by James Francis Cooke, Editor
THE ETUDE MUSIC MAGAZINE – June 1942
“MUCH OF THE EXTREMELY unpleasant music we hear these days under the alias of ‘modern’ should be referred to the Narcotic Board for investigation, writes one ETUDE friend, more bold than those who feel that to condemn any kind of contemporary music, good or bad, might place on in the class of the critics who attacked the modernity of Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms in their time. Our complaint about such music is that it represents a paucity of talent and a total absence of genius. If there were enough great music being written at this time, it would be impossible for the highly technical mountebanks to palm off their cacophonies. With the exception of a few superior souls, there is very little being done in these days that seems earmarked for permanence. Editorial courtesy makes it impractical for us to designate the great contemporaries, lest we be challenged for our fairness or our understanding.
There is a kind of prevailing doctrine that if one hears disagreeable music long enough, one will come to like it. That is, a taste for the bizarre or the extraordinary may be cultivated, just as tourists in the Orient are said to become inured, after a few weeks, to the incredible, overpowering stench of back alleys. Those who live among such odors for a lifetime are unconscious of them, but that does not make them perfume for others.
We have no fears that the music of the future will not be beautiful. Criteria of beauty do change, it is true. The composers, Daniel Steibelt (contemporary of Beethoven) and Henry Herz (contemporary of Schumann) were among the most lauded musical writers of their day. Their music was for the most part sterile, uninspired, commonplace. It was dated, distinctly dated, but it was definitely manufactured according to the mathematical musical formulae of the day. It makes one think of artificial flowers or artificial fruit, imitations of the real thing but as dead as the bones in a catacomb.
It is not, therefore, the date that makes good music or makes it bad; it is the music itself. Music that is worth while is immortal. Age can not destroy it. There are few sincere people in the field of art who develop as much artistic remorse as those who have aspired to become creators, but who find, alas, that instead of evolving a style of their own, they have merely succeeded in making imitations with almost Japanese cunning.
Often, in the great European art galleries, we have seen professional copyists at work. Some are so adroit in their craftsmanship that their reproductions are amazing counterfeits of the originals. Many art works are indeed so expertly and deftly duplicated that they are really forgeries and are peddled around by racketeers to would-be “collectors.” One American merchant paid a fortune for a “Titian” which was fabricated by an art counterfeiter “hack” who eked out a church-mouse existence in a Parisian garret.
Every work of art is in a somewhat definite sense “dated.” It reflects in significant ways the culture, the philosophy, the mores of the age that produced it. Palestrina takes us very certainly to those candle-lighted, incense-laden basilicas of the Holy City. The fugues of Bach reveal the epic character of the Gothic cathedrals of the early eighteenth century, stained-glass and all. Haydn and Mozart reflected the peruked, rococo salons of the nobility of Middle Europe; Mendelssohn is for the most part a kind of musical picture of exquisite bourgeoisie refinement in which the objective was perfection: Chopin is a dream-like aquarelle of the salons of the “City of Light,” executed with an emotional force and keenly artistic technic that no one has equaled. Thus, Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Stravinsky, and every composer worth while leaves a kind of musical signature on his work which is as unmistakable as the face of George Washington on a dollar bill.
What signatures will the composers of to-day leave upon the history of music? What kind of music, indeed, will come out of the present military volcano? The last war, as we have repeatedly pointed out in these columns, evidently had a very corroding effect upon the souls of blossoming composers who survived in the melee. Many of these creative aspirants produced compositions which were incoherent, strident, discordant, horrific conglomerations of noise, indicating a pathological and psychological condition too dreadful to imagine. With all this comes the chorus of the protagonists of unrest, telling us that the world in the future is likely to be a very disagreeable place in which to live and that the music which is dated 1942 must be in a style reflecting the worst in life, rather than the best.
This art, gone beserk, may indeed be an interesting reflection of the pathological and neurological effect of this era of tyranny and world murder. The result is, in many cases, a sequence of incoherent “burps” bespeaking the intellectual and spiritual indigestion of the hour.
We have no interest in hearing a string of sentimental musical commonplaces such as those which made up many of the popular pieces of yesterday. Yet there is still a place for these, because there are millions of people whose musical opportunities have not advanced to a point where they can appreciate music of a better class. Those who stage a soul collapse when they hear music of this type, merely because it does not please them, usually do so because they enjoy posing as very exclusively sensitive or surprisingly smart critics. As a matter of fact, they represent a small and insignificant part of the public which has existed in every generation – squeamish individuals without the human experience which creates breadth of understanding.
Whether the World War II will have as drastic an effect upon music as World War I is a matter for speculation.Again, let us keep our musical sanity in this world of confusion. We must not let the science of the perception of beauty, called “aesthetics,” be suffocated by the repellent miasmas of a mad hour.
Enjoy Philip Martin playing a Nocturne by Henri Herz: