Music, the Painter of Pictures in Moods

By Camille W. Zeckwer

Music defies definition as thoroughly and it elusively as an elfin spirit. Man’s fancy, searching in the realms of metaphor, calls it “the speech of Angels”; a pretty thought, but we are just as near actual definition as before. Figure of speech is not a definition, and Angels are creatures of the supernatural!

The pictorial and plastic arts assail our mind and soul through the eyes; literature speaks to the heart through the medium of pure intellect; music knocks at “the portals of the ear,” and thence permeates our whole being. It comes from the emotions and appeals to the emotions. Maybe then call it “sublimated emotion?” If we cannot define, we can rhapsodize indefinitely. At least, in the word “emotion” we have caught the essence of our theme. If music ceases to appeal to the emotions, it has lost its power. Either we are out of tune our cells, or it is not music we are listening to; only sound.

Music and Tone Painting

Behold! Even the didactic Emerson, descendent of Puritanism, has recognized that “Nature is loved by what is best in us.” Certain it is that, in the disillusionment of our maturity, when we could detach ourselves from the harsh routine of daily life and sore for a brief space into the empyrean; when we can indulge our soul and the cultivation of the beautiful that is craved by “the best in us,” we turn to a careful study of all that nature stirs in our path to enrich and deepen our artistic sense. Above all, the true position, born to the purple, knows instinctively that for him untold riches lie in the contemplation of nature. He revels in close communion with the changing spirits of the seasons, and the secrets whispered by the manifold voices of the woods. The sighing winds, the thunder’s majestic role, the ocean surge, the cries of peace, the songs of birds are replete with vivid suggestion of a rich variety of harmonic effects. And nature finds herself idealized in music. Indeed, music lends an amazing exultation to all that expresses. It makes of the rhythm of our bodies and fire arc, it makes profound the solemnity of divine worship, it dulls the horrors of war and quickens the impulse to heroic deeds. At the very dawn of authentic literary history, we hear of Tyrtaeus with his lays inspiring the Spartan soldiery to victory.

To all of us occurs many a page of history teaming with the influence of music. And the Marseillaise we forget the shambles of the French Revolution and remember only its noble spirit: “liberty, fraternity. Egalite.” On the reverse of the picture, we recalled that the simple Swiss melody, Ranz des Vaches, merely a call to the cows, and do such melancholy among the Swiss volunteers of Napoleon’s army that the great Emperor was forced to put his ban upon it: the theme of Kunzle’s recent Opera. For the same reason, Chas. Carol Sawyer song, When This Cruel War Use Over, was forbidden in the Army of the Potomac; and even The Old Folks at Home fell under interdict. War needs strychnine music, no bromides!

The Magician Among Artists

Could I possibly be accused of prejudiced if I call the musician a magician among artist? The sculptor with his clay, the painter with his pigments are tangible figures before us. We can see the work. But the musician takes the impalpable sound and with the mysterious incantation of musical notation makes of it and etherial artwork! He wakes is one, and the mute air, already harnessed by man’s cunning to the creation of harmonious sound, does his bidding, and low! A miracle is before us! No suggestion to help, especially from nature’s fertile field, to rouse his creative imagination. It is as mysterious as the secret of life itself! The musician is the reincarnation of the fabled Pygmalion; sound is a clay out of which he molds is Galatea, and caresses her to warm and palpitating life.

As the “apotheosis of the dance,” the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven occupies a unique niche in musical annals, but how much warmer and more human is it to us, when we trace in its romantic measures Beethoven’s affection for Amelia Seebald? We thrill not only at the music itself, but at the vivid picture of an episode from the inner life of that gigantic soul.

Schubert is a musical gardener, bewildered by the luxuriant growth sprouting around him, gleaming with lavish hand glowing, glittering nosegay’s.

What the Trapper Thought

No soul that is instinct with life and humanity is too humble to interpret the essential mood and meaning of a musical composition. A Wisconsin trapper once heard Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude and was asked what it meant. Springing up in great excitement, he cried: “What does it mean? It means cyclone in the big Woods! Indian onslaught! White men are killed, but diehard!” What matter that it was actually inspired by the sack of Warsaw? He had undeniably caught the spirit of raging conflict and desperate struggle and despair the sounds and every phrase. How different the story of the rustic Spencer, whose first and only hearing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra drew forth the comment: “oh, very nice! But I never did care for the fiddles!”

Music cannot penetrate an arid soul.

