Origin Of Song Vs. Origin Of Instrumental Music

EMERSON characterized language as “fossil poetry,” but “fossil music” would have described it even better; for as Darwin says, man sang before he became human.

Gerber, in his “Sprache als Kunst,” describing the degeneration of sound symbols, says “the saving point of language is that the original material meanings of words have become forgotten or lost in their acquired ideal meaning.” This applies with special force to the languages of China, Egypt, and India. Up to the last two centuries our written music was held in bondage, was “fossil music,” so to speak. Only certain progressions of sounds were allowed, for religion controlled music. In the Middle Ages folk song was used by the Church, and a certain amount of control was exercised over it; even up to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the use of sharps and flats was frowned upon in church music. But gradually music began to break loose from its old chains, and in our own century we see Beethoven snap the last thread of that powerful restraint which had held it so long.

The vital germ of music, as we know it, lay in the fact that it had always found a home in the hearts of the common people of all nations. While from time immemorial theory, mostly in the form of mathematical problems, was being fought over, and while laws were being laid down by religions and governments of all nations as to what music must be and what music was forbidden to be, the vital spark of the divine art was being kept alive deep beneath the ashes of life in the hearts of the oppressed common folk. They still sang as they felt; when the mood was sad the song mirrored the sorrow; if it were gay the song echoed it, despite the disputes of philosophers and the commands of governments and religion. Montaigne, in speaking of language, said with truth, “‘Tis folly to attempt to fight custom with theories.” This folk song, to use a Germanism, we can hardly take into account at the present moment, though later we shall see that spark fanned into fire by Beethoven, and carried by Richard Wagner as a flaming torch through the very home of. the gods, ” Walhalla.”

Let us go back to our dust heap. Words have been called “decayed sentences,” that is to say, every word was once a small sentence complete in itself. This theory seems true enough when we remember that mankind has three languages, each complementing the other. For even now we say many words in one, when that word is reinforced and completed by our vocabulary of sounds and expression, which, in turn, has its shadow, gesture. These shadow languages, which accompany all our words, give to the latter vitality and raise them from mere abstract symbols to living representatives of the idea. Indeed, in certain languages, this auxiliary expression even over-shadows the spoken word. For instance, in Chinese, the theng or intonation of words is much more important than the actual words themselves. Thus the third intonation or theng, as it is called in the Pekin dialect, is an upward inflection of the voice. A word with this upward inflection would be unintelligible if given the fourth theng or downward inflection. For instance, the word “kwai” with a downward inflection means “honour-able,” but give it an upward inflection “kwai” and it means “devil.”

Just as a word was originally a sentence, so was a tone in music something of a melody. One of the first things that impresses us in studying examples of savage music is the monotonic nature of the melodies; indeed some of the music consists almost entirely of one oft-repeated sound. Those who have heard this music say that the actual effect is not one of a steady repetition of a single tone, but rather that there seems to be an almost imperceptible rising and falling of the voice. The primitive savage is unable to sing a tone clearly and cleanly, the pitch invariably wavering. From this almost imperceptible rising and falling of the voice above and below one tone we are able to gauge more or less the state of civilization of the nation to which the song belongs. This phrase-tone corresponds, therefore, to the sentence-word, and like it, gradually loses its meaning as a phrase and fades into a tone which, in turn, will be used in new phrases as mankind mounts the ladder of civilization.

At last then we have a single tone clearly uttered, and recognizable as a musical tone. We can even make a plausible guess as to what that tone was. Gardiner, in his “Music of Nature,” tells of experiments he made in order to determine the normal pitch of the human voice. By going often to the gallery of the London Stock Exchange he found that the roar of voices invariably amalgamated into one long note, which was always F. If we look over the various examples of monotonic savage music quoted by Fletcher, Fillmore, Baker, Wilkes, Catlin, and others, we find additional corroboration of the statement; song after song, it will be noticed, is composed entirely of F, G, and even F alone or G alone. Such songs are generally ancient ones, and have been crystallized and held intact by religion, in much the same way that the chanting heard in the Roman Catholic service has been preserved.

Let us assume then that the normal tone of the human voice in speaking is F or G for men, and for women the octave higher. This tone does very well for our everyday life; perhaps a pleasant impression may raise it somewhat, ennui may depress it slightly; but the average tone of our “commonplace” talk, if I may call it that, will be about F. But let some sudden emotion come, and we find monotone speech abandoned for impassioned speech, as it has been called. Instead of keeping the voice evenly on one or two notes, we speak much higher or lower than our normal pitch.

And these sounds may be measured and classified to a certain extent according to the emotions which cause them, although it must be borne in mind that we are looking at the matter collectively; that is to say, without reckoning on individual idiosyncrasies of expression in speech. Of course we know that joy is apt to make us raise the voice and sadness to lower it. For instance, we have all heard gruesome stories, and have noticed how naturally the voice sinks in the telling. A ghost story told with an upward inflection might easily become humourous, so instinctively do we associate the upward inflection with a non-pessimistic trend of thought. Under stress of emotion we emphasize words strongly, and with this emphasis we almost invariably raise the voice a fifth or depress it a fifth; with yet stronger emotion the interval of change will be an octave. We raise the voice almost to a scream or drop it to a whisper. Strangely enough these primitive notes of music correspond to the first two of those harmonics which are part and parcel of every musical sound. Generally speaking, we may say that the ascending inflection carries something of joy or hope with it, while the downward inflection has some-thing of the sinister and fearful. To be sure, we raise our voices in anger and in pain, but even then the inflection is almost always downward; in other words, we pitch our voices higher and let them fall slightly. For instance, if we heard a person cry “Ah/” we might doubt its being a cry of pain, but if it were “Ah ” we should at once know that it was caused by pain, either mental or physical.

The declamation at the end of Schubert’s “Erlking” would have been absolutely false if the penultimate note had ascended to the tonic instead of descending a fifth. “The child lay dead.”

How fatally hopeless would be the opening measures of “Tristan and Isolde” without that upward inflection which comes like a sunbeam through a rift in the cloud; with a downward inflection the effect would be that of unrelieved gloom. In the Prelude to “Lohengrin,” Wagner pictures his angels in dazzling white. He uses the highest vibrating sounds at his command. But for the dwarfs who live in the gloom of Niebelheim he chooses deep shades of red, the lowest vibrating colour of the solar spectrum. For it is in the nature of the spiritual part of mankind to shrink from the earth, to aspire to something higher; a bird soaring in the blue above us has something of the ethereal; we give wings to our angels. On the other hand, a serpent impresses us as something sinister. Trees, with their strange fight against all the laws of gravity; striving upward unceasingly, bring us something of hope and faith; the sight of them cheers us. A land without trees is depressing and gloomy. As Ruskin says, “The sea wave, with all its beneficence, is yet devouring and terrible; but the silent wave of the blue mountain is lifted towards Heaven in a stillness of perpetual mercy; and while the one surges unfathomable in its darkness, the other is unshaken in its faithfulness.”

And yet so strange is human nature that that which we call civilization strives unceasingly to nullify emotion. The almost childlike faith which made our church spires point heavenward also gave us Gothic architecture, that emblem of frail humanity striving towards the ideal. It is a long leap from that childlike faith to the present day of skyscrapers. For so is the world constituted.

A great truth too often becomes gradually a truism, then a merely tolerated and uninteresting theory; gradually it becomes obsolete and sometimes even degenerates into a symbol of sarcasm or a servant of utilitarian-ism. This we are illustrating every day of our lives. We speak of a person’s being “silly,” and yet the word comes from “sælig,” old English for “blessed”; to act “sheepishly” once had reference to divine resignation, “even as a sheep led to the slaughter,” and so on ad infinitum. We build but few great cathedrals now. Our tall buildings generally point to utilitarianism and the almighty dollar.

But in the new art, music, we have found a new domain in which impulses have retained their freshness and warmth, in which, to quote Goethe, “first comes the act, then the word”; first the expression of emotion, then the theory that classifies it; a domain in which words cannot lose their original meanings entirely, as in speech. For in spite of the strange twistings of ultra modem music, a simple melody still embodies the same pathos for us that it did for our grandparents. To be sure the poignancy of harmony in our day has been heightened to an incredible degree. We deal in gorgeous colouring and mighty sound masses which would have been amazing in the last century; but still through it all we find in Handel, Beethoven, and Schubert, up to Wagner, the same great truths of declamation that I have tried to explain to you.

Herbert Spencer, in an essay on “The Origin and Functions of Music,” speaks of speech as the parent of music. He says, “utterance, which when languaged is speech, gave rise to music.” The definition is incomplete, for “languaged utterance,” as he calls it, which is speech, is a duality, is either an expression of emotion or a mere symbol of emotion, and as such has gradually sunk to the level of the commonplace. As Rowbotham points out, impassioned speech is the parent of music, while unimpassioned speech has remained the vehicle for the smaller emotions of life, the everyday expression of every-day emotions.

In studying the music of different nations we are con-fronted by one fact which seems to be part and parcel of almost every nationality, namely, the constant recurrence of what is called the five tone (pentatonic) scale. We find it in primitive forms of music all the world over, in China and in Scotland, among the Burmese, and again in North America. Why it is so seems almost doomed to remain a mystery. The following theory may nevertheless be advanced as being at least plausible:

Vocal music, as we understand it, and as I have already explained, began when the first tone could be given clearly; that is to say, when the sound sentence had amalgamated into the single musical tone. The pitch being sometimes F, sometimes G, sudden emotion gives us the fifth, C or D, and the strongest emotion the octave, F or G. Thus we have already the following sounds in our first musical scale.

We know how singers slur from one tone to another. It is a fault that caused the fathers of harmony to prohibit what are called hidden fifths in vocal music. The jump from G to C in the above scale fragment would be slurred, for we must remember that the intoning of clear individual sounds was still a novelty to the savage. Now the distance from G to C is too small to admit two tones such as the savage knew; consequently, for the sake of uniformity, he would try to put but one tone between, singing a mixture of A and B b, which sound in time fell definitely to A, leaving the mystery of the half-tone unsolved. This addition of the third would thus fall in with the law of harmonics again. First we have the key-note; next in importance comes the fifth; and last of all the third. Thus again is the absence of the major seventh in our primitive scale perfectly logical; we may search in vain in our list of harmonics for the tone which forms that interval.

Now that we have traced the influence of passionate utterance on music, it still remains for us to consider the influence of something very different. The dance played an important role in the shaping of the art of music; for to it music owes periodicity, form, the shaping of phrases into measures, even its rests. And in this music is not the only debtor, for poetry owes its very “feet” to the dance.

Now the dance was, and is, an irresponsible thing. It had no raison d’être except purely physical enjoyment. This rhythmic swaying of the body and light tapping of the feet have always had a mysterious attraction and fascination for mankind, and music and poetry were caught in its swaying measures early in the dawn of art.

When a man walks, he takes either long steps or short steps, he walks fast or slow. But when he takes one long step and one short one, when one step is slow and the other fast, he no longer walks, he dances. Thus we may say with reasonable certainty that triple time arose directly from the dance, for triple time is simply one strong, long beat followed by a short, light one, viz.: the “trochee” in our poetry. ‘

The spondee which is the rhythm of prose, we already possessed; for when we walk it is in spondees, namely, in groups of two equal steps. Now imagine dancing to spondees! At” first the steps will be equal, but the body rests on the first beat; little by little the second beat, being thus relegated to a position of relative unimportance, becomes shorter and shorter, and we rest longer on the first beat. The result is the trochaic rhythm. We can see that this result is inevitable, even if only the question of physical fatigue is considered. And, to carry on our theory, this very question of fatigue still further develops rhythm. The strong beat always coming on one foot, and the light beat on the other, would soon tire the dancer; therefore some way must be found to make the strong beat alternate from one foot to the other. The simplest, and in fact almost the only way to do this, is to insert an additional short beat before the light beat.

This gives us the dactyl in poetry.

We have, moreover, here discovered the beginning of form, and have begun to group our musical tones in measures and phrases; for our second dactyl is slightly different from the first, because the right foot begins the first and the left foot the second. We have two measures and one phrase, for after the second measure the right foot will again have the beat and will begin another phrase of two measures.

Carry this theory still further, and we shall make new discoveries. If we dance in the open air, unless we would dance over the horizon, we must turn somewhere; and if we have but a small space in which to dance, the turns must come sooner and oftener. Even if we danced in a circle we should need to reverse the motion occasionally, in order to avoid giddiness; and this would measure off our phrases into periods and sections.

Thus we see music dividing into two classes, one purely emotional, the other sensuous; the one arising from the language of heroes, the other from the swaying of the body and the patter of feet. To both of these elements, if we may call them so, metre and melody brought their power; to declamation, metre brought its potent vitality; to the dance, melody added its soft charm and lulling rhyme. The intellectual in music, namely, rhythm and declamation, thus joined forces, as did the purely sensuous elements, melody and metre (dance). At the first glance it would seem as if the dance with its rhythms contradicted the theory of rhythm as being one of the two vital factors in music; but when we consider the fact that dance-rhythms are merely regular pulsations (once commenced they pulsate regularly to the end, without break or change), and when we consider that just this unbroken regularity is the very antithesis of what we mean by rhythm, the purely sensuous nature of the dance is manifest. Strauss was the first to recognize this defect in the waltz, and he remedied it, so far as it lay within human skill, by a marvellous use of counter-rhythms, thus infusing into the dance a simulation of intellectuality.

The weaving together of these elements into one art-fabric has been the ideal of all poets from Homer to Wagner. The Greeks idealized their dances; that is to say, they made their dances fit their declamation. In the last two centuries, and especially in the middle of the nineteenth, we have danced our highest flights of impassioned speech. For what is the symphony, sonata, etc., but a remnant of the dance form? The choric dances of Stesichorus and Pindar came strangely near our modern forms, but it was because the form fitted the poem. In our modern days, we too often, Procrustes-like, make our ideas to fit the forms. We put our guest, the poetic thought, that comes to us like a homing bird from out the mystery of the blue sky — we put this confiding stranger straightway into that iron bed, the “sonata form,” or perhaps even the third rondo form, for we have quite an assortment. Should the idea survive and grow too large for the bed, and if we have learned to love it too much to cut off its feet and thus make it fit (as did that old robber of Attica), why we run the risk of having some critic wise in his theoretical knowledge, say, as was and is said of Chopin, “He is weak in sonata form!”

There are two ways of looking at music: first, as impassioned speech, the nearest psychologically-complete utterance of emotion known to man; second, as the dance, comprising as it does all that appeals to our nature. And there is much that is lovely in this idea of nature — for do not the seasons dance, and is it not in that ancient measure we have already spoken of, the trochaic? Long Winter comes with heavy foot, and Spring is the light-footed. Again, Summer is long, and Autumn short and cheery; and so our phrase begins again and again. We all know with what periodicity everything in nature dances, and how the smallest flower is a marvel of recurring rhymes and rhythms, with perfume for a melody. How Shakespeare’s Beatrice charms us when she says, ” There a star danced, and under that was I born.”

And yet man is not part of Nature. Even in the depths of the primeval forest, that poor savage, whom we found listening fearfully to the sound of his drum, knew better. Mankind lives in isolation, and Nature is a thing for him to conquer. For Nature is a thing that exists, while man thinks. Nature is that which passively lives while man actively wills. It is the strain of Nature in man that gave him the dance, and it is his godlike fight against Nature that gave him impassioned speech; beauty of form and motion on one side, all that is divine in man on the other; on one side materialism, on the other idealism.

We have traced the origin of the drum, pipe, and the voice in music. It still remains for us to speak of the lyre and the lute, the ancestors of our modern stringed instruments. The relative antiquity of the lyre and the lute as compared with the harp has been much discussed, the main contention against the lyre being that it is a more artificial instrument than the harp; the harp was played with the fingers alone, while the lyre was played with a plectrum (a small piece of metal, wood, or ivory). Perhaps it would be safer to take the lute as the earliest form of the stringed instrument, for, from the very first, we find two species of instruments with strings, one played with the fingers, the prototype of our modem harps, banjos, guitars, etc., the other played with the plectrum, the ancestor of all our modern stringed instruments played by means of bows and hammers, such as violins, pianos, etc.

However this may be, one thing is certain, the possession of these instruments implies already a considerable measure of culture, for they were not haphazard things. They were made for a purpose, were invented to fill a gap in the ever-increasing needs of expression. In Homer we find a description of the making of a lyre by Hermes, how this making of a lyre from the shell of a tortoise that happened to pass before the entrance to the grotto of his mother, Mafia, was his first exploit; and that he made it to accompany his song in praise of his father Zeus. We must accept this explanation of the origin of the lyre, namely, that it was deliberately invented to accompany the voice. For the lyre in its primitive state was never a solo instrument; the tone was weak and its powers of expression were exceedingly limited. On the other hand, it furnished an excellent background for the voice and, which was still more to the point, the singer could accompany himself. The drum had too vague a pitch, and the flute or pipe necessitated another performer, besides having too much similarity of tone to the voice to give sufficient contrast. Granted then that the lyre was invented to accompany the voice, and without wasting time with surmises as to whether the first idea of stringed instruments was received from the twanging of a bow-string or the finding of a tortoise shell with the halfdessicated tendons of the animal still stretching across it, let us find when the instrument was seemingly first used.

That the lyre and lute are of Asiatic origin is generally conceded, and even in comparatively modern times, Asia seems to be the home of its descendants. The Tartars have been called the troubadours of Asia — and of Asia in the widest sense of the word — penetrating into the heart of the Caucasus on the west and reaching through the country eastward to the shores of the Yellow Sea. Marco Polo, the celebrated Venetian traveller, and M. Huc, a French missionary to China and Thibet, as well as Spencer, Atkinson, and many others, speak of the wandering bards of Asia. Marco Polo’s account of how Jenghiz Kahn, the great Mongol conqueror, sent an expedition composed entirely of minstrels against Mien, a city of 30,000 inhabitants, has often been quoted to show what an abundance — or perhaps superfluity would be the better word — of musicians he had at his court.

That the lyre could not be of Greek origin is proved by the fact that no root has been discovered in the language for lyra, although there are many special names for varieties of the instrument. Leaving aside the question of the geographical origin of the instrument, we may say, broadly, that wherever we find a nation with even the smallest approach to a history, there we shall find bards singing of the exploits of heroes, and always to the accompaniment of the lyre or the lute. For at last, by means of these instruments, impassioned speech was able to lift itself permanently above the level of everyday life, and its lofty song could dispense with the soft, sensuous lull of the flute. And we shall see later how these bards became seers, and how even our very angels received harps, so closely did the instrument become associated with what I have called impassioned speech, which, in other words, is the highest expression of what we consider godlike in man.