Letter XXIII. February 18, 1819

My dear Greaves,

Physical education ought by no means to be confined to those exercise which now receive the denomination of gymnastics. By means of them, strengh and dexterity will be acquired inthe use of the limbs in general; but particular exercises ought to be devised for the practice of all the senses.

This idea may at first appear a superfluous refinement, or an unnecessary encumbrance of free development. We have acquired the full use of our senses, to be sure, without any special instruction of that sort: but the question is not whether these exercises are indispensable, but whether, under many circumstances, they will not prove very useful.

How many are there of us whose eye would, without any assistance, judge correctly of a distance, or of the proportion of the size of different objects? How many are there who distinguish and recognise the nice shades of colours without comparing the one with the other; or whose ear will be alive to the slightest variation of sound? Those who are able to do this with some degree of perfection will be found to derive their facility either from a certain innate talent or from constant and labourious practice. Now it is evident that there is a certain superiority in these attainments which natural talent gives without any exertion, and which instruction could never impart, though attended by the most diligent application. But if practice cannot do everything, at least it can do much; and the earlier it is begun, the easier and the more perfect must be the success. A regular system of exercises of this description is yet a desideratum. But it cannot be difficult for a mother to introduce a number of them, calculated to develop and perfectionate the eye and the ear, into the amusements of her children. For it is desirable that every thing of that kind should be treated as an amusement rather than as anything else. The greatest liberty must prevail, and the whole must be done with a certain cheerfulness without which all these exercises, as gymnastics themselves, would become dull, pedantic, and ridiculous. It will be well done to connect these exercises very early with others, tending to form the taste. It seems not to be suffidently understood that good taste and good feelings are kindred to each other, and that they reciprocally confirm each other. Though the ancients have said that "to study those arts which are suited to a free-born mind soothes the character, and takes away the roughness of exterior manners," yet little has been done to open a free access to those enjoyments or accomplishments to all, and especially to the majority of the people. If they must not be expected to be able to give much of their attention to subordinate or ornamental pursuits, while so much of it is engrossed by providing for their first and necessary wants; still this does not furnish a conclusive reason why they should be shut out altogether from every pursuit above the toil of their ordinary avocations.

Yet I know not a more gratifying scene than to see, as I have seen it among the poor, a mother spreading around her a spirit of silent but serene enjoyment, diffusing among her children a spring of better feelings, and setting the example of removing every thing that might offend the taste, not indeed of a fastidious observer, but yet of one used to move in another sphere. It is difficult to describe by what means this can be effected. But I have seen it under circumstances which did not promise to render it even possible. Of one thing I am certain that it is only through the true spirit of maternal love that it can be obtained. That feeling of which I cannot too frequently repeat that it is capable of an elevation to the standard of the very best feelings of human nature, is intimately connected with a happy instinct that will lead to a path equally remote from listlessness and indolence, as it is from artificial refinement. Refinement and fastidiousness may do much, if upheld by constant watchfulness; a nature, however, a truth will be wanting; and even the casual observer will be struck with a restraint incompatible with an atmosphere of sympathy. Now that I am on the topic, I will not let the opportunity pass by without speaking of one of the most effective aids of moral education. You are aware that I mean music, and you are not only acquainted with my sentiments on that subject, but you have also observed the very satisfactory results which we have obtained in our schools. The exertions of my excellent friend Nageli, who has with equal taste and judgment reduced the highest principles of his art to the simplest elements, have enabled us to bring our children to a proficiency which, on any other plan, must be the work of much time and labour.

But it is not this proficiency which I would describe as a desirable accomplishment in education. It is the marked and most beneficial influence of music on the feelings, which I have always thought and always observed to be most efficient in preparing or attuning, as it were, the mind for the best of impressions. The exquisite harmony of a superior performance, the studied elegance of the execution, may indeed give satisfaction to a connaisseur; but it is the simple and untaught grace of melody which speaks to the heart of every human being. Our own national melodies, which have since time immemorial been resounding in our native valleys, are fraught with reminiscences of the brightest page of our history and of the most endearing scenes of domestic life. But the effect of music in education is not only to keep alive a national feeling: it goes much deeper; of cultivated in the right spirit, it strikes at the root of every bad or narrow feeling, of every ungenerous or mean propensity, of every emotion unworthy of humanity. In saying so I might quote an authority which commands our attention on account of the elevated character and genius of the man from whom it proceeds. It is well-known that there was not a more eloquent and warm advocate of the moral virtues of music than the venerable Luther. But though his [voice] has made itself heard, and is still held in the highest esteem among us, yet experience has spoken still louder, and more unquestionably, to the truth of the proposition which he was among the first to vindicate. Experience has long since proved that a system proceeding upon the principle of sympathy would be imperfect if it were to deny itself the assistance of that powerful means, of the culture of the heart. Those schools, or those families, in which music has retained the cheerful and chaste character which it is so important that it should preserve, have invariably displayed scenes of moral feeling, and consequently of happiness, which leave no doubt as to the intrinsic value of that art, which has sunk into neglect, or degenerated into abuse, only in the ages of barbarism or depravity.

I need not remind you of the importance of music in engendering and assisting the highest feelings of which Man is capable. It is almost universally acknowledged that Luther has seen the truth when he pointed out music, devoid of studied pomp and vain ornament, in its solemn and impressive simplicity, as one of the most efficient means of elevating and purifying genuine feelings of devotion.

We have frequently, in our conversations on this subject, been at a loss how to account for the circumstance that in your own country, though that fact is as generally ackowledged, yet music does not form a more prominent feature in general education. It would seem that the notion prevails that it would require more time and application than can conveniently be bestowed upon it, to make its influence extend also to the education of the people.

Now I would appeal, with the same confidence as I would to yourself, to any traveller, whether he has not been struck with the facility, as well as the success with which it is cultivated among us. Indeed, there is scarcely a village school throughout Switzerland, and perhaps there is none throughout Germany or Prussia, in which something is not done for an acquirement at least of the elements of music, on the new and more appropriate plan. This is a fact which it cannot be difficult to examine, and which it will be impossible to dispute; and I will conclude this letter by expressing the hope which we have been entertaining together that (this fact will not be overlooked in a country which has never been backward in suggesting or adopting improvement, when founded on facts, and confirmed by experience.) (PSW 26, p.103-106)