Dramatic Tension

Over the next few weeks, you may notice that our posts are slightly out of sync with our posted weekly readings. Since Zach and I have not been able to post as much as we would like over the last weeks, we are going to go back and work through some of the fascinating content Taruskin covers: symphonies, concertos, “the anatomy of a joke,” and plenty more. We both felt it was more important to take our time and really dig into the content of these chapters than to rush past them simply for the sake of scheduling. So the reading schedule will trudge on as planned to the end of this volume, with our essays in slight tension with the page numbers posted. But don’t worry—now that we have reached our FOP, we can gradually work our way back into resolution with the reading by the time we reach Vol. III.

Concurrent Styles in JS Bach’s Lifetime, Visually [UPDATED]

Ralph Locke aptly reminded us recently what epiphanies can come when we step back and juxtapose different stylistic streams that occurred concurrently in history. Just for fun, I decided to make a timeline to visually reinforce his point. The timeline is quite circumspect, with JS Bach’s lifetime as the rough overall frame, and only including the pieces under our recent discussion (JS’s cantatas, Pergolesi, and WF Bach’s keyboard sonata in F), and many more could be included. But you can easily see that Pergolesi’s entire short life fits within the span of JS’s mature career. I also couldn’t resist including Johann Stamitz on the timeline to represent the symphonic tradition, about which we will be reading soon. Though Stamitz outlived JS, Handel outlived Stamitz by two years. (Click on the image to pull up a larger version.)

The timeline was made with the demo version of Timeline 3D.


Here is an updated version of the timeline incorporating suggestions from Jonathan Bellman (see the comments). It includes bookends of JS’s career: Brandenburg concertos at the front end, and Musical Offering at the tail. I also made the image file larger. If these images seem helpful to anyone, feel free to save them and use them freely for your own purposes.

The Taruskin Style

A really fine historical argument can be written with as much artfulness as any sonata form movement, and thus is equally as ripe for formal analysis, as any student of rhetoric will tell you. RT’s “The Comic Style” (Ch. 8 of vol. II) is just such a chapter. Here is a rough-and-ready outline of its rhetorical structure:

  • present a problem: Though historians have tried for generations, we can’t get from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn in a single straight line.
  • offer a feint that only draws out the nature of the problem: W.F. Bach seems a predecessor of Mozart and Haydn, but diverges from JS Bach in several mysterious (for the sake of suspense in the argument) reasons
  • make the problem even worse by adding other unexplained evidence: CPE and JC Bach
  • then, when the desire for a resolution has been whipped to a fervor, offer it: The comic style of 18th century opera—especially in its naturalness—was the germ that spread to all late 18th-century style.

I know how paltry this stripped down recounting of the argument must seem. It’s like showing you the skeleton of a peacock and telling you to imagine the true glory of its plumage. You simply have to read it yourself to get the full effect. But it got me thinking about how a structural analysis of the argument of many of Taruskin’s chapters in the OHWM would generously repay the analyst.

Pardon a momentary effusiveness, but allow me to step back and say wow. It is truly remarkable that RT maintains such a high level of writing craft throughout this behemoth work. It’s like Telemann—in all that prolificacy, you would think that there have to be some bad apples, right? At some point, Taruskin must have just stitched together an argument, gotten lazy—and who would fault him for one pedestrian argument anyway, as long as the logic was sound? But if there are seams in the writing, they are hardly noticeable, a fact that not only displays his skill, but sheer diligence. And if I’m getting carried away and exaggerating, it’s only a little bit.

Okay, effusiveness abated. Here’s my question to you all as fellow students and practitioners of writing: what is that one essay that you keep going back to as a model of how to craft an argument? That article that, when a student asks you how to craft an argument you say, “read this.” Musicological writing would be preferred, but interdisciplinary examples are game too. And in a few words, tell us why the writing caught your eye.

