Beethoven and His Forerunners

Beethoven and His Forerunners
Title: Beethoven and His Forerunners
Release Date: 2018-05-13
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Set up and electrotyped. Published November, 1904.
Reprinted August, 1911.

Norwood Press:
Berwick & Smith Co., Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.






The modern view of history isvivified by a principle scarcelydreamed of before the middle ofthe last century; the conceptionwhich permeates all our interpretationsof the story of the world, which illuminatesour study of all its phases, was by ourgrandfathers apprehended either vaguely or notat all. For them, history dealt with a more orless random series of happenings, succeeding eachother accidentally, unaccountably, and at haphazard;each single event, determined by causespeculiar to itself, was without relation to all theothers. Political and social history, for example,was an account of battles, sieges, revolutions, governments;of kings, warriors, and statesmen. Itssalient features were special occasions and individual[4]men: Marathon and Waterloo, Alexander,Csar, Alfred, Napoleon. Of pervasivesocial movements, tendencies of human feelingand thought, developments of industries, institutions,laws, and customs by a gradual processin which great numbers of personally insignificantmen played their part, little account wastaken. Facts were facts, and had no hidden significance,no mutual interaction, no cumulativeforce, momentum, or direction.

Far otherwise do we interpret the story of theworld. Inspired by the great doctrine of thenineteenth century, the doctrine of evolution,first formulated by biology, but immediately appliedto all realms of knowledge, we read in eventsa continuous movement, a coherent growth, agradual, vast, and single process. For us, individualevents and men sink into insignificance incomparison with the great drama of which theyare only acts and actors. For us, great popularmovements, instinctive strivings, of which themen and women under their sway were unconscious,vast blossomings of vital energy the rootsof which were far below the surface of the humanmind, rise into relief as the true interests of thehistorian, and we interpret all particular happenings[5]and special persons in the light of theseuniversal tendencies. In geology we trace thecontinuous formation of the earth through innumerableyears; in zoology we study those slowbut constant transformations of animals whichare effected by natural selection and the survivalof the fittest; in sociology we examine the painfulyet inevitable crystallization out of the humanspirit of such ideas as responsibility, liberty,justice; in philosophy we learn of the subtle implicationsof our nature, and so learning, substitutea human God for the idols of savages andthe remote tyrannical deities of half-developedreligions. There is not a branch of our thoughtin which this way of interpreting life as a process,this conceiving of it as dynamic and vitalrather than static and inert, has not enlarged ouroutlook, deepened our sense of the sacrednessand wonder of the universe, and filled our spiritswith a new freedom, enthusiasm, and hope.

Peculiarly interesting is the application of thismode of study to the art of music. The expressionof feeling through sounds combined in beautifulforms, gives us an opportunity, as cannotbe too often pointed out,[1] for a much freer and[6]more self-determined activity than we can enjoyin our other artistic pursuits. Because the artof music, both in its material and in its content,is less shackled, less thwarted in its characteristicprocesses, than the representative arts, its evolutionis remarkably obvious and easy to trace.Its material, in the first place, is a product ofman’s free selection; that complex system ofmusical tones which he has constructed by manycenturies of work, is his own, to use as he will,in a sense in which language, natural objects, andphysical substances can never be. Whereas thegrowth of poetry, of painting, of sculpture, ofarchitecture, is complicated and distorted by athousand external conditions, that of music isdetermined by its own inner laws alone,—by thelaws, that is to say, of sound-production, ofsound-perception, and of psychology. In thesecond place, the content of music, that whichit expresses by means of these freely selected andcomposed tones, is purely internal. It is easyto see that the objects of musical expression,namely, human emotions in their essence, reduced,so to speak, to their lowest terms, aremore fluid to manipulation than the comparativelyfixed, indocile, and external objects of the[7]representative arts. By virtue, then, both of itsmaterial medium and of its ideal content, musicenjoys, among human modes of expression, aunique freedom and autonomy. It grows, not underpressure from outside, but by its own innervitality; its forms are determined, not by correspondencewith anything in the heavens or onthe earth, but, like those of the snow-crystals,by the inexorable laws that govern it; and theparticular changes it undergoes in its evolution,marking merely successive incarnations of tendenciesand potencies always implicit in it, can betraced with comparative ease, clearness, and certainty.

But however unmistakably musical historymay reveal an evolutionary process, it does notreveal that process as perfectly regular and uniform.That general tendency from a low towarda high state of organization, with increase indefiniteness, coherence, and heterogeneity, whichreaders of Herbert Spencer expect in any evolutionaryseries, does characterize the growthof music as a whole; but within the large generalprocess we also observe, as we do in manyother cases of evolution of any degree of complexity,many momentary phases sharply marked[8]off from one another, many separate and distinctperiods, like the chapters in a book or theacts in a play. Each period, beginning tentatively,maturing slowly, and culminating inmusic which carries its characteristic effects tothe highest possible pitch, is succeeded by another,presenting the same phases of growth, butseeking effects quite different. All the periodshang together in a large view; yet they are, afterall, diverse in character, and therefore capableof being distinguished, and even dated.

