in From the Archives

Musical Progress

by Ernest Pingoud

The following article was published in an anthology of Ernest Pingoud’s writings collectively entitled “The Progress of Art” (Taiteen edistys), edited by Kalevi Aho in 1995. The articles had been translated from German, Russian and Swedish manuscripts by Seppo Heikinheimo. The essay “Musical Progress” appeared in the Montagsblatt der St. Petersburger Zeitung (Monday supplement of the St Petersburger newspaper) on April 18, 1911.
All lovers of art, and they need not necessarily be connoisseurs of any kind, will certainly have noticed that no other art form at present is causing such a great stir as music. The reasons are to be found, on the one hand, in the nature of music itself, and, on the other, in modern-day audiences. Oscar Wilde once aptly remarked that music was the only art form that does not imitate nature. In other words, music is art the listener can accept without the need at the same time to measure or compare it intellectually, which, in any case, depends each time on the listener’s individual intellectual faculties.

This direct acceptance of a musical work is what characterises music as an art that is almost free of preconceptions, popular and accessible to all, and which, as a result, can aim primarily at mass effects in the grand style. But there is another factor to consider here.

Music is art that, compared with others, can portray emotions, their growth or decline, in the most intense manner imaginable. Theatre can obviously do that too, but only imperfectly: the spectators are always compelled to follow the details as they appear on stage, and are, in a sense, limited. If I had to mention the art form that is the closest relation to music in this respect it would be dance, the mimetic art of choreography. But this would be too lengthy a diversion, If we adhere to both these points of view – music’s ability to achieve mass effects and the way it portrays the emotions – then it follows that music exploits the path that brings the outside world to the listener in a way that no other art form does, which is to say it specifically plays on the nervous system itself. Karl Lamprecht has called the nineteenth century the century of stimulation, and quite rightly so, since all “cultured persons” today feel the existence of their nervous system without necessarily being neurotic in the remotest way. Modern day man demands nourishment for his nerves, just as he does for his body. He actualIy needs to feed his nerves.

This is typically associated with a craving for sensation, the appearance and a full flourishing of sensational material in general, in whatever art form it is, from variety to Strauss’s Salome. Does not the very existence of this genre point to a very powerful need?

Because of this “nerve hunger” of our age, art, and, on the basis of what has been said, music in particular, has in a very natural way come to be welcomed as a fitting form of sustenance. Where there is much demand, there is also an abundant supply. The fact that producers are ever wanting to deliver something new, something “better”, is just as natural a phenomenon as the fact that competition in the field is very beneficial and, above all, has a very progressive effect.

This is all very crudely put, and based very much on superficial arguments on the significance of developments in contemporary music generally. I would now like to try and characterise what forms these developments have taken at the present time and who are their most outstanding representatives.


As we become more familiar with today’s “modern” music, we realise that one of its key features is the enormous enthusiasm there is for it: an enthusiasm the other arts are not always a match for. This immense interest is mainly based on its emphatic powers of expression, which has led to the extraordinary growth of the orchestral machine, as the boundaries of harmonic expression have been pushed further back. A lack of craft, however, often directly emerges as a painful lack of musical plasticity. Speaking purely technically, there is always a very respectable level of artistic skill, and the instrumentation and orchestral colour are also brilliant. But then where everything falls down over and over again is the musical inventiveness to fix the listener’s attention. The contrapuntal architecture has partly given way to a motif-like structure, and it has partly developed into the freest form of part- writing, which is hardly a term than can be used any longer to describe it.

As for the various directions modern music is taking, I would like to mention two of the major trends, which are seemingly not very different from one another as far as what they are trying to do is concerned. The results are nevertheless very different. The first direction is represented at its most outstanding by Richard Strauss, who sets out to depict some background event through musical means, without cheapening the programmatic aspects of the work in any way. The music might even serve the purpose of illustration, which is a trend that has its roots in the symphonic poems of Liszt and Berlioz.

The other trend is based more on absolute musical approaches. It does not renounce the idea of a programme, but the programme is only there to evoke an atmosphere, and the effects it achieves are purely musical in nature: the task of the music is not conditioned. As representatives of this movement we might mention the new French Impressionist School, along with their most important Slavic disciple, Alexander Scriabin.

