Spirituals And Mountain Songs Beginnings Of American Music

IN VIEW of the body of alleged American folk song, the contention that an American music is very young, must appear fantastic. It is in fact anything but absurd. The belief that the Negro spirituals and the songs of the Appalachian mountaineers constitute an authentic folk-music, like the English, the Russian and the Magyar, flatters our vanities. But there is little realism in it.

Of the charm of many of the spirituals and Kentucky mountain ballads, there is no question. They are to be cherished, whatever their origin. Still, by what right are we to claim them for our own? “Folk-songs,” says the dictionary, are marked by certain peculiarities of rhythm, form and melody, which are traceable, more or less clearly, to racial or national temperament, mode of life, climatic and political conditions, geographical enviroment and language.” Neither the spirituals nor the ballads fit this definition. The bare fact that both are found in use in the western hemisphere is certainly no argument for their originality. The peculiarities of each is traceable to extra-American conditions. As we know it, the Negro spiritual is an obviously sophisticated arrangement of some more primitive song. Its harmonization are, unquestionably, the results of the contact of an inferior with a superior musical culture. We can merely guess at the basic tunes. Whatever they were, there is every reason to suppose them, too, arrangements rather more than native compositions. The characteristic syncopation, the short note on a strong beat followed immediately by a longer note on a weak beat, is found throughout the folk-music of the West African Negroes and the Hottentots. Again, the characteristic intervals of the fourth and fifth are significantly those of the Scotch folksong, are even called the Scotch intervals. In view of these facts, we can scarcely hold them autochthonous. They are perhaps adaptations of the folksongs of other nations to American conditions, perhaps even superior to their originals. But, purely American they most certainly are not.

Evidences of derivation come even thicker in the music of the Appalachian mountaineers. To find people living hundreds of miles inland singing ballads on subjects born of sea-life and filled with allusions to details familiar to sailors, is in itself sufficient to make us pause for reflection. It was scarcely necessary for Cecil Sharp and the other musical anthropologists to collate the old Scotch and English originals of many of the ballads with their American variants, to convince us that the number of mountain songs actually born of the new situation and original to this country is relatively too small to count. No doubt, the mountaineers have produced a number of variations of the old originals; but they frequently constitute deteriorations of the primal ideas, not improvements on them. The old-world folk tunes have a sad habit of deteriorating in the new world, a fact that must be familiar to all who, on a vocal summer’s evening near the high-school steps, have recognized in The Bear Went Over the Mountain, the coarsened features of Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre.

A degree of originality must be allowed some of the early American hymn-tunes. But even these follow English models. No; American music, the body of music rooted in the American soil, begins with Edward MacDowell and is of our times. The circumstance is not at all mysterious. America was settled by people developed beyond the stage of civilization that is productive of folksongs. Americans have never lived a strictly communal life attached to the soil; and while such an attachment may appear in the near future, it will scarcely restore the form of primitive society. Straightened as their circumstances in the New World were, the settlers could not and did not recapitulate stages of growth already behind them. The culture of Europe was their tradition, their past experience; forgotten and unconscious perhaps, but nonetheless active and inevitable. Growth of their own was necessarily an evolution of the tradition, the development in some direction oft what was already experienced and accomplished. The fact that for a while no growth was apparent is no proof of reversion to earlier stages; the world knows seeds that after thirty centuries in Egyptian tombs, come up again as wheat. (It is noteworthy that primitive as the idiom and characteristic as the spirit of many of our most original composers, Copland, Harris, Chavez, Ruggles, are, their work implies as little of a denial of the European past as that of Strawinsky, Bartôk, Milhaud, or any other radical European modern.)

But an American development along musical lines was obliged to wait on the event of a trans-national America; at the very least, on the event of the latter nineteenth century with its improved communications and increased advantages. Musical culture, sympathetic familiarity with the instrumental technique and musical developments appropriate to their station in civilization, was at an extremely low point among the Anglo-Saxon settlers of the continent. England had a musical orientation up to the Revolution of 1688. After Tudor days, nonetheless it was pretty thoroughly confined to the upper circles; and the majority o the settlers, in the southern as well as the northern colonies, were drawn from the more Puritan, less musical classes. What culture they had was mainly ideological, literary and dry. Painting, for example, was practised among them merely for personal record; and while hymns and folksongs did come across the Atlantic in the many little Mayflowers, not many fanatics of Gibbon, of Purcell, or even of Handel, accompanied them. Had the early colonists possessed an instrumental technique and musical culture, it is quite possible that American music might not have had to wait on the last decade of the nineteenth century, and that in the time in which creative energy first came to the community, a part of what went into literature might have gone into composition. Something which exists in tone would have made men want to compose. Symphonies based on old American hymn-tunes, like the recent one of Virgil Thomson, can easily be envisaged paralleling the poems of Emerson; and a development of the Anglo-Irish folksong like the melodies of Roy Harris might very conceivably have answered the Homeric yawp of the man of Manhattan. Is it entirely fantastic to believe that, had music-making been as widespread in the America of 1820 as in that of 1920, Poe would have turned to instrumental sonority rather than to words and verse for expression, and paralleled Chopin not in poetry but in music itself? Or that

Lanier would have become a sort of American Robert Franz? Certainly, both these poets sought to make words do some-thing much more directly to the power of tone. Besides, the number of artists from Michelangelo and William Blake, to John Marin and Marsden Hartley, who have successfully treated more than one medium, sustains the assumption with the lesson that force, to a degree, remains independent of means; and very possibly may precede material determination.

As it was, abortive efforts to imitate Bellini and Donizetti were made in the forties. But it was only towards the middle of the nineteenth century, that Boston and New York grew familiar with the technique of instrumental music; and only during the last decades of the century, coincident with the heavy immigrations from Central Europe, that a musical life, at least a concert and opera-going habit, established itself in the great centers. Even then, the seeds of an original music were slow in sprouting. There are various good reasons for this continued tardiness. For some unknown cause, music is invariably slow in developing; by no means only in America. It was the last of the arts to attain rebirth in Italy during the great Renaissance; Palestrina, Vittoria, and Monteverde working in the latter half of the sixteenth century, almost after the main burst of creative energy in the plastic arts was past. Indeed, the history of art is prolific in instances in which forces manifest themselves in poetry and painting an half century before they show themselves in music. The spiritual relationship of Wagner to the romantic idealists Tieck and Novalis is very close, but the music of Tristan was written almost fifty years later than Novalis’ darkly voluptuous Hymns to the Night and Heinrich von after-Bingen. Debussy’s impressionism, blood brother of the symbolism of Verlaine and Mallarmé and the pointillism of Pissarro and Seurat, is distinctly the junior of the late-nineteenth century Parisian poetry and painting. However, the chief obstruction to the early birth of an American music appears to have been not so much the native slowness of musical art, as the fact that the first familiarity with the technique and developments of musical art appropriate to the stage of evolution reached by American civilization fell upon bad times and insensitive ears. No time, we know, is entirely bad (i. e. impotent) for all men. The fantasy of The Waste Land, recently popularized by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and the criticism of several young Americans, is not to be taken seriously. There may be Waste Lands. Many such cursed phases of existence doubtless do exist. But we know that a nation or a time bare of energy and thus prohibitive of the artist, such as the one implied by the generalization in the title of T. S. Eliot’s poem, remains the phantom of some inexcusably limited feeling; and the perpetuation of a condition at the worst largely relative. Someone is always managing to work and to produce in every age. Someone is always finding his age propitious to his form of artistic activity; the world and someone’s idea are always managing to harmonize. Even the weary soil on which European music fell in America, the period after the Civil War, saw the rise of Henry James, certainly as pure and disinterested an artist as ever lived, the flowering of Emily Dickinson, the appearance of the painter-poet Albert P. Ryder, and of the lesser but nonetheless unusually gifted Homer Martin, Winslow Homer, Mark Twain, and William James. Still, the period, like that following every great modern war, was an exhausted one. Weak in forces, it was not prolific of expressive individuals. Not that the American environment was “hostile,” as certain recent critics would have us believe, thwarting and condemning to sterility great unknown geniuses, and reducing a potential Cervantes or Rabelais to the scale of Mark Twain, a potential Dostoievsky or Tolstoy to that of Henry James, and a potential Dante to the size of a T. S. Eliot. What we call a favorable environment, and what we call creative ability, are actually but two aspects of a single force, basically or one with itself, and productive in its two-part play. Of these parts, one is the “not-I,” the other the “I”; but essentially they are lovers; and in which one the divine spark arises is known to God alone. No, it was not the indifference of “society” to the artist that delayed the birth of an American music. It was the fact that after the Civil War there were few potencies in any field. There was little “doing” in the strata of being close to the collection, itself close to the supporting earth. Perhaps the “soil” was weary. Certainly, the race was so. The determined musicians, men like Paine and Lowell Mason, were forceless; weak personalities.

And, when at length music did sprout in the United States, it had neither the freshness and the power of the great mid-century prose and poetry, nor the intensity of the new American painting. It was “winter on earth”; and the impulse was weak or convalescent. The music of Edward MacDowell, the first American to deserve the name of composer, amounts more to an assimilation of European motives, figures and ideas than to an original expression. In any case, the original elements are small and of minor importance. Trained in Germany under Ralf, MacDowell continued for the first and longer part of his career, and as late as the Tragic and Heroic sonatas, a mere sectary of the grandiose German romantics. His conceptions followed theirs in falling into heroic, impassioned mold, and “Ercles’ vein.” His aim remained a massive homophonic music, diatonic in feeling, and harmonized with the rich close solemn chords characteristic of Chopin and Wagner, and developed not only by MacDowell himself, but by Franck, d’Indy, and Richard Strauss. The ideas of the main romantic composers, particularly Wagner, continued to haunt MacDowell even in his later, more personal phase. We cannot avoid hearing a reminiscence of the pompous Meistersinger march in the slow movement of the Celtic sonata; and of the diminished minor chords commencing the last scene of Götterdam-merung in the Fireside Tale entitled By Smouldering Embers. The echoes are not only Wagnerian; the theme of the finale of the Celtic sonata has a strong resemblance to that of The Hall of the Mountain King in Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite. And to the end, MacDowell shared his school’s narrowness of artistic vision, embracing little outside the confines of homophonic music. He was badly equipped in polyphonic technique; and where, as in a passage of the last movement of the Norse sonata, he attempted canonic imitation, we find him essaying it clumsily, and with all the obsessive rapture of a child in possession of a new and dazzling toy.

Nor did MacDowell ever sustain a direct and untrammelled contact with his sonorous medium. The closest parallels to his art are to be found in the works of Grieg and Rachmaninoif; like his, wanting the intensity that makes artistic work a new phenomenon; and contributing only slight and unimportant experiences. True, MacDowell had more talent for music and was always more natively lyrical and addressed to the instruments of his art, than any other member of his American group, Chadwick, Converse, Kelley, and the rest whose careers in several particulars coincided with his. But while his themes, musical sensations, and colorings finally grew less derivative, more original; and his style personal, readily distinguishable and of some intrinsic charm, he never attained real facility in moving his ideas, or in moving himself through them. Even where he is most individual, even in the very personal, characteristically dainty and tender little piano pieces, he frequently appears fixed and rigid in invention. The quaint little melodic idea in Woodland Sketches, the sort of sweetly harmonized secular hymn-tune which he there calls At an Old Trysting Place, meets one at every turn; whether we wander in the Guinevere section of the Sonata Eroica, or in the Old-Fashioned Garden of the New England Idylls, we are never far from the little old rendezvous. Nor did he finally become abundantly able to do something of interest with his themes and go on adventures with them. The typical MacDowell piece wants rhythm and swing almost as much as jazz does. Even a number of the fairly individual smaller later pieces have a strange iterativeness, monotony, staticity in combination with frantic Wagnerian steigerungen, which in this case do not produce movement. The idea itself has not been extended. There is mere beat, as in jazz; and we are again and again left with the baffled feeling that the King of France has marched his men up the hill and straightway marched them down again. Of Br’er Rabbit is one of the few of the shorter bits that moves of itself; and the little piece has not much weight or quality.

The case is not hard to point. We have in MacDowell’s music the manifestation of a force directed toward the medium of music, and still not strong enough, at least not frequently strong enough to grasp the subject material robustly, and play in the stream of things. Talented and refined as he was, the composer remained always half the jazzman, with his chronic aversion to reality, and wish to retire into his private paradise. This interior conflict and secret sentimentality, this tendency to accept the established and shrink from discovery and adventure, was not proper only to MacDowell. It seems to have run through the whole group of musicians of which he was the most eminent member. One is struck, in noting their careers, with the continual and fatal flirtation of the entire set with polite and academic circles, and with the currency of the desire to fit into powerful, established, authoritarian quarters.