Resuscitating W.F. Bach

Most general histories of music blow past J.S. Bach’s eldest son like a bellows to a dust bunny. Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84) gets a passing mention in Richard Crocker’s classic A History of Musical Style, if only to point out his failure to “find the proper stylistic framework to support a steady output.”* This is more than WF (to use Taruskin’s nickname) gets in the current edition of Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, where his name isn’t even mentioned. Even more specialized studies, such as Giorgio Pestelli’s The Age of Mozart and Beethoven, only generalize, once again noting his stylistic waffling between Baroque and the more modern galant and empfindsamer (sentimental) styles. Pestelli also mentions WF’s quirky character (“changeable, discontented and prickly,” 22), the other bane to both his career and his legacy to history.

Enter Richard Taruskin. At the start of Chapter 9, “The Comic Style,” RT (to continue using Taruskin’s nickname system) promises that he will not follow the traditional historical path trying to connect the dots from JS Bach and Handel directly to Haydn and Mozart. Instead he will deal with the so-often-forgotten-or-at-least-hurried-through-so-we-can-get-to-the-good-stuff generation in between. He makes good on that promise right away by contributing a nine-page analysis of a keyboard sonata by—you guessed it—none other than our forgotten WF. Nine pages? you ask. In a general history of music? This must be a first.**

What is gained by RT’s detailed hash-through of the 1st movement of WF’s Sonata in F (Falck catalogue no. 6)? First, we actually get to see the stylistic hodge-podge that so many historians reference. It’s all in there: JS-like canon, galant rhythms, motivic proliferation and contrast. But most importantly to RT, there is an overall structure to the piece that plays with symmetry in structure and harmony, with periodic outbursts that destroy the prevailing texture, melody, and phrase length. This schism comes—and this is important—at the FOP (or “far out point” in the harmony—RT and his abbreviations!). After the music travels abroad harmonically and motivically, there is a double return of the “home” harmony and the opening melodic motive.

RT points out that, as opposed to D. Scarlatti, for whom it was anomalous, the double return was standard for WF. He then makes the connection (with a historical perspective that WF never had) that this was central to the thinking of Haydn’s generation: “Indeed, it would not be much of an exaggeration to dub the whole later eighteenth century the Age of the Double Return, so definitive did the gesture become.” (II, 407)

There is the connection between the dots. So maybe we should give WF another listen. His sonata in A is as fine a place to start as any:

*Richard Crocker, A History of Musical Style, 369.

**If there’s a comparable passage in a general history, I’d love to know!

Meaning in Music, Revisited (and with mention of cheese)

Way back in September, before we started vol. 1, chapter 1 (it seems so long ago now!), I pondered whether musical meaning could ever go beyond social correlation. The question came up as a result of Prof. Taruskin’s stated intention in his introduction to address the full spectrum of musical meanings as he progressed through his historical narrative. Since the discussion of that post has recently started up again, I thought I would return to this issue, since it came up again in last week’s reading.

J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F (BWV 540) for organ is a gem of an example to demonstrate the way tonally conceived music manipulates desires in the listener. Bach creates and prolongs that desire by writing a pedal point that is an astounding 54 measures long. He then provides a medial resolution by returning to the tonic, before launching right back into creating, prolonging, and frustrating the listener’s desires, whipping them into such a frenzy that the final resolution to the tonic is tantamount to salvation.

And this reaction to the music is not completely subjective, says Taruskin. It takes our encoded understanding of tonally organized music (something assumed to be shared by a quorum of listeners) and creates a sequence of events to play off of those shared understandings, much like a dramatist creates a narrative arc moving from conflict to resolution.

Bach’s Toccata is one of the earliest pieces to so dramatize the working out of its form-building tonal functions, adding an element of emotional tension that is inextricably enmeshed in its formal structure. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement. (II, 213)

In a way, then, the music is indeed acting on the listener, through a set of socially encoded signs.

We miss something, however, by discussing only the tonal organization of a piece (and watching it on youtube). What we miss is the physical experience of hearing the music live, in a church, with massive ranks of organ pipes. There is a big difference between listening to this piece through headphones, where the distance between the speaker and your eardrums is minimal, and hearing it in a church. In the acoustic environment of a church, sound waves pound against the entire body, creating physical reactions that can sometimes be unsettling, as anyone who has felt his chest rattle against an organ’s rumbling low note can attest. In this way, the music can be not only metaphorically, but literally moving.

How could a physical/sound-wave analysis of this toccata enlighten us to the effectiveness of the piece? At what points do the sound waves support our tonal readings of the piece? Where do they crosscut our expectations?

These kinds of contextual/experiential insights seem critical to me when discussing a piece like Bach’s Toccata in F, especially since a live experience of the music was the only possible way to hear it in Bach’s time. Leaving it out is like tasting a fine cheese while plugging your nose—you can comment on shape and color and texture, but will have a severely dulled experience of taste. And isn’t the taste of the cheese the most important part?

Handel’s Games

In his Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6 no. 7 (1739) Handel’s second movement (at 1:06 in the example below) is the traditional fugal canzona with a twist. It’s joke-like subject (a systematic diminution of a single note) is so striking, lucid, and memorable that it allows him, as Taruskin points out, to play with the listener’s expectations. The entrances of the subject are irregular, creating a game of “hide-and-seek”—where will it pop up next?

The example is one of several Taruskin gives to indicate a shift in compositional technique and listener experience: instead of music evoking an emotion, the composition requires an intellectual consideration. It sets up a listener’s expectation, then fulfills or delays the expectation. In Taruskin’s estimation, this was “a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes.” (II, 208)

Welcome New Readers!

If you’ve just found the site, this post will give you a brief tour:

The Taruskin Challenge is meant to foster conversation about music history, the discipline of musicology, and many related topics that are engendered from reading our way through Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music. You’ll find mini-essays on composers, styles, and especially on theories and practice of historiography (try here, here, here, or here to start). You’ll also find frequent musical and video examples, and we make weekly reviews of the readings. Make sure to take a look at our about our project page. Also, we have begun compiling a list of “Musicology Must-Reads,” an un-scientific gathering of exemplary musicological books (read the explanation here and find the page itself here). The must-reads list is meant for interested students just getting into musicology, for grad students to round out their reading lists, or just to see what your colleagues are reading. Take a look around, and we hope you feel welcome enough to join in the discussion.

Tonality Has Landed!

We are witnessing a truly momentous juncture in the history of harmony: the birth of harmonically controlled and elaborated form. In the Italian instrumental music of a rough quarter-century enclosing the year 1700, we may witness in their earliest, “avant-garde” phase the tonal relations we have long been taught to take for granted. (II, 195)

Witness, for instance, this sonata by Arcangelo Corelli (op. 3 no. 11). The second movement, marked presto [at 1:23 in the video], follows the basic harmonic path that would eventually spread like wildfire and be encoded in our musical DNA (and music theory textbooks) ever since: I to V, V to I. Taruskin weaves the musical narrative:

The hocket effect between the violins is intensified after the first cadence (m. 7), their tossed motivic ball now consisting of only two notes in an iambic pattern (that is, starting with an upbeat), while the bass continues its frenetic run, made even more athletic by the use of large skips—octaves, ninths, even tenths. At the movement’s midpoint (m. 21) the original motive is tossed again, this time beginning a fourth lower than the opening—i.e., on the fifth degree of the scale. Thus the movement over all has the satisfying harmonic aspect of a binary form: a run out from I to V, and a run back from V to I. (II, 181)

Week 18 in Review

This Week in Blogging:

The beginning of a new volume was heralded by Monteverdian fanfare, and a new feature on the blog. The must-reads page has already stirred good discussion, and has had its first update. (For future reference, you can always access that page via the tab at the very top of our website.) Be sure to continue checking it in the future for new materials. Also, Zach wrote a short but insightful essay on the cost of musical extravagance.

