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Music And Supermusic
by [?]

To know whether you are enjoying a piece of music or not

you must see whether you find yourself looking at the

advertisements of Pears’ soap at the end of the program.

Samuel Butler.

What is the distinction in the mind of Everycritic between good music and bad music, in the mind of Everyman between popular music and “classical” music? What is the essential difference between an air by Mozart and an air by Jerome Kern? Why is Chopin’s G minor nocturne better music than Thecla Badarzewska’s La Priere d’une Vierge ? Why is a music drama by Richard Wagner preferable to a music drama by Horatio W. Parker? What makes a melody distinguished? What makes a melody commonplace or cheap? Why do some melodies ring in our ears generation after generation while others enjoy but a brief popularity? Why do certain composers, such as Raff and Mendelssohn, hailed as geniuses while they were yet alive, soon sink into semi-obscurity, while others, such as Robert Franz and Moussorgsky, almost unrecognized by their contemporaries, grow in popularity? Are there no answers to these conundrums and the thousand others that might be asked by a person with a slight attack of curiosity?… No one does ask and assuredly no one answers. These riddles, it would seem, are included among the forbidden mysteries of the sphynx. The critics assert with authority and some show of erudition that the Spohrs, the Mendelssohns, the Humperdincks, and the Montemezzis are great composers. They usually admire the grandchildren of Old Lady Tradition but they neglect to justify this partiality. Nor can we trust the public with its favourite Piccinnis and Puccinis…. What then is the test of supermusic?

For we know, as well as we can know anything, that there is music and supermusic. Rubinstein wrote music; Beethoven wrote supermusic (Mr. Finck may contradict this statement). Bellini wrote operas; Mozart wrote superoperas. Jensen wrote songs; Schubert wrote supersongs. The superiority of Voi che sapete as a vocal melody over Ah! non giunge is not generally contested; neither can we hesitate very long over the question whether or not Der Leiermann is a better song than Lehn’ deine Wang’. Probably even Mr. Finck will admit that the Sonata Appassionata is finer music than the most familiar portrait (I think it is No. 22) in the Kamennoi-Ostrow set. But, if we agree to put Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and a few others on marmorean pedestals in a special Hall of Fame (and this is a compromise on my part, at any rate, as I consider much of the music written by even these men to be below any moderately high standard), what about the rest? Mr. Finck prefers Johann Strauss to Brahms, nay more to Richard himself! He has written a whole book for no other reason, it would seem, than to prove that the author of Tod und Verklarung is a very much over-rated individual. At times sitting despondently in Carnegie Hall, I am secretly inclined to agree with him. Personally I can say that I prefer Irving Berlin’s music to that of Edward MacDowell and I would like to have some one prove to me that this position is untenable.

What is the test of supermusic? I have read that fashionable music, music composed in a style welcomed and appreciated by its contemporary hearers is seldom supermusic. Yet Handel wrote fashionable music, and so much other of the music of that epoch is Handelian that it is often difficult to be sure where George Frederick left off and somebody else began. Bellini wrote fashionable music and Norma and La Sonnambula sound a trifle faded although they are still occasionally performed, but Rossini, whose only desire was to please his public, (Liszt once observed “Rossini and Co. always close with ‘I remain your very humble servant'”), wrote melodies in Il Barbiere di Siviglia which sound as fresh to us today as they did when they were first composed. And when this prodigiously gifted musician-cook turned his back to the public to write Guillaume Tell he penned a work which critics have consistently told us is a masterpiece, but which is as seldom performed today as any opera of the early Nineteenth Century which occasionally gains a hearing at all. Therefor we must be wary of the old men who tell us that we shall soon tire of the music of Puccini because it is fashionable.