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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Music as a Means of Culture
By John Sullivan Dwight (1813–1893)
 
From the Atlantic Monthly, 1870

WE as a democratic people, a great mixed people of all races, overrunning a vast continent, need music even more than others. We need some ever-present, ever-welcome influence that shall insensibly tone down our self-asserting and aggressive manners, round off the sharp, offensive angularity of character, subdue and harmonize the free and ceaseless conflict of opinions, warm out the genial individual humanity of each and every unit of society, lest he become a mere member of a party, or a sharer of business or fashion. This rampant liberty will rush to its own ruin, unless there shall be found some gentler, harmonizing, humanizing culture, such as may pervade whole masses with a fine enthusiasm, a sweet sense of reverence for something far above us, beautiful and pure; awakening some ideality in every soul, and often lifting us out of the hard hopeless prose of daily life. We need this beautiful corrective of our crudities. Our radicalism will pull itself up by the roots, if it do not cultivate the instinct of reverence. The first impulse of freedom is centrifugal,—to fly off the handle,—unless it be restrained by a no less free impassioned love of order. We need to be so enamored of the divine idea of unity, that that alone—the enriching of that—shall be the real motive for assertion of our individuality. What shall so temper and tone down our “fierce democracy”? It must be something better, lovelier, more congenial to human nature than mere stern prohibition, cold Puritanic “Thou shalt not!” What can so quickly magnetize a people into this harmonic mood as music? Have we not seen it, felt it?  1
  The hard-working, jaded millions need expansion, need the rejuvenating, the ennobling experience of joy. Their toil, their church, their creed perhaps, their party livery, and very vote, are narrowing; they need to taste, to breathe a larger, freer life. Has it not come to thousands, while they have listened to or joined their voices in some thrilling chorus that made the heavens seem to open and come down? The governments of the Old World do much to make the people cheerful and contented; here it is all laissez-faire, each for himself, in an ever keener strife of competition. We must look very much to music to do this good work for us; we are open to that appeal; we can forget ourselves in that; we blend in joyous fellowship when we can sing together; perhaps quite as much so when we can listen together to a noble orchestra of instruments interpreting the highest inspirations of a master. The higher and purer the character and kind of music, the more of real genius there is in it, the deeper will this influence be.  2
  Judge of what can be done, by what already, within our own experience, has been done and daily is done. Think what the children in our schools are getting, through the little that they learn of vocal music,—elasticity of spirit, joy in harmonious co-operation, in the blending of each happy life in others; a rhythmical instinct of order and of measure in all movement; a quickening of ear and sense, whereby they will grow up susceptible to music, as well as with some use of their own voices, so that they may take part in it; for from these spacious nurseries (loveliest flower gardens, apple orchards in full bloom, say, on their annual fête days) shall our future choirs and oratorio choruses be replenished with good sound material….  3
  We esteem ourselves the freest people on this planet; yet perhaps we have as little real freedom as any other, for we are the slaves of our own feverish enterprise, and of a barren theory of discipline, which would fain make us virtuous to a fault through abstinence from very life. We are afraid to give ourselves up to the free and happy instincts of our nature. All that is not pursuit of advancement in some good, conventional, approved way of business, or politics, or fashion, or intellectual reputation, or professed religion, we count waste. We lack geniality; nor do we as a people understand the meaning of the word. We ought to learn it practically of our Germans. It comes of the same root with the word genius. Genius is the spontaneous principle; it is free and happy in its work; it is artist and not drudge; its whole activity is reconciliation of the heartiest pleasure with the purest loyalty to conscience, with the most holy, universal, and disinterested ends. Genius, as Beethoven gloriously illustrates in his Choral Symphony (indeed, in all his symphonies), finds the keynote and solution of the problem of the highest state in “Joy,” taking his text from Schiller’s Hymn. Now, all may not be geniuses in the sense that we call Shakespeare, Mozart, Raphael, men of genius. But all should be partakers of this spontaneous, free, and