The Unconservatory  

Notes on Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music

Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music: Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater, by Claude Debussy; Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, by Ferruccio Busoni; Essays before a Sonata, by Charles E. Ives. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1962. (Buy the book)

Review by Ken Blacklock

This anthology contains the thoughts of three important composers at a pivotal time in the development of modern music. The individual articles that make up Debussy’s Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater were originally published during 1901-6 and first released in book form in 1921. Busoni’s Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music was originally published in 1911, and Ives’ Essays before a Sonata was originally published in 1920.

Connecting Threads

All three composers are somewhat tedious writers. Debussy and Ives, however, can be occasionally forgiven thanks to their sense of humor. Busoni and Ives’ works, in particular, exhibit a tendency to ramble and seem to lack any guiding form. Perhaps this is suitable for two composers who were critical of the traditional, symmetrical approach to form in music.

A few figures from the previous century haunt all three works, particularly Beethoven and Wagner. Wagner mostly serves as an example of where music has gone wrong; Beethoven, an example of true genius. Busoni and Ives both discuss a possible "music of the future."

Monsieur Croche and the Dilettante Hater

The revelation of Debussy’s wit is the highlight of these articles for the reader of today. One may be able to listen to his music with new ears. The first two articles recall meetings with a strongly opinionated man referred to as "Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater." Debussy is amazed at how much Monsieur Croche’s opinions mirror his own and goes on to "attribute to him a large share in the following pages." (p. 16) Many of Monsieur Croche’s ideas form themes central to the discussions that follow, allowing Debussy to put some distance between his listeners, and his opinions.

The other articles mostly concern specific composers and conductors, and other related topics. There are sections on Moussorgski, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, and others. The following core ideas, which might be considered Debussy’s aesthetic principals, appear throughout the articles.

Emotions not Words

Debussy, like every great artist, reserves his sharpest remarks for the critics and other writers on music. Debussy’s refrain is, do not listen to these empty airbags known as music critics, listen to the music! The article on The Symphony, begins, "A fog of verbiage and criticism surrounds the Choral Symphony," (p.16) referring, of course, to Beethoven’s 9th, and continues later, "There was not an ounce of literature in Beethoven, not at any rate in the accepted sense of the word." (p.16)

In Debussy’s cosmic hierarchy of beauty, nature inspired by "a mysterious destiny" (p.66) sits on the highest tier. "To see the sun rise is more profitable than to hear the Pastoral Symphony." (p.7) Next comes the great works of art that are inspired by such natural beauty. These works are created from pure emotion felt by the composer when faced with the miracle of nature. And far down below is all talk about art and beauty.

Art for Art’s Sake

Debussy is critical of composers who appeal to popular taste by writing catchy melodies. "It is most noticeable that no one was ever known to whistle Bach. Such lip service has not been denied to Wagner...." (p.23) His argument is not so much against melody, but against writing for popular taste, or even writing for anyone’s taste at all. Great music is written from the depths of the soul. The great artist attempts to recreate beauty by transforming his feelings into music. Music is weakened by concerns about how others may feel about it. "In art the struggle is more often against oneself alone and victories so achieved are perhaps the finest." (p.30)

There is an element of mystery in artistic creation that mirrors the "mysterious destiny" found nature. This enigmatic beauty is trampled by the unrecognizing masses who are in search of quick thrills and whistleable melodies. "One can no more compel the masses to love beauty that one can decently ask them to stand on their heads." (p.66)

The Ancient Dust of Tradition

As a result, Debussy suggests that composers "shake off the ancient dust of tradition." (p.8) Tradition in art stands in the way of pure expression. Adherence to tradition leads to dull, worn-out music. Those who cast off tradition are labeled as "symbolists or impressionists—convenient terms for pouring scorn on one’s fellows." (p.8) Criticism received from the masses, of course, can be worn as a badge of honor.

