The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by Frank Barton, F.R.C.O.
Volume 5, 1894, pg. 34-40

[John Frank Barton, 1855-1915, was a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and musical scholar. He and his wife Susannah had a son named Frank Barton, aged 8 when this article was published, who grew up to be a schoolmaster.]

At no previous time has music been so much cultivated amongst all classes of civilised people as it is at the present time, when there is hardly a family to be met with but what numbers amongst its members one or more who study some branch of music. No doubt the greatest quantity of music which is heard is still of the lightest and most superficial description, and the true province of music as an art is not yet distinctly recognised by the multitude who claim to "have an ear for music." But forutnately there is slowly but surely spreading a love for the higher branches of the art. The works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are no longer known only by name, as something too deep for ordinary comprehension, and to be performed only by professed musicians, but are now to be heard in almost every household which possesses a piano.

Along with this growing appreciation of classical music there arises the desire of knowing something about the lives of the writers and the conditions under which their works were composed, and, accordingly, the study of musical history is now very common, and books bearing both on the general subject and also on the particular lives of certain composers are being issued in a form accessible to everyone.

I have thought that it might be of interest to consider some of the incidents in the life of the greatest of all musicians, Beethoven, and to point out what has been the effect upon modern music of his genius. There have been periods in the history of every Art, during which certain great men have appeared who have towered a head and shoulders above their predecessors, great though these may have been, and whom we are accustomed to look upon as almost divine in their greatness, and as Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe stand in relation to poetry and the drama, so does Beethoven stand in regard to music; a man who could combine the characteristics of his great forerunners into an organic whole which he imbued with his own heaven-born genius, thus creating works which appear to mark the utmost limits attainable in music as we know it. It is, in fact, the theory of many modern musical philosophers, notably of the late Richard Wagner, that with Beethoven the domain of purely instrumental music is exhausted, and that the music of the future will have to consist of a combination of music with the other arts, forming the "Musical Drama" concerning which there has of late been so much discussion in musical circles. Whether this is so or not I cannot venture to say, but it is quite certain that although we can bring forward such a splendid list of names as Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Weber, and Chopin who have flourished since the time of Beethoven, yet we cannot affirm that one of these great masters has produced a work which goes beyond anything which he had achieved. A recent authority on this subject has said that "through Beethoven's efforts, all styles of instrumental music reached the point of culmination with regard to formal development. Though composers like Schumann, Mendelssohn and Schubert, succeeded in creating genial works in this direction they cannot be considered in the sense of a progress beyond Beethoven's achievements. These composers' works, though genial and worthy productions, lean, notwithstanding, on the strong pillars of the giant's temple."

Of music as an art, little is known until towards the latter part of the fourteenth century; up to that time such music as there was, was cultivated with equal success by all the nations of Europe, but after that time, we find different nations taking the lead and impressing it with their own individuality, The first great school of music arose in the Netherlands, and for nearly two hundred years the infant art was tended by masters who imparted to it a reflex of the solidity and thoughtfulness of the Flemish character. Under their care, a firm foundation was laid which was as a foundation should be--strong and capable for supporting the beautiful structure to be placed upon it, but not itself remarkable for its external beauty. If we heard one of the latest works of this school performed, we should be more struck with its ingenuity than its beauty, and should notice that it lacked grace and brilliancy, so in course of time when the substantial work had been complete and the hand of the decorator had become necessary we find that the great school of music passed into Italy, whose people, by their greater vivacity and love of external beauty, were the best fitted to go on with the work which had hiterto been under the care of the plodding Flemings. From the time that the art of music passed from the Netherlands into Italy, we begin to find in it more of those qualities which we are accustomed to look for in a musical composition. Up to this time all cultivated music had been purely vocal and used for the services of the Church, but the Italians soon began to strive after a more enlarged means of expression and added to the music of voices that of instruments, by this means gaining in contrast and preparing the way for the great instrumental school which afterwards flourished in Germany. About the time that music first became exclusively practised in Italy in the 16th century, that country was greatly agitated by the Revival of Learning and the resuscitation of the arts and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. This Revival, which influenced everything with which it came into contact, powerfully affected the music of the day; indeed, it may be said that modern music now had its commencement in the rise of those great art forms, the opera and the oratorio, both of which are distinctly traceable to the influence of the Renaissance upon Mediaeval art. As I have just said, music had hitherto been employed solely in the service of the Church, and was based exclusively on what are known as th ecclesiastical modes or scales; but these now gave way to our present scale system, and music became secularized by its employment in the operas and masques, which were performed at the festivities of the Courts, and by the introduction of instrumental accompaniments, which gradually became more and more independent of the voices, until at last we have a piece performed solely by instruments,--the commencement, let it be noticed, of that form of music which Beethoven afterwards carried to such a height of development, and of which we now hear far more than we do of any other style. The love of external beauty, and the general sensuousness of the Italian nature, to which I have before alluded, were at first necessary elements for imparting the warmth and glow of life to the cold impassiveness of Flemish art; but after a time these qulaities became developed to excess, and it was once more necessary for the Art Temple to pass into the hands of a people of a colder and more serious temperament. This duty fell upon the Germans, who combined the learning of their Flemish kin with some of the warmth of the Italian nature.

