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Sensationalism and Indifference

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

The boy who cried “Wolf!” was a poor psychologist, because he forgot that a stimulus repeated too often, or without reason, loses its appeal. Many of our modern musicians, making the same error, are surprised when their sensationalism breeds in the public not interest but indifference. They do not realize how quickly our bodies grow callous to even the keenest sensations, and how necessary it therefore is for anyone who would enlist our permanent interest to appeal not only to our senses but also to our hearts and minds. A wider realization of this simple psychological fact would have far-reaching practical effects. It is hardly too much to say that it would transform many of the activities of both our composers and our performers.

For over a generation now composers have been chiefly pre-occupied with harmony and harmonic effects, that is to say with the moment-to-moment appeal of music to the senses, rather than with the more synthetic appeals, apprehended by the mind, of melody and rhythm. The kinds of momentary effect they specialized in of course varied widely: the point in common was the concentration on the sensuous moment rather than on the mental span. Debussy and his fellow Impressionists or Symbolists, for instance, sought an inpalpable, evanescent, vague harmonic coloring, richly caressing to the sense, but comparatively empty for the mind through the triviality of the melodic and rhythmic features, and thus discouraging all definite response in us, inviting us to surrender ourselves to our day-dreams. Their followers the Primitives, headed by Stravinsky, carried the same process further. They abolished the slight mental appeal that still remained in impressionism by reducing melodies to short patterns of a few notes, and rhythms to mechanical formulae monotonously repeated. At the same time they greatly intensified the sense appeal of the harmony by making many more notes sound at a time, many of them often ferociously dissonant. They thus pushed the sense element to the greatest luxury available to modern science at the same time that the mental element was reverting virtually to savagery.

Now the curious result was that this steadily increasing concentration on physical stimuli defeated itself, and instead of permanently increasing our excitement only keyed us up for a while, and when the novelty wore off left us jaded and bored. Indeed the very craving for that kind of excitement was a symptom of a morbid artistic condition, and just as the exhausted man finds himself only more exhausted after the brief fillip of a stimulant has passed, so the kind of listeners who were bored before Debussy mixed for them his draught of “dominant ninth chords” and whole-tone scales, having now followed his perfumed julep with Stravinsky’s hard liquor have lost taste for either and find themselves more bored than ever. The ear quickly accustoms itself to any combination of sounds whatever, so that however eager aural curiosity may seem at any moment, as when Goossens, Milhaud, or Casella write in several keys at once or Mr-Henry Cowell plays the piano with his whole forearm, satiety is always just round the corner. Therefore the poor stale smell of Stravinsky’s biggest and boldest tonal firecrackers, once they are exploded, might have been anticipated long ago by any lover of real musical values. Indeed it was anticipated by implication in a memorable remark made by Jean de Reszke in the early days of the Debussy furore. “Debusy is all right,” said Mr. de Reszke, “for bored people, but I am not bored.” Music lovers who use their minds and hearts as well as their senses seldom are.

For the interpreter no less than the composer indifference seems to be the unexpected but inevitable result of sensationalism. The generalization throws light on many practical questions: on the paradox of guest conductors, for instance—why it is that the public seems to demand so many new personalities, yet so quickly tires of them all. The “prima donna conductor” is usually the victim of his own sensationalism; the “hit” he makes is brief in proportion to its violence, and the hero of today is neglected and contemned tomorrow. This is in last analysis because “effects” and “interpretations” deal with moments as brief and as detached from their context as the isolated chords of the mere harmonist, and the pursuit of them disrupts higher beauties just as harmony-worship distracts from rhythm and melody. Consequently in both cases contempt follows on the heels of familiarity. The conductor often begins innocently enough by emphasizing some special feature of the music, which the public thereupon seizes as the mark of his “personality.” Soon it becomes almost beyond human nature in its pursuit of the “individual reading” not to push emphasis to over-emphasis, over-emphasis to distortion, and distortion to caricature. The whole, in which alone is beauty, has disappeared in the sensations of the parts, and the public, without knowing why, has lost interest.

