Dead at twenty-nine, with ten books to his credit, two of them good, which is two good books more than most of us scribblers will ever write. Yes, Stephen Crane wrote two things that are immortal. "The Red Badge of Courage" is the strongest, most vivid work of imagination ever fished from an ink-pot by an American.
"Men who write from the imagination are helpless when in presence of the fact," said James Russell Lowell. In answer to which I'll point you "The Open Boat," the sternest, creepiest bit of realism ever penned, and Stevie was in the boat.
American critics honored Stephen Crane with more ridicule, abuse and unkind comment than was bestowed on any other writer of his time. Possibly the vagueness, and the loose, unsleeked quality of his work invited the gibes, jeers, and the loud laughter that tokens the vacant mind; yet as half-apology for the critics we might say that scathing criticism never killed good work; and this is true, but it sometimes has killed the man.
Stephen Crane never answered back, nor made explanation, but that he was stung by the continued efforts of the press to laugh him down, I am very sure.
The lack of appreciation at home caused him to shake the dust of America from his feet and take up his abode across the sea, where his genius was being recognized, and where strong men stretched out sinewy hands of welcome, and words of appreciation were heard, instead of silly, insulting parody. In passing, it is well to note that the five strongest writers of America had their passports to greatness viseed in England before they were granted recognition at home. I refer to Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Poe and Stephen Crane.
Stevie did not know he cared for approbation, but his constant refusal to read what the newspapers said about him was proof that he did. He boycotted the tribe of Romeike, because he knew that nine clippings out of every ten would be unkind, and his sensitive soul shrank from the pin-pricks.
Contemporary estimates are usually wrong, and Crane is only another of the long list of men of genius to whom Fame brings a wreath and finds her poet dead.
Stephen Crane was a reincarnation of Frederic Chopin. Both were small in stature, slight, fair-haired, and of that sensitive, acute, receptive temperament—capable of highest joy and keyed for exquisite pain. Haunted with the prophetic vision of quick-coming death, and with the hectic desire to get their work done, they often toiled the night away and were surprised by the rays of the rising sun. Both were shrinking yet proud, shy but bold, with a tenderness and a feminine longing for love that earth could not requite. At times mad gaiety, that ill-masked a breaking heart, took the reins, and the spirits of children just out of school seemed to hold the road. At other times—and this was the prevailing mood—the manner was one of placid, patient, calm and smooth, unruffled hope; but back and behind all was a dynamo of energy, a brooding melancholy of unrest, and the crouching world-sorrow that would not down.
Chopin reached sublimity through sweet sounds; Crane attained the same heights through the sense of sight and words that symboled color, shapes and scenes. In each the distinguishing feature is the intense imagination and active sympathy. Knowledge consists in a sense of values—of distinguishing this from that, for truth lies in the mass. The delicate nuances of Chopin's music have never been equaled by another composer; every note is cryptic, every sound a symbol. And yet it is dance-music, too, but still it tells its story of baffled hope and stifled desire—the tragedy of Poland in sweet sounds.
Stephen Crane was an artist in his ability to convey the feeling by just the right word, or a word misplaced, like a lady's dress in disarray, or a hat askew. This daring quality marks everything he wrote. The recognition that language is fluid, and at best only an expedient, flavors all his work. He makes no fetish of a grammar—if grammar gets in the way, so much the worse for the grammar. All is packed with color, and charged with feeling, yet the work is usually quiet in quality and modest in manner.
Art is born of heart, not head; and so it seems to me that the work of these men whose names I have somewhat arbitrarily linked, will live. Each sowed in sorrow and reaped in grief. They were tender, kind, gentle, with a capacity for love that passes the love of woman. They were each indifferent to the proprieties, very much as children are. They lived in cloister-like retirement, hidden from the public gaze, or wandered unnoticed and unknown. They founded no schools, delivered no public addresses, and in their own day made small impress on the times. Both were sublimely indifferent to what had been said and done—the term precedent not being found within the covers of their bright lexicon of words. In the nature of each was a goodly trace of peroxide of iron that often manifested itself in the man's work.
The faults in each spring from an intense personality, uncolored by the surroundings, and such faults in such men are virtues.
They belong to that elect few who have built for the centuries. The influence of Chopin, beyond that of other composers, is alive today, and moves unconsciously, but profoundly, every music-maker; the seemingly careless style of Crane is really lapidaric, and is helping to file the fetters from every writer who has ideas plus, and thoughts that burn.
Mother Nature in giving out energy gives each man about an equal portion. But that ability to throw the weight with the blow, to concentrate the soul in a sonnet, to focus force in a single effort, is the possession of God's Chosen Few. Chopin put his affection, his patriotism, his wrath, his hope, and his heroism into his music—as if the song of all the forest birds could be secured, sealed and saved for us!
* * * * *
The father of Chopin was a Frenchman who went up to Poland seeking gain and adventure. He became a soldier under Kosciusko and arose to rank of Captain. He found such favor with the nobility by his gracious ways that he became a teacher of French in the family of Count Frederic Skarbek. In the family group was a fair young dependent of nervous temperament—slight, active, gentle and intelligent. She was descendent from a line of aristocrats, but in a country where revolutions have been known to begin and end before breakfast, titles stand for little.
Nicholas Chopin, ex-soldier, teacher of French and Deportment, married this fine young girl, and they lived in one of Count Skarbek's straw-thatched cottages at the little village of Zelazowa-Wola, twenty-nine miles from Warsaw. Here it was that Frederic Chopin was born, in Eighteen Hundred Nine—that memorable year when Destiny sent a flight of great souls to the planet Earth.
The country was bleak and battle-scarred; it had been drained of its men and treasure, and served as a dueling-ground and the place of skulls for kings and such riffraff who have polluted this fair world with their boastings of a divine power.
The struggle of Poland to free herself from the grip of the imperial succubi has generated an atmosphere of ultramarine, so we view the little land of patriots (and fanatics) through a mist of melancholy. The history of Poland is written in blood and tears.
Go ask John Sobieski, who saw his father hanged by order of Ferdinand Maximilian, and child though he was, realized that banishment was the fate of himself and mother; and then ten years after, himself, stood death-guard over this same Maximilian in Mexico, and told that tyrant the story of his life, and shook hands with him, calling it quits, ere the bandage was tied over the eyes of the ex-dictator and the sunlight shut out forever.
Go ask John Sobieski!
The woes of Poland have produced strange men. Under such rule as she has known relentless hate springs up in otherwise gracious hearts from the scattered dragons' teeth; and in other natures, where there is not quite so much of the motive temperament, a deep strain of sorrow and religious melancholy finds expression. The exquisite sensibility, delicate insight, proud reserve and brooding world-sorrow of Frederic Chopin were the inheritance of mother to son. This mother's mind was saturated with the wrongs her people had endured: she herself had suffered every contumely, for where chance had caused fact to falter, imagination had filled the void.
It is easy to say that Chopin's was an abnormal nature, and of course it was, but when disease divides this world from another only by the thinnest veil, the mind has been known to see things with a clearness and vividness never before attained. With Chopin the strands of life were often taut to the breaking-point, but ere they snapped, their vibration gave forth to us some exquisite harmonies.
Curiously enough, this power to see and do is often the possession of dying men. The life flares up in a flame before it goes out forever. The passion of the consumptive Camille, as portrayed by Dumas, is typical—no healthy woman ever loved with that same intense, eager and almost vindictive desire. It was a race with Death.
Perfect health brings unconsciousness of body, and disease that almost relieves the spirit of this weight of flesh produces the same results. Again we have the Law of Antithesis.
That such a youth as Frederic Chopin should seek in music a surcease from his world-sorrow is very natural. A stricken people turns to music; it forms a necessary part of all religious observance, and the dirge of mourners, the wail of the "keener," and the songs of the banshee evolve naturally into being wherever the heart is sore oppressed. It was the slave-songs that made slavery bearable; and in the long ago, exiles in Babylon found a solemn joy by singing the songs of Zion. Chopin drank in the songs of Poland with his mother's milk, and while yet a child began to give them voice in his own way.
In the meantime his father's fortunes had mended a bit, and the family had moved to Warsaw, where Nicholas Chopin was Professor of Languages at the Lyceum. The title of the office fills the mouth in a very satisfying way, but the emoluments attached hardly afforded such a gratification.
In Warsaw there was much misery, for the plunderer had worked conscription and seizure to its furthest limit. Want and destitution were on every hand, but still this brave people maintained their University and clung to its traditions. The family of the Professor of Languages consisted of himself, wife, three daughters and the son Frederic. Their income for several years was not over fifteen dollars a month, but still they managed to maintain an appearance of decency, and by the help of the public library, the free museum and the open-air concerts, they kept abreast of the times in literature, art and music.
There was absolute economy required, every particle of food was saved, and when cast-off dresses were sent from the home of the Count it was a godsend for the mother and girls, who measured and patched and pieced, making garments for themselves, and for Frederic as well; so while their raiment was not gaudy nor expressed in fancy, it served.
