Music And The Spirit

ONE aspect of distinctly intellectual response to music lies in the analytical study of its compositions. To work out the combination of motives in a Wagner opera, or analyze the complicated harmonies of a Beethoven symphony, is an intellectual process which may give delight. This process, however, is comparable to the theoretic analysis of line and proportion in architecture, or of design, composition and color in sculpture and painting, and is totally different from the direct response in appreciation to the appeal of the work of art. The intellectual pleasure in such a process is, in fact, exactly the same in kind with that we experience in working a difficult problem in calculus. It is keen pleasure we experience, but so different from the direct response to the appeal of the art that the analytical process may even stand in the way of the latter. This need not be, for rightly conducted analytical study increases the power to appreciate ; but where the analysis is made an end in itself, it may hamper rather than help the synthetic response.

Have you ever heard some art critic analyze the principles of design in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper? It is an interesting process, showing how the painting is composed of mathematical triangles, each linked to the next; yet one may carry such study so far that one sees the triangles and not the painting. Similarly, one may carry the analysis of the structure of a Wagner opera so far that one hears the motifs and not the music. Such study in any art is a valuable help to appreciation, but is always a means and never an end, and should not be confused with the direct response to the appeal of art. An example came under my own observation, where a man of fine talents and superior education seemed to be quite without “an ear for music.” Having every opportunity for cultivation, living for years in the art centers of Europe, associating constantly with musical people, he came to resent increasingly the fact that they found such joy in what to him was a sealed book. So he set to work to master music. He employed the best teachers, mastered the difficult subject of harmony, advancing so far that he could analyze an opera or symphony into its elements and recompose them. He attended musical concerts and greatly enjoyed his processes of analysis; yet he remained as deaf to music in the true sense as when he began his study. His case is exceptional, but it illustrates the principle that intellectual understanding of the technique by which a work of art is produced, is a totally different thing from the appreciation, spontaneous or cultivated, of the created work. One may be quite ignorant of the principles of de-sign and composition, and yet appreciate a painting; and one may know nothing intellectually of motifs and technical harmony, and yet respond deeply to the appeal of music.

There are various ways by which a train of intellectual associations may be suggested in connection with the direct musical appeal. The simplest of these, frequently employed by composers, is in skillfully naming a work. This device is legitimate, and is occasionally used even by great masters, as in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which at once suggests various sounds and activities of the Nature world, or the Heroic Symphony, in hearing which we are expected to reflect upon the career of Napoleon. So Mendelssohn’s Spring Song or Schumann’s Kinderscenen suggests immediately a specific train of reflection. This de-vice, however, must be used wisely and with restraint, or it easily degenerates into a trick, as in the “show pieces” referred to in the pre-ceding chapter; and the great composers have usually preferred merely to number their works, with a general title indicating the type of structure, as sonata, fugue, symphony, nocturne.

Another and far more definite and extensive plan for suggesting a range of intellectual associations is realized in modern “pro-gram” music, as in various works of Liszt, Berlioz and Dvorak. Here a poem or other literary composition is first selected, and the music composed in harmony with it. This is entirely legitimate work, and the result is often deeply interesting and suggestive, particularly to those persons who do not easily respond to music alone; yet such a method makes music really illustrate literature. Now no art fulfills its own function most completely when it is used to illustrate another art. Such work has its place and is helpful ; but if you wished to understand painting and sculpture, you would turn to independent masterpieces in those fields, rather than to Flaxman’s drawings for Homer, Botticelli’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy or the German paintings illustrating Faust. So music is best understood when the art is working independently; and the development of modern program music, with a range of definite literary associations, only proves that such intellectual reflections are not given by the music alone, and accentuates the conclusions we have reached regarding the function of music.

A further method of associating definite trains of reflection with musical compositions has been developed in so-called “interpretation” of music, where a lecturer goes through a composition, associating the intellectual conceptions which to him seem appropriate with the changing appeal of the work. This is often a great help in opening the door to the appreciation of music, especially for the uninitiated.

I recall a remarkable instance of such an interpretation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata given by no less a philosopher than Dr. Wm. T. Harris. The sonata was played over by a masterly artist, and then Dr. Harris took it up, passage by passage, and interpreted its development. Its central conflicts, he said, represented the struggle of the Titans with the gods. We could see Pelion heaped on Ossa as he proceeded, and followed with him the story until the Titans were cast into Tartarus and the gods calmly conquered in the end. It was all deeply interesting; yet if the hearer supposed Beethoven wrote the sonata to illustrate that story he would utterly misunderstand the music. A dozen other stories furnish equally good associations, as, for ex-ample, the conflict of the gods of Asgard with the Jötuns, or the struggle of Napoleon and his veterans with the snow and ice of Russia and the hosts of her barbaric population. The “interpretation” may thus suggest an interesting train of intellectual ideas to associate with the music, thus aiding especially those who find the art somewhat intangible; but if it is supposed to give the meaning of the music, it is worse than useless, positively hampering a sound response to music, by substituting something else for it. Thus it should be evident why it is so much more difficult to put music into terms of the intellect than is true of the other arts. At best we can suggest intellectual associations to accompany the direct appeal of the music, but it is always a mistake to push the attempt far.

There is a further refinement in the function of music owing to the fact, already noted, that its forms are dynamic, contrasting with the statical forms of sculpture, painting and architecture. As a composition is rendered, each sound-form is freshly created, annulling those preceding and giving way to those following. Thus these forms impress the sense only momentarily, and cannot be held fixedly as in the case of the other arts. In consequence, music peculiarly sublimates its form, the spiritual content being freed from sensuous association more than is true of the other arts. This makes it possible for music to fulfill a unique function in relation to the life of the spirit. This is the more significant, in that emotion, to which music appeals, is more generic and elemental than the understanding, transcending in scope the activity of the imagination. It is possible to conceive what we can never imagine, because the imagination works wholly within the limits of the sensible world. We can, for example, conceive a world in space of two or four dimensions, and can readily construct a mathematics for such a world ; but it is impossible to imagine life under such conditions. The reason is that our minds are built on the plan of space of three dimensions, and the moment we try to picture anything for the imagination, we give it length, breadth and thickness. So it is possible to conceive the existence of an immaterial soul; but when we imagine it, we usually represent it as an attentuated transparent body in space of three dimensions. This leads inevitably to absurd contradictions, as when Dante represents the immaterial soul of Virgil holding Dante and his physical body on the back of the monster Geryon. Similarly we can think the idea of an omnipresent, omniscient God, but we cannot imagine Him, and every attempt to do so ends in absurdity. That is why painting and sculpture fail so universally in their attempts to portray the Divine. The Greek gods are satisfying because they are so human. They represent phases and attributes of man lifted to the skies. Take in contrast, one of the most wonderful of all efforts to paint God —Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Twice God said, “Let there be light” : once when physical light came, and again—the greater wonder—when the human soul was born. The figure of the Divine, in this fresco, appears above, surrounded by angels, with one strange feminine figure under the arm. The right hand is stretched out, and one finger touches the finger of Adam, who lies recumbent upon the ground. Now we know what Michael Angelo meant in the portrayal of the Most High; but what has he really given for the senses and the imagination? A large, old, bearded man. That, to represent God? It is merely an absurd caricature compared to our conception of the Divine. The Adam, on the other hand, is entirely satisfying. As you look upon him, you realize that a moment ago he was the dust of the earth. The finger of God touches him, and you can almost see dawning in his face the look of wonder, heartache, world-hunger, tragedy, that was to be human life ever after. The point is, Michael Angelo knew man, he had lived man, he could paint man; but when he wanted to represent God, the best he could do was to portray a man’s face and body, and omit the elements more definitely human.

Poetry fails in the same way. Milton at-tempts in Paradise Lost to represent an omnipotent, omniscient God at war with part of his subjects. How impossible to imagine ! You understand his conception, but the God he has painted is, for the imagination, a jealous tyrant whom you cannot respect. Milton’s Adam and Eve are not vitally moving; but the great, strong, marred, Anglo-Saxon rebel Satan, who would rather “reign in hell than serve in heaven,” takes powerful hold of the imagination, if you allow yourself to respond directly to the poetry. The reason is that Milton himself was a good deal like his hero, Satan; he understood that character, and hence could portray it with satisfying reality.