Debussy shows his respect for the great masters, but he is critical of audiences, conductors, composers, and even performers who rely on formulas for their art in place of seeking out their own truths. "Discipline must be sought in freedom, and not within the formulas of an outworn philosophy only fit for the feebleminded." (p.8) Musical creation, for Debussy, begins with freedom to which the composer imposes an order of his own creation. Discipline and order are certainly necessary, but formulas simply borrowed from another cannot be used to accurately express one’s own visions. Debussy celebrates Beethoven’s great achievement with the 9th Symphony because of the way in which Beethoven molded the symphonic form into an expressive vehicle for his musical ideas, but then suggests that the symphonic form "belongs to the past." (p.16)

Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music

Busoni’s notes on music are made up of eleven short passages on topics such as "absolute music" and a possible music of the future. Busoni’s thoughts, like his ideal music, freely flow wherever the current leads.

Music was Born Free

Busoni suggests that art-works consist of spirit, emotion, humanity, form, manner, and "the flavor of the epoch." The spirit, emotion, and humanity remain "unchanged in value through changing years," whereas the form, manner, and "flavor of the epoch which gave them birth, are transient, and age rapidly." (p.75) Thus, according to Busoni, "there is nothing properly modern." "The Modern and the Old have always been." (p.76) Form, manner, and the flavor of the epoch constantly change with the fashions of an age. Spirit, emotion, and humanity are human constants. When a composer creates a successful artwork it endures beyond changing fashions because it has successfully imitated nature and interpreted human feelings.

Busoni enters into an attack on "classics," "hallowed traditions," rules, principles, and laws in music. Then, with a statement reminiscent of Rousseau, he states that "Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny." (p.77) He goes on to ask, "What are the aims of music?" (p.78) The answer, of course, is implied by his call for the freedom of music.

Absolute Music

Busoni is critical of so-called "absolute music" as well as "program-music." Program music is lacks freedom because it is restricted to a preconceived program. Busoni claims that absolute music also lacks freedom because it is confined to preconceived symmetrical forms. "This sort of music ought rather to be called the ‘architectonic,’ or ‘symmetric,’ or ‘sectional,’ and derives from the circumstance that certain composers poured their spirit and their emotion into just this mould as lying nearest them or their time." (p.78) In others words, the original creators of the standard forms, such as the symphonic form, used the forms as a loose guide for freely created music. Modern composers, however, are held back by the restrictive forms, which have hardened over time. "Is it not singular, to demand of a composer originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form?" (p.79)

Busoni’s critique is not aimed at composers in the tradition, only the tradition itself. He eulogizes the great masters, Bach and Beethoven as bearing an "affinity to ‘infinite music’" (p.79)

The concepts of "program-music" and "absolute music" have been petrified into dogmas that are followed by two opposing camps of musicians, "without recognition for a third possibility beyond and above the other two."(pp.80-81) Busoni’s "third possibility" is music born free that lives free. Compositions not defined by a program or a symmetrical form, but rather compositions created out of the natural development of a motive. "Every motive—so it seems to me—contains, like a seed, its life-germ within itself." (p.81) The motive is the core idea that gives birth to a composition. The composer of this third kind of music does not know where the motive will lead when he begins his work. He simply follows its natural development.

Notation and Interpretation

Busoni’s ideas on musical composition and interpretation are closely related to his reverence of improvisation. When a musician improvises he is attempting to capture musical inspiration as he envisions it. Thus, improvisation is closer to the original source of inspiration than a written composition, which is removed by both time and notation.

"Notation, the writing out of compositions, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later. But notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model. It is for the interpreter to resolve the rigidity of the signs into primitive emotion." (p.84)

In other words, music composition is a kind of improvisation on paper. Musical performance is a recreation of this improvisation and thus the performer must enter deeply into the original inspiration to recreate it for the listener. The composer, the improviser, and the performing artist all make their own laws as required to recreate the inspiration.

Busoni praises "the Rest and the Hold (Pause)," which "consummate players, improvisers," employ as "instruments of expression." (p.89) Silence, it seems, is somehow closer to ideal music than any aural approximation. Silence is a womb that gives birth to clear, unspoiled musical thoughts. Silence is the canvas that allows the listener to appreciate the approximations of an inspiration hinted at by color and shape.

A Possible Music of the Future

Busoni envisions a music of the future freed from the restraints of the scale system used traditionally by "classical" composers. The problem is not so much one of tonality, but one of limited scope, which in turn limits the possibilities of expression. Our octave is arbitrarily divided into twelve equidistant degrees. We "strictly we divide ‘consonances from ‘dissonances’—in a sphere where no dissonances can possibly exist!" (p.89) We teach twenty-four keys, but in reality there are only two, major and minor. And, even these two are in reality two aspects of a single scale system. "Strange, that one should feel major and minor as opposites. They both present the same face, now more joyous, now more serious; and a mere touch of the brush suffices to turn the one into the other." (p.91) This is perhaps also the great strength of the system that had developed over a period of 400 years or so. But, why limit musical expression to this? Busoni points out that Liszt, Debussy, and even Richard Strauss have experimented with different arrangements.

Busoni’s music of the future will fully utilize all of the modal and scalar possibilities of the current twelve-note division of the octave, but it won’t stop there. Busoni predicts a further division of the octave into smaller degrees, "...for all signs presage a revolution, and a next step toward that ‘eternal harmony.’" (p.93)

Music Without Dogmas

Busoni calls for a music freed from the fetters of symmetrical forms and an arbitrary tonal system. "Let us take thought, how music may be restored to its primitive, natural essence; let us free it from architectonic, acoustic and esthetic dogmas." (p95)

Essays Before a Sonata

Charles Ives wrote Essays Before a Sonata as a "preface or reason" for his second Pianoforte Sonata—"Concord, Mass., 1824," with the original intention of publishing them together as a single volume. (p.104) The four movements of the sonata are named after Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau, respectively. The essays delve into the question of what might be the source of inspiration for musical compositions in general, then discusses the specific ideas that inspired each movement of the sonata. In Ives own words, "The whole is an attempt to present [one person’s] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago." (p.104) The essays conclude with an epilogue that once again takes up the discussion of the possible source of musical inspiration started in the prologue.

The prologue can be summarized as a single question: What is music by itself capable of expressing? The answer is hinted at in the verbal descriptions of Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau that follow. The implication is that we should listen for the musical expression of these ideas in the sonata itself. But, this also indicates that Ives felt the need to intellectually explain the music, perhaps out of fear that the musical ideas would be misunderstood by the listener.

"How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or a layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?" (p.105)

Or in other words, how could Ives have dared to subtitle his sonata, Concord, Mass., 1824. A related question is: Can music express something timeless that will mean something to all men at all places and all times, or is it restricted to the current moods of the current time and place? Ives attempts to answer this second section in the epilogue.

Along the way, Ives eliminates a few of the standard answers regarding art.

"The ‘Separateness of Art’ theory—that art is not life but a reflection of it—‘that art is not vital to life but that life is vital to it,’ does not help us. Nor does Thoreau who says not that ‘life is art,’ but that ‘life is an art,’ which of course is a different thing than the foregoing." (p.106)

And, on the topic of critics, Ives gets his punches in.

"A critic may say that a certain movement is not inspired. But that may be a matter of taste—perhaps the most inspired music sounds the least so—to the critic." (p.107)

This idea that there may be "a matter of taste" at issue, where does that take us? We learn later that taste can be developed and refined, and thus the "critic’s" taste may be hampered by being overly concerned with manner, not substance.

And, finally Ives tells us why he needs to tell us about his sonata.

"But we would rather believe that music is beyond any analogy to word language and that the time is coming, but not in our lifetime, when it will develop possibilities unconceivable now,—a language, so transcendent, that its heights and depths will be common to all mankind." (p.109)

Ives listeners need to be shown how to listen to his sketch of transcendentalism, whereas composers, performers, and listeners of the future will have no need of explanations.

