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An essay by Vernon Lee

Chapelmaster Kreisler

Title:     Chapelmaster Kreisler
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]


There is nothing stranger in the world than music: it exists only as sound, is born of silence and dies away into silence, issuing from nothing and relapsing into nothing; it is our own creation, yet it is foreign to ourselves; we draw it from out of the silent wood and the silent metal, it lives in our own breath, yet it seems to come to us from a distant land which we shall never see, and to tell us of things we shall never know. It is for ever striving to tell us something, for ever imploring us to listen and to understand; we listen, we strain, we try to take in its vague meaning; it is telling us sweet and mighty secrets, letting drop precious talismanic words; we guess, but do not understand. And shall we never understand? May we never know wherefore the joy, wherefore the sadness? Can we not subtilise our minds, go forth with our heart and fancy as interpreters, and distinguish in the wreathing melodies and entangled chords some words of superhuman emotion, even as the men of other ages distinguished in the sighing oak woods and the rustling reeds the words of the great gods of nature?

To us music is no longer what it was to our grandfathers, a mere pleasing woof of meaningless pattern; we have left those times far behind, times whose great masters were prophets uttering mere empty sounds to their contemporaries; we have shaken off the dust of the schools of counterpoint, we have thrown aside the mechanical teachings of the art; for us music has become an audible, quivering fata morgana of life, the embodiment of the intangible, the expression of the inexplicable, the realisation of the impossible. And it has become a riddle, a something we would fain understand but cannot, a spell of our own devising which we cannot decipher; we sit listening to it as we sit looking into the deep, dreamy eyes of an animal, full of some mute language, which we vainly strive to comprehend.

The animal seems as though it could say much if only it could speak; so also music would seem to contain far deeper meanings than any spoken word, to be fraught with emotion deeper than we can feel: it could confide so much if we could understand. Yet the animal is but an animal, with some of our virtues and some of our vices, infinitely more ignorant than we are; dumb, not because we cannot understand, but because he cannot speak. And may it not be the same with music? May not music be intellectually inscrutable because it is intellectually meaningless?

The idea is one from which we shrink; but are we right in shrinking from it? Cannot music be noble in itself apart from any meaning it conveys? Cannot we be satisfied with what it certainly is, without thinking of what it may be? It would seem to be so; it is the spirit of our culture to strain restlessly after the unknown, for ever to seek after the hidden, to reject the visible and tangible. We yearn to penetrate through the blue of the summer evening, to thread our way among the sun-gilded clouds; yet the blue heaven, if we rise into it, is mere tintless air; the clouds, if we can touch them, are mere dull vapour. And so also we would fain seek a meaning in those fair sounds which are fairer than any meaning they could contain; we would break down in rude analysis the splendours of Don Giovanni only to discover beneath them the story of a punished Lovelace; we would tear to shreds a glorious fugue of Bach for the satisfaction of hearing the Jews yelling for Barabbas.

This is our tendency, this our way of enjoying the great art of other days: to care not for itself, but for what it suggests, nay, most often for the suggestion of the mere name of the work of art, for there is no punished Lovelace in Mozart's melodies, no Barabbas in Bach's fugues, there is nothing but beautiful forms made out of sounds. The old prosaic masters of the past, who worked at a picture or a statue or an opera as a cobbler works at a pair of shoes, never thought of suggesting anything to us: they gave something substantial, something intrinsically valuable, a well-shaped figure, a richly tinted canvas, a boldly modulated piece of music; to produce that and no more had been their object, it was all they could give, and their contemporaries were satisfied with it. Their art was their trade, pursued conscientiously, diligently, intelligently, sometimes with that superior degree of intelligence we call genius, but it was their trade and no more. They themselves were as prosaic as any artisan, and no more saw vague poetry in their works, though these were the Olympic Jove, the School of Athens, or the Messiah, than does the potter in his pot or the smith in his iron; all they saw was that their works were beautiful, as the potter sees that his pot is round and smooth, and the smith that his blade is bright and sharp. For the rest they were terribly prosaic, terribly given up to the mechanical interests of their art and the material interests of their lives, as you may see them in Vasari, in the lives of Handel, of Bach, of Haydn, of Mozart, of the last of true, unpoetic musicians, Rossini, and as you would doubtless see the unknown sculptors of antiquity if you could see them at all.