Finally, with regard to the Modernists, with Max Reger in their vanguard, who, in his adherence to very traditional forms, fixes his gaze on contrapuntal/harmonic detail alone, there is nothing progressive or new. This can be regarded more as the decision of a certain phase in music, which is actually a reconfirmation and culmination of seeds already sown, with no opening up, however, of new perspectives.


The representatives of the first school open up broader horizons, though at the same time I would like to underline the great danger of the phenomenon of programme music that lurks in the movement that Strauss represents. In Strauss’s works we can discern obvious warning signs of this danger, although he himself was the founder of the movement. If we follow his development as a musician from Guntram to Der Rosenkavalier we cannot fail to see that Strauss went from being a musician to a unique kind of hybrid, who, despite the evidence of his earlier works and a very subtle critical ability to distinguish between the musically worthless and the musically valuable in his later and very last scores, unfortunately succumbs to writing works that are simply impossible to take seriously in musical terms. Instead, they simply have to be labelled ”dross”: they are trivialities of the coarsest kind, but their obvious saving grace is their brilliantly dressed up orchestration. Strauss wants to describe and thus go beyond the borders of musical convention.

He is, however, too great and fine an artist to let himself go to such extremes entirely. It is just that the score’s colour is allowed to stray too far, although the whole great output itself does not necessarily suffer badly.

But can we view this compromise lightly in musical terms? Perhaps with such a great artist as Strauss; but his epigones we censure severely, and in this way this movement has already had a suspended sentence pronounced upon it. I will now move on to the second trend: the French Impressionists. Firstly, there are the miniaturists that often use pointillist techniques: painters of atmosphere in the true sense of the words. Let us cite some of Debussy’s composition titles: Reflets dans l’eau; Et la lune descend sur le temple, qui fut; Poissons d’or; Masques; Hommage a Rameau. Colour is everything in these pieces; its finest hues, art sans rigeur, bursts of light, broken colours recalling the texture of plums in their softness, music for music’s sake, the oddest harmonies, experiments in sound using harmonics, and the relinquishment of any sort of form, working on the principle that each mood seeks and creates its own.

Thus, a rather feeble, dry music would have been created, a sans rigeur art form, if it had not suddenly begotten a Phoenix. True, it is intoxicating, captivating: it grabs the listener, as it were, from behind. But it needed somewhere to go, a culmination point; otherwise it would have faded to a whisper.

The culmination came, and with it a life also: Scriabin. He is a child of this school, but has outgrown it. Poeme de l’extase, piano sonata no. 5, Prometheus and the opus numbers 52 and 57, are the finest, most elusive reveries composed in the manner of the French school. But there is much skill here too. Scriabin is for me the highpoint of musical modernism. He wants to make Dionysian art, and, with Prometheus, he breathes the fire into the piece that makes it happen.

What is there about the methods he applies to achieve his aims that makes them so exciting? Must not art employ the means it requires to serve its purpose? Nature too always makes its biggest impact by combining various sources of strength.

An unstoppable energy effervesces from Scriabin’s music, an energy, in fact, that swings to the left*, dragging us along in its wake. But if it provides nourishment for our nerves and lifts our generation, which is buried in materialism, to a level of ecstasy, we need do nothing else but surrender to this surging force, keeping any critical opinions to ourselves. In any case, history provides the best criticism, and often very quickly. It is a special quality of every advance in the intellectual arena that it veers strongly to the left. It has to come up with new ideas at a tremendous pace, so that ordinary conservative mortals and the sluggish masses generally wake up to what is happening, and score a hit. Later, when it seems the new ideas have a genuine vitality, the storm abates and followers appear on the stage to do the tempering and toning down, and who change gold ingots into small coins.


At present we cannot really yet say whether what we are being offered in the name of modern music is genuine gold or just brightly polished gold leaf illuminated by a trichromatic electric light, which hypnotically shines in our eyes.

This music is still too young to be able to evaluate it. But in any event, it bears some internal relation to the spirit of modern art, to a spirit of nervousness and irritability, impulsiveness and subjectivity, which sets itself up to confront fashion, schools and the latest styles, to acquire its spirit and become one itself.


* The musical avant-garde at the start of the century were known as the musical left.


Translation: Spencer Allman.