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Music Then and Now

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Music in Western Civilisation. By Paul Henry Lang. W. W. Norton. $5.00. Our New Music. By Aaron Copland. Whittlesey House. $2.50.

It is one thing to present composers and their works in chronological order and another thing to try, at the same time, to interpret the kind of music that they wrote in terms of the religious, political, and aesthetic doctrines of the epochs that produced them.

Increasing evidence of the broader concept of musical history is a welcome result of the acknowledgment by our colleges and universities of music as a liberal arts subject, and of the rise of musical scholarship which has accompanied it. During the last six years, three volumes have appeared which treat the history of music in relation to history in general: Ferguson’s “A History of Musical Thought,” Leichtentritt’s “Music, History and Ideas,” and now Paul Henry Lang’s “Music in Western Civilization.” Ferguson’s is a kind of elementary textbook somewhat marred by discursions into subjective criticism. Leichtentritt’s is more comprehensive and profound; but while it traces musical history and the fashions which shaped it, his book is not an easy source for strictly musical facts, nor was it intended to be. What Lang has given us amounts to two books in one: an exhaustive musical history and abundant interpretations of it in terms of the temper of each epoch. The result is probably the most complete and provocative single-volume history of occidental music in the English tongue.

Professor Dent of King’s College once defined scholarship as “the application of aesthetics to learning and learning to aesthetics.” By this definition, Lang’s book is a work of true scholarship. In it, the application is constantly working both ways. Such an interplay could be carried on only by one possessed of the author’s knowledge both of music and of all the other arts and many of the sciences.

For the most part, he has kept facts separate from their background and interpretation. This adds greatly to the usefulness of the book as a ready reference. The interpretations appear intermittently, in a series of brilliant essays, some thirty in all. These are Lang’s most original contribution to our understanding of the history of music and they should prove infinitely helpful to any thoughtful lover of the art. For that matter, they should interest followers of any of the arts, plastic or literary.

The essays demonstrate how closely music is wrapped up with countless other manifestations of human effort. The interrelationships have been constant. The author does not invent them: he discovers them, lays them before us. Occasionally he grieves over the fact that most modern historians are as yet unaware of the role of music in civilization or tend to ignore or slight it. He cites Preserved Smith’s “The Age of the Reformation” as a case in point: a “masterpiece of research” in which a “scant page or so” is deemed sufficient “to deal with an art which graced the daily life of the people,” and even the scant page is misleading. This is regrettable, but has not the fault lain partly with our teachers of music and writers on musical subjects? If so, the tide has now turned. Lang’s essays themselves should help prevent the kind of needless embarrassment which Preserved Smith, with all his erudition, must have felt when he approached the musical aspects of his subject.

The author shows a rare catholicity of musical taste. Whatever the period, he approaches it with gusto, without ever indulging in that type of subjective musical criticism of which Cecil Gray is now a recognized exponent. The work of each composer in turn is treated impartially. The only exception to this is the application of a somewhat more stringent critical technique to the work of composers who in recent years have been exalted to the neglect of lesser known men of equal importance. But this is salutary. The defense of Lassus against the justly sainted Palestrina, for example, should help remedy the relative neglect of Lassus’s music.

Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are accorded some of the longest articles, and their contemporaries come in for their share in the full two hundred pages dealing with the, baroque alone. For the fluency and eloquence of this period the author shows great love and he sees in our still limited acquaintance with it a cause for the impasse in which modern music stands. “That the vast reaches of baroque music are still unexplored not only deprives us of great art, but is directly responsible for the lamentable state of present-day music.”

Some consolation may be found in Aaron Copland’s “Our New Music.” It contains many references to a return to clarity, simplicity, and eighteenth century principles in general. Copland implies that he considers this a good thing, but for every statement supporting it he makes several which show that he has little real sympathy with it.

This is only one of several inconsistencies in Copland’s otherwise informative and stimulating book. He sees the past three decades as an exciting period of experimentation and innovation. It was, notoriously, an age of much chi-chi music based on shock tactics, foisted upon an unwilling publie through channels of propaganda tinged with snob-appeal, Copland now repudiates in principle much of the music of those decades. But when he reviews the music of individual composers working in those years, he gives them good measure of praise.

