Speech on the Centennial of the Chickering Piano Company

Speech of the Vice President of the United States – April 21, 1923

The history of our country is a record of public benefactions. What a vast contribution it has made to the welfare of mankind! It has brought into action a new political ideal which has been the awakening influence of the last one hundred and fifty years. It has so changed the economic relationship as to provide what had ever been seemingly impossible improvements in social conditions. The title which best describes this whole movement is the Advance of Democracy. It has meant the recognition of the right of the people to a complete participation in all the affairs of the earth.

When we examine any of the great figures who have contributed to this remarkable period, we find the same basic principle is illustrated in every career. The life of each is summed up in a single sentence—he gave something more to the people than they had ever before been able to secure. Those who have attained that end hold a title to immortality.

This celebration is not held to commemorate the life of statesman or a soldier, yet for a hundred years his work has had its effect on the political and military life of the nation. It is held to commemorate and advance art. It is because Jonas Chickering gave to the people new resources with which to express their love of the beautiful that his centennial is most properly observed. He became a national figure because he filled a national need. He ministered to a national desire. He gave the people additional power to rise above the contemplation of material things to the contemplation of spiritual things. He brought increased strength for the expression of the aspirations of the soul. Such achievements entitle him to rank high as a national benefactor.

Engrossed by the pressure of worldly affairs, we are too prone to disregard the vital importance to life of the fine arts. It is in order that these may exist that we rise above the field, the shop, and the market place, that out of their bounty there may be woven into life the richness of increasing beauty, the grace of a higher nobility. It is through art that people find the expression of their better, truer selves. Sometimes it is expressed in literature, sometimes in sculpture and architecture, sometimes in painting, but of all the fine arts there is none that makes such a universal and inevitable appeal as music. No other expression of beauty finds such readily and naturally ennobling response in the heart of mankind. It is the art especially representative of democracy, of the hope of the world.

When, at the dawn of creation, as it was revealed to the universe that good was to triumph over evil, the thanksgiving and praise found expression in music, as the stars sang together for joy.

It is as one of those who are moved by music, rather than one learned in its scholarship or profession, that I speak. It is that quality which provides its distinguishing characteristic. It is not merely for the few, but rather for the many. Its appeal reaches to all, its response comes from all, not as the result of long and laborious training, but with a natural spontaneity. Chief among the fine arts, it is and should increasingly by established and recognized as an important national asset.

Like all else which comes to be a common occurrence, we take music as a matter of course. Knowing ourselves the eternal longing of the soul to express and appreciate beauty, we take if for granted that this union of art and life is obvious to everyone.

But a great experience or the commemoration of an important event may be needed to direct our attention adequately to the real strength of our ideals, whether expressed in our love of freedom or in our response to music.

At a time when we need to summon all our energy, as we did in the World War, there is a new revelation of the important value of music to the individual and the nation. It was the thrill of martial strains that inspired our soldiers as they marched away to the front and furnished them with entertainment and recreation in the exhausting routine of camp life. It was music that helped those left at home to work for their support and wait for their return. It was music that increased the national resources, enlarged the supplies, helped to make the Liberty Loans successful, and contributed to the spirit of national harmony and solidarity.

The commemoration of the work of Jonas Chickering through a century of musical achievement in America at once directs our attention to something above the material activities of life. It is not merely that for one hundred years a certain make of piano has been developing towards perfection. The Chickering Centennial reaches beyond the industry which he founded. This Centennial represents a century of musical history which has carried our country from its beginnings in artistic expression to a command of the musical resources of the world, a remarkable development from the untaught and primitive to a high plane of culture. When Chickering built his first piano, music, as such, was little known in this country, although abroad it had already reached a climax of composition in the classic school. This great treasure of musical material, augmented by the rich store of inspiration through the successive triumphs of the composers of the nineteenth century, would scarcely have reached an appreciative public without the invention and perfection of the pianoforte. It is this instrument, representing especially music in the home, which, in its development from the old-fashioned square form to the modern miracle reproducing actual performances, placed all the materials and even masters of music within the reach of the average listener. In this great service Chickering stands out preeminent. He gave to the people.