Not that any of these men are to be accused of the spiritual servility to be found, say, in Paul Elmer More. All possessed some spontaneous, uncompromized delight in creation. Still, they were at cross purposes. It is impossible to doubt that Chadwick cared as much for his social position on the Charles as for the reality to which his art ostensibly was addressed. Little concerts of “American” works conducted by Walter Damrosch had a habit of getting themselves arranged for members of the American Academy. Even poor MacDowell, most independent and bohemian of the lot, finally gravitated to Columbia University, where to his sorrow he encountered the impenetrably hided rhinoceros whose park it is. Were it not for MacDowell’s Celtic descent, one might almost be tempted to attribute this group-wide weakness for the odors of sanctity to a racial strain, so many instances arising in which saxondom and snobbery (desire to stand in with the powerful, and readiness to be persuaded of the value of whatever is highly thought of in high quarters) seem almost synonymous. MacDowell, however, was not Saxon, and the earlier explanation of the general timidity remains the more reasonable. In music, this weakness took the form of sentimentality. The feelings entertained about life by him seem to have remained uncertain; and while fumbling for them he seems regularly to have succumbed to “nice” and “respectable” emotions, conventional, accepted by and welcome to, the best people. It is shocking to find how full of vague poesy he is. ‘Where his great romantic brethren, Brahms, Wagner, and Debussy, are direct and sensitive, clearly and tellingly expressive, MacDowell minces and simpers, maidenly, and ruffled. He is nothing if not a daughter of the American Revolution. He hymns “America” thinking of the Mayflower and its lovely load. His mind fondly dwells on old-fashioned New England gardens, old lavender, smouldering logs, sunsets, “a fairy sail with a fairy boat,” little log cabins of dreams, the romance of German forests and the sexual sternness of Puritan days. This sentimentality is not only a matter of titles and mottoes. The music is drenched of it; and not alone the music of the little program-pieces, confessedly poetic in content and atmospheric in intention. The more abstractly treated sonatas are equally saturated, with their themes that triumph like absolute pure heroes in golden mail; their amorous sentiments wearing whitest gauze like Elsa in the first act; and their Tennysonian ardours and valours, raptures and sorrows perfectly “as advertised.”

And still, MacDowell brought some-thing into the world not hitherto present in it; not, at least, as music. Impure in style and weak in spirit though they are; indeed, of anything but the first water, a group of his compositions, particularly the ballade-like Norse sonata, certain of the more vigorous Sea Pieces, and the atmospheric Legend and Dirge of the Indian Suite for Orchestra, actually have musical value. What is musical in ourselves recognizes the genuineness and the relative vividness; and close inspection corroborates the impression. These pieces are really independent of the literary ideas associated with them. “Poetic” music though they are, they do not lean upon literature for their meanings, as do so many of the compositions of Chadwick, certainly more expert a technician than MacDowell. The passion of the former’s Aphrodite, for example, resides chiefly in its title, which must be held in mind listening to the tone-poem. Failing, one might easily mistake the intention of the music, and suppose it an affectionate meditation on the fine old virtues of the composer’s aunt. The spirits and recklessness of his Tam O’Shanter are equally a matter of convention: forget them, and the “cutty sarks” are gone, not to be coaxed to return for many an hour. Kelley’s amiable New England Symphony, too, essentially partakes of the literary: our pleasure in it being entirely dependent on our ability to keep certain pious representations of the Puritan fathers before us while it plays, and all consciousness of Rimsky and Tchaikowsky as far from us as possible. MacDowell’s best pieces, however, stand on their own feet. The Norse sonata has a veritable elan. Romantically overpitched and pronunciatory though it is, this work; and, for that matter, the good bits of the Sea Pieces and the Indian Suite, contain authentic exploitations of the medium of tone, uniquely expressive. There is a MacDowellesque accent, facileness and sentimentality notwithstanding; some glamour or tone added by him to the world’s horizon. Perhaps it is merely a faint note of sweetness, a helpless sweetness, childlike and impotent in the world, and unbalanced by robust qualities other than voluptuousness. But in all Wagner and Grieg and Chopin there is nothing quite like it, with its queer romance.

What folly, the talk of a celtic atavism! Even the voluptuousness, the rich, heavy harmonization, has a justification from American life, with its hot suns and fertile soils, its luxury, bursting, sudden as a summer’s day in March, on the crude urban civilization of the ’80s and ’90s. And parallels to MacDowell’s queer tenderness abound in American literature. Hawthorne, Whitman, Howells, and other more recent prosemen and poets are full of it. For it has been given the American to be strong without brutality; and with a gentleness, which the riper, rounder, far more brightly polished European has not got. No, being music, MacDowell’s best work could not but carry like blood in its veins, the spirit of the civilization in which it rose. One is of course at liberty to regret that representative pieces are not more richly and robustly significant, more characteristic, and abidingly interesting to those embarked on the adventure of life. Still, they are sensitive; they are a personal assimilation of European elements suffused with the cast of originality no genuine assimilation ever lacks. They constitute a beginning. And nature does nothing by bounds.