The conscientious lover of music, who wants a prop for his judgments more stable than caprice, encounters certain peculiar difficulties when the art of song is in question. And yet it would seem at first thought that all men might instinctively feel and estimate alike. Singing comes nearer to being universal than any other formal expression of emotion. Every impulse that draws men together in the fraternity of a common need has always chosen melody as the most natural, the most appropriate, and the most efficient means of expressing the consciousness of spiritual solidarity. No other agent is so powerful in stimulating the mental excitement that is the forerunner of action. Political and religious leaders know that song is more effective for their ends than rhetoric. Luther’s battle was half won when the people began to sing the hymns of the Reformation. Not less endeared is song as an outlet for the more ideal cravings of the individual heart. Love seems always to imply melody, or at least the tuneful impulse. So natural is the connection here that Darwin was led to believe that the very origin of music is to be found in the love calls of the half-human progenitors of mankind. Among the ancient cultivated nations and in a multitude of instances among the simpler races and lower social grades to-day, poetry and music are inseparable. Song is preiminently the social art. It is the only means of artistic expression that can be employed by a large number of people at the same instant and in the same manner. If my neighbor and I can sing in all sincerity the same songs, then for the time being we have established a close tie between one another; we see into each other’s hearts and find there something that makes us brothers.
Out of this universal impulse toward vocal expression, which in ordinary conditions remains crude and rudimentary, a fine art has emerged, and men of genius have put into consummate musical utterance those emotional impulses which had already been crystallized into poetry. Their melodies are then taken from the cold page and trans-muted into impassioned sound by men and women who are trained in accordance with refined principles of reproductive art. The sway over our spirits exercised by this twofold creative act is due to our consciousness that these singers are our interpreters as well as interpreters of the composers. Their performances are only the farther stage of a process which begins everywhere in the world when a tender longing desires the relief of utterance, for in the most elaborate development of vocal art there is a ground tone of simple feeling that is under-stood by every heart that is in tune with nature. From the crooning of a monotonous lullaby by some lowly mother in cabin or wigwam to the splendid display of a Sembrich or a Caruso before applauding thousands there is simply the special development of a general faculty. For this reason, perhaps, the world at large feels a more direct interest in acting and singing than in any other form of artistic exercise. The actor and singer are carrying on activities which have been more or less operative in our own experience. We have all, used speech and gesture and have at some time sung, whereas comparatively few have played an instrument, carved, painted, or made verses. The difference is that the professional performance is deliberate and cultivated instead of spontaneous; out of a universal unartistic custom there has been evolved a very exquisite form of specialized art.
It may be that this very nearness to nature may account for the fact that the vast majority of those who frequent theatres and concert halls are quite incapable of an accurate critical judgment upon the performances of actors and vocalists. ” Of all the branches of musical performance,” says Mr. W. J. Henderson, “singing is that about which the great majority of music lovers know the least. The general public makes very little discrimination between the work of a de Reszke or a Melba and that of a fourth rate Sunday night concert singer who has paid the manager to give her an appearance.” Elsewhere Mr. Henderson explains this by saying: “The public is not an expert, never was and never will be. It is idle, careless, and indifferent to the critical questions of art.” This diagnosis leaves untouched the deeper question why the public is so short-sighted, unconscious of the higher truths in art. The public is indeed ignorant, care-less perhaps, but I am sure not altogether indifferent. It applauds what it believes to be good. The gallery god gives boisterous approbation to the most atrocious ranting, not from wanton delight in making a noise, but because from his point of view. the performance is right and he has a social duty to perform in encouraging merit.
The ridiculously false judgments to which Mr. Henderson alludes are of course due to ignorance, but there are many ignorances, and the one blindness that explains many other errors, it seems to me, is the failure of the average man to grasp the antithesis between. art. and nature. That art is art precisely because it is not* nature, is a statement that bewilders him. To him the one thing needful in art is imitation. Before a landscape painting he asks, Is it natural? In a portrait he sees no merit except that of superficial likeness. Poetry says nothing to him because it is a non-natural speech which he does not understand, or it interests him in proportion as it comes near to prose. In the drama his warmest approval is given to crude reproduction of actual everyday life. And so in respect to singing, it is to the material, viz., the voice, in its more obvious and sensational qualities, that the average man confines his attention, together with the accessory means of personal appeal, such as the singer’s physical charm, presence, or magnetism. He is unobservant of those acquired and specialized elements that give so much pleasure to the ‘connoisseur.
Another reason for the inability of the majority to appreciate fine singing is to be found in the fact that song is a composite art. The voice is used for a twofold purpose, and each of its functions is to some extent unfavorable to the full exercise of the other. That is to say, the voice is a musical instrument capable of giving pleasure by inarticulate sound, like a violin, and it is also a medium for the conveyance of thought by means of words. Sustained musical phrases, with changes of pitch and shading, interfere with distinct enunciation; and on the other hand, the effort at distinct enunciation is unfavorable to the maintenance of pure tone quality and sustained delivery. Song, there-fore, is to a certain degree a compromise. Musical ‘sound, whose office is to enchant the ear by its sensuous loveliness, is bound to the service of words imparting definite concepts. The listener’s attention is directed to boththe abstract tone for the joy of it, and the pronunciation of the text for the understanding of it. Where two factors, unlike in their psychologic effect, are striving to gain possession of the listener’s attention, he often finds that the impression of one or both is imperfect.
Even when the singer employs a foreign language, the dilemma is not evaded, for the listener is perfectly aware that the singer is not articulating meaningless syllables, that the style of the music and the delivery are strongly conditioned by the text, and if he cares for anything besides the mere tickling of his ear he tries to get some intimation of what the performer is singing about. To some extent, in any case, his attention is divided, turned now in one direction now in another, so that the point in which he is least instructed, viz., vocal technique, escapes him, and song as a fine art becomes in his consciousness song as crude auditory sensation or verbal declamation.
So much for the practical difficulties in the immediate art of hearing. They are made more uncertain by being involved in a long debated theoretical question which concerns the whole problem of the relation of tone to text in vocal music. Which is the more important of the two? If one must yield to the other, which shall it be? Does the poetry exist for the sake of the music, or the music for the poetry? How does a decision for either claimant affect the ideal and method of the art of singing? According to his verdict will be the music lover’s judgment and appreciation of the vocal art. It is worth while to state the problem with considerable fulness, for it will shed light not only upon singing, but also upon the whole question of vocal music in song, oratorio, church music, and opera.
Among those who give serious attention to vocal music in the capacity of listeners two types of mind appear. There is first the man in whom the love of music per se is so paramount that it drives all other considerations into the background; language is only incidental, giving occasion for musical sounds; the listener’s pleasure consists in music considered as beautiful tone brilliantly executed, not in music as the bearer of sentiment defined in words. The second type lays emphasis upon literary and dramatic values; to him poetry and action are of supreme consequence; the office of music is to reën-force the power of words as representative of ideas. There are even minds of a cast so predominantly literary that music is an interference, an intruder that gets in the way of verse, and they would re-duce music to almost complete subordination. It is well known that Goethe’s indifference to the songs of Schubert was the result of a jealousy for the art of poetry; music in his conviction must never be so assertive that the listener’s attention would be deflected from the words. Hence he preferred the simple strains of Zelter with their gentle melodies, and the pale harmonies that did no more than furnish a slender support to the voice. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, goes even further than Goethe in his protest against the allurements of music. He confesses that there is something about music that he does not like, and he discovered the reason when a friend one day spoke to him some verses, with her fingers lightly passing over a stringed instrument which she held upon her knees. “She spoke to a little tune,” says Mr. Yeats, “but it was never singing. A singing note would have spoiled everything.” He explains his aversion to ordinary song in this wise: “When I heard anything sung I did not hear the words, or if I did their natural pronunciation was altered, or it was drowned in another music which I did not under-stand.”
This suppression of music in deference to poetry satisfies Mr. Yeats because poetry is his passion, but to minds differently constituted the mere “speaking to a tune” would be extremely tantalizing, because there, is just enough of musical suggestion to arouse a desire that is constantly thwarted. In melodrama, which some people, even musicians, esteem, where a reciter employs ordinary speech and a piano or an orchestra per-forms a richly evolved accompaniment, the antagonism is still more decisive, for there is no pretence at amalgamation. These two devices are merely evasions of the difficulty. What is wanted is a union of poetry and music upon such terms that each shall be allowed a large measure of its natural right, neither completely subjected to the other, both so adjusted in stable equipoise that each shall enhance the pleasure that is derived from its fellow. A unity so perfect as this seems practically impossible to attain. The listener cannot give equal attention to both poetry and music at the same time. Their forms, their methods of action, the faculties engaged in their reception are so unlike that the effort to follow the diction of verse with mind in-tent on poetic values, interferes with the effort to follow the timbre, form, and rhythm of music with mind alert to musical values.
One of the most interesting details in the history of music is found in the annals of the conflict for supremacy between the two factors in song. In a chant the rhythm of the lines imposes itself upon the tones, and the avowed purpose of the music is to emphasize the text. In the unison Gregorian chant, which constituted the music of the church in the early Middle Ages before part-writing was invented, music was already striving to break loose from its thraldom. The “ornate” or “florid” chant was known in early times, even among the nations of antiquity, the voice on occasion soaring away in a flight of rapid notes on a single vowel a crude but significant attempt to secure an independent exercise of the musical impulse. With the development of the intricate choral counterpoint of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries the demand for musical freedom showed itself in an-other guise: words were lost and their sense obscured in a tangled web of crossing melodies, and the written notes were often decorated with florid improvised embellishments. Popes and bishops endeavored to repress this tendency and maintain the claims of the sacred text against the musical extravagancies of the theorists and choristers, but with little success. The passion for musical indulgence was too strong to be curbed even by the traditional reverence for the liturgy.
When a reaction came, it was outside the fold of the church. The Florentine inventors of the opera at the close of the sixteenth century, revolting against the obscuration of the word in the harmonic confusions of the church chorus, produced a kind of musical declamation in which music, reduced almost to its lowest terms, served merely to bring the text into clear relief, occasionally employing a more tuneful strain out of deference to the natural behests of the musical ear, but avoiding whatever would disturb the concentration of the mind upon word and action. It seemed to Peri, Caccini, and Cavaliere that the problem of dramatic music was solved, but they did not make sufficient allowance for the musical passion rooted in the Italian heart. The genius of Italy in the seventeenth century was musical, not literary. The triumph of verse over melody was short-lived. Melody was slowly disengaged from the simple dry stile parlante, and when it “found itself” in the middle of the century there was an outburst of ecstatic song in the opera houses, and in the churches also, that fairly turned the heads of the gay world of .Europe. Italian opera composers and their imitators in every land sprang up by hundreds, and with one accord they surrendered themselves heart and soul to the seductions of the aria. Singers trained to give to this melody all the splendor that can be conferred by delicious voices and the last perfection of technique swarmed in every capital in Europe. All ranks were captivated by the novelty and the voluptuous fascinations of the new art, and the vocal feats and the social triumphs of the great singers read like the tales of romance. Never before or since was any form of art expression so completely the despot of its age.
The effect upon poetry, plot, and action can easily be conjectured. It is difficult to maintain two monarchs in one realm, and music in the giddiness of its success reduced its dramatic partner to a position of abject inferiority. The Italian grand opera, as it waxed on the side of melody and vocalism, waned on the side of plot, character, and action. It became stereotyped into a barren, mechanical formalism. Everything was contrived by the composer and librettist in the interest of the singer purely as virtuoso. The opera came to consist of a score or more of arias with an occasional duet, the whole stitched together by monotonous recitatives. A mechanical plan of three divisions was contrived for this aria, and lines were stretched and words repeated so that the text might fit it, instead of the music growing directly out of the form and meaning of the verse. The composer became the vassal of the singer; his mission was not so much to write fine music as it was to contrive musical formulas that would be favorable to the display of the vocal art of this or that popular favorite. The singer had the right to take whatever liberty with these melodies his fancy or conceit suggested, substituting favorable for unfavorable vowels, interpolating the most astonishing flourishes and cadenzas at every opportune or inopportune moment. It must not be supposed that there was no thought of expression on the part of these magnates of the opera. They were praised for pathos as well as for brilliancy, and we know that timbre and truth of shading were considered in the schools as well as volubility of throat and strength of lungs. But poetry in the opera had grown so weak that the sentiments to be expressed became conventionalized; words were little valued except as affording a suggestion for music; very little of natural truth remained in these cold and artificial pretences at musical dramas.