Chopin once said to George Sand, "I never can think of my mother without her knitting-needles!" And George Sand has recorded, "Frederic never had but one passion and that was his mother." Into all of her knitting this mother's flying needles worked much love. The entire household was one of mutual service, and gentle, trusting affection. The weekly letters of Chopin to his mother from Paris, and the cold sweat on his forehead at the thought of his parents knowing of his relationship with George Sand, are credit-marks to his character. There is a sweet recompense in mutual deprivation where trials and difficulties only serve to cement the affections; and who shall say how much the wondrous blending of strength and delicacy in the music of Chopin is due to the memory of those early days of toil and trial, of strength and forbearance, of hope and love?
To be born into such a family is a great blessing. The value of the environment is shown in that all three of the sisters became distinguished in literature. Two of them married men of intellect, wealth and worth, and through the collaboration of these sisters, books were produced that did for the plain people of Poland what Harriet Martineau's books on sociology did for the people of England. Frederic played and practised at the Lyceum where his father taught, and the ambition of his parents was that he should grow up and take the place of Professor of Music in the Lyceum. Adalbert Zevyny, one of the leading pianists in the city, became attracted to the boy and took him as a pupil, without pay.
The teacher soon became a little boastful of his precocious pupil, and when there came a public concert for the benefit of the poor, we find reference made to Chopin thus, "A child not yet eight years of age played, and connoisseurs say he promises to replace Mozart." In reality the boy was nearer twelve than eight, but his size and looks suggested to the management the idea of plagiarizing, in advance, our honored countryman, Phineas T. Barnum. Hence the announcement on the programs.
But now the nobility of the neighborhood began to send carriages for the fair-haired lad, so he could play for their invited guests. Then came snug little honorariums that soon replaced his patched-up wardrobe for something more fashionable.
Frederic took all the applause quite as a matter of course, and on one occasion, after he had played divinely, he asked a proud lady this question, "How do you like my new collar?"
He was to the manner born, and the gentle blood of his mother formed him as a fit companion for aristocrats.
These occasional musicales at the houses of the great made money matters easier, and Frederic began to take lessons from Joseph Elsner, who taught him the science of composition, and introduced him into the deeper mysteries of music-making. Elsner, it was, more than any other man, who forced the truth upon Chopin that he must play to satisfy himself, and in composition be his own most exacting critic. In other words, Elsner developed and strengthened in Chopin the artistic conscience—that impulse which causes an artist to scorn doing anything save his best.
From little excursions to neighboring towns and country houses about Warsaw, Chopin now ventured farther away from home, chaperoned by his friend, Prince Radziwill. He visited Berlin, Venice, Prague, Heidelberg, and mingled on an absolute equality with the nobility. If they had titles, he had talents. And his talents often made their decorations sing small.
His modesty was witching, and while in public concerts his playing was not pronounced enough to capture the gallery, yet in small gatherings he won all hearts, and the fact that he played his own compositions made him an added object of enthusiasm to the elect. Chopin arrived in Paris when he was twenty-two years of age. It was not his intention to remain more than a few weeks, but Paris was to be his home for eighteen years—and then Pere la Chaise.
* * * * *
A woman who beholds her thirtieth birthday in sight, and girlhood gone, is approaching a climacteric in her career. Flaubert has named twenty-nine as the eventful year in the life of woman, and thirty-three for men. Every normal woman craves love and tenderness—these are her God-given right. If they have not come to her by the time the bloom is fading from her cheeks, there is danger of her reaching out and clutching for them. The strongest instinct in young girls is self-protection—they fight on the defensive. But at thirty, women have been known to grow a trifle anxious, just as did the Sabine women who dispatched a messenger to the Romans asking this question, "How soon does the program begin?"
And thus are conditions reversed, for it is the youth of twenty or so who seeks conquest with fiery soul. Alexander was only nineteen when he sighed for more worlds to conquer. He didn't have to wait long before he found that this one had conquered him. Youth considers itself immortal, and its powers without limit, but as a man approaches thirty he grows economical of his resources and parsimonious of his emotions. Men of thirty, or so, are apt to be coy.
And so one might say that it is around thirty that for the first time the man and the woman meet on an equality, without sham, shame or pretense. Before that time the average woman abounds in affectation and untruth; the man is absurdly aggressive and full of foolish flattery.
As to the question, "Should women propose?" the answer is, "Yes, certainly, and they do when they are twenty-nine."
Aurora Dudevant saw her thirtieth birthday looming on the horizon of her life. Nine years before she had been married to an ex-army-officer, who dyed his whiskers purple. Aurora had been a dutiful wife, intent for the first few years on filling her husband's heart and home with joy. She had failed in this, and the proof of failure lay in that he much preferred his dogs, guns and horses to her society. For days he would absent himself on his hunting excursions, and at home he did not have the tact to hide the fact that he was awfully bored.
Thackeray, once for all, has given us a picture of the heavy dragoon with a soul for dogs—one to whom all music, save the bay of a fox-hound, makes its appeal in vain. Aurore detested dogs for dogs' sake, yet she rode horses astride with a daring that made her husband's bloodshot eyes bulge in alarm. He didn't much care how fast and hard she rode at the fences and over the ditches, but he was supposed to follow her, and this he did not care to do. He had reached an age when a man is mindful of the lime in his bones, and his 'cross-country riding was mostly a matter of memory and imagination, and best done around the convivial table.
Aurore was putting him to a test, that's all. She was proving to him that she could meet him on his own preserve, give him choice of weapons, and make him cry for mercy.
Her bent was literature, with music, science and art as side-lines. She read Montaigne, Rochefoucald, Racine and Moliere, and a modern by the name of Alfred de Musset, and quoted her authors at inconvenient times. She flashed quotations and epigrams upon the doughty dragoon in a way he could neither fend nor parry. At other times she was deeply religious and tearfully penitent.
In fact, she was living on a skimped allowance of love, and had never received the attention that a good woman deserves. Her chains were galling her. She sighed for Paris—forty miles away—Paris and a career.
The epigrams were coming faster, shot in a sort of frenzy and fever. And when she asked her liege for leave to go to Paris, he granted her prayer, and agreed to give her ten dollars a week allowance.
She grabbed at the offer, and he bade her Godspeed and good riddance.
So leaving her two children behind, until such a time as she could provide a home for them, with scanty luggage and light heart and purse, she started away.
Other women have gone up to Paris from country towns, too, and the chances are as one to ten thousand that the maelstrom will sweep them into hades.
But Madame Dudevant was different—in two years she had won her way to literary fame, and was commanding the jealous admiration of the best writers of Paris. Her first work was a collaboration with Jules Sandeau in a novel. Every woman who ever wrote well began by collaborating with a man. Sandeau had formerly come from Nohant, and how much he had to do with Madame Dudevant's breaking loose from her homes-ties no one knows. Anyway, the second novel was written by the Madame alone, and as a tribute to her friend the name "George Sand" was placed upon the title-page as author. Jules Sandeau, all-'round hack-writer and critic, was greatly pleased by the compliment of having his name anglicized and printed on the title-page of "Indiana," but later he was not so proud of it. George Sand soon proved herself to be a bigger man than Sandeau.
She was not handsome, either in face or in form. She was inclined to be stout—was rather short—and her complexion olive. But she lured with her eyes—great sphinx-like eyes of hazel-brown—that looked men through and through. Liszt has told us that "she had eyes like a cow," which is not so bad as Thomas Carlyle's remark that George Eliot had a face like a horse. George Sand was silent when other women talked, and her look told in a half-proud, half-sad way that she knew all they knew, and all she herself knew beside.
Without going into the issue as to what George Sand was not, let us frankly admit that pain, deprivation, misunderstanding and maternity had taught her many things not found in books, and that she looked at Fate out of her wide-open eyes with a gaze that did not blink. She was wise beyond the lot of women. I was just going to say she was a genius, but I remember the remark of the De Goncourts to the effect that, "There are no women of genius—women of genius are men." Possibly the point could be covered by saying George Sand had a man's head and a woman's heart.
Women did not like her, yet what other woman was ever so honored by woman as was George Sand in those two matchless sonnets addressed to her by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?
The amazing energy of George Sand, her finely flowing sentences—all charged with daring satire and insight into the heart of things—made her work sought by readers and publishers. Her pen brought her all the money she needed; and she had secured a divorce from "That Man," and now had her two children with her in Paris. That she could do her literary work and still attend to her manifold social duties must ever mark her as a phenomenon. She was no mere adventuress. That she was systematic, orderly and abstemious in her habits must go without saying, otherwise her vitality would not have held out and allowed her to attend the funerals of nearly all her retainers.
In throwing overboard the Grub Street Sandeau for Franz Liszt, Madame Dudevant certainly showed discrimination; but in retaining the name of "Sand," she paid a delicate compliment to the man who first introduced her to the world of art. Liszt was too strong a man to remain long captive—he refused to supply the doglike and abject devotion which Aurore always demanded. Then came Michael de Bourges the learned counsel, Calmatto the mezzotinter, Delacroix the artist, De Musset the poet, and Chopin the musician.
