MUSINGS ON MUSIC

By James F. Otis

And while I was musing, the fire burned.—Holy Writ.
THE ORIGIN OF MUSIC.

Music is the wondrous breathing of God's spirit in our souls. As we view the "floor of heaven, thickly inlaid with patines of pure gold," we feel that There's not the smallest orb which we behold, But, in its motion, like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young eyed cherubim

We feel it in the constitution of the air, which causes vibration—in the formation of man, possessed of the wonderful faculties enabling him to sing, to distinguish musical sounds, and to feel within his whole frame the effects of music. Man, indeed, is himself a wonderful musical instrument, made by the hand of God. He hears all nature hymning adoration and praises to its Maker—he feels the constant vibration of universal harmony around him—he is conscious that the emotions of gratitude he feels toward the Creator should be expressed, and that in the highest strains which the human mind can conceive, and the human voice can reach. Thus he calls in to his aid all those auxiliaries which nature and art afford, to supply him with associations tending to elevate the standard of his grateful expressions. Music is a sacred, a religious, a holy thing. Applied to common purposes, it is pleasing and worthy of cultivation—but still it has a higher character when used for its original and more worthy purpose. The effect it produces in the former instance is to raise our mirth:—when used in its higher character, its effect is to produce rapture. It soothes when thus employed, as of old it did when David banished the evil spirit from the soul of Saul by the vibrations of his sweet-toned harp; it improves—as all good influences and pure associations ever must, when permitted their due action upon the mind; and it elevates the spirit toward the eternal source whence all its harmony flows. As it peals upon the ear, and sinks inly upon the heart of him whose mind is bent upon the thoughts of holy things—upon his creation, his present blessings and future hopes, he seems to hear

That undisturbed song of pure content,
Aye sung around the sapphire-colored throne,
To him that sits thereon—
Where the bright seraphim, in burning row,
Their loud, uplifted angel trumpets blow;
And the cherubic hosts, in thousand choirs,
Touch their celestial harps of golden wires.

HANDEL AND HAYDN. THE MESSIAH AND THE CREATION, A PARABLE.

Handel, with all his comparative simplicity, is my favorite. I cannot but look up to him with astonishment and veneration; his "Messiah," I behold as the purest specimen of sublimity ever displayed in the arts: and I can conceive of nothing in poetry with any pretension to be considered its parallel, but the "Paradise Lost" of Milton. The "Hallelujah Chorus" may be esteemed the loftiest work of the imagination. The leading conception is entirely inimitable. The full chorus of other masters is often bold and elevated; but it is only Handel who has the sublime of devotion. Haydn is triumphant and inspiring; but the effect of his chorus is only that of martial music. In listening to Haydn, you seem to hear the shouts of conquerors, proudly entering a vanquished city: in listening to Handel, the shouts seem to break from the clouds; from the triumphant host admitted to the presence of God; and the object of praise gives a character of holiness and purity to the harmony. With Haydn, we exult, we reason not why. With Handel, we can never for a moment forget that we are praising God. The rapid movements and quick transitions of Haydn draw the fullest admiration to the orchestra, and the subject is forgotten. The lighter passages in Handel are only the varied note of praise, expanding only in proportion to the inspiration which the object kindles. In one word,—every thing in Haydn is seen to be accomplished; and every delineation, if I may thus employ the word, is felt to be a resemblance. But in Handel, let what will be described or exhibited,—a battle,—a victory,—the trembling of the earth,—the tottering of a wall,—the moan of sympathy,—the insults and crucifixion of a Savior,—the awful stillness of death,—or, on the other hand, the triumph of the resurrection,—the birth of the Prince of Peace,—or hosannas to the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,—every thing seems to be done at the command of God himself.

