Old notes on classical music

I read a long article in the Britannica online about harmony, its theory and its history (from ancient Greece to the twentieth century). Now I’m going to read many more articles on all things musical. (The incomparable delights of learning!) Classical music makes a lot of sense once you know how to make sense of it! You can listen to a piece with new appreciation for the composer’s genius when you understand the theoretical principles behind the ravishing harmonies and melodies. (Schubert’s D. 956, first movement. Hearing its theme for the first time months ago was a revelation and I couldn’t get that melody out of my mind. I’m told that some music-lover was once so enamored of the melody that he asked for it to be carved on his gravestone after he died.) The greatest composers are the ones who respect not only the strictures of theory, such as Webern, Boulez, Nono, but also the listener’s desire for engaging, assimilable sound of some sort. The task should be to use the form of abstract harmonic principles and structures to create the content of emotionally gripping sound.

           

On the other hand, you could scorn all manifestations of creativity, be they Schoenbergian serialism, Wagnerian chromaticism, Milhaudian polytonality, Debussian impressionism, Stravinskian neoclassicism, Schubertian tonal modulation, Bachian contrapuntalism, or Beethovenian heroicism, and choose John Cagean indeterminism, where the music is based on chance and anything creative is considered an imperfection in the composition. (4’33” is the logical outcome of this.) “Cage was influenced by the study of Zen philosophy: he determined that a quiet mind was one free of dislikes; but, since dislikes require likes, it must be free of both likes and dislikes. He once said, ‘You can become narrow-minded, literally, by only liking certain things and disliking others, but you can become open-minded, literally, by giving up your likes and dislikes and becoming interested in things.’ To escape being influenced by his own likes and dislikes, Cage then sought to remove the creative process from his composition, often relying on coin flips and dice rolls to decide where or how to place a certain note.” Like his mentors the Zen Buddhists, Cage aimed at the extirpation of individuality, though in a less ‘redeeming’ and more nihilistic way than Buddhists. Fortunately his project was unfulfillable. Humanism cannot be killed so easily.

           

Anyway, I’m starting to understand the pleasure of theorizing pieces as opposed to just savoring them.

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I don’t deny that hearing Cagean music can be an interesting experience. Nor do I deny that the creation of such music was inevitable in the 20th century, or that Cage represents an important moment in the dialectic of cultural history. What I deny is that the music itself is aesthetically interesting, and that it is “good” or “great” art. Certainly by humanistic (“affirmative”) standards it has little value.

           

I would say something similar about twelve-tone music, in which the composer is not supposed to use a particular note of a tone row again until after the other eleven notes have been used, thus ensuring that the composition has no hint of tonality. Each note is supposed to be as important as every other; there is no tonic, nor even a note that is used more often than the rest. This system is indeed noteworthy (so to speak), and the restraints it imposes must pose challenges for the composer. Still, it strikes me as creatively puerile and simplistic compared to the complex system of tonality that dominated the West for centuries. Whatever any defender of Schoenberg will say, it’s undeniable that a piece as creatively mature as, say, the Diabelli Variations is impossible to compose in the twelve-tone idiom, or in any kind of atonality. The tonal system, despite or because of all its rules, is simply a more fertile terrain for composition than the organized chaos of atonality. Its musical products can, for one thing, be analyzed in more ways than the products of atonalism; they have more harmonic and melodic material for the critic to chew over, and the composer has both more freedom (with respect to the direction he takes his piece, the many tonalities he can exploit along the way, etc.) and less freedom than the atonal composer. Regarding this creative potential, it’s significant that tonality has held sway for all of history while atonality essentially petered out after a few decades [although it's still composed by academics and other weirdos on the fringe] and was never even close to culturally hegemonic. The reason is that it’s comparatively barren. There is less to be done with it, and people get bored with it more quickly.

           

By the way, I’m leaving out the obvious consideration that tonal music is far more accessible to most (or all) listeners than atonal music, that it seems to resonate with the human psyche more, that it affects the emotions more and can sound more intuitively beautiful or sublime than atonal music can.

           

Said more simply: the greatest tonal compositions are far more impressive than the greatest atonal compositions, indeed any atonal composition conceivable. Even semi-tonality, as in Debussy, is by its nature inferior, because, ironically, it’s more limited and limiting than tonality. Its composers have it both easier and harder than tonal composers, in ways that work to the advantage and glory of the latter.

           

The creations of tonal composers are more fully realized, usually, than atonal or half-tonal compositions, for determinatio est negatio. Tonality excludes more than atonality does. (That doesn’t mean tonality is more “limiting” than atonality. The opposite is the case. Western tonality is an inconceivably rich terrain.)

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Reading an entertaining, informative and accurate book on Beethoven: His Life and Music, by Jeremy Siepmann. The author is musically educated, so his brief discussions of particular pieces are enlightening. Thanks to him I’ve discovered the delightful Serenade in D major, Op. 25, for flute, violin and viola. Also the wonderful Septet in E-flat for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn, and the “Archduke” Piano Trio with its unearthly slow movement.