In such conditions the playwright found no inspiration, and he contrived his scenes and verses simply in order that he might provide the number of arias that the “laws” of the opera required. The public became connoisseurs of vocal art as the public is not to-day. Criticism was expended only on quality of voice and execution, and woe to the singer who transgressed the canons of technique in the slightest particular no truth of action or fine feeling for poetic sentiment could save him from the wrath of his outraged patrons.
This tendency toward an exaggerated specialization, exquisite as its results often were in their impression on the senses, could not hold the favor of those who demanded in art truth to the deeper facts of life and the satisfaction of the intellect, and even in the heyday of its glory the Italian ideal of song met vigorous opposition. Satirists derided the hollow pretension of the opera stage. The French grand opera, founded fifty years after the Italian, although it had its own conventions and artificialities, maintained variety of action, pure declamation, and respect for the written word as cardinal principles, and gave the dance and chorus a prominent place in the dramatic scheme. The opera buffa and the opera-comique took their characters from contemporary life and insisted upon comic talent, interesting situation, and lively portrayal of homespun sentiment. Handel’s oratorios which soon after 1740 took the place of the thread-bare Italian opera in the regard of the British public, gave worthy expression to the grandest ideas, and worked directly and indirectly to elevate the standards of taste in respect to both subject and treatment. Then- came the reforms of Gluck between 176o- and 1780, based on the endeavor, as he expressed it in his preface to “Alceste,” “to reduce music to its proper function, that of seconding poetry by enforcing the expression of the sentiment and the interest of the situation, with-out interrupting the action or weakening it by superfluous ornament”; setting “no value on novelty as such unless it was naturally suggested by the situation and suited to the expression.” The influence of these precepts, uniting with a powerful dramatic instinct, was seen in Mozart’s later operas. Beethoven wrote “Fidelio” in order to glorify womanly devotion, and made it his first aim to embellish his theme with all his immense resources of musical expression. Weber and Spohr in Germany, Cherubini, Spontini, Mehul, and Meyerbeer in France, held aloft, in spite of occasional wavering, the standard of Gluck’s principles. A reaction toward “the tyranny of the singer” appeared in the brilliant group of Italian composers in the early part of the nineteenth century, of whom Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and the young Verdi were chief,but this reaction was not complete, for these men, although they revived the ancient glories of Italian bel canto and were willing enough to sacrifice poetic value and dramatic truth to vocal display if the two ideals ever came into conflict, often sought to reconcile them, and we ought to acknowledge that they really believed, although in a rather unintelligent way, that the things their characters said and did were worth saying and doing, and that their music on the whole possessed fitness as well as sensuous beauty.
The evident conviction on the part of the later Italian and French masters, that poetry and plot had received all the consideration they were en-titled to in such a form of art as the opera, might have been accepted by the world if the overwhelming personality of Wagner had not appeared, declaring himself commissioned to destroy the Italian superstition and to fulfil the incomplete tendencies that he found in the better class of French and German opera. Not content with demanding an equilibrium of forces, he bluntly maintained that mu-sic must yield to poetry and action. In his most elaborate confession of faith, Opera and Drama, he lays down, as the rock basis of his reform, the maxim that the radical error of the opera had al-ways been in making musical effect the end and the drama the means, whereas in a true musical drama the poetic element should be the end and the music the means. It would be easy to show that Wagner was often inconsistent, and that in many passages in his dramas the commanding impression is just as much a one-sided musical effect as it is in any work of his “erroneous” predecessors. In such scenes, for example, as the “fire charm,” Brünnhilde’s awakening, the following duet between Brünnhilde’s and Siegfried, the sword forging, Siegfried’s dirge, Isolde’s death song, and the quintet, “prize song,” and final chorus in “The Mastersingers,” there is no apparent effort to make the drama the end and the music merely a means. The difference between Wagner and his rivals in such situations is a difference in sheer musical inventive power and a radical difference in form.