happy method of genius; all should live childlike, genial lives, and not wear all the time the consequential livery of their unrelaxing business, nor the badge of party and profession, in every line and feature of their faces. This genial, childlike faculty of social enjoyment, this happy art of life, is just what our countrymen may learn from the social “Liedertafel” and the summer singing-festivals of which the Germans are so fond. There is no element of national character which we so much need; and there is no class of citizens whom we should be more glad to adopt and own than those who set us such examples. So far as it is a matter of culture, it is through art chiefly that the desiderated genial era must be ushered in. The Germans have the sentiment of art, the feeling of the beautiful in art, and consequently in nature, more developed than we have. Above all, music offers itself as the most available, most popular, most influential of the fine arts,—music, which is the art and language of the feelings, the sentiments, the spiritual instincts of the soul; and so becomes a universal language, tending to unite and blend and harmonize all who may come within its sphere.  4
  Such civilizing, educating power has music for society at large. Now, in the finer sense of culture, such as we look for in more private and select “society,” as it is called, music in the salon, in the small chamber concert, where congenial spirits are assembled in its name—good music of course—does it not create a finer sphere of social sympathy and courtesy? Does it not better mold the tone and manners from within than any imitative “fashion” from without? What society, upon the whole, is quite so sweet, so satisfactory, so refined, as the best musical society, if only Mozart, Mendelssohn, Franz, Chopin, set the tone! The finer the kind of music heard or made together, the better the society. This bond of union only reaches the few; coarser, meaner, more prosaic natures are not drawn to it. Wealth and fashion may not dictate who shall be of it. Here congenial spirits meet in a way at once free, happy, and instructive, meet with an object which insures “society”; whereas so-called society, as such, is often aimless, vague, modifying and fatiguing, for the want of any subject-matter. Here one gets ideas of beauty which are not mere arbitrary fashions, ugly often to the eye of taste. Here you may escape vulgarity by a way not vulgar in itself, like that of fashion, which makes wealth and family and means of dress its passports. Here you can be as exclusive as you please, by the soul’s light, not wronging any one; here learn gentle manners, and the quiet ease and courtesy with which cultivated people move, without in the same process learning insincerity.  5
  Of course the same remarks apply to similar sincere reunions in the name of any other art, or of poetry. But music is the most social of them all, even if each listener find nothing set down to his part (or even hers!) but tacet.  6
  We have fancied ourselves entertaining a musical house together, but we must leave it with no time to make report or picture out the scene. Now, could we only enter the chamber, the inner sanctum, the private inner life of a thoroughly musical person, one who is wont to live in music! Could we know him in his solitude! (You can only know him in yourself, unless he be a poet and creator in his art, and bequeath himself in that form in his works for any who know how to read.) If the best of all society is musical society, we go further and say: The sweetest of all solitude is when one is alone with music. One gets the best of music, the sincerest part, when he is alone. Our poet-philosopher has told us to secure solitude at any cost; there’s nothing which we can so ill afford to do without. It is a great vice of our society, that it provides for and disposes to so little solitude, ignoring the fact that there is more loneliness in company than out of it. Now, to a musical person, in the mood of it, in the sweet hours by himself, comes music as the nearest friend, nearer and dearer than ever before; and he soon finds that he never was in such good company. I doubt if symphony of Beethoven, opera of Mozart, Passion Music of Bach, was ever so enjoyed or felt in grandest public rendering, as one may feel it while he recalls its outline by himself at his piano (even if he be a slow and bungling reader and may get it out by piecemeal). I doubt if such an one can carry home from the performance, in presence of the applauding crowd, nearly so much as he may take to it from such inward, private preparation.  7