           

The Beethoven that emerges from this unbiased book is immensely appealing and endearing. It is the Beethoven one wants to believe in. His own raw words are powerful, as in his rapturous love-letters, his “Heiligenstadt Testament,” and his journal: “Submission, absolute submission to your fate, only this can give you the sacrifice…to the servitude—oh, hard struggle!—Turn everything which remains to be done to planning the long journey—you must yourself find all that your most blessed wish can offer, you must force it to your will—keep always of the same mind…O God, give me the strength to conquer–myself!” He was everything an artist should be. Goethe, by comparison, comes across as false and vain: “Goethe,” he wrote after he’d met him, “is too fond of the atmosphere of the royal courts, more than is becoming to a poet. Why laugh at the absurdities of virtuosos when poets, who ought to be the first teachers of a nation, forget everything for the sake of glitter?” Beethoven’s contempt for everything but the artistic, the metaphysical essentials of life is extraordinarily inspiring, absolutely masculine.

           

But that ugly episode with his nephew Karl exposes all his faults: his paranoia, his jealousy, his maliciousness, his cruelty, his selfishness. Had he lived in a later time he would not have been nearly so great a man in the eyes of posterity. (For one thing, his music wouldn’t have been so great. It would have been closer to Brahms, or Wagner, than Beethoven.) Much of the blame for his faults, though, rests with his childhood and his deafness.

           

Now I’m reading Reginald Smith Brindle’s The New Music: the Avant-Garde since 1945. (It was published in ’87.) I want to understand this music so I can belittle it more intelligently. ☺

           

I do, however, admire a lot of twentieth century music. Le Sacre du Printemps, for example. I may not love it, but I recognize its genius. Its complexity and power.

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I sort of like Alban Berg’s piano sonata too, since, unlike much twentieth-century avant-garde music, it isn’t only an intellectual exercise. It’s barely tonal, so it isn’t “pretty,” but it’s full of poetry and unrest. Profound spiritual turbulence reaching beyond the immediately given. It isn’t at all masturbatory or self-indulgent; it communicates. (And of course intellectually it is brilliant, like so many avant-garde pieces. Reading an analysis of it has convinced me of its exquisitely constructed coherence.)

           

I’m beginning to appreciate just how complex some avant-garde music is, how obsessively controlled and precise it is (or was). Integral serialism, which had its heyday after WWII, was the epitome of the drive to make music mathematically precise. Composers “predetermined” their compositions down to the last minute detail according to principles of total serialism. Note durations, dynamics, rhythm, pitches, tempi were all ordered in serial fashion, though not necessarily in the Schoenbergian twelve-note way. A series of notes, for example, would be explored in such a way that nearly all its possible permutations were exhausted by the end of the piece. Composers would use matrices of numbers to arrive at the series’ inversions, the retrogrades of the inversions, their transpositions, etc. It was astonishingly complex and virtually unplayable music, or rather noise. Purely mathematical puzzles with little or no musical value.

           

Then composers reacted against this obsessive formal control by going to the opposite extreme: indeterminate, or aleatory, music. “Free twelve-note music” was popular too, in which there were no predetermined rules that dictated which notes you could use when.

           

I’m tired of reading about this stuff, though. Sure, it requires a lot of patience and study to write such music, but arguably it’s more a craft than an art. It isn’t as though a person is “born to write” this kind of music, as Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov were born to write music. One isn’t really born with atonal talent; one can simply learn all the necessary methods and formal rules, as one can learn to be an excellent photographer (but not a poet, not a painter, not a draftsman, not a sculptor in the grand old ways).

           

Most of these extreme “avant-garde” composers give form total priority over content, to the extent that content is externally, inorganically introduced for the sake of realizing a predetermined form. The older composers, on the other hand, tried to unite form with content, which meant disguising the fact that there was a separate “form” at all. Content organically grew out of itself—or at least seemed to in the listener’s ear—and yet it did so according to the requirements of tonality (tension, resolution, all the harmonic principles of Rameau and his successors) and the sonata form, or the fugue, or the canon, or whatever. Content and form fit each other perfectly. But that ideal was lost in the twentieth century. [No, that isn’t really true. Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Copland and many others wrote organically unified pieces.]

           

Cf. Susan Sontag’s formalism. Formalism is decadent, a harbinger of creative exhaustion.

           

In the old music there was something for both the simple music-lover and the sophisticated critic: the “moving” content satisfied the former, while the masterful manipulations of form satisfied the latter. The intuitional aesthetic faculty, in other words, was as satisfied as the analytical intellect. That isn’t the case with, say, Berio.

           

No modern composer pushed the boundaries of tonality more provocatively than Schubert did in his A major piano sonata.

           

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright