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The Origin and Function of Music – Part III

October 6, 2006

Music is often mentioned in literature as a means of discipline, inspiration and refreshment. We read in Homer that Achilles was instructed in the art that he might learn to moderate his passions; Pythagoras, father of Musical Science, counseled his disciples to
refresh themselves at the fount of music before retiring to their couches at night in order to restore the inner harmony of their souls, and to seek strength in the morning from the same source. Plato taught that music is as essential to the mind as air is to the body, and that children should be familiarized with harmonies and rhythms that they might be more gentle, harmonious and rhythmical, consequently better fitted for speech and action.

“Song brings of itself a cheerfulness that wakes the heart to joy,” exclaimed Euripides, and certain it is a large measure of joy surrounds those who live in an atmosphere of music. It has a magic wand that lifts man beyond the petty worries of his existence. “Music is a shower-bath of the soul,” said Schopenhauer, “washing away all that is impure.” Or as Auerbach put it: “Music washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Realizing the influence of music, Martin Luther sang the Reformation into the hearts of the people with his noble chorals in which every one might join. He called music a mistress of order and good manners, and introduced it into the schools as a means of refinement and discipline, in whose presence anger and all evil would depart. “A schoolmaster,” said he, “ought to have skill in music, otherwise I would not regard him; neither should we ordain young men to the office of preaching unless they have been well exercised in the art, for it maketh a fine people.” It were well if teachers and ministers to-day more generally
appreciated the value of music to them and their work.

Music is an essential factor in great national movements. Every commander knows how inspiring and comforting it is to his men. Napoleon Bonaparte, who was not readily lifted out of himself and who complained that music jarred his nerves, was shrewd enough to observe its effect on marching troops, and to order the bands of different regiments to play
daily in front of hospitals to soothe and cheer the wounded. The one tune he prized, Malbrook, he hummed as he started for his last campaign. In the solitude of St. Helena he said: “Of all liberal arts music has the greatest influence over the passions, and it is that to which the legislator ought to give the most encouragement.”

An art that in some form is found in the varied activities of all people, at all times, must be the common heritage of humanity. “It does not speak to one class but to mankind,” said Robert Franz, the German song writer. Alexander Bain called it the most available, universal and influential of the fine arts, and Dr. Marx, the musical theorist, thought music beneficial to the moral and spiritual estate of the masses.

Truly indeed has it been said that its universality gives music its high worth. Mirroring neither your inner life alone nor mine, but the world’s essence, the transfiguration of what seems real, the divine Ideal, some spark of which glows in every bosom, each individual may feel in it whatever he is capable of feeling. The soul’s language, it takes up the thread dropped by words and gives utterance to those refined sentiments and holy aspirations words are inadequate to awaken or express. Its message is borne from heart to heart, revealing to each things unseen, according as it is prepared to receive them.

In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare made Lorenzo speak to Jessica of the harmony that is in immortal souls and say that “whilst this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in we cannot hear it.” To refine this muddy vesture, to render the spirit attentive, to bring light, sweetness, strength, harmony and beauty into daily life is the central
function of music which, from the cradle to the grave, is man’s most intimate companion.

Richard Wagner devoutly believed it would prepare the way for an unspoiled, unfettered humanity, illumined by a perception of Truth and Beauty and united by a bond of sympathy and love. This ideal union is the goal at which Tolstoi aims in his “What is Art?” He defines art as a human activity to be enjoyed by all, whose purpose is the transmission
of the most exalted feelings to which men have arisen; but the union he proposes would have to be consummated by a leveling process. All art  that cannot without preparation reach the uncultured classes is denounced by him. He is most bitter in his denunciation of Wagner, who fought for a democratic art, but who wished to attain it by raising the
lowliest of his fellow-creatures to an ever loftier plane of high thinking and feeling.

According to Tolstoi, art began to degenerate when it separated itself from religion. There must have been dense mist before the Russian sage’s mental vision when he fancied this separation possible. Art, especially musical art, is a vital part of religion, and cannot be put asunder from it. Like thought, music, since the bonds of church and state have been
broken, has spread wide its pinions and soared to hitherto unsuspected heights. All noble music is sacred. Amid the marvelous material progress of to-day music is more needed than ever. Unburdened by the responsibility of fact, it brings relief to the soul from the grinding pressure of constant grappling with knowledge. The benefits of knowledge are great, but it is also beneficial to be uplifted, as we may be by music, from out the perplexing labyrinth of the work-a-day world toward the realm of the Divine Ideal.

As a means of culture music is a potent factor in human civilization. It is destined to wield even greater influence than has yet been known. It has become the household art of to-day. As it enters more and more fully into the heart of the home and social life it will more and more enrich human existence and aid in ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

If music can do so much for mankind, why are not all musicians great and ood? Ah, my friend, that is a hard question to answer, and can only be airly treated by asking another equally difficult question: Why are not ll people who have enjoyed the advantages of religion wise and noble? Consider the gigantic machinery that has been put in motion to
promulgate Christianity, and note how slow men have been to appropriate the teachings of its founder. Slow progress furnishes no argument against the mission either of religion or its comrade music.

In common with religion music kindles our finer sensibilities and brings us into an atmosphere superior to that which ordinarily surrounds us. It requires wisdom to beautify commonplace conditions with what has been enjoyed in aërial regions. Rightly applied, music can lend itself to this illumination. As it is better known, its advantages will be more
completely realized.

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