The great contribution of the piano has been to open a storehouse of composition and enable good music to be familiar and popular. It has been the chief resort of the musically talented and musically inclined, whether interpreters or merely absorbers. The children of our American families have mostly been brought up within reach of the keyboard. We cannot imagine a model New England home without the family Bible on the table and the family piano in the corner. The young of many generations made their first acquaintance with the infinite mysteries of art through accidental pilgrimages over the black and white ivories. They discovered their musical ear by picking out tunes with one finger. They learned their notes by extracting them—painstakingly—from the same source, and if their talent justified real study, they developed a complete technical facility through the piano alone. Where musical gifts took the direction of the voice, or some stringed or wind instrument, the piano acted as an almost necessary accompanist. Professional concert performers either used the piano entirely for their interpretations, or sought its cooperation in similar fashion. In the church, the school, the theatre, and the club house, the piano has become practically a necessary institution. It sums up the abstract idea of music as no other single instrument has been able to do. Therefore, in speaking of music as a national asset, it is entirely legitimate to think of the art as it is represented in its most practical form, and to select the Centennial Anniversary of such a medium as the most logical time for the expression of this thought.

It would seem perfectly apparent if we are to secure a greater benefit from such a national asset, we must broaden and strengthen an appreciation of the best that there is in music. There must be found a practical basis whereby the significance of music may be brought home to the average citizen, so that the learning and taste of the highly cultivated specialist may eventually find its reflection in the spontaneous impulses of the every-day America. If the best music is brought to the people, there need be no fear about their ability to appreciate it or their desire to accept it.

It may be that as the political nobility in days gone by prevented the political development of the people, so a musical nobility in these days is preventing the musical development of the people. As the people learned to use freedom by being free, so they will learn to appreciate good music by having good music. It may be that critics and scholars, with the best intentions in the world, have placed music upon so high a pedestal that the man in the street could not really reach it. They have persisted in representing good music as something far above our heads, something obtainable only by the most laborious study and painstaking effort. They have pictured music as something abstruse; something utterly exclusive; something only for the elect, reserved for aristocracy. Yet we find that when music of any kind is given a fair hearing it produces its effect immediately and directly without any conscious effort on the part of the recipient. It is one of the marvels of the art that it is able to produce such effects so consistently, almost inevitably. We know that for centuries people have reacted in the same way to certain lullabies, certain marches, certain fundamental melodies.

“Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touched within us and the heart replies.”

Often the association of particular words, or of some tradition, or a certain environment, may cooperate in the effect of such music, yet the fact remains that the mysterious combination of rhythm, melody and harmony has at all times exerted an unique influence upon the human consciousness. The soldier who sang “The Long, Long Trail,” or “Tipperary,” experienced a direct sensation very similar to that which the experienced concert-goer receives from a Beethoven or a Brahms Symphony. In each case, the most important thing is the immediate thrill of response, rather than the acquired knowledge of experience. Perhaps it is because this response comes so easily and naturally through music that we place it at the head of all the arts. It provides the simplest and most unmistakable form of aesthetic satisfaction, a satisfaction which must be recognized as the truest pleasure in all life. It is a pity, therefore, that this immediate satisfaction should in any way be made difficult from the standpoint of general enjoyment. When our musical scholars set too high a standard of taste, they merely choke a potential enthusiasm which should find spontaneous expression. If a man likes a certain piece of music and does not know why, he should be perfectly free to say so, and if he later changes his mind and finds something else that he likes better, that is all the more to his credit. The grear fact is that we all have our musical enthusiasms, primitive though they may be.

There is a common understanding of and response to music on the part of man, if only in his universal sense of rhythm. This lifts him above the animal kingdom to a place of his own. But if he has not had the opportunity to develop this common sense of music beyond a mere muscular response to rhythmic stimulus, he is not, therefore, to be criticized as hopelessly ignorant. Is it not logical to suppose that musical taste is necessarily developed and that all appreciation of beauty is necessarily progressive, not merely stationary? Surely this fact has been proved again and again where such instruments as the phonograph, or the player piano, have been permitted to provide a ready-made music for the home. The normal human taste leads to the selection of rather obvious records at the start, perhaps nothing but the jazz and popular tunes, but for some reason the listener finds after a few hearings that he has grown tired of this obvious music. He has followed the line of least resistance, but it has brought him no permanent satisfaction. He discards the melodies which were so quickly assimilated by the memory and almost as quickly forgotten. He comes, perhaps accidentally, upon something just a little better, a record it may be to which he has been attracted by the name of a well known artist. He finds that there is melody in opera, as well as in the popular song of the day. He responds to the emotional stimulus of a great theme, even though he may not understand the words to which it is set. From operatic music he progresses to the higher instrumental forms, the music which is sometimes called “absolute.” Eventually, without having been at all aware of what was actually occurring within him, he finds that he has developed into a music-lover of the highest type. He now appreciates the best, not because he has been told that is the proper thing to do, but because he really likes it and responds to it with spontaneous enthusiasm.

“Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie.”

We are in the habit of thinking of the United States of America as a musical country, and in truth, our development along these lines has been extraordinary since the day when Jonas Chickering produced America’s first gift of art to the world. Yet, too much of our musical life is still an artificial, and perhaps a superficial, process. In too many of our communities we are supporting concerts and the opera by main strength, rather than through a spontaneous desire for enjoyment. We have not yet acquired the habit of growing up with an honest love of musical beauty as an obvious and natural part of human experience. We are still too hesitant in the backing of our aesthetic opinions and too ready to lean upon the support of foreign labels. If we compare the America institution of music with the American institution of baseball, for instance, we find a curious contrast. A community wishing to be represented by a baseball team works upon the assumption that every male member of that community has either played or enjoyed baseball in boyhood and has grown up with a normal and honest love of the game for itself alone. If one could conceive of a community in which such enthusiasm did not exist, it would obviously be foolish to attempt the creation of an artificial interest, based upon an appeal to a sense of duty or public welfare. When people want to support the town ball team, they do not argue about the value of the game in keeping you out in the open air, or in distracting your mind from the more serious cares of life. They simply take for granted your honest enjoyment of a healthy contest and your fundamental understanding of something which is accepted as a factor in the development of the average American. They do not ask you to contribute toward a worthy cause. They offer you the chance to buy a ticket for what you, yourself, know you will enjoy.

Why cannot the musical situation be similar? Why should it be necessary to ask the rich to make contributions for the support of a local Symphony Orchestra, or Opera Company, when the normal enthusiasm of the people themselves should be the actual supporting factor?

Some have been trying for years to pour music into the American people from the top, evidently expecting that in some mysterious fashion it would take root, but all this time they have overlooked the possibility of developing the actual instincts which are already in us; letting music grow from the simple to the more elaborate, instead of trying to implant it ready-made in its highest and most difficult forms. It was the great American orchestral conductor, Theodore Thomas, who said that “popular music is familiar music.” Was he not right? Is not nearly the whole problem of making good music popular simply that of making it familiar? One reason why so much good music is comparatively unfamiliar is because it has been so generally presented in ways which make the first few hearings difficult. Some one was quoted recently as saying the “popular music has tunes and classical music has not.” This feeling is still far more general than we realize and it has not been helped by the insistence of our musical nobility that everything short of the highest standards should be ignored or treated with contempt. There is ground to deny that any great music exists which is utterly devoid of melody, if it be that melody is the emotional factor in music which is absolutely essential to its effect upon the human heart.

The mere fact that a melody may note be recognizable at a first hearing need not prove a serious obstacle. Scholars tell us that every great composer has gone through the experience of being considered revolutionary and unmelodious as soon as he displayed a little originality, that the themes of Wagner, which were considered absurdly radical and positively ugly in his own day, now seem perfectly normal and beautiful, and it is by these short melodic phrases that the Wagnerian operas are best remembered. In other words, if one can surmount the possible barrier of the first few hearings of any great classic, increasing familiarity is bound to bring increasing enjoyment. The popular composers of the day discovered this long ago when they began to adapt the material of the classics and ancient folk music to their own ends. It is claimed that practically all the jazz and light music that one hears today may be traced directly to the influence of the great music of the past, and thousands of Americans are actually whistling, singing and dancing to melodies which may have been originated by such great composers as Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.

Some of our most practical and successful musical educators have made use of this fact to lead the average person to an appreciation of the better things in music. When the school boy, or business man, understands that the tunes which he know are actually related to the great and permanent things in music, it is not difficult to make him listen to the finer compositions. He is made to discover music for himself and, after all, it is such self-education that counts most heavily in the long run.

The pleasure of recognition is really the first step toward the development of true musical appreciation. You may have noticed how this principle works in a concert hall. When a soloist begins a familiar encore, the audience recognizes the piece after the first few bars and begins to applaud, but the people are not applauding the performer, or the music, they are applauding themselves because they recognize it. That is human nature and they are experiencing the first true pleasure of being actual music lovers.

It is only as music thus becomes a vital part of our daily experience that we begin to realize what it may mean in our individual and collective development. The old Chinese philosopher, Confucius, said, “When music and courtesy are properly studied and understood, there will be no more war.” It is hardly necessary to quote the familiar Shakespearean line about the man that “hath not music in his soul.” Another great authority has described music as “one of the four necessities of life,” along with food, shelter, and light. These men all felt that instinctive reaction to music which is common to the normal human spirit, but all too often suppressed or diverted.

It is often apparent how difficult it is for some to keep their feet quiet when the band goes by, or when the orchestra strikes up a lively dance. There is some credit in possessing a sense of rhythm, even though it be only a physical instinct. Far too many people, however, are content to listen to music with their feet and never et beyond this primitive reaction. The rhythm instinct, however, as well as the emotional response to melody, must be recognized as highly significant. Are not the aristocracy somewhat mistaken when they argue that the appreciation of music should start in the brain and work itself out as a matter of pure reason? One of the great mysteries of music is its intangible effect upon human consciousness, which often defies analysis. When a man is able to analyze his impressions after having received them directly from the stimulus of the music itself, he is fortunate, for this, after all, is the province of the great critic and interpreter. It is not, however, the intellectual analysis, but the direct impression which finds response in the average listener. Will it not be a great improvement if we can go that far?

If music is a matter of mathematics or figures and letters and symbols, then it is dead and worthless art and not the vital factor in existence that we all believe. It is a mistake to think that the appreciation of music is limited to those who can take an active part in the performance. The ability to create or interpret music is, of course, a wonderful asset, but we need good listeners even more than we need good performers. The true amateur of music is perhaps even more important to a national aesthetic life than the professional. We must pursue music for the love of it, not merely because it offers a tempting field for commercial advantage. But even those who are not musically talented may take a fairly active part in a species of informal musical expression.

Down in Washington, Robert Lawrence has proved how an entire community may become actively musical. He has formed the citizens of Washington into a community music association which meets regularly to sing in unison, and to create directly that thrill of response which only personal participation in music can give. Mr. Lawrence describes his efforts thus:

“I am endeavoring to prove that music is a necessity in America’s spiritual development.

“Whenever people gather together for any purpose whatsoever, singing should be used to create an atmosphere of harmony and good will. In such an atmosphere agreements and understanding are arrived at easily, for discord and strive cannot dwell therein.

“Concerts do not meet the musical needs of a community. Community music, especially community singing, offers to all an opportunity to enjoy the personal benefits to be derived from musical self-expression.

“A love for and appreciation of good music are inevitable results of a general expression.

“If America is to become a great musical nation, we must first express music as a people.

“The unrest and lack of understanding now in evidence in our land must be healed by bringing into our national consciousness a peaceful presence that will dispel confusion as light dispels darkness, and in this peaceful presence is Music.

“The financial difficulties experienced in connection with concerts by our great musical organizations and solo artists never will be overcome except through the development of an entirely new musical public. This new musical public is being created even now by means of the community music movement, a movement that is succeeding because it seeks rather to make people enjoy music than to astonish them with uninteresting and boring technical displays.”

It is through such spontaneous musical activity that this great art may eventually become in the highest sense a national asset. We can no longer proceed along artificial lines, seeking to develop something from a foundation of unreality. In the hundred years which have elapsed since Jonas Chickering put the music of his piano into the American home, we have surely outlived the need of propaganda and all artificial stimulus. His genius as an inventor, manufacturer and merchant has had a tremendous influence in giving to the people of our country a musical foundation. He has brought the broadening and humanizing spirit of a great art within the reach of all humanity. He has strengthened the bonds of our common brotherhood, giving a new security to government and increased the power of the people to rule.

He touched his harp, and nations entranced,
As some vast river of unfailing source,
Rapid, exhaustless, deep, his numbers flowed,
And ope’d new foundations in the human heart.