The outcome of the union of these qualities is seen in those two great German masters, Handel and Bach, who were equally great in all kinds of music, vocal as well as instrumental; but it is more especially Bach whom we shall have to consider at present as having been the forerunner of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for the circumstances of Handel's life led him mostly to the cultivation of vocal music with instrumental accompaniment, whilst Bach, on the other hand, produced an immense number of purely instrumental compositions, in which the beginning of those art forms, which succeeding mastesr were to endow with so much rich life, is distinctly traceable. The greatest of these forms, which is known to musicians as the Sonata form, took its rise from the collection of dance tunes of the period, which were incorporated into a whole by Handel and Bach and called Suites, in which dance rhythms of different natures were contrasted, in the same manner as in the modern Sonata form a slow movement follows a quick one, or a pathetic movement a joyful one. Under Philip Emmanuel Bach, one of the sons of the great Sebastian Bach, this form was carried forward still more, and at length we arrive at the period of those two great masters--only inferior to Beethoven--Haydn and Mozart. By these two great men the form of instrumental music was finally settled at the point at which we now have it, and it would appear almost impossible to improve upon either of the greatest works of Haydn or Mozart. In fact, such a thing would be impossible to any less gifted organization than that of Beethoven; but he, with the penetration of genius, saw that the beautiful melodies of his predecessors were encumbered by the laws of musical composition, and his endeavour from the first was therefore to make these laws subservient to his ideas, but by no means to do away with them. In this he thoroughly succeeded, as any one may find who will carefully examine and compare Sonatas by Haydn or Mozart with any of those by Beethoven.

Having thus briefly, and therefore superficially, glanced at the history of Art up to the time of Beethoven's birth, I must now, in a few words, mention the conditions under which that Art was practised in Germany. These conditions we shall find entirely different from those with which we are acquainted as being in force in our own country. During the Italian period, music was an expensive amusement, only to be indulged in by the great princes and nobles, and this state of things was transplanted into Germany, where music also became a fashionable luxury; every reigning Prince found it necessary, either out of his love for music, or for the sake of ambition and fashion, to support a chapel, in which the great feature was the music supported by a body of able instrumentalists and singers, who were permanently retained in his service. Composers were also engaged to produce a constant succession of new music, and thus arose a rivalry all over Germany between composers, players, and singers, which led, of course, to a perpetual striving after higher things, and thereby tended to the advancement of music. Composers also had the great advantage of being able to experiment, as it were, with compositions, having always a body of skilful performers at ther beck and call to perform each piece as soon as it was written, thus saving the trouble and expense to which a composer would be put in England if he wanted to judge the effect of some new combinations. There was no such thing in those days as a musical public, and concerts in our sense of the word were almost unknown. There were, of course, performances of music, but these always took place in the palaces of the patron, before a gathering of musical connoisseurs, a circumstance which was also very favourable to the nurture of true music, as it saved the composer the necessity of writing down to a mixed audience, in order to gain a general popularity.

We find that all the 18th century composers of Germany were fostered at one of the other of the Courts, where a musical establishment was maintained--in many instances the family for some generations back having held posts in the same capacity. This was so in the case of Beethoven, whose father and grandfather were both in the musical service of the Elector of Cologne at Bonn. The grandfather was a man much esteemed both for his moral character, as well as for his musical capabilities. He at first held the post of bass singer, but was afterwards promoted to be Capellmeister to the Elector, a post somewhat similar to that of our Choirmaster. The memory of his grandfather was much revered by Beethoven, whose character in many respects seems to have been very similar. Beethoven's father, John Beethoven, became a tenor singer in the same establishment, but he appears to have been a man of widely different nature to his father. His habits were very irregular, and he seems to have dissipated all the small fortune which his father had left him. He married, in 1767, the daughter of the chief cook at Ehrenbreitstein, by whom he had several children. Of these, the eldest was our Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born at Bonn, in December 1770. He very soon mainfested a great capacity for music, which he began to learn when he was four years old. His father, no doubt, very soon discovered his talents, and compelled him to practise a great length of time, in the hope of introducing him into the world as another musical prodigy, such as the child Mozart had been. John Beethoven's income at this time was ludicrously small, amounting to only £25 a year, so that is is little wonder if he felt anxious to augment this by exhibiting his son before the musical courts of Germany, in the hope of making money out of his talents. This plan, however, seems to have fallen to the ground, as Beethoven remained unknown outside the limits of the musical circles of Bonn, until his 15th year, when he was appointed organist to the Elector Max Franz, the Prince Bishop of Cologne, and the youngest son of Maria Theresa of Austria. During his earlier years, he had been a very shy and uncommunicative child, caring for none of the ordinary boyish games; his education was at first attended to by his father, and he was afterwards sent to one of the common public schools of the town, where he picked up a little Latin in addition to the ordinary school subjects; but he appears to have been taken away from school at the age of thirteen, so that he could have had but little school training. But he was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of an Italian of some attainments, who assisted him in improving his general knowledge, and also taught him Latin, French, Italian, and English. His musical training had gone on under the care of the Court organists, and he quickly learnt as much as they could teach him, and by the time he had attained to his fifteenth year, he had surpassed them in musical skill. In 1787, when he was seventeen years old, the first great event to his life occurred, in his journey to Vienna, at that time the musical capital of Europe. Here he was introduced to Mozart, from whom he had a few lessons; but he does not appear to have held a very high opinion of Mozart's style of playing. It is narrated that on the occasion of his first interview with Mozart, Mozart asked him to play something, but probably thinking that the performance was a prepared piece, paid little attention to it. Beethoven seeing this, asked Mozart to give him a subject or theme upon which to extemporize, which he did so finely, that Mozart, stepping out quietly into the next room, said to his friends there, "Pay attention to him; he will make a noise in the world some day or other."

(To be continued.)

Typed by Rondalyno, July 2018; Proofread by LNL, May 2021