dolmetsch onlinea reflection on a dolmetsch concert

Plays, Acting and Music - A Book of Theory

by Arthur Symons

originally published Constable & Company (London, 1909)

taken from:

A Reflection at a Dolmetsch Concert

The interpreter of ancient music, Arnold Dolmetsch, is one of those rare magicians who are able to make roses blossom in mid-winter. While music has been modernising itself until the piano becomes an orchestra, and Berlioz requires four orchestras to obtain a pianissimo, this strange man of genius has quietly gone back a few centuries and discovered for himself an exquisite lost world, which was disappearing like a fresco peeling off a wall. He has burrowed in libraries and found unknown manuscripts like a savant, he has worked at misunderstood notations and found out a way of reading them like a cryptogrammatist, he has first found out how to restore and then how to make over again harpsichord, and virginals, and clavichord, and all those instruments which had become silent curiosities in museums.

It is only beginning to be realised, even by musical people, that the clavecin music of, for instance, Bach, loses at least half its charm, almost its identity, when played on the modern grand piano; that the exquisite music of Rameau and Couperin, the brilliant and beautiful music of Scarlatti, is almost inaudible on everything but the harpsichord and the viols; and that there exists, far earlier than these writers, a mass of English and Italian music of extreme beauty, which has never been spoiled on the piano because it has never been played on it. To any one who has once touched a spinet, harpsichord, or clavichord, the piano must always remain a somewhat inadequate instrument; lacking in the precision, the penetrating charm, the infinite definite reasons for existence of those instruments of wires and jacks and quills which its metallic rumble has been supposed so entirely to have superseded. As for the clavichord, to have once touched it, feeling the softness with which one's fingers make their own music, like wind among the reeds, is to have lost something of one's relish even for the music of the violin, which is also a windy music, but the music of wind blowing sharply among the trees. It is on such instruments that Mr. Dolmetsch plays to us; and he plays to us also on the lute, the theorbo, the viola da gamba, the viola d'amore, and I know not how many varieties of those stringed instruments which are most familiar to most of us from the early Italian pictures in which whimsical little angels with crossed legs hold them to their chins.

Mr. Dolmetsch is, I suppose, the only living man who can read lute-music and play on the lute, an instrument of extraordinary beauty, which was once as common in England as the guitar still is in Spain. And, having made with his own hands the materials of the music which he has recovered from oblivion, he has taught himself and he has taught others to play this music on these instruments and to sing it to their accompaniment. In a music room, which is really the living room of a house, with viols hanging on the walls, a chamber-organ in one corner, a harpsichord in another, a clavichord laid across the arms of a chair, this music seems to carry one out of the world, and shut one in upon a house of dreams, full of intimate and ghostly voices. It is a house of peace, where music is still that refreshment which it was before it took fever, and became accomplice and not minister to the nerves, and brought the clamour of the world into its seclusion.

Go from a concert at Dolmetsch's to a Tschaikowsky concert at the Queen's Hall. Tschaikowsky is a debauch, not so much passionate as feverish. The rushing of his violins, like the rushing of an army of large winged birds; the thud, snap, and tingle of his strange orchestra; the riotous image of Russian peasants leaping and hopping in their country dances, which his dance measures call up before one; those sweet solid harmonies in which (if I may quote the voluptuous phrase of a woman) one sets one's teeth as into nougat; all this is like a very material kind of pleasure, in which the senses for a moment forget the soul. For a moment only, for is it not the soul, a kind of discontented crying out against pleasure and pain, which comes back distressingly into this after all pathetic music? All modern music is pathetic; discontent (so much idealism as that!) has come into all modern music, that it may be sharpened and disturbed enough to fix our attention. And Tschaikowsky speaks straight to the nerves, with that touch of unmanliness which is another characteristic of modern art. There is a vehement and mighty sorrow in the Passion Music of Bach, by the side of which the grief of Tschaikowsky is like the whimpering of a child. He is unconscious of reticence, unconscious of self-control. He is unhappy, and he weeps floods of tears, beats his breast, curses the daylight; he sees only the misery of the moment, and he sees the misery of the moment as a thing endless and overwhelming. The child who has broken his toy can realise nothing in the future but a passionate regret for the toy.

In Tschaikowsky there is none of the quieting of thought. The only healing for our nerves lies in abstract thought, and he can never get far enough from his nerves to look calmly at his own discontent. All those wild, broken rhythms, rushing this way and that, are letting out his secret all the time: "I am unhappy, and I know not why I am unhappy; I want, but I know not what I want." In the most passionate and the most questioning music of Wagner there is always air; Tschaikowsky is suffocating. It is himself that he pities so much, and not himself because he shares in the general sorrow of the world. To Tristan and Isolde the whole universe is an exultant and martyred sharer in their love; they know only the absolute. Even suffering does not bring nobility to Tschaikowsky.

To pass from Wagner to Tschaikowsky, from "Parsifal" to the Pathetic Symphony, is like passing from a church in which priests are offering mass to a hut in which peasants are quarrelling, dancing, and making love. Tschaikowsky has both force and sincerity, but it is the force and sincerity of a ferocious child. He takes the orchestra in both hands, tears it to pieces, catches up a fragment of it here, a fragment of it there, masters it like an enemy; he makes it do what he wants. But he uses his fist where Wagner touches with the tips of his fingers; he shows ill-breeding after the manners of the supreme gentleman. Wagner can use the whole strength of the orchestra, and not make a noise: he never ends on a bang. But Tschaikowsky loves noise for its own sake; he likes to pound the drum, and to hear the violins running up and down scales like acrobats. Wagner takes his rhythms from the sea, as in "Tristan," from fire, as in parts of the "Ring," from light, as in "Parsifal." But Tschaikowsky deforms the rhythms of nature with the caprices of half-civilised impulses. He puts the frog-like dancing of the Russian peasant into his tunes; he cries and roars like a child in a rage. He gives himself to you just as he is; he is immensely conscious of himself and of his need to take you into his confidence. In your delight at finding any one so alive, you are inclined to welcome him without reserve, and to forget that a man of genius is not necessarily a great artist, and that, if he is not a great artist, he is not a satisfactory man of genius.

I contrast him with Wagner because it seems to me that Wagner, alone among quite modern musicians, and though indeed he appeals to our nerves more forcibly than any of them, has that breadth and universality by which emotion ceases to be merely personal and becomes elemental. To the musicians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, music was an art which had to be carefully guarded from the too disturbing presence of emotion; emotion is there always, whenever the music is fine music; but the music is something much more than a means for the expression of emotion. It is a pattern, its beauty lies in its obedience to a law, it is music made for music's sake, with what might be called a more exclusive devotion to art than that of our modern musician. This music aims at the creation of beauty in sound; it conceives of beautiful sound as a thing which cannot exist outside order and measure; it has not yet come to look upon transgression as an essential part of liberty. It does not even desire liberty, but is content with loving obedience. It can express emotion, but it will never express an emotion carried to that excess at which the modern idea of emotion begins. Thus, for all its suggestions of pain, grief, melancholy, it will remain, for us at least, happy music, voices of a house of peace. Is there, in the future of music, after it has expressed for us all our emotions, and we are tired of our emotions, and weary enough to be content with a little rest, any likelihood of a return to this happy music, into which beauty shall come without the selfishness of desire?