Music – The Beauty Of Harmony

The pleasure in melodic flow and rhythmic accent is universal except in the case of those unfortunates who are unable to recognize differences of pitch or regularity in recurring beats, and it requires, as I have tried to show, only such cultivation as will enable the hearer to follow composers in their elaboration of certain simple elements. With harmony, however, the case is somewhat different; a larger mental reach and a more tenacious grasp are required to comprehend its relations; and although individuals differ here as elsewhere, it may safely be said that a recognition of the beauty that lies in artistically managed combinations of simultaneous sounds and the richly varied color schemes of contrasted tonalities is the last among the musical appreciations to be acquired. Since the progressive development of harmony did not begin until as late as the twelfth century, it has been the fashion even among historians of music to ignore the existence of any harmonic sense up to that time, holding that the music of primitive and ancient peoples is unison only. This view can no longer be maintained, for it is certain that many savage tribes recognize the existence of musical intervals, that they often sing two and even more parts, and it is more than probable that similar experiments were made among the cultivated nations of antiquity. Professor John C. Fillmore, who made extensive researches in the music of the North American Indians, was undoubtedly not deceived in the apparent pleasure manifested by some of his dusky friends when their unison melodies were supplied with simple chords. What we call the beginning of counterpoint and harmony in the Middle Ages was merely the first fruitful recorded attempt to devise a system and evolve a theory of harmonic relations; the demand for a richer and more expressive utterance than successions of single tones could supply already lay dimly in the human consciousness. The dependence of melody upon harmony must also be recognized. Wallaschek justly remarks that “there is of course no doubt that our feeling for and comprehension of harmony have been developed by time, but so has our feeling for melody.” “Primitive harmony is no doubt very rude, but primitive melody is precisely of the same kind.” “If we compare a modern song with an air of savage races we find the latter very short, restricted to two or three tones and the same phrase constantly repeated, while our musical themes are worked out, built up, prolonged and varied so as to form a coherent, elaborate melody.” It does not follow that the inability of the savage to invent a tune of more than one kind of melodic figure is due to his deficient sense of harmony; it is probably due rather to his incapacity for sustained thought and invention; for the early Gregorian chant system, long before the employment of part singing in the church, contained melodies of great length, elaborateness, and variety. But these Gregorian melodies are at the same time rambling and for the most part irregular, except so far as the text to which they are set gives them something like rhythmic order; it is only on the basis of definite tonality and the relationship of tonalities involved in chord structure that a melody that is proportioned, balanced, and satisfying to the mod-ern ear can be developed.

This process was long ago virtually completed and the psychologic results of it have become the inheritance of every person that is in any way susceptible to the influences of music. The fact re-mains, however, that a consciousness of the beauty and the technical wonders of modern harmony is, with the average untrained music lover, the weakest of all the impressions that compose his musical world. It is true, of course, that the modern ear, however unrefined, takes cognizance of a chord as a concrete entity, so that the most unmusical per-son feels that something is lacking when a singer sings or a violinist plays without accompaniment. Nevertheless, with the common man the harmonic images are rather nebulous and countless beauties that enchant the musician are to him practically non-existent. His hearing of a musical performance, so far as harmony is concerned, is like indirect vision to a stroller out of doors. In the latter case there is a dull consciousness of a multitude of shapes and lights and colors forming a sort of misty fringe around the objects directly perceived; in the former a stream of sounds various in force, color, and fulness of texture, but unruled by any obvious plan, and with a thousand points of interest blurred in the mass.

The musical inquirer, therefore, will seek the advice that will aid him in developing the faculty by which he may select, compare, and comprehend while dealing with chord progressions and combinations of moving parts. The amateur whom I have in mind will be content with the out-lines of the vast science of harmony—just enough to enable him to sift the masses of sound that enter his brain and to recognize in them a certain reason and order. He should be initiated into a few of the fundamental distinctions of consonance and dissonance, of major and minor, of diatonic and chromatic harmony, of cadence and half-cadence, of affiliations and oppositions among tonalities, of modulation, of the means by which logical relations and symmetrical design are accomplished in the succession of contrasted keys. The reason is clear—even a smattering of theoretical knowledge puts the hearer on the watch, and he is able to capture fugitive beauties that once eluded him. It can be shown by examples how sometimes a striking point in the melody really depends for its effect upon a peculiar harmonic change; how harmony is sometimes used merely to support and enrich the melody, again for the sensuous delight in sonorous and gorgeously colored chords, and again as a means of definite, characteristic expression. The learner must form the habit of listening down through the tone substance, following the movement of successive figures in the inner and lower parts, instead of confining his direct attention to the upper voice. He must be vigilant to catch the ceaseless changes of consonance and dissonance, of major and minor, of open and close harmony, and the most delicate contrasts of harmonic color. He may begin with the simpler harmonies, the so-called diatonic, in which key changes by sharps, flats, and naturals are few and slight; choosing German chorales, or themes for variation by Beethoven, or simple songs by the great German Lied writers, in order that he may learn to appreciate the beauty that lies in plain solid harmony as handled by masters. Comparing these with the thin popular ditties of the day he will at once obtain an insight that will be little short of a revelation. After that, his ear may be practiced in more richly colored and more intricate patterns, until the treasures of the great mod-ern harmonists—the Wagners, the Chopins, the Griegs, the Francks—will charm without tantalizing him. –

