What Makes a Good Melody?
By D. C. Parker
It is a matter of concern with some modern music lacks melodic interest. The prevalent weakness, we hear, is a melodic weakness rather than enharmonic or a structural one. The music of today, it seems, hex peacefully at the bark, but does not get at the sap. Vincent d’Iudy, in his book on Caesar Franck, speaks of the “short winded successions of notes in certain modern scores are labeled motives.” Familiarity with the works of some of the cleverest contemporary composers gives a certain justification to these complaints. The value of a fine thematic idea is as great as it ever was, and perhaps with those who vent their spleen against the up-to-date Orpheus really mean is that Melody has been relegated to the background of the wide expectation of color effects in the constant striving to obtain “atmosphere” by the introduction of purple patches.
One can, of course, call to mind not a few musicians who have never given the world a really vital theme. The scoring is as entrancing as Aladdin’s cave, the melody as barren as the Sahara. The consideration of their music suggests to questions of more than passing interest. The first is: What is the precise value of melodic intervention? The second: What proportion of the sum total of the virtues must be assigned to melody? Melody is only one factor and that, while it must obviously bear one relationship to the whole in the works of the symphonists and another in the works of the improvisers, I personally should refuse to endorse a critical system which had as its basis the melodic point of view and that alone. In saying this I am well aware that, when we gain the upper reaches are in contact with the incontestable masters, the question of melody does not lose any of its importance. The progress of Western music is maintained by the interplay of ideas, and with the finest writers there was always much in harmony and polyphony to interest us. Indeed, what chiefly distinguishes the well-educated from the pariah is the power to discern true harmonic felicity. No one, I imagine, can like Schuman without feeling that his greatest gift was his ability to think in appropriate and beautiful harmonic terms.
Very few people think of melodies in the abstract. The vast majority is unconsciously influenced by considerations of association and sentiment, which have nothing to do with musical valuations. This is particularly true of songs. A song, needless to say, cannot be criticized without reference to the words, which are an integral part of it, and a melody must always be judged in strict relation to what it attempts to illustrate. It is an error to allow the moral of a poem to color your estimate of the musical subject. Forgetting this, some do not perceive the poor music is often written to biblical words. If the penetrating rays of psychology were turned on this matter we should find a large number of people like this or that piece because it reminds him of days of happiness, because it is linked with some fortunate circumstance, because it has an historical significance, because – – –, But is there any need to recapitulate the hundred possible reasons?
The Relative Value of Melodies
Every melody has only a relative value. This varies with locality and tradition. The most imposing thing in Western music is meaningless to the China men. The Arabic claim is one thing to the Arab, and another to us, which is not necessarily imply that we find no beauty in it. But it is tolerably certain that, if we like it, we like it because it is so different from the melodies with which we are familiar; whereas, the Arab likes it because it is part of his life and interwoven with his history.
The value of a melody alters according to the musical idiom. The pizzicato of Delibe’s Sylvia loses its piquancy if not played on strings. The second subject of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony is ineffective it transferred to the piano. In the same way, the melodies of Verdi, which are essentially vocal, are deprived of their significance if played on instruments.
There is no fixed rule as to what a good Melody is, and there never can be. What is forbidden today is accepted tomorrow without the slightest murmur of protest. If you wish to realize how largely the idea of melody is affected by convention, you have only to think of Wagner’s Venusberg music, which is among the most beautiful and original that he ever wrote. Consider the definitions of academicism regarding the permissible steps, and then examine this stroke of pure genius. Is it any wonder that it was dubbed barbaric and I’m melodic by a public fed on Rossini and Auber? History teaches with no faltering voice that we can become accustomed to almost anything in the way of melodic variety.