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Possibly more than one son of Jubal reading this poem has had to have recourse to a dictionary before he understood the reference to "an air of Tulou's " *
or appreciated the full flavour of the sarcasm in
I who, times full twenty,
At his caldamente. * The aptness of the title of this poem to its contents, one would think, is sufficiently obvious, the verses being descriptive of a flautist playing his instrument to the accompaniment of a dialogue between two lovers hidden from him by some ash trees. But Miss F. Mary Wilson, in her Primer on Browning, attributes the title to “the precise meaning that may be put upon the words being subsidiaryan accompaniment to their music.” The meaning, however, if less profound, and much more easy to apprehend - than is usual with Browning, is not a negligible part of the poem. The verses are a musical illustration of the truth that beauty lies in the eye-in this case the ear-of the beholder.
Three of the four poems Browning wrote under a musical title teach a lesson proper rather than art. Music is used to illustrate a subject, not as the subject itself. One cannot but feel that Abt Vogler and Baldassare Galuppi are lay figures on which the poet has dressed his own thought.
The last stanza of “Abt Vogler" has been the subject of considerable questioning. Dr. T. L. Southgate, in a paper read before the British Musical Association, spoke disparagingly of Browning's musical references, and, if memory does not betray me, of this one in particular, as being vague and meaningless. While admitting some obscurity, such a verdict seems to me too hasty and as wanting sympathy with poetic methods of expression. In the stanza in question-confessedly one of the most difficult-it is possible to trace a quite clear train of thought. From a common chord-evidently a major one
is meant-Vogler modulates to a minor key : as he does this “ sliding by semitones," it cannot be the "tonic" minor, and the “relative" minor was evidently that in the poet's mind. If the bass of the relative minor chord be “ blunted" - that is lowered-one degree, the upper notes remaining, the result will be the interval of a ninth; if the upper notes rise one degree, the bass being “blunted” only a semitone, the result will (according to many theorists) be a chord, though not interval, of the ninth. Both, if reached sliding by semitones, are "alien” to the original major chord, and therefore a vantage ground from which the player could recall his previous more extreme modulations (changes of key). The return to the original major chord would follow easily. In the abstract there is nothing more natural about C major than any other key. But as it needs no flats or sharps-on a keyboard no black notes- it has come to be regarded as the “natural” key. Here it obviously means that after intense elevation of feeling Vogler returns to plain, prosaic every-day life. It may be remarked in passing that Browning seems partial to "relative” minors. See “Charles Avison," stanza ix., last lines. .
Baldassare Galuppi, born in 1706 on the island of Burano near Venice, was chiefly known as a composer of comic operas, of which he wrote fifty-four. Accordingly "A Toccata of Galuppi's” is mainly a reverie on the superficiality of Venetian life of the period :
Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent
what Venice earned.
be discerned. Galuppi's music is not less “ dust and ashes " than the life of which it was once a concomitant :
Dust and ashes !", so you creak it
through every nerve. But this barrenness to the modern ear only emphasizes the recognition in stanzas vii. and viii., that in its own day G:
Galuppi's “ plaintive and commiserating music” served
purpose. It arrested, though perhaps but momentarily, the frivolity of ball, mask and carnival. It not only “ told them something which raised the question “must we die ? ” but refused to desist till its warning was heeded. So I interpret the line already quoted :
Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be
answered to ! Galuppi, however, was no busybody propounding problems for which he had no solution :
So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they
praised you, I dare say!
at grave and gay!” The only musical poem in which Browning makes no allusion to this thought is “ Flute Music, with an Accompaniment,” unless “The Pied Piper of Hamelin be included among the musical poems.
But in the last, longest, and, musically, most technical of Browning's poems, Parleyings with Charles Avison,” the theme is treated in a wholly different manner. Music is the primary subject ; philosophy is only brought in when necessary to illustrate or explain its phenomena. Brown. ing speaks of the march which recalled Avison to his mind as a "thinnish air,” with “no lure of novel modulation,” and
Three crotchets to a bar: no change, I grant,
Except from Tonic down to Dominant.
Bold stepping march, foot stept to ere my hand
Of majesties familiar. Such an air, popular in its own day, but long since forgotten, suited his theme-or suggested it as a more enduring work would not have done.
His contention in the poem is that the function of Art is to represent
How we feel, hard and fast as what we know;
Make as manifest
and that of all arts Music "the most attains thereto, yet
The Painter's Eve, the Poet's Helena,
As well expect the rainbow not to pass !
Once all was perfume-now, the flower is dead.
By no means ! Buononcini's work is theme
For fit laudation of the impartial few. Francesco Geminiani - of whom Avison was a pupiland Dr. Pepusch are also mentioned. Though the music of Avison's day is “all alive once more,” it is as "the figured worthies of a wax-work show.” As representing
to-day's music manufacture,” the reader is referred to “ Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak, Liszt.”
Browning, however, has only sarcasm for those who contemptuously recognizing the transcience of all other music, imagine that the creations of their own idol will last for all time. So, anyway, I interpret the line
Since fatal Wagner fixed it fast for us. At this stage of his argument and judged by this poem alone, it would not be unnatural to regard Browning as availing himself of a “poet's license to overestimate the fickleness of “Religion's Handmaid.”
For Music, while in its harmonic aspect the youngest, is melodically the oldest of the Arts. At least, it is the
first mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Fragments of song are extant, which are said by the Nile boatmen who sing them to be as old as the Rameses, and prior to or contemporaneous with the oldest known attempts at painting-Egyptian frescoes. To this day the Hindus use melodies in their worship the origin of which is ascribed to the gods; the Jews use one or two temple-songs believed to date from the time of the Exodus ; and the Plainsong chants used throughout Christendom are of much earlier origin than John van Eyck (b. 1390), the generally accredited founder of oil painting. The same is probably true of thousands of folk-tunes still sung and danced to all over the world. To come to modern times, if Handel's operas are dead, his oratorios are not. If Galuppi's harpsichord toccatas are known only to the antiquary, his masses are still occasionally sung-or were in Browning's own day.
It is only in its notation that music is the junior of other Arts. Hence it is a moot point whether harmony is a modern development or not. Had the staff been in. vented at the time letters were, polyphonic music might still be extant as comprehensible to us moderns as is the « Iliad” Odyssey."
It is, however, only in regard to its “ garniture'” that Charles Avison's admonitor seems to underestimate the durance of music. “ That's truth,” he declares, “which endures re-setting.” And I take this stanza xiv. to concede that even Avison's simple diatonic march only needs “Sharps and flats, lavish at need," " Ophicleide and bombardon's uproar,” to make it fit “march music for the Future."