Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

The Authoritative Work On American Music
by [?]

H. L. Mencken pointed out to me recently, in his most earnest and persuasive manner, that it was my duty to write a book about the American composers, exposing their futile pretensions and describing their flaccid opera, stave by stave. It was in vain that I urged that this would be but a sleeveless errand, arguing that I could not fight men of straw, that these our composers had no real standing in the concert halls, and that pushing them over would be an easy exercise for a child of ten. On the contrary, he retorted, they belonged to the academies; certain people believed that they were important; it was necessary to dislodge this belief. I suggested, with a not too heavily assumed humility, that I had already done something of the sort in an essay entitled “The Great American Composer.” “A good beginning,” asserted Col. Mencken, “but not long enough. I won’t be satisfied with anything less than a book.” “But if I wrote a book about Professors Parker, Chadwick, Hadley, and the others I could find nothing different to say about them; they are all alike. Neither their lives nor their music offer opportunities for variations.” “An excellent idea!” cried Major Mencken, enthusiastically, “Write one chapter and then repeat it verbatim throughout the book, changing only the name of the principal character. Then clap on a preface, explaining your reason for this procedure.” My last protest was the feeblest of all: “I can’t spend a year or a month or a week poring over the scores of these fellows; I can’t go to concerts to hear their music. I might as well go to work in a coal mine.” “I’ll do it for you!” triumphantly checkmated General Mencken. “I’ll read the scores and you shall write the book!” And so he left me, as on a similar occasion the fiend, having exhibited his prospectus, vanished from the eyes of our Lord. And I returned to my home sorely troubled, finding that the words of the man were running about in my head like so many little Japanese waltzing mice.

And, after much cogitation, I went to such and such a book case and took down a certain volume written by Louis Charles Elson (a very large red tome) and another by Rupert Hughes, to see if their words of praise for our weak musical brothers would stir me to action. I found that they did not. My heart action remained normal; no film covered my eyes; foam did not issue from my mouth. Indeed I read, quite calmly, in Mr. Hughes’s “American Composers” that A. J. Goodrich is “recognized among scholars abroad as one of the leading spirits of our time”; that “(Henry Holden) Huss has ransacked the piano and pillaged almost every imaginable fabric of high colour…. The result is gorgeous and purple”; that “The thing we are all waiting for is that American grand opera, The Woman of Marblehead (by Louis Adolphe Coerne). It is predicted that it will not receive the marble heart”; that “I know of no modern composer who has come nearer to relighting the fires that burn in the old gavottes and fugues and preludes (than Arthur Foote). His two gavottes are to me away the best since Bach”; that “the song ( Israfel by Edgar Stillman-Kelley) is in my fervent belief, a masterwork of absolute genius, one of the very greatest lyrics in the world’s music”; and in “The History of American Music” by Louis C. Elson that “Music has made even more rapid strides than literature among us,” and that “he (George W. Chadwick) has reconciled the symmetrical (sonata) form with modern passion.” But it was in the fourth volume of “The Art of Music,” published by the National Society of Music, that I found the supreme examples of this kind of writing. The volume was edited by Arthur Farwell and W. Dermot Darby. Therein I read with a sort of awed astonishment that one of the songs of Frederick Ayres “reveals a poignancy of imagination and a perception and apprehension of beauty seldom attained by any composer.” I learned that T. Carl Whitmer has a “spiritual kinship” with Arthur Shepherd, Hans Pfitzner, and Vincent d’Indy. His music is “psychologically subtle and spiritually rarefied: in colour it corresponds to the violet end of the spectrum.” I turned the pages until I came to the name of Miss Gena Branscombe: “Inexhaustible buoyancy, a superlative emotional wealth, and wholly singular gift of musical intuition are the qualities which have shaped the composer’s musical personality (without much effort of the imagination we might say that they are the qualities that shaped Beethoven’s musical personality)…. Her impatient melodies leap and dash with youthful life, while her accompaniments abound in harmonic hairbreadth escapes.” Before he became acquainted with the later French idiom Harvey W. Loomis “spontaneously breathed forth the quality of spirit which we now recognize in a Debussy or a Ravel.”