This Week in Reading:

Preface* (II, xxi-xxiii):

This volume is organized around several watershed events:

  • The establishment of opera;
  • The pervasive basso continuo texture, and its implication for harmonic musical thinking;
  • Increasing dominance of instrumental over vocal music, and
  • The composer’s social role changing from “service personnel to autonomous agent,” of which Monteverdi and Beethoven are especially emblematic.

“Chapter 1, Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi”

Opera, now thought of as a quintessential 17th c. genre, had two distinct periods of emergence (i.e., court opera and public opera), and likewise two distinct aesthetic streams. Claudio Monteverdi, the quintessential 17th century composer, provides a perfect frame to approach both streams, as this chapter’s delightful title hints (it’s a quote of opera scholar Nino Pirrotta).

  • From Mantua to Venice (II, 2). Monteverdi’s fame was established during his time as maestro di cappella at the Mantuan court. There he wrote several books of madrigals, became embroiled in one of the most famous musical polemics in history (the quarrel with Artusi that birthed the label seconda prattica for expanded harmonic liberties in service of text expression), and began using basso continuo and the concerted style in his publications. Monteverdi became Maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s in Venice in 1613, and spent the rest of his career there.
  • Poetics and Esthesics (II, 12). An introduction of the poietic fallacy (see this post), and the importance of esthesics, which takes into account the audience’s viewpoint and expectations (not to be confused with the closely spelled esthetics).
  • Opera and its Politics (II, 13). Court opera carried political cachet in at least three ways: 1) the grandeur of the production reflected the power of its princely benefactors; 2) the story lines were thinly veiled allegories meant to honor these same benefactors; and 3) “severe limits were set on the virtuosity of the vocal soloists lest, by indecorously representing their own power, they upstaged the personages portrayed, or worse, the personages allegorically magnified” (II, 15), and thus the noble’s authority was retained.
  • Sex Objects, Sexed and Unsexed (II, 16). Over the course of the 17th c., castrati moved from the church choir to the opera stage, where they became super stars. The stage was the site of all sorts of “carnavalistic” happenings: cross-dressing, gender ambiguity, and authority turned topsy-turvy.
  • The Quintessential Princely Spectacle (II, 18) Taruskin exegetes a scene in act II of Monteverdi’s  first opera (he called it a favola in musica, a musical tale), l’Orfeo (1607).
  • The Carnival Show (II, 26). Taruskin’s reading of Monteverdi’s late opera L’incoronazione di Poppea casts it as a carnivalistic celebration of virtue over vice, lust over romance. In other words, geared specifically to the Venetian public audience for which it was performed.
  • These two opposing streams which are now called opera—the princely spectacle and public opera—define the rest of the history of the genre.

“Chapter 2, Fat Times and Lean”

  • For the first time, composers could build careers primarily around instrumental music. Girolamo Frescobaldi, who did just that, was the leading organist of his day. The organ works that were written down represent only the top portion of what was still a pervasively improvisatory practice. As with any improvisatory practice, certain conventions and genres were used, such as the corrente, balletto, ciaconna, and passacagli.
  • The toccata was a keyboard genre that in the hands of Frescobaldi could become quite extravagant, with incendiary flourishes and rash chromaticism. Some toccatas were played in liturgical settings.
  • Jan Sweelinck was a Dutch organist and composer who wrote “old-fashioned vocal music and extremely up-to-date keyboard compositions,” and is “in retrospect…the last of the legendary ‘Netherlanders’ of the polyphonic Golden Age” (II, 45).

Stay tuned for next week’s review, which will finish out this chapter and then pop over to France to survey their operatic goings on in the second half of the 17th century.

*In the paperback edition of the OHWM, each volume is meant to stand on its own. Therefore, an Introduction addresses the overall project, and is reproduced verbatim in each volume, and a short preface outlines the thrust of each individual volume.