by Frederick Delius (1862 - 1934)

At the Cross‑Roads
Language: English 
I am very glad to see that the Sackbut is taking a strong line of opposition to the present
widespread cult of charlatanism and humbug in music.

The time has come when every musician of serious aims should declare, in the interest of the
public, what is his attitude towards the current attempts on the part of Russian impresarios,
Parisian decadents and their press-agents, to degrade his art to the level of a side-show at a fair.

The musical public—especially in England—is very innocent and trusting in the face of loud-mouthed
quacks who employ every device of street-corner oratory in order to palm off their shoddy wares;
and therefore I consider that every serious musician owes it to the public to raise his voice in
warning and protest when he sees them being taken in and imposed upon by a clever gang of
self-seeking mountebanks.

There is room in the world for all kinds of music to suit all tastes, and there is no reason why
the devotees of Dada should not enjoy the musically imbecile productions of their own little circle
as much as the patrons of the musical comedy enjoy their particular fare. But when I see the
prophets of the latest clique doing their utmost to pervert the taste of the public and to implant
a false set of values in the rising generation of music-lovers by sneering at the great masters of
the past, in the hope of attracting greater attention to the petits maitres of the
present—then I say it is time to speak openly and protest.

In the end, of course, all art finds its own level and takes its due place in the estimation of the
world; and everything that is shallow, catchpenny, sensational and insincere sinks into oblivion
from which no propaganda can rescue it. But why, in the meanwhile, should a whole generation be
confused and contaminated by the specious claptrap and humbug of a crew of little men who have
deliberately set out to make the worse appear the better cause? Genius is not a mushroom growth.
Inspiration does not come without hard work any more than a crop of corn. There is no short cut to
glory. No great work of art has ever come into the world save as the fruit of years of earnest,
unremitting endeavour on the part of its creator; and no great artist ever blasphemed his
ancestors.

Music is a cry of the soul. It is a revelation, a thing to be reverenced. Performances of a great
musical work are for us what the rites and festivals of religion were to the ancients—an initiation
into the mysteries of the human soul. A man who walked into church without his trousers would be
promptly turned out: and anyone who meddles with art in a similar spirit of disrespect should be
treated in the same way.

How does music stand to-day? Is the world full of men of as much importance as Bach and Beethoven,
Chopin and Wagner? If we are to believe some of the composers themselves, or rather, their
trumpeters and tub-thumpers, we have amongst us not the equals but the superiors, the
superseders even, of the old masters. After a thousand years of evolution, music is just
beginning to become articulate! Already some music-publishers have put up electrical sky-signs
and others have had recourse to their literary equivalent. The average man of the present day is
so accustomed to have his mind made up for him by advertisements, posters and illuminated signs
at every street-corner, that he comes to believe implicitly anything he reads often enough on the
hoardings. If this is the case with patent medicines, it is also the case with art, and we find
that propaganda and advertisement carry all before them.

This is an age of anarchy in art: there is no authority, no standard, no sense of proportion.
Anybody can do anything and call it "art" in the certain expectation of making a crowd of idiots
stand and stare at him in gaping astonishment and admiration.

Imagine a wonderful cathedral which has stood for centuries as a monument of an age of intense
faith and devotion to high ideals: now there comes along a little Johnny and sticks a
bowler-hat* 1 on the top of the spire, proclaiming his exploit as the crowning
achievement of art. "See," he says, "there's something higher than your old cathedral"—forgetting
that his addition will only be seen when a searchlight is thrown on it.

Great men must be denied and great achievements scoffed at in order that the little ones become
conspicuous. There must be a complete transvaluation of values. Art has been "serious" too long:
now let us play the fool, in season and out of season, let us deny everything, turn all our
values upside down.

On this principle, a beautiful face is no longer as "interesting" as a grimace; but the interest
of a grimace is purely negative; it depends entirely on its relation to the natural face.
It is only the incongruity of the grimace with the normal features of human kind that causes
merriment—the exaggeration of certain traits to the exclusion of others—a false perspective, a
wrong proportion. The musical concomitant of a grimace is necessarily negative: it is only a
pretentious development of the time-honoured tradition of the bang on the big drum when the
clown falls down.

Music does not exist for the purpose of emphasizing or exaggerating something which happens outside
its own sphere. Musical expression only begins to be significant where words and actions reach
their uttermost limit of expression. Music should be concerned with the emotions, not with external
events. To make music imitate some other thing is as futile as to try and make it say
Good morning or It's a fine day. It is only that which cannot be expressed otherwise
that is worth expressing in music. . . . There is a certain section of the reading public consisting
of people who join a circulating library and always demand "the latest" novels or other books. This
section, needless to say, has no literary pretensions whatever. There is a corresponding section of
the musical public which always demands "the latest" rather than "the best": but its aesthetic
pretensions are as great as its lack of taste and musical understanding. For the "latest fiction"
public, Shakespeare is out of date and unreadable: for its musical counterpart, Bach is a fossil and
Beethoven a mummy. But whereas no student of literature would take the "latest fiction" crowd
seriously, the corresponding gang in music—by means of assiduous advertisement and propaganda—has
become a real danger to the ever-growing section of the public which demands "music" rather
indiscriminately, as a necessary part of a cultured education, and accepts unquestioningly whatever
is recommended by critics who have no qualifications with which to recommend themselves. Only carry
on the advertisement campaign long enough and vigorously enough and you will hypnotize people into
believing that black is white and that there is no more excellent music in the world than the
creaking of cart-wheels and the cries of cats.