One recent composer at least, viz., Debussy in ” Pelleas and Melisande,” has succeeded in executing Wagner’s avowed intention with what may be called complete consistency. That is to say, that the music, however beautiful, is so thoroughly the enveloping atmosphere of the play that the listener is never turned by the sounds of voices and instruments from his concentration upon the action.
In this remarkable work there is the most perfect blend and fusion of scene, poetry, and music that has yet been accomplished except in a few isolated moments in Wagner’s work. But is this the final solution of the problem? Is this the complete and perfect music-drama for which the world has been waiting, as Debussy’s disciples affirm? Other critics complain that this work lacks musical inter-est. In this controversy we are landed again upon the old debatable ground. Why, it is asked, should the musical interest be sacrificed, or even subordinated, to the dramatic ? May not Wagner’s principle, when carried to its farthest consequence, be wrong, and did he not do well to be inconsistent when his inconsistency gave us the most magnificent, the most profoundly emotional music that ever issued from the human brain? Why should people be censured if they go to the opera for musical enjoyment rather than for the gratification of a taste for poetry and action, as unquestionably the vast majority of them do? Is not opera rightly to be classed as a phase of musical art rather than a phase of literary art? Debussy’s work is so far an interesting exception to the rule, and there is no sign that the public will ever treat the opera as a mere substitute for the spoken drama. Nevertheless, the work of Gluck and Mozart and Wagner and the later Verdi has not been in vain. The opera will never relapse to its former condition in which poetic subject was a matter of indifference and the actor was lost in the singer. Time has accomplished its revenges for violations of truth; the operas that have survived their generation and are established in the esteem of thoughtful minds have been those that are strong on the dramatic side.
The war between word and tone has also been fought out with equal lack of conclusiveness in the domain of lyric song. But in this field the sacrifice of poetic interest to vocal display has never gone to such lengths as in the opera. Indeed the in-stances have been comparatively rare in which either lyric composers or lyric singers have been content to treat the voice merely as an apparatus for sensational virtuosity. Such an abuse can hardly exist when any heed is given to literary merit in the selection of verse for musical setting, and the fact has been that the best song composers have as a rule chosen poems that possess beauty in thought and diction, and have written music not simply for the sake of independent melodious charm, but rather with an eye to the appropriate expression of the text. The reason for this difference between song and the opera is perfectly clear. The lyric poets do not commonly write their verses simply for the musicians to make songs of; the poetry, however it may seem to invite musical treatment, is intended to stand alone, and thus having no end beyond itself it is the expression of the best skill of the author. The opera libretto, on the contrary, is never planned to make an independent impression; the writer’s purpose is not to produce a literary and dramatic work of self-dependent interest, but a more or less mechanical verbal contrivance that will be adapted to the special exigencies of scenic and musical effect according to theatrical conventions. Librettists as a rule are not poets “by the grace of God,” but clever adapters of scenes, mechanical artificers of verse, whose aim is not literary but musical effect. The opera composer rarely finds a dramatic poem that can be used as it stands, he must have one built for him out of new or old material. The song writer, on the contrary, is never at a loss for a text; the world is full of beautiful poetry waiting, without the slightest need of alteration, for his use. There is no excuse for him if he chooses verse of inferior quality; and when he has taken his text, if he has in him the love of poetry (and if he has not he does not deserve to be called a song writer at all) he treats it with veneration, and makes it his dearest hope that he may be ” able to do something worthy of the noble art to which he has joined his own.
