Inside 20th-century music
With apologies to Hans Christian Andersen's ''The Nightingale.''m One day a large packet arrived for the Emperor and on the outside of it was written, ''The Nightingale.''
. . . It was an artificial nightingale which had been made to resemble the living one, but was covered all over with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. As soon as you wound up this artificial bird it could sing one of the pieces the real nightingale sang.
''That is very pretty!'' said they all, and he who had brought the artificial bird immediately received the title of Chief-Imperial-Nightingale-Bringer.
''Now the two must sing together,'' said the courtiers. ''What a duet it will be!''
But it would not do at all, for the real nightingale sang in his own way and the artificial bird went by clockwork. ''I have no fault to find with it,'' said the music master; ''its time is perfect and quite of my school.'' So the artificial bird was set to sing alone. And presently the real bird flew out of the open window back to its green woods.
All declared that the nightingale was a most ungrateful creature.
''At any rate we have still the best bird,'' they said, and so the artificial bird had to sing again, and that made the four and thirtieth time they had heard the same piece. But even now they did not know all of it, because, as they all agreed, the music was so very expert. The music master praised the bird above measure.
''For look now, as regards the real nightingale you can never tell for certain what will come, but as regards the artificial bird everything is fixed and definite. You can explain all about it. You can open it and display the ingenuity of man. You can see the position of the various parts, how they work and how they follow one after the other!''
''Those are exactly my own thoughts!'' said all present. . . .
It was the poor fisherman - the man who knew the real nightingale well - who said, ''It sounds nice enough, but there is something wanting. I know not what.''
This angered the Emperor, and the real nightingale was banished from the realm.
. . . The music master wrote five and twenty volumes about the artificial bird; his treatise was long and learned and full of the hardest Chinese words, and all the people said they had read and understood it, for otherwise they would have been considered stupid and been trampled upon.
A whole year passed. Then one evening all the wheels ran down and the music stopped.
. . . The watchmaker . . . after a good deal of talking and peeping, put the bird somewhat to rights, but he said they must spare it as much as possible, for the machinery was so worn that it was not possible to supply new works which could be relied upon to go with the music. It was a great grief! Only once a year could the artificial bird be allowed to sing, and even then they were very strict about it; but the music master made a little speech full of hard words and said it was just as good as before, and so it was just as good as before.
To anyone who has experienced the jolts and challenges of much of contemporary music, and has followed the baffling prose written about it, Mr. Andersen's message for our time will be abundantly clear. In part, it was our postwar academia, with its antiseptic analytic drive, that helped us estrange ourselves from that beautiful bird, music, as a creative, throbbing, breathing art. Living musical art has a commanding presence, and is neither a museum-case relic of bygone times nor an artificial hothouse product of opinions and systems. Generally speaking, over the years pieces have seemed to get shorter, and the program notes longer and longer!
Actually, we've come a long way in recent years in not tolerating today as much of the academic stuffiness and protective hype that have surrounded ''incubated'' contemporary music. But there is still much danger of art-atrophy, from the massive neglect of coherent and good twentieth-century music in our professional concert programs. Performers and planners who do not make an energetic commitment to the worthwhile music of our century are not fulfilling their obligations to the art they are purporting to serve.
As the latter part of the fairy tale depicts, you cannot mechanize and institutionalize a creative art and expect its workings (and its ''works'') not to wear out and run down. Yet this is exactly where music is being propelled today, by all the forces dedicated to marketing music as a tintype of some bygone time.
I couldn't take away from the music of Bach or Mozart, even if I wanted to. No, the danger is making a little artificial bird out of music - a surrogate for music that speaks to us in our own time, of our own time. If we continue to ignore the latter, we shall find we have less and less that speaks to us in any form.
P.S. The real nightingale did return, and it made all the difference.m