Great Men On Music

Very often, at this age, the little pupil becomes enamored of a certain instrument, listens to it with more pleasure than to any other, likes to look at it and to touch it, and to try to make it speak. We may then put the question to him : would you like to learn how to play it? And even the reply to this question should often be interpreted according to the more or less communicative, enthusiastic, or timid character of the child. If we think from some way by which he behaves that he really has a desire for it, and if on the other hand we have already been able to observe that he has perseverance in his ideas, if, finally, his choice has not fallen upon some ridiculous instrument such as the Chapeau Chinois, for example, there is nothing to prevent us from deciding, in principle, to direct him at first with a view to the study of that instrument rather than any other. This does not mean to say that we must immediately go and buy him one, for there are some instruments the study of which he must not undertake until he has got his growth ; but it does mean to say that from this time forward we can map out a plan of work for him, preparing him in the most logical and favourable way for the mastery of his favorite instrument.

Certain signs may give us reason to believe that we are in the presence of a composer’s organization ; for example, if the child, having only the vaguest ideas about music, is tormented with a desire to write, and to note down something that he has invented or sincerely believes that he has invented, such as a little melody to some words, or a dance tune. I can mention one, who, after hearing his elder sister play the first sonatas of Mozart, composed (?) a Grande Sonate (that was the title), dedicated to his sister, which had only thirteen bars all told. The Allegro numbered five : the first movement, made up of four notes, represented the first motif in C ; the second in G, with the word expressive, constituted the second motif, after which a very thick double bar, with dots,, clearly indicated that the first repetition was finished; the second began with some scales, having many accidentals scattered at random, after which returned the first and second motifs, both in C. The Adagio contained only three chords, all false, but quite ample in intention, and ended with an organ point. The Finale, evidently unfinished, was in six- eight time, and was peppered with notes, quavers, semi-quavers, and demi-semi-quavers; there was no common sense-in any of it, but one felt that it was intended to go very, very fast, with a dizzying rapidity ; it had seven bars. The whole thing was written on a sheet of small letter paper, which he had ruled him-self, all awry, and splashed with numerous blots of ink.

To any one ignorant of musical education, this would have been considered as an insignificant child’s play, a simple and harmless scrawl ; but it really showed an extraordinary power of observation and imitation: the first piece divided into two repeats, the second motif announced in the key of the dominant, and then in the principal key ; the care to begin the second repeat with surprising modulations ( !), the very short Adagio with its solemn organ point ; and the Finale, of infinitely greater speed than the rest,—all this revealed an instinct for form that was absolutely stupefying, for here, crudely sketched, as if to order, was exactly the plan of the classic Sonata and Symphony likewise. This child has become a composer of talent, although somewhat eccentric, and even obtained, many years ago, the Grand Prix de Rome.

However, we must mistrust a singular aberration in certain individuals who imagine that they are composing because they accumulate notes, clefs, sharps and flats upon music paper that mean nothing, and who take a great pleasure in doing this,—what do I say ?—their sole pleasure. This becomes an obsession with them, a haunting occupation. I have known several of these ; with the last one, this peculiar condition, which is certainly unhealthy, continued until the age of sixteen or seventeen years, when I lost sight of him. He refused to apply himself to any studies, musical or foreign to music, and spent his life in the library of our Conservatoire in gazing at the most complicated scores, of which, naturally enough, he could understand absolutely nothing, then, going home, he would begin afresh with a gentle pertinacity, to cover sheets upon sheets of ruled paper with signs resembling those he had just seen, signs that offered no mutual co-ordination, and devoid of all meaning. He seemed to be intelligent and ex-pressed himself very well. His father had tried in vain to make him learn designing, his own craft, and then the violin, but he would not listen to any of this, and begged to be allowed to come as a purely passive listener to my class in harmony and continue his be-loved reading in the library, which made his unhappy father say : ” It is very necessary that I should make a composer of him since I can make nothing else of him.” This reasoning was absurd. I have seen several other examples of this peculiar monomania, but in a lesser degree; if this were an isolated case, I should not have spoken of it.

The consequence is that when you see a young child manifest this irresistible desire to write, thus fascinated by music-paper, you must not jump at the conclusion that he is exhibiting the organization of a composer; neither must you throw away nor tear up his crude attempts, but show them to some experienced musician to learn if he can discover in them any sign that reveals a marked predisposition.

There are also some who improvise for hours upon the piano, sometimes even without ever having learned to play, and who take a very great pleasure in it. Means should be found to get some artist to hear this, one who is endowed with good judgment and capable of appreciating whether this is simply an incoherent, fabric, more or less attractive, or whether it contains the trace of a musical idea or conduct in the development, or even whether these so-called improvisations are not merely simple reminiscences, or memories of things heard, in which case they would reveal memory and the faculty of imitation rather than the gift of creating new forms.

Perhaps one infallible indication is the instinctive preference for good music, and the dawn of that judgment that prevents the thought of applying the epithet ” pretty ” to the overture of Don Giovanni, or that of ” beautiful ” to a charming Air de Ballet by Léo Delibes. Musical memory is also a good thing, that which enables you to retain and to sing in tune and time a melody that has pleased you. But, in reality, it is far from being always the case that precursory signs manifest themselves from the tenderest age. Most frequently, the child simply gives proof, quite early, of a general aptitude for music, and it is in the course of his studies, and instigated by them, that the desire to compose is developed in him, dO-noting that there is reason to direct his instruction specially towards that end.

As for those gentle young persons who, while affirming that they wish to compose, wait patiently until their studies are over before they attempt to write, on the pretext that they don’t know how, we may be certain that they do not possess the divine spark.

Certain children find means during their solfeggio lessons, or while taking part in choruses, to show a natural feeling for good phrasing, which leads them to sing with intelligence, to shade well and to take breath at the right place. With regard to such, there should be no hesitation in letting them have some veritable singing-lessons from a good master, and in seeking opportunities for them to sing short solos at Church, at the Temple, at Concerts, or in informal musical gatherings. Whatever may be their future vocation, they will always be glad to know how to sing ; but it is imperative to suspend immediately all vocal exercise, singing or solfeggio, as soon as the first signs of the change of voice appear. We will return to this in the proper place.

We also find children who do not manifest the slightest aptitude. Here there is room for distinction,

If this indifference and apathy extend over all studies and are not peculiar to music, we must regard it merely as general laziness, and try to find for music as for all the others, a stimulus in emulation, promises of reward, or threats of punishment. Keep from threats, however, as much as possible, for the use of chastisement is a very sad way to instil the love of art. I have sometimes seen brutal parents beat a child unmercifully because he refused to work, and then compel him to sing with taste in the midst of tears and sobs. I have followed several of these children. They all became worthless. So you must not beat them, but, when the laziness is general and not confined to any one thing, you must not yield to them, either ; applying that speech of Rollin’s : ” Education is a gentle and insinuating mistress, the enemy of violence and constraint,” with gentleness and firmness you must impose upon the child some musical task, even indifferent or mechanical (which forms an exception) however short, be it only half an hour a day, among his other studies, which, moreover, will refresh him in spite of himself ; and if he is too rebellious to do this work when alone, then have recourse to a tutor to make him do it. And this is the reason why : it happens very frequently with natures that are weak and devoid of energy, that the musical aptitude * is in some measure asleep and does not exhibit itself until much later, towards 18 or 20 years of age ; this is particularly frequent with young persons who have worked in mathematics or the exact sciences ; one fine day, they wake up with a violent desire to play the piano or the violin, or to know how to read a score, and then, if no one has known enough to force them to acquire some elementary ideas in their early years, even against their will, they are very unhappy at not being able to satisfy their inclination. To acquire these, they make the most fruitless efforts, with poor results or none at all, for they have no longer the necessary suppleness of mind, having passed the happy age when one learns languages while being amused. They deplore their laziness, but it is too late. And thus one would have done them a kindness by exacting from them those few moments of daily practice, even passive, I repeat, borne with weariness, which would now suffice them as a basis upon which they could give themselves a good instruction by means of intelligent amateurs. These cases seldom occur in Germany, where music forms part of the education ; all the children who go to school learn to sing, both boys and girls without exception ; each class begins with a chorus celebrating the benefits of the instruction, or the respect due to parents, or even some patriotic or religious subject (what an education!), and thus all the little scholars are little musicians. Our neighbours, therefore, happen to put into practice a principle of one of our great historians, who was also a great moralist : ” Music brings to the soul a veritable inward culture, and is part of the education of a people ” (Guizot). In 1538, Luther ex-pressed an analogous idea in other terms : ” One can-not question,” said he, ” that music contains the germ of all the virtues ; and I can only compare those whom music does not touch to blocks of wood or stone. Youth then should be brought up in the practice of this divine art.”