But the time came when the world, which had lived off prose most heartily ever since the Middle Ages, grew sick of such coarse mental food, and longed for unsubstantial poetic ambrosia; the fact is, it was morally sick, and took its strong intellectual food in disgust, and fancied and yearned for impossible things, as sick men do. And in its loathing for the common, the simple, the healthy, the world took to eating the intellectual opium of romanticism; it enjoyed and was plunged for awhile in ineffable delights, such as only weakness can feel and poison afford; the universe seemed to expand, the imagination to grow colossal, the feelings to become supernaturally subtle; all limits were removed, all impossibilities became possibilities; the fancy roamed over endless and ever varying tracts, and soared up into the clouds of the unintelligible, and dived into the bottomless abyss of chaos: all things quivered with a strange new life, with a life in other lives, with an unceasing, ever changing life; everything was not only itself but something else: all was greater, higher, deeper, brighter, darker, sweeter, bitterer, more ineffable than itself; it was a paradise of Mahomet, of Buddha, of Dante; it was enjoyment keen, subtle, intoxicating, which made the fancy swim, the senses ache, and the soul faint. Then came the reaction, the inevitable after-effect of the drug--depression, langour, palsy, convulsion.

About seventy years ago a great humourist, who frittered away a quaint and fantastic genius in etching grimacing caricatures, and scribbling gaunt ghost stories, the once popular, now almost forgotten, Hoffmann, looked on at this crisis in musical history, at this first intoxication of romanticism; sympathised with its poetry, its ludicrousness, and its sadness; embodied them all in one grotesque, pathetic figure, and for the first and last time in his life produced a masterpiece. The masterpiece is his poor, half-mad musician, Johannes Kreisler, "chapelmaster and cracked musicus par excellence," as he signs his letters, the artist of incomplete genius, of broken career, of poetic dreams and crazy fancies, who used to go about dressed in a coat the colour of C sharp minor, with an E major coloured collar. And of all the glimpses Hoffmann has given us of Chapelmaster Kreisler, none is so weirdly suggestive as that in which we see him improvising on the piano at his club of friends. The friends had met one evening expressly to hear Kreisler's extemporary performance, and he was just on the point of sitting down to the instrument, when one of the company recollected that a lever had on a previous occasion refused to do its duty. He took up a light, and began his search for the refractory lever; when suddenly, as he leaned over the interior of the piano a heavy pair of brass snuffers crashed down from the candlestick on to the strings, of which half a dozen instantly snapped. The company began to exclaim at this unlucky accident, which would deprive them of the promised performance; but Chapelmaster Kreisler bade them be of good cheer, for they should still hear what was in his mind, as the bass strings remained intact.

Kreisler put on his little red skull cap and his Chinese dressing-gown, and sat down to the piano, while a trusty friend extinguished all the lights, so that the room remained in utter darkness. Then, with the muffling pedal down, Kreisler struck the full chord of A flat major, and spoke:

"What is it that murmurs so strangely, so sweetly, around me? Invisible wings seem to be heaving up and down. I am swimming in perfume laden air. But the perfume shines forth in flaming, mysteriously linked circles. Lovely spirits are moving their golden pinions in ineffably splendid sounds and harmonies."

Chord of A flat minor (mezzo forte). "Ah, they are bearing me off into the land of eternal desire, but even as they carry me, pain awakes in my heart, and tries to escape, tearing my bosom with violence."

Chord of E major (third), forte. "They have given me a splendid crown, but that which sparkles and lightens in its diamonds are the thousand tears which I shed; and in the gold shine the flames which are devouring me. Valour and power, strength and faith, for him who is called on to reign in the kingdom of spirits."