The difficulty of learning to follow harmonic progressions is not so great as at first appears. For a chord, like a single tone, is one thing and not three or four things—that is, so far as the immediate impression is concerned. The musician, as Browning’s Abt Vogler puts it, frames out of three sounds “not a fourth sound, but a star.” These starry things called chords are al-most infinite in their possibilities of color arrangement. When we count up the triads, sevenths, ninths, and altered chords in the major and minor keys the number is by no means immense, but their available combinations are practically end-less. The finest ear will miss a great deal in rapid passages abounding in chromatic changes, and the wise music lover will take pains to hear copiously harmonized pieces over and over again. As in any exercise of the senses, improvement comes with practice; and when guided by a few general principles, and with the habit formed of listening to everything from the bottom to the top, he will finally obtain possession of an enjoyment which, it seems to me, is greater and more lasting than even the pleasure in melody and rhythm. It is a fact with most music lovers that melody and rhythm, captivating at first, will sooner or later lose their welcome freshness, while a fine bit of harmony gives a satisfaction that no amount of repetition can diminish.

The method of listening to all the simultaneous parts at once must also be employed in hearing songs, operas, solo performances of violin music everything in which a performer plays or sings a single part with the accompaniment of another instrument or an orchestra. The majority of listeners to fine singing or violin playing are hardly conscious of the accompaniment at all, although, as in an immense amount of the later dramatic and concert music, a large proportion of the beauty and expression, often the leading melody itself, is given to the orchestra or the piano. The mod-ern song, for example, is very often a duet for voice and instrument, and the hearer who attends only to one part misses the half or more than half. Mr. Lawrence Gilman is quite right in saying that instead of finding fault with Wagner’s works on the ground that the vocal parts are without musical interest or emotional meaning when detached from the orchestral support, one should see that the same thing is true of any writing for the voice al-lied with modern harmony in the accompaniment. Inexperienced music lovers are constantly falling into mistakes of judgment when they disparage vocal works because the voice part does not carry them away on tuneful wings. Let them give heed to the accompaniment and there they will find their recompense.

The ear must also be persuaded to the acceptance of combinations at which it naturally rebels. The experience of the race of musicians who in ancient Greece and the European Middle Ages knew only the octave, fifth, and fourth as consonances, afterward admitted thirds and sixths, but balked at sevenths unprepared; then snatched a fearful joy from haphazard sharps and flats; then long afterward proceeded from the diatonic principle to the chromatic, accepted the harshest dissonances, and now have become reconciled to the audacities of Strauss and Debussy and talk bravely of quarter steps in the good days to come, —this experience of the race often finds a reduced analogue in that of the music lover who trustfully allows his appreciation of novel effects of sound to grow by exercise. As he becomes familiar with the achievements of the masters in applying to expressive uses the endless resources of harmony, he is almost ready to declare, not that he is developing a latent faculty, but acquiring a new one. He hears what he never heard before, and with each new experience his powers of observation and co-ördination increase. He perceives that music has more dimensions than he had supposed. He learns to delight in the collision of masses with masses, of the infinite gradations of tone color as chord impinges against chord, dissonances resolve into consonances, the fair-hued threads of sound intertwine in patterns as subtle as those woven upon Oriental looms, no longer seeming incoherent and purposeless but obedient to an intelligent will which brings light and order out of chaos.