It was in the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty-nine, that Chopin and Sand first met at a parlor musicale, where Chopin was taken by Liszt, half against his will, simply because George Sand was to be there.
Chopin did not want to meet her.
All Paris had rung with the story of how she and De Musset had gone together to Venice, and then in less than a year had quarreled and separated. Both made good copy of the "poetic interval," as George Sand called it. Chopin was not a stickler for conventionalities, but George Sand's history, for him, proved her to be coarse and devoid of all the finer feeling that we prize in women.
Chopin had no fear of her—not he—only he did not care to add to his circle of acquaintances one so lacking in inward grace and delicacy.
He played at the musicale—it was all very informal—and George Sand pushed her way up through the throng that stood about the piano and looked at the handsome boy as he played—she looked at him with her big, hazel, cow eyes, steadfastly, yearningly, and he glancing up, saw the eyes were filled with tears.
When the playing ceased, she still stood looking at the great musician, and then she leaned over the piano and whispered, "Your playing makes me live over again every pain that has ever wrung my heart; and every joy, too, that I have ever known is mine again."
* * * * *
After their first meeting, when Chopin played at a musicale, George Sand was apt to be there too—they often came together. She was five years older than he, and looked fifteen, for his slight figure and delicate, boyish face gave him the appearance of youth unto the very last. In letters to Madame Mariana, George Sand often refers to Chopin as "My Little One," and when some one spoke of him as "The Chopinetto," the name seemed to stick.
That she was the man in the partnership is very evident. He really needed some one to look after him, provide mustard-plasters and run for the camphor and hot-water bottle. He was the one who did the weeping and pouting, and had the "nerves" and made the scenes; while she, on such occasions, would viciously roll a cigarette, swear under her breath, console and pooh-pooh.
Liszt has told us how, on one occasion, she had gone out at night for a storm-walk, and Chopin, being too ill, or disinclined to go, remained at home. Upon her return she found him in a conniption, he having composed a prelude to ward off an attack of cold feet, and was now ready to scream through fear that something had happened to her. As she entered the door he arose, staggered and fell before her in a fainting fit.
A whole literature has grown up around the relations of Chopin and George Sand, and the lady in the case has, herself, set forth her brief with painstaking detail in her "Histoire de Ma Vie." With De Musset, George Sand had to reckon on dealing with a writing man, and his accounts of "The Little White Blackbird" had taught her caution. Thereafter she abjured the litterateurs, excepting when in her old age she allowed Gustave Flaubert to come within her sacred circle—but her friendship with Flaubert was placidly platonic, as all the world knows. And so were her relations with Chopin, provided we accept her version as gospel fact.
George Sand lacked the frankness of Rousseau; but I think we should be willing to accept the lady's statements, for she was present and really the only one in possession of the facts, excepting, of course, Chopin, and he was not a writer. He could express himself only at the keyboard, and the piano is no graphophone, for which let us all be duly thankful. So we are without Chopin's side of the story. We, however, have some vigorous writing by a man by the name of Hadow.
Mr. Hadow enters the lists panoplied with facts, and declares that the friendship was strictly platonic, being on the woman's side of a purely maternal order. Chopin was sick and friendless, and Madame Dudevant, knowing his worth to the art world, succored him—nursing him as a Sister of Charity might, sacrificing herself, and even risking her reputation in order to restore him to life and health.
And this view of the case I am quite willing to accept. Mr. Hadow is no joker, like that man who has recently written an appreciation of Xantippe, showing that the wife of Socrates was one of the most patient women who ever lived, and only at times resorted to heroic means in order to drive her husband out into the world of thought. She willingly sacrificed her own good name that another might have literary life.
Hadow has gotten all the facts together and then dispassionately drawn his conclusions; and these conclusions are eminently complimentary to all parties concerned.
It was only a few months after Chopin met George Sand that he was attacked with a peculiar hacking cough. His friends were sure it was consumption, and a leading physician gave it as his opinion that if the patient spent the approaching Winter in Paris, it would be death in March.
The facts being brought to the notice of George Sand, she had but one thought—to save the life of this young man. He was too ill to decide what was best to do, and was never able by temperament to take the initiative, anyway, so this strong and capable woman, forgetful of self and her own interests, made all the arrangements and took him to the Isle of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea. There she cared for him alone as she might for a babe, for six long, weary months. They lived in the cells of an old monastery at Valdemosa, away up on the mountainside overlooking the sea. Here where the roses bloomed the whole year through, surrounded by groves of orange-trees, shut in by vines and flowers, with no society save that of the sacristan and an aged woman servant, she nursed the death-stricken man back to life and hope.
To better encourage him she sent for and surprised him with his piano, which had to be carried up the mountain on the backs of mules. In the quiet cloisters she cared for him with motherly tenderness, and there he learned again to awake the slumbering echoes with divine music. Several of his best pieces were composed at Majorca during his convalescence, where the soft semi-tropical breeze laved his cheek, the birds warbled him their sweetest carols, and away down below, the sea, mother of all, sang her ceaseless lullaby. When they returned to France the following Spring, M. Dudevant had accommodatingly vacated the family residence at Nohant in favor of his wife. It was here she took the convalescent Chopin. He was charmed with the rambling old house, its walled-in gardens with their arbors of clustering grapes, and the green meadows stretching down to the water's edge, where the little river ran its way to the ocean.
Back of the house was a great forest of mighty trees, beneath whose thick shade the sun's rays never entered, and a half-mile away arose the spire of the village church. There were no neighbors, save a cheery old priest, and the simple villagers who made respectful obeisance as they passed. Here it was that Matthew Arnold came to pay his tribute to genius, also Liszt and the fair Countess d'Agoult, Delacroix, Renan, Lamennais, Lamartine, and so many others of the great and excellent. Chopin was enchanted with the place, and refused to go back to Paris. Madame Dudevant insisted, and explained to him that she took him to Majorca to spend the Winter, but she had no intention or thought of caring for him longer than the few months that might be required to restore him to health. But he cried and clung to her with such half-childish fright that she had not the heart to send him away.
The summer months passed and the leaves began to turn scarlet and gold, and he only consented to return to Paris on her agreeing to go with him. So they returned together, and had rooms not so very far apart.
He went back sturdily to his music-teaching, with an occasional musicale, yet gave but one public concert in the space of ten years.
The exquisite quality of Chopin's playing appealed only to the sacred few, but his piano scores were slowly finding sale, through the advertisement they received by being played by Liszt, Tausig and others. Yet the critics almost uniformly condemned his work as bizarre and erratic.
Each Summer he spent at lovely Nohant, and there found the rest and quiet which got nerves back to the norm and allowed him to go on with his work. So passed the years away. Of this we are very sure—no taint exists on the record of Chopin excepting possibly his relationship with George Sand. That he endeavored to win her full heart's love, for the purpose of honorable marriage, Mr. Hadow is fully convinced. But when his suit failed, after an eight years' courtship, and the lover was discarded, he ceased to work. His heart was broken; he lingered on for two years, and then death claimed him at the early age of forty years.
* * * * *
There is a tendency to judge a work of art by its size. Thus the sculptor who does a "heroic figure" is the man who looms large to the average visitor at the art-gallery.
Chopin wrote no lengthy symphonies, oratorios or operas. His music is poetry set to exquisite sounds. Poetry is an ecstasy of the spirit, and ecstasies in their very nature are not sustained moods.
The poetic mood is transient. A composition by Chopin is a soul-ecstasy, like unto the singing of a lark.
No other man but Chopin should have been allowed to set the songs of Shelley to music. With such names as Shelley, Keats, Poe and Crane must Chopin's name be linked.
In Chopin's music there is much loose texture; there are wide-meshed chords, daring leaps and abrupt arpeggios. These have often been pointed out as faults, but such harmonious discords are now properly valued, and we see that Chopin's lapses all had meaning and purpose, in that they impart a feeling—making their appeal to souls that have suffered—souls that know.
More of Chopin's music is sold in America every year than was sold altogether during the lifetime of the composer. His name and fame grow with each year. Everywhere—wherever a piano is played—on concert platform, in studio or private parlor, there you will find the work of Frederic Chopin. That such a widespread distribution must have a potent and powerful effect upon the race goes without argument, although the furthest limit of that influence no man can mark. It is registered with Infinity alone. And thus does that modest, mild and gentle revolutionist Frederic Chopin live again in minds made better.
Beneath these flowers I dream, a silent chord. I can not wake my own strings to music; but under the hands of those who comprehend me, I become an eloquent friend. Wanderer, ere thou goest, try me! The more trouble thou takest with me, the more lovely will be the tones with which I shall reward thee.
That any man should ever write his thoughts for other men to read, seems the very height of egoism.
Literature never dies, and so the person who writes constitutes himself a rival of Shakespeare and seeks to lure us from Montaigne, Milton, Emerson and Carlyle. To write nothing better than grammatical English, to punctuate properly, and repeat thoughts in the same sequence that have been repeated a thousand times, is to do something icily regular, splendidly null.
To down the demons of syntax and epithet is not enough. To compose blameless sonatas and produce symphonies in the accepted style, is not adding an iota to the world's worth.
The individual who tries to compose either ideas or harmonious sounds, and hopes for success, must compose because he can not help it. He must place the thing in a way it has never before been placed; on the subject he must throw a new light; he must carry the standard forward, and plant it one degree nearer the uncaptured citadel of the Ideal. And he must remember this: the very prominence of his position will cause him to be the target of contumely, abuse and much stupid misunderstanding. If he complains of these things (as he probably will), he reveals a rift in the lute and proves that he is only a half-god, after all.
Men of the highest type of culture—those of masterly talent—are not gregarious in their nature. The "jiner" instinct goes with a man who is a little doubtful, and so he attaches himself to this society, club or church.
The very tendency to "jine" is an admission of weakness—it is a getting under cover, a combining against the supposed enemy. The "jiner" is an ameba that clings to flotsam, instead of floating free in the great ocean of life. The lion loves his mate, but prefers to flock by himself.
The pioneer in art, as in any other field, must be willing to face deprivations and loneliness and heart-hunger. He must find companionship with birds and animals, and be brother to the trees and swift-flying clouds. When men meet on the desert or in the forest wilds, how grateful and how gracious is their hand-clasp! When love and understanding come to those who live on the border-land of two worlds, how precious and priceless the boon!
* * * * *
Robert Schumann was the son of a book-publisher of Zwickau. He was a handsome lad with the flash of genius in his luminous eyes, and an independence like that of an Alpine goat. When very young they say he used to have tantrums. If your child has a tantrum, it is bad policy for you to imitate him and have one, too.
A tantrum is only one of the little whirlwinds of God—it is misdirected energy, power not yet controlled. When Robert had a tantrum, his father would shake him violently to improve his temper, or fall upon him with a strap that hung handy behind the kitchen-door. Then the mother, when the father was out of the way, would take the lad and cry over him, and coddle him, and undo the discipline.
The best treatment for tantrums is—nothing. The more you let a nervous, impressionable child alone, the better.
When the lad was fourteen years old, we find him setting type in his father's printery. He was working on a book called, "The World's Celebrities," and his share of the work dealt with Jean Paul Richter. He grew interested in the copy and stopped setting type and read ahead, as printers sometimes will. The more he read, the more he was fascinated. He fell under the spell of Jean Paul the Only.
Jean Paul, inspired by Jean Jacques, was the inspirer of the whole brood of young writers of his time. To him they looked as to a Deliverer. Jean Paul the Only! The largest, gentlest, most generous heart in all literature! The peculiar mark of Richter's style is analogy and comparison; everything he saw reminded him of something else, and then he tells you of things of which both remind him. He leads and lures you on, and takes you far from home, but always brings you safely back. Yet comparison proves us false when we deal with Richter himself. He stands alone, like Adam's recollection of his fall, which according to Jean Paul was the one sweet, unforgetable thing in all the life of the First Citizen of his time.
Jean Paul seems to have combined in that mighty brain all feminine as well as masculine attributes. The soul in which the feminine does not mingle is ripe for wrong, strife and unreason. "It was mother-love, carried one step further, that enabled the Savior to embrace a world," says Carlyle.
The sweep of tender emotion that murmurs and rustles through the writing of Jean Paul is like the echo of a lullaby heard in a dream. Perhaps it came from that long partnership when mother and son held the siege against poverty, and the kitchen-table served them as a writing-desk, and the patient old mother was his sole reviewer, critic, reader and public.
For shams, hypocrisy and pretense Jean Paul had a cyclone of sarcasm, and the blows he struck were such as only a son of Anak could give; but in his heart there was no hate. He could despise a man's bad habits and still love the man behind the veneer of folly. So his arms seem ever extended, welcoming the wanderer home.
Dear Jean Paul, big and homely, what an insight you had into the heart of things, and what a flying-machine your imagination was! Room for many passengers? Yes, and children especially, for these you loved most of all, because you were ever only just a big overgrown boy yourself. You cried your eyes out before your hair grew white, and then a child or a woman led you about; and thus did you supply Victor Hugo a saying that can not die: "To be blind and to be loved—what happier fate!"
Yes, Jean Paul used to cry at his work when he wrote well, and I do, too. I always know when I write particularly well, for at such times I mop furiously. However, I seldom mop.
Robert Schumann began to write little essays, and the essays were as near like Jean Paul's as he could make them. He read them to his mother, just as Jean Paul used to write for his mother and call her "my Gentle Reader"—he had but one.
Robert's mother believed in her boy—what mother does not? But her love was not tempered by reason, and in it there was a sentimental flavor akin to the maudlin.
The father wanted the lad to take up his own business, as German fathers do, but the mother filled the lad's head with the thought that he was fit for something higher and better. She was not willing to let the seed ripen in Nature's way—she thought hothouse methods were an improvement.
Such a mother's ambition centers in her son. She wants him to do the thing she has never been able to do. She thirsts for honors, applause, publicity, and all those things that bring trouble and distress and make men old before their time.
So we find the boy at eighteen packed off to Heidelberg to study law, with no special preparation in knowledge of the world, of men or books. But old father antic, the law, was not to his taste. Robert liked music and poetry better. His fine, sensitive, emotional spirit found its best exercise in music; and at the house of Professor Carus he used to sing with the professor's wife. This Professor Carus, by the way, is, I believe, directly related to our own Doctor Paul Carus, of whom all thinking people in America have reason to be proud. I am told that when a boy of eighteen or nineteen mingles his voice several evenings a week with that of a married lady aged, say, thirty-five, and they also play "four hands" an hour or so a day, that the boy is apt to surprise the married lady by falling very much in love with her. Boys are quite given to this thing, anyway, of falling in love with women old enough to be their mothers—I don't know why it is. Sometimes I am rather inclined to commend the scheme, since it often brings good results. The fact that the woman's emotions are well tempered with a sort of maternal regard for her charge holds folly in check, dispels that tired feeling, promotes digestion, and stimulates the action of the ganglionic cells.
It was surely so in this instance, for Madame Carus taught the youth how to compose, and fired his mind to excel as a pianist. He wrote and dedicated small songs to her, and their relationship added cubits to the boy's stature.
From a boy he became a man at a bound. Just as one single April day, with its showers and sunshine, will transform the seemingly lifeless twigs into leafy branches, so did this young man's intellect ripen in the sunshine of love.
As for Professor Carus, he was too busy with his theorems and biological experiments to trouble himself about so trivial a matter as a youngster falling in love with his accomplished wife—here the Professor's good sense was shown.
Jean Paul Richter lighted his torch at the flame of Jean Jacques Rousseau. In a letter to Agnes Carus, Schumann has acknowledged his obligation to Richter, in a style that is truly Richteresque.
Dear Lady:—I read from Jean Paul last night until I fell asleep and then I dreamed of you. It was at the torch of Jean Paul that I lighted my tallow dip, and now he is dead and these eyes shall never look into his, nor will his voice fall upon my ears. I cry salt tears to think that Jean Paul never knew you. If I could only have brought you two together and then looked upon you, realizing, as I would, that you had both come from High Olympus! Blissful are the days since I knew you, for you have brought within my range of vision new constellations, and into my soul has come the clear, white light of peace and truth. With you I am purified, freed from sin, and harmony fills my tired heart. Without you—why, really I have never dared think about it, for fear that reason would topple, and my mind forget its 'customed way—let's talk of music. * * *
Professor Carus kept his ear close to the ground for a higher call, and when the call came from Leipzig, he moved there with his family.
It was not many weeks before Robert was writing home, explaining that lawyers were men who get good people into trouble, and bad folks out; and as for himself he had decided to cut the business and fling himself into the arms of the Muse.
This letter brought his mother down upon him with tears and pleadings that he would not fail to redeem the Schumanns by becoming a Great Man. Poetry was foolishness and all musicians were poor—there were a hundred of them in Zwickau who lived on rye-bread and wienerwurst.
The boy promised and the mother went home pacified. But not many weeks had passed before Robert set out on a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, to visit the scene of Jean Paul's romances. On this same tour he went to Munich, and there met Heinrich Heine, who was from that day to enter into his heart and jostle Jean Paul for first place. He was accompanied on this memorable trip by Gisbert Rosen, who proved his lifelong friend and confidant. Very naturally Leipzig was the ardently desired goal of his wanderings. At once on arriving there, he sought out the home of Professor and Madame Carus. That his greeting (and mayhap hers) did not contain all the warmth the boy lover had anticipated is shown in a letter to Rosen, wherein he says: "This world is only a huge graveyard of buried dreams, a garden of cypress and weeping willows, a silent peep-show with tearful puppets. Alas for our high faith—I wonder if Jean Paul wasn't right when he said that love lessens woman's delicacy, and time and distance dissipate it like morning dew?"
Yet Madame Carus was kind, for Robert played at little informal concerts at her house, and she urged him to abandon law for music; and he refers the matter to Rosen, asking Rosen's advice and explaining how he wants to be advised, just as we usually do. Rosen tells him that no man can succeed at an undertaking unless his heart is in the work, and so he shifts the responsibility of deciding on Professor Carus, whom Robert "respects," but does not exactly admire enough to follow his advice.