* * * * *

B major (accentuato). "What a gay life in field and woodland in the sweet springtide! All the flutes and pipes, which have lain frozen to death in dusty corners throughout the winter, have now awakened and remembered their best beloved melodies, which they trill cheerfully like the birds in the air."

B major with the diminished seventh (smanioso). "A warm west wind comes sullenly complaining, like some mysterious secret, through the wood, and wherever it brushes past, the fir trees murmur, the beeches murmur to each other: 'Wherefore has our friend grown so sad?'"

E flat major (forte). "Follow him, follow him! His dress is green like the dark wood--sweet sounds of horns are his sighing words. Hearest him murmuring behind the bushes? Hearest thou the sound? The sound of horns, full of delight and sadness? 'Tis he! up and meet him."

D third, fourth, sixth, chord (piano). "Life plays its mocking game in all manner of fashions. Wherefore desire? Wherefore hope? Wherefore demand?"

C major (third) chord (fortissimo). "Let us rather dance over the open graves in wild rejoicing. Let us shout for joy, those beneath cannot hear it. Hurrah, hurrah! Dance and jollity; the devil is riding in with drums and trumpets."

C minor chords (ff. in rapid succession). "Knowest thou him not? Knowest thou him not? See, he stretches forth his burning claw to my heart! He masks himself in all sorts of absurd grimaces--as a free huntsman, as a concert director, tapeworm doctor, ricco mercante; he pitches snuffers into the strings to prevent my playing! Kreisler, Kreisler, shake thyself up? Seest thou it hiding, the pale ghost with the red burning eyes, stretching out its clawy, bony hand from beneath its torn mantle--shaking the crown of straw on its smooth bald skull? It is Madness! Johannes, be brave! Mad, mad, witch-revelry of life, wherefore shakest thou me so in thy whirling dance? Can I not escape? Is there no grain of dust in the universe on which, diminished to a fly, I can save myself from thee, horrible torturing phantom? Desist, Desist! I will behave. My manners shall be the very best. Hony soit qui mal y pense. Only let me believe the devil to be a galantuomo! I curse song and music; I lick thy feet like the drunken Caliban; free me only from my torments! Ai! Ai! abominable one! Thou hast trodden down all my flowers: not a blade of grass still greens in the terrible desert--

Dead! Dead! Dead!..."

When Chapelmaster Kreisler ended, all were silent; poetry, passionate, weird, and grotesque, had poured from their friend's lips; a strange nightmare pageant had swept by them, beautiful and ghastly, like a mad Brocken medley of the triumph of Dionysos and the dance of Death.

They were all silent--all save one, and that one said: "This is all very fine, but I was told we were to have music; a good, sensible sonata of Haydn's--would have been much more the thing than all this." He was a Philistine, no doubt, but he was right; a good, sensible sonata of Haydn's--nay, the stiffest, driest, most wooden fugue ever written by the most crabbed professor of counterpoint would have been far more satisfactory for people who expected music. A most fantastic rhapsody they had indeed heard, but it had been a spoken one, and the best strings of the piano had remained hanging snapped and silent during the performance.

Poor Chapelmaster Kreisler! He has long been forgotten by the world in general, and even those few that still are acquainted with his weird portrait, smile at it as at a relic of a far distant time, when life and art and all other things looked strangely different from how they look now. Yet the crazy musician of Hoffmann is but the elder brother of all our modern composers. With the great masters of the last century, Haydn, Mozart, Cimarosa, who were scarcely in their graves when he improvised his great word fantasia, he has no longer any connection with our own musicians, born half a century after his end, he is closely linked, for, like him, they are romanticists. They do not indeed wear C sharp minor coloured coats, nor do they improvise in the dark on pianos with broken strings; they are perfectly sane and conscious of all their doings; yet, all the same, they are but Kreisler's younger brothers. Like the poor chapelmaster of Hoffmann, music itself has a fantastic madness in it; like him, it has been crazed by disappointment, by jealousy, by impotent rage at finding that it cannot now do what it once did, and cannot yet do what will never be done; like Kreisler it deals no longer with mere sequences of melody and harmony, but with thoughts, feelings, and images, hopes and fears and despair, with wild chaotic visions of splendour and of ghastliness. But the position of our music differs from that of Kreisler in this much, that no friendly pair of snuffers crashes on to the strings and makes them fly asunder; that, while Kreisler spoke, our music can only play its fancies and whimsies; and that, instead of hearing intelligible spoken words, we hear only musical sounds which are gibberish and chaos.

