Unprohibited, Uninhibited Praise

I am doing some research for a parish project [hat tip to eft94530] and happened upon an article in “Dwight’s Journal of Music,” Volume V. No.11 June 17, 1854. It can be found on GoogleBooks

I am not certain whether Editor John Sullivan Dwight composed this essay (excerpted) that follows, or it was from a book, The Atheneum, by one “Canon Proschke.” In any case, I thought it poses an interesting counterpoint to AOZ’s post in that the author waxes on lugubriously regarding the corrective agent to the prohibitions of works by Lassus, Ockeghem et al.

(This was a) sonorous noise, which drowned the Latin of the liturgy; a loss the more to be lamented, since no musical interpretation of the words took its place. Things went on worse from day to day, till finally, about the middle of the sixteenth century, the patience of the hearers was worn out, and reason bad begun to be awake. All cried out against a music of this sort, excepting those who made it. Away with the Canon, was the cry, and probably musicians thought to themselves, Away too with the Choral Song ! But the Choral Song was nearly as old as Christendom; the Canon also numbered many years. Could men for several centuries pursue a scientific path, which was to be without present profit and entirely fruitless for the future? That (would be) admitting that Humanity could lose its time, like a single man, which is not possible. In the collective striving of the human mind there is nothing absolutely unprofitable; but we often pronounce false what passes before our eyes and ears, judging like the reader of a book without the conclusion, or the spectator of the drama without its denouement. If the book appears unintelligible, or the drama absurd and immoral, it is because the last chapters or the last acts are wanting, which would explain and justify the whole; and therefore is contemporaneous history, whether it treat of music or of other matters, always hard to write. He who should have undertaken as a lover of music to judge of the merits, the productive energy of the Roman Choral Song before Palestrina, would certainly have very much deceived himself; he, whom a professor of Aesthetics should have undertaken to weigh the significance of the fugue before Handel and Bach, or without knowing them, as J. J. Rousseau has done, would have deceived himself not less; and these errors in judgment would appear the more gross, the better judge the man might be for his own century.

Through the labors of the Belgian and Flemish masters, the contrapuntists had at length acquired that certainty and mechanical facility, which allowed them, in spite of the enormous weights, which seemed to clog their every step, to move with a certain ease and grace. Already had Counterpoint become more pliant and Harmony somewhat purified and in a condition to cooperate toward the true end of Music. The hour had struck of a glorious new birth for Music, but above all for the Choral Song; that was best and had waited for it more than a thousand years was no more than fair.

In the year of grace 1565 God commanded his servant Aloysius of Praeneste to quicken this dull form of the Choral Song with the breath of genius; and Aloysius replied : ” Lord, thy will be done;” and the transformed Church Song again resounded like the chorus of the angels; sublime church music appeared in a holy crown of rays. The pope, the cardinals, the whole people threw themselves down at the feet of the immortal man. Let us too bow before the great name of PALESTRINA, the honor of the Catholic church and the glory of Italy. Hail to the godlike man, whom Greece would have exalted among her gods, had he been one of her sons! He came, and the hod-carriers of Harmony made way for the master builder; through his voice the shapeless materials were united in a temple of the most imposing majesty; Music, but now almost dumb, begins to speak, and the human soul responds. She speaks of God, as if first of all to thank Him, that He has given her a language. The musical sceptre, hitherto borne provisionally by the Netherlander, passes from this moment over into the hands of the Italians, there to remain for two centuries, by the most legitimate and undisputed claim.

Palestrina could be divided into several great musicians. In the first place you find in him the scholar of the Flemish school, surpassing all his teachers as a contrapuntist; then the madrigalist, who strove perhaps primarily to .express the words ; and then the creator of the style, which bears his name, and which was formerly called Alia Capella. We have to speak of him only in this last capacity; in a relation, therefore, which makes him a unique man in his way. For the rest, the age was not yet ripe, either for the fugue, or for expressive melody. For us, Palestrina is the Choral Song become Harmony according to the true character of church music, as we find it in the Improperia, and still more in the Stabat Mater, which is sung on Palm Sunday, in the Sixtine Chapel at Rome. Since through him we come upon the first great revolution in Art, the origin of real music, and since Palestrina forms the bond, by which the dead works of calculation are united to the works produced by feeling, taste, imagination, we must inquire wherein the alia capella style was distinguished from what went before, and in what it is distinguished from the modern music, In its outward form the alia capella style reproduced the united counterpoint of the fourteenth century, which the masters of the fifteenth scorned to employ, or only very seldom employed, and which with a certain contemptuousness they named stylo familiar?. But Palestrina introduced into it a more closely interwoven and correct harmony; he mingled with it a light dose of canonical seasoning, which elevated the composition, without harming the words; and instead of banishing the canto fermo into the middle part, he transferred it to the upper part, where it could unfold itself more freely and “more enchain the attention of the ear. That was restoring the leading melody to its right of singing, and opening a path, in which no one of the predecessors of the Roman Swan had before travelled. The distinction between him and the modern composers, who, considered with reference to the time of Palestrina,’ begin with the melodists of the seventeenth century, lies particularly in their choice of chords.

