A Popular History of the Art of Music – W. S. B. Mathews

THE name “music” contains two ideas, both of them important in our modern use of the term: The general meaning is that of “a pleasing modulation of sounds.” In this sense the term is used constantly by poets, novelists and even in conversation—as when we speak of the “music of the forest,” the “music of the brook” or the “music of nature.” There is also a reminiscence of the etymological derivation of the term, as something derived from the “Muses,” the fabled retinue of the Greek god Apollo, who presided over all the higher operations of the mind and imagination. Thus the name “music,” when applied to an art, contains a suggestion of an inspiration, a something derived from a special inner light, or from a higher source outside the composer, as all true imagination seems to be to those who exercise it. 2. Music has to do with tones, sounds selected on account of their musical quality and relations. These tones, again, before becoming music in the artistic sense, must be so joined together, set in order, controlled by the human imagination, that they express sentiment. Every manifestation of musical art has in it these two elements: The fit selection of tones; and, second, the use of them for expressing sentiment and feeling. Hence the practical art of music, like every other fine art, has in it two elements, an outer, or technical, where trained intelligence rules, and teaching and study are the principal means of progress; and an inner, the imagination and musical feeling, which can indeed be strengthened by judicious experience in hearing, but which when wanting cannot be supplied by the teacher, or the laws of their action reduced to satisfactory statement. 3. There is no fine art which reflects the activity of spirit more perfectly than that of music. There is something in the nature of this form of art which renders it particularly acceptable to quick and sensitive minds. If evidence of this statement were needed beyond the intuitive assent which every musical reader will immediately give, it could easily be furnished in the correspondence between the activity of mind in general and in the art of music in particular, every great period of mental strength having been accompanied by a corresponding term of activity in music. Furthermore, the development of the art of music has kept pace with the deepening of mental activity in general, so that in these later times when the general movement of mind is so much greater than in ancient times, and the operations of intellect so much more diffused throughout all classes, the art of music has come to a period of unprecedented richness and strength. II.

4. The earlier forms of music were very simple; the range of tones employed was narrow, and the habits of mind in the people employing them apparently calm and almost inactive. As time passed on more and more tones were added to the musical scales, and more and more complicated relations recognized between them, and the music thereby became more diversified in its tonal effects, and therein better adapted for the expression of a more energetic or more sensitive action of mind and feeling. This has been the general course of the progress, from the earliest times in which there was an art of music until now. The two-fold progress of an education in tone perception, and an increasing ability to employ elaborate combinations for the expression of feelings too high-strung for the older forms of expression, is observable in almost all stages of musical history, and in our own days has received a striking illustration in the progress made in appreciating the works of the latest of the great musical geniuses, Richard Wagner, whose music twenty-five years ago was regarded by the public generally as unmusical and atrocious; whereas now it is heard with pleasure, and takes hold of the more advanced musical minds with a firmness beyond that of any other musical production. The explanation is to be found in the development of finer tone perceptions—the ability to co-ordinate tonal combinations so distantly related that to the musical ears of a generation ago their relation was not recognized, therefore to those ears they were not music. Wagner felt these strange combinations as music. The deeper relations between tones and chords apparently remote, he felt, and employed them for the expression of his imagination. Other ears now feel them as he did. An education has taken place.

5. It is altogether likely that the education will still go on until many new combinations which to our ears would be meaningless will become a part of the ordinary vernacular of the art. Indeed, a writer quite recently (Julius Klauser, in “The Septonnate”) points out a vast amount of musical material already contained within our tonal systems which as yet is entirely unused. The new chords and relations thus suggested are quite in line with the additions made by Wagner to the vocabulary of his day. III. 6. There are certain conditions which must be met before a fine art will be developed. These it is worth while to consider briefly: The state of art, in any community or nation, at any period of its history, depends upon a fortunate correspondence between two elements which we might call the internal and the external. By the former is meant the inner movement of mind or spirit, which must be of such depth and force as to leave a surplusage after the material needs of existence have been met. In every community where there is a certain degree of wealth, leisure and a vigorous movement of mind, this surplus force, remaining over after the necessary wheels of common life have been set in motion, will expend itself in some form of art or literature.