For the time when men sought in music only for music's own loveliness is gone by; and the time has come when all the arts trespass on each other's ground, and, worst of all, when the arts which can give and show envy poetry, the art which can neither give nor show but only suggest, and when, for the sake of such suggestion, they would cheat us of all the real gifts--gifts of noble forms of line and colour, and sweet woofs of melody and harmony which they once gave us. The composer now wishes to make you see and feel all that he sees and feels in his imagination, the woods and seas, the joys and sorrows, all the confused day-dreams, sweet and drowsy, all the nightmare orgies which may pass through his brain; the sound has become the mere vehicle for this, the weak, vague language which he can only stammer and we can only divine; the artist breaks violently against the restraint of form, thinking to attain the unattainable beyond its limits, and sinks down baffled and impotent amidst ruin.

We are apt to think of music as of a sort of speech until, on examination, we find it has no defined meaning either for the speaker or for the listener. In reality, music and speech are as different and as separate as architecture and painting, as wholly opposed to each other as only those two things can be which, having started from the same point, have travelled in completely opposite directions, like the two great rivers which, originating on the same alp, flow respectively to the north, and to the south, each acquiring a separate character on its way--the one as the blue river of Germany, ending amidst the tide-torn sandbanks of the North Sea; the other as the green river of Provence, dying amidst the stagnant pools and fever-haunted marshes of the Mediterranean. As long as the Rhine and the Rhone are not yet Rhine and Rhone, but merely pools of snow-water among the glaciers, so long are they indistinguishable; but as soon as separated into distinct streams, their dissimilarity grows with every mile of their diverging course. So as to speech and music: as long as both exist only in embryo in the confused cries and rude imitations of the child or of the primitive people, they cannot be distinguished; but as soon as they can be called either speech or music, they become unlike and increase in dissimilarity in proportion as they develop. The cry and the imitative sound become, on the one hand, a word which, however rude, begins to have an arbitrary meaning, and, on the other hand, a song which, however uncouth, has no positive meaning; the word, as it develops, acquires a more precise and abstract signification, becomes more and more of a symbol; the song, as it develops, loses definite meaning, becomes more and more a complete unsymbolical form, until at length the word, having become a thing for use, a mere means of communication, ceases to require vocal utterance, and turns into a written sign; while the song, having become an object of mere pleasure, requires more and more musical development, and is transported from the lips of man to the strings of an instrument. But while speech and music are thus diverging, while the one is becoming more and more of an arbitrary symbol conveying an abstract idea, and the other is growing more and more into an artistic form conveying no idea, but pleasing the mind merely by its concrete form--while this divergence is taking place, a corresponding movement accompanies it which removes both speech and music farther and farther from their common origin: the cry of passion and the imitative sound. The Rhone and the Rhine are becoming not only less like each other, but as the one becomes green and the other blue, so also are both losing all trace of the original dull white of the snow water. In the word, the cry and the imitation are being effaced by arbitrary, symbolical use, by that phonetic change which shows how little a word as it exists for us retains of its original character; in the song they are being subdued by constant attempts at obtaining a more distinct and symmetrical shape, by the development of the single sounds and their arrangement with a view to pleasing the ear and mind. Yet both retain the power of resuming to a limited extent their original nature; but in proportion as the word or the song resumes the characteristics of the cry or of the imitation does each lose its own slowly elaborated value, the word as a suggester of thought, the song as a presenter of form. Now, in so far as the word is a word, or the song a song, its effect on the emotions is comparatively small: the word can awaken emotion only as a symbol, that is, indirectly and merely suggestively; the song can awaken emotion only inasmuch as it yet partakes of the nature of the brute cry or rude imitation. Thus, while language owes its emotional effects to the ideas arbitrarily connected with it, music owes its power over the heart to its sensuous elements as given by nature. But music exists as an art, that is to say, as an elaboration of the human mind, only inasmuch as those sensuous brute elements are held in check and measure, are made the slaves of an intellectual conception. The very first step in the formation of the art is the subjection of the emotional cry or the spontaneous imitation to a process of acoustic mensuration, by which the irregular sound becomes the regular, definite note; the second step is the subjection of this already artificial sound to mensuration of time, by which it is made rhythmical; the third step is the subjection of this rhythmical sound to a comparative mensuration with other sounds, by which we obtain harmony; the last step is adjustment of this artificially obtained note and rhythm and harmony into that symmetrical and intellectually appreciable form which constitutes the work of art, for art begins only where the physical elements are subjected to an intellectual process, and it exists completely only where they abdicate their independence and become subservient to an intellectual design.

