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An essay by George William Curtis

Street Music

Title:     Street Music
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

A man grinding a hand-organ in the street is doubtless a sturdy beggar soliciting alms. A band of men blowing simultaneously into brass instruments, with a brazen pretence of making music, is probably like steam-whistles and church-bells and the cries of newspaper extras and of itinerant peddlers of many wares--a noisy nuisance. Yet the old cries of London, although doubtless strident and disturbing, have a certain romantic charm of association and tradition. Like the Tower and Billingsgate and Wapping Old Stairs, they were parts of very London, and London was less London when they ceased.

Were those old cries of the story-book, like the interpreted voices of the church-bells--

"Kettles and pans,
Says the bell of St. Ann's;
Apples and lemons,
Says the bell of St. Clement's,"--

altogether shameless and exasperating noises? Were they not the same voices that called Whittington to turn again? Was not the deep bay of St. Paul's heard when Nelson, the old sea-dog, died? Could the music of the bells be spared from the story of London more than that of the cries? Is the milkman who announces the arrival of the morning's milk with a "barbaric yawp," like that in which Mr. Whitman is supposed to celebrate his own personality, a sturdy beggar? He would certainly resent the imputation. He is a merchant who sells a desirable commodity. Shall he be adjudged a nuisance?

But Signor Raffaello da Perugia, who produces opera airs upon a portable organ, with Don Whiskerando, who mounts with agility to the parlor window to receive the consideration in his feathered cap, is he not also a merchant who sells music to you in selected varieties, the latest popular songs and tunes of the theatre, the waltz of last year's ball-room? Must he be accounted a sturdy beggar because you happen not to be in immediate want of his wares? Or the band of which we were speaking, which arrives at the hour when the master of the house returns from his office, and performs a serenade of welcome as he greets the circle from which he has been absent since breakfast, shall it be denied the pleasure of heightening the pleasure of others? Are not the taxes of these Jem Baggses, these wandering minstrels, the "only rates uninvidious in the levy, ungrudged in the assessment?"

Where the intent is so unequivocally kindly, is it not gross and unfeeling to suggest in the modest orchestra a questionable chord, a cracked reed, a cornet out of tune? Why so insistent, so scrupulously exigent? Are you never out of tune, good sir? Your chords, say in the domestic concert, are they always finely harmonious, and your own reed never cracked? Why so eager to cast the first stone? Yonder trombone may have its weaknesses--who of us, pray, is without? Has tolerance gone out with astrology? "He had his faults," said the Reverend Bland Sudds yesterday in a funeral discourse upon the Honorable Richard Turpin--"he had his faults, yes, for he was human." But if a man may falter, shall we not forgive to a trombone even a half-note? If Turpin may be respectfully lamented with indulgent hope, shall a hesitating horn be doomed to "the all-sweeping besom of societarian reformation?"

While Eugenio was making the grand tour he loitered in Venice and lingered in Naples, wandering to Paestum, feasting in the orange groves of Sorrento, and penetrating the Blue Grotto at Capri. In Venice the songs of the country, in Naples the barcarolles, made his memory as he came away a thicket of singing-birds. Those ever-renewed snatches and remembered refrains of songs, Venetian and Neapolitan, like a sponge passed over a Giorgione, brought out the mellow richness of Italy, and as he paced Broadway and hummed a tender melody, he walked where Vittoria Colonna had trod, and heard the faint beat of oars upon moonlit Como. One morning, hard at work in his chamber, where only the confused roar of the city was audible, a strain rose high and clear above it all, with a soft, pathetic, penetrating urgency, "So' marinaro di questa marina," and, all else forgotten, he was once more rocking on Italian waters, and the red-capped fisher-boys filled the air with song.

He ran down, and into the street, and around the block, and, lo! Signor Raffaello was the fond magician. He was turning the crank of his heavy organ, and Don Whiskerando, feathered cap in hand, was climbing the balcony of the drawing-room windows, and Signor Raffaello was raising his eyes towards the upper windows to see if haply some child or nurse attended. Eugenio dropped more than a penny into the ready hand of the signore, and was gone before the swarthy magician could make out his benefactor. Eugenio gained his room, and with sympathetic intelligence the signore, playing out the College Hornpipe, once more touched the stop of "So' marinaro," and renewed the happy spell.

It is not fine music, that of the hand-organ and the street bands; it is indeed too oft a cracked and spavined pleasure. Doubtless it is justly classified as one of the street noises, and street noises are probably nuisances to be abated. But strolling in the eastern quarters of the city, beyond the domain of the Academy and the Metropolitan Opera-house and the halls of Steinway and Chickering, have you never seen an eager and ragged little rabble happily watching Don Whiskerando, while their elders are plainly pleased for a moment with that tuneful noise? The fruit is not wholly sound, but it is far from rotten. The music is poor, but the pleasure is unquestionable. Possibly the "Gotterdammerung," and even Siegfried's "Tod," would pass these people unmarked, like the wind. They cannot hold those mighty measures. But they are receptive of these little tunes. In a life of not much enjoyment this brings them some pleasure. Shall it be stopped altogether? It is the business of these peddlers of tunes to wander. They will move on if you do not want them. But must they also move away from those who do want them?

If there be too much noise in the streets, might not some other form of noise have been first silenced than that of the street musicians? There are the factory whistles and the church-bells. For the necessity of the first something may be said. But the heavy clangor of the bells is doubtless more than a discomfort to many, and it is wholly useless, while the music of the organs and the bands is a pleasure. Do the Aldermen, like Homer, sometimes nod? Sometimes, for an inadvertent hour, do the finer instincts of public spirit flag in those civic bosoms? What evil genius, hostile to the enjoyment of the people, persuaded them? Did the city fathers for one ill-starred moment forget their Tacitus, and silence the street music unmindful of those words, so familiar to them in their hours of classic relaxation--_Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant_?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Street Music