It is the spirit of church music and the folk song that has been transmitted to the lyric art song, not the spirit of the opera. The very conception, method, and environment of the opera, with its elaborate machinery, its combination of mediums scenery, action, vocal music, orchestral musicits necessity for instantaneous and stirring effect, all encourage spectacularism. The finer shades of emotion, the more tender communing of mind with mind, require the more delicate vehicle of the lyric. The opera has always been the favorite entertainment of a limited number, not to say of a separate caste; the music of the people has been church music and lyric song. The Greeks knew the subtle affinity that draws music into the embrace of poetry; the Minnesingers and Troubadours knew it; in the Elizabethan age this mutual passion was recognized and blessed. But not until the nineteenth century has this wedlock been crowned with an offspring that perpetuates the dual strength and loveliness of its parentage. The age of the great German song composers was coincident with the revival of lyric poetry under the hands of Goethe, Schiller, and the romanticists. In. fact, it lies in the nature of the case that in this branch of musical art the composers wait upon the poets, the musicians finding little inspiration in prosaic and commonplace verse. Another striking illustration is the rise of the brilliant group of French song composers of the last half century, following the outburst of French lyric poetry begun in the works of Andre Chenier and continued in Lamartine, Victor Hugo, De Musset, Gautier, Alfred de Vigny, Leconte de Lisle, Verlaine, and their compeers. Schubert, who leads the brilliant host of modern song writers, exemplifies the controlling tendency of his school by seeking his texts among the works of such men as Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Shakespeare, Scott, and the poets of his day and country who expressed, although with varying ability, the genuine emotions of the common heart. This guiding motive was adopted by his successors, and so stimulating was this ideal to the inventive powers of every musician who had accepted truth to the inner life of the soul as the law of his art, that the lyric inspiration swept like a spiritual trade wind over the world, and Schumann, Franz, Brahms, Jensen, and Wolf found worthy emulators in the Norwegians Grieg and Kjerulf, the Russians Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, the Hungarian Liszt, the Bohemian Dvorak, the American Mac-Dowell, and the Frenchmen Faure, Godard, Duparc, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, and Debussy. These composers, with many others hardly less worthy of esteem, have discovered an art in which music and poetry penetrate one another in a mingling so complete that each word finds an inevitable correlative in a musical tone, poetic line and musical phrase twinborn, mutually dependent and inseparable. Every lover of song has in his memory scores of lyrics of which it might be said that music has not so much added a new means of expression to verse as it has drawn forth an emotion which words can but partly reveal, and endowed poetic utterance with a new attribute.
In this union the poetry remains the motive power determining the course of the composer’s invention. His purpose is not, as in former periods, to produce something that is in and of itself musically pleasing, but rather, taking possession of verse in which genuine human feeling is appropriately rendered, to fashion such a setting for this jewel that the most subtle refinements of poetic suggestion shall find their convincing counterpart in musical chord or phrase. Vocal music thus declares its correspondence with what is perhaps the most productive tendency in nineteenth century art, viz., direct, truthful characterization. Absolute fitness of style is the demand, the most subtle and direct interpretation, even though formal beauty and superficial sensuous charm be sacrificed.
The most eminent exponent of this tendency in opera is, of course, Richard Wagner. He is like-wise an eloquent champion of it in his critical and autobiographical writings. No plainer statement of this principle and its consequences in the composition of melody could be made than that of Wagner, in A Communication to My Friends. If the reader will refer back to what has been said in the section on melody in this book, Wagner’s statement will be clear. “Wherever,” he says, “I had to give utterance to the emotions of my dramatis personce, as shown by them in feeling discourse, I was forced entirely to abstain from this rhythmic melody of the Folk [that is, the conventional structure of four and eight measure metre]: or rather, it could not occur to me to employ that method of expression; nay, here the dialogue it-self, conformably to the emotional contents, was to be rendered in such a fashion that, not the melodic Expression, per se, but the expressed Emotion should rouse the interest of the hearer. The melody must therefore spring, quite of itself, from out the verse; in itself, as sheer melody, it could not be permitted to attract attention, but only in so far as it was the most expressive vehicle for an emotion already plainly outlined in the words. With this strict conception of the melodic element, I now completely left the usual operatic mode of composition; inasmuch as I no longer tried intentionally for customary melody, or, in a sense, for Melody at all, but absolutely let it take its rise from, feeling utterance of the words.”