Music is made up of two elements: the intellectual and the sensuous on the one hand, of that which is conceived by the mind and perceived by the mind (for our ears perceive only the separate constituent sounds of a tune, but not the tune itself); on the other hand, of that which is produced by the merely physical and appreciated by the merely physical, by the nerves of hearing, through which it may, but only indirectly, affect the mind. Now if, from an artistic point of view, we must protest against any degradation of the merely sensuous part, it is because such a degradation would involve a corresponding one in the intellectual part, because the physical basis must be intact and solid before we can build on it an intellectual structure, because the physical element through which mentality is perceived must be perfect in order that the mental manifestation be equally so; but the physical must always remain a mere basis, a mere vehicle for the mental. The enjoyment obtainable from the purely physical part may indeed be very great and very valuable, but it is a mere physical enjoyment; and the pleasure we derive from a fine voice, as distinguished from a fine piece or a fine interpretation, is as wholly unartistic as that which we receive from a ripe peach or a cool breeze: it is a purely sensuous pleasure, given us ready-made by nature, to give or to perceive which requires no mentality, in which there is no human intention, and consequently no art. Now, the effect of the cry or of the imitation, and that of certain other manifestations of sound, such as tone, pitch, volume, rhythm, major or minor intervals, which are cognate with, but independent of, the cry or the imitation--the effect of all this is an entirely sensuous one, an effect of unintelligent matter on the nerves, not of calculating intelligence on the mind, and it is to these physical effects, and not to the mentally elaborated form, that music owes its peculiar power of awaking or even of suggesting emotion.

That this is the case is shown by various circumstances. The ancients, who, as is now proved beyond dispute, possessed very little of the intellectual part of music, little of what we should deem its form, enjoyed its emotional effects to a far higher degree than could we in our present musical condition; the stories of Timotheus, Terpander, and other similar ones, being at least founded on fact, as is evident from the continual allusions of Greek writers to the moral or immoral effect of the art, and their violent denunciations of people whose only social crime was to have added a string to a lyre or a hole to a flute. We ourselves have constant opportunities of remarking the intense emotional effects due to mere pitch, tone, and rhythm; that is to say, to the merely physical qualities of number, nature, and repetition of musical vibrations. We have all been cheered by the trumpet and depressed by the hautboy; we have felt a wistful melancholy steal over us while listening to the drone of the bagpipe and the quaver of the flute of the pifferari at the shrine; we have felt our heart beat and our breath halt on catching the first notes of an organ as we lifted the entrance curtain of some great cathedral; we have known nothing more utterly harrowing than a hurdy-gurdy playing a cheerful tune, or a common accordion singing out a waltz or a polka. Nay, it is worthy of remark that the instruments capable of the greatest artistic development are just those which possess least this power over the nerves: the whole violin and harpsichord tribe, the human voice when sound and natural--saying least themselves, are capable of saying most for others; whereas the trumpet, the accordion, the harp, the zither, are condemned by their very expressiveness to a hopeless inferiority; they produce an effect spontaneously by their mere tone; the artist can produce on them but that effect, and can scarcely heighten even it. A musical critic of the beginning of this century, Giuseppe Carpani, wishing to defend Rossini from the accusation of being unemotional, boldly laid down the principle that it never is the composer who makes people cry, but the author of the words and the singer. As to the composer, he can only please, but not move.