Emerson and Thoreau

Emerson, as the leading transcendentalist, receives the first movement of the sonata and the longest stretch of writing about his vision in the essays. The essays on Emerson and Thoreau are particularly important to understanding Ives sense of his own music and his mission as a composer. It becomes gradually clear that Ives envisions a music that transcends time and place; a prophetic music that transcends words. Many of Ives’ musical ideas are contained in these discussions.

"Though a great poet and prophet, he [Emerson] is greater, possibly, as an invader of the unknown,—America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities...." (p.110) Ives sees himself as another "invader of the unknown." For Ives, laws stand in the way of transcendent music. "Emerson wrings the neck of any law, that would become exclusive and arrogant, whether a definite one of metaphysics or and indefinite one of mechanics." (p.112) And, Beauty is something discovered, not created. "Like Petrarch he seems more a discoverer of Beauty than an imparter of it." (p.119)

"Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony.’" (p.139) Musical inspiration, for Ives, comes from the depths of the soul. Thoreau cultivated this pure source of inspiration, which for him, was expressed in poetry. Ives is aiming at Thoreau’s experience, even before he puts it into words. Ives tries to capture the spirit of Walden pond at a specific point in time with the belief that his expression of that experience will transcend that time and place and have meaning for whoever takes the time to listen.


After discussing the individual sources of inspiration for each movement of his sonata, Ives admits "the futility of attempting to trace the source or primal impulse of an art-inspiration," (pp.155-6) and suggests that as music continues to develop it will become more capable of expression. "In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones—when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now." (p.156)

Ives suggests that each age outgrows the music of the past. It is this alone that makes some music sound modern and other music dated. "But something blocks our theory! Something makes our hypotheses seem purely speculative if not useless. It is men like Bach and Beethoven." (p.159) According to Ives, we may even be in the process of "flowing past" Bach and Beethoven, but even if this is so, it will take much longer for their music to become old to our ears, because they managed to capture something transcendental.

Substance and Manner

A substantial part of the epilogue is devoted to a discussion of "substance" and "manner" in music. "Substance has something to do with character. Manner has nothing to do with it. The ‘substance’ of a tune comes from somewhere near the soul, and the ‘manner’ comes from—God knows where." (p.162) Manner is the aspect of music that normally attracts the attention of the masses, hence popular music largely consists of manner. So-called nationalistic music is overly concerned with manner and is thus ridiculous unless it somehow captures "a true pigment of the universal color," (p.165) in which case it has substance.

For Ives, "Debussy’s attitude toward Nature seems to have a kind of sensual sensuousness underlying it, while Thoreau’s is a kind of spiritual sensuousness," (p.167) and thus, Thoreau was on the side of substance and Debussy on the side of manner. It is because of the difference between manner and substance that "Beethoven is always modern and Strauss always medieval." (p.178)

But, we get the clearest picture of manner perhaps from Ives’ imaginary story of a famous violinist who "refused ‘to appear’ until he had received his check,—at that moment, precisely [...] at that moment he became but a man of ‘talent’ [...] regardless of how perfectly he played, regardless to what heights of emotion he stirred his audience, regardless of the sublimity of his artistic and financial success." (p.171)


In reading what these three great, yet very different composers had to say about music, we discover that they seem to have had very similar ideas about the source of musical inspiration and its ideal expression. Debussy calls for us to "shake off the ancient dust of tradition." (p.8) Busoni announces that "Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny." (p.77) And Ives tells us that "the time is coming… when [music] will develop possibilities unconceivable now,—a language, so transcendent, that its heights and depths will be common to all mankind." (p.109) This leaves us with some questions to ponder. Has music successfully freed itself from the dust of tradition? Has music won its freedom? Can we imagine a music common to all mankind? Has the "music of the future" arrived, or is it still on its way?

Ken Blacklock
Oita City, Japan
April 1999

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

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