In judging the merits of this later style of “continuous music” as applied to song and opera, one must recognize the difference between the idea of a lyric poem and that of a dramatic scene. There are, indeed, varieties of lyrics, but the strict definition of such a poem is that it presents a single thought or sentiment, permitting its phrases to alter in changing circumstances, allowing the thought to reveal new aspects under varying lights, letting the fancy play around it, yet essentially one mood, one conception, not describing the events that produced the feeling or anticipating its consequences, but a direct immediate presentation of the feeling itself, with just enough of incident to localize and determine the feeling and bring it into relief. When the mood has been set forth in a clear and appealing way the purpose of the poem is accomplished. Hence in a multitude of lyrics suit-able for musical setting the old form of tune, re-turning upon itself, leading back to its first strain and its first key, even repeating the tune note for note in the successive stanzas, is perfectly appropriate. Schubert was not in error as to his form when he wrote “Who is Sylvia?” and “Faith in Spring.” The treatment in these songs is as proper as the quite different method in “The Phantom Double” and “The Erl King.” Even in the opera the conventional song form may still be admissible where the action becomes stationary and the actor expresses a feeling that requires a considerable amount of time for its unfolding. Delila’s song. “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” in Saint-Sains’s “Samson and Delila” is not to be condemned on any just principle of musicodramatic propriety. But in the large stretches of an opera scene the present-day insistence upon dramatic truth accepts Wagner’s principle with certain modifications. In a true drama there must be constant life, change, and movement; a frequent arrest for the sake of vocal display leads inevitably to the old abuses. With the reassertion of dramatic reality and poetic interest the form becomes more continuous, expansive, and flexible, and the enforcement of the law that musical form must grow inevitably out of the matrix of the verse. compels formalism to give way to direct and intimate expression.
All the musical forms that ever existed are, it seems to me, still valid. Their justification, how-ever, rests upon their fitness to the thought, verse diction, or situation which calls them into life. Even the colorature song, which composers no longer write, is often able to vindicate its reason for being. Even Wagner speaks of “the classic nobleness of the Italian vocal art of earlier times.” But the former acquiescence in musical charm at the cost of truth was a sign of an imperfect criterion of judgment. Another, which we believe to be higher, has taken its place.
The effect of the new principle and method in lyric and dramatic music upon the vocalist can easily be understood. The singer who adopts the interpretative conception accepts the sovereignty of poetry and makes the expression of the poet’s mind the end and aim of his effort. He feels the poetry through and through. He studies it as the actor studies his lines. His vocal style, his tone color, his determination of speed and dynamics, his phrasing all issue from the endeavor to keep the thought of the text uppermost in his mind. In the singing of a typical artist of this school there are three creative personalities in alliance for one common end; poet, composer, and singer are actuated by a single purpose, and the listener finds that his attention is not wandering in a maze of distracting sounds, but directed along the path marked out by the poet’s imagination.
The music lover will now naturally ask if the two ideals presented in the history of song perfect vocal technique as an end in itself, and supreme emphasis upon poetic expression are compatible with one another. Need there be conflict between them? Does insistence upon the most refined vocalism involve any sacrifice of truth of pronunciation and poetic emphasis, or may impurity of voice or flaws in execution be excused in return for perfect declamation and strong intellectual and emotional conception? There are certainly conspicuous instances in which one has been exalted over the other, and singers of both types have had enthusiastic admirers. The consummate flower of the Italian bel canto has been displayed in later days in the singing of Adelina Patti. Mr. Henry T. Finck says of her: “Niemann was no doubt right in pronouncing her the most perfect vocalist of all times.” “The ordinary epithets applicable to a voice, such as sweet, sympathetic, flexible, expressive, sound almost too commonplace to be applied to Patti’s voice at its best.” “Her voice has a natural sensuous -charm like a Cremona violin, which it is a pleasure to listen to irrespective of what she happens to be singing. It is a pleasure, too, to hear under what perfect control she has it; how, without changing the quality of the sound, she passes from a high to a low note, from piano to forte, gradually or suddenly, and all without the least sense of effort. Indeed her notes are as spontaneous as those of a nightingale.” In later years she showed more and more anxiety to win renown as a dramatic singer, and here, Mr. Finck says, “the vocal style which she exclusively cultivated proved an insuperable obstacle. Although free from the smaller vices of the Italian school, she could not overcome the great and fatal shortcoming of that school the maltreatment of the poetic text. She could not find the proper accents required in operas where the words of the text are as important as the melody itself. Having neglected to master the more vigorous vowels and expressive consonants, she cannot assert her art in dramatic works. Her voice, in short, is merely an instrument.”
