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Chapelmaster Kreisler
by [?]


There is nothing stranger in the world than music: it exists only as sound, is born of silence and dies away into silence, issuing from nothing and relapsing into nothing; it is our own creation, yet it is foreign to ourselves; we draw it from out of the silent wood and the silent metal, it lives in our own breath, yet it seems to come to us from a distant land which we shall never see, and to tell us of things we shall never know. It is for ever striving to tell us something, for ever imploring us to listen and to understand; we listen, we strain, we try to take in its vague meaning; it is telling us sweet and mighty secrets, letting drop precious talismanic words; we guess, but do not understand. And shall we never understand? May we never know wherefore the joy, wherefore the sadness? Can we not subtilise our minds, go forth with our heart and fancy as interpreters, and distinguish in the wreathing melodies and entangled chords some words of superhuman emotion, even as the men of other ages distinguished in the sighing oak woods and the rustling reeds the words of the great gods of nature?

To us music is no longer what it was to our grandfathers, a mere pleasing woof of meaningless pattern; we have left those times far behind, times whose great masters were prophets uttering mere empty sounds to their contemporaries; we have shaken off the dust of the schools of counterpoint, we have thrown aside the mechanical teachings of the art; for us music has become an audible, quivering fata morgana of life, the embodiment of the intangible, the expression of the inexplicable, the realisation of the impossible. And it has become a riddle, a something we would fain understand but cannot, a spell of our own devising which we cannot decipher; we sit listening to it as we sit looking into the deep, dreamy eyes of an animal, full of some mute language, which we vainly strive to comprehend.

The animal seems as though it could say much if only it could speak; so also music would seem to contain far deeper meanings than any spoken word, to be fraught with emotion deeper than we can feel: it could confide so much if we could understand. Yet the animal is but an animal, with some of our virtues and some of our vices, infinitely more ignorant than we are; dumb, not because we cannot understand, but because he cannot speak. And may it not be the same with music? May not music be intellectually inscrutable because it is intellectually meaningless?

The idea is one from which we shrink; but are we right in shrinking from it? Cannot music be noble in itself apart from any meaning it conveys? Cannot we be satisfied with what it certainly is, without thinking of what it may be? It would seem to be so; it is the spirit of our culture to strain restlessly after the unknown, for ever to seek after the hidden, to reject the visible and tangible. We yearn to penetrate through the blue of the summer evening, to thread our way among the sun-gilded clouds; yet the blue heaven, if we rise into it, is mere tintless air; the clouds, if we can touch them, are mere dull vapour. And so also we would fain seek a meaning in those fair sounds which are fairer than any meaning they could contain; we would break down in rude analysis the splendours of Don Giovanni only to discover beneath them the story of a punished Lovelace; we would tear to shreds a glorious fugue of Bach for the satisfaction of hearing the Jews yelling for Barabbas.

This is our tendency, this our way of enjoying the great art of other days: to care not for itself, but for what it suggests, nay, most often for the suggestion of the mere name of the work of art, for there is no punished Lovelace in Mozart’s melodies, no Barabbas in Bach’s fugues, there is nothing but beautiful forms made out of sounds. The old prosaic masters of the past, who worked at a picture or a statue or an opera as a cobbler works at a pair of shoes, never thought of suggesting anything to us: they gave something substantial, something intrinsically valuable, a well-shaped figure, a richly tinted canvas, a boldly modulated piece of music; to produce that and no more had been their object, it was all they could give, and their contemporaries were satisfied with it. Their art was their trade, pursued conscientiously, diligently, intelligently, sometimes with that superior degree of intelligence we call genius, but it was their trade and no more. They themselves were as prosaic as any artisan, and no more saw vague poetry in their works, though these were the Olympic Jove, the School of Athens, or the Messiah, than does the potter in his pot or the smith in his iron; all they saw was that their works were beautiful, as the potter sees that his pot is round and smooth, and the smith that his blade is bright and sharp. For the rest they were terribly prosaic, terribly given up to the mechanical interests of their art and the material interests of their lives, as you may see them in Vasari, in the lives of Handel, of Bach, of Haydn, of Mozart, of the last of true, unpoetic musicians, Rossini, and as you would doubtless see the unknown sculptors of antiquity if you could see them at all.