This is taken from Camille Saint-Saens Musical Memories.
Music is as old as human nature. We can get some idea of what it was at first from the music of savage tribes. There were a few notes and rudimentary melodies with blows struck in cadence as an accompaniment; or, sometimes, the same primitive rhythms without any accompaniment—and nothing else! Then melody was perfected and the rhythms became more complicated. Later came Greek music, of which we know little, and the music of the East and Far East.
Music, as we now understand the term, began with the attempts at harmony in the Middle Ages. These attempts were labored and difficult, and the uncertainty of their gropings, combined with the slowness of their development, excites our wonder. Centuries were necessary before the writing of music became exact, but, slowly, laws were elaborated. Thanks to them the works of the Sixteenth Century came into being, in all their admirable purity and learned polyphony. Hard and inflexible laws engendered an art analogous to primitive painting. Melody was almost entirely absent and was relegated to dance tunes and popular songs. But the dance tunes of the time, on which, perhaps, erudition was not used sufficiently, were written in the same polyphonic style and with the same rigid correctness as the madrigals and the church music.
We know that the popular songs found their way into the church music and that Palestrina’s great reform consisted in banishing them. However, we should get but a feeble idea of the part they played, if we imagined that they naturally belonged there. Take a well known air, Au Claire de la Lune, for example, and make each note a whole note sung by the tenor, while the other voices dialogue back and forth in counterpoint, and see what is left of the song for the listener. The scandal of La Messe de l’Homme arme was entirely theoretical.
We simply do not know how they played these anthems, masses, and madrigals, in the absence of any indication of either the time or the emphasis. We find a few directions for expression, as in the first measures of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater but such directions are extremely rare. They are simply the first signs of the dawn of the far-off day of music with expression. Certain learned and well-intentioned persons endeavor to compare this music with ours, and we surprise in some of the modern editions instances of molto expressivo which seem to be good guesses. This exclusively consonant music, in which the intervals of fourths were considered dissonant, while the diminishing fifth was the diabolus in musica, ought from its very nature to be antithetical to expression. Nothing in the Kyrie, in La Messe du Pape Marcel, gives the impression of a prayer, unless expressive accents, without any real justification, are introduced by main strength.
Expression came into existence with the chord of the dominant seventh from which all modern harmony developed. This invention is attributed to Monteverde. No matter what has been said, however, it occurs in Palestrina’s Adoremus. Floods of ink have been poured out in discussing this question, some affirming, while others—and not the least, by any manner of means—denying the existence of the famous chord. No equivocation is possible. It is a simultaneously played chord held by four voices for a whole measure. What is certain is that Palestrina, by putting aside the rules, made a discovery, the significance of which he did not realize.
With the introduction of the seventh interval a new era began. It would be a grave error to believe that the rules were overturned, for, instead, new principles were added to old ones as new conditions demanded. They learned how to modulate, how to transpose from one key to the next key and finally to the keys farthest away. In his treatise on harmony Fetis studied this evolution in a masterly manner. Unfortunately his scholarship was not combined with deep musical feeling. For example, he saw faults in Mozart and Beethoven where there are only beauties, and beauties which even an ignorant listener—if he is naturally musical—will see without trouble. He did not understand the vast difference between the unlettered person who commits a solecism and Pascal, the inventor of a new syntax.
However that may be, Fetis gave us a comprehensive review in broad outlines of musical evolution down to what he justly called the “omnitonic system,” which Richard Wagner has achieved since. “Beyond that,” he said, “I can see nothing more.”
He did not foresee the a-tonic system, but that is what we have come to. There is no longer any question of adding to the old rules new principles which are the natural expression of time and experience, but simply of casting aside all rules and every restraint.
“Everyone ought to make his own rules. Music is free and unlimited in its liberty of expression. There are no perfect chords, dissonant chords or false chords. All aggregations of notes are legitimate.”
That is called, and they believe it, the development of taste.
He whose taste is developed by this system is not like the man who by tasting a wine can tell you its age and its vineyard, but he is rather like the fellow who with perfect indifference gulps down good or bad wine, brandy or whiskey, and prefers that which burns his gullet the most. The man who gets his work hung in the Salon is not the one who puts on his canvas delicate touches in harmonious tones, but he who juxtaposes vermillion and Veronese green. The man with a “developed taste” is not the one who knows how to get new and unexpected results by passing from one key to another, as the great Richard did in Die Meistersinger, but rather the man who abandons all keys and piles up dissonances which he neither introduces nor concludes and who, as a result, grunts his way through music as a pig through a flower garden.
Possibly they may go farther still. There seems to be no reason why they should linger on the way to untrammeled freedom or restrict themselves within a scale. The boundless empire of sound is at their disposal and let them profit by it. That is what dogs do when they bay at the moon, cats when they meow, and the birds when they sing. A German has written a book to prove that the birds sing false. Of course he is wrong for they do not sing false. If they did, their song would not sound agreeable to us. They sing outside of scales and it is delightful, but that is not man-made art.
Some Spanish singers give a similar impression, through singing interminable grace notes beyond notation. Their art is intermediate between the singing of the birds and of man. It is not a higher art.
In certain quarters they marvel at the progress made in the last thirty years. The architects of the Fifteenth Century must have reasoned in the same way. They did not appreciate that they were assassinating Gothic art, and that after some centuries we would have to revert to the art of the Greeks and Romans.
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