The nature of the form selected as the expression of this surplus force will depend upon the fashion, the prevalent activity of the life of the day, or, in other words, the environment. Illustrating this principle, reference might be made to the condition of Greek art in the flowering time of its history, when the wealth of Athens was so great as to leave resources unemployed in the material uses of life, and when the intellectual movement was so splendid as to leave it until now a brilliant tradition of history. Only one form of art was pre-eminently successful here; it was sculpture, which at that time reached its fullest development—to such a degree that modern sculpture is only a weak repetition of ancient works in this line. So also the brilliant period of Italian painting, when the mental movement represented by Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Lorenzo de Medici, and the pleasure-loving existence, the brilliant fêtes, in which noble men and beautifully appareled women performed all sorts of allegorical representations, and the colors, groupings, etc., afforded the painter an endless variety of material and suggestion. When Rubens flourished in the Netherlands, a century later, similar conditions accompanied his appearance and the prolific manifestations of his genius. In the same way, music depends upon peculiar conditions of its own. They are three: The vigor of the mental movement in general, its strength upon the imaginative and sentimental side, and the suggestion from the environment in the way of musical instruments of adequate tonal powers. Such instruments never existed in the history of the art until about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The organ, the violin and the predecessor of the pianoforte, the spinet, came to practical form at nearly the same time.

At the same time the instruments of plucked strings— the guitars, lutes and other instruments which until then had occupied the exclusive attention of musicians—began to go out. Moreover, musical science had been worked out, and the arts of counterpoint, canonic imitation, fugue, harmony, etc., had all reached a high degree of perfection when Bach and Händel appeared. 7. The entire history of music is merely an illustration of these principles. Wherever there has been vigorous movement of mind and material prosperity (and they have always been associated) there has been an art of music, the richness of which, however, has always been limited by the state of the musical ears of the people or generation, and the perfection of their musical instruments. The instruments are an indispensable ingredient in musical progress, since it is only by means of instruments that tonal combinations can be exactly repeated, the voice mastering the more difficult relations of tones only when the ear has become quick to perceive tonal relations, and tenacious to retain them—in other words, educated. Hence in the pages following, the instruments peculiar to each epoch will receive the attention their importance deserves, which is considerably more than that usually allotted them in concise accounts of the history of this art. 8. The conditions of a satisfactory Art Form are three: Unity, the expression of a single ruling idea; variety, the relief of the monotony due to the over-ascendency of unity (or contrast, an exact and definite form of variety); and symmetry, or the due proportion of the different parts of the work as a whole.

These principles, universally recognized as governing in the other fine arts, are equally valid in music. As will be seen later, all musical progress has been toward their more complete attainment and their due co-ordination into a single satisfactory whole. Every musical form that has ever been created is an effort to solve this problem; and analysis shows which one of the leading principles has been most considered, and the manner in which it has been carried out. Ancient music was very weak in all respects, and never fully attained the first of these qualities. Modern music has mastered all three to a very respectable degree. 9. The art of music appears to have been earliest of all the fine arts in the order of time; but it has been longer than any of the others in reaching its maturity, most of the master works now current having been created within the last two centuries, and the greater proportion of them within the last century. Sculpture came to its perfection in Greece about 500 B.C.; architecture about 1200 to 1300 A.

D., when the great European cathedrals were built; painting about 1500 to 1600 A.D. Poetry, like music, representing the continual life of soul, has never been completed, new works of highest quality remaining possible as long as hearts can feel and minds can conceive; but the productions of Shakespeare, about 1650, are believed to represent a point of perfection not likely to be surpassed. Music, on the other hand, has been continually progressive, at least until the appearance of Beethoven, about the beginning of the present century, and the romantic composers between 1830 and the present time.


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