Never (he says) were people more moved than by a certain scene in Metastasio's Araserse, set by Mortellari, and sung by the famous Pacchierotti (about 1780); and do you think perhaps that it was Mortellari, who made them cry? Mortellari, the stupidest mediocrity, Dio l'abbia in gloria! No, it was Metastasio and Pacchierotti, the verse and the voice.

This was a mere absurd exaggeration, and a mere captious plea for Rossini, who, had he only had Metastasio to write the words and Pacchierotti to sing, would doubtless have moved the whole universe to tears, with "Di tanti palpiti." Yet in this exaggeration, an important truth has been struck out. This truth is that the writer of the libretto, having at his disposal the clear, idea-suggesting word, can bring up a pathetic situation before the mind; that the singer, having at his command the physical apparatus for producing an effect on the nerves, can sensuously awaken emotion; while the composer, possessing neither the arbitrary idea-suggesting word, nor the nerve-moving sound, but only the artistic form, can please to the utmost, but move only to a limited degree.

Thus, there is a once popular but now deservedly forgotten air in the Romeo e Giulietta of Zingarelli, which some seventy years ago possessed the most miraculous power over what people called the heart, and especially over the not too sensitive one of Napoleon, who, whenever it was sung by his favourite Crescentini, invariably burst into tears. The extraordinary part of the matter is that this air happens to be peculiarly insipid, without any very definite expression, but, on the whole, of a sort of feeble cheerfulness, and certainly is the last piece that we should judge capable of such deeply emotional effects. But the situation of Romeo is an intensely pathetic one, and it is probable that the singer's voice may have possessed some strange power over the nerves, something of the purely sensuous pathos of an accordion or a zither, especially in the long, gradually diminished notes, "fine by degrees and beautifully less," which move like an AEolian harp. But, if the pathetic effect of "Ombra adorata" could not be ascribed to the composition neither could it be ascribed to the interpretation. For this sensuous pathos, though enhanced by the singer's intellectual qualities, in no way depends upon them; the intellect can make him graduate and improve the form of a piece, all that which is perceived by the mind, but it has no influence on the nerves; Crescentini's musical intelligence may have enabled him to make "Ombra adorata" a beautiful song, but only his physical powers of voice could have enabled him to make it a pathetic one.

As these physical elements are the material out of which artistic forms are moulded by the musician, he necessarily deals with and disposes of those powers over the nerves which are inherent in them. When he creates a musical form out of minor intervals, he necessarily gives that form something of the melancholy effect of such intervals; when he composes a piece with the peculiar rhythm of a march, he necessarily gives his piece some of the inspiriting power of that rhythm; when he employs a hautboy or a trumpet, he necessarily lends his work some of the depressing quality of the hautboy or some of the cheering quality of the trumpet. Thus the intellectually conceived and perceived forms are invested with the power over the nerves peculiar to certain of the physical elements of music; but it is in those component physical elements, and not in the forms into which they are disposed, that lies the emotional force of the art. Nor is this all: the physical elements, inasmuch as they are subdued and regulated and neutralized by one another in the intellectual form, are inevitably deprived of the full vigour of their emotional power; the artistic form has tamed and curbed them, has forbidden their freely influencing the nerves, while at the same time it--the form--has exerted its full sway over the mind. The mountains have been hewn into terraces, the forests have been clipped into gardens, the waves have been constrained into fountains, the thunder has been tuned down into musical notes; nature has submitted to man, and has abdicated her power into his hands. The stormy reign of instinctive feeling has come to an end; the serene reign of art has begun.