Robert does not consider the Professor a practical man, and so leaves the matter to his wife. In the meantime songs are written similar to Heine's, and essays turned off, pinned with the precise synonym, the phrase exquisite, just like Jean Paul's. Progress in piano-playing goes steadily forward, with practise on the violin, all under the tutelage of Madame Carus, who one fine day takes the young man to play for Frederick Wieck, the best music-teacher in Leipzig.
* * * * *
"Musicians?" said Wieck, "I raise them!"
And so he did. He proved the value of his theories by making great performers of Maria and Clara, his daughters—two sisters more gifted in a musical way have never been born. Germany excels in philosophy and music—a seeming paradox. Music is supposed to be a compound of the stuff that dreams are made of—hazy, misty, dim, intangible feelings set to sounds—we close our eyes and they take us captive and carry us away on the wings of melody. And so it may be true that music is born of moonshine, and fragrant memories, and hopes too great for earth, and loves unrealized; yet its expression is the most exacting of sciences. A Great Musician has not only to be a poet and a dreamer, but he must also be a mathematician, cold as chilled steel, and a philosopher who can follow a reason to its lair and grapple it to the death. And that is why Great Musicians are so rare, and that is also why, perhaps, there are no great women composers. "Women of genius are men," said the De Goncourts. A Great Musician is a paradox, a miracle, a multiple-sided man—stern, firm, selfish, proud and unyielding; yet sensuous as the ether, tender as a woman, innocent as a child, and as plastic as potters' clay. And with most of them, let us frankly admit it, the hand of the Potter shook. When people write about musicians, they seldom write moderately. The man is either a selfish rogue or an angel of light—it all depends upon your point of view. And the curious part is, both sides are right.
Wieck was very fond of his daughters, and like good housewives who are proud of their biscuit, he apologized for them. "He never quite forgave our mother because we were girls," said Clara once, to Kalkbrenner. Wieck, the good man, was a philosopher, and he had a notion that the blood of woman is thinner than that of man—that it contains more white serum and fewer red corpuscles, and that Nature has designed the body of a woman to nourish her offspring, but that man's energy goes to feed his brain. Yet his girls were so much beyond average mortals that they would set men a pace in spite of the handicap.
Fortunate it is for me that I do not have to act as the court of last appeal on this genius business. The man who decides against woman will forfeit his popularity, have his reputation ripped into carpet-rags, and his good name worked up into crazy-quilts by a thousand Woman's Clubs.
But certain it is that women are the inspirers of music. As critics they are more judicial and more appreciative. Without women there would be no Symphony Concerts, any more than there would be churches.
Women take men to the Grand Opera and to Musical Festivals—and I am glad.
* * * * *
Clara Wieck was only ten years old, with dresses that came to her knees, when Robert Schumann first began to take lessons of her father. She was tall for her age, and had a habit of brushing her hair from her eyes as she played, that impressed the young man as very funny. She could not remember a time when she did not play: and she showed such ease and abandon that her father used to call her in and have her illustrate his ideas on the keyboard.
Robert didn't like the child—she was needlessly talented. She could do, just as a matter of course, the things that he could scarcely accomplish with great effort. He didn't like her.
Already Clara had played in various concerts, and was a great favorite with the local public. Soon her father planned little tours, when he gave performances assisted by his two daughters, who could play both violin and piano. Their fame grew and fortune smiled. Wieck took a larger house and raised his prices for pupils.
Robert Schumann wandered over to Zwickau to visit his folks, then went on down the Rhine to Heidelberg to see Rosen. It was nearly a year before he got back to Leipzig, resolved to continue his music studies. Wieck had a front room vacant, and so the young man took lodgings with his teacher.
It was not so very long before Clara was wearing her dresses a little longer. She now dressed her hair in two braids instead of one, and these braids were tied with ribbons instead of a shoe-string. More concerts were being arranged, and the attendance was larger—people were saying that Clara Wieck was an Infant Phenomenon.
Robert was progressing, but not so rapidly as he wished. To aid matters a bit, he invented a brace and extension to his middle finger. It gave him a farther reach and a stronger stroke, he thought. In secret he practised for hours with this "corset" on his finger; he didn't know that a corset means weakness, not strength. After three straight hours of practise one day, he took the machine from his hand and was astonished to see the finger curl up like a pretzel. He hurried to a physician and was told that the member was paralyzed. Various forms of treatment were tried, but the tendons were injured, and at last the doctors told him his brain could never again telegraph to that hand so it would perfectly obey orders. He begged that they would cut the finger off, but this they refused to do, claiming that, even though the finger was in the way, piano-playing in any event was not the chief end of man—he might try a pick and shovel.
Clara, who now wore her dress to her shoe-tops, sympathized with the young man in his distress. She said, "Never mind, I will play for you—you write the music and I will play it!"
Gradually he became resigned to this, and spent much of his time composing music for Heine's songs and his own. Wieck didn't much like these songs, and forbade his daughter playing such trashy things—only a paraphrase of Schubert's work, anyway, goodness me!
The girl pouted and rebelled, and erelong Robert Schumann was requested to take lodgings elsewhere. Moodily he obeyed, but he managed to keep up a secret correspondence with Clara, through the help of her sister. Whenever Clara played in public, Robert was sure to be there, even though the distance were a hundred miles. He had given up playing, and now swung between composing and literature, having assumed the editorship of a musical magazine.
When Clara now played in concert, she wore a train, and her hair was done up on the top of her head.
Schumann's musical magazine was winning its way—the young man had a literary style. Mendelssohn commended the magazine, and its editor in turn commended Mendelssohn. A new star had been discovered on the horizon—a Pole, Chopin by name. And whenever Clara Wieck appeared, there were extended notices, lavish in praise, profuse in prophecy.
Herz had written an article for a rival journal about Clara Wieck, wherein the statement was made that no woman trained on, that her playing was intuitive, and the limit quickly reached—marriage was death to a woman's art, etc.
To this Schumann replied with needless heat, and his friends began to joke him about his "disinterestedness." He was getting moody, and there were times when he was silent for days. His passion for Clara Wieck was consuming his life. He resolved to go direct to Frederick Wieck and have it out.
* * * * *
They are always called "the Schumanns"—Robert and Clara. You can not separate them, any more than you can separate the great Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. "Whomsoever God hath joined together, let no man put asunder," seems rather a needless injunction, since we know that man's efforts in the line of separation have ever but one result: opposition fans the flame.
Just as Elizabeth Barrett's father forcibly opposed the mating of his daughter, so did Frederick Wieck oppose the love of his daughter Clara for Robert Schumann.
And one can not blame the man so very much—he knew the young man and he knew the girl; and deducting fifty per cent for paternal pride, he saw that the girl was much the stronger character of the two. Clara had already a recognized reputation as a performer; her playing had made her father rich, and he was sure that greater things were to come. Beside that, she was only seventeen years old—a mere child.
Robert was twenty-six, with most of his future before him—he was advised to win a name and place for himself before aspiring to the hand of a great artist: and so he was bowed out.
He took the matter into the courts, and the decision was that, as she was now eighteen years old, she had the right to wed, if she were so minded.
And so they were married; but Frederick Wieck was not present at the ceremony to give the bride away.
* * * * *
Schumann was essentially feminine in many ways, as the best men always are. In spite of his mental independence, he did his best work when shielded in the shadow of a stronger personality. Without Clara, Robert would probably be unknown to us. She gave him the courage and the confidence that he lacked; and she it was who interpreted his work to the world.
Heine characterized Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" as "like a Gothic cathedral whose heaven-soaring spire and colossal cupolas seem to have been planted there by the sure hand of a giant; whereas the innumerable features, the rosettes and arabesques that are spread over it everywhere like a lacework of stone, witness to the indefatigable patience of a dwarf."
Very different is the work of Robert Schumann, who, like his master Schubert, knew little of the architectonics of the Art Divine. But Schubert seems to have been the first to give us the "lyric cry"—the prayer of a heart bowed down, or the ecstasy of a soul enrapt.
Schumann built on Schubert. Music was to Schumann the expression of an emotion. He saw in pictures, then he told in tones, what his inward eye beheld. He even went so far as to give the names of persons, their peculiarities and experiences on the keyboard. It is needless to say that the tension of mind in such experiments is apt to reach the breaking strain. We are under bonds for the moderate use of every faculty, and he who misuses any of God's gifts may not hope to go unscathed.
The exquisite quality of Robert Schumann's imagination served to make him shun the society of vulgar people. The inability to grasp things intuitively harassed him, and he acquired a habit of keeping silence, except with the elect. He lived within himself, unless Clara were by, and then he leaned on her.
And what a strong, brave and beautiful soul she was! In a sense she sacrificed her own career for the man she loved. And by giving all, she won all.