  Are you alone? What spirits can you summon up to fill the vacancy, and people it with life and love and beauty! Take down the volume of sonatas, the arrangement of the great Symphony, the recorded reveries of Chopin, the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Franz, or even the chorals, with the harmony of Bach, in which the four parts blend their several individual melodies together in such loving service of the whole, that the plain people’s tune becomes a germ unfolding into endless wealth and beauty of meaning; and you have the very essence of all prayer, and praise, and gratitude, as if you were a worshiper in the ideal church. Nothing like music, then, to banish the benumbing ghost of ennui. It lends secret sympathy, relief, expression, to all one’s moods, loves, longings, sorrows; comes nearer to the soul or to the secret wound than any friend or healing sunshine from without. It nourishes and feeds the hidden springs of hope and love and faith; renews the old conviction of life’s springtime,—that the world is ruled by love, that God is good, that beauty is a divine end of life, and not a snare and an illusion. It floods out of sight the unsightly, muddy grounds of life’s petty, anxious, doubting moments, and makes immortality a present fact, lived in and realized. It locks the door against the outer world of discords, contradictions, importunities, beneath the notice of a soul so richly occupied: lets “Fate knock at the door” (as Beethoven said in explanation of his symphony),—Fate and the pursuing Furies,—and even welcomes them, and turns them into gracious goddesses,—Eumenides! Music, in this way, is a marvelous elixir to keep off old age. Youth returns in solitary hours with Beethoven and Mozart. Touching the chords of the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ the old man is once more a lover; with the andante of the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ he loiters by the shady brookside, hand in hand with his fresh heart’s first angel. You are past the sentimental age, yet you can weep alone in music,—not weep exactly, but find outlet more expressive and more worthy of your manly faith.  8
  A great grief comes, an inconsolable bereavement, a humiliating, paralyzing reverse, a blow of Fate, giving the lie to your best plans and bringing your best powers into discredit with yourself; then you are best prepared and best entitled to receive the secret visitations of these tuneful goddesses and muses.
  “Who never ate his bread in tears,
He knows you not, ye heavenly powers!”
So sings the German poet. It is the want of inward, deep experience, it is innocence of sorrow and of trial, more than the lack of any special cultivation of musical taste and knowledge, that debars many people—naturally most young people, and all who are what we call shallow natures—from the feeling and enjoyment of many of the truest, deepest, and most heavenly of all the works of music. Take the Passion Music of Bach, for instance; if you can sit down alone at your piano and decipher strains and pieces of it when you need such music, you shall find that in its quiet quaintness, its sincerity and tenderness, its abstinence from all striving for effect, it speaks to you and entwines itself about your heart, like the sweetest, deepest verses in the Bible; when “the soul muses till the fire burns.”
  9
  Such a panacea is this art for loneliness. But sometimes too it may intensify the sense of loneliness, only for more heavenly relief at last. Think of the deep composer, of lonely, sad Beethoven, wreaking his pain upon expression in those impatient chords and modulations, putting his sorrows into sonatas, and wringing triumph always out of all! Look at him as he was then,—morose, they say, and lonely and tormented; look where he is now, as the whole world knows him, feels him, seeks him for its joy and inspiration—and who can doubt of immortality?  10
  Now, in such private solace, in such solitary joys, is there not culture? Can one rise from such communings with the good spirits of the tone-world and go out, without new peace, new faith, new hope, and good-will in his soul? He goes forth in the spirit of reconciliation and of patience, however much he may hate the wrong he sees about him, or however little he accept authorities and creeds that make war on his freedom. The man who has tasted such life, and courted it till he has become acclimated in it, whether he be of this party or that, or none at all; whether he be believer or “heretic,” conservative or radical, follower of Christ by name or “Free Religionist,”—belongs to the harmonic and anointed body-guard of peace, fraternity, good-will; his instincts have all caught the rhythm of that holy march; the good genius leads, he has but to follow cheerfully and humbly. For somehow the minutest fibres, the infinitesimal atoms of his being, have got magnetized as it were into a loyal, positive direction towards the pole-star of unity; he has grown attuned to a believing, loving mood, just as the body of a violin, the walls of a music hall, by much music-making become gradually seasoned into smooth vibration.  11
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
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