That there may be some unity of melody and key in a work, which is an almost indispensable condition of all modern music, the harmony must be composed of the different kinds of tri-chords, Seventh and Ninth chords, which have their seat in the diatonic intervals of the scale chosen by the composer. If he passes over into another scale, to tarry there awhile, another family of chords follows upon the first and for the time being governs the modulation, until the return of the original key, whose absence must not last too long, lest the ear become too accustomed to a foreign land, so that it will hardly recognize itself in its own, when it gets back. This is the system of modern intonation, the true and perfect system, which gives for every major scale IS, and for every minor scale 12 principal or radical chords;* which chords, multiplied by all their respective transpositions, place unlimited means in the control of the composer, whereby he can vary the harmony within the limits of the scale, without the necessity of striking a single, chord that is foreign to it. The whole mass of these auxiliary and related chords, which have only a dependent existence and a relative importance, since they do not subsist on their own account, but always end in the perfect chord of the scale, into which they resolve, represents the revolving movement of a system around its centre of gravity; it forms the harmonic unity and homogeneousness of a piece.

A melody may express anything or nothing by itself, unless it (lows from the feeling of the modal relation, of which we have spoken; on the other hand, since there are in every melody indefinite notes, which leave the ear in uncertainty about their origin, inasmuch as they admit of several, often very different, interpretations, the presence of the chord is indispensable to the determining of their sense and character. Herein lies the whole science of the Harmonist. Such a wealth of means of expression through harmony was still infinitely far from the time in which Palestrina lived—about as far as the precision, the boldness, the variety and grace of contours, which shine in the outlines of the modern music. Most of the auxiliary chords were unknown to him. He knew indeed the Dominant Seventh chord; he has in fact employed it without preparation and with all its intervals; but this kind of harmony appears in his music only as a rare accident or a thing of instinct. His customary and systematic progression consists in a series of perfect major and minor chords, mixed with a few chords of the Sixth, between which there exists so slight a modal affinity, that you cannot through them recognize the key. Barely are you pointed to the scale of the piece by now and then a half-tone lying below the Tonic, or a Seventh. Nevertheless Palestrina’s harmony in general is pure, by means of the great correctness in the movement of the voices. Notes will show all this much better than words can describe it. I fancy, a musician of the present day should be able to give at once a harmonic, but quite simple and natural, explanation of the four following measures of Choral Song.
How does that sound?—Beautiful, sublime, heavenly! That music is not of this earth; it comes in fact from heaven. Yes, Palestrina is sublime precisely for the knowledge, which the musicians of his time had not; as the Bible is sublimely above all that depended on the wealth of languages and the metaphysical culture of the times in which it was written. Observe well, that with a more melodious and expressive cantilena, a harmony like this of Palestrina’s would be impossible; it holds only in the Choral Song, which on its part rejects as trivial and ordinary all the combinations of chords, that belong to ornamental melody. Palestrina makes as yet no division of the verbal phrases; the effect of his purely harmonious song is like the impressions of an aeolian harp. His solemn tri-chords fall upon one another at equal intervals, without characteristic rhythm, and resound like the voice of God, that triune God, of whom the harmonic Tri-chord seems to be one of the most unfathomable material emblems. Here are none or almost none of those connecting chords, whereby might be expressed some causality and mutual dependence between the grand revelations of the absolute; none of those wanton or pathetic dissonances, types of our momentary happiness, our transient or excited humor; no rhythm, following the flight of time, measured by the pulsations of a mortal heart; in a word, nothing that awakens a worldly thought and speaks the language of fleshly passions. This is a church music, than which no one ever composed a truer. It contains absolutely no admixture of profanity; it wears an eternal beauty, since it rests upon something unchangeable, or so to say, upon the elementary application of the Accord; it is antique, and that is one of its most precious excellences, since its antiquity knows no age, which enhances everything and contributes so powerfully to the reverence one cherishes for sacred things. And in fact time has made Palestrina young. His modulation, so original and striking today, must have been much less so, or not at all so in the sixteenth century, as they generally modulated in this way. To grow young through years—is not that an altogether extraordinary fate, especially for a musician!

Thus was realized the oldest and most sublime of all the expressions of music, the religious or Christian Church expression. It was no more than right, that an Art born upon the altars of Christianity, whose long and refractory childhood the Church alone, like a tender mother, had protected, should lay the firstlings of its majority upon those same altars. Music in this was doing no more than her sister Arts, Painting and Architecture, also revived through the church, and that entirely in the true Christian spirit, ad majorem gloriam Dei.

And you thought I to be verbose!