On Music by Usher

Letter T.

There are few who have not felt the charms of music, and acknowledged its expressions to he intelligible to the heart. It is a language of delightful sensations, that is far more eloquent than words: it breathes to the ear the clearest intimations; but how it was learned, to what origin we owe it, or what is the meaning of some of its most affecting strains, we know not.

We feel plainly that music touches and gently agitates the agreeable and sublime passions; that it wraps us in melancholy, and elevates us to joy; that it dissolves and inflames; that it melts us into tenderness, and rouses into rage: but its strokes are so fine and delicate, that, like a tragedy, even the passions that are wounded please; its sorrows are charming, and its rage heroic and delightful. As people feel the particular passions with different degrees of force, their taste of harmony must proportionably vary. Music, then, is a language directed to the passions; but the rudest passions put on a new nature, and become pleasing in harmony: let me add, also, that it awakens some passions which we perceive not in ordinary life. Particularly the most elevated sensation of music arises from a confused perception of ideal or visionary beauty and rapture, which is sufficiently perceivable to fire the imagination, but not clear enough to become an object of knowledge. This shadowy beauty the mind attempts, with a languishing curiosity, to collect into a distinct object of view and comprehension; but it sinks and escapes, like the dissolving ideas of a delightful dream, that are neither within the reach of the memory, nor yet totally fled. The noblest charm of music, then, though real and affecting, seems too confused and fluid to be collected into a distinct idea.

Harmony is always understood by the crowd, and almost always mistaken by musicians. The present Italian taste for music is exactly correspondent to the taste for tragi-comedy, that about a century ago gained ground upon the stage. The musicians of the present day are charmed at the union they form between the grave and the fantastic, and at the surprising transitions they make between extremes, while every hearer who has the least remainder of the taste of nature left, is shocked at the strange jargon. If the same taste should prevail in painting, we must soon expect to see the woman's head, a horse's body, and a fish's tail, united by soft gradations, greatly admired at our public exhibitions. Musical gentlemen should take particular care to preserve in its full vigour and sensibility their original natural taste, which alone feels and discovers the true beauty of music.

If Milton, Shakspeare, or Dryden had been born with the same genius and inspiration for music as for poetry, and had passed through the practical part without corrupting the natural taste, or blending with it any prepossession in favour of sleights and dexterities of hand, then would their notes be tuned to passions and to sentiments as natural and expressive as the tones and modulations of the voice in discourse. The music and the thought would not make different expressions; the hearers would only think impetuously; and the effect of the music would be to give the ideas a tumultuous violence and divine impulse upon the mind. Any person conversant with the classic poets, sees instantly that the passionate power of music I speak of, was perfectly understood and practised by the ancients—that the Muses of the Greeks always sung, and their song was the echo of the subject, which swelled their poetry into enthusiasm and rapture. An inquiry into the nature and merits of the ancient music, and a comparison thereof with modern composition, by a person of poetic genius and an admirer of harmony, who is free from the shackles of practice, and the prejudices of the mode, aided by the countenance of a few men of rank, of elevated and true taste, would probably lay the present half-Gothic mode of music in ruins, like those towers of whose little laboured ornaments it is an exact picture, and restore the Grecian taste of passionate harmony once more to the delight and wonder of mankind. But as from the disposition of things, and the force of fashion, we cannot hope in our time to rescue the sacred lyre, and see it put into the hands of men of genius, I can only recall you to your own natural feeling of harmony and observe to you, that its emotions are not found in the laboured, fantastic, and surprising compositions that form the modern style of music: but you meet them in some few pieces that are the growth of wild unvitiated taste; you discover them in the swelling sounds that wrap us in imaginary grandeur; in those plaintive notes that make us in love with woe; in the tones that utter the lover's sighs, and fluctuate the breast with gentle pain; in the noble strokes that coil up the courage and fury of the soul, or that lull it in confused visions of joy; in short, in those affecting strains that find their way to the inmost recesses of the heart,

Untwisting all the chains that tie

The hidden soul of harmony.

Milton.

Usher.