An analogy offered by certain well-knownchemical processes may help to make comprehensiblethis periodic nature of musical evolution.Chemists have a term, “critical point,”by which they name a stage in the behavior ofa substance, under some systematic treatment,at which it suddenly undergoes some strikingchange, some catastrophic transformation. Put,for example, a lump of ice in a crucible and applyan even heat by which its temperature israised, say, one degree each minute. Here is asystematic treatment of the ice, a steady influenceexerted upon it. Yet, curiously enough,this ice which is being so equably acted uponwill not change its form in the equable, regular[9]fashion we might expect. It will seem to undergolittle or no change until, at a given moment,suddenly, it passes into water, a liquidwholly different in appearance from the originalsolid. It has reached a “critical point.” Continuethe heating, and presently another criticalpoint will be reached, at which, with equal suddenness,the liquid will be transformed into a vapor—steam.These catastrophes, in which thephysical properties of the substance suddenlychange, are conditioned, of course, by its chemicalnature. They take place in the midst of asystematic treatment which we might expect toproduce only gradual, inconspicuous effects,but which, as a matter of fact, produces a seriesof events as strikingly differentiated one fromanother as the acts of a drama.

It is in a similar way that, in the history ofmusic, the tonal material used, under the systematictreatment of man’s sthetic faculty, hasbeen constrained by its nature to undergo suddenchanges, to recrystallize in novel ways, totake on unwonted aspects which initiate newperiods. When the possibilities of one sort oftone-combination are nearly or quite exhausted,the keener minds of a generation, led by groping[10]but unerring instinct, grasp an unused principleof organization, latent in the material, andinaugurate a new style. This in turn runs itscourse, develops its resources, reaches its perfection,and is succeeded by another, which,after due time, is also superseded. All theseperiods are but moments in one vast evolution,successive blossomings from the one root ofhuman feeling expressible in music; yet eachhas its individual qualities, its peculiar style, itsspecial masters. It is possible both to tracecertain general tendencies through them all, andto define other special qualities in which each ispeculiar; and it will be worth while, beforepassing on to our proposed study of the particularperiod of Beethoven, to describe thus ingeneral terms the salient features of the evolutionas a whole, and to characterize, howeverbriefly, the individual periods we can discriminatein it.

In the most general point of view, an evolution,of whatever sort, is a progress from whatSpencer calls “indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity,”to what, consistently if rather overwhelmingly,he calls “definite, coherent, heterogeneity.”All low forms of life, that is to say, are so homogeneous[11]in constitution as to be comparativelyindefinite and incoherent; their parts, being allvery much alike, cannot be built up into definite,strongly cohesive structures. A jelly fish, madeup of thousands of but slightly differentiatedcells, and without legs, arms, head, or any visceraworth mentioning except stomach, is doubtlessa useful animal, but not one of pronounced individualityor solidarity. A savage tribe, consistingof many human beings almost indistinguishablefrom one another as regards character,strength, accomplishments, or powers of leadership,is a similar phenomenon in a different field,a sort of social jelly fish.

In higher forms of life, on the contrary, suchas vertebrate animals and civilized communities,the elementary parts are sufficiently diverse tobe interwoven into highly individual and compactorganisms. The variety of the atoms ormolecules makes possible a great solidarity inthe molar unit they compose, since the uniquenessand indissolubility of a structure is directlyproportionate to the diversity of the elementsthat compose it. A man, if he is to attain thedignity of manhood, must be more than a stomach;he must knit into his single unity a bony[12]skeleton, a circulatory system, a brain and nervousapparatus, complicated viscera, and heart,mind, and spirit. A state depends for its vitalityon the varied characters and abilities of itscitizens; it must have laborers, artisans, merchants,sailors, soldiers, students, and statesmen.In the second book of his “Republic,”Plato describes the differentiation of talentsand pursuits in the citizens on which dependsthe advance in civilization of the society. Suchan increase in differentiation of the parts, accompaniedby increasing definiteness and coherencein the wholes, characterizes every process of evolution.

The history of music is the history of suchan evolution. Music began with vague, unlocatedsounds, not combined with one another,but following at haphazard, and but slightlycontrasted in pitch or duration. Gradually,under the inconceivably slow yet irresistible influenceof men’s selective and constructive faculty,these sounds took on definiteness, werefixed in pitch, were measured in time, were knitinto phrases and themes as words are knit intosentences, were combined simultaneously inchords as individuals are combined in communities;—became,[13]in a word, the various, clearlydefined, and highly organized family of toneswe use in modern music. Two passages fromSpencer’s “First Principles” will bring beforeus very clearly the advance music hasmade towards heterogeneity in its elements, onthe one hand, and towards definiteness and coherencein its wholes, on the other. “It needs,”he says, “but to contrast music as it is withmusic as it was, to see how immense is the increaseof heterogeneity. We see this ... oncomparing any one sample of aboriginal musicwith a sample of modern music—even an ordinarysong for the piano; which we find to berelatively highly heterogeneous, not only inrespect of the varieties in the pitch and in thelength of the notes, the number of differentnotes sounding at the same instant in companywith the voice, and the variations of strengthwith which they are sounded and sung, but inrespect of the changes of key, the changes oftime, the changes of timbre of the voice, andthe many other modifications of expression:while between the old monotonous dance-chantand a grand opera of our own day, with its endlessorchestral complexities and vocal combinations,[14]the contrast in heterogeneity is so extremethat it

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