For him, who also said : ” Music governs the world, it is a gift of God, and it is closely allied to theology,” it is certain that music formed an integral part of be-lief, his admirable Chorales lead us to believe this, and he could not conceive an education in which it would not have a large share.

Finally, there exists a last category, that of the children who, industrious and active in all their other studies, have an invincible repugnance and an involuntary and irresistible aversion to everything in the domain of music. ” Education should bring to light the ideal of the individual,” said J. P. Richter, who knew what he was saying. Now, for these, their ideal certainly is not music. It is to be hoped that they have another one, and one must know how to seek for it, to discover it and help it to soar, not fatiguing them more than is necessary with studies to which they are not adapted and which will never lead to anything that is worth while.

There is quite enough bad music and there are quite enough bad musicians, and so there is nothing to regret. I am most certainly not one of those who wish that everybody should be a musician; on the contrary, this seems to me one of the faults of the age. What I should like, and this is not at all the same thing, is that all children, even those who, show no disposition for it, with the exception of some specially marked cases of repugnance, should receive sufficient material musical instruction, to enable them at a later period, in case the artistic sentiment should declare itself, to find a foundation prepared, so that they should not have to begin entirely at the beginning, which would be too laborious and repellent for them.

Do not all the large establishments for general instruction prudently act in this way, by inculcating in the child, before his career is decided upon, elementary notions touching a little on all things, several of which in the course of time will have to be abandoned as being of no use to him?

I should add that those absolutely recalcitrant natures of which we have spoken last are excessively rare, for which we must congratulate ourselves, if Shakespeare is to be believed :

The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils ; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his aff ection dark as Erebus:

Even if we make allowance for poetical exaggeration, and admit that one may be a perfectly honest man without the love of music, we must pity those to whom the intelligence of our beautiful language is closed, for many of the purest and most elevated enjoyments are thereby refused to them forever.

Putting these exceptions aside, let us return to that important question, from which we have wandered a little, what direction to give to the musical studies of each individual when once he has acquired some elements of solfeggio, and even if one wishes, of the piano.

If he manifests any special taste for any instrument, among those that are within the capacity of his age, the best thing is to let him follow his impulse, which has every chance of being good. If, on the contrary, his choice falls upon an instrument which it would be better for him not to attempt till later, profit by this time to advance the general instruction, preparing meanwhile the paths by the musical studies which will be marked out in the next chapter.

It is the same if, attracted by the prestige of the theatre or the bait of a lucrative profession, he as-pires to be a singer ; we should mark time while waiting for the appearance of the voice, but without neglecting before all else to make a musician of him, a thing so much the more precious because it is so rare in the world of singers. Here, however, there is a very interesting exception which we shall reserve for Chap-ter III.

If, finally, he exhibits a very marked propensity for composition, it is never too early to start him upon the complex studies of a composer (for they are very long if one pleases). What is essentially desirable is not to neglect one of them, and thereby become a thorough musician, in possession of the technique of the art in its full expanse.

It may often happen, as has been already said, that although surrounded with the wisest precautions, we have chosen a road aside from the most suitable one, whether because appearances were deceitful or because we interpreted them wrongly, or because as the years passed new aptitudes came to light. In this case, if the individual has followed the general plan of study which is the exclusive subject of this work, he can easily manage to apply to a new aim the greater part of the knowledge already acquired with another end in view, and reduce to a minimum the loss of time occasioned by that fork of the road.