day and by night; in the theatre, in the street, in the church, in the ball-room. Like Pharaoh's plagues, they follow us into our very chambers. The difficulty of original composition is thus increased a hundred-fold, and the most determined cultivator of simple, expressive melody, will find himself, at every step, sliding into some of the innumerable artificial turns or modulations with which constant custom has indelibly impressed his imagination. Should a composer of expressive airs, in a style similar to that of the old melodies, exist at this moment, he would be denied the very name of musician. He would be hooted at by nine out of ten, and for three or four different reasons. He would be told that his music required no execution ; he would hear it called simple stuff that a child might play or sing; he would be twitted with monotony of key; he would be reproached with not concluding upon the key-note, and with a score of other offences against rules of which he and nature knew nothing. He would be accused, as every musician who has dared to verge towards simplicity has been, of want of science. This was the fate of Piccini, of Pleyell, and of Shield. The constant craving for variety and for difficulty—the superior extent of the class of those who are affected by harmony only—and the consequent multiplicity of its professor's publications, exhibitions, and gains, must probably always give scientific music a preponderance. He only can be celebrated, who either distinguishes himself in elaborate composition, or in the performance of almost impossibilities of vocal or instrumental execution.

That no alteration can take place in the present state of music, it would be presumption to say. That, since the invention of counterpoint, it has altered materially, though slowly, cannot be doubted. The advances, too, towards natural expression, however faint or sophisticated, are such as prove some recognizance of that principle of poetical imitation which seems to be the foundation of musical expression. That much of modern practice is totally inconsistent, and at direct variance with that principle, is true. It may be difficult to imagine how it has happened that, admitting so much, the whole has not followed-but the fact is so.

If we look over a collection of modern music, we shall find, that, in the management of the time, the principle of natural imitation has been, upon the whole, adhered to. As in nature, grief expresses itself slowly, and joy rapidly; so in modern compositions, as well as in the old airs, the vivaces are played quickly, and the affetuosos more slowly. As in nature, we find that passion hurries particular words and tones, although the general effect is plaintive and slow, so in the old pathetic airs we find that semiquavers to the extent of two or four at once, are generally and judiciously used. In modern music, the same principle seems to be decidedly admitted; but pushed by a love of novelty and of execution to an excess which, far o'erstepping the modesty of nature, of course totally mars the effect originally intended. To the exaggerations of the stage may be traced many of the corruptions of musical expression; and it seems to be probable, that the introduction of long hurried hubbubs of passages into airs essentially

slow, has been much encouraged by theatrical performances. Be this as it may, it would be an easy matter to point out a score or two of scientific adagios and largos which a person, unable to read music, and not having the real notes as written, and the divisions of the bars in his mind's eye, would never discover to be in essentially slow time. The only effect of such composition upon unlearned hearers, is to surprise and confound them. As to touching the finer feelings, the thing is out of the question ; indeed, the evident intention of the composer is to take advantage of the slowness of the time, in order to exhibit his own skill and that of the performer, in running through divisions and subdivisions. In the management of piano and forte the same principle of innitation may be traced, however faintly. All natural "discourses” of passion are alternations of softness swelling into loud. ness, and loudness dying into softness, as the gusts of feeling rise and fall. In expressive pathetic airs the imitation is accordingly true to nature. But in modern compositions, especially of the lengthy sort," though the practice remain, and in full force—the reason for it is gone. Ask a musician why such a fortè and such a piano are marked, and he only answers you with some vague and indefinite appeal to taste or to precedent. He calls it light and shade ;” but what rule is there for the distribution of light and shade over a surface where no intelligible form, no natural picture is delineated. We may indeed “marblesuch a surface; but if the lights were shadowed and the shadows lightened—if the ff's were turned into pps, and the pps into offs, what difference could it make? It is easy to give emphasis to that which is destitute of meaning, just as a boy reading Latin“ nonsenseverses” at school, applies to them the same intonations that he is taught to give to a line of Virgil. This is only a trick, however, to make that look something like sense, which in reality is devoid of it, and if the emphasis were reversed, it would do just as well. The most glaring instance, perhaps, of the united use and abuse of imitation in modern scientific musical expression, is the “shake." The shake is in reality the poetical heightening of that tremulous effect of the voice which is always' produced, especially at the close of a sentence where the tongue begins to drop, by intense feeling. In accordance with this law, in all music the shake is introduced towards the close of a passage, which usually descends. The natural shake is any thing but that which musicians call a perfect shake. It is a tremulous imperfect vibration, and not a violent and distinct oscillation between two tones, which is a matter of most difficult vocal acquirement. In nature it rarely occupies more time than would be required for a crotchet in a common time Andante movement. In modern compositions, however, it is no unusual thing for it to occupy a whole bar of four crotchets-nay, two such bars—and upon exaggerations like these composers pride themselves.