Most descriptions of women begin by telling how the individual looked and what she wore. No pen-portraits of Clara Schumann have come down to us, for the reason that she was too great, too elusive in spirit, for any snapshot artist to attempt her. She never looked twice the same. In feature she was commonplace, her form lacked the classic touch, and her raiment was as plain as the plumage of a brown thrush in an autumn hedgerow. She was as homely as George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rosa Bonheur, George Sand, or Madame De Stael. No two of the women named looked alike, but I once saw a composite photograph of their portraits and the picture sent no thrills along my keel. Their splendor was a matter of spirit. Have you ever seen the Duse?—there is but one. In repose this woman's face is absolute nullity. She starts with a blank—you would never take a second glance at her at a pink tea. Her dress is bargain day, her form so-so, her features clay.
But mayhap she will lift her hand and resting her chin upon it will look at you out of half-closed eyes that never are twice alike. If you are speaking you will suddenly become aware that she is listening, and then you will become uncomfortable and try to stop, but can not; for you will realize that you have been talking at random, and you want to redeem yourself.
The presence of this plain woman is a challenge—she knows! Yet she never contradicts, and when she wills it, she will lead you out of the maze and make you at peace with yourself; for our quarrel with the world is only a quarrel with self. When we are at peace with self we are at peace with God.
The Duse is a surprise, in that her homeliness of face masks an intellect that is a revelation. Her body is an exasperation to the tribe of Worth, but it houses a soul that has lived every life, died every death, known every sorrow, tasted every joy, and been one with the outcast, the despised, the forsaken; and has stood, too, clothed in shining raiment by the side of the great, the noble, the powerful. Knowing all, she forgives all. And across the face and out of the eyes, and even from her silence, come messages of sympathy—messages of strength, messages of a faith that is dauntless. Great people are simply those who have sympathy plus. Clara Schumann knew the excellence of her chosen mate, and through her sympathy made it possible for him to express himself at his highest and best. She also guessed his limitations and sought to hold him 'gainst the calamity she saw looming on the horizon, no bigger than a man's hand.
When he was moody and there came times of melancholy, she invited young people to the house; and so Robert mingled his life with theirs, and in their aspirations he shook off the demons of doubt.
It was in this way that he became interested in various rising stars, and although in some instances we are aware that his prophecies went astray, we know that he hailed Chopin and Brahms long before they had come within the ken of the musical world, that so often looks through the large end of the telescope. And this kindly encouragement, this fostering welcome that the Schumanns gave to all aspiring young artists, is not the least of their virtues. We love them because they were kind.
* * * * *
Clara Schumann was wise beyond the lot of woman. She knew this fact which very few mortals ever realize: The triumphs of yesterday belong to yesterday, with all of yesterday's defeats and sorrows—the day is Here, the time is Now. She did not drag her troubles behind her with a rope, nor wax vain over achievements done. When the light of her husband's intellect went out in darkness and he lived for a space a lingering death, she faced the dawn each morning, resolved to do her work and do it the best she could.
When death came to Robert's relief, her one ambition, like that of Mary Shelley, was to write her husband's name indelibly on history's page.
The professedly and professionally cheerful person is very depressing. The pessimist always has wit, for wit reveals itself in the knowledge of values. And the individual who accepts what Fate sends, and undoes Calamity by drinking all of it, is sure to have a place in our calendar of saints.
Clara Schumann, a widow at thirty-seven, with a goodly brood of babies, and no income to speak of, lived one day at a time, did her work as well as she could, and always had a little time and energy over to use for others less fortunate.
Such fortitude is sure to bear fruit, and friends flocked to her as never before. The way to secure friends is to be one.
Madame Schumann made concert tours throughout the Continent and England, meeting on absolute equality the music-loving people, as well as the Kings of Art. She played her husband's pieces with such a wealth of expression that folks wondered why they had never heard of them. And so today, wherever hearts are sad, or glad, and songs are sung, and strings vibrate, and keys respond to love's caress, there is in hearts that know and feel, a shrine; and on this shrine in letters of gold two words are carved, and they are these: THE SCHUMANNS.
The name of Bach would have been famous in musical history without Johann Sebastian, but with his name added it becomes the most illustrious that the world has ever known. Bach had many pupils, but none surpassed his own sons, six of whom became great musicians, but with these the musical faculty died.
—Sir Hubert Parry
The art of today is imitative. Once men had convictions, but we have only opinions, and these are usually borrowed. The artificiality of life, and the rush and the worry afford no time for great desires to possess our souls.
We average well, but no Colossus looms large above the crowd and goes his solitary way unmindful of the throng: we look alike, act alike, think alike, and in order that the likeness may be complete, we dress alike.
To wear a hat of your own selection or voice thoughts of your own thinking is to invite unseemly mirth, and finally scorn and contumely.
The great creators were solitary, rural in their instincts, ignorant and heedless of what the world was saying and doing. They were men of deep convictions and enthusiasms, unmindful of laughter or ridicule, caring little even for approbation.
No "boom town" can possibly produce a genius: it only fosters sundry small Napoleons of finance. America is a nation of boomers—financial, political, social and theological.
We have sarcasm and cynicism, and we possess much that is clever, all produced by snatches of success, well mixed with disappointment and the bitterness which much contact with the world is sure to evolve. Our age that goes everywhere, knows everybody's business, and religiously reads only "the last edition," produces a Bill Nye, a Sam Jones, a Teddy Roosevelt, a DeWitt Talmage, a Hopkinson Smith, a Sam Walter Foss, a Victor Herbert; but it is not at all likely to produce a Praxiteles, a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, an Immanuel Kant or a Johann Sebastian Bach.
* * * * *
What Shakespeare is to literature, Michelangelo to sculpture, and Rembrandt to portrait-painting, Johann Sebastian Bach is to organ-music. He was the greatest organist of his time, and his equal has not yet been produced, though nearly three hundred years have passed since his death. "The organ reached perfection at the hands of Bach," says Haweis. As a composer for the organ, Bach stands secure—his position is at the head, and is absolutely unassailable.
In point of temperament and disposition Bach bears a closer resemblance to Michelangelo than to either of the others whose names I have mentioned. He was stern, strong, self-contained, and so deeply religious that he was not only a Christian but a good deal of a pagan as well. A homely man was Bach—quiet, simple in tastes and blunt in speech.
The earnest way in which this plain, unpretentious man focused upon his life-work and raised organ-music to the highest point of art must command the sincere admiration of every lover of honest endeavor.
Bach was so great that he had no artistic jealousy, no whim, and when harshly and unjustly criticized he did not concern himself enough with the quibblers to reply. He made neither apologies nor explanations. The man who thus allows his life to justify itself, and lets his work speak, and who, when reviled, reviles not again, must be a very great and lofty soul.
Bach was a villager and a rustic, and, like Jean Francois Millet, used to hoe in his garden, trim the vines, play with his children, putting them to bed at night, or in the day cease from his work to cut slices of brown bread which he spread with honey for the heedless little importuner, who had interrupted him in the making of a chorale that was to charm the centuries. At times he would leave his composing to help his wife with her household duties—to wash dishes, sweep the room or care for a peevish, fretful child. After the evening prayer, like Millet, again, when his household were all abed, he would often walk out into the night alone, and traverse his solitary way along a wintry road, through the woods or by the winding river, a dim, misty, shadowy figure, spectral as the "Sower," lonely as the "Fagot-Gatherer," talking to himself, mayhap, and communing with his Maker.
In his later years, when he traveled from one village or city to another to attend musical gatherings, he was always accompanied by one or more of his sons. His ambition was centered on his children, and his hope was in them. Yet nothing has been added to either organ-building, organ-playing or composition for the organ since his time.
He never knew, any more than Shakespeare knew, that he had set a pace that would never be equaled. He would have stood aghast with incredulity had he been told that centuries would come and go and his name be acclaimed as Master.
Such was Sebastian Bach—simple, polite, modest, unaffected, generous, almost shy—doing his work and doing it as well as he could, living one day at a time, loving his friends, forgetting his enemies. His heart was filled with such melodies that their echo is a blessing and a benediction to us yet. Art lives!
* * * * *
Heredity is that law of our being which provides that a man shall resemble his grandfather—or not. The Bach family has supplied the believers in heredity more good raw material in way of argument than any dozen other families known to history, combined.
The Herschels with three eminent astronomers to their credit, or the Beechers with half a dozen great preachers, are scarcely worth mentioning when we remember the Bachs, who for two hundred fifty years sounded the "A" for nearly all Germany.
The earliest known member of this musical family was Vert Bach, who was born about Fifteen Hundred Fifty. He was a miller and baker by trade, but devoted so much time to playing at dances, rehearsing at church festivals, and attending gipsy musical performances, that in his milling business he never prospered and nobody called him "Pillsbury."
This man had a son by the name of Hans, a weaver and a right merry wight, who traveled over the country attending weddings, christenings and such like festivals, playing upon a fiddle of his own construction. So famous was Hans Bach that his name lives in legend and folklore, wherein it is related that often betimes when he arrived at a village, the word would be passed and the whole population would quit work and caper on the green. So luring was his fiddle, and so potent his voice in song and story, that in a few instances preachers with long faces warned their flocks against him; and once we find a country Dogberry had his minions lay the innocent Hans by the heels and give him a taste of the stocks, simply because he seduced a party of haymakers into following him off to a dance at a tavern, and in the meantime a storm coming up, the hay got wet. Poor Hans protested that he had nothing to do with the storm, but his excuses were construed as proof of guilt and went for naught.