What is impossible to the arts picturing for the imagination is, in a different way, accomplished by music, since music can waken in us the emotions we feel when we think the transcendent, the supernatural, the Divine. Think, for example, your own conception of God: you could not imagine it; no artist could paint it; but have you not heard strains of music, as for instance, in the third movement of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, that awaken in you the emotion you feel when you think your conception of God?

So it is possible to conceive a transcendent heaven, perfectly satisfying. No artist could paint or describe it; and the heaven of golden streets and pearly gates never can appeal to the imagination as satisfyingly as green grass, blue skies and gray seas. Have you not, how-ever, heard music, as in the most moving portion of the love-music of Tristan und Isolde, that put you into just the emotional state you are in when you think your conception of a transcendent heaven of joy?

Music is thus rightly said to be “the one art capable of revealing the infinite.” It does not, strictly speaking, reveal the infinite, but it can awaken in us the emotions associated with the conception of it. That is what Browning’s Abt Vogler means in speaking of the miracle achieved by music, as compared with the other arts:

“But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can, Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are! And I know not if, save in this, such gift be al-lowed to man, That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star. Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is naught; It is everywhere in the world–loud, soft, and all is said: Give it to me to use ! I mix it with two in my thought: And, there ! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!”

The wonder is that a series of forms in the physical world, born and dying in quick succession, can produce another series in the psychical world—a series of emotional states which we experience. How did the first series produce the second? To answer this question would be to touch the heart of the mystery of all life. Thus music stands in unique relation to the life of the spirit; the response to music is the best symbol for the deepest phases of the inner life; and Browning is right, in Abt Vogler, in passing from the highest experience of music to the philosophy of the soul.

From what has been said it will be evident that music is the most personal of the arts, searching down into the spirit and bringing to expression feelings that lie far too deep for words ever to embody them. Did you ever sit through an evening of great music, and at the end turn unconsciously to those near you, wondering if your soul had been laid bare to them as it had been to yourself? One realizes then how deeply personal are the emotions which music wakens in the appreciative hearer.

Take for illustration a typical modern composition-Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser. Other arts could present the different motives. Sculpture could carve its golden Venus, painting portray its maiden Elizabeth, poetry could describe the pilgrims returning from the south; but in the music all these are given at once. In the shrill cry of passion that echoes from the vibrant strings of the violin, in the noble motif of Elizabeth, the deep tones of the pilgrim chorus, it is as if a cross-section had been taken at a single instant of the human spirit. Man is not led now by one desire and now by an-other, but a thousand desires play upon the body and spirit all the time ; and, until one of them has been affirmed and made a motive, the individual might move in any direction. Thus the music can take the wealth of desires and aspirations and fuse them in one great billowy ocean of sound which, as in this Overture, sweeps over us and seems almost to draw the breath from the body.

If music is thus the most personal of the arts, it is at the same time the most social. It is an art we enjoy together ; and if all the listeners appreciate, the more there are present, the greater joy should there be for each. Music, moreover, makes its appeal to that aspect of life which unifies us. The intellect isolates, the emotions unite. Men are separated by intellectual opinion and conviction, they are united in feeling—whether it be the passion of the mob or the aspiration of humanity. Thus the spatial arts define, isolate, clarify; music fuses, sweeps, unites. This should make clear why music is at once a primitive and universal art, and one expressing the utmost refinement of civilization.

Thus it is easy to see why music lends itself so readily to combination with other arts, since they may give the definite conceptions with which music associates its emotional appeal. The composite arts, which form so remarkable an expression of modern life, are reserved for discussion in a subsequent chapter (XV) ; meantime, let us note that their development has been made possible by the wonderful cultivation of the art of music in modern times.

Alone or in combination, music does its work, cultivating and refining the sensuous and emotional susceptibility, and thus rendering one more finely and deeply responsive to all beauty, to love, the moral ideal and religion. It may exalt one to a plane where, for a time, the ideal seems possible, and is more possible. Thus the marvelous, fluid, ever-growing temple of sound, surviving across the centuries in a few black marks upon a page, recreated in a liquid wonder of flowing forms by each artist anew, fulfills a wondrous function for the spirit of man, and has therefore won its place as a leading expression of modern life.