Then there is counterpoint, that austere and intricate science, the bete noire of students and amateurs. Entrance must be made into this labyrinth, just far enough to enable the ear to adjust itself to follow a number of simultaneous melodic parts, and obtain the definite impression that follows the recognition of organized plan. The learner would do well to add subject, answer, counter-subject, imitation, stretto, and episode to his interesting collection of technical specimens, but he need not be confused by a multitude of contrapuntal subtle-ties that do not contribute to the actual pleasure of his hearing. When he learns to divide his attention between two melodic progressions (a feat which Rousseau in a paradoxical moment pronounced impossible) he is on the borders of a new world; he will at last discover an unimagined pleasure in tracing the concurrent progress of three or four semi-independent parts as they wreathe themselves together in supple designs; he will wonder at the composer’s skill, and the climaxes will produce a tenfold effect by reason on his ability: to follow their cumulative preparation. It must not be forgotten that form in itself, however correct, is not necessarily a beautiful thing, as we speak of musical beauty. The tedious sonatas of Czerny and the immortal sonatas of Beethoven are built upon the same general scheme of design, and the cleverest and most regular fugue may be unutterably dreary. The recognition of contrapuntal structure is but a means to an end; the beauty of a fugue, like the beauty of any other musical work, is one of melody, harmony, and rhythm, and the listener should keep his mind open to these, relying upon his acquaintance with structural devices to adjust his perceptions at the proper focus.

In order that the student may appreciate the value of a fugue he must also be taught what not to expect, for if he looks for the buoyant sweeping melody, stirring dance rhythms; and pungent harmonic contrasts of the freer modern forms, his disappointment will blind him to the special characteristic beauties that actually lie before him. Beautiful bits of melody occur incessantly in the fugues of Bach, but they may be called incidental rather than primary, restricted by the necessity that compels the melodic details to contribute to the working out of a somewhat rigid scheme of design. In the nature of the case their purpose seems decorative rather than emotional. The fugue is more general in its expression than most other musical forms; it is not the natural channel for individual feeling. Hence the contrapuntal style has al-ways been extensively employed in church music, for here the suggestion must be that of an abstract devotional mood, rather than the projection of an impassioned individual sentiment. As a means of training the ear, however, the fugue is of unequalled value in the appreciation of the new music as well as of the old. For, beginning with the later works of Beethoven, the polyphonic principle has been asserting itself more and more, under modified conditions, in every form of music. Following the modern tendency toward fulness and complexity and the enrichment of every detail, all the masters of the later time have plunged into the most exhaustive contrapuntal studies, and the works of Wagner, Brahms, Strauss, Debussy, Elgar, Franck are hardly less marvels of abstruse learning than those of the great contrapuntists of the eighteenth century. Witness the simultaneous presence of the three leading themes in the Overture to “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” — indeed the whole score of this drama is a representative instance. Hardly less in the works of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Grieg, MacDowell — to mention only a few of the romantic group — must we learn to divide our consciousness and listen not merely for chord masses and surface melody, but also for the rise and fall of inner voices. In songs, piano pieces, religious music, operas, chamber music, ‘symphonies, the polyphonic method plays so huge a role that without the ability to discover and trace the movement of simultaneous parts whole treasuries of expression will be locked in darkness, and the key that might open the casket lost beyond recovery.

In view of these facts there is no more useful practice for the music lover who is training his perceptions than listening to string quartet performances. Here are no sensational effects, no dazzling displays of tone color as in orchestral music, no overwhelming masses of sound, no vivid contrasts, nothing to bewilder, nothing to distract the attention from the melodic outlines; the physical materials are reduced almost to the lowest terms. Each instrument carries on a silver thread of melody; each has an equal right to consideration. Success in string quartet writing involves the ability to handle four melodic voices with the utmost skill of the contrapuntist’s art. The pleasure that the mind of the hearer receives greatly consists in tracing the ingenious and graceful lines as they interweave into a tissue of intricate and constantly varied patterns. He must follow four voices at once, so that no grace• of melody or delicacy of shading on the part of any instrument shall escape his notice. This affords a conclusive test by which the music lover may know how far the training of his ear has proceeded.

The practical conclusion to be drawn from the discussion of technique and form which has hither-to occupied us, is that the proper hearing of music demands the ability to hold the attention fixedly for considerable periods of time upon one order of impressions. No argument is required to show that the power of close unwavering attention is the prime condition of any worthy intellectual acquisition. Most people are defective in this power of sustained observation, and there is no more efficient corrective than a conscientious, determined study of musical works through the ear. It is undoubtedly more difficult to attend to a succession of auditory images than to visual images. This is true even in single impressions; whereas in music there are many simultaneous attacks upon the ear. Consider what it means to listen to an orchestral performance — to observe the con-current threads of melody with the multitude of rhythmic figures, the resulting harmonies, modulations, and changes of tonality; to identify the different instruments and seize the ever-shifting gleams of tone color in their multifarious combinations. In the concert hall the eye must suspend its usual activities, the mind must cease that aim-less wandering which is its usual occupation with all of us. Careful listening to music is an exercise in mental athletics, and the ability, which grows with discipline, to hold the volatile thought in the firm clutch of the will is not the least of the serious music student’s gains.