In order to see these sensuous elements of music in their unmixed purity, in their unbridled strength, we must descend to the lowest stages of the art, compared with whose emotional effects those of modern music are as nothing, and least of all in the classic periods of the art; but even in modern music, what really strong emotional effects there may be are due to a momentary suspension of artistic activity, to a momentary return to the formless, physically touching music of early ages. The most emotional thing ever written by Mozart is the exclamation of Donna Elvira, when, after leaving Don Giovanni at his ill-omened supper, she is met on the staircase by the statue of the commander; this exclamation is but one high, detached note, formless, meaningless, which pierces the nerves like a blade; submit even this one note to artistic action, bid the singer gradually swell and diminish it, and you at once rob it of its terrible power. This is Mozart's most emotional stroke; but was a Mozart, nay, was any musician, necessary for its conception? Would not that cry have been the same if surrounded by true music? A contrary example, but to the same effect, is afforded by Gluck in his great scene of Orpheus at the gate of Hades, which may have moved our great-grandfathers, accustomed to fugues and minuets and rigaudons, but which seems coldly beautiful as some white antique group to us, accustomed as we are to romantic art. The No! of the Furies loses all its effects by being worked into a definite musical form, by being locked into the phrase begun by Orpheus; it is merely a constituent note and no more, until after some time it is repeated detached, and without any reference to the main melody sung by Orpheus: at first it is part of a work of art, later it becomes a mere brute shout, and then, and then only, does it obtain a really moving character.

When these potent physical elements are held in subjection by artistic form, emotion may be suggested, more or less vaguely, but only suggested: we perceive them in the fabric which imprisons them, and we perceive their power, but it is as we should perceive the power of a tiger chained up behind a grating: we remember and imagine what it has been and might be, but we no longer feel it; for us to again feel it, the artistic form must be torn down; the physical elements unchained, and then, and then only, shall we tremble once more before them. Mozart may be on his door-step as a regiment passes: he may feel the inspiring, courage-awakening effect of its rough rhythm and discordant, screeching trumpets: he may go upstairs, sit down to his piano, make use of all those sensuous elements, of the rhythm and of the wind instruments, which have stirred him in that regimental music: he may use them in a piece professedly suggested by that music; the piece will be "Non piu andrai," and a masterpiece. We shall be reminded of military music by it, and we shall be aware of the fact that its rhythm and accompaniment are martial; we shall even call it a martial piece; but will it stir us, will it make us step out and feel soldier-like as would the coarsest regimental trumpets? Jommelli may enter a cathedral as the bells are tolling to mass, and all seems undulating and heaving beneath their swing; he may feel the awful effect of those simple, shapeless sounds: he may listen to their suggestion and frame the opening of his Mass for the Dead on that deep monotonous sway; he will produce a masterpiece, the wondrous Introitus of his Requiem, in which we shall indeed recognize something of the solemn rhythm of the bells, something that will awaken in us the recollection of that moment when the cathedral towers seemed to rock to their movement, and the aisles re-echoed their roar, and when even miles away in the open country the clear deep toll floated across the silent fields; but that effect itself we shall never hear in the music. The artist has used the already existing emotional elements for his own purposes, but those purposes are artistic ones; they aim at delighting the mind, not at tickling the nerves.

The composer, therefore, inasmuch as he deprives the emotional elements of music of their freedom and force of action, cannot possibly produce an effect on the emotions at all to be compared with that spontaneously afforded by nature; he can imitate the rush of waters or the sob of despair only so distantly and feebly that the effect of either is well-nigh lost, and even for such an imitation he must endanger the artistic value of his work, which is safe only when it is the artist's sole aim and object. The most that the composer can legitimately do is to suggest a given emotion by employing in his intellectual structure such among the physical elements of his art as would in a state of complete freedom awaken that given emotion; he may choose such sensuous elements as would inspire melancholy, or joy, or serenity; he may reject any contrary element or any incongruous effect, and he may thus produce what we shall call a pathetic piece, or a cheerful piece, or a solemn piece.

