Music is second only to fiction in the number of its unthinking votaries. A typical musical audience is a curious study. It is composed of several varieties of listeners. There is the purely professional listener, the musician, who usually hears little besides the modulations, the thematic development, the technical structure of the work performed. As a rule, the aesthetic side of musical art escapes him. The most thorough ignorance of the nature and purpose of the art of music that I ever met was at a convention of music teachers.
An Ideal Listener.
And yet among musicians one does in the end find the most accomplished auditors, for when the musician listens with intelligence, sympathy and insight, his trained organs enable him to hear more and better than any other member of an audience. Give me a man of lively imagination, of poetic temperament and of generous disposition, who is also acquainted with the technics of music, and I will show you an ideal listener.
But this man is not typical. He is a rare bird, and floats in a beautiful, impalpable ether of the mind, which seems to the ordinary prosaic or uncomprehending hearer to be an elysium of mild lunacy. Closest to him, perhaps, stands the music critic, but he lacks one element of the musician’s nature. I am speaking now of the broad, vigorous master, who is sure of himself and has no petty jealousy. The critic lacks his creative enthusiasm. The critic may rhapsodize over the beauty of a new composition, but I fancy that he can never feel it in quite the same way as a great composer would. Gounod’s ecstasies over “Don Giovanni” were a different sort from those of a critic.
The Musician Worshipper.
But a competent critic at any rate listens intelligently, and in his appreciation of the purely aesthetic side of musical art he far outranks the average musician. These persons, however, are but a minority of any audience at a musical performance. The majority consists of what, for lack of a more precise appellation, we call music lovers. Now, a music lover is or ought to be a person who loves music. The truth is that most of those who honor themselves with this title are in truth nothing better than musician worshippers. Furthermore it is the performing musician, not the composer, whom they worship.
The most popular form of music is the opera. Listen to the chatter between the acts at any operatic performance and how much do you hear about the opera itself? Little indeed, for the air is filled with praise or dispraise of Nordica, Caruso, Fremstad or some other singer who has been captivating hearers with tones. And how much understanding is disclosed in the comments made on these artists? Since opera is the most popular form of music, the public should be expert in the judgment of singing; but precisely the contrary is the fact. There is more ignorance of the art of song than of any other branch of musical performance. The very worst singing is applauded vociferously provided it be extremely loud or extremely soft.
Two Styles of Music.
It is unnecessary to go into details, for what has been said about the attitude of the average hearer toward opera is applicable in some measure to his attitude toward any other branch of musical performance. The piano is found in almost every home, yet how few attendants at piano recitals perceive what is really great in the pianist’s art, and how many are ready to applaud what is purely superficial or actually meretricious! A masterly interpretation of a Beethoven sonata goes for little, while a fast and highly-accentuated performance of a Liszt rhapsody excites enthusiasm. Is it not true that the typical audience silently breathes a sigh of relief when the pianist gets through with the Bach and Beethoven numbers and comes to the Chopin and Liszt?
My honored comfrere, Mr. Finck, has staked out for himself the comforting ground that this is because Chopin and Liszt are so much better than the others. But the dogged musicians and critics persist in putting Bach and Beethoven in the supreme seats of honor among musical masters. The real reason why the average audience prefers Chopin and Liszt to Bach and Beethoven is that the former composers give ample scope for the display of those brilliancies of style which the unthinking hearer can easily discern, while the other two demand of player and hearer alike emotional sympathy and intellectual insight. Even the mentality of Chopin and Liszt is lost sight of by the typical concert-goer. The scales, arpeggios and staccati are the things that really count.
The Sensuous in Music.
What the great mass of so-called music lovers get out of music is that which lies upon its surface. Those who have made a study of the tonal art know that like all other arts it has three groups of attributes: the sensuous, the emotional and the intellectual. I have named these in the order of their appeal to the perceptions. To the great mass of music lovers only the sensuous element is discernible. A pretty bit of melody, a graceful figure, a sonorous series of chords or a gorgeous piece of instrumentation—these are all they get out of an overture or a symphony. Listening to a singer or a violinist, they hear nothing but tones. They talk learnedly of Mme. Saccharini’s fine head tones and her weak medium, or the admirable quality of M. Arco’s G string.
The Emotional in Music.
Next we come to the emotionalists, who throb and pant under the influence of music. Some of these do truly apprehend the divine passion of noble composition or the inflaming eloquence of great song or instrumental interpretation. But many of them are little more than mere neurotics, whose systems respond with spasms and physical ecstasies to the sensuous caress of wooing sound. They may be deeply and palpably stirred by the music of Wagner or Beethoven without having the slightest notion what it is that moves them or in what respect it claims adoration as the art of a master mind.
The Intellectual in Music.
Those who perceive the intellectual qualities of music are the only ones who may pride themselves on understanding its greatness as an art. Not he who is touched only by the broad and simple beauty and nobility of the leading themes of Beethoven’s symphonies or Wagner’s dramas is the true appreciator of music, but he who follows those ideas through their symmetrical and inexorable development into a vast and highly-organized structure.
But let me not be misunderstood. The intellectual listener must not neglect the sensuous and emotional elements of music, for those are the two potent forces which the brain of a composer guides toward full and convincing expression. The intellectual listener is he whom the process does not escape, and he alone perceives the art of the artist. For art, truly described, is method, and in music it is a method of expression.
The careless, unthinking auditor who is in the majority, does not perceive the method. The building up of form in a composition, the balance and symmetry of its design, the clearly-drawn plan of a pianist’s interpretation or a singer’s reading of a song, escape his notice. That which the artist, creative or interpretative, has striven most earnestly to place before him he fails to see, while he bestows his applause upon the means which the artist employs. He sees the paint, but not the picture. He joys in rhythm and rhyme and neglects the poem. Thus it is that the great mass of music lovers get out of music most of its sensuous beauty, a part of its emotional power and very little of that intellectual majesty which makes it the peer of all the other arts. That devotees of the other arts regard music as their inferior is due to the inability of the great body of music lovers to talk intelligently about music, and they do not talk so because they do not think so.