« PreviousContinue »
The march of civilization seems the signal for their disappearance; and there is something mournful in the reflection, that at no distant period this race of men, which physiologists reckon as one of the distinct varieties of mankind, will exist only in the pages of history.
We have already extended this article beyond reasonable bounds, or we should have offered some remarks on the letter of Mr Prevost to the secretary of state, respecting the Columbia river. We do not subscribe to all the opinions of that gentleman, and doubt the accuracy of the information he received in relation to some facts he has stated. But as we cannot go into the subject at large, we shall only notice an unimportant error in relation to the language, which he says "bears a strong analogy with that of Nootka. This mistake (if it be one) may be easily accounted for, when it is known that the natives of Columbia river have frequent intercourse with the Indians of Classett, who speak the Nootka language, and that the first foreign adventurers,' who visited the river, had previously acquired a knowledge of that language. It was natural that their intercourse should be carried on in a language of which both had some knowledge, and this has been the case, to a certain extent ever since. A comparison of the following numerals, in the Nootka language, and in that spoken at the mouth of the Columbia, will shew an essential difference. English. Nootka.
ART, XIX. Dissertation on Musical Taste, or General Prin
ciples of Taste, applied to the Art of Music. By Thomas Hastings. Albany, Websters & Skinners, 1822. p. 228.
True reformation is rarely the work of a moment. When the tenacious grasp with which mankind cling to long established customs and opinions is once broken, they generally rush to the opposite extreme, and in their eagerness for reform adopt without examination whatever seems to be contrary to their former notions. “Tear away, brother Martin, never mind, so you do but tear away,' is the maxim on which they often proceed; and the consequence is, that when the excitement is diminished and they begin to review their labor, they find that they tore the old coat in pieces before they had made another-that they have still much to do before they can appear in a decent dress. Something like this has been the case in the change which, within a few years, has taken place in the character of our music.
When the discerning part of the community had at last become sensible of the absolute worthlessness of the music generally heard in our congregations, and awake to the necessity of a reform, it was quite natural that the first determination should be to throw aside the whole mass of insipid compositions, to which they had so long listened, and to substitute the works of foreign masters in their stead. The attempt was a laudable one; at the same time it must be allowed that the knowledge and good judgment of those who were active in the measure, were outstripped by their zeal.
The community needed more preparation for so great a change, and to the no small astonishment of the reformers, the anticipated result was not realized. There were two causes of this disappointment. One was a general deficiency in musical science, which prevented any just discrimination in selecting from the works of European composers. The good and the bad were equally liable to be taken, and the quantity of the latter greatly exceeded that of the former; so that in reality the exchange was in many instances very little for the better. But there was another cause far more operative. Bad habits of execution, which in a considerable degree had their origin in the peculiar qualities of the wretched compositions that had been so long in vogue, still remained. The tune was changed, but the manner of singing was unaltered, and of course the effect was much the same.
The delicate airs of Madan were mangled and crushed by the harsh vociferations of ignorant vocalists, and the sublime harmonies of Giardini were smothered under their meagre tones and unemphatic pronunciation. Many indeed praised the music, because it was said to be good, and they dared not to contradict; but the simple, unsophisticated auditor, who was uninfluenced in his decision by a reverence for the authority of fashion and judged only by the feelings actually excited in his breast, hesitated not to declare his dislike to it, and heartily wished that of the old school to be restored to favor. We shall have occasion in the course of the succeeding remarks to notice a peculiar charm which that possessed, especially for minds of a moderate degree of refinement. That charm was gone, and the power of the music now in use was unfelt for the simple reason that it was not exerted.
The evils which sprung from these causes have been for some time past diminishing. Much however remains to be done before the legitimate effects of music can be generally experienced. We have long wished that some effort might be made to diffuse more extensively, just notions of the principal ends of music, and the means by which they may be attained. It was gratifying to learn that a person so eminently qualified for the task as Mr Hastings, was making the desired attempt, and the result of his labors more than answers our highest anticipations.
The work may be divided into two parts; the first treats the subject of taste in the execution of music ; the second of taste in its composition.
The qualities of good singing are thus enumerated : Intonation, Time, Articulation, Accent, Emphass, Expression, and the Graces. These are treated in their order.
