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There was a new style of music, brought from France, in Shakspeare's day, as we learn from another of his plays, which wearied and annoyed him: he preferred the old plain song, which the lacemakers and the knitters in the sun could enjoy. And the best music of a country will always be that which springs from the soil and can take a strong grasp of the popular ear and heart. Of course the public taste needs improvement; but those who aim at this must be prepared to begin with it where they find it; and it is marvellous how it will answer to a sympathetic hand.
But, I venture to think, there is another sphere where the spread and improvement of this heaven-sent source of pleasure is even more to be desired; and that is in the homes of the people. Our British society is distinguished from that of the Continent by no feature more markedly than by this, that, while the Frenchman or the German seeks the enjoyment of his leisure-hours out-of-doors, the sober Englishman or Scotsman seeks it at home. It is not desirable to change this; and, therefore, the true progress of the country can be marked more distinctly by nothing else than by the growth of sweetness and brightness in the homes of the people. A man rather above the condition of a working-man once told me that he invested a tenpound-note in the purchase of an American organ: “And that,” he added, " has turned out to be the best investment I have ever made. It has refined my sons and daughters, who spend their evenings at home instead of on the streets, as they used to do; and especially it keeps them in on the Sunday evening, when it is a sight to see them gathered round the instrument singing hymns." That was in the
house of a man, as I have said, somewhat above the condition of a working-man, but I do not despair of seeing a similar sight in many a working-man's dwelling; and there could be few better omens for the true prosperity of the country.
It would thus appear that music may be a moral power ; and there may be a connexion between music and character. Shakspeare takes a very severe view of the man who has no taste for music. In the play of Julius Cæsar, the hero, speaking of Cassius and noting this defect in him, draws from it a very unfavourable inference. The same defect is noted in Othello, who, in spite of some fine qualities, is a mutilated and untrustworthy nature. But in the The Merchant of Venice we find the most sweeping judgment :
The man that hath no music in himself,
This is pretty hard on men not gifted with a musical ear; although it is right to say, in the interest of many worthy persons, that the power of enjoying music is a different thing from the power of producing it; and many take a keen delight in listening who are not themselves able to produce a note.
If the man who is destitute of music be so villainous, it might naturally be thought-though it would not be a strict inference in logic--that those who have music in their souls
should be patterns of all the virtues. And there is one virtue in which all singers are well known to be supremethe virtue of modesty. There is a coyness, a hesitancy, a blushing sweetness about all musical performers which the most inexperienced cannot have overlooked. Everybody knows how unconscious singers are of their own merits, how they depreciate their own acquirements, how much they need to be pressed to make the smallest exhibition of their hidden power. Shakspeare could not of course pass over so obvious a feature of this subject. In Much Ado About Nothing Don Pedro says :
Come, Balthasar, we'll hear that song again.
To slander music any more than once.
To put a strange face on his own perfection.
And so on; the song that follows being prefaced with a long struggle between the pressing of the audience and the singer's reluctance. We have all seen this struggle, and we know how childlike and sincere it is.
But, with the exception of this outstanding virtue, Shakspeare is somewhat niggardly in the excellences he bestows on the practisers of this art. His musicians—and his works abound with many companies of them-are, it must be confessed, rather a ragged, losel and vagrant generation; so that it would appear that, though the absence of music implies, according to Shakspeare, serious inferences as to character, the presence of it does not necessarily imply the corresponding excellences.
Perhaps the practice of any art—be it painting or poetry, music or oratory—which is occupied with the representation of fine and noble feeling is exposed to the danger of a kind of playacting. The expression of feeling can be given without the presence of the feeling itself; and the artist within, if he does not resist his temptation, may become a mask instead of a man. Art often cuts itself off from life and reality, and becomes a languid and unmanly dream, instead of rising, as it ought to do, out of life and returning back to life again. In the music of the Church, the temptation to make music something by itself—a source of æsthetic delight, an artistic display-not infrequently presents itself. But, so cultivated, music is a deception and a degradation. It only attains to its true dignity when it submits to the great law of the Gospel, that honour consists in service—when it makes itself the servant of the Scripture, and the servant of the labouring and heavy-laden souls of men, breathing on the smoking flax of their emotion, till it glow like the Burning Bush with the love and praise of God.
This naturally turns our eyes to the highest of all the aspects of our subject, on which we shall bestow a single glance and then have done,
In such emotions of the soul, vague and mysterious, yet sweet and sometimes inexpressibly delightful, as are ministered to by music some have discerned not the least impressive intimations of man's immortality; and to such suggestions Shakspeare was not insensible. In the passage which I am about to quote he makes use of the very
old notion of the music of the spheres: the spheres of heaven,
it was supposed by the primitive poetic mind, make music as they turn on their axes, just as, if small things may be compared to great, a top, as it revolves, creates a humming sound; but their sound is an exquisite music, in which each of the spheres is for ever enveloped; and not only so, but the music of all the spheres mingles in a vast chorus of praise to the great Creator. To this sublime fancy Shakspeare has given the sublimest expression :
Look how the floor of heaven
This idea—that in the soul there is a music hidden which cannot at present find expression, but that elsewhere there are conditions amidst which it will blossom as in a kindly and congenial home—is surely a profoundly Christian one. Only this home is not in the stars, but beyond the stars. If, under the leadership of the Son of man, we are walking in the good and narrow way, it is to a world filled with music we are travelling; for, every time the door of heaven is opened in Holy Writ, a burst of melody comes from within. To artistic natures not only is this one of the most potent attractions of the future, but it lends to even the music of this world its deepest significance :