So thoroughly forgotten are the natural reasons upon which these monstrosities have been originally built, that in treatises on musical composition they are not even attempted to be accounted for. The reader may look in vain for any intellectual explanation of the origin of piano and of forte, or of shakes or trills, or retardations, or pauses. He is taught by experience to expect the occurrence of such things in certain places, and after passages of a certain description—but why, he is not told and he need not inquire. In the well known book of

[merged small][ocr errors]

Avison, the foundation of musical expression is hardly once attempted to be evolved, and for the detection of the very principle on which the treatise professes to binge, we are referred to nature ? no—but to the scores of Geminiani, Crescembini and Corelli! Mr. Ralph in his pamphlet does nearly the same thing. Dr. Burney at times seems to recognise the origin of expression in melody in the imitation of nature, but generally contradicts himself in the next page, floundering between the effects of melody and harmony; sometimes speaking of them as distinct things, and sometimes confounding them together. * Both in the practice and theory of vocal and instrumental performers, the same ignorance, or neglect, of any resort to nature for the explanation of melodious meaning, is exhibited. Scientific singing and playing constantly degenerate into a display of trickery. We are called to attend to exhibitions of the voice and hand, which have as little reference to natural intonation as the twirls of a high French ballet bave to graceful motion. Of the indifference of most professional singers to the meaning of the airs they sing, their indifference to the quality of the words is a stubborn evidence. They will as soon attach doggrel trash to a favourite tune as the effusions of our best poets. A glaring instance of this is the stuff which Mr. Braham and others are content to tack to the melody of Robin Adair, although the best songwriters which this country or perhaps any other ever produced Burns and Moore-have written beautiful and appropriate songs to this very air. Foote, in his Commissary, has admirably ridiculed this piece of ill taste. Hear Dr. Catgut's account of the approved mode of writing a comic opera: "Last week, in a ramble to Dulwich, I made these rhymes into a duet for a new comic opera I have upon the stocks. Mind--for I look upon the words as a model for that kind of writing.”

First she.—“There to see the sluggish ass,
Thro’ the meadows as we pass,
Eating up the farmer's grass,
Blythe and merry, by the mass,
As a little country lass.”
Then he replies, — "Hear the farmer cry out zounds!
As he trudges thro' the grounds,
Yonder beast has broke my mounds;
If the parish has no pounds,

Kill, and give him to the hounds." Then Da Capo, both join in repeating the last stanza; and this tacked to a tolerable tune will serve you for a couple of months—you ob- serve." In the same spirit of ridicule Sir Richard Steele makes Trim, in his comedy of the Funeral, sing Campley's Cheque for three hundred pounds; repeating," hundred-hundred-hundred—because there are three hundred;" a better reason than can be given for most repetitions in music. With indifference to expression bad taste necessarily comes in. If we criticise the practice of musical people, we

* In his account of the performances at Westminster Abbey, in commemoration of Handel, he talks of the sublimity of effect produced by the multitude of voices and instruments, as if it were something peculiar to the music; forgetting that this kind of sublimity is common to all loud sounds, whether arising from shouting, from thunder, from the firing of cannon, the waves of the sea, or ---- Don Quixote's fulling mills.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

shall every where find that vagueness and inconsistency which always are the result of a want of reference to first principles. Thus a celebrated vocalist of the day, in that marvellously mawkish ballad, “ the Bewildered Maid,” gives the word, “ battle,” with a furious accent“in King Cambyses' vein," although the passage in which it occurs is one of melancholy and quiet narrative. I have heard a person of reputed musical refinement laud the setting of the words, “ follow, follow," in the well-known Mermaid's song, because the notes seemed to follow each other”—a brilliant musical illustration of oratorical action, so ingeniously applied to that famous line,

“The long-long-round-of ten revolving-years." Nay, I have been told, on inquiring why a forte was to be followed by a piano in the repetition of the two dotted crotchets in “Fly not yet," that it was an echo! In Bombet's Lives of Haydn and Mozart, some notable specimens of musical criticism occur. The best, perhaps, is the chuckling self-satisfied way in which he favours us with the edifying anecdote of Mozart's composing the admired overture to Don Juan whilst drunk and sleepy. He absolutely hugs himself on the idea of having discovered, in the leading passage, a striking resemblance to the half-yawn half-snore which the nodding composer might be supposed to emit at intervals. Now, what, in the name of common sense, has this to do with Don Juan? or in what way could it be a suitable overture to the exploits of that fiery hero, or, indeed, to those of any body else, unless the celebrated journal of Drunken Barnaby be dramatized and brought upon the stage.

If we inquire into the particulars of the admiration expressed for airs and songs in general, we continually discover either that the difficulty and trick of the execution, or the general smoothness and harmony of the accompaniments, are the sole grounds. They are taken for the excitement rather than for the meaning-pretty much as the Indian convert is said to have taken the sacrament, wishing “it had been brandy.” Songs are often said to be good, when well sung; a qualification of praise which seems to mean, that the difficulty of getting through them is the real inducement for hearing any one make the attempt. With an expressive air, if the singer can give the meaning, it is nearly sufficient. In music, as in every thing else, even an involuntary exhibition of skill which draws attention from the subject to the performer, is disadvantageous. In modern singing, however, this rule is reversed. . Every convenient pause is occupied by a cadence, which is neither more nor less than a barefaced display of the talents of the performer. In the midst of the most pathetic appeal we are to break off and listen to the melodious vaulting of Madame or Sig

It is just as if Mr. Kean were to fill up the intervals of his byeplay in tragedy by leaping through the back-scene, because he can play Harlequin as well as othello. Now all this goes to prove, that the gratification of what is often called musical taste, is, at bottom, that of mere curiosity; but it remains to be shown why curiosity is to be confounded with a feeling of the effects of music. Would they who flocked to hear Catalani sing Rode's violin variations, have felt the same pleasure in hearing them played upon a barrel-organ, or upon the violin even of Rode himself? Certainly not. It was the difficulty of the attempt, then, that was the motive for listening; and curiosity


« AnteriorContinuar »