At last in his wanderings, Hans found a buxom lass who was willing to take him for better or worse.
And they were married and lived happily ever after, or fairly so.
This marriage quite sobered the fun-loving fiddler, so that he settled down and worked at his weaving; and at odd hours made himself a bass viol that looked to be father of all the fiddles. In Eisenach I was told that this viol was ten feet high. Hans used to play this instrument at the village church, and his playing drew such crowds that the preacher had just cause for jealousy, and improved the opportunity, yet stifling his rage he ordered the verger to lock the doors and allow no one to depart until after the sermon and collection.
A goodly family was born to Hans and his worthy wife, and all were trained in music, so that an orchestra was formed, made up of the father, mother, and boys and girls. All the instruments used were made by Hans, and these included marvelous fiddles, some with one string and others with twenty; wooden wind-instruments like flutes, and drums to match the players, some of whom were wee toddlers. It is said that the music this orchestra made was more or less unique.
The best part of all this musical exploitation of Hans was that one of his boys, Heinrich by name, applied himself so diligently to the art that he became the organist in the village church, and then he was called to play the great organ at Arnstadt. Heinrich was not a roisterer like his father: he was a man of education and dignity. He composed many pieces, and trained his choruses so well that his fame went abroad as the chief musician of all Thuringia. He held his position at Arnstadt for fifty years, and died in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two, at which time Johann Sebastian Bach, his nephew, was seven years old.
In his day Heinrich Bach was known as the "Great Bach," and he had two sons who were nearly as famous as himself, and would have been quite so, were it not for the fact that they had a cousin by the name of Johann Sebastian.
Johann Sebastian was a son of Johann Ambrosius, a brother of Heinrich, and Johann Ambrosius, of course, a son of the merry Hans. Johann Ambrosius was a musician, too, but did not distinguish himself especially in this line. His distinction lies in the fact that he was the father of Johann Sebastian, and this is quite enough for any one man, even if Gail Hamilton did once protest that the office of male parent was insignificant and devoid of honor.
Johann Ambrosius was a shiftless kind of fellow who drank much beer out of an earthen pot, and whittled out fiddles, sitting on a bench in the sun. He sort of let his family shift for themselves. Heinrich Bach, his brother, used to speak of him as one of his "poor relations," but at the annual Bach family festival, when a full hundred Bachs gathered to sing and play, Johann Ambrosius would attend and play on a flute or fiddle and prove that he was worthy of the name.
On one such annual reunion he took his little boy, Johann Sebastian, eight years old. The boy's mother had died a year or so before, and after the mother's death the father seemed to think more of his children than ever before—which is often the case, I'm told.
They walked the distance, about forty miles, in two days, to where the festival occurred. It was one of the white milestones in the boy's life—that trip with its revelation of sleeping in barns, singing, and playing on many instruments, dining by the wayside, all winding up with a solemn service at a great stone church, where the preacher gave them his benediction, and the great company separated with handshakings, embracings and tears, to meet again in a year. Johann Ambrosius did not attend the next reunion. Before the Spring had come and birds sang blithely, a band composed of twenty-five played funeral-dirges at his grave—and little Johann Sebastian was an orphan.
Johann Sebastian's elder brother, Christoph, who had married a few years before and moved away, attended the funeral, and when he went back home he took little Johann Sebastian with him—there was no other place to go. The lad was allowed to take one thing with him as a remembrance of the home that he was now leaving forever—his father's violin in a green bag, with a leathern drawstring. On the bag were his father's initials, woven into the cloth by the boy's mother—a present from sweetheart to lover before their marriage.
Christoph was a musician, too, and a prosperous fellow—quite the antithesis of his father. It takes a lot of love to bring up a child, and the miracle of mother-love is a constant wonder to every thinking person. Without mother-love how would the cross-grained, perverse little tyrant ever survive the buffets which the world is sure to give? It is love that makes existence possible.
Christoph wished to be kind to his little brother, but it was a kindness of the head and not of the heart. Only an hour a day was allowed the boy for playing on the violin he had brought in the green bag, because Christoph and his wife "did not want to hear the noise." Then when the boy stole off to the forest and played there, he was waylaid on the way home and well cuffed for disobeying orders. All this seems very much like the Goneril and Cordelia business, or the history of Cinderella, but as Johann Sebastian told it himself in the after-years, we have reason to believe it was not fiction.
Little Johann Sebastian had been his father's favorite, and this fact perhaps made Christoph fear the boy was going to tread in his father's lazy footsteps. So he set about to discipline the lad.
It must be admitted that Johann Ambrosius Bach, who whittled out fiddles in the sun, and who drank much beer out of an earthen pot, was shiftless, but it further seems that he was tender-hearted and kind and took much interest in teaching Sebastian to play the violin, even while the child wore dresses. And sometimes I think it is really better, if you have to choose, to drink beer out of an earthen pot and be kind and gentle, than to have a sharp nose for other folks' faults and be continually trying to pinch and prod the old world into the straight and narrow path of virtue. Yet there is wisdom in all folly, and I can see that the prohibition concerning little Sebastian's playing the violin only an hour a day—mind you! was not without its benefits. Surely it would often be a wise bit of diplomacy on the part of the teacher to order the pupil not to study his arithmetic lesson but an hour a day, on penalty. Of course it might happen occasionally that the pupil in an earnest desire to please, might not study at all, yet there are exceptions to all rules, and we must remember that when Tom Sawyer forbade the boys using his whitewash-brush, the scheme worked well.
One instance, however, might be cited where the law of compensation seems really to have stood no chance. Christoph had a goodly musical library and a collection of the best organ-music that had been produced up to that time. He kept this music in a case, and carried the key to the case in his pocket. On rare occasions he had shown bits of this music to Sebastian, who read music like print when it is easy. The boy devoured all the music he could lay his hands on, and hummed it over to himself until every note and accent was fixed in his memory. He dearly wanted to examine that music in the locked-up case, but his brother declared his ambition nonsense—he was too young. But the boy contrived a way to pick the lock—for a music-lover laughs at locksmiths—and at night when all the household were safely in bed, he would steal downstairs in his bare feet and get a sheet of the music and copy it off by moonlight, sitting in the deep ledge of the window. Thus did he work for six months, whenever the moon shone bright enough to read the lines and signs and marks. But alas! one day the elder brother was rummaging around the boy's room in search of things contraband and he pounced upon the portfolio of copied music. He summoned the offender into his presence. The facts were admitted, and Johann Sebastian had his bare legs well tingled with an apple-sprout. Then the portfolio was confiscated and carried away, despite pleadings, promises and tears. And the question still remains whether "discipline" is not a matter of gratification to the person in power rather than a sincere and honest attempt to benefit the person disciplined.
Nevertheless, Johann Sebastian Bach was working out his own education: he belonged to the boys' chorus at Ohrdruf, as all boys in the vicinity did. Music in every German village was an important item, and the best singers and best behaved members of the village choir were set apart as a sort of select choir—a choir within a choir—and were often gathered together to sing on special occasions at weddings and festivals. Johann Sebastian had a sweet, well-modulated voice, and whenever he was to sing, he carried his violin in the green bag, so he could play, too, if needed. Thus he played and sang at serenades, just as did Martin Luther, many years before, in Johann Sebastian's own native town of Eisenach.
Johann Sebastian's fame grew until it reached to Luneburg, twelve miles away, and he was invited there to sing in the choir of Saint Michael's. The pay he received was very slight, but that was not to be considered. An occasional bowl of soup and piece of rye-bread, and the privilege of sleeping in the organ-loft, all combined with freedom, made his paradise complete. He played on the harpsichord in the pastor's study sometimes; and occasionally the organist, who could not help loving such a music-loving boy, would allow him to try the big organ, and at every service he was present to play his violin, or if any of the other players were absent he would just fill in and play any instrument desired.
Then we hear of him trudging off to Hamburg, a hundred miles away, with only a few coppers in his pocket, to hear the great organist Reinke. He slept in cattle-sheds by the way, played his violin at taverns for something to eat, or plainly stated his case to sympathetic cooks at backdoors. One instance he has recorded when all the world seemed to frown. He had trudged all day, with nothing to eat, and at evening had sat down near the open window of an inn, from which came savory smells of supper. As he sat there, suddenly there were thrown out a couple of small dried herrings. The hungry boy eagerly seized upon them, just as a dog would. But what was his surprise to find, as he gnawed, in the mouth of each fish a piece of silver! Some one had read the story of Saint Peter to a purpose. Young Bach looked in vain for a person to thank, but perceiving no one he took it as the act of God and an omen that his pilgrimage to hear the great organist should not be in vain.
The wonders of Reinke's playing and the marvel of the mighty music filled his soul with awe, and fired his ambition to do a like performance.
