Chapter 2. MUSIC OF THE GREEKS AND THE HEBREWS

Table of Contents

Greek Music
Jewish Music
Early Christian Music

It may be said that the conclusions reached in the last chapter are modified, if not traversed, by the fundamental distinction between vocal and instrumental music. Grant that when a composer is independent of the collaboration of poet or dramatistthough even here the claims of programme music call for considerationhis object may be fairly stated as the attainment of intrinsic beauty and truth, yet when he co-operates with the poet his work must surely own a divided allegiance, its office must be largely illustrative, its significance determined not so much by the inner laws of its own being as by its adaptability to the poem or the dramatic scene. We cannot imagine Erikonig without Goethe, or Mondnacht without Eichen-dorff, or Pelleas without Maeterlinck; song inherits from both parents and in its lineaments the features of both are reproduced.

There is no doubt a truth in this statement,

but further reflection will show that it is so slight as to be really inapplicable. In the greatest songsand it is by these that we should judgethe words are not so much the determining factor as the occasion which arouses the composer's genius. They stand to him in somewhat the same relation as the landscape to the painter, whose office it is not to reproduce the details of the scene with topographical accuracy, but, as Mr. Montague says, " to express some emotion that he has felt in its presence." Any attempt to rewrite the poem from a knowledge of the music would be as hopeless as to find one's way across a Swiss Valley with a Turner instead of a map. Indeed, the discrepancy is still greater, for, as we have seen, music is a stage further behind the phenomenal world and is therefore less dependent than any other art on accuracy of representation.

Another parallel may help to make this clearer. The high emotion which we experience on hearing great music is akin to that which Wordsworth felt in Nature, which the mystic feels in the solitude of the mountain, and perhaps the saint in the seclusion of the desert; it is not that we are calling upon Nature to reflect our own particular joys and sorrowsstill less our momentary sentiments and capricesbut that we are raised into a realm of pure beauty or pure contemplation in which such personal distinctions are really irrelevant. All music worthy of the name springs from a creative impulse which may partly be expressed in emotional terms and partly stimulated by some poetic or dramatic impetus, but this is not to say that it can ever be a mere reflection of visible drama or of articulate poetry.

This point needs the more emphasis because it is highly probable that music in its first origin was derived from a declamatory art in which the words were of far greater importance than the melody. The beginnings of this art may be traced to the heightened and emotional speech in which, so far as our evidence attests, our remote ancestors gave .vent to their feelings in moments of special excitementfirst the interjectional cries of anger or fear or satisfaction, then phrases of description or comment, then the celebration of great events, the death of a chief, or a victory of the tribe, or some personal act of prowess in the chase. Professor Lascelles Abercrombie has quoted, in one of his lectures, an Australian Blackfellow song which may well be taken to represent the art of primitive man;

The kangaroo ran very fast,

But I ran faster;

The kangaroo was very fat:

I ate him. Kangaroo! Kangaroo 1

It will be seen that this admirable stanza describes simply and swiftly an event of high importance and raises it into lyric fervour by the shout of triumph at its close. Unfortunately of this, as of all primeval song, the tune has not been preserved, and we are left to conjecture it as best we can from scant and imperfect testimony. Probably in the first instance the words were chanted to a fluid rise and fall of the voice, improvised on each occasion according to the mood of the moment, as you may hear a child crooning some piece of nursery lore and forgetting each phrase as he utters it. Then some particular form of declamation was fixed, as being most telling or appropriate, to some particular set of words, and so comes gradually into being an established succession of war-songs and funeral songs and hymns and chants of victory, each generation adding to the number with new skill as civilisation advances, until we arrive at the ballads which preceded the Homeric poems and at Demodocus the bard singing to Odysseus at the court of Phaeacia. And here we touch, at its threshold, the difficult and controversial question of Greek music.