Take for instance the matter of dynamic shading. Every artist knows that loud and soft are not absolute but relative values. Chopin, physically unable to make a fortissimo on the piano, gave the effect of one by his artfully adjusted contrasts. But, playing as they do in large halls and for inattentive listeners, conductors are under a great temptation to abuse the loud end of the scale. Especially a vigorous, full-blooded temperament like that of Mr. Mengelberg of the New York Philharmonic Society, admirable musician though he be, is easily beguiled into too energetic an assert-iveness, and is apt in such pieces as Liszt’s, where much sound’and fury often signify little or nothing, to use, as the English say, a Nasmyth steam hammer to kill a fly. Even the more distinguished sensitiveness of a Stokowski cannot always resist his brass and percussion departments. Mr. Stokowski’s immensely impressive orchestral transcription of Bach’s great organ passacaglia became too impressive at its brassy end. Its body, so to speak, outgrew its mind. “A great master like Bach” says Parry, “is instinctively aware that appeals to sensation must be accompanied by proportionate appeals to higher faculties. . . . The glory of Bach’s management of such things is that the intrinsic interest of the music itself is always in proportion to the power and volume of the actual sound.” But not even Bach’s thought was quite in proportion to the overwhelming sound of Mr. Stokowski’s trumpets and trombones; and with the loss of regard for limitations came a loss of artistic proportion and the dignity of restraint.

Pianissimos as well as fortissimos may be exaggerated. The “breathless pianissimo” is a pet device of the sensation-monger, a device which becomes inartistic the moment it focusses upon itself, a detail, the attention which should be spread over the whole scale of values. That is what sensationalism always is: disproportion, lack of proper subordination, the usurpation by details of the place to which only the whole, which is beauty, is entitled. And such a mere ghost of tone, which one has to harken to almost painfully and with suspended breath, as Mr. Koussewitsky made with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony not long ago in New York, is almost as much “out of the picture” as those apoplectic vehemences of Mr. Mengelberg. It was too soft as those were too loud. And anything “too” much loses connection with its context and becomes irrelevant detail. It is worth noting, however, that there is a subtle principle of style involved here. What is too soft for Schubert might be quite right for Debussy. There are various styles, and a value that fits one may not fit another. One of the fundamental qualifications of the conductor, which we find preeminently in men like Stock, Gabrilowitsch, Bruno Walter, and Furtwangler, is an unerring sense of fitness of style.

Exaggerations of pace disrupt unity no less than those of force, and are if anything even more common. It is not a question so much of taking certain entire pieces too slow (Wagner’s Prelude to “Tristan” is a peculiar victim of this tendency) or others too fast (such as Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture, which many conductors take at breakneck speed in order to exhibit their orchestra’s virtuosity) as of due proportion and relation between the parts of a single piece. We all know conductors who never play the lyrical second theme of a symphony in a pace bearing recognizable relation to that of the more energetic opening theme. This habit of automatically slowing up as if the “song theme” were a traffic sign is peculiarly annoying. It breaks fatally the continuity of the movement, and turns it into a series of pieces. Some conductors are seduced into it by a desire to underline the “expressiveness” of the song theme, not realizing that sentimentality is never so moving as sentiment; others take the more vigorous parts so fast in the interest of orchestral “brilliance,” that when the expression changes the pace is obliged either to moderate or to become palpably absurd. But whatever the motive for this disruption of continuity, the interesting point to note is that it is invariably punished, as all such disruptions are, by loss of interest. For every such transgression the law of beauty— wholeness, balance, proportion—is automatically and instantly avenged. You can make your momentary effect, but your larger and more persuasive appeal, the atmosphere in which your whole work reposes, is thereby dissipated and annulled. Hence the singular dullness of all forms of overemphasis in art.

There are certain kinds of over-emphasis that under modern conditions seem well-nigh inescapable, even by conductors of the most sensitive taste. Too much and frequent accent, by players demoralized by moving picture house and dance hall orchestra service makes it almost impossible to play a delicate classic like Mozart as he should be heard.

Here the details are the single accented notes, and the beautiful whole they destroy is the long, quiet, level Mozartean phrase that must float like a cloud, as it were, in a windless air. Modern players tear these phrases into shreds. Mr. Stokowski once spent ten minutes of a rehearsal making his first violins, playing alone, repeat many times a single phrase toward the end of the slow movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. He was trying, as you might say, to take the “kinks” out of it, to smoothen and extend it, until, accentless or nearly so, it should take on the perfect serenity and repose of classic beauty. A thankless task, one might say. Certainly a difficult one, since we live in a noisy and distracted age where few have the patience to achieve beauty, and few the repose to appreciate it. But not thankless; for since beauty is the only lasting value in art, those who have not been led through sensationalism to disillusion and indifference are constantly reawakening, often when they least expect it, to the joy in which alone is permanence.


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