In our study of the lives of the composers in our efforts to glean bits of personal history from the compositions. We find Shumann’s work a fertile field. What is sporadic in the other composers is well-nigh universal with him. His works are veritable autobiography in music. He saw everything in life for musical eyes. In the Carnival we find the loving tributes to his friends, who appear a musical garb as Florestan and Ensebius, and his wife, Clara, and bombed in Chiarina. The March des Davidesbuendler contree les Philistins resounds with the passionate protest of romantic soul against academicism. We are the booming tread of the inspired hosts of artistic freedom in their crusade against decayed classicism. It is far more impressive than Walther’s Preislied.

Listen to Schuman’s own words: “I’m affected by everything that goes on in this world and think it over in my own way – people, literature and politics – and then I express myself for my feelings in music.”

Perhaps every composer breeze a prayer that at least one interpretive artist of true insight and understanding will rise in every generation perpetuate the children of his imagination. That Chopin himself did not subscribe to the modern axiom that the secret of playing Chopin died with himself is exemplified by his reply to the remark that he omitted the indication tempo rubato from all his latter works. “Anyone,” said he, “who SS enough to play them at all, will have sense enough to know what I banned without being told.”

Reading Between the Lines

Every truly artistic musical performer, then, and Devers to read between the lines and grasp the composers intent; to make his interpretation as objective as possible. This is especially necessary when the composition is of the type rather vaguely known as “descriptive,” for the music attempts to follow a story or paint a picture. And here (breathe it gently), we are treading on dangerous and slippery ground. The more elaborate the program acquired, the weaker the music. We fall back on our old motto, “Emotion,” as the keynote. We breathe a prayer of thanks; the danger of technical debate is passed.

It is amusing to recall that Kuhnau tried to illustrate the Bible in music. We hear of no converts. Assuredly when Matheson tried to represent the rainbow in music, he overstepped the bounds of his art. Without a sign “This is a rainbow,” like “little Willie” when his first picture of a horse, we could never grasp the intent. When Beethoven in the Pastorale Symphony gives us “a strip of blue sky on the flute, we burst into gleeful cachination. If he had not betrayed his purpose, it would’ve been music. But assuredly the realistic voices of the cuckoo and the Nightingale in the same Symphony are the great Ludwig’s little musical joke; and, if we appreciate this, we laugh with him and not at them. Another piece of delicious musical humor is a braying of the donkey in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

And Amazing Combination

But what are we to say at that most amazing combination of musical beauty and musical buffoonery, Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica? Without the program where helpless; with it, we know not whether to laugh or cry at the a density of the man. At least we know how to laugh when a furious jangling of doorbells proclaims the advent of visitors, who overflow with gushing admiration of “baby.” “Ganz der Papa!” Cried the “aunts” in the trumpet; “Ganz die Mama!” Echo the “articles” in their trombones; and with startling realism!

But alas! The limits even of musical humor have been transgressed, and after our laughter subsides, we read with anger at the profanation of the temple.

But we are the composers contemporaries, and we know not whether posterity will mark him a prophet and a giant – or a fool.

And what are we to say of the cowbells, the wind machine and the thunder machine in his Alpensymphonie? How the great storms of musical history in the pastoral Symphony, William Tell and the vorspiel to Walquere, for instance, pale into cackling insignificance beside the ultramodern theatrical realism of Strauss, with his roof shaking climaxes! Gluck, in the Iphigenia among the Taurean’s, playing with musical effects with all the unspoiled nativity of a child playing with the new toy, Cretaceous storm “raging fiercely” in the simple arpeggios of clearest D major, followed by an “terrifying” harmonic minor scale.

Beethoven and Rossini, and their musical simplicity, used the purely formalized idea of certain passages of chromatic octaves and six to portray the Tempest whistling and roaring, the thunder rolling. If not so nerve shattering, was it not better music?

At any rate, I think there is none of us that would not confess a sneaking fondness for the musical storm.

Yes, Strauss is a master musician. His tone colors are bold, slashing, overwhelming; but let him be where the pitfall of musical insanity. Eccentricity and extravagance by themselves do not spell genius. Music is an idealizing art, and should never sink to the dregs of realism. What are we coming to? His music and exhausted art, and is eccentricity the only refuge of the so-called musician of the future?

Perhaps the next generation will produce something in the nature of a Highway Symphony, with an orchestra composed of choirs of automobile horns, trolley car gongs, horses who mechanisms and traffic “cops” whistles. This is the ultimate triumph of musical realism, with its wind and thunder machines.

Strauss is far truer to the best canons of descriptive music in that source of never-ending delight, Till Eulenspiegel and His Mary Pranks. We do not hear the sound of slapstick’s as the rollicking Till the labors of victim, nor do we hear the crash of an upturned applecart, but the spirit of the Prince of tricksters is they are, and we hear the elusive suggestion of his elfin laugh at the success of his pranks.