Music that needs "explanation," that requires bolstering up with propaganda, always arouses the
suspicion that if left to stand on its own merits it would very quickly collapse and be no more
heard of. The present Franco-Russian movement in music is entirely founded on denial—denial of
harmony, of coherence, of intellectual lucidity and spiritual content—denial of music, in fact.

Of course I shall be told that people said exactly the same thing about Wagner, and that after
thirty years of active musical life I am not sufficiently cultured and that my sensibility is not
yet sufficiently developed to appreciate the subtleties and novelties of the latest clique of
composers. Exactly the same defence might be put up in favour of the jumlings of a child of four
at the piano.

I do not agree with the Editor when he writes of Ernest Newman's "sordid self-interest" in musical
criticism, and implies, in the paragraph which follows, that the writings of Edwin Evans, the
"prophet" of the petits maitres, are inspired by a loftier motive. Evans is a clever
journalist who, like all journalists, is out to make as much as he can by his pen. He is not an
artist, nor has he ever exhibited the smallest claim to be regarded seriously as a musician. A
capable journalist makes it his business to be well-informed on as many topics as possible and to
be able to write equally convincingly about music or the stock exchange or anything else. Give him
any subject you like and he will turn out his article. Since musical criticism has become pretty
generally discredited in England through having been entrusted for years to men who are neither
competent as musicians nor as journalists, anyone who wants to make money in this, as in every
other, branch of journalism must get a few "sensational scoops"; notions which none of the others
have yet tumbled to; he must have his special "stunt" and keep it well to the fore. Such critics
follow the trend of contemporary music very closely: their finger is on the pulse of the musical
public and they diagnose its weaknesses and its diseases before it is aware of them itself—and then
they proceed to exploit them for all they are worth.

The chief reason for the degeneration of present-day music lies in the fact that people want to get
physical sensations from music more than anything else. Emotion is out of date and intellect a
bore. Appreciation of art which has been born of profound thought and intensity of experience
necessitates an intellectual effort too exhausting for most people of the present day. They want to
be amused: they would rather feel music with their bodies than understand it through their
emotions. It seems as though a tarantula has bitten them—hence the dancing craze: Dixie, Dalcroze,
Duncan and Diaghilev—they are all manifestations of the same thing. In an age of neurasthenics,
music, like everything else, must be a stimulant, must be an alcoholic, aphrodisiac, or it is no
good. We do not hear the word "vitality" at every turn except from people who are aware that
vitality is the one thing they are most in need of, the one thing they must at all costs get
supplied to them from outside.* 2 But let them at any rate see clearly what kind of a
cesspool they will go dancing into if they follow the line of this latest fad.

There is no longer any respect for music as such. It can only be tolerated, it seems, as an
accompaniment to something else—a dinner or a dance or what not. An impresario, shrewd enough to
see what the public wants and to give it to them at the right time, comes along with a
resuscitation of the old Italian ballet from St. Petersburg, proclaiming a new form of
art compared with which all past achievements are as nothing. Led by the nose, the public and,
worse still, many of the young musicians flock around him, and the critics cannot find enough
adjectives of adulation for his shows.

A ballet is all very well in its proper place, as a pleasant after-dinner entertainment; but we
don't want ballets to everything, and to proclaim the ballet as a form of great art—the art
form of the future, in fact—is sheer bunkum. But the English public seems to have an insatiable
appetite for ballets, and the demand for such works having speedily exhausted the slender stock of
living composers' ideas, the scores of long-dead musicians are pressed into service. No one is
immune. Bach fugues are employed as exercises in muscular mathematics and Beethoven sonatas
"interpreted" (! ! !) by every hysterical, nymphomaniacal old woman who can gull the public into
seeing "a revival of the Greek spirit" or some other high-falutin' vision in the writhings and
contortions of her limbs.

What is the effect on young people who may perhaps hear some great work for the first time in such
an environment? The music will inevitably become associated in their minds with hopping and
prancing and jigging, and in the end they will themselves be unable to hear it without twitching
and fidgeting.

There seems to be a very prevalent belief that any Tom, Dick or Harry has the right to tamper with
a work of art, even to the extent of altering it beyond recognition and forcing it to serve a
purpose its composer never dreamed of.

In this direction irresponsible "editors," "adapters," and "transcribers" are as much to blame as
the dancing cranks. It is time a law was passed to keep good music from violation.

By all means become dancing dervishes if you want to, and dance in a delirious cortege right
into the lunatic asylum: but don't try to justify your procedure in the name of art, nor degrade
the works of great artists in doing so. Above all, don't spoil works of art for other people who
may not want to dance in the same direction. We do not all go the same way home.

Let us try to preserve a little clearness of vision so that we may see things in their proper
perspective.

The art of marionettes is good enough for some people, but let us not confuse little painted
puppets with great men.

View original text (without footnotes)

Confirmed with Frederick Delius, “At the Cross-Roads,” The Sackbut, Vol.I, 5, September 1920, pp.205-208

Note: this is a prose selection. Line breaks have been added arbitrarily. * = footnotes from the source text
* 1 To anyone acquainted with the "Martyr's Memorial" tradition, this will seem a euphemism –Ed.
* 2 Reader, next time you attend a performance of the Russian ballet, don't let the stage absorb your whole attention. Have a good look at the audience, and you will see that it would require the pen of a Rops or a Beardsley to do justice to it.

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