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An essay by Vernon Lee

Hearing Music

Title:     Hearing Music
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

"Heard melodies," said Keats, "are sweet; but those unheard are sweeter." The remark is not encouraging to performers, yet, saving their displeasure, there is some truth in it.

We give too much importance, nowadays, being busy and idle and mercantile (compatible qualities, alas!) to the material presence of everything, its power of filling time or space, and particularly of becoming an item of our budget; forgetful that of the very best things the material presence is worthless save as first step to a spiritual existence within our soul. This is particularly the case with music. There is nothing in the realm of sound at all corresponding to the actual photographing of a visible object on the retina; our auditive apparatus, whatever its mysteries, gives no sign of being in any way of the nature of a phonograph. Moreover, one element of music is certainly due to the sense of locomotion, the _rhythm_; so that _sound_, to become music, requires the attention of something more than the mere ear. Nay, it would seem, despite the contrary assertion of the learned _Stumpf_, that the greater number of writers on the vexed science of sound incline to believe that the hearing of music is always attended with movements, however imperceptible, in the throat, which, being true, would prove that, in a fashion, we _perform_ the melodies which we think we only _hear_; living echoes, nerves vibrating beneath the composer's touch as literally as does the string of the fiddle, or its wooden fibres. A very delicate instrument this, called the _Hearer_, and, as we all know, more liable to being out of tune, to refusing to act altogether, than any instrument (fortunately for performers) hitherto made by the hand of man. Thus, in a way, one might paraphrase the answer which Mme. Gabbrielli is said to have made to the Empress Catherine, "Your Majesty's policemen can make me _scream_, not _sing_!" and say to some queen of piano keys or emperor of _ut de poitrine_ that there is no violence or blandishment which can secure the _inner ear_, however much the outer ear may be solicited or bullied.

'Tis in this sense, methinks, that we should understand the saying of Keats--to wit, that in a great many cases the happiest conjunction of music and the soul occurs during what the profane call silence; the very fact of music haunting our mind, while every other sort of sound may be battering our ear, showing our highest receptivity. And, as a fact, we do not know that real musicians, _real_ Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha and Abt Voglers, not written ones, require organs neither of glass nor of metal; but build their palaces of sound on a plain deal table with a paper covered with little lines and dots before them? And was not Beethoven, in what some folk consider his mightiest era, as deaf as a post?

I do not advocate deafness. Nay, privately, being quite incapable of deciphering a score, I confess that there is something dry and dreary in absolutely soundless music--music which from the silent composer passes to the silent performer, who is at the same time a silent listener, without the neighbours being even one bit the wiser? Besides, were this gift universal, it would deprive us of that delightful personality the mere performer, whose high-strung nervousness, or opulent joviality, is, after all, a pleasant item in art, a humorous dramatic interlude, in the excessive spirituality of music.

I am not, therefore, in favour of absolute silence in the art of sounds. I am only asking people to remember that sound waves and the auditive apparatus put in connection, even if the connection costs a guinea, is not enough to secure the real _hearing_ of music; or, if this formula appear too vulgar, asking them to repeat to themselves those lines of Keats. I feel sure that so doing would save much of that dreadful bitterness and dryness of soul, a state of conscious non-receptivity corresponding in musical experience with what ascetic writers call "spiritual aridity"--which must occasionally depress even the most fortunate of listeners. For, look in thy conscience, O friendly fellow-concert-goer, and say truly, hast thou not, many times and oft, sat to no purpose upon narrow seats, blinded by gas, with no outlook save alien backs and bonnets, while divinest music flowed all around, yet somehow wetted not thy thirsty and irritated soul?

The recognition of this fact would not only diminish such painful moments (or rather, alas! _hours_), but would teach us to endure them cheerfully as the preparation for future enjoyment, the garnering for private and silent enjoyment. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard," etc., would act like Joseph's interpretation of the fat and lean kine of Pharaoh; we should consider concerts and musical festivals as fatiguing, even exhausting, employments, the strain of which was rendered pleasant by the anticipation of much ease and delight to come.

Connected with this question is that of amateur performance. The amateur seems nowadays to waste infinite time in vying with the professional person instead of becoming acquainted, so to speak, with the composer. It is astonishing how very little music the best amateurs are acquainted with, because they must needs perform everything they know. This, in most cases, is sheer waste, for, in the way of performers, the present needs of mankind (as Auguste Comte remarked about philosophers) can be amply met by twenty thousand professionals. And many families would, from a spirit of moderation, forego the possession of an unpaid professional in the shape of a daughter or an aunt. One of the chief uses, indeed, of the professional performers should be to suppress amateurs by furnishing a standard of performance which lovers of music would silently apply to the music which formed the daily delight of their inner ear.

For, if we care veraciously for music, we think of it, _or think it_, as it ought to be performed, not as we should ourselves perform it. Nay, more, I feel convinced that truly musical persons, such as can really understand a master's thoughts, are not distressed by the shortcomings of their own performance, the notes they play or sing merely serving to suggest those which they hear.

This transcendental doctrine (fraught, I confess, like all transcendent truths, with gravest practical dangers) was matured in my mind by friendship with one of the most singular of musicians. This person (since deceased, and by profession a clerk) suffered from nervousness so excessive that, despite a fair knowledge of music, the fact of putting his hands upon the keys produced a maddening sort of stammer, let alone a notable tendency to strike wrong notes and miss his octaves; peculiarities of which he was so morbidly conscious that it was only an accident which revealed to me, after years of acquaintance, that he ever played the piano at all. Yet I know as a fact that this poor blundering player, who stopped convulsively if he heard steps in the passage, and actually _closed the lid of his instrument_ when the maid came in with the tea-things, was united more closely with the divine ones of music during his excruciating performance, than many a listener at a splendid concert. Mozart, for whom he had a special _cultus_, would surely have felt satisfied, if his clairvoyant spirit had been abroad, with my friend's marvellous bungling over that first finale of "Don Giovanni." The soul, the whole innermost nervous body (which felt of the shape of the music, fluid and infinitely sensitive) of the poor creature at the piano would draw itself up, parade grandly through that minuet, dance it in glory with the most glorious ghosts of glorious ladies--pshaw! not with anything so trifling! Dance it _with the notes themselves_, would sway with them, bow to them, rise to them, live with them, become in fact part and parcel of the music itself....

So, to return whence I began, it is no use imagining that we necessarily hear music by going to concerts and festivals and operas, exposing our bodily ear to showers and floods of sound, unless we happen to be in the right humour, unless we dispose, at the moment, of that rare and capricious thing--the _inner ear_.

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Vernon Lee's essay: Hearing Music