Did the great Reinke know as he played that bright Sabbath morning, filling the cathedral with thunders of echoing bass, or sounds of sweet, subtle melody—did he know that away back in the throng stood a dusty, tawny-haired boy who had tramped a hundred miles just for this event? And did the organist guess as he played that he was inspiring a human soul to do a grand and wondrous work, and live a life whose influence should be deathless? Probably not—few men indeed know when virtue has gone out of them.
Perhaps Reinke was playing just to suit himself, and had purposely put the unappreciative, lazy, sleepy occupants of the pews out of his thought, all unmindful that there was one among a thousand, back behind a pillar, dusty and worn, but now unconsciously refreshed and oblivious to all save the playing of the great organ. There stood the boy bathed in sweet sounds, with streaming eyes and responsive heart.
His inward emotions supplemented the outward melody, for music demands a listener, and at the last is a matter of soul, not sound: its appeal being a harmony that dwells within. So played Reinke, and back by the door, peering from behind a pillar, stood the boy.
* * * * *
Sebastian Bach was such a useful member of the choir at Luneburg that the town musician from Weimar, who happened to be going that way, induced him to go home with him as assistant organist.
This was a definite move in the direction of fame and fortune. Men who can make themselves useful are needed—there is ever a search for such. They wanted Bach at Weimar. Johann Sebastian Bach, aged eighteen, was wanted because he did his work well.
After three or four months at Weimar he made a visit to Arnstadt, where his uncle had so long been organist. His name at Arnstadt was a name to conjure with, and in fact throughout all that part of the country, whenever a man proved to be a musician of worth and power the people out of compliment called him a "Bach."
Johann Sebastian was invited to play for the people, and all were so delighted that they insisted he should come and fill the place made vacant by the death of the "Great Bach."
So he came and was duly installed.
And the young man drilled his chorus, wrote cantatas, and arranged chants and hymns. But he was far from contented. He was being pushed on by a noble unrest. It was not so very long before we find him packing off to Denmark, with little ceremony, to listen to the playing of Buxtehude, the greatest player of his age.
Bach had been quite content to tiptoe into the church when Reinke played, grateful for the privilege of listening, half-expecting to be thrust out as an interloper. He had gained confidence since then, and now introduced himself to Buxtehude and was greeted by the octogenarian as a brother and an equal, although sixty years divided them. His visit extended itself from one week to two, and then to a month or more, and a message came from his employers that if he expected to hold his place he had better return.
Bach's visit to Buxtehude formed another white milestone in his career. He came back filled with enthusiasm and overflowing with ideas and plans that a single lifetime could not materialize. Those who have analyzed the work of Buxtehude and Bach tell us that there is a richness of counterpoint, a vigor of style, a fulness of harmony, and a strong, glowing, daring quality that in some pieces is identical with both composers. In other words, Bach admired Buxtehude so much that for a time he wrote and played just like him, very much as Turner began by painting as near like Claude Lorraine as he possibly could. Genius has its prototype, and in all art there is to be found this apostolic succession. Bach first built on Reinke; next he transferred his allegiance to Buxtehude; from this he gradually developed courage and self-reliance until he fearlessly trusted himself in deep water, heedless of danger. And it is this fearless, self-reliant and self-sufficient quality that marks the work of every exceptional man in every line of art. "Here's to the man who dares," said Disraeli. All strong men begin by worshiping at a shrine, and if they continue to grow they shift their allegiance until they know only one altar and that is the Ideal which dwells in their own heart.
* * * * *
And now behold how Heinrich Bach had educated his people into the belief that there was only one way to play, and that was as he did it. It is not at all probable that Heinrich put forward any claims of perfection, but the people regarded his playing as high-water mark, and any variation from his standards was considered fantastic and absurd.
In all of the old German Protestant churches are records kept giving the exact history of the church. You can tell for two hundred years back just when an organist was hired or dismissed; when a preacher came and when he went away, with minute mention as to reasons.
And so we find in the records of the Church at Arnstadt that the organist, Johann Sebastian Bach, took a vacation without leave in the year Seventeen Hundred Five, and further, when he returned his playing was "fantastical."
With the young man's compositions the Consistory expressed echoing groans of dissatisfaction. A list of charges was drawn up against him, one of which runs as follows: "We charge him with a habit of making surprising variations in the chorales, and intermixing divers strange sounds, so that thereby the congregation was confounded."
Bach's answers are filed with the original charges, and are all very brief and submissive. In some instances he pleads guilty, not thinking it worth his while, strong man that he was, to either apologize or explain.
But the most damning count brought against him was this: "We further charge him with introducing into the choir-loft a Stranger Maiden, who made music." To this, young Bach makes no reply. Brave boy!
The sequel is shown that in a few weeks he was married to this "Stranger Maiden," who was his cousin. She was a Bach, too, a descendant of the merry Hans, and she, also, played the organ. But great was the horror of the Arnstadites that a woman should play a church organ. Mein Gott im Himmel—a woman might be occupying the pulpit next!
Johann Sebastian's indifference to criticism is partially explained by the fact that he was in correspondence with the Consistory at Mulhausen, and also with the Duke Wilhelm Ernest, of Saxe-Weimar. Both Mulhausen and Weimar wanted his services. Under such conditions men have ever been known to invite a rupture—let us hope that Johann Sebastian Bach was not quite so human.
* * * * *
Michelangelo never married, but Bach held the average good by marrying twice.
He was the father of just twenty children. His first wife was a woman with well-defined musical tastes, as was meet in one with such an illustrious musical pedigree. It wasn't fashion then to educate women, and one biographer expresses a doubt as to whether Bach's first wife was able to read and write. To read and write are rather cheap accomplishments, though. Last year I met several excellent specimens of manhood in the Tennessee Mountains who could do neither, yet these men had a goodly hold on the eternal verities.
We know that Bach's wife had a thorough sympathy with his work, and that he used to sing or play his compositions to her, and when the children got big enough, they tried the new-made hymn tunes, too. These children sang before they could talk plain, and the result was that the two elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Phillip Emmanuel, became musicians of marked ability. Half a dozen other sons became musicians also, but the two named above made some valuable additions to the music fund of the world. Haydn has paid personal tribute to Emmanuel Bach, acknowledging his obligation, and expressing to him the belief that he was a greater man than his father.
The nine years Bach spent at Weimar, under the patronage of the Duke Wilhelm Ernest, were years rich in results. His office was that of Concert Master, and Leader of the Choir at Ducal Chapel. The duties not being very exacting, he had plenty of time to foster his bent. Freed from all apprehension along the line of the bread-and-butter question he devoted himself untiringly to his work. It was here he developed that style of fingering that was to be followed by the players on the harpsichord, and which further serves as the basis for our present manner of piano-playing. Bach was the first man to make use of the thumb in organ-playing, and I believe it was James Huneker who once said that "Bach discovered the human hand."
Bach made a complete study of the mechanism of the organ, invented various arrangements for the better use of the pedals, and gave his ideas without stint to the makers, who, it seems, were glad to profit by them. Even then Weimar was a place of pilgrimage, although Goethe had not yet come to illumine it with his presence. But the traditions of Weimar have been musical and artistic for four hundred years, and this had its weight with Goethe when he decided to make it his home.
In Bach's day, pilgrims from afar used to come to attend the musical festivals given by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar; and these pilgrims would go home and spread the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. Many invitations used to come for him to go and play at the installation of a new organ, or to superintend the construction of an organ, or to lead a chorus. Gradually his fame grew, and although he might have lived his life and ended his days there in the rural and peaceful quiet of Weimar, yet he harkened to the voice and arose and went forth with his family into a place that afforded a wider scope for his powers.
As Kapellmeister to the Court at Kothen he had the direction of a large orchestra, and it seems also supervised a school of music.
When the Court moved about from place to place it was the custom to take the orchestra, too, in order to reveal to the natives along the way what good music really was. This was all quite on the order of the Duke of Mantua, who used to travel with a retinue of two hundred servants and attendants.
On one such occasion the Kothen Court went to Carlsbad. The visit extended itself to six months, when Bach became impatient to return to his family, and was allowed to go in advance of the rest of the company. On reaching home he found his wife had died and been buried several weeks before.
It was a severe shock to the poor man, but fortunately there was more philosophy to his nature than romance, which is a marked trait in the German character. All this is plainly evidenced by the fact that in many German churches when a good wife dies, the pastor, at the funeral, as the best friend of the stricken husband, casts his eyes over the congregation for a suitable successor to the deceased. And very often the funeral baked meats do coldly furnish forth the marriage feast. Man is made to mourn, but most widowers say but a year.
The prompt second marriage of Bach was certainly a compliment to the memory of his first wife, who was a most amiable helpmeet and friend. No soft sentiment disturbed the deep immersement of this man in his work. He was as businesslike a man as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who arranged his second marriage by correspondence, and then drove over in a buggy one afternoon to bring home the promised bride, making notes by the way on the Over-Soul and man's place in the Universal Cosmos.
Events proved the wisdom of Johann Sebastian Bach's choice. His first wife filled his heart, but this one was not only to do as much, but often to guide his hand and brain. He was thirty-eight with a brood of nine. Anna Magdalena was twenty-three, strong, fancy-free, and by a dozen, lacking one, was to increase the limit.