The prevailing notion, that nature only can make a fine tone, is doubtless true, if by a fine tone is meant one of superlative excellence; but unquestionably a regard to this notion has been productive of mischief, by causing a remissness in cultivating the voice so far as it is capable of improvement. No efforts could make every tone equal to that of a Farinelli, yet a very limited observation will show that there is no tone which is not susceptible of considerable modification. In a choir of singers, however diverse their tones may have been when they began to sing together, the whole become before long very much assimilated to those of a few leading ones, and perhaps more
often to that of the chorister alone. If he sings harshly, they all do the same ; if his tone is full and clear, or slender and imperfectly made, the tones of the whole will be so in a greater or less degree. This change may take place without the singers being sensible of it; but if they imitate without being aware of so doing, it is plain that suitable efforts would produce far greater alterations. Softness, clearness, and volume are essential qualities of a good tone. In the natural voice they are rarely found however, especially through its whole compass. A few notes indeed about the medium one, may possess these qualities, but above and below they are usually more or less wanting, though almost always attainable. But instead of careful attention to these requisites and constant effort to produce and perfect them, the majority of singers never bestow a thought on them, and more especially on the two last. They seem to proceed on the principle laid down by the humorous Scotch peasant, when ridiculed for his bad singing.
Its a far gate atween here and heaven. A' music sounds well i' the distance. Indeed if we look for the causes of the superior effect of distant music, we find a motive for the cultivation of tone in singing. Whatever other circumstances contribute to produce this effect, one cause at least of this fact is, that the sounds are in themselves of a better quality. Their roughnesses are filed off, as it were, before they reach the ear, and many slightly discordant and irrelevant sounds, arising from the imperfection of instruments, and of the human organs, are lost in passing over so great a space. If a stone be thrown into a smooth lake, a total irregularity in the motion of the water will appear at the spot; but as the undulations extend themselves, the smaller ones become invisible, and those only can be seen which are regular and beautiful. Similar to this must be the case in irregular pulsations of the atmosphere. Care then should be taken that no breath is emitted but what is put
in motion, that there be no jarring of the organs and mixture of nasal sounds. These and other defects of tone may be detected by close attention, and with proper exertions they may be greatly remedied.
But if excellence of tone is necessary to produce the best effect, a true intonation, the art of singing or playing in tune, is indispensable for the production of any at all, save that of disgust. Great faults in intonation cannot exist, where there is the slightest ability to distinguish musical sounds, but those of smaller magnitude are often to be noticed. Mr Hastings observes,
• But though the ear, that is misled by culture, learns to make its decisions with tolerable uniformity; it yet instinctively revolts at the result of those decisions, while it continues to persevere in them. An illustration of this remark is often furnished among musicians of very considerable attainments. Let one accuse them of an habitual error in intonation, and they will deny and even retort the charge ; but let him demonstrate to them the truth of the interval in question, by variously combining it in harmony, (which is the only practical method of demonstration) and they will at once be surprised and delighted at the discovery. A note in melody which they had imagined to be perfectly tuned, and which had yet, always, in all its harmonic combinations, produced a disagreeable result to them, was now, by a slight change in its pitch, found capable of producing the most agreeable and harmonious effect.' p. 28. It would naturally be supposed that the imperfect chords are those most liable to be mistuned, since the perfect ones cannot be altered without producing an obvious dissonance. Such is the opinion of our author. We should think, however, that the major seventh is oftener tuned too low than too high, thus producing a minor instead of a major third with the dominant as it ought.*
There is no need of a long argument to prove the necessity of distinct articulation in vocal music; for of what use is it that words are sung, if we cannot understand them? How often is the effect of music wholly lost upon us from having our whole attention given to an endeavor, and that often a vain one, to pick out from the obscure or uncouth language of singers the meaning of what they pretend to say! Most suppose it impossible to speak plainly in singing, and not a few that the pronunciation of many words should be intentionally changed, because they are composed of disagreeable sounds. The first notion is altogether incorrect. The articulation of the sounds of the letters is entirely independent of tone, and with proper care may be as distinct in singing as in speaking. It is true that the simple sounds composing a word cannot al
* There should have been a table of errata annexed to the book. In general it is well printed; but there are several errors in the paragraph which we refer to (p. 29,) calculated to mislead the reader, who is not well acquainted with musical notation. Thus ó second sixth and eighth' should be second fifth and eighth, &c. It would have been well too, if the index to the book had referred to the pages, where the topics are treated. As it is, the Index is little better than none.