As a conspicuous example of a singer of the opposite kind we have had in recent years Dr. Ludwig Wüllner, who was advertised at his first appearance in this country as “a great singer without a voice.” Here was a rather startling challenge to established notions of the vocal art. Dr. Wullner has in a high degree the abilities of an actor. His literary knowledge is extensive and his taste that of a man of broad culture. He can enter sympathetically into a very wide range of poetic conceptions. In articulation, pronunciation, emphasis, variety of expression, mastery of all the nuances of feeling boisterous humor, tenderness, pathos, and grimmest tragedy flexibility in adaptation of style to subject, accumulative force in working up emotional climaxes in all these features his truthfulness of conception (barring an occasional tendency to exaggerate) and vividness of presentation are extraordinary, and the impression he produced has had few parallels in the annals of music in America. The first enthusiasm beginning to abate, voices of protest were heard. High critical authorities declared that the art of pure song had rights which this great musical declaimer constantly violated; that his voice lacking sensuous charm, and his method betraying indifference to the classic laws which the acknowledged masters of three centuries had promulgated, he was undoing the work of earnest and conservative vocal teachers, and misleading the critical judgment of the public into the belief that bad intonation, harshness of tone, and lack of all the vocal graces are matters of little consequence provided that “expression,” especially “dramatic expression,” is assured. Is singing, the objectors ask, the rendering of poetry by means of tones that are charming to the ear under all circumstances, or is it a matter of accents and tempos and dynamics with merely rhetorical ends in view, unregardful of the laws of musical beauty and perfection which have hitherto been maintained in vocal and instrumental music alike?
The musical public seems to be divided upon this issue. In every country vocal sins are perpetrated by distinguished performers and pardoned in the interest of what is called “interpretation.” On the other hand, many frequenters of operas and concerts probably the majority are heed-less of all considerations except purity, brilliancy, or flexibility of voice. Madame Patti and Dr. Wullner have both had their unqualified admirers; and yet reason and experience would seem to declare that neither affords the model to which the earnest singer should aspire. Beautiful singing is not wholly poetic expression, for the voice is an instrument on which one plays for the delight of the ear. Neither is it pure tone and finished technique wholly, for without uncovering the soul that dwells in poetry it cannot move the intellect. Both qualities emotional expression and technical completeness may unite, and there is no inherent reason why they should not supplement and sustain each other. It is no doubt true that in the lyric drama and German Lied there has been in some quarters a disregard of vocal perfection as a result of reaction against the one-sidedness of the old Italian school, but no considerable portion of the world will ever be content with bad singing under any pretence. Another reaction is now in progress, the nature of which is shown by the assertion that is becoming frequent among the best writers, that there is but one right way to sing, whether the music be that of Mozart, Handel, Schubert, or Wagner. Harshness of tone, a jerky explosive style, an audible gasp when taking breath, a perpetual unsteadiness, a lazy sliding from note to note these vices are not expressive, and are no more to be indulged in the modern declamatory music than in the classic bel canto. This law finds no obstacle to its enforcement in the fact that composers nowadays aim more at writing music that is characteristic than music that is formally beautiful in the classic sense. Emphasis may shift from one side to an-other, and composers may risk audacities of expression from which their forbears would shrink in dismay; nevertheless, singing remains an art and cannot survive unless it obeys the universal laws of its kingdom. Just as a drama so naturalistic that the time-honored principles of acting must be abolished would not be good art; just as a painting so literally imitative that the criteria of draftsman-ship and composition that have been maintained by every master from the beginning are defied, would not be good art; so any alliance of poetry and music for ends whose realization would put ugliness of sound in place of beauty would be self-destructive. No art is expected always to remain isolated and solitary; the arts may combine for purposes which one alone cannot accomplish; but in this union they are not required to deny their original natures, they must still remain capable of giving separately that special and peculiar pleasure for which they were individually endowed.