But I conceive it is not difficult to reconcile an admiration of both these great masters, in as much as their music presents such a variety only as every art admits. Claude Loraine was no rival of Raphael—yet we stand with one before a landscape, and with the other at the foot of the cross, with like, if not equal astonishment and admiration. The recitatives of Haydn are, with scarcely a single exception, less bold, but better finished,—less abrupt, and better calculated for the scope of the voice, than those of Handel; and are supported by a harmony more graceful, though not more striking and natural. Haydn, at all times, threw the fascination of melody over his richest modulations, and the whole effect of his harmony resulted from conspiring airs, each of which was melodious by itself. While, on the other hand, the separate parts in Handel were like single pillars from a temple, or single stones from a pyramid. If, in Handel, appear the beauty of consistency,—in Haydn we admire the consistency of beauty. If Handel's choruses and harmony might be compared, both in their formation and beauty, to mountains of ice, illuminated by the sun,—Haydn's harmony would seem to resemble the most splendid crystalizations—under the same illumination, in which one form of beauty has gradually encircled another, until the shape and beauty of the minutest part has become imparted to the larger proportions, and more commanding figure of the whole mass. It is impossible indeed, to find any thing in music,—placing his choruses out of view,—which can rival the sublime recitative of Handel,—"For behold darkness shall cover the earth,—but the Lord shall arise!"—Yet the opening of Haydn's "Creation," may deserve to be ranked second only to this, and as surpassing every other attempt of its author, in sublimity, and deep, solemn grandeur. The fall of the angels, in the first part of the same noble oratorio, is a wonderful effort, and presents the most remarkable instance in all Haydn's compositions, of the characteristic excellence which has just been ascribed to him, namely, his uniform regard to his melody, even where he designed to produce the boldest effect in his harmony. It is the most graphic musical description ever attempted; and it must have been produced in one of those moments of lofty enthusiasm in which a conception of surpassing grandeur flashes upon the mind, is grasped and embodied in an instant, and a man pauses in exultation and astonishment at what he has himself accomplished. This passage, however,—if it had no other excellence,—could never be forgotten, as it gives the most striking effect to the inimitable contrast which succeeds,—where the first impression of the beauty of the world at the moment of the creation is described with such tenderness and grace, that the most vulgar minds, as well as those whose taste has been in some degree refined, have felt every note, as it came from the forms of living things, exulting in their existence—or as if the author had borrowed the lyre of the morning stars, that sang the glories of the "new created world."—The celebrated chorus, "The Heavens are telling the glory of God," is unquestionably the boldest conception of Haydn. Its harmony has the most astonishing richness and variety, and the leading air is almost unexceptionably beautiful. Yet it may be called a chorus in theory only; for it requires the fullest choir of the finest voices and most refined tastes,—and no community of any country can furnish a hundred and fifty singers, capable of performing it, even with a tolerable degree of spirit, judgment and correctness. By this remark I mean merely, that the original conception of the author, and that with which every one who feels its true beauty and force is filled, upon studying, or hearing it,—can never be fully realized and carried out, and filled up, by the finest combination of human powers.

There have not been wanting writers upon the beautiful in music, who have denounced what they are pleased to call attempts at picturesque, in the "Creation" of Haydn. Their arguments proceed upon the trifling nature of the results produced by imitations, as unworthy the dignity of an art so refined. The feelings awakened by the gradual developement of the work of creation in this immortal work are certainly far superior in their nature to those imputed by such writers to the admirers of what they call depictive music;—and I cannot believe that these objectors can have listened to the oratorio they criticise, either with the physical or rational ear. Had they, we should have heard nothing like an imputation of an unsuccessful imitation of trifling originals. They would have seen no other use of the musical picturesque than perfectly consists with true descriptiveness of the subject celebrated. The Creation is a grand panorama; its object was to impress the hearer with the realities it commemorates. Its author was engaged two whole years upon it, and gave as a reason for his absorption in the task, that he meant it to last a great while. He has composed a work which addresses itself to the mind in such a manner, as to call up to the eye the landscape, as well as to the ear the sounds, and to the conception the animation and motion of the scenes described. Surely a beautiful thought, a fine description, an impassioned sentiment, impressed upon the mind and memory by a strong association with almost all the senses at once, are more likely to become inseparably entwined among the very fibres of the heart, than a cold, abstract description of the same subject, without the intervention of such associations. I should pity the man who could utter such a criticism, while listening to the performance, or even reading the score of this most splendid oratorio. From the commencement,—conveying the idea of primeval chaos,—through the gradual gathering of the earth and sea, and the things which each contains, into their several places,—the budding and blooming of the thousand flowers,—the cooing of the tender doves,—the trampling of the heavy beasts,—the flowing of the gentle rills,—the rolling of the mountain waves,—the bursting of light at the Creator's word,—angels praising God,—the noble work of man's creation,—the achievement of the whole,—up to the last grand and glorious chorus,—all is sublimity—all is divine! and the whole soul of the auditor is wrapt in sacred awe, as he follows the beneficent hand of his Maker in its wonderful work, and is lost in rapture and adoration, amid the blaze of glory by which he finds himself surrounded at the close.


