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Ruskin on Music
by John Ruskin

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GREAT literary reputations of a certain order are pursued by a special Nemesis, more subtle than interviews, biographies, commentaries, and even “ cults,” though it is closely allied to the last. Its victims are punished for their sins by being made responsible for books which they have not written—books which consist of isolated passages torn from their context, and strung together under some fanciful title, which varies with the taste of the period. It may be Elegant Extracts, or Wit and Wisdom, or Great Thoughts, or Gems, or anything you please—the name does not matter; but perhaps a convenient generic term for such books, and one appropriate to our own cultivated age, would be the “Titbits-from-the-Titans” series. If Ruskin on Music does not belong to this series, it comes perilously near it, and is only saved by the unusual knowledge and good taste—unusual in such books—shown by Miss Wakefield in putting together Mr. Ruskin's obiter dicta about music. She is careful to point out that he never had any technical knowledge of the subject—which is, indeed, sufficiently apparent from this volume, though it naturally did not prevent him from expressing the most confident opinions— and her intelligent running commentary helps the uninstructed reader to extract what is best in “the Master’s” teaching, besides giving the book a fairly coherent interest.

Mr. Ruskin’s utterances on music have been few—so few, in fact, that only the largest of type and an ample allowance of comment suffice to spread them over some I 50 wide-margined pages. But we miss in this volume some of the most characteristic and definitely critical remarks which he ever delivered. They were made at one of his Oxford lectures, and have possibly never been published. Let us supply the deficiency. He was supposed to be lecturing on Sir Joshua Reynolds, or it may have been Giotto and Cimabue, or something else; the subject was of no consequence, as he rarely referred to it, but discoursed on most occasions “do omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis,” in his own inimitable manner. It was at these lectures that he observed one day that only two men were now left in all England for God and the Queen—Carlyle and himself. One felt that Carlyle would have said the same thing, but would have left Ruskin out. Another remark which delighted the ladies who crowded the theatre was that the gentlemen composing Her Majesty’s Government at the time were “a mass of stinking corruption spued up by the devil.”….

The most interesting thing brought out by Miss Wakefield’s book is the conversion of Ruskin from a rather disdainful indifference about music to a generous, and indeed excessive, appreciation of its power as an art, though we are not told how he was converted. It is clear, however, that his views, both for and against, were merely intellectual. He had no genuine, innate feeling for music, or he could never have written “in general it is a mere sensual gratification, not even acting on the feelings”; and the opposite view, expressed later in life, that it is “of all the arts the most distinctly ethical in origin; the first, the simplest, the most effective of all instruments of moral instruction,” is equally an outside judgment and equally overstated. For the rest, whatever we may think of Ruskin in the rifle of critic without knowledge, his general treatment of the subject is marked by all that lofty devotion to the highest ideal in art which it has been his mission to inculcate; and maybe this little book will move some readers to more serious thought and a higher conception of the true power and function of music, which is, we take it, the editor’s object.

—Review excerpts from The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 78

Ruskin on Music John Ruskin
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