The book affords a rapid survey of modern music: the recoil from German romanticism, the influence of Moussorg-sky, countercurrents in Austria, the collapse, and the tendency to return to eighteenth century ideals. It is not so full a description as Constant Lambert’s “Music, Ho!” nor so comprehensive a review of the American scene in particular as John Tasker Howard’s “Our Contemporary Composers.”

What it does do is to give virtually a full-length portrait of Aaron Copland, and this is valuable in view of his prominence in present-day American music. I refer to the book as a whole and not merely to the chapter “Composer from Brooklyn,” an autobiographical sketch included among the portraits of his contemporaries. In his description of leading European figures and in his discussions of the American scene, every facet of his own highly personal taste and his own peculiar characteristics as a composer are manifest. He is well informed, a skilled technician, in love with music. Yet he seems unable to arbitrate either logically or impartially where musical values are concerned. Propaganda and the press, broadcasting and recording—all seem to color his thoughts.

His portraits of contemporary American composers make very good reading. One could wish, however, that he did not somehow subtly convey the impression that he is father to them all and that his influence is leading them where they ought to go, or that it will if they follow his advice. His own reputation is secure enough to make this unnecessary.

It is small business to point out inconsistencies, but a few of those in “Our Modern Music” might lead to confusion. For example, Copland wants American music performed more often but he overlooks many composers whose music has enjoyed the wide audience which he covets for his favorites. Then, while he defends music of a kind which only a select few enjoy, he relishes the fact that what he calls “the ‘big’ public” has at last taken Debussy to its arms. He admires Ives for writing individual music ostensibly for his own pleasure alone and adds, in what is probably a good diagnosis, that the faults in Ives are attributable to his lack of the three-dimensional experience which an audience provides. This is good, but further contradictions arise when he says that no one ever writes music purely for one’s own self-expression. Then elsewhere, switching back again, he defends one’s inalienable right to do so! In one breath he says that the composer is the crux of the whole music culture of any country; in another, he says that only the receptivity of audiences can make or break a musical culture. He minimizes the importance of our performing agencies, but when orchestras play contemporary music in New York, he frankly admits that they “aid considerably” in making it one of the principal music centers of the world.

The worst conflict in his aesthetic seems to arise from the current enthusiasm for the eighteenth century. He advocates the need for a return to the ideals of the baroque period, but his own inclinations are so fundamentally opposed to them that he shows no inclination to return to them himself. On the contrary, he proclaims that now is the time to write music for the masses and sees the radio as the natural avenue for reaching them, even for supporting the composer. This may be true, but is it not widely opposed to the creative spirit of the eighteenth century (so popular on the radio) when the most intimate kind of chamber music and even symphonies were written, usually for a small audience?

Confusion comes to a climax when one reads this in the preface: “After all, why should I or any other composer living in a time like ours write music that reflects some other period?” And later, concerning the creative urge of the composer: “He writes in order to say something of his own —to put down some expression of his own private personality.” This is hardly compatible with the ideals of the baroque period, which attached so little importance to “originality.” Let us compare Copland’s subjective aesthetic with a quotation from Lang: “Mozart is the greatest musico-dramatic genius of all times. This unique position he owes to a temperament which approached everything, every situation, and every human being with absolute objectivity. , , , Every situation and every individual appeared to him as music, his whole conception was purely aesthetic, and music was his language.”

If we are to pattern ourselves on classical standards— and in many ways we should—we must begin by identifying ourselves more closely with qualities of classical thought and feeling. Otherwise, for a composer to write music in order to “put down some expression of his own personality” will lead to little, least of all to the “big” public which Copland has in view. And incidentally, the big public was rarely a factor in eighteenth century music. Witness that inconspicuous first performance of the “Messiah” in Dublin or the virtual obscurity in which Bach produced one monumental masterpiece after another,

To read these two books together is to wish that there could somehow be a closer relationship between our composers and our musical scholars. Such a relationship need only be based on reciprocal trust and respect to be fruitful for both parties. This, and opportunity, encouragement, and even patronage are needed to further the development of music in this country. But neither press nor radio nor phonographs nor films nor power politics nor propaganda can help in more than a fugitive and external way.


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