SOME THOUGHTS ON OPERATIVE MUSIC.

There are those who institute a comparison between music and poetry, and much to the prejudice of the former. They argue that the intellect has nothing to do with music, and that it is ridiculous and absurd in those who speak no Italian, to pretend to derive any satisfaction from listening, for two hours, to music in a language they cannot understand—affecting, at the same time, to comprehend the sense to be conveyed, by the sounds they drink in with such assumed rapture. I conceive this to be far from just reasoning. Doubtless there is a great deal of affectation in the fashionable world upon the subject of music in general, and of the opera in particular; but we have no right to judge our neighbor's taste by our own—perhaps, after all, it may turn out that our own is defective or false. I am inclined to argue that the intellect has as much to do with music as with poetry.

In judging of pieces adapted to music, we should be lenient on the subject of the thoughts, if the design and story have variety enough to afford a basis for a corresponding variety of musical ideas. The most common expression of any passion may be tolerated, when the music, not the poetry, is to form the embellishment. Who cares for the story—the plot—in listening to the Italian opera? Nay, more—are not the finest and most beautiful pieces of that class of music, vulgar and weak as poetical compositions? Is not the musical composer the genius of the piece? While the poet utters some such trash as 'I shall support myself by feasting on your beautiful eyes,' the composer so varies the expression of his music, that, in truth, the thought becomes refined, just as it would if the poet had undertaken to present it in a variety of views. To say, therefore, that the repetitions in music are nonsense, is just to profess a deplorable ignorance of the science. The words convey a sentiment which the musician undertakes to increase—to soften—to embellish, through a series of fine ideas, of which those who have neither musical taste nor ear have not the least conception.

Nor should it be supposed that, in the opera—in the fine pieces of Metastasio, for instance—the poetry is disgraced by being but the handmaid of music, and that the former is therefore reduced unduly in the scale of comparative merit. This is not the case with him who is an equal admirer of the two arts. Such as these will admit that it is but in a very small degree that music is designed to please a sense. They will insist that its design is to excite emotions that poetry, to the same extent, cannot awaken. What speech in the whole Iliad rouses more exulting courage than the 'Marsellois Hymn?' The music of 'Pleyel's German Hymn' not only of itself produces an effect to awaken a feeling of grief, but no words that I have ever read are capable of producing that feeling in an equal degree. Take for example, the lamentation of David for the loss of Absalom—and if that passage, and others like it, are enough to melt or break the heart, there is a kind of music, of which 'Pleyel's Hymn' is an example, that will affect it more deeply yet.

Words, considered as auxiliary to music, merely show the subject on which the emotion rests, but have nothing to do with the emotion itself; that is produced by music alone—and long before any words are known to an air, the emotion will have been produced. We shall have imagined the subject—and when we come to know the words, we shall discover one of three things: first, that the subject is what we imagined—secondly, that it is something analogous to our perception—or, thirdly, if neither of the two former, that the words and air are ill-adapted to each other. Indeed, what do we mean by saying, 'these words are adapted to the air,' if the air have no character of its own? And what is its character but its peculiar power of awakening certain emotions? Admitting that it is better that fine poetry and fine harmony should be united, when possible—and that this union, of course, produces additional delight to a refined mind,—it still seems to me very absurd to condemn the pieces which are constructed upon ideas conveyed in poetry of an inferior class, merely because such is the character of the poetry. Music is the governor of the heart, and all she asks of Poetry is a subject,—and then, delightful magician! it is her province to call up, by her sweet spell, the corresponding emotions!