But this pathetic, cheerful, or solemn character depends not upon the intellectual forms imagined by the composer, but upon the sensuous elements afforded by nature; and the artistic activity of the composer consists in the conception of those forms, not in the selection of those physical elements. When, therefore, a composer is said to express the words which he is setting, he does so by means not of the creation of artistic forms, but by the selection of sensuous materials; the suggestion of an emotion analogous to that conveyed by the words is due not to the piece itself, but to its physical constituents; wherefore the artistic value of the composition in no way depends upon its adaptation to the words with which it is linked. There is no more common mistake, nor one which more degrades artistic criticism, than the supposition that the merit of "He was despised and rejected of men," or of "Fin ch'an del vino," depends upon their respective suitableness to the words: the most inferior musician would perceive that such and such physical elements were required to suggest a mental condition in harmony with either of these verbal expressions of feeling; the most inferior musician could have given us a piece as melancholy as "He was despised," or as cheerful as "Fin ch'an del vino," but--and here lies the unique test of artistic worth--only Handel could have given us so beautiful a melancholy piece as the one, and only Mozart so beautiful a cheerful piece as the other. As it is with the praise, so likewise is it with the blame: a composer who sets a cheerful piece to dismal words, or a dismal piece to cheerful words, may be reprehensible for not reflecting that the mind thus receives together two contrary impressions, and he may be condemned for want of logic and good sense; but not a word can be said against his artistic merit, any more than we could say a word against the artistic merit of the great iron-worker of the Renaissance, who closed the holy place where lies the Virgin's sacred girdle with a screen of passion flowers, in whose petals hide goats and ducks, on whose tendrils are balanced pecking cranes, and in the curling leaves of which little naked winged Cupids are drawing their bows and sharpening their arrows even as in the bas-reliefs of a pagan sarcophagus. In the free and spontaneous activity of musical conception, the composer may forget the words he is setting, as the painter may forget the subject he is painting in the fervour of plastic imagination; for the musician conceives not emotions, but modulations; and the painter conceives not actions, but gestures and attitudes. Thence it comes that Mozart has made regicide Romans storm and weep as he would have made Zerlina and Cherubino laugh, just as Titian made Magdalen smite her breast in the wilderness with the smile of Flora on her feast-day; hence that confusion in all save form, that indifference to all save beauty, which characterises all the great epochs of art, that sublime jumble of times and peoples, of tragic and comic, that motley crowding together of satyrs and anchorites, of Saracens and ancient Romans, of antique warriors and mediaeval burghers, of Gothic tracery and Grecian arabesque, of Theseus and Titania, of Puck and Bottom, that great masquerade of art which we, poor critics, would fain reduce to law and rule, to chronological and ethnological propriety.

Those times are gone by: we wish to make every form correspond with an idea; we wish to be told a story by the statue, by the picture, most of all by that which can least tell it--by music. We forget that music is neither a symbol which can convey an abstract thought, nor a brute cry which can express an instinctive feeling; we wish to barter the power of leaving in the mind an indelible image of beauty for the miserable privilege of awakening the momentary recollection of one of nature's sounds, or the yet more miserable one of sending a momentary tremor through the body; we would rather compare than enjoy, and rather weep than admire. Therefore we try to force music to talk a language which it does not speak and which we do not understand; and succeed only in making it babble like a child or rave like a madman, obtaining nothing but unintelligible and incoherent forms in our anxiety to obtain intelligible and logical thoughts. We forget that great fact, forever overlooked by romanticism, that poetry and music are essentially distinct in their nature; that Chapelmaster Kreisler's improvisation was not played but spoken; and that had not the snuffers fallen into the piano, had not the strings snapped asunder, Hoffmann would have had to record, not a grandly grotesque series of images, but a succession of formless and meaningless chords.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Chapelmaster Kreisler