Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Definition of Music
By John Sullivan Dwight (18131893)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1813. Died there, 1893. The Intellectual Influence of Music. The Atlantic Monthly. 1870.]
IT by no means covers the whole significance of music to call it the language of feeling; though, rightly understood, there might not be a higher definition. The poet truly sings,
Thought is deeper than all speech,
Feeling deeper than all thought.
But then he means the feeling which is deep, and which relates us to the highest universal ends of being. Now, musical art, to be sure, does not describe objects, nor narrate histories, nor unfold cosmogonies and systems of philosophy and ethics, as some imaginative expounders of Ninth Symphonies would have us think. It does not express ideas, except of the kind technically known as musical ideas, pregnant little germs of melody, capable of logical development in a way analogous to the development of thoughts. And here, by way of caution, lest we be misunderstood in claiming that music is intellectual and has meaning, we would take occasion once for all to wash our hands of all responsibility for that kind of musical interpretation which seeks to trace a story, a mythology, a thread of doctrine, throughout such or such a symphony, sonata, or tone-poem; and to express our conviction that music stoops from its proper, higher mission when it undertakes to describe scenes or imitate sounds in nature; and that it is never less intellectual, or more regardless of its own chaste integrity, than when it takes the form of programme music, not trusting its own proper element, but borrowing chances of effect ab extra, and dividing the attention as if to cover its own insufficiency. Music must be sufficient in itself. The highest kind of music is pure music, that which lives and moves in purely musical ideas. Yet nothing is more natural than to try to describe the effect upon you of a piece of music by calling up such images, associations, trains of thought, analogous effects in other spheres, as it may have awakened in your mind. You clutch at all these feeble helps in your enthusiastic, vain endeavors to describe the witching thing. This you may do legitimately, so long as you profess no more, and do not try to reverse the order, and make it appear that the music was written to describe your thought. For here we find the true relation between thought and feeling in the sphere of music. Music in one sense describes, by awakening the feelings with which objects, thoughts, experiences, are inevitably associated; every such feeling may of course awaken many images and many memories in many minds; but there will be, at least, some vague analogy, affinity between them; so that music, even of the most pure and abstract sort (such as a stringed quartette by Mozart), is always heard to best advantage on the fit occasion. If it be wedded to words, as in a song, an opera, an oratorio, these in a measure must determine its expression, though it bring out new meanings such as the words alone could hardly have conveyed. Yet take the words away, the music could not be translated into them, would not enable you to find them, though it would put you in a state of mind and feeling in which those or kindred thoughts and words might offer themselves most aptly.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. Leaving objections, we come back to positive statement. The highest definition of music, its full significance and worth, is to be sought mainly in the highest kind of music; that is to say, pure music, dealing in purely musical ideas, conscious of no outward purpose, content in its own world, preoccupied with its own peculiar mission, which is too divine to need the justification of any end to serve. This, indeed, is the first principle of truth in art of any kind.
In this we find the intellectuality of music. For music, in this view, is the most abstract, pure embodiment and type of universal law and movement. It is a key to the divine method throughout all the ordered distribution of the worlds of matter and of spirit. It is the most fluid, free expression of form, in the becoming (what the Germans call das Werden); form developing according to intrinsic and divine necessity. There is nothing arbitrary in music; no acquiring any power in it except by patient, reverent study and mastering of divine proportions and the eternal laws of fitness. Goethe says: The worth of art appears most eminent in music, since it requires no material, no subject-matter, whose effect must be deducted; it is wholly form and power, and it raises and ennobles whatever it expresses.
Hence the study of the laws of fugue and counterpoint, the subtile art of what is called the polyphonic interweaving of the parts in harmony, the learning to develop out of a little melodic phrase of theme or motive, as from a seed-thought, all the wealth of meaning and of beauty there concealed and waiting for the touch of fairy wand of genius, is at least as good a kind of higher intellectual gymnastics as the transcendental mathematics, or the categorical chains of logic, or the perpetually shifting, vanishing cloud-forms of metaphysics. Good music has a logic of its own; none more severe, more subtile, and surely none so fascinating, for it leads, it charms into the infinite.
Even to contemplate the elementary phenomena in nature, upon which all the wonders of the musical art are founded, is to find ourselves in presence of enchanting facts, of laws so intellectual, so inexhaustible in their suggestion, such startling revelations of an infinitely beautiful organic, all-pervading, living order, that the soul is filled with awe as if the very air were tremulous with Deity. For what is music? Its substance, common air. Its form, vibration. All beauty, in whatever art, is the result, the impressed form of motion,free, unimpeded, even motion; and motion, movement, is the universal sign and undeniable assertion of force, of power, of inspiration, in a word, of life; and, finally, all free, undisturbed motion is vibratory, undulating, measured, proportionate, rhythmical. Physically, then, music is motion, and it is nothing else. And nothing moves that does not impress upon the air a vibration, or (which is the same thing) a sound, a tone. If I sing to you, a vibration of my soul, my feeling, imparts itself to the atmospheric medium, traveling on until it becomes a vibration in your soul, your feeling. The spiritual fact of music answers to this physical fact. Its business is directly with the motive principle in human life, and not with thoughts, perceptions, memories; for these are passive, prompted by some motive force behind them.