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The Old and the New Music

In the old-fashioned opera every separate number involved the
composition of a fresh melody; but it is quite a mistake to
suppose that this creative-effort extended continuously
throughout the number from the first to the last bar. When a
musician composes according to a set metrical pattern, the
selection of the pattern and the composition of the first stave
(a stave in music corresponds to a line in verse) generally
completes the creative effort. All the rest follows more or less
mechanically to fill up the pattern, an air being very like a
wall-paper design in this respect. Thus the second stave is
usually a perfectly obvious consequence of the first; and the
third and fourth an exact or very slightly varied repetition of
the first and second. For example, given the first line of Pop
Goes the Weasel or Yankee Doodle, any musical cobbler could
supply the remaining three. There is very little tune turning of
this kind in The Ring; and it is noteworthy that where it does
occur, as in Siegmund's spring song and Mimmy's croon, "Ein
zullendes Kind," the effect of the symmetrical staves, recurring
as a mere matter of form, is perceptibly poor and platitudinous
compared with the free flow of melody which prevails elsewhere.

The other and harder way of composing is to take a strain of free
melody, and ring every variety of change of mood upon it as if it
were a thought that sometimes brought hope, sometimes melancholy,
sometimes exultation, sometimes raging despair and so on. To take
several themes of this kind, and weave them together into a rich
musical fabric passing panoramically before the ear with a
continually varying flow of sentiment, is the highest feat of the
musician: it is in this way that we get the fugue of Bach and the
symphony of Beethoven. The admittedly inferior musician is the
one who, like Auber and Offenbach, not to mention our purveyors
of drawing-room ballads, can produce an unlimited quantity of
symmetrical tunes, but cannot weave themes symphonically.

When this is taken into account, it will be seen that the fact
that there is a great deal of repetition in The Ring does not
distinguish it from the old-fashioned operas. The real difference
is that in them the repetition was used for the mechanical
completion of conventional metric patterns, whereas in The Ring
the recurrence of the theme is an intelligent and interesting
consequence of the recurrence of the dramatic phenomenon which it
denotes. It should be remembered also that the substitution of
symphonically treated themes for tunes with symmetrical eight-bar
staves and the like, has always been the rule in the highest
forms of music. To describe it, or be affected by it, as an
abandonment of melody, is to confess oneself an ignoramus
conversant only with dance tunes and ballads.

The sort of stuff a purely dramatic musician produces when he
hampers himself with metric patterns in composition is not unlike
what might have resulted in literature if Carlyle (for example)
had been compelled by convention to write his historical stories
in rhymed stanzas. That is to say, it limits his fertility to an
occasional phrase, and three quarters of the time exercises only
his barren ingenuity in fitting rhymes and measures to it. In
literature the great masters of the art have long emancipated
themselves from metric patterns. Nobody claims that the hierarchy
of modern impassioned prose writers, from Bunyan to Ruskin,
should be placed below the writers of pretty lyrics, from Herrick
to Mr. Austin Dobson. Only in dramatic literature do we find the
devastating tradition of blank verse still lingering, giving
factitious prestige to the platitudes of dullards, and robbing
the dramatic style of the genuine poet of its full natural
endowment of variety, force and simplicity.

This state of things, as we have seen, finds its parallel in
musical art, since music can be written in prose themes or in
versified tunes; only here nobody dreams of disputing the greater
difficulty of the prose forms, and the comparative triviality of
versification. Yet in dramatic music, as in dramatic literature,
the tradition of versification clings with the same pernicious
results; and the opera, like the tragedy, is conventionally made
like a wall paper. The theatre seems doomed to be in all things
the last refuge of the hankering after cheap prettiness in art.

Unfortunately this confusion of the decorative with the dramatic
element in both literature and music is maintained by the example
of great masters in both arts. Very touching dramatic expression
can be combined with decorative symmetry of versification when
the artist happens to possess both the decorative and dramatic
gifts, and to have cultivated both hand in hand. Shakespeare and
Shelley, for instance, far from being hampered by the
conventional obligation to write their dramas in verse, found it
much the easiest and cheapest way of producing them. But if
Shakespeare had been compelled by custom to write entirely in
prose, all his ordinary dialogue might have been as good as the
first scene of As You Like It; and all his lofty passages as fine
as "What a piece of work is Man!", thus sparing us a great deal
of blank verse in which the thought is commonplace, and the
expression, though catchingly turned, absurdly pompous. The Cent
might either have been a serious drama or might never have been
written at all if Shelley had not been allowed to carry off its
unreality by Elizabethan versification. Still, both poets have
achieved many passages in which the decorative and dramatic
qualities are not only reconciled, but seem to enhance one
another to a pitch otherwise unattainable.

Just so in music. When we find, as in the case of Mozart, a
prodigiously gifted and arduously trained musician who is also,
by a happy accident, a dramatist comparable to Moliere, the
obligation to compose operas in versified numbers not only does
not embarrass him, but actually saves him trouble and thought.
No matter what his dramatic mood may be, he expresses it in
exquisite musical verses more easily than a dramatist of ordinary
singleness of talent can express it in prose. Accordingly, he
too, like Shakespeare and Shelley, leaves versified airs, like
Dalla sua pace, or Gluck's Che fare senza Euridice, or Weber's
Leise, leise, which are as dramatic from the first note to the
last as the untrammelled themes of The Ring. In consequence, it
used to be professorially demanded that all dramatic music should
present the same double aspect. The demand was unreasonable,
since symmetrical versification is no merit in dramatic music:
one might as well stipulate that a dinner fork should be
constructed so as to serve also as a tablecloth. It was an
ignorant demand too, because it is not true that the composers
of these exceptional examples were always, or even often, able to
combine dramatic expression with symmetrical versification. Side
by side with Dalla sua pace we have Il mio tesoro and Non mi dir,
in which exquisitely expressive opening phrases lead to
decorative passages which are as grotesque from the dramatic
point of view as the music which Alberic sings when he is
slipping and sneezing in the Rhine mud is from the decorative
point of view. Further, there is to be considered the mass of
shapeless "dry recitative" which separates these symmetrical
numbers, and which might have been raised to considerable
dramatic and musical importance had it been incorporated into a
continuous musical fabric by thematic treatment. Finally,
Mozart's most dramatic finales and concerted numbers are more or
less in sonata form, like symphonic movements, and must therefore
be classed as musical prose. And sonata form dictates repetitions
and recapitulations from which the perfectly unconventional form
adopted by Wagner is free. On the whole, there is more scope for
both repetition and convention in the old form than in the new;
and the poorer a composer's musical gift is, the surer he is to
resort to the eighteenth century patterns to eke out his
invention.

George Bernard Shaw